Saturday, November 10, 2012


Like many of my friends, colleagues and clients, I am relieved, even joyful, that Obama has been re-elected.  Some of us were not so sure he would be.  Others were certain, deep in faith.  Among both, many prayed.   I did not contribute to his campaign, as before, my way of expressing my disappointment at his first term.  In particular, his downplaying of his African-American identity and issues of race, and the ways he seemed to be a politician ordinaire, more concerned with his re-electability than the integrity of taking a position, unpopular as it may have been.

In The Fear of a Black President, (Atlantic magazine, September, 2012) Ta-Nehisi Coates refers to the pressure on Obama to be "twice as good and half as Black."  We can be sure we are not living in a post-racial, post-class or post-anything society as long as entry and advancing in the club require that certain identities be downplayed or covered, along with the injustices associated with them.  Cautious has often been used in the liberal media to describe Obama.  Bill Maher, who supported Obama's campaign, lamented repeatedly that Obama gave way or accommodated as opposed to playing hardball or taking a firm position.  I found myself thinking of how African descendants were taught to be careful, cautious, in order to survive, and above all else, to avoid making the empowered feel nervous about keeping their power, or the righteousness of it.  I had hoped that Obama's leadership would include a challenge to this continuing demand, and that he would use his Harvard education, biracial, and Presidency credentials to help this nation go further in facing the legacy of race. 

But my disappointment does not muddy the many things I admire about Obama.   They are inspiring, poignant and offer redress.  
  • He had the vision and the boldness to run for President.
  • He spent time doing community organizing in Chicago.
  • His initial speech on race following the brouhaha about his association with Rev. Wright.
  • He chose and was chosen by Michelle as a spouse.
  • He is able to speak about mistakes he's made.
  • He has been willing to acknowledge in certain contexts that the U.S. has supported dictators.
  • He instituted for a period of time a reduced cost for COBRA benefits for the unemployed.
  • He appointed two women to the Supreme Court.
  • The way he holds Michelle's hand and puts his arm around her.
  • He brought his family to Ghana and visited Elmina Castle, the first site of imprisonment of enslaved Africans.
  • Obamacare - preventing insurance companies from denying coverage to those with preexisting conditions, making health insurance possible for all.
  • The love he shows his daughters, the way he speaks of them
  • His writing in Dreams of my Father
  • His allowing tears to stream down his face
  • His intellect
  • The way he uses humor at times to deal with the madness of others
  • His 2008 campaign was so well organized and strategic that he won, allowing my mom, who grew up in the segregated South, to witness this country elect a Black President before she died

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Trayvon and Those Before and After Him

Not since Emmett Till has a murdered African-American son been catapulted to national attention. I was 5 when Emmett was killed. My sister-girlfriend and writer Valerie Wesley said that Trayvon Martin is to our daughters' generation what Emmett Till was to ours. My children were grown when I learned the Till story in depth, watching Keith Beauchamp's documentary. I was traumatized by the unspeakably deformed face of the child in the open casket his mother insisted upon. A beloved boy on a summer visit to relatives down South, beaten with the force of hate.

Trayvon. A murdered Black boy named in the nation's consciousness. He broke into a space reserved for missing blond haired children in Aruba, Colorado, and California. Trayvon from Sanford, Florida, and the grief of his parents, have been witnessed in ways that so many murdered Black and Latino sons and their parents have not. Months have gone by. Trayvon's name, still known,is no longer in the spotlight. Black and Latino males killed by the police and others since then have gone nameless in the national media, as before. An epidemic surpassing West Nile Virus.

This grief is ancient. I recall the scene in Why the Caged Bird Sings in which the women in Maya's family hurried to empty the potato bin so her uncle could hide from terrorists, Southern white men on a hunt for Black flesh. I recall the line in Lucille Clifton's Poem For De Lawd.  

"I come from a line of Black and going on women who got used to making it through murdered sons who grief kept on pushing who fried chicken ironed swept off the back steps who grief kept for their still alive sons for their sons coming their sons gone just pushing."  

Pressure has to be exerted to make the police less free to shoot our kids, or intrude at will on their bodies. The silent March this summer to protest the Stop and Frisk Policy of the New York City Police Department represented one such action. Many different community groups and individuals came together to demonstrate their objection, and it lit a flame of encouragement in me and others. The numbers of people that came out stretched for blocks down 5th Avenue.  The elders, some frail, who stepped down off buses provided by the NAACP to join in, and the young people in the crowd moved me in particular.

 Mothers and fathers of murdered sons in our communities need to know they are not alone. The Police Commissioners, the Mayors they serve have to know this as well. And we cannot be in denial that some of our murdered sons are at the hands of other youth of color who believe life is collateral for settling "beef." They too need our action.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Red Tails: The Movie, The Legacy

As many know, the first weekend that a movie opens is the most critical in terms of demonstrating the value (i.e. money making capacity) of a film to those who fund their production. Don't think it applies necessarily to RedTails, the movie of the Tuskegee Air Men who fought to fight in World War II, made by John Lucas and rejected altogether by Hollywood. I went to see it this weekend anyway.

There were no TV ads about the film. Did radio stations catering to Black people advertise it? I can't say. Emails about it were akin to drumming in generations past -- putting out the word. The theatre was far from full, but not as empty as I have seen it for other noteworthy films about people of African descent that weren't about street life. Today, the day after seeing it I got an encouraging report from my dear friend Valerie, an accomplished writer, that Red Tails was #2 at the box office. Never underestimate the drum!

Black men dominated the cast, apparently a part of the problem for Hollywood. Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding were the brothers I recognized and Terrence Howard was blazing on point. The younger men, whose characters came to life, had faces I've barely or never seen. I could feel them as sons -- raring to go, anxious to display their competency in war, as men, as Black men. It saddens me that war has been a proving ground for many. But then there are many arenas in which Black men and women, 'Firsts,' have risked their lives. The camaraderie among the men in the film was funny and tender, and I cannot imagine the pressure that they and others breaking the color barrier have carried. The pressure of representing the goodness of the race, the pressure to be outstanding and composed in the face of hecklers, doubters, spitters. We stand on the shoulders of so many audacious, brave, and talented people. We cannot fail to carry on in good faith and effort towards enriching the legacy we've been handed, woven with sweat, laughter, blood, creativity, and love, making it more beautiful than we found it, widening its' reach for those coming behind us. So often I find that it is remembering what we know that matters. So much competes for the front row of our attention, and then there is some wisdom we don't even know we have. It is so deep it hasn't been articulated, or it's not so deep, we simply haven't turned inward to ask for it to speak.

There are so many ways to remember things, but art has to be among the best!

The film also reminded me of how seminal Tuskegee was in African-American history, the site that gave birth not only to first Black pilots but also to the 1881 founding of a college by Booker T. Washington and to the innovative research of George Washington Carver.

Finally, seeing Red Tails also made me think back to Valerie's father, Bert Wilson, a tall slender, light-hearted man with exquisite taste, a Tuskegee airman. Growing up I was in his presence time and again and never felt the weight of what he endured as a Black pilot in the 1940's. I hadn't met Valerie then, who was away at college, but her sister Pat and I were close friends. Looking back, I wish I had thanked him, acknowledged him as more than my girlfriend's father, but I take joy in remembering him as a man who loved fine wine, a good swim, and the speed of a Porsche, and most of all, a man alive with his ever lit humor.

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Kwanzaa 2011 and the New Year 2012

January 1 is the last of 7 days of Kwanzaa, a celebration of African and African-American culture, a tradition created in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Ron Karenga. Its roots have grown strong, nurtured by many who resonated with the idea that we descendants of Africa in the Diaspora are worthy of celebration, along with our culture and our ancestors. Its branches have extended out of the homes where Kwanzaa began into libraries, museums, community centers, schools, and even the media now include "Happy Kwanzaa" to well wishes for other traditions celebrated around the same time. Yet, much of its richness remains untapped, much of its potential fruit, unripened. I speak here of the principles of Kwanzaa, the heart of this celebration. They are at the core of how we have survived as a People, flourished even: Unity, Self-Determination, Collective Work and Responsibility, Cooperative Economics, Purpose, Creativity and Imani.

I have been blessed to be part of a community of friends and family over the years who have pursued these values in our living and share a commitment not only to our immediate community but our larger community. Each of us in our own way has attempted to add to the beauty of our community, small and large, to add to the healing in our community, mindful that there remain many who live on the margins of survival, of feeling connected and valued, and even of feeling human. We have raised our children to feel connected to and care about our immediate and larger community and to bring that mindset and heart to their chosen work.

I once worked with someone who said to me, "Love is the most powerful force in the Universe."

Over and over, I find it so true. And a communal love that includes love of self and love of the collective can part the fiercest fog of oppression, and dissipate the ugliest of self-destruction. To love is to value oneself, to know in one's marrow that you have a place at the Divine table that is not earned, but freely given, despite all the messages coming at you that it's money, title, brand of sneakers or muscle mass that bestow your worth.

In 2012 it is my hope that the branches of Kwanzaa will reach deeper into our communities with a purpose to empower more of us to resist the mentality of street life, to make a way (as we always have) through and around the brush/the predatory landscape/and the pain of so many losses to something that affirms our value, a deeper love, a wider loving.

In 2012, it is my intent to love with both a ferocity and gentleness as called for, and to open more fully to receiving the abundance of love in the Universe.


Monday, September 12, 2011

Reflections on 9/11 and Serena

Yesterday was filled with memorials and testimony to loss on that day like no other, when the scale of skyscrapers and all the modernity and abundance it embodied crumpled. If only it had been walls, computers, and glass alone that had disintegrated.

If only the antipathy back and forth had ended with the sacrifice that day. If only the mind and heart of Americans understood that when Bush said "We are right," he spoke half-truth. We have not always been on the side of freedom and democracy, here or abroad, and there are families all over the globe who have mourned loved ones too, even if they did not occupy tall buildings when dictators we supported and support besieged them. There is so much to grieve.

We can be proud to be American and live in this land without walking and talking righteousness. We can also be humble about our mistakes and the fact that we do not own the corner of tragic loss. I do not agree that the thousands of deaths on that day in 2001 constitute the worse time in our history. That day does not erase all the days of the enslaved, all the bodies on the floor on the Atlantic, nor the Native lives today ending in suicide,liver demise, and despair. All lives are precious.

On the bumper of my car is a sticker that says 'God Bless Everyone. No Exceptions."

The water that flows from the sides of the squares marking the space of the once World Trade Center is a beautiful choice of elements, for water has the power to reconcile and to heal. I will pay tribute in person there and pray for all victims of terrorism, worldwide.

Even as the tenth year commemoration service took place and the media saturated the airwaves with images and stories etched on that day forward, I chose to focus elsewhere, including the Women's Final at the Open. I looked forward to seeing Serena clench the title, having played so fierce the entire tournament, her gratitude at being alive and playing evident, in her voice, her arm stroke, and her fluid feet. I wondered too if she carried a special energy for Venus who had to lay down her racket in the tournament. But Serena didn't have it yesterday. I muted the sound off and on when I couldn't bear it. She has a temper when she feels wronged and I can relate, but I felt so proud of the grace she modeled when interviewed on the Court next to her opponent. I know she wasn't nearly as accepting of her loss as she projected, but she was good enough to smile and be humble, and that let me feel she was far from crushed. It let me feel peace.

Monday, January 17, 2011

In Honor of Martin Luther King Jr.

My roots and Southern soil are irrevocably entwined. Atlanta is where my mom was born, seven years before Martin Luther King Jr. came into the world in that same city, which has grown so wide since those days. I never saw the strange fruit on the trees but the ghosts of it were around. I think they're still around, glimpses, hints, muffled sounds.
But today, I want to express my gratitude, from that girl from the South, and from this woman and mother, now in the North, to Martin Luther King Jr. and all those who marched with him, and all whose shoulders they stood upon.

The sound of Martin Luther King's voice made me feel proud and at home, a well-educated Black man speaking with the cadence, the intelligence and the intensity of my People. His eyes, those striking deep black pools, could envision the bold, the need for justice to keep rising up to find its place, to insist. His eyes, onyx gems, could witness the brutality and offer his vulnerability as strength. With his voice, his vision and his actions he inspired others to bring forward their power to resist injustice, to use what they had, their feet, their bodies. I didn't like that he led people into being beaten. Malcolm's stance appealed to me much more, yet I respected King for his unwillingness to wait and his courage.

They are faceless, the women and men who walked miles to work day in and out, refusing a degrading bus ride. But because of them, I ride Metro North and no white person can tell me to give up my seat when the crowded train does not afford them one. I thank those Montgomery elders. I thank everyone who walked in fear, in terror, holding onto each other and faith in bringing about change, Black and White. But I am especially indebted to the Blacks because for the most part they lived in that Southern belly, and most of the Whites came from elsewhere. They could leave, though Goodman, Schwerner, and Viola did not. But the local Blacks who marched had to keep breathing through the terror that went on after the marching and voter registration. Sadly, the names of those Birmingham girls bombed to death are not committed to memory even though Spike has remembered them in film. But I thank them and their families for the sacrifice they did not offer but made. To Emmett and his mother, who insisted the world see what happened to her son, I say the same.

I thank all those who surrounded Martin Luther King, his inner circle of Jessie, Andrew, Ralph, Coretta, John and any others who held him up. I thank all those who lost jobs, their minds, their lives in the face of the Civil Rights movement, and their descendants who bear this legacy.

At the time of his murder, Martin Luther King had begun to broaden his focus to challenge economic injustice and war in addition to racial oppression. In one of his not well-known speeches he began to conceive of ghettos as colonies. He had to die. But I thank you Martin for standing up and aspiring to bring living at the highest level of humanity into being.

Friday, November 19, 2010

For Colored Girls

It's been two weeks since two female friends and I went to see Tyler Perry's movie make of Ntozake's play For Colored Girls Who've Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf. Few men were in the audience, no surprise, I admit.

I am thrilled that Perry brought this work of art from the 1970's into the consciousness of a new generation of women and I hope it will encourage many of both genders to read the original work. I certainly feel the need to do so, unlike when I saw the play on Broadway, years ago. I'm not sure why that is, since I don't recall much about it except when I heard the poetry out of Loretta Devine's mouth...the "trying to take my stuff" lines. That divine poetry resonated where the rest was lost, raising its melodic memory of splendor and sorrow.

Ntozake's play is a sisterspeak. Sisters' wounding and re-wounding in their relationships with men, with each other, and with themselves is where the lens is aimed. It is wide angled to include the tremendous power and majesty of sisterhood. Is it socially just to frame the story here without ensuring that black men are represented more favorably or balanced? I have come to the answer of 'yes' for the most part. Yes, we do not need to have every story of a black woman or man represent the entire complexity of our experience. We do not need to shut down or disparage artistic voices in our community out of fear or concern about how outside voices will respond or make use of material. Dominant outsiders will do what they do. What do we do? I say we look and listen to the stories that come out of the artists in our community and try to address the places of injury and injustice among us, as we also celebrate the beauty that flowers in our midst. I say we cannot afford to look away from the sexual and physical abuse that goes on in our community with claims that its stereotyping to raise it. I say we need to be able to hold to the outrageous magnificence that exists as we also seek to address and redress the places where we fall excruciatingly short. We will not escape it otherwise. Except as a temporary one, a Walt Disney of the mind.

And finally, the acting in Perry's film was phenomenal. It came from talent for sure, but also I believe, from love.