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.