The entire lead up to the 49th Super Bowl game has been filled with tangential Super Bowl news. On one hand we have the flap over the New England Patriots and what we now call “deflate-gate.” Apparently, during the AFC Championship game with the Indianapolis Colts playing the New England Patriots the Patriots played with under inflated footballs. For those who do not know much about football, under inflated footballs are easier to grip, throw, and catch. No one seriously believes that the under inflated balls made the difference in the outcome of the game. New England was clearly the superior team. Rather, the under inflated balls represented yet another “dirty trick” that the Patriots—or more specifically, Coach Bill Belichick—were playing to attempt to get an advantage. Some years ago the Patriots were caught illegally videotaping an opponent to try to get their signals. The deflated balls just add to the aura of a shifty, underhanded coach who will do anything to win.
The other non-Super Bowl story was that of Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch. For some reason, Lynch does not like to speak to the media. Earlier in the season Lynch was fined for failing to show up for a media interview. After receiving that hefty fine Lynch came up with a strategy for dealing with a media he could not avoid. Instead of not showing up for interviews Marshawn Lynch began coming to them but answering with repeated phrases whether they made sense or not. There was his, “Thank you for asking” interview and his “Thank you for being here” interview. In each interview he kept repeating the same phrase regardless of the question the reporters posed.
Of course, by the time we got to Media Day at the Super Bowl, all eyes and ears were attuned to Marshawn Lynch. This time his phrased was, “I’m just here so I won’t get fined.” He said it over and over and over. What I loved about that phrase was that it was the most genuine, honest statement uttered at Super Bowl media day. Everywhere else people were spouting the same old tired sports clichés—“We’re so honored to be here;” We’re just going to go out and play our game;” “Everybody counted us out but we believed in ourselves.” We have heard these statements over and over and over. Finally, we have a player who says EXACTLY what was on his mind—“I’m just here so I won’t get fined.”
Now it seems lots of people are mad at Marshawn. Some people felt that he was being disrespectful and in violation of his contract. As a sports figure he is supposed to talk to the media. Others feel he is making a mockery of the interviews and is an embarrassment to the team and himself. I have another take on Marshawn Lynch’s responses. I presume that Marshawn Lynch is just not comfortable speaking in public. He is not alone in this sentiment. For decades there have been athletes and other people in the public eye who have struggled to be as articulate as they wanted to be in front of a microphone. Heavy weight champion Joe Louis sounded practically illiterate in post-fight interviews. Oakland Raider all pro safety, Lester Hayes revealed his serious stuttering problems when forced to give a post-game interview after the Raiders won the Super Bowl. His embarrassment was palatable and painful. Similarly, Chicago Bulls guard, Ron Harper, who played with the great Michael Jordan could barely get his words out in a post championship game where he hit the winning shot. Some people just don’t want to give public interviews. Does it make them bad people? I think not.
In the 1980s when the Philadelphia Phillies were the powerhouse team in the National Baseball League they had an all-star pitcher named Steve Carleton. Carleton had a wicked slider and recorded countless strikeouts with a pitch that just dropped off the table as it crossed the plate. When he was in the rotation a Phillies’ win was almost automatic. But, Carleton refused to speak to the media. In fact, Carleton hardly spoke to anyone on his team. After his masterful pitching performances he would retreat to a private room and get treatment to keep him arm and shoulder in good shape. No one said Carleton was rude or in violation of his contract. Instead what people said about him was that he was “quirky” or “eccentric.” His pitching genius was seen as good enough to give him a media pass. He didn’t need to say anything as long as he kept pitching.
So, why doesn’t Marshawn Lynch get the same consideration? Why is the media so set on interviewing him? Why don’t they focus on his quarterback Russell Wilson? His story is actually more compelling. He was an under-sized, late round draft choice who has led his team to remarkable success. He loves talking to the media and is good at it!
I love Marshawn Lynch because he is saying exactly what I have wanted to say in countless situations. I have been in situations where I really did not want to talk to people and wished I could have conveyed that sentiment to them. I know there are people annoyed at Marshawn but I ain’t mad at him! I’m just here so I won’t get fined!
Stay Black & Smart!
Last week President Obama delivered the State of the Union Address to Congress. This was his first address to a Republican controlled House of Representatives and Senate. Early in his address the President said that he had no more campaigns to run and hence no political agenda to advance. As he completed his sentence about no more campaigns the Republican members began to applaud loudly as if to say, “good riddance.” Without missing a beat President Obama went off script and replied, “I know…I won both of them!” Then he looked away or as we like to say, “He gave them the side-eye and threw major shade!” That one aspect of the State of the Union became the singular discussion point on both sides of the political divide. The President’s detractors thought he was “disrespectful” while his supporters felt that he’d finally got his swag back.
President Obama has been hamstrung from the very start of his presidency. There is no handbook for how to be the first Black president and when as a Black man he attempted to be president of the entire nation he was sanctioned and criticized for everything he did. He started out “doing too much” and was roundly chided for “not doing enough.” His attempt to be a “good party leader” had him holding his tongue and taking a lot of disrespect and out right racism from his opponents. But now, he has no more elections to worry about. Although he won his own elections, the midterm elections have been disasters. However, no longer saddled by these races, he can now regain his swag.
This is a familiar position for many Black people. As Black professionals we often self-censor to make our White colleagues feel comfortable or better about themselves. When we are the best at some task or accomplish something special we are expected to politely say thank you and downplay our work. We are not supposed to exhibit any kind of bravado or “swag.” We are never to take credit for what we do or act as if we are anything other than team players. But every now and then we want to show our swag, our flair, our genuinely celebratory spirit.
I think the reason we like certain athletes is that displaying their swag is part of the stock and trade of their profession. I enjoyed Richard Sherman shouting, “Don’t you ever challenge me; I’m the best corner in the NFL!” And, I especially loved Sherman’s defense of himself when the media called him a thug. I loved the late sportscaster Stuart Scott’s insistence on doing sports reporting his way despite ESPN’s attempt to make him conform to a bland, white bread presentation style.
When I first went in to the academy I worried that I would not fit and consequently would not survive. I did not question my own intellect, skill, or ability to learn. I questioned my ability to fit in—to make small talk, pretend that mindless discussions were about anything, and to tolerate clueless (and intentional) racism. I expressed my concern to my older brother (who is not an academic) and he gave me the following advice: “All you have to do is be like Reggie Jackson…hit 3 homeruns in October. They don’t have to like you, they just have to need you.” I took his advice to heart and when it was time for me to go up for tenure one of my external reviewers was the late, great Derrick Bell. Professor Bell wrote a short but powerful letter on my behalf that included a line that said, “She’s kind of like the old Motown song—she may not be the one you want, but she sho’ nuf is the one you need!”
I think we need to be proud of our skills and abilities and not be inhibited from celebrating them. We need to encourage our children to stick out their chests and be proud without disparaging others. They don’t need to hide their lights under a bushel. If they’re the best they should be able to say they are the best. If they are clear winners they need to say they are winners. The larger society will talk about how uncouth and ill-mannered “trash talking” is, but as one of my friends told me, “It’s not trash talking if you actually follow through and produce!”
I love folks with swag…W. E. B. DuBois, Paul Robeson, Josephine Baker, Muhammad Ali, Reggie Jackson, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Fannie Lou Hamer, Maya Angelou, Shirley Chisholm, Denzel Washington, Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, Marion Berry, Richard Sherman, and many more. I’ll let my White peers worry about the politics of my swag, but trust me, I’m going to maintain it…”Dueces!”
The other day while watching a morning news show I saw a segment on Admiral Michelle Howell, the first woman to become a 4-star admiral in the US Navy. Howard also happens to be an African American. Admiral Howard is probably best known for her pivotal role in commanding the rescue effort that helped a merchant marine captain whose ship was hijacked by Somali pirates. Our knowledge of this incident came as a result of the Hollywood film, “Captain Phillips” starring Tom Hanks. Listening to Admiral Howard talk about her climb up the ranks of the U.S. Navy made me both proud and a little sad. It made me proud because it is an honor for a Black woman to be the first woman to rise to such heights. It made me a little sad because we are in the 21st century still talking about firsts.
I had a similar feeling when Little League superstar Monae Davis became the first African American girl to pitch in the Little League World Series. Monae was representing my hometown, Philadelphia and her pitching speed and accuracy helped us give new meaning to the phrase, “throw like a girl.” She became this year’s Sports Illustrated’s “Sportswoman of the Year.” Again, my feelings were ambivalent. I was so proud of Monae but a little sad that it has taken this long for young girls to participate in Little League at this level.
As African Americans who have sojourned in this country almost 400 years it is a little depressing to know we are still counting our “firsts.” It took 43 White presidents before the nation voted for its first Black one. The 20th century saw some of the first Black presidents of White colleges and university’s—Ruth Simmons of Brown University and Shirley Jackson of Rensselaer Polytechnic. By the 21st century we saw our first Black president of a BigTen University, Michael Drake of Ohio State University. Each of these university presidents represents a moment of pride but again we ask, “Why did this take so long, especially when we can point to so many well qualified, capable administrators and academics?”
In some ways the worlds of sports and entertainment have been much further ahead of the rest of the society in their promotion of Black people in leadership and other prominent positions. We have seen Black film leads, Black sports champions, and Black coaches and sports administrators while we still look for more Black corporate executives (in addition to Ann Fudge, Ursula Burns, and Clifton Wharton. I am deliberately leaving off the companies they lead because if you don’t know then you have some homework to do!).
In my own life I have the dubious distinction of being the first African American woman to earn tenure in my school’s history. Although our School of Education is one of the oldest units on a campus that was founded in 1848, it was not until 1995 that a Black woman earned tenure there. Rather than regard it as a moment of pride, I felt embarrassed that it had taken almost 150 years for the School to do this. I thought about the many Black women who tried to earn tenure there and failed. I felt that we should have been long past a time of firsts. My graduate alma mater fairs no better. Although there were Black women with tenure there, almost none had first earned tenure there. Instead, the school’s strategy was to seek out senior, already tenured Black people. I believe the first Black woman that earned her first tenure there earned it after 2004!
The problem with being first is that it underscores the glacier-like pace at which African Americans are able to accomplish things they are well prepared to do. There is no area of human endeavor at which we cannot achieve. We have brilliant scholars, attorneys, clergy, physicians, scientists, statesmen, entrepreneurs, innovators, and executives as well as athletes, singers, dancers, musicians, and artists.
Of course we should take pride in the accomplishments of any Black person who achieves a first in any laudable endeavor. But, we also need to demand swifter and more deliberate action to make these first come much quicker and more often. We need some firsts in Silicon Valley, which remains one of the last bastions of White maleness. We need some more firsts in corporate boardrooms, state houses, and multinational manufacturing and production.
Stay Black & Smart!
Early January 9, 2015 my husband and I along with two other “senior” couples made our way to a theater to attend the first showing of Ava DuVernay’s “Selma.” The 6 of us sat in the theater as Black people of various ages filed in. Most of the audience members were middle aged and older. There were a handful of young people and almost no White people in attendance. I recognized that the demographic reflected the day and time. For most people, Friday morning at 10:30 a.m. represents a prime work or school time. Their movie going would take place on Friday evening, Saturday, or Sunday. The issue is not when they go to view this film. The important thing is that they do go to see it.
For many of the film’s viewers “Selma” will represent an important part of history. For my peers and me it will represent a lived experience. After we viewed the film my friends and I decided we needed to go somewhere to debrief. All 6 of us could remember where we were during each attempt to march in Selma. I remember when President Lyndon Johnson gave his speech proposing the Voting Rights Act and I almost feel off my seat when he ended, in his Southern drawl, with “And, we shall overcome!”
Protesting and on the ground activism were a way of life for us in 1965. It did not make any difference if you lived in the South or not. The “Movement” meant we were all expected to be involved. Although Selma was but one event, the film reminds us of all the related and ancillary events that made it so important. There were the tragic deaths of Jimmy Lee Jackson, Rev. Reeb of Boston, and Viola Liuzzo. There was the role of J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI and the assassination of El Hajj Malik Shabazz—Malcolm X.
The film is also important because it underscores the central role of young people in organizing and leadership. Dr. King has become so iconic that we lose sight of his youth. He was 26 years old when he gave his powerful speech on the steps of the Alabama statehouse in Montgomery. John Lewis, Diane Nash, James Bevel, and James Forman were even younger. Although beyond the scope of the film, the development and expansion of the “Black Panther Party” is an important response to today’s young people who ask, “why didn’t people fight back” in the midst of such oppression. The Panthers, who believed in self-defense, engaged in important work that did defend the community as well as developed programs that became the precursor for Head Start.
The film is also important because it helps young people see the antecedents to the current voter restriction laws. The strategy of keeping Black people out of the voting booths has a long, despicable history. Our youth must understand that when we say, “People died so you can vote,” we are not spouting a platitude. We are remembering actual people—some who were quite young.
I believe “Selma” is especially important for White people to see. They need to witness and own up to their own histories. They need to recognize that although many Whites did answer Dr. King’s call to action many more ignored it completely. They went about their lives as if the plight of Black people was of no consequence to them and they continue to live that way.
There are two pieces of dialogue in the film that spoke to me in an especially powerful way. The first happened between Dr. King and Rev. Abernathy when they asked each other the point of getting someone to sit at a lunch counter when she or he could neither read the menu nor afford the burger on it. As an educator, this question spoke directly to me. The second statement came in Dr. King’s Montgomery speech when he talked about the lie told to poor Whites that they pass on to their children—essentially that their whiteness was a protection and despite their impoverished circumstances they were superior to Blacks. This is a mentality I confront regularly among students who constantly declare, “we are post-racial!”
“Selma” is important on many levels—its facts (dates, events, etc.), its lesser-known characters (e.g. Annie Lee Cooper, Amelia Boynton), and its symbols (that Confederate flag is about more than “Southern” heritage). And, the most significant thing you can do in relation to this film is take a young person to see it.
Stay Black & Smart!
Today marks a special anniversary for 3 African American women—Zora Neale Hurston, Thelma McQueen, and Marian Anderson. Hurston was born on January 7, 1891 in Nostasulga, Alabama. A graduate of Howard University, Barnard College, and Columbia University, Hurston was an anthropologist, folklorist, and author. She published 4 novels, more than 50 short stories, plays and essays, and is best known for her 1937 novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” Hurston traveled throughout the Caribbean and the South and studied the local cultural practices. She did research in lumber camps and noted the practice of powerful White men taking Black women as concubines. She documents this practice in her book “Mules and Men” (1935). Hurston’s pioneering work in anthropology underscored my own understanding that Black people have the right and responsibility to study, research and write about their own lives.
This is also the birthdate of Thelma McQueen. McQueen was born in 1911 and most of us know her by her stage name, “Butterfly McQueen.” McQueen played the iconic character, “Prissy” who was Scarlett O’Hara’s maid in the 1939 film “Gone With the Wind.” But McQueen was more than a Black woman playing a maid. She was a part of the Katherine Dunham dance troupe and played roles in other films and TV shows. Although known for the “Gone With the Wind” role, she disliked it because she felt it demeaned African Americans. A little known fact about McQueen was that she attended the City College of New York.
Third, this day stands as the 60th anniversary of contralto Marian Anderson’s first appearance at the New York Metropolitan Opera. We know of Anderson’s famed appearance on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1939 when the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) refused to allow her to sing to an integrated audience in Constitution Hall. Although Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the DAR because of their stance, Zora Neale Hurston criticized Eleanor Roosevelt’s public silence about the similar decision by the DC Board of Education to first deny, and then place race-based restrictions on a proposed concert by Marian Anderson.
On January 7, 1955, Marian Anderson became the first African American to perform with the Metropolitan Opera where she sang in a Giuseppe Verde opera. In her own words Anderson stated, “The curtain rose on the second scene and I was there on stage, mixing the witch’s brew. I trembled, and when the audience applauded and applauded before I could sing a note, I felt myself tightening into a knot.” Critical reports of that performance said that Anderson moved the audience to tears.
Stories of women like Hurston, McQueen, and Anderson rarely make for splashy headlines or juicy gossip. But, their stories help us understand the depth and beauty of Black women. They inspire us when we think our roads are too difficult or our paths are too rocky.
I love women like Hurston, McQueen, and Anderson because they didn’t follow a script or pattern as they pursued their dreams. They just did it the way that worked for them and they walked in beauty!
Stay Black & Smart!
Yesterday the sports broadcasting and entertainment world lost a towering personality and consummate professional in the person of Stuart Scott. Most of us knew Scott vicariously through his seat on the ESPN Sports Center anchor desk. He was known for his “ghetto fabulous” delivery and turn of phrases such as “Boo-Yah” to signify an especially impactful sports play or “cooler than the other side of the pillow” to describe a play or player he admired for exhibiting calm under fire. Stuart was the master of catch phrases including: “Like gravy on a biscuit, it’s all good; just call him butter cuz he’s on a roll;” “It’s your world kid. The rest of us are just paying rent; “Vlade (as in basketball player Divac) Daddi, he like to party. He don’t cause trouble, he don’t bother nobody;” and “Lord he made his kinfolk proud: Pookie, Ray-Ray, Moesha nem!”
At the news I tweeted, “#StuartScott – perfect example of being the best by being yourself” One of my friends replied, “A culturally relevant sportscaster.” The more I thought on that the more I recognized her response perfectly captured Scott’s appeal for me. He wasn’t a physically big guy or a baller. He was just Stuart. Just Stuart like your running buddy who comes over to your house to watch the game and talks “smack” the whole time. Just Stuart like the brother you see at the barbershop and always prophesizes or delivers the post mortem on the big game. Just Stuart who refuses to let fame or fortune change who he is. Just Stuart, who under no circumstances, will sell his soul.
I loved watching Stuart Scott on Sports Center because it was clear that he understood there was no separation between being smart and “being” Black. He was educated, intelligent, and to use his own phrase, as “cool as the other side of the pillow!” Stuart Scott was the epitome of “culturally relevant.” He had the knowledge to do his job; he was culturally competent and linguistically fluent, and had a critical consciousness. He was “culturally relevant” and the proof is in the way he brought a new generation of viewers to sports casting. Indeed, for years most Black folks that I know watched sports broadcasts with the audio on mute. We just couldn’t stand to listen to the boring, lackluster (and sometimes, racist) commentary. But then, along came Stuart Scott and “Boo-yah.” Ray-Ray was explaining stuff…no diggity, no doubt!
But as the reactions, responses, and remembrances pour in we also learn more about Stuart Scott the man, the friend, and the father. We learn that Stuart Scott was a man of integrity and compassion. We learn that he was a man who had his priorities in order. We learn that he was not controlled by his disease—indeed he was emboldened by it. He fought cancer on 3 separate occurrences and through the excruciating pain and horrific treatment he remained both courageous and hopeful. We learn just how much he loved his daughters with everyone from his broadcasting colleagues to President Obama noting that his role as a dad was the most important to him. He refused to move to Hollywood (which would most definitely have advanced his career) because it would have taken him away from his girls. Everyone who worked with him talked about his professionalism and his willingness to reach out to new colleagues to help them along. All of the comments and tweets from athletes indicated how much they respected and trusted him.
I think the accolades for Stuart Scott come because his real specialness came as a result of his being himself. He wasn’t trying to be Bryant Gumbel, or Chris “Boomer” Berman, or (CBS analyst) James Brown. Stuart Scott was too busy being Stuart Scott and making you feel like he was sitting right there on the couch with you and the minute LeBron James made a spectacular dunk, or Richard Sherman delivered a big hit, or El Duque struck out the side you just knew he would say, “Boo-Yah!”
Rest in Peace and Power Stuart…Boo-Yah!
Stay Black & Smart!
It’s that time of year—the time when people make all kinds of promises to themselves in the form of RESOLUTIONS. Resolutions are those things we “resolve” to do and typically include losing weight, exercising, eating better, getting organized and a bunch of things to improve our individual lives. And, typically New Year’s resolutions don’t make it past the month of January. So here at “Black and Smart” there are no New Year’s resolutions. Instead we need to consider a New Year REVOLUTION!
In 2014 we have seen increased attention to the situation of unarmed African Americans being gunned down by law enforcement. These shootings were made more difficult by the failure to indict or convict the officers who did the shootings. They have also sparked massive protests across the country and in some cases around the world. They have energized an entire new generation of young activists.
As excited as I am about this beginning of a movement I hope that we can expand this activism beyond just reaction to timely events and have it be embraced by a generation for a whole host of injustices that have been (and continue to be) visited on the Black community.
My personal bias is the need for an education revolution. Today we are inundated by neo-liberal quick fix, Band-Aid approaches to education when we know we need massive, systemic investment and commitment to educating our children. Here in the 21st century we are still limping along by giving our children 19th century educational skills and knowledge. We don’t seem to care who teaches our children but then complain about the outcomes. The only way we get the decisions we really want is to change the decision makers. That calls for a revolution!
We definitely need a revolution in the justice system. The fact that jails and prisons are over crowded with Black and Brown bodies is in itself a crime. When we investigate the incredible differentials in arrests and sentencing it is clear that the justice system is not working…at least it is not working for us! But we cannot get fair trials with unfair juries and we cannot get fair juries if we are not on the voter rolls. This calls for a revolution!
We need a revolution in employment. The fastest way to avoid arrest and improve educational outcomes is to be a family with adults earning a living wage. When the state of Wisconsin was among the first to do away with state aid in the form of welfare it required mothers with dependent children to either work or receive job training. Just putting mothers in the workforce did little to improve the circumstances for their children. Low wage jobs with terrible hours (e.g. working in Casinos through the night) kept those families in poverty and the children struggling in schools. When the mothers were able to get better paying jobs with more predictable hours and a little more disposable income we began to see improvements in students’ academic performance. This calls for a revolution!
We need a revolution in housing. It is a crime that the U.S. has so many homeless people. Of course this homelessness is often tied to lack of education, lack of employment, and lack of a whole host of human services. But we must find a way to ensure that people have safe, warm places to live. A good society is measured by how it treats “the least of these.” Turning a blind eye to people living on the streets and begging for money has become the norm. This calls for a revolution!
Finally, I will argue that we need a revolution in how we treat one another. We must say no to the “ratchet-ness” that passes for entertainment. That we get some prurient pleasure from watching people “cuss each other out,” fight, take public DNA tests, and demean one another turns my stomach. I have to believe we are better than that. But turning the channel and refusing to watch this foolishness calls for a revolution!
I know it will take time to engage a real revolution. I know that the intensity with which we live our lives—jobs, families, community service, etc.—means that most of us are too tired to do more than plop down in from of the TV at the end of the day and watch whatever. But revolutions require work. They require doing when we are too tired to do. They insist that we keep our shoulders to the millstones and hands to the plow. But revolutions are never solely for us. They are for our children, our children’s children, and all the generations yet to come.
It really is time for a New Year’s Revolution!
Stay Black & Smart!