Do Black Thought Leaders Really Want Change?

President Obama speaking with the young men that would join him on stage announcing My Brother’s Keeper. (Pete Souza)

As the tweets and statements parsing President Obama’s speech announcing the new initiative My Brother’s Keeper started to roll in late yesterday afternoon, I began to remember the antics of one man: Tavis Smiley.

Already a household name with a powerful platform on PBS and in Black circles, Smiley was one of those people who seemed to believe that Barack Obama was going to be the African American community’s penultimate pushback against centuries of slavery, marginalization, and every form of the four circles of racism Jay Smooth talked about on Youtube.

Obama’s aspirations to the White House were to be his ticket to greatness as well, he thought, but when the future President offered to send his wife in his stead to Smiley’s annual State of the Black Union event, Smiley exposed himself as the petulant, nakedly self-interested parody of a Thought Leader that is his legacy, declaring Michelle Obama persona non grata and becoming one of the Obama administration’s harshest, most irrational critics. Then there was that whole Poverty Bus Tour with another high chief of the Marginalized Community, Dr. Cornel West, who at times breathed anger and anti-Semitic rage against this President for not getting him a ticket to his first inauguration, and thus their status as permanent laughingstocks was confirmed.

Six years later, many of those who publicly ridiculed Smiley and West have created solid brands themselves on exactly what they did: bash this President for never in their estimation “doing enough” to help young Black men of color live their lives successfully and safely, always pointing to the the existence of racism and the pallor of white supremacy, things no rationally minded human being would ever dispute.

And when this Executive placed the children we are trying to save on the same stage as he–every varying skin tone, hair style, and age group–seeking to get them into places of future power and success in ways the Legislative branch could collectively care less about before they fall victim to these streets or the end of some Floridian bigot’s gun, and already have the cries of “respectability politics” and “behavioral modification” started.

The Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart, who attended the event, described just how impactful this was, for both the President and all who were there:

From the moment President Obama walked into the East Room for the “My Brothers Keeper” event, you could tell this initiative was personal for him. For he knows, as all African Americans know, that when you’re a black male you’re not allowed to make mistakes, innocent or otherwise. Youthful indiscretions can turn into lifetime liabilities if they don’t get you killed. And you have to come to terms with being viewed as a problem. One that is best ignored or incarcerated or both depending on where you live.

Capehart went on to further explain what My Brother’s Keeper seeks to do:

“My Brother’s Keeper” is Obama’s two-pronged, public-private effort to make those chances possible and available for young men and boys of color. Over the next five years, foundations will invest $250 million on top of the $100 million already invested in research and proven programs around the country that help young men of color at critical moments in their development. Corporations will also be involved. In addition, Obama signed a presidential memorandum that established the “My Brother’s Keeper Task Force,” which is tasked with determining “what we can do right now to improve the odds for boys and young men of color, and make sure our agencies are working more effectively with each other, with those businesses, with those philanthropies, and with local communities to implement proven solutions.”

As I tweeted yesterday, what President Obama did is singlehandedly the most revolutionary thing any President has done at any time in our nation’s history exclusively for the Black community. In that room, those young men’s stories, who indeed go largely ignored or are simply patted on the head as they are hauled off to prison, were just taken into the body and consciousness of the Office of the President of the United States. Our pain was not merely spoken of; a clear pathway to a life other than misery and poverty was blazed here. After years of upset that Obama had not done this sort of thing in his first term, a solutions-based conversation has finally been started.

President Obama and 19-year-old Christian Champagne heading to the podium. (Pete Souza)

What we have here, O Black “Thought Leaders”, is what you call a start. So when you continually attack this President as someone who does not do “enough”, or who does not use their otherness as a club to maliciously beat others with vacuous, unproductive screams of “privilege”, you reveal yourselves to be nothing more than those with a brand to maintain, a empty Twitter page full of misplaced anger and devoid of ideas that could move us all collectively and progressively forward. As CNN’s Don Lemon said so masterfully yesterday,

I always say stop looking at yourself as other. Yes, we get racism. Yes, we get bigotry… Yes, you can be aware of who you are and you can be proud of your identity and all of those things, but concern yourself with being excellent and then before you know it, all of those things that you thought were hindrances will be your silent motivators and you will have made it and you will be doing it and working in your career and you’ll look back and say, how did I do this?

Cynicism and conflated nobility complexes help no one. Courage and overcoming the odds given in life does. Don’t be the ones that constrain for your own ends.

Don’t be Tavis Smiley.


Removing The Hoodie

Before Barack Obama ascended to the Executive Branch of our government, my favorite Black historical figure was not the one most would expect, say Frederick Douglass or George Washington Carver. It wasn’t even Harriet Tubman, Booker T. Washington, or even Jackie Robinson. And no, it wasn’t even Martin Luther King, the one who everyone these days worships and whose offspring have sold his legacy to whoever will pay good money for it.

No, my favorite historical figure was Malcolm X.

Malcolm X could probably have been described as one of the most prominent Black Thought Leaders of his day, as he was Elijah Muhammad’s rising star while in the Nation of Islam. His was a fiery message of oppression and pain at the hands of the white man, one he had very close, personal experience with as a boy growing up in Nebraska and Michigan, where his father was brutally murdered in 1931.

However, when Malcolm X made that pilgrimage to Mecca in 1964, returning with a message of peace for all with the understanding of the necessity of the Black community’s need of self-defense, his newfound pragmatism and insight became a threat to the prominence of those who had profited the most from his previous rhetoric. Ultimately, it would cost him his life. James Baldwin, in his book No Name in the Street, described in detail what made Malcolm X so threatening:

What made him unfamiliar and dangerous was not his hatred for white people but his love for Blacks; his apprehension of the horror of the Black condition and the reasons for it, and his determination so to work on their hearts and minds that they would be enabled to see their condition, and change it themselves.

Today marks the second year anniversary of Trayvon Martin’s murder, and later this year will mark the one-year anniversary that his killer, George Zimmerman, got off. With the pain of Jordan Davis’ murder and the incomplete, confusing verdict for his killer that followed still fresh, the malaise, confusion and unfocused panic that is currently on display in our community has been frightening, to say the least. We are burdened by fear, yet locked in place by bitterness and despair, donning hoodies and creating hashtags seeking to reaffirm our self-worth.

On this day, however, I left my hoodie at home.

Why, you ask, would I not wear a hoodie in solidarity with Trayvon Martin? Because there is a much larger point that is being missed here. A big red truck full of loud, foul-mouthed Black teenagers did indeed threaten the racist sentiments of a violent, narcissistic thug, but let us bear in mind why all this is happening: A well-dressed Black man, a Constitutional law professor born of a single mother and an absentee father; husband to a dark-skinned woman who is the most courageous and beautiful First Lady to ever call 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW home; father to two daughters who represent one of the brightest futures in Black political potential in this country, is the President of these United States of America, a nation historically designed for us to be nothing more than the property of the white man.

With Barack Obama, the lie of our limited potential in this nation was exposed. His existence as the leader of this country these last six years has been the cause of every shred of racial cognitive dissonance currently taking place in our nation, seen every time the Republican Party opens its mouth, creates laws, or silences entire states’ worth of African American voters through aggressive gerrymandering and draconian voter ID laws. No longer is the destiny of the young Black male restricted to being the next biggest rap star, athlete, or musical legend; we can command the power of nations, control armies, and sign bills into national law.

Black lives do indeed matter, but not just because we are fellow humans trying to live life in peace and safety; it is because there is now the ability for many more Barack Obamas to become President. And we dare to hold the solipsistic conceit to declare ourselves helpless, completely incapable of standing against the decrepit bones of white supremacy, despairing such that the supposed greatest minds on race would even contemplate suicide?

Foolishness. And shame on them for even letting the idea of ending their own life enter their minds.

We are capable of so much more. This is now a moment in which we must define who we are as a people, and challenge ourselves as a culture. The “violent, racist mob” Malcolm X spoke of does indeed threaten to beat down our doors and colonize us yet again, but like our ancestors before us, this moment demands civic action, not a reconfirmation of our defenselessness. Let us honor our dead sons by immersing ourselves in the democratic process, and fighting for laws that protect ourselves, and those that come after us. This must, in fact, become our self-defense. As Malcolm X’s daughter Ilyasah Shabazz said recently, “…we’re not supposed to just sit back and let things happen but…we’re supposed to participate.”



Maybe I’m Not Black Enough

I’ve spoken in limited slang since I was little, only beginning to pick some up after being teased by my cousins for “talking white.” I never went to any type of public or private school throughout my teenage years. I have yet to read anything from James Baldwin, yet all over social media I see people lifting their hands in praise whenever his columns are talked about. I didn’t know who Amiri Baraka was until he died earlier this year, and it took one good read of one of his most well-known works to learn that he was a raging anti-Semite and 9/11 truther.  No one ever really mentions that much anymore.

I’ve grown up in some rough places in Baltimore, yet I’ve never been in any trouble with the law. I’ve often talked about how rare it is to be a Black man that has not seen the back seat of a police cruiser, or spent any amount of time behind bars. Perhaps it was the “privilege” of having a father that was a correctional officer, and a mother that drilled that whole biblical nonsense of “bad company corrupts good morals.” Some of the dudes I knew growing up are either locked away or dead, yet somehow, I’m still here.

I’ve experienced plenty of racism throughout my near thirty-two years of life, too. The early days of a nine-year, two-state career in automotive sales working in one of the most unabashed redneck places in Maryland tends to create both a thick skin and increased awareness of what real bigotry looks like. As a former conservative, I’ve had experiences in bars that allow me to tell people like Mychal Denzel Smith that if the worst racism he’s ever come across was some prick asking him where he could score some coke, he truly hasn’t seen anything.

In the aftermath of the very confused, very incomplete verdict of the Michael Dunn trial, so many of our new generation of Black leaders and thinkers have dispensed with thought, replacing it with so much palpable raw emotionalism and outright despair. Though we supposedly declared ourselves a non-monolithic people, the voices so many depend on for clarity and the reflection of “their truth” have become a unification of solipsistic desperation. And while the collective dirges of hopelessness abound, I find myself walking amongst the tears and the woe, shedding none of my own in the anguish of hope lost.

Maybe I’m not Black enough.

Perhaps the firm belief I hold in the ability for us to overcome this latest reminder of the bigotry that never really died in this country means that I’m not Black enough. Perhaps my retaining in memory the images of the wars our ancestors fought to bring us to this semi-charmed life where instead of being counted as three-fifths human, we can (and have) become brands in and of ourselves means I’m not Black enough.

Maybe my desire to continue searching for solutions and people to get registered to vote, laser-focusing on matters that will directly affect each and every Black soul that claims this nation as home, and my demanding that every man, woman and child find their heart, wipe their tears and set their face like flint in preparation for the work that lies before us means I’m not Black enough in this modern era of malaise and bleakness.

Perhaps my disinterest in expressing “my truth” for the sake of unenlightened individualism means I’m not Black enough. I want to see lives saved, my people educated and empowered to push back against the xenophobic, dis-intellectual hordes of the Right I escaped from. I do not wish to just rail against America’s past with no true interest in ensuring a safe future for ourselves.

Maybe I’m not Black enough. I’m really not sure. Perhaps I’m wrong.

Mourn Through Action, Not Malaise

Yes, I do mourn for Jordan Davis.

I mourn for the fact that yesterday would have been his 19th birthday. I mourn that Jordan Davis will never again walk this plane of existence, or be anything more than another dead body in a steadily rising count of victims in the wasteland that Florida has become as a result of Stand Your Ground, joining names like Chad Oulson and Trayvon Martin.

I mourn for Lucia McBath and Ron Davis, who like Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin before them had to perform the incomprehensible and grievous task no parent should ever have to do: bury their child. I mourn for Jordan’s friends, who watched and took cover as their friend was murdered in cold blood for daring to talk back to a racist, egomaniacal, sociopathic thug with an itchy trigger finger.

Though imperfect, we can claim a victory in that Michael Dunn most likely will never be a free man. But I’ll be damned if I join in the throngs of those among us that dare to speak of the Black community being a defeated, helpless minority with no answers except to keep The Conversation going on a weekend talk show. I will not be a party to those within our community whose very brands depend on solution-less, solipsistic Black nihilism and the placation of white guilt. Not when there is an enemy in our midst whose reason for existence is nothing more than the confirmation and enforcement of the white Christian male power structure.

Let us keep in clear focus what our objective should be: The end of Stand Your Ground. Forged in the offices of the American Legal Exchange Council (ALEC) and signed into law in Florida by Jeb Bush in 2005, SYG has essentially become a way for people to take a life anytime and anywhere they feel threatened, by any measure of force they deem necessary. The law’s intentional vagueness not only allows for people to commit acts of barbarism without consequence, but has created a nightmare for people to determine how it applies. From the New York Times today:

…the state failed to persuade everyone on the jury — four white men, four white women, one Hispanic man, two black women and an Asian-American woman — of their version of events. As a result, the judge was forced to declare a mistrial Saturday on the charge of first-degree murder. A new trial on that count is expected to take place later this year.

“This trial is indicative of how much of a problem Stand Your Ground laws really do create,” said Mary Anne Franks, an associate law professor at the University of Miami. “By the time you have an incident like this and ask a jury to look at the facts, it’s difficult to re-create the situation and determine the reasonableness of a defendant’s fear.

For the Black community, the end of Stand Your Ground becomes even more a matter of our survival by the numbers, as was demonstrated by a report in Frontline in 2012:

At FRONTLINE’s request, Roman analyzed the pool of 43,500 homicides by race in states with Stand Your Ground laws* and those without them. Because he wanted to control for multiple variables — the races of the victim and the shooter, whether they were strangers, whether they involved a firearm and whether the murders were in Stand Your Ground states — Roman used a technique known as regression analysis, which is a statistical tool to analyze the relationship between different pieces of data.

Using this analysis, Roman found that a greater number of homicides were found justified in Stand Your Ground states in all racial combinations, a result he believes is because those states yielded more killings overall.

Roman also found that Stand Your Ground laws tend to track the existing racial disparities in homicide convictions across the U.S. — with one significant exception: Whites who kill blacks in Stand Your Ground states are far more likely to be found justified in their killings. In non-Stand Your Ground states, whites are 250 percent more likely to be found justified in killing a black person than a white person who kills another white person; in Stand Your Ground states, that number jumps to 354 percent.

Now is not the time for railing, incoherent prose from the likes of Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose screed after arguably the most confusing verdict in recent history was handed down read like visceral despair. Nor is this the time for The Nation’s Mychal Denzel Smith’s fearful, hopeless self-hatred about how he has to live with the fear that comes from being born in a Black body. These men proved not too long ago that they are not interested in solving racism, only to just be curious about it.

What it is time for is action. All of us should be fighting vehemently against Stand Your Ground, pressuring every congressperson and senator on local, state and federal levels for its repeal rather than letting another one of our youth fall dead. It is beyond time for us to be preparing to hit the polls this November in the same numbers that elected and re-elected the current President of the United States.

We must be strong. This is a fight. And one we must win.

Yes, Social Justice Takes Time

If I were to give a metaphor for my philosophy of how I personally view equality (“my truth”, if you will), it would be that of a table, spread with food and drink. Seated at my table are people from all walks of life; multiple ethnicities and cultures, orientations and philosophies, coming together to enjoy a great meal and pleasant company. Most likely, I’d be doing the cooking while the banter was going on.

Fifteen years ago, I wasn’t like this at all. Having been raised in a conservative household, my worldview at the time was that of a homeschooled Reformed Baptist fundamentalist, utterly convinced that anyone who did not adhere to the Bible as the infallible, unchallenged Word of God was heading straight to the fires of hell the very moment they closed their eyes in death, no matter how much good they did or how nice they may have been to people.

For me to have completely rejected this myopic, ethnocentric, certainistic view of humanity at all was a miracle, and was the greatest struggle of my life. To see all human beings as equals regardless of the color of their skin, who they sleep with, or what gender they choose to identify themselves was a process that involved ripping away a  lifetime of ingrained ideological norms and years of intense cognitive dissonance. To love people for who they are is not a hot topic by which I “build my brand”; it is a very personal, organic undertaking.

Within the last several months, the cause of the transgender community has been one of the most emotionally charged topics of debate, on nearly every platform of media, starting with Caleb Hannan’s Grantland piece that is believed to have involuntarily outed Dr. Essay Anne Vanderbilt, and ending most recently with Piers Morgan’s run-ins with Janet Mock, former People magazine web editor and author of Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More. In both of these cases, Hannan and Morgan, who has defined himself as a strong ally of the trans community, were called out to be villains of white cis-hetero “privilege”, willfully tone-deaf and ignorant of just how badly they handled the sensitivities of the people they interacted with.

So let me make sure I get this correct: in the space of roughly six weeks, a country of 315 million people are supposed to immediately hit the internet; do extensive, independent, near college-level research on the differences between sex and gender (terms that have been misused for decades) and able to quickly identify when a trans person is being misgendered or dead-named, terms most people are still unfamiliar with. Further, these people are to become instantly aware of who may be trans in their communities and become fierce advocates and warriors for these people on command, lips loaded with exactly the right words and phraseology under penalty of shaming and even bullying for daring to ask people who know more than they, because “you should have known this stuff already.”

If this is so, this is the most unrealistic and inefficient way to bring the common person to your cause.

As with any area of social justice, the stakes are extremely high. Saeed Jones was absolutely right when he denounced this country’s lateness in how we in this country perceive trans people, and how important it is that perceptions change quickly. But let’s consider the reality of the nation we reside: It took this country over two centuries to elect a man President who up until a hundred and fifty years ago would have been the property of some white slaveowner. In the near forty years since Harvey Milk’s life was taken, we have just started to reach the place where we embrace people we know are gay and lesbian as our neighbors, friends, family, and mentors. It took this country almost twenty years to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and the federal government announced just last week that marriage equality was going to be recognized across the land. We still have no high-speed rail in this country, and we don’t fix roads and bridges in America until they crumble and fall into rivers with people still on them. Our nation embraces tardiness like no other.

Furthermore, let’s be real. The most basic, cursory knowledge of the trans community most people have come from Jerry Springer and Maury Povich, who for the better part of two decades have been wellsprings for the stereotype that trans people are salacious, underhanded and deceptive, hell-bent on tricking unsuspecting men into their beds. An argument could be made that these shows create much of the transphobia we see in this country, but instead of going after these two, we opt to conveniently ignore them, probably because…well, who doesn’t love those “You’re Not the Father” episodes?

In other words, there is a LOT of work to do.

It is neither excuse-making nor the shirking of moral duty to admit that the work of eliminating transphobia in this nation is going to be a long, arduous task. There are indeed many lives that hang in the balance, and always will. But ripping the people we wish to join our movement for not having the same level of knowledge we possess is neither productive or wise. As Oliver Willis wrote in his Daily Banter piece, “People wise up when they’re better informed and given knowledge with an open hand versus a closed fist.” I would put it this way: There is nothing noble about having a cause that no one wants to be a part of because the ones who lead it drive people away.

Just ask Dan Choi.

Philip Seymour Hoffman, Genius Lost

You get used to heroin if you’re a native to Baltimore. Even if you’ve never used the drug yourself, the scars of Baltimore’s unmentionable love affair with heroin become gaping eyesores.

You see these scars up and down North Avenue, especially on the eastern end at Gay Street, where throngs of people in various stages of recovery line up to get their methadone at Turning Point clinic. The ones who haven’t made it to recovery yet are in front of Lexington Market, panhandling in mid-nod. Heroin has put people in some of the most shameful positions, even nodding over young children on a bus.  There’s strong chance a family member, an in-law, or even a co-worker is or has been an addict in Baltimore.There are statistics to back up the anecdotes, too; Dan Rodricks wrote today that two years ago, one out of every thirteen people were estimated to be addicted to heroin according to city health officials.

When artists of renown die, it is natural for those who knew of their work to feel a strong sense of loss, and is amplified when they die young. Paul Walker’s death last month hit me in this manner, having been a fan of The Fast and The Furious saga since the first movie. But that Philip Seymour Hoffman, one of the greatest actors of the modern era was found dead with a needle in his arm and seventy bags of dope in his apartment Sunday, is not just a tragedy of the highest order–it is the grand theft of a priceless treasure that will never be duplicated.

This one hurts.  I knew of Hoffman’s acting prowess as a lover of movies, and revered him as one of the best villains I had ever seen in Mission: Impossible III and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. I remember him vividly in Red Dragon, and was in awe of how his roles in Doubt and Charlie Wilson’s War confirmed him as one of the great masters of his craft. But to know that his end came at the end of a needle–the needle that has erased countless lives and talent here in Baltimore–is truly heartbreaking.

Tom Junod honors Hoffman in a manner that I humbly defer to:

He often played creeps, but he rarely played them creepily. His metier was human loneliness — the terrible uncinematic kind that has very little to do with high-noon heroism and everything to do with everyday empathy — and the necessary curse of human self-knowledge. He held up a mirror to those who could barely stand to look at themselves and invited us not only to take a peek but to see someone we recognized. He played frauds who knew they were frauds, schemers who knew they were schemers, closeted men who could only groan with frustrated love, heavy breathers dignified by impeccable manners, and angels who could withstand the worst that life could hand out because they seemed to know the worst was just the beginning.

Rest well, Phil.