“He Was Cool Like That”

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Over the next weeks and months we will see hundreds—indeed thousands—of post-mortems, analyses, and critiques of the presidency of Barak Hussein Obama. We will hear of his perceived successes and failures. Some will tell us what went wrong and others will tell us what went right. Many will lament the transition from the 44th President to the 45th. We will hold our breath to hear what happens with health care, the environment, education, trade, immigration, treaties, and many other national and international policies. But I want to focus this blog on one aspect of President Obama I believe set him apart from all of his predecessors…and no it is not his race. It is his cool!
No matter what you thought of President Obama’s policies and legislative agenda you cannot deny he was cool. And why does “being cool” matter? In mainstream culture, “being cool” is associated with, at best a kind of hipness and urbane affect and at worst, with aloofness and coldness. But “cool” throughout Africa and the Diaspora is more than that. In Yoruba the word is “itutu” and refers to gentleness of character, generosity and grace as well as the ability to defuse fights and disputes. Among the Gola of Liberia, cool is the ability to be mentally calm or detached and to be nonchalant in situations where emotionalism or eagerness would be natural and expected. One of the qualities that Black folks most admire in people is coolness. When all hell is breaking loose, we love to be able to say, “But I was cool!” “Losing your cool” is one of the worse things folks can say about you.
All cultures have those values that they prize above all else. As I have traveled internationally I have seen the concept of “saving face” throughout Asia or the depths of “mi familia” throughout Latin America. Cool is not just a sense of style or aesthetics. It signals an important inner strength in the face of incredibly difficult situations and circumstances. When President Obama gave his first State of the Union address and that gutless Congressman yelled out, “You lie,” we saw his coolness on full display.
As President Obama’s administration progressed we regularly saw his coolness. His response at his last State of the Union address when the Republicans applauded because he said he had run his last campaign was brilliant—“I know because I won both of them!” He didn’t lose his temper. He didn’t shout. He was cool. Sociolinguists H. Samy Alim and Geneva Smitherman in their excellent volume, “Articulate while Black” point to President Obama’s facility in moving back and forth across linguistic and stylistic codes.
However, without uttering a word we witnessed the President’s cool. He would fist bump the brothers, do a mic drop at the Washington Correspondents’ dinner, and sit in quiet deference to the “church mothers” (Do you remember the woman who shouted, “Fired up…and Ready to Go?”). His preferred leisure activity was a game of basketball not golf and he found a way to make it to Ben’s Chili Bowl to get a half smoke. And, can we talk about that walk? President Obama had a walk that embodied cool. He descended the stairs of Air Force One like a boss. But my favorite image is of him walking is him coming to the presidential podium to tell the nation that Navy Seals had captured and killed Osama Bin Laden. When he turned to leave and walked down that hallway, I could just imagine him saying to himself, “I DID that!”
The power of Barak Obama’s cool is that it was contagious. President Obama made other people cool just by hanging with him. His Vice-President Joe Biden has been in public life for decades. We have seen him run for president. But once he joined the Obama team we got to see just how cool he could be. Eric Holder was probably everyone’s favorite law geek, but on the Obama team he became the Attorney General with swagger. Initially the media and opposition tried to paint Michelle Obama as an angry Black woman but her smartness and savvy made her the coolest First Lady ever. They were a cool couple!
President Obama reunited Black and smart to show our children that they could maintain their cool while moving to the head of the class. He was as at home with Itzhak Perlman and Yo Yo Ma as he was with Kendrick LaMar and Jay-Z. He was cool with a White House where Black folks could party like it was 1999! He did not apologize for failing to schmooze and glad-hand with stuffy old White Congressmen in favor of going home at night to have dinner with his Bae and his babies! He was not bothered by stereotypes about Black men and basketball. He loved the game and he loved it enough to install a court at the White House. Although the stress of the job probably sped up the progression of his gray hair, he still showed up at his farewell address with a “tight fade” and he shed a tear when he told the world how the love of his life had handled her business as First Lady. I bet Stevie Wonder’s “Knocks Me Off My Feet” was swirling through his head when he wrote those words to salute her…”There’s something ‘bout your love…that makes me weak and knocks me off my feet!” And when he dabbed the tear from his eye, we all said, collectively…”That brother is just so cool!”
Yes, we’re going to miss the Obama’s style, grace, and elegance. We will miss his erudite discourse. We will miss a family that spent 8 years under the closest scrutiny and came away without a single scandal (unless you call Malia and Sasha’s rolling their eyes at a turkey pardoning scandalous). We will miss the killer dresses that Michelle Obama rocked at state dinners and other public events along with her cute casualness while she gardened or exercised. But most of all, I will miss Barak Hussein Obama’s cool. He was cool like that!

Stay Black and Smart!

“Hiding in Plain Sight”

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Like many of my friends and acquaintances I made it a point to attend the film, “Hidden Figures” starring Taraji P. Henson, Olivia Spencer, and Janelle Monae as Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson, respectively. This is the story of the African American women mathematicians behind the NASA space program in the early 1960s. My interest in the film was fueled by having seen the real Katherine Johnson receive the Septima Poinsette Clark Award at the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. International Convention, this past July in Atlanta, GA.

Johnson, Vaughn, and Jackson remind me that there are so many talented Black women—Black people, in general—who are all around us but who the society regularly ignores. The challenge of the film for me as a Black woman is the way segregation as an institutional system was (and continues to be) a part of the warp and woof of US culture. I also appreciate the way the film illustrates how recent this system was in full force. “Hidden Figures” is not some Civil War or Reconstruction era film. The action begins in 1961! Yes, the so-called revolutionary, free love, civil rights 1960s are the setting for this film. The women live in a world where they continue to sit in the back of a bus, use only the “colored” section of the public library, drink from a separate coffee pot, and use a separate bathroom. And, how is it that the Black women recognize that all of these things are wrong but the “smart” White people with whom they work are fully comfortable with the state of things?

Watching the film reminds me of the ongoing complicity that ordinary, every day White people endorse day in and day out and take as normal. As a society we are quick to point out outrageous acts of racism—shootings, church bombings, and shouting racial epithets. But, those are not the kinds of things that most of us experience in our daily lives. No, most of us experience the kind of racism that is hidden in plain sight. For example, when White people sit in a meeting making high-level decisions and there is not ONE person of color in that meeting that is an example of racism hiding in plain sight. When White parents head to their children’s schools (especially schools claiming to be “diverse”) and sit in concerts featuring all White orchestras or visit gifted and talented programs that are all White or applaud at National Honor Society inductions where every single student is White (or of high status Asian descent) is racism hiding in plain sight. Similarly, if in those same schools the special education designations and suspension and expulsion rates are overwhelmingly Black and/or Latino that too is an example of racism hiding in plain sight. Indeed, in all of those circumstances where I find myself as the ONLY Black person in the room I see the racism hiding in plain sight.

I am very proud of the accomplishments of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson. I am proud to call them my sorority sisters. But, I am also proud of the ways they fought an unjust system as college graduates who knew things were not fair, even in the federal government. They did remarkable work. What was also hiding in plain sight for me was the fact that NO African American men seemed to rise to the stature of mathematician, engineer, or programmer at the Langley NASA facility. We do know that Astronauts Guion Bluford and Ronald McNair were among the first African American men to participate in the space program, but what about Black men who could have filled some of those behind the scene roles in mathematics, engineering, and computer programming? Perhaps mathematicians like J. James Andrews, Augustin Banyaga, Albert T. Bharucha-Reid, Donald Blackwell, or W. Scott Williams or engineers like Jerry Lawson or Jesse Russell all of whom were contemporaries of the women of “Hidden Figures” could have been recruited to advance the cause of science.

As I stated in the first paragraph I learned of Katherine Johnson’s accomplishments when she won the Septima Poinsette Clark Award at the 2016 Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. Convention. As excited as I was to learn of Katherine’s outstanding work I had to wonder how many people witnessing the award ceremony actual knew who (our other sorority member) Septima Poinsette Clark was. Her work was pivotal in shaping my own career and approach toward fighting racism. But, just as people probably didn’t know about Katherine Johnson too many of us do not know of Septima Clark and she was right there hiding in plain sight.

Stay Black & Smart!

“Why ‘Fences” Speaks Directly to Black Folks”

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Like many of the folks I know my husband and I along with another couple went to the movies to see the film version of August Wilson’s masterpiece, “Fences.” We have all seen the stage play before. I initially saw it starring James Earl Jones in the lead as Troy Maxson. I later saw it starring Roscoe Orman (formerly Gordon of “Sesame Street”). Going to see it as a film was probably more about supporting good Black cinema than it was about seeing something new. However, there was something about seeing it as a film that reminded me of why Wilson’s work speaks directly to Black folks.

Most people know it is a post World War II story about a garbage man whose dreams of a major league baseball career were thwarted because he was a man before his time. The frustration of not being able to move up in life, provide for his family, and not wanting his own son to pin his hopes on a similar dream as a football player casts Troy Maxson as an angry and bitter middle aged Black man. It also made Troy one of the more recognizable characters in Black urban life.

Sitting in the theater I realized how much like my own father Troy Maxon was. Troy worked a horrible job, made a meager living, took his pay home to his wife every Friday, lived in a rundown home but took pride in it because it was his home, and was hard on his young son. So much of Troy’s disappointment with life was rooted in the all-encompassing fact of racism in his life. He left home as a 14-year-old after a violent dispute with his own father. The move to the north fell far short of the promised “freedom” many Blacks in the south imagined. Daily life was about hustling to make a living and the one relief from this “going nowhere” life was the pint of gin he shared with his co-worker and friend, Mr. Bono.

My own father ran away from his home in South Carolina at the age of 12. A sharecropper’s life was the only thing that stretched out before him and he and an older brother believed they could have a better life in the north. Troy Maxson made his way to Pittsburgh. My dad made his way to Philadelphia to join some of his older siblings. He was met with the same disappointments as Troy—low-paying jobs, strict segregation, and limited opportunities for advancement.

The people who suffered most from the oppression that Troy felt were his family. He dealt with his son with the same ruthlessness as his father dealt with him. And, despite struggling side by side with him to make a life, his wife Rose experiences an ultimate betrayal. Troy has an affair with another woman who becomes pregnant. Through 2016 lenses Black women probably watch this drama declaring to themselves that they would never stand for what Rose Maxson did. But, when you consider the tenuous circumstances the Maxson family exists under you realize they are stuck! Neither Troy nor Rose can leave. Somehow they have to make their relationship work and in the midst of this their son Cory is steadily building up the same anger his father exhibits.

Many Black people have grown up in family circumstances that mimic the Maxsons. Life is hard and any unexpected expense—medical, household, legal—places a family at jeopardy. The “good” times are manufactured by the people who enter our lives. “Fences’” Mr. Bono was the same as my dad’s friend, “Uncle Ashbury.” He was the foil or straight man for my father’s tall tales. My dad struck the same kind of fear in our household as Troy Maxson struck in his. It was not until I was an adult did I understand that the little West Philadelphia house was the ONLY thing my father controlled in this world and he ruled it with an iron fist. It was his house, his telephone, his electricity, his television, and his food. My mother did her best to soften his hard edges. She put up with a lot but realized she was one of the “lucky” Black women. Her husband kept a steady job (often 2 or 3), bought her a house, owned a car, paid the bills, and didn’t complain too much about her regularly, “running down to the church house.”

The Black people of Wilson’s “Fences” are the unacknowledged Black heroes and heroines of the American narrative. They are not the criminals, drug addicts, pimps, and prostitutes who dominate both the Hollywood depictions and the nightly news. They are the hard-working laboring class that seemingly has no place in the annals of sociology. They are not really “interesting” because their lives are so ordinary. They go to work, they pay their bills, and they raise their children. What those outside of their experience fail to recognize are the years of pain and frustration they tolerate and the high price each subsequent generation pays as it attempts to construct fences to blot out the hurt and ugliness of systemic racism that shapes our lives.

Stay Black and Smart!

“Now That’s Trumped Up!”

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Well, it’s been two weeks since we awakened to learn that someone we believed could NEVER be elected President of the United States did just that. I guess this is how racists felt on November 5, 2008, the day after Barack Obama’s first election! It’s going to be a long 4 (or maybe even 8) years! My advancing age, professional status, and commitment to try to be a better Christian keeps me from saying what I really want to say. But I’ve come up with a substitute term… This is really, “Trumped up!” Here are just a few of the things I think are “trumped up” about the results of this election:

– A man with 5 children and 3 baby mamas was elected…that’s trumped up!
– A man who committed adultery on ALL of his wives was elected…that’s trumped up!
– The first-lady-elect (for now) has pornographic pictures of herself circulating while people denounced First Lady Michelle Obama for wearing bare arms…that’s trumped up!
– The President-Elect is an admitted sexual predator…that’s trumped up!
– The President-Elect built his entire campaign by instigating racist, sexist, homophobic ideologies…that’s trumped up!
– The President-Elect’s “appeal” to Black voters was by telling them they were all poor, unemployed, uneducated, and violent and asking what they had to lose by voting for him…that’s trumped up!
– The President –Elect demonized all Muslim families and suggested that all Muslim immigrants needed to be “extremely vetted”…that’s trumped up!
– The President-Elect started his campaign for the presidency by declaring our current president was not even a citizen of the United States…that’s trumped up!
– The President-Elect made a claim about bringing jobs back to the US while he is a primary mover for outsourcing in his own businesses…that’s trumped up!
– The President-Elect announced his candidacy while claiming that Mexico was sending its murderers and rapists to the US and he would build a wall between the two countries that Mexico would pay for…that’s trumped up!
– The President-Elect clearly lost all 3 presidential debates and demonstrated his unstable temperament…that’s trumped up!
– The President-Elect ran on a platform of “making America great again” (but I can not determine what bygone era of greatness he was referencing)…that’s trumped up!
– The President-Elect kept his tax returns secret from the American public for the entire campaign…and still has not revealed them…that’s trumped up!
– The New York Times revealed that the President-Elect has paid NO taxes for the last 10 years. So while the rest of us are paying for defense, social security, highways, schools, health care, etc., he’s paid for NOTHING…that’s trumped up!
– The President-Elect has been endorsed by the KKK and other noted hate mongers and White supremacists…that’s trumped up!
– The President-Elect began filling his cabinet and other key staff positions with racists and alt-right ideologues…that’s trumped up!
– The President-Elect encouraged thuggish and violent behavior at his campaign appearances…that’s trumped up!
– The President-Elect claimed he would prosecute his opponent when he won the election and led the cheers to “lock her up”…that’s trumped up!
– The President-Elect wants the nation to withdraw from international agreements and partnerships like NATO…that’s trumped up!
– The President-Elect wants to dismantle a health care plan that is the signature program of our current president and is likely to end up with many poor people without coverage and the rest of us with coverage with super high deductibles …that’s trumped up!
– The President-Elect wants to appoint Supreme Court judges that will control women’s bodies but will likely let old men get those little blue pills for free…that’s trumped up!
– The President-Elect claims to know more about ISIS than the generals whose job it is to know, plan and execute military strategy…that’s trumped up!
– The President-Elect claimed he could shoot someone in the middle of 5th Avenue (NY) and still not lose any voters …that’s trumped up!
– The President-Elect claims that climate change science is a hoax…that’s trumped up!
– The President-Elect ran a campaign based on fear and doomsday scenarios … that’s trumped up!
– The President-Elect is allegedly a billionaire who has poor people believing he is actually going to do something for them …that’s trumped up!
– The President-Elect is a reality show celebrity who has never run for any public office…that’s trumped up!
– The President-Elect believes he is the smartest, most charismatic, captivating person ever (despite a orange face and perhaps a hair transplant)…that’s trumped up!
– The President-Elect ran a fake University, was sued for fraud and recently settled for $25 million…that’s trumped up.
– The President-Elect is petty and petulant and explodes in Twitter ® rants whenever someone criticizes him …that’s trumped up!
– We may have to live with this man as president for at least the next four years…that’s trumped up!
– If the President-Elect messes this thing up the nation is stuck with his vice president who is a dangerous ideologue…that’s trumped up!

In the end, we have visited much of this foolishness on ourselves. We acted as if President Obama’s legacy would remain intact and because we weren’t enthusiastic about his Democratic successor we did not mobilize to stop who we got. And that is trumped up!

Stay Black & Smart!

“Shout Out To My Real Ride or Die Chicks”

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Well, we’ve just come out of one of the most vicious, contentious presidential election cycles and it has ended badly for most progressive, equality, and justice minded people. People on the left are wringing their hands and telling us that the sky is falling. Indeed, it may be falling. But it is not falling because of one group of women—Black women.

Once we saw the demographic voter backgrounds we learned that White men voted for Donald Trump at a rate of 63%. That does not surprise me. Trump tapped into some notion of an “angry White man” (angry for what—that you don’t own EVERYTHING?) but we kept hearing that he had alienated White, educated women. Well, the data reveal that White women voted for Trump at a rate of 53%, i.e. the MAJORITY of White women voted for Donald Trump. Let that sink in! White women voted for a serial adulterer who has talked about his sexual predatory ways and demeaned women at every turn.

But, one group of women has been ride or die for Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton from the outset. They knew she was flawed—deeply flawed, but they could not look their daughters in the face and say I voted for a man who will not permit you to have control over your body. They could not look into the face of their sons and say I voted for a man who tells you it is all right for you to take advantage of women and grab their genitalia whenever you feel like it. They could not look at their children and say I voted for a man who is racist, sexist, misogynistic, homophobic, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, and makes fun of people with disabilities. That group was Black women. We rode HARD for Secretary Clinton to the tune of 94%. She didn’t make us any grand promises. Some will argue that she took us for granted. But at the end of the day, we looked at our chances for our children with her versus him and decided that he had absolutely NO interest in helping us. She seemed to offer us the better chance.

Black women have been “ride or die” from day one. We birthed babies out of a rape culture that was slavery. And, we not only birthed them, we cared for them. We worked the fields side by side with our enslaved brethren. We cleaned the floors and cooked the food of White people and listened carefully to what they planned and plotted that spelled our destruction so we could aid in our own liberation. We led our people out of slavery in the person of Harriet Tubman. We sharecropped with our men. We saved our pennies to build Black colleges. We are the backbone of our churches. We keep our families together. We sacrifice for our parents, our men, our children, and our communities. Oh, we are ride or die chicks!

The fact that Black women are ride or die chicks is not news but some of us were under the mistaken impression that White women would ride along with us at least for the cause of gender. What a huge mistake that was! White women embraced their whiteness as fervently as men—maybe more so. And, that understanding creates some changed relations for those of us who have to interact with White women on a regular basis. Now, lurking in our minds is whether or not each White woman we meet is “one of the 53%.” The “implicit bias” Whites have hidden behind was on full display on November 8, 2016.

The question for Black activists is now to what degree we can work in coalition with White women? White comedian Samantha Bee did a post-election monologue in which she excoriated the White community but I noticed she said, “How many times do we expect Black people to build our country?” The pronoun modifying the word, “country” that she chose was “our.” This makes me ask, “who is the our?” She may have meant a collective “our” that includes everyone but I would have been more settled in my soul if she said, “the country.” This would suggest that no one group has a special right of ownership. But she is right about Black people building it. We plowed the fields, tilled the soil, planted the seed, and harvested the crops. But, we did not get to come to the table to eat.

Right now I have a number of White women contacting me via text, IM, and social media wanting to be absolved of guilt but I’m sorry that’s not going to happen right now. I still have to process the betrayal. Of course I have some White women friends and students (who know who they are) who do not have to ask me about our relationship or what they should do. They are already doing it. I don’t need any more White women running up to me telling me how much they love my work and asking whether or not we can get a selfie. I don’t need your idol worship. I don’t need a fan club. You can keep your fair trade coffee. You can keep your “mindfulness.” You can keep your hot yoga! But some White women keep asking me what should we do? My metaphorical eyebrows are raised as I ask, “We?” You have failed to convince me that you can participate in any activity with Black and other people of color where you can take direction from women of color. My experience has been if you can’t be in the forefront; if you can’t lead; if your name is not on the marquee…you are not interested. My experience is you will only ride so far (and typically only if you are driving) and you won’t die for anybody!

To my ride or die Black women sista’s…

Stay Black & Smart!

“I’m Through!”

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This might seem like a very strange blog for me to write since I devote much of my professional life to teaching, researching, and writing about race and racism in education. But, with the exception of my scholarly pursuits, I am through talking to White people about race and racism. My absolute “through-ness” (I know, a made up word) came to a head when my university covered up blatant racism (a man in a Trump costume had a noose around a man in an Obama mask at a recent football game and the university president called it “free speech.”) Below is a litany of what I am through with:

  • I am through trying to assuage White tears whenever the topics of race and racism arises;
  • I am through acting like I don’t notice when I’m the only Black person in a room of White people with authority and power;
  • I am through pretending like I don’t notice that college football fields and basketball courts are filled with Black players earning enormous sums of money for universities that have stadiums and arenas filled with White fans;
  • I am through trying to explain why Donald Trump is racist…indeed, I am through not reminding people that the entire presidential election has race as a subtext;
  • I am through giving White entertainers and celebrities a pass when they do racist foolishness on line, on social media, etc. and then “walk it back” with, “I didn’t mean to offend anyone!”
  • I am through with trying to explain when something is racist…(e.g. police shooting, lead water poisoning, the justice system, schools, housing, voter suppression);
  • I am through going HARD for other people’s issues and then finding myself standing alone when the issue is racism;
  • I am through with people using “implicit bias” to paper over their racism;
  • I am through with explaining why Confederate flags, nooses, references to fried chicken, watermelon, and “Black on Black” (what about “White on White”) crime are racist;
  • I am through explaining the need for affirmative action (when you break stuff, you are obligated to fix it);
  • I am through trying to get people to understand why slavery is still relevant to Black people’s ongoing plight;
  • I am through pretending appropriation of Black culture is flattery (don’t braid your hair or try to enhance your butt and stop putting kale in everything);
  • I am through worrying about if something I say will “hurt your feelings,” “make you feel uncomfortable,” or “make things ‘worse’;”
  • I am through thinking it’s okay for White people to move into and take over Harlem, Detroit, or West Philly;
  • I am through explaining the need for HBCUs;
  • I am through explaining why I attend a BLACK church;
  • I am through explaining why I am in a BLACK sorority;
  • I am through with the unbridled hatred of Serena Williams, Cam Newton, and President Obama;
  • I am through with your children being so ignorant that every time they see a Black person they rudely stare (I will be staring back);
  • I am through listening to you start sentences with, “Well, you know I’m not racist, but…” (Yes, you are);
  • I am through with White mediocrity being called excellence while Black excellence is ignored;
  • I am through with people trying to pit the plight of Black people against that of others implying Black folks should still wait;
  • I am through indulging comments like, “everything is not about race,” when most times it is;
  • I am through explaining my style—hair, dress, swagger;
  • I am through being your teacher when I am not paid to do so;
  • I am through supporting “liberal” causes that don’t make race central to their work;
  • I’m through trying to get folks to understand that “Black Lives Matter!”

Yes, I’m just through! So you may wonder what am I going to talk to White folks about. Well, we can talk about Downton Abbey, Game of Thrones (although I don’t actually watch that), Portlandia (which I’ve only seen 3 times), and why every fall you turn EVERYTHING into something “pumpkin” (lattes, muffins, and bread).

Stay Black & Smart!

“Ida Already Told Us This!”

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In 1892 journalist and former teacher Ida B. Wells reported on the lynching of 3 of her friends, Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Henry Stewart who were lynched for the “crime” of opening a grocery store called “People’s Grocery” in Memphis, TN that “took” customers from competing White businesses. The White storeowners went to attack People’s Grocery and in the ensuing scuffle the Black men attempted to defend themselves and their property and shot one of the attackers. All three men were arrested but a mob broke into the jail and brutally lynched them. In her journalist description of conditions for Black people in Memphis Wells urged Black people to move because of the city’s refusal to protect Black lives and property. Ida was telling us almost 125 years ago that “Black Lives Matter!”

From the point of her first missive in “The Free Speech,” Wells and others in the Black community began documenting the brutality of lynching that plagued their community. In 1916 the NAACP established an “Anti-Lynching” Committee to develop legislative and public awareness campaigns. In 1919 the Committee published “Thirty years of lynching in the United States, 1889-1918.” This report indicated that 3,224 people were lynched in the thirty-year period. Of these, 702 were White and 2,522 Black. This is an average of 84 Black people a year! Among the justifications given for the lynchings were petty offenses such as “using offensive language, refusal to give up land, illicit distilling.”

The differences between what Wells and the NAACP reported back then compared to what we are now experiencing are that they lacked the instantaneous communication of Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, and cable news to let the world know what had happened to Black people and the lynchings were allegedly carried out by extra police or law enforcement individuals. However, we know that a close relationship existed between sheriffs, deputies, and police officers and organizations like the Ku Klux Klan, White Citizen Councils, and vigilante groups that carried out these heinous acts.

The point I am making is that killing Black people at will has been a way of life for some segments of law enforcement. And, claims of “implicit bias” have become the latest and most convenient cop-out. While I do not deny Eberhart’s theoretical construct, I do not believe we should use it to give trained, professionals a pass on killing Black people. I walk into university classrooms all the time and truth be told I have “implicit bias” toward White students. My implicit bias comes from more than 30 years of working with them and more than a few unpleasant interactions based on our racial differences. However, I have disciplined myself not to allow my biases to interfere with giving each INDIVIDUAL a fair chance to counter any biases I might have. I am still uncomfortable walking into a sporting event filled with drunk and rowdy White males. I am still uncomfortable when recognizing that my career fate may lie in the hands of White professionals. But, nothing in those “implicit biases” forces me to pack a weapon and shoot them when I feel threatened. I cannot let my “implicit biases” over rule my judgment.

This “rash” of shootings of unarmed Black people we see on the nightly news and on our social media feeds are not new. Ida B. Wells told us more than a century ago that although many Whites do not believe it, “Black Lives Matter!”

Stay Black and Smart!

 

 

“The Land of the Free…The Home of the Brave?”

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Over the past few weeks the US news media and blogosphere have been flooded by the news that San Francisco 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the National Anthem AND that his refusal was linked to his strong feelings about the way Black people continue to live under oppression in this society—specifically police brutality. Reaction to Kaepernick was swift and brutal. To be fair “Kaep” has had his supporters but rarely do his critics address the context and bigger picture Kaepernick is attempting to expose.

One question that has surfaced is “Why is he doing this? He’s a football player he should just play ball.” That kind of thinking reflects the “minstrelsy” we demand of the Black body. Just entertain us. Do not think. Do not speak…unless you are speaking to tell us how grateful you are to be here and how thankful you are to please us. The main reason I believe Kaepernick is protesting the anthem (and by proxy the nation) is because no one will listen to a retail store clerk (or any other no name citizen)! And, to his credit Kaepernick has pledged $1million to helping organizations fighting racial injustice.

Using celebrity to advance a cause (particularly an “unpopular” cause) is not a new thing. Artists like Jane Fonda, Marlon Brando, and Bono have stood before the world for causes they believe in. Black athletes have treaded an unsure road because they do not have the protection of Whiteness or wealth (yes, they have income but rarely money to pass along inter-generationally) to fall back on. Paul Robeson lost almost everything for being willing to stand up against US oppression. His passport was lifted (and he made his living singing around the world). Rutgers removed him from its athletic hall of fame (despite being an outstanding football player). There were venues in the US that would not permit him to perform in them. The all American icon, Jackie Robinson wrote in his autobiography in 1972, “Today, as I look back on that opening game of my first world series, I must tell you that it was Mr. Rickey’s drama and that I was only a principal actor. As I write this twenty years later, I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; (emphasis added) I know that I am a black man in a white world. In 1972, in 1947, at my birth in 1919, I know that I never had it made.”

Perhaps the most memorable athletes’ protest against the US came at the 1968 Mexico Olympics when Tommie Smith and John Carlos stood upon the medal stand bowed their heads and raised black-gloved fists as the anthem was played. At that moment everyone forgot that Smith had run a record-breaking 200-meter race. They were largely ostracized for their stance and it was not until the 21st century that people recognized their courage and the rightness of their position. In 2008 both men were awarded the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPYs.

Of course we cannot forget the courage of Muhammad Ali who refused to participate in the Vietnam War. Because of it he lost his livelihood. He could not box and the 3 plus years he lost were in the prime of his career. Today we celebrate Ali as “The Greatest” but minimize the way he was punished for taking a principled stand. In each of these cases the media has trotted out Black “surrogates” to speak against the Black athletes.

Athletes are as human as anyone else. What is interesting is how quickly the powers that be are to forgive drug addicts, rapists, batterers, “serial daddies” (as in men who have multiple “baby mamas” without paying child support) and others. But let someone stand up and point out racism and inequity and we decide that she or he is not worthy of citizenship. Kaepernick is demonstrating what is allegedly the greatness of democracy—that you can hold and express opinions different from others. The “my country—love it or leave it” crowd are dangerous to civil society. Their lack of criticality is what has landed us in this particular presidential election cycle.

For those who argue that “there is another way to do it” I will remind you that Milwaukee has been languishing with a lack of adequate jobs and education opportunities. Black people are paying taxes and voting just like White people. But who wants to pay for people to ignore, demonize, and brutalize them?

When the Sherman Park community erupted in civil disobedience a few weeks ago the Governor and his people decided it was time to infuse some money into Milwaukee and create some jobs. So, “the other way” rarely produced results. Unfortunately, it takes people’s willingness to “get mad” and “tear some stuff up” to get attention. And sometimes it takes simply refusing to stand to show your righteous indignation to injustice.

Stay Black & Smart!

“Falling Across the Finish Line”

Athletics - Women's 400m Final

2016 Rio Olympics – Athletics – Final – Women’s 400m Final – Olympic Stadium – Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – 15/08/2016. Shericka Jackson (JAM) of Jamaica, Shaunae Miller (BAH) of Bahamas and Allyson Felix (USA) of USA finish the race. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS.

If you know me you know I am in sports and athletics heaven right now because it’s Summer Olympics time. I watch the swimming, gymnastics, and especially the track and field. As a former sprinter I love watching those runners get into their blocks, raise their hips after the starter says “on your mark, set” and then fire the starter gun. At that point we see the runners rocket out of the blocks head down and run themselves into an upright position with their arms and legs churning. The cameras often catch the muscles of their faces shaking and their biceps, quadriceps and calf muscles straining to propel them to the finish line.

Last night, 400 meter racer Allyson Felix, one of the world’s most celebrated track athletes appeared on the court ready to go for her 5th gold medal (7th overall) but just as she approached the finish line, Bahamas’ racer, Shaunae Miller dove (or better yet, fell) across the line just ahead of Felix. Immediately social media went ballistic. Cries of foul and unfair filled the Internet. But was it? Is the rule about finishing first or about finishing in a particular way?

I thought that Miller’s dive was an important life lesson for us all. As an African American academic I cannot tell you how many times I have seen students—especially African American students—dive across the finish line at the last minute. And, when they do their parents, families, and “mama ‘nem” show up at graduation and scream “Thank you Jesus” and “That’s my baby” at the top of their lungs. They do not care that the final project or dissertation was handed in just before the deadline. They do not care about all of the drama that led up to graduation day. They just cheer the accomplishment as their “Baby” walks across that stage.

When I was collecting data for my dissertation in a middle school in a predominately Black community I could not help but smile as the 8th graders in my study prepared for graduation (actually it was just promotion to high school). It was in stark contrast to the upper middle class 8th grade promotion ceremony at my sons’ middle class schools. Theirs was a low key, middle of the day event where the dressiest kids wore slacks and polo shirts. The kids got a few words of encouragement and the event ended with punch and cookies. But in the Black community where I was working students were dressed in their Sunday best. The girls wore semi-formal dresses and some of the boys wore tuxedos. A few of the kids arrived in limousines. I had spent a year collecting data in their classrooms and I KNEW many of them were literally diving across the finish line. They did not sprint across, upright in fine form.

And, it is not merely the students that are diving across the line. If I look back at the road I traveled I had to throw myself across the line a time or two. I didn’t have college-educated parents to give me a head start in the race for success. No, I started way in the back of the pack. I had White high school classmates who had traveled to Europe. I had never been on an airplane. Some of them drove their own cars and there were times in my home when there was no car. And, when we did have a car it was never a brand new one. When I graduated from high school, college, and graduate school my parents and family were jumping up and down like I had won a gold medal.

My own children have had the advantage of middle class life in safe communities. But, there have been instances when they have had to dive across the finish line at the last minute. There has been too much Black Greek life partying, too much athletics, and major battles with anxiety and depression. But, in the end when they were finally able to pull it together with mom, dad, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and community pushing, pulling, and prodding they hurled themselves across the finish line—high school and college graduations, jobs, successful relationships, and great kids of their own—I was there cheering like a crazy woman and I didn’t care that they didn’t always do it upright. Sometimes they dove across that finish line just like Shaunae Miller.

Stay Black & Smart!

“You Are So Beautiful…To Me!”

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United States’ Gabrielle Douglas looks at the scoreboard during the artistic gymnastics women’s team final at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2016. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

After a summer filled with vicious political fighting for the presidency and various Congressional seats, ongoing wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, police shootings of unarmed citizens, alleged retaliation of those shootings by deranged people, and terrorists attacks in Orlando, FL, France, Pakistan, and elsewhere in the world, I was good and ready to watch the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Like many who are deeply critical of our country when it falls short of its democratic ideals, I turn into a decided homer when it comes to USA athletes. Also, it’s BRAZIL! This is a country I think EVERY Black person should visit. Despite the huge income disparity—the horrible favelas and homelessness—it is a magnificently beautiful country. And, the African influence is unmistakable! Its art, music, dance, and culture all reflect the African aesthetic and its population is largely African in its heritage. The girl from Ipanema is a tourist industry fantasy. It should be the girl from Angola!

But, despite the excitement of the Olympics in Rio, I came across a post that suggested a group of Black women were once again reading Gold Medal gymnast, Gabby Douglas about her hair! Really, people? This young woman has accomplished more in her short life than most of her social media trollers will EVER in their lives. Indeed, I imagine that most of her haters are in far less physical shape than she is. I imagine that they cannot point to one major contribution they have made to the world. I imagine their own children’s hair can use some tightening up! But whether that is true of not what makes Gabby Douglas fair game for YOUR critique. Is her hair any worse than Katie Ledecky’s huge forehead? Is it worse than Michael Phelps’ obvious lisp? Is it worse than Breanna Stewart’s ghostly white complexion? No, yet no one is holding them up to ridicule…and they shouldn’t. They did not achieve Olympic quality greatness based on what they look like. They achieved it based on their skills and the hard work they put in to develop those skills. The physical flaws of these athletes are not unlike the flaws almost every human being has. Most of us are not runway or print models. Most of us are not screen actors. We are as John Legend’s (who incidentally, is incredibly short) song says filled with, “perfect imperfections.”

There are plenty of people who I think are fair game for potshots and clap backs—politicians, Hollywood actors and actresses, reality stars, sports figures, musicians, rappers, and the ridiculously wealthy. We can pick on them because they can take it. They expect it. They wear big boy and big girl pants. But a young woman whose only desire is to represent her country and showcase the talents she and her family have sacrificed everything to get to this point are strictly out of bounds!

For those people (and in this case it’s primarily Black women) who have time to pick apart Gabby’s hair I can only imagine you are spending more money on your hair and nails than you are on books. I bet your hair (whether it’s in a box or in 5 packs on the top of your head) is “slayed to da gawds” but can you get a mortgage? Are you children all on the honor roll or dean’s list? Are you bringing down a 6-figure salary? Are you donating to charity and volunteering in your community? No? Well then you need to take several seats and leave that young woman alone. I can’t imagine what you’re going to say when the two sista’s on the swim team get out of the pool and take off their swim caps. Every time I see Gabby Douglas and Simone Biles I smile and say to myself, “You are SO beautiful…to me!”

Stay Black and Smart!