“They Like Us As Slaves… Not Fully Formed Human Beings!”

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences announced its nominations for the 2020 Oscars Presentation. Once again, there were hardly any Black people nominated for awards. Actually, only one Black actor was nominated for an award—Cynthia Erivo, for the film “Harriet.”

The thing that strikes me about Erivo’s nomination is that the role for which she is nominated is for abolitionist, freedom fighter, and formerly enslaved person Harriet Tubman. Apparently, the Academy likes Black folks in slave roles. They liked, “12 Years a Slave” enough to award it “Best Picture” and Lupita Nyong’o “Best Supporting Actress” and writer John Ridley won for his writing in a screenplay for the film. Actor Chiwetel Ejiofor was nominated but did not win for “Best Actor.”

One of Denzel Washington’s Oscars was for his role as a formerly enslaved soldier in the Union Army in the film, “Glory.” The first Black winner, Hattie McDaniel won “Best Supporting Actress” for her role in “Gone with the Wind.” If not a slave we seem to catch the Academy’s attention as servants. Octavia Spencer won a “Best Supporting Actress” award for her role as Minnie Jackson in “The Help.”

I am not suggesting that these artists are not worthy of winning their awards. However, I do wonder why Black actors who take on more complex versions of humanity are regularly overlooked in the Oscar balloting. This year, “Just Mercy” the film about Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative’s battle to exonerate Alabama death row inmate, Walter McMillan was completely overlooked. In addition to telling a compelling story, Jamie Foxx’s portrayal of McMillan was riveting! Without the use of high-speed car chases, sex, gratuitous violence, or CGI (Computer Generated Images) the dramatic film takes you on an emotional rollercoaster and tugs at your heart and sense of injustice throughout.

Walter McMillan is not offered as a perfect man but he is depicted as a real man—fully human with faults, fears, concerns, and emotions. He is a husband and father. He is loved by his community. He is also a realist. He knows the system is inherently unfair and his chances of release from death row are slim. Even with a Harvard educated lawyer (played by Michael B. Jordan) who is passionate and willing to take his case pro bono, he is not hopeful.

“Just Mercy” is a story White American really does not want to hear. When you are deeply invested in a system you don’t want to think of it as wholly corrupt. The average White American believes that those in jail or prison belong there. It does not understand that the current (in)justice system operates as a way to profit off of inmates. States generate goods and services by putting inmates to work to manufacture goods, clear fields, and clean highways. They also use the prison system as a vehicle for employing Whites with low skills and limited education. It is no secret why most newly built prisons are in rural areas despite most of the inmates being from urban areas.
When you watch “Just Mercy” you have to ask yourself one of two questions—“Am I that ignorant about what’s going on in the society?” or “Am I that indifferent to institutional racism and systemic injustice?”

Walter McMillan is not someone we can push into the recesses of history with a “That was a long time ago” excuse. He makes you realize just how vulnerable certain portions of our citizenry are. The film makes you realize that the notion of “White privilege” is not merely about who has money and status. It is about who pays an inordinate price in a police state.

Foxx’s acting in this film is superb. It is nuanced and poignant. You want to root for him at the same moment you understand his hopelessness. His performance has you crying one moment and laughing the next… just like with any real human being. Unfortunately, Hollywood does not want to imbue Black folks with humanity. They like us better when we’re slaves!

Stay Black & Smart!

The NFL? …. Uh, That Would Be a No!

I am what might be considered an “uber” sports fan. I enjoy NBA and NCAA Men’s and Women’s basketball. I love the build up to the World Series. I get excited as we experience the Olympics. I love World Competition in figure skating and track and field. I can sit glued to the TV during Wimbledon and the US Open. And as the Bowl Championship Series comes to a conclusion on Monday I am anxious to see whether LSU or Clemson will be crowned the College Football Champion. However, since 2017 I have not purposely watched one down of the National Football League (NFL). Clearly there have been times when I have walked through an establishment and a game was being broadcast but I do not tune in on my own. I did not even watch the Super Bowl when my beloved Philadelphia Eagles won! I got calls from friends and family in Philly and when I went to Philly on business the following week I could see the joy and exuberance that flowed through the city. I was just not a part of it.

I stopped watching the NFL when Colin Kaepernick was effectively banned from the league for taking a knee in silent protest to the ongoing police brutality that plagues the Black community. For that one citizen act the league and its owners colluded to ensure he would never play in the NFL again. Proof positive that this happened is the fact that the NFL settled with Kaepernick for a reported $10million rather than have their unscrupulous behavior see the light of day.

Lots of my friends and family insist that my “boycott” of the NFL is meaningless. Indeed, data suggest that NFL viewership is at an all time high. But, I don’t boycott with the idea of hurting a multi-billion dollar industry. I boycott because my conscience will not let me enjoy a game that reflects a willful indifference to the suffering of Black people. When Botham Jean, a 26-year-old Black man accountant was shot and killed by an off-duty White woman police officer (Amber Guyger) his mother asked the Dallas Cowboys to honor her son at a game the Sunday after Guyger’s trial by conducting a silent protest. The team refused!

The latest insult came this week as the NFL playoffs got underway. As is true every year, unsuccessful teams decided whether or not to keep or fire their coaches. They call it the “coaching carousel.” In 2003 the NFL instituted the “Rooney Rule” (named after Dan Rooney, former owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers). This rule requires a team looking for a head coach or senior football operations personnel to interview at least one ethnic minority candidate before extending an offer for a job. This rule is not affirmative action. There is no quota of ethnic minority candidates to be hired. Teams are just required to offer an interview to a candidate of color.

The coaches that were recently hired included a veteran coach (Mike McCarthy, former Green Bay Packers Coach hired by Dallas Cowboys), the Carolina Panthers hired Matt Rhule, a former college coach who has never coached at the professional level and the New York Giants hired Joe Judge, the former New England Patriots wide receiver and special teams coach. He has never been an offensive or defensive coordinator—jobs that seem to be prerequisite positions that Black candidates must have. It is also important to point out the work former coaches like Tony Dungy did to build a pipeline of Black coaches—Herm Edwards, Lovie Smith, Jim Caldwell, Mike Tomlin, and Leslie Frazier. We know there are and were successful Black coaches—Ray Rhodes, Dennis Green, Marvin Lewis, and Doug Williams to name a few.

The NFL is 70-75% Black but somehow Black coaches are not seen as cable of coaching them. It is virtually a plantation system and I cannot bring myself to support it. Some might claim I’m being hypocritical by supporting college football on the one hand but boycotting the NFL. The big difference for me is that college football at least offers the promise of an education (whether student-athletes complete their degrees or not). The NFL can be a lucrative career but the average tenure of an NFL player is 3.3 years (not as long as a collegiate who plays out his full eligibility). Contrast that with the tenure of NBA players. The average NBA player will make $24.7 million in his career. That is based on an average salary of $5.2 million and an average career length of 4.8 years and is $18.6 million more than the career earnings for the average NFL player ($6.1 million) (https://www.businessinsider.com/chart-the-average-nba-player-will-make-lot-more-in-his-career-than-the-other-major-sports-2013-10).

I realize I am missing out on all of the fun and trash talking that accompanies the NFL season. I am missing out on sensational plays and dazzling runs, hits, throws, and catches. But, I put my head down on my pillow each night with a clear conscience. I just can’t with the NFL!

Stay Black & Smart!

“I’m Still with Kap!”

This past weekend many of us who have given up on watching NFL football had a glimmer of hope that we might get to go back to the real national pastime. Former quarterback Colin Kaepernick was planning to participate in a workout to demonstrate that despite not playing football for 3 years, he was still in shape and able to perform at a NFL level. Although I have to say I’ve gotten comfortable not letting football eat up my Sundays (and Mondays, and Thursdays), it would be nice to at least watch the playoffs and the Super Bowl. More important it would be great to see Kaepernick be vindicated and get back to doing something he loved doing.

Alas, it was not to be. The workout venue and rules of engagement were changed at the last minute and only 7 teams showed up. Quickly the media pundits began to expound. “He doesn’t really want to play.” “Why did he show up with a Kunta Kinte shirt?” “Why are all the media here?” The questions went on and on. Some declared that Kaepernick ought to be grateful that the league was “giving him a chance.” Are you kidding me? Let’s look at the facts.

Colin Kaepernick broke no laws. He is not accused of domestic violence or abuse. He is not accused of substance abuse. He was not in a club shooting a gun. He exercised his citizen rights to participate in a silent protest about the condition of Black people and the ongoing police brutality they face in cities and towns all across this country and the person occupying the people’s home at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue did not like it. For that he has been essentially banned from the NFL for 3 years. Colin Kaepernick is accused of being an “uppity N-word!” That is it in a nutshell.

What makes this situation even more ridiculous is the number of Black sports journalists and commentators who do not realize that Kaepernick’s only crime is that he refuses to be played. According to his camp he refused to sign a waiver that the NFL presented that would not allow him to sue the league or accuse them of collusion.

The truth is the league DID collude to keep Kaepernick out of football. The settlement the NFL reached with him was designed to keep him from exposing their underhanded, plantation mentality—“You dance to our music ‘boy’ or you don’t dance at all!” So whether they paid him $10 million or $45 million doesn’t matter. They paid whatever they needed to in order to ensure their dastardly deeds were not exposed.

I actually don’t see any reason why Kaepernick should go back to the NFL. He has more of a platform outside of it. He can speak more freely, influence more people (particularly young people), and do it without fear of career ending injury. I’m not worried about Colin Kaepernick. However, I am deeply disappointed in Black folks who continue to carry water for the NFL establishment. They have no understanding of the predicament of every day Black people. They have no notion of the suffering that our children endure in schools and classrooms. They apparently have not been touched by police brutality… yet! They don’t understand that the family of Botham Jean asked the Dallas Cowboys to acknowledge their loved one’s unnecessary death at the hands of a police officer who wandered into his apartment and they wouldn’t do it. All they know how to do is act as sycophants for powerful White men who are just as likely to discard them as quickly as they did Colin Kaepernick. Sorry, I’m still with Kap!

“NO, Wisconsin”

The fight song of the University of Wisconsin is “On Wisconsin.” It is played at all major sporting events and even in a medley at graduations. One verse says, “On Wisconsin, on Wisconsin fight on for her fame. Fight fellows fight, fight, fight we’ll win this game!” However, this past week the UW Alumni association released a promo video to encourage people to come back to campus for homecoming that could only prompt me to say instead of “On Wisconsin”… “No, Wisconsin!”

The video features the University and its students… some of its students. You see students going to class, football games, biking, hiking, playing in the band, eating pizza—all things students do. However, there is no representation of students of color in the video. Unfortunately, this is a familiar racial faux pas for UW. Some years ago the university photo shopped a Black student into the student section of the stadium. Its response was to apologize. More recently, a Black student was spat upon by another student and told she did not belong there (despite her incredible performing arts portfolio). About that same time another Black student was arrested in class in front of his fellow student for doing anti-racist graffiti. The list of racial microgressions is too numerous to enumerate in one blog but every day students of color are confronted with reasons they should not feel welcome or safe on the UW campus. UW-Madison is 13 out of 14 (University of Nebraska is worse) Big Ten Conference campuses in the number of students of color. Out of over 44,000 students there are only 593 African American undergrads and 255 African American graduate students.

Before someone thinks I’m hating on UW-Madison let me be clear, I am not. I was a faculty member on that campus for 26 years. It afforded me a great career. I was the first African American woman to earn tenure in my School (in 1995). I served for 7 years on the University’s athletic board and was the Big Ten faculty representative. But, I understand how institutions work. Some years ago I was asked to conduct a workshop for practicing physicians who made the decision to enter academic medicine (become faculty at the Medical School). One of the first things I told them was “Institutions have no capacity to love you back!” My point was no matter how much you love the university it cannot love you back. I still believe that. However, just because the university can’t love you does not mean it has the right to abuse you.

What makes the video so egregious is the homecoming committee solicited many student groups to participate in the filming and groups of color did volunteer and participate. All of them were cut in the final editing and somehow no one saw a problem with that. This is a pattern that the university must break. It must stop giving lip service to “equity, diversity, and inclusion.” It must stop using the athletic department as its “diversity program.” It must stop pretending that students of color are all here under some “affirmative action” benevolence. Trust me, after teaching hundreds of students I have had my share of mediocre White students (I’ve had some outstanding ones too, so save the White tears)!

I am always amazed (and proud) when I see Wisconsin students of color do great things despite their constant marginalization. As a part of the 100th anniversary of the “On Wisconsin” fight song the university sponsored a contest to re-mix the song. It was the students of color who are a part of our award winning “First Wave” Scholars program who won that award with an amazing update of the song (see, https://youtu.be/Fbe_H5n_1qY ). One of my Black students, DeShawn McKinney, not only led the campus’ “Black Lives Matter” effort, he won a Truman Scholarship for his civic engagement, was a Rhodes Scholarship finalist, and a Marshall Scholarship winner which afforded him the opportunity to student for his master’s degree in Oxford, England. Another of my students, Jonathan Williams won the national “Raise Up” competition designed to encourage high school students to stay in school. He later went on to win a fellowship for a highly selective Masters of Fine Arts Program at the University of Florida. A few years ago Sports Illustrated named the Wisconsin Basketball Team the most politically active one in the nation. Star Nigel Hayes regularly spoke out on injustice (and mounted his own respectful protest at the singing of the National Anthem) and Bronson Koenig made his was to the protests at Standing Rock to both express his solidarity with other Native Peoples and help conduct basketball clinics for the children there. There is not enough room in a blog post for me to detail all the amazing things I have seen scholars of color accomplish on our campus. The university must do better by them.

My undergraduate classes focus on preparing teachers to teach history and social studies. I remind my students that the rich, powerful, and privileged don’t really need democracy. They have ways of getting what they want whenever they want. No, democracy is what the marginalized, disenfranchised, and under represented need. It’s their only hope for true justice and a fair opportunity. So until the university recognizes its needs to attend to the concerns of the most vulnerable among its students (and faculty) we can’t really sing “On Wisconsin.” Our song will be, “No, Wisconsin!”

Stay Black & Smart!

“Gratitude in the Midst of Humiliation”

Today is my last day of 7 weeks of radiation for a recurrence of breast cancer. After living 27 years cancer free I was once again diagnosed with this horrible disease this past winter. I was devastated. For 27 years I have been an advocate for breast cancer research and support for those who were diagnosed—especially Black women. Interesting, we have a lower incidence of breast cancer, but when we get it we have a higher mortality rate. We are more likely to get a more aggressive form and to get it at an earlier age. My first battle I was younger, stronger, and more fearless. I fought through every step of it—surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. I went up against the breast cancer establishment in my town for not having wigs that were appropriate for Black women. I mobilized women in my church to participate in the breast cancer 5K race/walk. I became an advocate for Black women and breast cancer. This time I had a diagnosis of a much less aggressive, non-invasive cancer but aspects of these last 7-weeks have been among the hardest I have experienced.

Each weekday since July 22 I have driven to radiation therapy and back. My husband asks everyday if he can take me. I always say, “No.” Other friends have called or texted to volunteer to drive me and again I say, “No.” My own sense of control makes me want to take myself. In the car for those 20 minutes there and back I think about what I have to face and how to face it. Wanting to have some modicum of control is something you crave when it seems things are spiraling out of control.

Once you become sick, you lose all access to personal modesty. Every day I had to enter a room with youngsters (some young enough to be my grandchildren) and disrobe. In a cold, brightly lit room I laid down for treatment trying to avoid eye-contact. In an attempt to make me feel comfortable the technicians engage in friendly banter, “What else do you have planned for today? Those are really cute shoes you’re wearing. What a pretty nail color you have!” Every morning as I prepared to go I had to make sure I had on a “good” bra (Black women know we have “good bras” and “bras”) to avoid judgment at the hands of young White women (and sometimes a man). I am embarrassed by the fact I cannot shave or wear deodorant on my left side. I’m constantly checking myself to ensure my underarm does not emit body odor. As I lay there taking and holding deep breaths my mind wanders in different directions. As humiliating as this is, I wonder what happens to those Black women without adequate health care? Who is available to take them back and forth to therapy every day? Who buys them new bras so they don’t have to stand in front of young White girls with tattered underwear?

I also lay there thinking of my ancestors. In this 400-year commemoration of the first enslaved Africans arriving on these shores I can hardly imagine the humiliation they felt standing naked upon an auction block being picked at and prodded. Clearly, there is no comparison between them and my situation. Every woman with breast cancer who receives treatment, regardless of race and ethnicity, will undergo what I went through. Most will be grateful for the skill of the health care professionals and the technologies that will save their lives. But, I wonder if every woman will feel the humiliation placed upon Black women in this process? I am grateful for what the radiologist and radiation therapy personnel have done for me over the past 7 weeks. However, I hope never to see them again!

Stay Black & Smart!

“Why 1619 Matters”

This month marks the 400-year commemoration of the first enslaved Africans who arrived in what would become the United States of America. Granted these were not the first Africans to set foot in the New World. In 1572 Estevanico or “Little Esteban” arrived with a group of Spanish explorers who explored what today is known as Florida. For eight years he traveled with Spanish explorers who made their way to what was called New Spain and later the US Southwest. The fact that people of African descent can point to a 400 year sojourn in this nation gives us one of the strongest claims to national ownership excluding that of Indigenous peoples.

Today, many people when confronted with the fact of slavery say, “But that was so long ago. People need to get over it!” I want to argue that slavery and its legacy is one of the more enduring memories of this nation. It taints almost everything we do and the recent compendium of essays in the New York Times Magazine underscores how everything from healthcare, to education, to housing reverberates and suffers from the sting of slavery. However, I want to tell a personal story of how slavery lingers in my own life.

I had a number of friends who were a part of the “Jamestown to Jamestown” voyage from Virginia to Ghana. Having traveled to Ghana myself some 20 years ago I remembered many of the sites they shared on social media. Going to the Nkrumah Museum, the W. E. B. DuBois Institute, and the Cape Coast Slave Dungeon brought back many memories. The pain of seeing the “Door of No Return” is an experience that is difficult to articulate. But what is equally painful is watching the legacy of slavery put its mark on my children.

Years ago, after writing an outstanding 8th grade project on the Black impact on the Revolutionary War Era my daughter refused to participate in the optional “Colonial Days” fair. When I pressed her she responded, “I’m not going to stand up there and be a slave in front of those White people!” As a parent I was obligated to support her decision. In 9th grade she railed against having to read Huckleberry Finn. She was the only Black student in her class and having to repeatedly read Twain’s use of the N-word was just too much. An additional insult came when she was repeatedly the top student in her classes filled with White students and one of her classmates asked if she were “mixed” (having at least one White parent) presumably because of her intellect and linguistic abilities.

Almost every stereotype Black people endure finds their origins in slavery. The watermelon, fried chicken eating, slow-talking, lazy but happy slave images are replayed in countless popular culture images. The desire for some Whites to put on Black face (indeed 2 former state governors recently were found to have done so) and perform as minstrels reminds Whites of a time when they were “masters” and Blacks were slaves. When I hear Southern Whites claim that the Confederate flag reminds them of their “heritage” I ask, “What specifically in your heritage does that flag represent?” The only thing they can honestly say is slavery, the Confederacy (designed to defend slavery), and when Whites could legally terrorize Blacks.

Our Jewish brothers and sisters have a phrase that keeps the horror and their survival despite the Holocaust alive. That phrase is, “Never forget!” No one begrudges them the use of that phrase. It is the way they pass the memories of their collective horror down to their children and their children’s children. Black people have to be willing to do just that. We can’t be afraid to say, “1619 still matters!”

Stay Black & Smart!

“She had ALL the words”

Everybody knew what she was called, but nobody anywhere knew her name. Disremembered and unaccounted for, she cannot be lost because no one is looking for her, and even if they were, how can they call her if they don’t know her name? Although she has claim, she is not claimed. In the place where long grass opens, the girl who waited to be loved and cry shame erupts into her separate parts, to make it easy for the chewing laughter to swallow her all away.
Toni Morrison- Beloved, 1987

Today was one of those days when everything stopped for me. The Queen of the English language has died. Born Chloe Ardella Wofford, Toni Morrison was America’s most celebrated literary artist. In 1993 she became the first Black woman to win the Noble Prize in Literature. Her accolades are numerous. Her career amazing, but my attachment to Toni Morrison feels personal. No, I never met her (although I did speak with her on the telephone once), but through her novels I felt like she was speaking directly to me.

There are many Black women writers who gave voice to my concerns and identities—Gloria Naylor, Alice Walker, June Jordan, Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, Maya Angelou, Dorothy West, and Alice Childress are but a few. But, no one had the command of language Toni Morrison did. Her powerful use of language and understanding of the challenge of Blackness in the midst of the most virulent racism and White supremacy spoke to the nation and the world in ways few others could. James Baldwin was a literary genius but he rarely spoke directly to the double bind of race and gender. Toni Morrison knew me from the inside out.

As soon as it was published (1987) I began reading Beloved. It is not a long book—a mere 275 pages but it took me a long time to finish it. Every evening I would come home from work and sit down to read it. It was so heavy, so soul shattering, and so disturbing that I could only process a chapter or two at a time. For someone who reads tons of books every year, this was new. I had breezed through The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon, and Tar Baby. I loved every book but Beloved was something all together different. Morrison dedicated it to “Sixty Million and More” and every conscious Black person knows who those 60 million and more were.

In 1989 the Michigan Quarterly Review published her University of Michigan lecture, “Unspeakable things unspoken: The Afro-American presence in American literature” and Morrison once again rocked the world. Her critique of the American literary canon spoke to all of the ways racism pervades every aspect of American life. Her words so energized and challenged me that I began to re-think much of what I was writing. At that time I was finishing up data collection on a study that would result in my first book. I was also writing articles about “multicultural education” but something was disturbing me about what I was attempting to argue. Morrison’s unflinching look at race and White supremacy woke me out of the academic sleepwalking that had become a part of “playing the game.” If one of the best writers in the world could call out race, I could at least begin to explore it in my scholarship.

From the moment I began writing about Critical Race Theory (1995) I have quoted Morrison. From the time I began teaching about race and racism in education I have required students to read Morrison (especially, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the literary imagination, 1992) and watch a portion of her PBS interview with Bill Moyers (1990). Watching her do what she does with the English language blew my students’ minds. How did she think of that? Who knew you could create such eloquence with English? I feel so inadequate listening to her! These were just a few of my graduate students’ comments. I knew exactly how they felt. When I truly discovered Toni Morrison I came to realize she had ALL the words!

Rest in Peace and Power our beautiful Literary Queen!

Stay Black & Smart!

“I Am Baltimore”

Well, he’s done it again. The current occupant of the White House has declared that the city of Baltimore, Maryland is a rat-infested city in which no one should live. If you’re anything like me you are growing weary of these childish tantrums and rants that are mere distractions from his ineffectiveness, bad policies, and possible high crimes and misdemeanors. But the slap at Baltimore and Congressman Elijah Cummings in particular is infuriating and insulting. How can someone call himself President of the United States but decide that many of the cities, that are the economic engines of their respective states and that he ultimately presides over are unworthy? The pattern of attack is clear. Find a city with a large number of Black and Brown residents, a Congressional representative or Mayor of color and denigrate it. These statements are raw meat to the White nationalists who fawn over him. He has derided Chicago, Detroit, Atlanta, and Philadelphia. His comments are not dog whistles—they are bullhorns. We all hear them and know exactly what they mean.

My own attachment to Baltimore began when I decided to attend Morgan State University in the mid 1960s. Morgan State was named a National Treasure in 2016, only the second Historically Black College or University (HBCU) to receive this designation from the National Preservation Trust. The first HBCU to be named a National Treasure is Howard University in Washington, DC. As someone born and raised in Philadelphia I found Baltimore a very comfortable place to live and study. It was similar to Philly in many regards—large number of African Americans, temperate climate, home to culture, arts, sports, and a vibrant music scene. What it lacked, in my opinion, was a subway system and decent cheese steaks. However, those shortcomings did not keep me from appreciating its many assets. In addition to Morgan State, Baltimore was home to Johns Hopkins University and Loyola University of Maryland. It had the wonderful Enoch Pratt Library System and an amazing history. Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman came from nearby parts of Maryland. Geographically, Baltimore is perfectly located between Philadelphia and Washington, DC. And, no place has better crab cakes!

More important, Baltimore was the place where I really did grow into adulthood. My college career was bookended by the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. I came to true political awareness in Baltimore. Most of my professors were African American and I had the privilege to study with the eminent historian, Professor Benjamin Quarles—foremost authority on the African American contribution to the Revolutionary War. I learned to mount cogent arguments in Baltimore at Morgan State. My budding activism was encouraged and cultivated in Baltimore. I participated in housing discrimination protests and sat in auditoriums listening to Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Toure), Nina Simone, Muhammad Ali, and others who were at the forefront of the civil rights struggle. Yes, Baltimore was the place where I had to put on my “big girl panties!”

To hear the alleged leader of the free world talk about such an iconic city in such a demeaning and disparaging way is more than offensive. It is racist and there is no skirting around that. He does not talk that way about cities and towns struggling with opiod and methamphetamine challenges in West Virginia, Kentucky, or parts of Ohio. He deliberately targets cities that are home to large numbers of Black people. Perhaps if he knew anything about Baltimore he’d realize that it has a vibrant Inner Harbor that is home to the National Aquarium. He’d know that the city is home to Camden Yards, one of the best baseball venues in the country. He’d know that Baltimore is home to Fort McHenry where the National Anthem he claims to revere was written. He’d know that his own Health and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Ben Carson came to fame as a neurosurgeon at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University Hospital. He’d also know that his favorite son-in-law Jared Kushner owns more than a dozen apartment complexes in Baltimore that have been cited hundreds of times for mice infestations.

Baltimore is no different from other major cities in the US. It has a combination of pluses and minuses. Yes, there is traffic, crime, struggling schools, and a lack of quality affordable housing that leads to homelessness. But, there are also museums, parks, street festivals, music venues, theaters, restaurants, sports, and most of all hard working Americans who are building their lives and contributing to the economy and the body politic.

It is clear as we get closer to the 2020 presidential the more outrageous the tweets, statements, and actions that emanate from number 45 will become. We have to be focused on what we need to do to get government that is responsive to our concerns and that embraces a vision of the country that includes people from different races, ethnicities, linguistic groups, national origins, religions, sexual and gender orientations, abilities, and political perspectives. Right now we are dealing with our very own circus clown who is the laughing stock of the world. He has as much right to criticize Baltimore as he has to criticize someone’s hairstyle. However, no matter what he says, I am proud to say, “I am Baltimore!”

Stay Black & Smart!

“We ARE Home!”

Over the last few weeks the current resident of the White House tweeted a message indicating that 4 freshman members of Congress—all women, all women of color—should “go back to where they came from.” By every standard of decency we recognize this as a racist sentiment, unbefitting anyone in public office, let alone someone occupying the highest office in the land. The comments on the left have been swift and condemned Donald Trump for his constant race baiting. Many members of the Republican Party have twisted themselves into pretzels attempting to justify his words. How many passes does this rich, White, entitled male get?

The four Congresswomen—Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D.- NY), Ilhan Omar (D.-MN), Ayanna Pressley (D. – MA) and Rashida Tlaib (D.-MI)—were elected in the 2018 midterm election that allowed the Democrats to gain control of the House of Representatives. Three of the 4 women were born in the US. Congresswoman Ihan Omar was brought to the US at the age of 10 from war torn Somalia and became a naturalized citizen at the age of 17. By every measure recognized in this country these women ARE home. There is no need for them to go back anywhere.

If we were to use this “go back to where you came from” standard, most White people would find themselves heading back to England, Ireland, Germany, Italy, and countries throughout Europe. And, since most of them came during the great European migration their tenure in the country is shorter than that of African Americans, many Latinx Americans, and of course, Native or Indigenous Peoples. But when people arrive is irrelevant to their standing as citizens in the US. A citizen is a citizen is a citizen. Even Donald Trump’s two immigrant wives are citizens!

Because the White House resident does not reflect a real knowledge of the US Constitution, he seems unaware that critique and challenge of the powers that be are an integral part of democracy. It is in totalitarian regimes that citizens are not permitted to criticize their government. You cannot criticize the governments of Russia or North Korea or Iran. Apparently Mr. Trump knew this when Barack Obama was President. He criticized him and the country incessantly. Now, the rules have apparently changed.

The more unfortunate aspect of this incident is that it has once again revealed the deep-seated racism and xenophobia that is rife in the nation. When this kind of vile language emanates from the highest office in the land it gives license to people throughout the nation to act on their racism. We saw this in Charlottesville and again in rallies with people shouting, “Send her back!”

As an American of African descent I am so angered by this hate and venom. Does this man realize that we actually built this nation? The entire economy of the South and much of that of the North were built on the free labor of my ancestors. We are responsible for what would become the world’s most prosperous nation. If we go back to where we allegedly came from we are taking our “stuff” with us—our music, our art, our dance, our inventions, our language, our style, our athleticism, our Championships, and our Olympic Gold medals. We are taking it all. Indeed, we are taking the buildings and institutions we built—the White House, the University of Virginia, the Ivy League Universities, and the insurance companies that profited from money that lucrative cotton crops produced.

Of course, we really don’t have to worry about taking all of those things with us because we really are not going anywhere. We ARE home!

Stay Black and Smart!

“When We Tell Our Own Stories”

By now you have either seen all or part or at least heard about the Ava Duvernay written, created, and directed Netflix series, “When they see us.” The 4-episode mini-series tells the story of 5 Black New York teenage boys that were arrested and convicted of beating and raping a White woman jogger in Central Park in 1989. The filmmaker meticulously and painstakingly shows how the prosecution and the press crafted a story of young Black boys out of control on a rampage that resulted in a horrific attack. Viewers saw how the story the authorities constructed ended up in convictions despite the fact the evidence did not support the young men’s guilt.

For years the boys (and later men) were referred to as “The Central Park 5.” Even the now President of the United States, Donald J. Trump weighed in on what should happen to them back in 1989. He took out an almost $60,000 full page ad in the New York Times calling for bringing back the death penalty so it could be applied to the boys. All of the juveniles were convicted spending between 5 and a half and 12 years in prison. The 16 year-old, Korey Wise was sent to adult prison where he was violently abused and assaulted.

The story of what these boys and their families suffered is hard to watch. Many people I know say they could not finish watching the series or that they would not watch it at all. People talk about how angry and upset they got while watching it. All of this is understandable but I want to address some other issues the mini-series brings up that also make us uncomfortable.

1. Far too many of us (Black people) were complicit in accusing the teenagers. Instead of hearing their stories most of us had the incident interpreted through the lens of mainstream media. In fact, the media even gave us a word that we accepted—“wilding”—as a way to describe the boys’ presumed behaviors.

2. The interest convergence between the wealth and power of White men (e.g. Donald Trump) and the defense of White womanhood was unsettling. I want to be clear I am in no way suggesting that the jogger was not victimized. She was, and any human being can sympathize with the brutal assault she suffered. But to see the way White male power and White womanhood aligns against blackness reminds me as to why 51 percent of White women voted for Donald Trump.

3. The parents’ (and most Black people’s) total ignorance of the way the justice system systematically works against us was made evident in the mini-series. The system turned these boys into men—scary Black men. Not understanding or being able to exercise their Constitutional rights meant that the families felt defeated from the very beginning. They hired people who were lawyers but not all were criminal defense lawyers. From the very beginning the boys were at a severe disadvantage.

4. No one was telling the boys’ story. The prosecutors, the press, and the public were all telling a story about the boys, that was a web of lies. The voices of the boys and their parents were silenced. This is the power and beauty of Duvernay’s filmmaking. She inverts the gaze and instead of looking at the boys as soulless, violent criminals we get to see their humanity at the same time we see the forces arrayed against them. We see how racism works, not just as individual people’s prejudices but as an entire system against which few people can stand. Duvernay was deliberate in not calling the boys (and now men), “The Central Park Five.” That identity continues to tie them to “wilding” and being a “wolf pack” as portrayed by the media. No, Duvernay made a point of saying, “When they see us”…they see something altogether different. They get to see us a human beings.

Learning to tell our own stories is one of the most powerful things we can do. If you have visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC you know it moves you because it tells our story from our perspective. It does not start our story in slavery and it does not represent us as disempowered, weak, impotent people. The most common statement that Whites who visit the museum is, “I had no idea!” And they had no idea because before this museum they rarely got to hear our story told by us.

The next time a Black person is unfairly accused of a crime or abused by law enforcement, or even singled out for just living while Black (e.g. having a barbeque, selling bottled water, going to a swimming pool, etc.) we have to make sure we get to hear their stories from their perspective. Now we have to make sure that they both see us and hear us!

Stay Black & Smart!