Thursday, November 19, 2009

Quick Hit -- The Ghastly, Golden Ticket

So, Burr Oak Cemetery has reopened but only on a very limited basis. I wrote about Burr Oak in July, shortly after the grave reselling scandal broke. I compartmentalized the pain of this scandal, putting it in a little box where I wouldn't have to deal with it until any new developments occurred.

Well, that time is now. The cemetery has reopened on a limited basis, and for admittance, you have to visit their website, type in your dear, departed loved ones' name and print out the information, which includes a picture of the grave and a map to its location.

I did as instructed. Went to the website and started the long process of typing in relatives' names. My Mother, my maternal and paternal grandmothers, my great-grandmother, my great-great grandmother, both of my World War I Veteran uncles, and at least a half-dozen other assorted aunts, uncles and cousins until I just got tired. I printed out all those "tickets" and then, call it my old, newsroom gallows humor, I started humming.

"I've got a golden ticket, I've got a golden chance to make my way..."

Charlie's theme song from "Willy Wonka" spilled into my head. Because, frankly, it seems just a little bit nutty that you have to have a special "ticket" to be admitted to a cemetery where you paid for your loved ones to be buried.

Not only that, you can't drive through the cemetery to the gravesite anymore. You have to go to a transportation site and be bussed there. It all seems a little excessive but considering the extreme level of disrepair, poor record-keeping and overall disorganization, I understand why the safeguards are in place now. I understand that there are improvements to the grounds and that new signage has been erected to make it easier to find gravesites. Sounds lovely.

I originally made plans to go out there today, first day of the reopening, but ultimately decided against it. I think working in media for so long has made me leery of any whiff of public spectacle. I was worried sick for months about the condition of my family members' graves. I'm glad that, with the notable exception of my paternal great-grandfather, my relatives seem to be accounted for.

I'd like to go and see for myself. But I don't want cameras in my face when I do it. I'd like to have a quiet moment out there to examine, reflect, pay my respects -- think...without the spectacle of a prurient public story.

Honestly, I'd like to have the freedom to visit Burr Oak without having to produce a "ticket" -- a ghastly, golden ticket -- for admittance.

Sadly, there will always be a taint over this historic graveyard. Whether it's because of the media attention or the numerous lawsuits, I'm glad that it appears steps are being taken to implement the accountability at this institution that should have been in place years ago. But Burr Oak will never be an easy, or particularly peaceful place to visit -- with or without a "golden ticket" for admittance.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Lay My Burden Down -- Remembering Michael W. Scott

I'm devastated by the apparent suicide of Chicago Public Schools Board President Michael W. Scott.

I knew Mike Scott dating back to the time I was a reporter, and as public figures connected to the city of Chicago go, he was one of my favorites. Let's just get this out of the way: He was fine as wine! A proud son of the West Side, he was always sharp -- always clean. You tend to see and talk to the same people at the same civic events here and it gets tiresome. But I always enjoyed seeing Mike Scott at events and waiting for my hug, peck on the cheek and small talk. I remember always complimenting him on the fact that he always smelled really good.

In short, he was a brother who made an indelible impression. In manner, in word and in deed he was well-liked and well-respected. He seemed to handle the thankless pressure of the school board and all its problems with grace and humor and always seemed passionate and engaged in the monumental effort of making the community better and safer for the youth.

The polished public persona doesn't square with the man who was pulled from the Chicago River with a self-inflicted bullet to the temple. It's what has led public officials all day to express shock and disbelief at his passing.

And while I'm deeply saddened by the course of events, I can't say that I'm shocked. As someone who has previously struggled with and been treated for clinical depression, I know firsthand how good we are -- Black folks in general and Black professionals specifically -- at masking pain. I know how good we are at "presenting" well in public -- white-knuckling through the day, mustering up every bit of energy to function at a very high level, excelling at every task we're presented with -- and then falling apart in private.

I don't know if Mike Scott was clinically depressed or not, but I do know that high-functioning depressed people tend to carry a greater amount of shame and are harder on themselves for being unable to "get it together". It's hard to tell someone you want to kill yourself and have them believe you when they envy you and think you have it all.

But Mike Scott's death is a salient reminder of the danger of unexpressed pain.

Black women will reach out for help -- whether informally through friends, or professionals, or both. Black men don't. They kill themselves.

Black men are seven times more likely to kill themselves than Black women according to the American Association of Suicidology. The suicide rate among Black men doubled between 1980 and 1995 to about eight deaths per 100,000 people, making it the third leading cause of death among Black men. And while the rate has skyrocketed among Black males between 15-19, as the Scott case illusrates, it cuts across all age groups of Black men.

This phenomenon is what led my former colleague Amy Alexander to write, with Dr. Alvin Pouissant, the outstanding "Lay My Burden Down: Suicide and the Mental Health Crisis Among African-Americans". "Lay My Burden Down" is a groundbreaking examination of the uncomfortable, too often unspoken issue of suicide in the Black community. Amy was inspired to explore the topic because of her own brother's suicide in 1979. Sadly, three decades after her brother's death we still have accomplished Black men like Michael Scott so despondent and experiencing pain so unspeakable that they take their own lives.

As a community we are still loathe to publicly tackle mental health issues, particularly ones that can code as chronic, like depression. We have yet to unpack the stigma attached to seeking help for mental health issues. Add to that the complicated history and baggage of Black masculinity and the unwillingness to relinquish "strength" (real or perceived) in favor of seeking help, and you see Black men like Mike taking their lives.

Chicago media will be relentless in uncovering the backstory that led to Mike Scott's suicide. Whatever the outcome, it's going to be ugly for his family and ultimately for his legacy. We may never know exactly what led this proud, educated, accomplished, able Black man to the edge of the Chicago River in the wee hours of the morning to take his own life.

But I hope it's a wake-up call to all of us to push past the well-presented packages of the people in our lives and pay closer attention -- even when things seem "all good." It could easily mean the difference between life and death.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Why I Hated Precious...

Saw an old friend from the neighborhood who I hadn't seen in a long time when I was leaving the theater from seeing Precious. Normally, I would have rushed over and hugged her and caught up some, but I was in a bit of a fog. I got myself together enough to speak properly but apparently I was still mumbling to myself and shaking my head.

She asked, with wide eyes, whether I'd just come from Precious. I told her yes.

"So?" she asked, with anticipation. "How was it?"

"Horrifying." I said, reflexively.

I thought a little longer. Coming to the same conclusion I said, again: "Horrifying."

We exchanged a little more small talk that I can't honestly remember because I was still stuck on what I'd just seen.

I should be clear: When I say that Precious was horrifying, I don't mean it in a "Wow, kudos to Sapphire/Lee Daniels/Oprah/Tyler Perry because they just outdid themselves" and got me wanting to testify about it kind-of-way. No.

I mean, I am horrified that I spent an hour and 49 minutes watching a horrifying display of pathology on parade, and that it was Black folks themselves -- director Lee Daniels and "executive producers" Oprah and Tyler Perry -- who led me there.

Make no mistake -- Lee Daniels is a pathology pimp. Plain and simple. He's not the first. Some of our most prolific movie directors (Scorcese comes to mind...) are pathology pimps. Pathos tells good stories and, often, creates great, watchable art. But, see, this is my problem with Lee Daniels. He's a pathology pimp and he's not even good at it. His work, ultimately, is not art. It is raw, unchecked, internalized oppression that he is peddling as "important" stories about Black folk that "need" to be told.

There are elements of Precious, of course, that are real. In this country and around the world there are Black girls like Precious -- morbidly obese, abused, victims of incest, illiterate, HIV-positive, etc. There are women in my family who, in one aspect or another, have been subjected to the same atrocities as Precious.

But, really, tell me something I don't know. I live in Chicago. All I have to do is watch the news, read the paper or visit my proverbial cousins "Pookie an' 'nem" to know that there are elements of Precious that exist. One look at the health, socio-economic and class status of many African-Americans is proof of that.

But Precious is the kind of movie that will always resonate with white folks, especially white film critics like Roger Ebert and the film festival crowd who have raved about it. Because, in the end, they want to believe we're "strong" enough to transcend the most horrific of circumstances like Precious, and that on some level they played some part in the triumph. Just look at the casting. Daniels has been lauded as a genius for his quirky casting choices in Precious, and yet the overt colorism only adds to what makes this movie ultimately unwatchable for me. The only people who showed Precious any kindness, any cover, any hope -- Paula Patton, Mariah Carey, Lenny Kravitz -- are all light-skinned. The din of depravity she suffers her entire life, of course, comes at the hands of dark-skinned Blacks. Hmmm....

For me? Precious, and frankly, the book it's based on ("Push" by Sapphire) -- is so over the top that all it did was piss me off. It codes as overtly racist fantasy, or the figment of a liberal's imagination about what Black life must be like. Because who hasn't seen a Black girl like Precious running down the street with a bucket of fried chicken she's just stolen? I was haunted for days thinking of that scene -- and yet, didn't Soledad O'Brien profile a Black girl from New York who claimed to be addicted to fried chicken in CNN's "Black in America 2" over the summer? THIS summer, in 2009?

It has taken me a week to process the depth of my disgust with this film. In the end, I'm sick to death of Black pathos being exploited as art. I can't celebrate Precious or laud the writer or the producers as visionary, because they're not. I can't laud a director like Lee Daniels who has hustled Black pathology into his meal ticket and has fooled white folks and Black folk who lack critical thinking skills alike into thinking he's doing something important. Did Lee Daniels passing off Halle Berry's pornographic tryst with a racist Billy Bob Thornton character in Monster's Ball teach us nothing?

Lee Daniels has said that he wanted Precious to create a "dialogue". He said that he would never look at a fat, Black girl the same way again. Well, maybe it was that transformative for him, but clearly not for everyone. In three separate incidents in Chicago since this film has been released, I've heard Black males referring to obese Black women as "Precious". Laughing, sneering. Derisive. Overall, I think that's all this movie will do -- further exacerbate the extent to which white folks, and black folks themselves, view girls and situations like this as caricatures to be either pitied or ridiculed.

I might be the only sister to say this aloud but, frankly, I don't want to see Mo'Nique nominated or possibly win an Oscar for playing this monster of a Black mother in Precious. I don't. I don't want a fictional Black mother who made her own daughter perform oral sex on her to win an Academy Award. I don't want to see Gabby Sidibe nominated for an Oscar for this exaggerated role. I'm saying it. I don't want to see it. Why is Black incest so titillating to Hollywood? I remember being so excited to see Delroy Lindo and Erykah Badu in The Cider House Rules, and then being so disappointed and disgusted because they played a dysfunctional, incestuous father and daughter. (You'll recall that the Erykah Badu character ends up killing her father who, like Precious' father, has impregnated her twice...)

I've had it. Black pathos exists. We know this intimately. But it's overrepresented everywhere, from the movies to the nightly news.

My hope is for us to stop believing the hype of pathology pimps like Lee Daniels -- and Oprah and Tyler Perry. What they are selling is neither hope nor hopeful. It is nothing less than destructive to our community and our culture.

Still shaken,

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Stop Scapegoating Black Women

Leave it to Oprah to finally bring me out of hibernation.

On her Friday live show, she brought together the principals in the Indianapolis case of the check-cashing clerk who prayed down the brother who walked in and tried to stick her up.

By Friday, everyone knew the story and had seen the video of Angela Montez screaming and crying and praying with would-be robber Gregory Smith. Very touching, no? The recounting of the narrative isn't what bothered me. It was the fact that, once again, a Black woman was essentially held out to blame for this.

Smith's mother, his "baby mama" -- a woman identified as Sherrie, and their 2-year-old daughter Amaya (who was celebrating her 2nd birthday that very day...) also joined the check-cashing clerk in-studio with Oprah.

When it was Sherrie's turn (, she burst into tears, saying that she thought she "drove" him to commit the attempted robbery by "riding" him to take care of his family. Smith has said repeatedly that he attempted to rob the store because he was unemployed and allegedly headed toward homelessness.

The girlfriend, through tears, revealed that she was a full-time student and that she was working full-time to support their family. She said, unequivocally, that she was the sole provider for their young family. She said that she was tired and stressed out and that it was hard -- which is why she "rode" him so hard to find a job.

Said Sherrie on Oprah: "I partially blame myself for constantly fussing at him, telling him what he's not good for and stuff like that."

Wow. Now, here's a young woman doing everything right -- working full-time and going to school full-time and parenting a toddler. Struggling? Yes. Overworked? Yes. Stressed out? Yes. Driven to commit a crime? NO. And yet the only thing Oprah had to say to this was, "So, you nagged him?"

Oprah, who has claimed for 20+ years to be all about the empowerment of women, left this young sister hanging. This young sister who was clearly in pain and still in shock about the irresponsible choice that the father of her child made to engage in criminal behavior.

Smith was applauded several times by the audience -- from the jail where he was speaking on satellite -- for being an Army veteran, for "doing the right thing" by not shooting the store clerk with the loaded gun he brought to the store, for praying and calling on Jesus to help him. Meanwhile the mother of his child -- the one who is working full-time, the one who is going to school full-time, the one who is paying ALL the bills, the one who has stayed on the right side of the law -- gets derided on national TV for being a "nag."

Not only that, despite the fact that his own mother encouraged him to turn himself in after seeing him on surveillance video shown on the news, Smith credited Angela Montez with speaking to him "like a mother" and with a kindness and generosity of spirit that he seemed to claim he had never experienced before. So despite listening to his mother talk about how she had supported and encouraged him always, and certainly recently through his unsuccessful efforts to secure employment, this young man credits the non-Black store clerk with gentle loving kindness -- and not his own mother, or the mother of his child who was keeping his butt afloat all this time.

Oprah's response to this? Nada.

I sat, frankly, flabbergasted by this and disappointed that yet again stereotypes about Black women were reinforced and underscored on this show. That we're hard and cold, that we're "nags," that we don't appreciate Black men and that the only women to show them love, affection and understanding are non-Black women.

And there Oprah sat, saying nothing. This woman who never misses a chance to let us know what she thinks -- whether it makes any sense or not -- who talks all over her guests and experts because she, of course, knows more than us all. This woman who, heretofore, never missed an opportunity to support, defend and uphold women.

This woman, Oprah, she said nothing. Except to ask the tearful young mother who is essentially single-parenting the would-be robber's child "So, you were a nag?"

At the end of their segment, the couple's daughter--celebrating her 2nd birthday on Oprah's stage--was brought out and squealed upon seeing her father on satellite, "Daddy! Daddy!" Over and over and over again. Squealed with delight and with love for this father with no idea that she was watching him from Marion County Jail. Ultimately I wondered what would happen to her.

Because Gregory Smith had a choice. He had a choice. He could have done what Black women do everyday and taken a job where he might have been underpaid and overworked, but at least was contributing to supporting his family. He could have done that. As a Veteran, he could have tapped into a myriad of resources available to him at the federal and local level -- including GI Bill educational benefits, to help provide for his family. He could have chosen to do what his girlfriend did -- work hard and go to school.

Let's be clear that although it is a blessing that he neither stole any money nor hurt the store clerk, what he did was not heroic. What he did was desperate and cowardly and it is only through the grace of God that he spared himself any worse trouble than he's already in.

Since Oprah didn't have the insight to say it, I'll say it: The real "hero" here is Sherrie -- the girl who has dated this fool since they were 15, who works full-time and is a full-time student and, clearly, takes very good care of Smith's beautiful daughter. She needs to know, unequivocally, that she is not to blame for what Gregory Smith did. She needs and deserves as much support as he will inevitably continue to receive.

We need to stop scapegoating Black women for standing in the gap and doing what they must -- for themselves and their families -- to survive.

Appropriately pissed,

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Stay tuned...

This blog has NOT been abandoned. You'll be able to "hit back" again very soon.


Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Sisters are doing it...

Hey, Hit Me Backers!

You have shown LaVida and I a tremendous amount of love since we started this blog and just wanted to take a moment out to say thank you! There are a lot of words floating around the blogosphere and it means a lot that you take the time to see what's going on in our world.

I am certainly appreciative of the subscribers and those of you who are checking in from around the nation and around the world. From Louisville to London, you're reading and contributing to the dialogue. Keep it coming!

I've also been fortunate enough to connect with some amazing bloggers who are powerful voices in the dialogue around critical race theory and around gender, class and pop culture. All the thngs we love! It's a community that's incredibly supportive -- Afrobella has sent her readers here on more than one occasion and we are grateful for that.

I'm guest-blogging for the next few weeks at What About Our Daughters, whose owner, Gina McCauley, is one of those said amazing bloggers who I've gotten to know ever since we started Hit Me Back. Gina is also the founder and architect of the "Blogging While Brown" conference. I'll be cross-posting to What About Our Daughters and would love for you to check it out.

Thanks for reading. Don't forget to let us know you're out there! Leave a comment. As long as it's coherent, we publish them whether we agree with them or not!

Hit us back here, and for the next few weeks, Hit us Back at What About our Daughters!


Monday, July 13, 2009

Quick Hit Back— Lord Jesus, my people, my people…

Grandma Effie Mae Scott and Granddad Burnell Scott

How horrific! Burr Oaks Cemetery once owned by Ebony and Jet Magazine publisher John Johnson, was the only place Black folk could be buried. I too have many relatives buried at Burr Oaks Cemetery including my grandma Effie Mae Scott who passed last Christmas. It was something that continued to run through my head as the story hit the national news.

You are right Sabrina, this behavior is definitely connected to the escalating violence perpetuated in the Black community by Black folks. In parts of our community people now live in a climate where self-hatred and the pursuit of the all mighty dollar trumps everything. This is the only thing that could explain how Carolyn Towns, a Burr Oak manager and her cronies could do what they did and still be able to look at themselves in the mirror. Was desecrating the graves of the dead worth the chump change made by these folks?

What do I say to my family, particularly my mother who is still grieving the passing of her mother? What could I possibly say to my parents when they called last week from Burr Oaks’ bracing themselves for what they might find? What about Granddad Burnell Scott (Grandma Effie’s husband), a World War II veteran who died when my mother was eight? Was his plot disturbed? What about Grandma Effie’s parents, James and Annie Long? Would my parents find their remains discarded for money? What words of comforts could I even say to her in the midst of this tragedy?

Thank God my parents were able to determine that our loved ones were not affected by this travesty but they took no comfort. The sheer number of people, police and general sadness and rage impacted them. While they knew that our folks for the most part were ok (still waiting for more information on Granddad Scott’s folks) there were many people that walked away with the pain of know that they’re loved ones were impacted.

Yes we need to talk about the regulatory agencies that should have made sure that nothing like this could have happened. Yes Carolyn Towns and the others who did this should but placed under the jail and never allowed see daylight again. But I am still struck by a culture that normalizes the devaluation of Black life. I am troubled by the fact that I have become numb to it all including the pain and rage.

I am worried about losing my humanity…

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Quick Hit -- Jesse Jackson, go...take a nap

Jesse Jackson holding court in the center of the madness with families at Burr Oak.

So after unearthing even more human remains on the grounds, Burr Oak Cemetery has been formally declared a crime scene and for the time being shut down. My own father was one of many people who went out to Burr Oak in the rain on Friday, sat in a line of cars down 127th Street and was ultimately turned away. To date my family and I still have absolutely no information about the condition of our relatives' graves and probably won't for the forseeable future.

After failing to receive any assistance calling the 800 number or the local number set up by the Cook County Sheriff's Office, I sent an email to the address they set up ( and got this response:

Thank you for your inquiry regarding the investigation at Burr Oak
Cemetery. Everyone who sends an email will receive a personal
response, but we ask for your patience, as the requests have been
overwhelming. Thank you.

Now comes word today that Cook County Sheriff's will be processing paperwork at Eisenhower High School near the cemetery and that Jesse Jackson is leading some kind of prayer vigil for the families at the burial grounds today. Several friends called or texted to tell me about it and ask if I was going. My answer is a resounding "no."

Already I've grown weary of Black grief being publicly exploited during the course of this story. I can't take one more family member -- usually a Black woman -- on TV wailing about this. Let's face it -- our emotion makes great TV. And the thought of Jesse Jackson, once again, capitalizing on that grief is too much.

I don't know about anybody else but between being quoted everywhere and showing up at the Michael Jackson memorials in L.A. AND Gary, Indiana AND showing up behind Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart at nearly every stand up about Burr Oak, I've had just about enough of Jesse.

Haven't you?

The last thing we need right now is more spectacle. The last thing we need right now is rhyming and rhetoric.

We need less public grief and more answers. Less wailing and more strategy. I can pray and grieve privately -- and I have. I don't need Jesse Jackson's help with that. Jackson's Rainbow PUSH has helped families with filling out paperwork about family members buried at Burr Oak -- which, frankly, is the responsibility of the Cook County Sheriff's Department and what's left of Burr Oak's front office.

My faith informs that we come from the earth and to the earth we shall return. My faith informs me that my loved ones are not "there" in Burr Oak, but are with the Lord. I believe that and take solace in it.

But that doesn't mean that the people responsible for this unconscionable betrayal of the public's trust (and it goes far beyond the four who have been charged) shouldn't be held accountable legally, ethically and financially for what they have done. I don't want a public prayer vigil -- I want action.

It's been revealed that Illinois lacks tough regulations for cemeteries and the state has little regulatory oversight by law -- which ought to quiet critics who've tried to blame family members for "not visiting" Burr Oak often enough to do something about the lack of maintenance and oversight. Illinois Comptroller Dan Hynes has just now started proceedings to revoke the trust fund license of Burr Oak's Phoenix-based owner, Perpetua Holdings.

If Jesse Jackson insists on being involved in the Burr Oak tragedy I hope he uses his influence to organize families to advocate state legislators for stronger laws on Illinois cemeteries. Help families sort out exactly what their rights are civilly and criminally as it relates to this case.

He doesn't have to hold court at a presser or a public "vigil" surrounded by news cameras for ANY of that to happen.

But I bet he will.

Still seeking justice,

Thursday, July 9, 2009

The Souls of Black Folk -- The tragedy of Burr Oak Cemetery

Two dozen ancestors. Two dozen that I could count off the top. Probably more.

My Mother, Elizabeth. My maternal Grandmother, Louise. My maternal Great-Grandmother, Mama House. Her son, my Uncle Joe, a World War I veteran. Three of Uncle Joe's brothers -- Uncle Willie, Uncle Steve and Uncle George; two of his sisters, Aunt Angeline and Aunt Maz. Aunt Big Mama and her sister, Aunt Lil. Lil's husband, Uncle Allen -- a high school janitor who spoke three languages and read the classics for fun.

My paternal Grandmother, Mama Sweetie. Her three sisters, Aunt Annie Mae, Aunt Mattie and Aunt Gertrude, a WAC who traveled the world and was an equestrienne. Their father, my paternal Great-Grandfather Papa Levi, who "came north" to Chicago in search of a better life for his girls. My nephew's father, Big DuFray. Eunice. Corrine. Idella. Carrie Mae. Maternal cousins. Paternal cousins. Lots of them.

My childhood friend, Julie.

They are all there.

I sat disbelieving when I first heard there was a gravedigging scheme on Chicago's outskirts, with as many as 300 disinterred bodies, caskets and all, dumped into a mass grave and their plots resold and refilled for profit.

I collapsed into a slow-burning cry as I started calling the names of those ancestors...remembering where they were buried -- some since the 1930s -- and whether they had headstones or not. I kept coming back to my Mother. My Mother. My Mother. Ma. Mommy. My sweet, sweet Mommy who died unexpectedly in 2000 just 42 days after her own mother and is buried near my grandmother.

I remembered my extreme reservations about burying my Mother at Burr Oak in the first place. I remembered how shocked and disappointed I was the first time I saw the condition of her grave and the unpaved, uneven, poorly maintained, dusty road it took to get there. I remembered thinking that the grave in front of hers was too close and didn't seem to be anywhere near a casket length apart. So many nagging questions about the maintenance and management of this place that went unanswered. Nagging questions that I took to higher authorities to no avail. So many nagging questions that I finally made my peace with the bodies and souls of my Mother and Grandmother, and I stopped visiting Burr Oak altogether.

I thought about all of that. And then I got mad.

Because as I looked at the mugshots of the accused -- a cemetery manager and three workers, all African-American and all now facing felony charges of dismembering human bodies -- I wondered: just exactly what kind of trifling, gutbucket, soulless and depraved negro do you to be to do such a thing?

Who digs up the graves of their own people, dumps the bodies like roadkill and then resells the plots for profit?

The same people who shoot into crowded CTA buses and kill honors students. The same people who shoot in broad daylight in residential neighborhoods and kill little girls washing their dogs on the side of the house. The same people who kill 2-year-olds in isolated fields.

We don't even value our own lives; it stands to follow that we wouldn't respect our dead.

Carolyn Towns, a Burr Oak manager and the alleged ringleader of the scheme, is old enough to remember a time when Burr Oak and Lincoln Cemetery (where another slew of relatives are buried) were the only places where Black people could be buried here. For all we know, she might well have kin buried there herself.

Instead of honoring the history of Burr Oak, Towns and her cronies chose to desecrate it. She earned herself $300,000, according to Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart -- and a trip to the psych ward where she sits while awaiting court.

Instead of honoring Burr Oak as the final resting spot of scores of African-Americans whose history in Chicago dates back to the early 20th century, their bones were discarded in a pile, much like a heap of Lem's rib tips.

Instead of honoring Burr Oak as the final resting spot of notable African-Americans like Dinah Washington, Willie Dixon, Noble Drew Ali, Otis Spann, Negro League baseball players, Harlem Globetrotter Inman Jackson, jazz musician Malachi Favors, and, of course, Emmett Till, they dumped Burr Oaks' dead into a human landfill.

We survived the Middle Passage for this?

Towns even set up a bogus Emmett Till "memorial fund" and pocketed money from that too. She rolled the dice and profited from our long-dead but never forgotten.

But we have never, never forgotten. More than 2,000 people flooded the gates at Burr Oak on Thursday to try to make sense of this tragedy and learn the status of their loved ones. From what I understand, most didn't get very much information. Neither did I when I called the 800 number set up by the Cook County sheriff's office. My dad and other relatives are planning to go out there on Friday to try to sort things out in person but he has already warned that we should manage our expectations.

This is going to get worse before it gets better. This incident is not just about the four who got caught. The reality is they profited as much from their own desperate greed as they did from the chronically poor management and oversight from out-of-state owners and law enforcement who, for years, have turned a deaf ear to maintenance complaints and other legitimate regulatory issues and reported improprieties until they couldn't any ignore it any longer. Despite the best efforts of many, nobody cared all that much about the "Black" cemetery until it was time to show off the grave of Emmett Till or someone else "famous" who was buried there.

Someone must pay for these unearthed souls. Someone must pay for the double-stacked graves, and bones and skulls piled up and strewn about the earth like a ghoulish trash heap.

We must hold them accountable for what they have done. We must hold them accountable for my two dozen ancestors and many, many more.

It ain't over.

Seeking Justice,

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Lessons from the Steel Mill...Understanding Papa Joe

Among the many notable oddities in the aftermath of Michael Jackson's death was the behavior of his iconic and, literally, iron-fisted father, Papa Joe.

We collectively cringed at utter lack of public grief over his son's sudden death and his cheesing, preening appearance at the BET Awards. We rolled our eyes watching him promote his record label at a subsequent news conference. We wanted him to be quiet and the family seemed to listen -- Papa Joe has once again retreated from the public's eye and Jermaine, sans that crazy, conked hair, has emerged as a formidable family spokesman.

But to really understand Papa Joe, you have to go back to the steel mill.

Papa Joe, now 80, worked in Gary, Indiana's steel mill, US Steel, for years, managing to eke out a meager living to support his brood of 9 children. The mill was steady work for many Black men of that generation. But it was dead end, heartbreaking, soul-crushing work that exploited the labor Black men provided it, while being firmly entrenched in the type of institutional racism that denied them promotions and raises that they deserved. And let's face it, Gary, Indiana -- "the G.I." -- ain't a great place to live.

For many of those men, if they had any opportunity to get out -- any at all -- they'd do it.

For my own father, just a year younger than Joe Jackson, working the blast furnace at the steel mill on Chicago's far Southeast Side was a way to save money for college. He was smart, professional and a solid worker -- exactly the type of man they wanted to keep on board.

My dad had a plan from the beginning that didn't involve spending the rest of his life working in a blast furnace and when he had amassed enough money to return to school and tendered his resignation, Dad's white supervisor laughed. Told my dad that a "smart boy like him" could go a long way at the steel mill and wondered aloud why he'd want to return to college. The supervisor initially didn't even turn in dad's name as having quit because he was so convinced that dad would come back.

My dad collected his last paycheck and never returned.

He always told this story whenever we were driving along Torrence Avenue the minute we got a whiff of the foul-smelling emissions from the old mill. He's grateful he was able to use that steel mill money as a springboard for a successful career in academia where he ultimately earned a bachelors, two masters, and is "ABD" on a doctoral degree.

For Papa Joe, escaping the steel mill and the limited life that came with it meant pushing his five oldest sons to perfect their musical skills in what would become the Jackson 5ive, the most popular pop group of its generation, and perhaps unbeknownst to him, to create the greatest pop singer and entertainer of all time, Michael Jackson.

While I don't condone Joe Jackson's style of parenting or business management, I understand it as the motivation of a bygone era. An era where a man's love was measured by how well he could provide for his family and how tough he could make his children to shield him from the harshness of a racist world. There's no mistaking that Joe is a cold and violent man.

But he's also very shrewd and disciplined, and whether we like it or not, laid the blueprint for superstardom of the man we mourn and celebrate today, Michael Joseph Jackson.

Thinking of Michael's own difficult relationship with this father reminds me of the passage in Toni Morrison's masterpiece "Sula" where Hannah questions her mother's love and Eva responds, "What you talkin' bout did I love you? I stayed alive for you!"

Watching the Jacksons miniseries on VH-1 over the weekend -- again -- reminded me just how desperate Papa Joe was to get his family out of Gary. Extreme tactics or not, like Eva, Joe Jackson loved his family desperately. He loved his family enough to get them out of the G.I.

I also thought of how accurately that desperation is captured in Samuel L. Kelley's stage play "Pill Hill," currently showing at Chicago's eta Creative Arts Foundation. eta is Chicago's oldest African-American cultural arts and theater institution and, ironically, is located just a few miles from the Southeast Side neighborhoods where the story is set.

"Pill Hill" follows the lives of six Black men, all close friends, over a decade between the early 70s and early 80s as they negotiate their own precarious relationships to Chicago's steel mill. Will they make it out and find good jobs that will move them into the nearby, prized Pill Hill neighborhood? Some of them do whatever it takes to make it out. Others are resigned to the relative financial stability the mill brings. Still others, like the protagonist (also named Joe) straddles both worlds -- smart enough for college but lured and pacified by getting those "next two or three paychecks" from the mill.

I took my father to see "Pill Hill" for Father's Day and he said it triggered a flood of memories -- some funny, some painful -- about this own tour of duty at the mill. Joe Jackson would probably say the same.

The ubiquitous influence of these mills on an entire generation of Black men -- its heartbreak, its blood money and its motivation for those who wanted out -- can never be underestimated.

It doesn't excuse anything either we, the public, or his own family dislikes about Papa Joe. But it certainly helps understand what he did for his family and why.
Missing Michael,

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Remembering Michael Jackson, the Hit Back…

I was sitting at my desk at work when I first heard that Michael Jackson was rushed to the hospital not breathing. The day had already seemed weird with Farah Fawcett having died of cancer earlier and I was still tired from last week’s work trip to DC. I was swamped with follow-up work and just trying to stay awake. All I could think during the few hours it took for major news outlets to confirm his death is—“God please do not let Michael Jackson be dead”.

You got to understand I had already been feeling melancholy about getting older. I was turning 38 the next day and everything seemed to be changing. Last Christmas with the passing of Grandma Effie it seemed like I moved up a space in the pecking order. I was one step closer to dealing with my parents’ mortality and ultimately my own. My sweet faced poor bear (Asha) was no longer my baby. She was now in middle school, had boobs, almost my height, and had a life completely separate from me. Hell, I was no longer the cool mom but the mother that Asha didn’t want to talk to.

The cultural bench marks of my youth were aging as well. It’s been 20 years since Spike Lee’s land mark film Do the Right Thing. I remember seeing that movie opening weekend and being struck by how beautiful the Black folks looked in the film. It also provided a wonderful opportunity to discuss race in urban America. And hell yes Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet was the soundtrack for all of it. Everything that I loved about my adolescence was now considered old school. When in the hell did I become old school?

Now one of the earliest voices of my girlhood was dead. Michael was my unspoken idol and the one person that my entire family enjoyed listening to. Whether hearing “I Want You Back” at a family barbeque or dancing in the front room with my sisters and brothers to "Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough", I can’t remember a time when a Michael Jackson’s song wasn’t playing in the background.

Like everyone else Thriller was huge in the Davis household. My brother Keith especially loved this album. We got the album for Christmas and wore it out. I remember all staying-up late with my siblings to watch the premiere of the Thriller video on Friday Night Videos. Keith practiced the dances moves all night.

My first slow dance with a boy was to a Michael’s Got to be there and he was the first celebrity poster I hung on my bedroom wall. Even as I got older and embraced Prince, DeBarge and pop/rock groups like the Police, Wham, INXS and U2, Michael was still there. I always looked forward to hearing his tender voice and how he would elevate the game not only with his music but also with his performances in videos.

None of this means that I didn’t have underlining critiques of Michael Jackson especially towards the end of his life. I was very concerned about the numerous plastic surgeries that not only changed his nose but lightened his skin color. What happened to the beautiful brown skinned man that I hung on my wall? For Black girls of my generation Michael Jackson was the male image that we dreamt of marring. If Jackson was not happy being Black, would he not think I was beautiful? Did he hate being Black so much that he would willfully morph into a bizarrely contorted face and ultra white skin that resembled no one on earth? I know internalized oppression affects us all in this white supremacist culture. I often wonder if more of us had access to his resources would there be more folks walking around looking just like him?

There were also the numerous accusations of child molestation. I know one case was settled out of court while he was exonerated of another. We can talk about the many reasons that helped create his stunted emotional development but it is never ok for a grown man to share a bed with children. I wish people would stop defending Michael’s alleged behavior by stating that you don’t believe he was gay. Pedophilia is not an extension of homosexuality!

My love for Michael and his music does not require me to pretend he was a perfect man. I think we do a disservice to legacy and ultimately his humanity when we render whole parts of his life invisible. My father once told me that the things I find useful about his life take it and the things I find deplorable, leave it. No one should or can be defined one thing. I hope the large culture begins to understand that.

Sabrina, it’s taken me over a week to finish this piece and this is what I have concluded—Michael was a huge talent whose contributions will live on forever. I am personally grateful to have his music as a reminder of the wonderful parts of my growing-up.

Michael may you rest in peace…


Quick hit: Safe at the Taste but what about the 'hood?

Chicago Police Superintendent Jody Weis (l) with Mayor Richard M. Daley

I was walking my dogs near the Taste of Chicago venue this morning, the final day of the food fest, and was marveling at how well it went this year. The physical security measures that were put in place in relatively short order for the first time this year have made all the difference.

Last year's shocking shootout in the Loop following the July 3rd fireworks (four people shot, one fatally), put Chicago Police and new chief Jody Weis, and Mayor Daley on notice that things had to change. Daley, especially, had extra incentive for a glitch-free Taste, as he is mortgaging our city's time, talent and resources on a formidable shot at getting the 2016 Olympics.

Dedicated entrances and exits, gates and tarps around normally open areas of Grant Park and uniformed 5-0 walking in packs throughout Grant Park and at CTA stations made a noticeable difference this year. Also, having Taste workers check bags added an extra measure of security. Weis also reported that there would be increased plainclothes officers and that police would be closely monitoring police cameras strategically placed near the festival.

So far, success. As of today, there have been only a handful of arrests and no major incidents in or around the festival site.

I live near the Taste venue and, frankly, appreciated the police presence. I actually joked with an officer that those few city blocks had to be the safest and most heavily patrolled in the city. Safer eating a turkey leg at the Taste than anywhere else in the city for these few days. He agreed.

But it got me thinking -- if the best and brightest among the Chicago Police Department can strategize and devise a plan well enough to protect tourists and other visitors coming downtown to get their grub on, why can't we dedicate that kind of strategy, time and talent toward protecting residents in some of our roughest neighborhoods?

Although Chicago Police reported on Friday that there was a 10.4 percent drop in crime citywide in June compared to June 2008, it is little consolation as news reports of black children -- being shot by one another and police -- continues to grow.

Just Thursday, police shot and killed 16-year-old Rakeem Nance in the West Side's Lawndale neighborhood after they claimed he pointed a gun at them -- a story that's being challenged by several witnesses, including one who said on the record that the young man was actually trying to pull up his pants. Is it possible that police mistook Rakeem's pulling up his pants for reaching for a gun? That gets into an entirely different rant for a different day about these brothers and their sagging pants...but today the fact still remains that Chicago Police have gunned down another young black man -- which seems to happen in disproportionately high numbers in Chicago.

Where are all those great police minds when it comes to patrolling Lawndale, Englewood, Humboldt Park, the "Wild 100s" and what's left of the public housing corridor? The time, attention and resources spent protecting Mayor Daley's central business district are gravelly needed in the city's high crime areas. Security cameras hoisted above these neighborhoods has made some difference but not enough to dismantle and diffuse the gangbangers from shooting in broad daylight, and not enough to stop police shootings against young men whose actual alleged guilt is sometimes dubious. And frankly, the city's CAPS and faith-based programs are making little difference.

By failing to dedicate resources and devise a comprehensive plan for these neighborhoods like he did for the Taste, Mayor Daley, and by extension Chicago Police, continues to devalue the lives and safety of its most vulnerable residents -- the majority of whom, of course, are Black and Brown. Our neighborhoods shouldn't become a police state, but imagine the kind of impact in our neighborhoods of the kind of police presence and resources that were at the Taste.

Chicagoans deserve better than feeling safer grubbing on a turkey leg downtown at the Taste than in their own neighborhoods or in their own homes.

On the real,

Monday, June 29, 2009

Michael Jackson Deserved Better

Michael Jackson deserved better.

I had high hopes that the BET Awards that aired Sunday evening would live up to the hype and do some justice in honoring the untimely passing of Michael Jackson. I had hoped that I would not once have to invoke the "c-word" (coonery!) But, alas, those of us who stuck it out were delivered a flat, awkward, poorly paced and, frankly, puzzling show that devolved into shucking-and-jiving and did little to actually honor the King of Pop himself.

I'll say on the outset that I don't watch BET often. I mentally checked out and off of BET right after undergrad (in the 90s!) Oddly, my remote control broke sometime between Thursday night and Friday morning (probably wore it out flipping around checking out all the MJ coverage) and the last channel it was on was BET. Since my cable box is digital and I couldn't manually change the channel, I was (and still am) "stuck" with BET until I get a new remote. I wasn't happy about that but took it as a good omen for BET Awards viewing.

Now I know it was simply a cruel joke and not an omen of any kind. I was one of many who live-tweeted the show and started out praising New Edition opening of classic Jackson 5ive songs (swole up, whiskey-voiced Bobby Brown notwithstanding...) And when Jamie Foxx came out came out dressed like the Beat It video, I was stirring and tweeted that I thought his combination of talents made him the perfect host.

I genuinely expected a celebration. I wanted to sing, laugh, cry and be dancing around my living room talking about "Mama-se, mama-sah, mama coo sah!" -- Michael wouldn't have wanted anything less. Instead, we got a stiff, stilted evening that looked like it had been put together by amateurs. Where were the creative minds that had put together the entertaining BET Awards of years past? The ones who put together Mo'Nique and the big girls dancing to "Crazy in Love"? The ones who had Michael Jackson come out and put the cape on James Brown in 2003?

I shudder to think what they were going to do before Michael Jackson passed.

Where was Diana Ross? Where was Prince? Where was Berry Gordy? Where was Usher? Why was Ciara singing and not dancing? Why was Beyonce singing...a mashed up Ave Maria/Sarah McLaughlin combo in a panty girdle and bustier with wings that looked like they were made by my middle school nephew? Why was Chaka Khan there but didn't sing at all?

True enough, BET had little time to revamp its already-planned show. But this is show business. You expect the unexpected and you rise to the occasion and act accordingly. You think legendary Oscars producer Gil Cates would have put on a show like this?

How about a little dignity? Put together a heartfelt video and photo montage. Dance a little, sing a little. Say a prayer. Fade to black. We all go to bed feeling proud and with our grief assuaged a little bit. But it was not to be.

The O'Jays tribute, Maxwell and Ne-Yo's 50-'leven performances were strong spots. But between Jamie Foxx plugging his tour, Weezy's incoherent, bleeped out performance with underage girls on stage dancing inappropriately to a sexually suggestive song and Ving Rhames with the Kool-Aid pitcher reliving the bad memory that is the movie "Baby Boy" I was done. I think my soul died a little each time I watched commercials promoting Tiny & Toya and Frankie & Neffe.

When Janet Jackson finally took the stage after 3+ hours to give an emotional tribute on behalf of the Jackson family, she looked weary and pissed. I have to believe that's partly out of raw grief and partly because she had to sit through all that steaming hot ghetto madness that failed to ever approximate a true and fitting "tribute" to her big brother.

This was BET's chance, while the whole world was watching, to get it right. And they failed miserably. Again.

I thought back on all those BET Awards performances and instantly thought of the Jacksons and Michael performing at Motown 25 -- truly a send-up to their fans and a clinic on showmanship for everybody else in the game.

BET should have done better. Michael Jackson deserved better. And so did the people who love and mourn him.

Still praying for the Jackson Family,

Friday, June 26, 2009

Gone too soon II

Sadly, this has ended the way no one wanted but that many of us feared.

Rest in Peace, Jada Justice.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Gone too soon...

Rest in Peace, Michael.

Thank you for providing the soundtrack to my life.

Best there ever was. Best there ever will be.


Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Where's Jada?

A little over a week ago, on June 16th, 2-year-old Jada Justice turned up missing after her 18-year-old cousin and caregiver, Eugelica Castillo, said she left Jada in the car while she got milk and cigarettes from a convenience store shortly before 10 p.m. The story was widely covered in Chicago because it happened just over the border in Northwest Indiana. But that's about it.

While local reports have provided detailed coverage about joint local and federal law-enforcement efforts to find the toddler, the story has been slow to gain national steam.

By now we all know that the sooner media attention and law-enforcement resources are given to missing persons cases, the better. And by now we know that with each passing day, the chances of finding the missing person alive fade.

According to the U.S. Dept. of Justice, nearly 800,000 children younger than 18 are reported missing each year. Of that number, at least a quarter are victims of family abductions.

These stories can't all be covered, of course but missing Black children are largely underreported and receive scarce media coverage. So, while it's great that missing-girl maven Nancy Grace of Headline News picked up the story, and that CNN did as well, it's too bad that it took almost a week for them to do so. Meanwhile, the folks at Black America Web, and the good sisters at tweetmeblack have done a commendable job of encouraging African-American bloggers to keep this story out front. We're re-tweeting and #jadajustice hash tagging like mad to keep little Jada on folks' minds and to encourage the national media to continue covering it.

Has it shown up as a trending topic yet? No. Not while Tweeters are still mesmerized by the fat, gay, celebrity-stalking Cuban and the divorcing, reality-show parents of multiples. That's right, I refuse to call them by name.

But I will call by name Jada Justice. Missing 2-year-old. Because until this little girl is found I want her name drilled into our heads and tugging at our hearts just like Caylee Anthony and Elizabeth Smart.

These stories tend not to end well. My former crime reporter's spidey sense tells me Cousin Eugelica is lying, and not ready to cop to whatever has happened to Jada, wherever she is. Gary, Ind. police have as much as said they're not buying Cousin Eugelica's story. That's ok. Authorities didn't buy Casey Anthony's story either but it didn't stop them or the media from making little Caylee's case a priority.

I want the same for Jada. I want Justice for Jada. We have the power and resources to help.

  • Use your Twitter and Facebook status to bring attention to the case.

  • Use the hashtag #jadajustice

  • Jada Justice Facebook Group

  • Contact investigators on the FBI tip line at (800) 225-5324 if you have any information about the case.

Let's do this.


Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Quick Hit -- "Beat a Broad and Get Away With It Week"

Boy, it's been a banner week for woman beaters!

First, Chris Brown pleads guilty to felony assault for beating the hell out of Rihanna and gets probation and "community service" and some flimsy protective order to stay the length of a swimming pool away from her at all times unless they're at an awards show, in which case he can be just in the next makeup chair.

Today, former Chicago cop Tony Abbate gets two years probation after pleading guilty to thrashing a waitress in a chilling video seen worldwide. Her crime? She had cut the drunkard off. Like Chris Brown, Abbate could have received up to five years in prison for the crime. And like Brown, Abbate's lack of prior documented (key word) criminal history seemed to convince the judge that he didn't deserve jail time.

Abbate also received "community service", anger management classes (duh) and random drug and alcohol testing.

I've christened this "Beat a Broad and Get Away With It Week". Because, surely, woman beaters everywhere are breathing a sigh of relief that they won't be seriously punished for their crimes. Chris Brown and Tony Abbate aren't the only members of this twisted fraternity, but they're the most high profile ones this week, and have supplied the playbook for the week: Beat the broad, lawyer up, plead guilty, show up to court cleaned up and looking appropriately pitiful remorseful, get-out-of-jail-free card! Weeee!

Fortunately Abbate has been relieved of his police duties for the time being but at this point nothing shocks me and I won't be surprised to one day see him back in blue.

Let's just hope he never gets the chance to ever beat another woman black and blue.

Appropriately pissed,

Monday, June 22, 2009

Can they Hit Us And Still Be Our Heroes?

Can they hit us and still be our heroes?

Pearl Cleage asked the question in her brilliant book "Mad at Miles: A Black Woman's Guide to Truth" more than 15 years ago and the answer, of course, is no.

This means you, Chris Brown.

In a last-minute plea deal orchestrated by the singer and the Los Angeles District Attorney, Brown dodged jail by pleading guilty to Monday to felony assault for the March 2009 beatdown of singer Rihanna (see above) and was sentenced to 180 days of community service in the relative comfort of his home state of Virginia. He also got five years of supervised probation, a yearlong domestic violence counseling program and in a bit of plea deal weirdness, must stay 50-yards away from Rihanna at all times, unless the two are performing at the same event. Then he only has to stand 10-yards away. Not nearly far enough as far as I'm concerned.

Entertainment Weekly quoted Rihanna's attorney saying "Rihanna feels it’s a fair and just resolution to the case."

Hm. Well...there's comfort in the fact that she's around to say that much.

Too many sisters aren't.

Domestic violence is most prevalent among women between the ages of 16-24 (Ri-Ri's age range) and Black women remain disproportionately affected by domestic violence -- 35 percent higher than white women and at 22 times the rate of women of other races. As recently as 2005, Black women accounted for 1/3 of all domestic violence homicides.

All this, and still, we're ambivalent about how we address domestic violence.

We still want to blame Rihanna. We still want to know "what she did" that set him off. Chris Brown still wants us to know he's not a "monster." And we see the same scenario played out over and over again, all over the world, by couples whose names we don't know -- as well as those we do.

I want this sick history of shrugging and looking the other way when women in our community are being abused to stop. I want a clear, unambiguous womanist response: zero tolerance.

I don't want us to forgive and forget it. I want us to always remember when we're listening to "Kind of Blue" Miles Davis describing in his autobiography Cicely Tyson hiding in the basement from him after he slapped her around. I want us to remember Dr. Dre's brutal beatdown of music host Dee Barnes when we're watching his Dr. Pepper commercials and bumping our heads to The Chronic. I don't want to be alone in feeling like running my foot clear through the crack of Chris Brown's ass when I hear "Run It."

I need anti-sexist brothers everywhere who are commiteed to non-violence and healthy relationships to raise up and challenge other men who they know are abusing women in disproportionate numbers.

I need for Black women to be just as committed to healthy, non-violent relationships and for them to receive the resources they need, for as many times as it takes (7 on average) to LEAVE abusive relationships. I said this after the incident and I mean it today -- I want to personally give Rihanna copies of Cleage's "Mad at Miles" and also the revolutionary "Black Women's Health Book." I want her to read Evelyn C. White's essay "Love Don't Always Make it Right" so that she has the agency to understand what has happened to her and to maintain a support system so strong that it doesn't happen again.

Because if the question is whether they can hit us and still be our heroes? our leaders? our lovers? our friends? as Cleage wrote, the answer was, is and will always be no.

Waiting for the hit back,

Sunday, June 21, 2009

In Praise of Black Fathers...

Nothing I've ever done has given me more joys and rewards than being a father to my children.
-- Bill Cosby

One of my earliest and fondest memories of my father is watching him make what he used to call "Big Breakfast." He would announce to the household on the weekend morning of his choice "I am making BIG breakfast" and we knew we were in for a treat.

The man makes the most impossibly light scrambled eggs w/cheese and fluffy pancakes, the juiciest bacon and sausage, and the most perfectly seasoned grits, rice and biscuits you've ever tasted. He would take his time and butter our toast for us and there was always an assortment of our favorite jams. And, frankly, I don't know another man to this day who brews a meaner pot of tea. Not bad for an academic!

There was always a lot of joy when he cooked for us his favorite "Big Breakfast" and I think part of what made those meals so good, outside of the fact that he's such a great cook, is that those meals were made with a lot of love.

Thinking back on ritualized events like sharing a homemade meal always makes me smile. Fathers are happiest when they feel useful, and are engaging in some tactile activity with or for their children. Mine is no different. I feel incredibly blessed to have grown up with that -- especially as it has become clear that fathers like mine have become increasingly rare in the Black community.

The statistics remain sobering: more than half of all Black children are being raised in single-parent households -- a figure that has doubled since the early 1960s, and a staggering 91 percent of single parents of Black children in 2006 were women.

Essentially, a-generation-and-a-half of Black kids have grown up without fathers or any meaningful, positive male presence in their lives, and that has manifested itself in innumerable levels of pathos in our community. At the same time, it's important to acknowledge that there are outstanding Mothers, Grandmothers and other extended family members who are fulfilling both roles with great success. From my own sister, who is raising my academically gifted 12-year-old nephew into a wonderful young man, to the Mother and Grandparents of Barack Obama, who would become President of the United States of America, it is possible for Black children to thrive and succeed even as they manage the aching absence of their fathers.

Barack Obama, for personal reasons and for the nation's good, has smartly made responsible fatherhood a priority on his agenda and held a town hall meeting at the White House on Friday on this issue. He's taken heat for speaking poignantly about the pain of his own father's absence, and has urged Black men, in particular, to step up with urgency in raising their children.

But the considerable attention on absentee fathers makes it far too easy to overlook the presence of fathers like my own -- who were and are always there, quietly imparting wisdom, knowledge, protection, discipline, love and prayers without complaint and without ceasing. I'm not a naive girl but it wasn't until I got to college that I realized the majority of my African-American classmates hadn't grown up the same way I did. Everybody in my immediate circle growing up (all Black) came from two-parent homes with very active, present and traditional fathers.

Fathers like mine want no praise and are quick to say "I'm just doing what I'm supposed to be doing!" But I offer kudos anyway, today and always, because they deserve it. Kudos to them for always being there. Kudos to them for understanding and embracing fatherhood as a lifetime commitment and the most important role they'll ever have. Kudos to my dad for loving me when it's easy and when it's difficult; whether we are debating the merits of the Modern Wing at the Art Institute, a wayward politician or why he needs to join us in the 21st century and get a cell phone! Kudos to him for a lifetime of "Big Breakfasts" and a lifetime of love.

I appreciate, love and honor you and all the fathers like you.

With love,

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Quick Hit -- The Hate that Spam Produced

I love my big brother -- but I'm about to put him on blast. His crime? Cavorting with a known racist and forwarding a faulty email.

My brother is a light-hearted guy who loves a good joke and I give him a lot of credit for being extremely tolerant of others. We have different mothers and were raised in separate households -- his formative years were spent largely in Southern California's Orange County. So he's this wonderfully charming mix of "hang loose" surfer dude and card-carrying, gun-loving, animal-hunting Republican. It's no coincidence that when our grandfather died he left his guns to my brother (and to me, nothing, but that's another story...)

Anyway, I got a forwarded email from him the other day about a pre-teen girl in Butte, Montana who shot and killed two Spanish-surnamed, "illegal alien" would-be home invaders. The end of the missive proudly proclaims that "calling an illegal alien an 'undocumented immigrant' is like calling a drug dealer an 'unlicensed pharmacist.'"

Sounds harrowing, doesn't it? But -- wait for it -- it turned out to be completely bogus. I figured the story bogus but, of course, had to check it out. Went to my trusty dusty which confirmed that the story was false. I'd planned to do what I usually do in these situations -- which is to gently tell the sender (my brother) that what they're forwarding is an urban myth and gently (but strongly) urge that they stop forwarding such nonsense.

Then I saw that the person who sent my brother the email had the same name as a friend of his who I'd met nearly a decade earlier. A young, not particularly well-educated white guy with whom my brother worked. I took a disliking to him and his wife immediately because within minutes of meeting, he and his wife both began to tell me how much they hated Mexicans. Really. We're all out at a club and I'm trying to enjoy my customary Cape Codder, and I'm listening to this little cretin go on and on about how Mexicans were the scourge on the earth and didn't deserve to be here and they're taking jobs, yadda, yadda. Old, ridiculous invective.

I remember initially being more stunned than angry. But then I did get angry because he wouldn't let it go. No other substantive conversation from him other than how horrible "the Messicans" were. I challenged him about as much as you can over bad booze and techno but no one else -- including my brother -- challenged him at all. I met him another time, no alcohol involved at all (not that that's an excuse) and it was the same. Pure, unambiguous hate toward Mexicans.

I wasted no time in telling my brother how outrageously offensive and unambiguously racist his friend was. I couldn't understand how or why they were even friends -- particularly considering that my brother wasn't keeping him around in hopes of reforming him. Particularly considering that our family has some multicultural branches that include -- you guessed it -- Mexicans!

Can you imagine being "friends" with someone like this? The sheer audacity of this guy? Somehow it's ok to be racist in front of the Black people because you're not actually denigrating my group? Really? How does one -- a person of color especially -- ever trust somebody like this? Because this is exactly the kind of guy who, when all the Blacks are out of the room, won't think twice about calling them a sack of niggers behind their backs.

I spoke on it and left it alone. I told my big brother flat out that unless this guy had changed, or that my brother had cut him off completely, I didn't want to hear about him. I hadn't thought about this neanderthal in years until I saw this email. And sadly, with the arrival of this "us" vs. "them" email, it looks like nothing has changed.

I told my brother -- again -- and I'll say it to anybody else who thinks this is cute: You are lame for having racist friends. You are participating in your own oppression by keeping people like this around. Get rid of them immediately. Decolonize your mind and shed your own internalized oppression so that you understand why the white dude who is openly racist towards Mexicans will, one day, turn on you. And to Black folk and other people of color who continue to harbor racial and ethnic prejudices toward one another, and think it's acceptable to indulge white racism to your face I say STOP IT. It is hate speech and it is dangerous and you are the worst kind of oppressed coward for sitting by and letting it happen.

Considering the hate crime that just took place at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. that just cost a brother his life, do you really want to be the person who said nothing? The person who didn't challenge the racism and the hate simply because it was not directed toward you?

And finally -- stop forwarding those ridiculous emails. You are making the Baby Jesus and my inbox cry a little everytime you do. is your friend, people. And so is a healthy heap of common sense.

Speaking of Cape Codders...boy, could I use one now.


Monday, June 8, 2009

What Laura Ling, Euna Lee and North Korea should teach us all...


I visited South Africa for the first time 10 years ago this month. It was near the eve of the second-ever democratic election, the end of Nelson Mandela's historic term and Johannesburg was buzzing.

Some friends and I -- an African-American journalist and her Cameroonian-born journalist boyfriend -- attended an ANC rally that also doubled as a "goodbye" rally of sorts for Madiba at FNB soccer stadium in Johannesburg. It remains one of the most glorious days of my life (it was the first time I got to see Madiba up close), and one of the most terrifying.

Both my American journalist friend and I had press credentials and were allowed entry onto the soccer field near the stage where Madiba, Thabo Mbeki, Yvonne Chaka-Chaka and other South African political and cultural dignitaries were. Our Cameroonian friend not only did not have a "proper" press credential but didn't have any ID with him at all, and was told he couldn't come on the field. We all met up after the rally, where he did join us on the field.

As we were leaving, unbelievably, the same guard who had told our Cameroonian friend he couldn't come on the field saw him with us and detained him. When we refused to leave him with ANC security and Johannesburg police, we were detained as well. It was preposterous but we were powerless to do anything. We were all being punished for different reasons; our Cameroonian friend for NOT being South African, not having proper ID and for raising suspicion that he was in South Africa illegally, and my friend and I for being perceived as "pushy" American women who wouldn't stay out of African business.

Hours passed with us being stuck in a room and questioned at FNB Stadium. The conclusion was that we were uncooperative and should be thrown in jail in Hillbrow -- one of the worst, most notorious jails in Johannesburg. There was no one for us to call, no "supervisor" or anyone else for us to appeal to. Finally, a single, sympathetic officer hedged his bets and said that if our Cameroonian friend could produce ID and papers showing that he was in the country legally, they would let us all go. We got a weapons-drawn, surrounded-on-all-sides police escort back to our friend's home, where he was able to show ID and papers that satisfied the officers that he was who he said he was, and that he was in the country legally.

Some eight hours later, with nightfall upon us, we were "freed." The three of us retreated to separate corners of the house and broke down, inconsolable. Then we came together and held each other and cried some more. We knew how lucky we were and how much worse it could have been. Had we all actually been tossed into separate quarters at Hillbrow jail, there's no telling when anyone would have been able to find us, let alone help us.

Two years later I went back to South Africa on an international journalism fellowship. A videographer colleague in the program and her assistant were robbed at gunpoint in one of South Africa's most notorious townships when they went unescorted on a Sunday afternoon to shoot b-roll for a story she was working on. It was dumb and they were lucky to escape alive.

What reminded me of these stories is the North Korean government's sentencing of Laura Ling and Euna Lee to 12 years hard labor. They've been detained since March and are officially accused of illegally entering North Korea while reporting at the China-North Korea border. The journalists work for former vice-president Al Gore's Current TV.

I'm shocked that others are so shocked by the sentencing. The North Korean government is a totalitarian regime run by a despotic leader and it's been that way for decades. The U.S. has no diplomatic ties with North Korea. In other words, if you're a journalist trying to work from there, you're taking your life into your hands, as Ling and Lee have learned.

TIME Magazine seems to back me up on that

I'm not saying that Ling and Lee in any way deserved their fate but I am saying that they took a calculated risk and lost. No one should be surprised at the consequences. Every country has its own entry laws and consequences for what it sees as violations -- including ours. Frankly, we should be just as outraged by the ongoing human rights abuses and questionable detainments at Gitmo as we are about Laura Ling and Euna Lee in North Korea. I won't hold my breath waiting for that to happen.

As journalists, we tend to get self-righteous and a little cocky when we are working on stories that we think are going to serve the common good by uncovering some wrong or in this case, revealing alleged human rights abuse. Laura Ling's better-known journalist sister Lisa Ling herself previously entered North Korea under false pretenses and reported on its famously closed society.

Lisa Ling was lucky -- she didn't raise the kind of suspicion that her sister did, and made it out without incident. Plenty of others aren't so lucky. Being a foreign correspondent is exhilarating, exotic, exciting. And dangerous. In 2009 alone, 22 journalists have been killed and 143 imprisoned worldwide while doing their jobs, according to the website Reporters Without Borders, which ranked North Korea as Asia's worst country in its press fredom index.

We use the argument "oh, they're just journalists" but the North Korean government and many other foreign governments in some state of conflict with the U.S. don't see it that way. This is a country whose policies essentially flip off every other country in the world, especially the U.S., and is on the record as not valuing a free press. So it stands to follow that American-born journalists working on suspected human rights abuses in North Korea are going to be considered a threat -- and treated as such.

I'm not saying journalists shouldn't continue to tread into unfamiliar and often dangerous territory to tell important, investigative stories -- but they should be able to do it without getting the State Department involved. Because what Ling and Lee have done is unwittingly made themselves pawns in a chess game that North Korea is not afraid to play with the U.S., at possibly the worst possible time.

Journalists need to think hard about what they're doing, why they're doing it and, more importantly, how they're doing it. If you don't have a "fixer" who can all but guarantee your safety you might want to think twice about risking that border crossing.

I have every belief that Ling and Lee are going to be freed on humanitarian reasons, as the Obama Administration is asking, but the days of running around like Don Quixote are over. In this new "War on Terror" world, the stakes have been raised and the invisible line that once largely protected journalists is gone.

And every journalist who has died or been jailed in the name of their story knows it.


Tuesday, June 2, 2009

In whose name?

Sabrina, I was sitting in the lobby of a catholic church waiting to meet a hunger activist when I read the article you posted on facebook—George Tiller shot to death at Wichita church News Updates Wichita Eagle. I caught a flight that Sunday morning to Kansas City, MO to conduct a meeting with local faith based activists to discuss international and domestic poverty issues. I had already worshiped at a Presbyterian church that morning and was feeling rejuvenated and loving my job. It felt good to connect the good news of Jesus Christ with the very real life issues facing people in the world today.

As a community organizer I have always worked closely with the church. In most struggling neighborhoods the church is the only place folks can turn to for help and has historically played a huge role in many social justice movements. While there are differences including birth control, gay rights and yes abortions, the larger shared agenda has always been about the wellness of the community. I have not always agreed with “church folk” but I knew that they were generally good people that cared about the community. But there I was in a huge catholic church with hundreds of people listening to a priest talk about “knowing what’s right from sin” that I read—“GEORGE TILLER WAS SHOT TO DEATH AT WITCHITA CHURCH.” The one place that’s supposed to be safe, where your political persuasions shouldn’t matter.

No I am not pollyanna, I know that horrible things have been said and done in the name of God. But this felt different. This pieced my heart. Not only was this man, a doctor that cared for women, murdered in his house of worship, but killed by a movement that professes to carry out God’s will. As the words of this article ran through my head, I felt suddenly vulnerable. What do other Christians think about this? Has the larger Christian community become so myopic that any deviation from what the presumed norm is seen as evil? Do I, a tree hugging Black women that is Christian, supports stem cell research, does not feel threaten by LGBT community and supports a woman’s right to choose, have a place at the table?

The way the abortion debate is framed leaves no room for nuance or compassion. Being pro-choice does not require me to believe in abortion personally. While I believe a fetus is a developing human being, I know the framework of this conversation is housed in that individual woman’s body and I cannot tell any woman what to do. That is between that woman, her God and her healthcare provider! No one can presume to know her truth or what lead her to that decision.

When I hear anyone talk about the importance of an unborn fetus absent the reality of the mother, it makes we cringe! If this is really about the preservation of life why isn’t the pro-life movement advocating for healthcare, housing or jobs? The preservation of life does not stop once you are born. Furthermore, to not acknowledge the humanity of the women is disingenuous. No woman takes this decision lightly. Women need to be supported and cared for not judged and harassed. Have we forgotten who Jesus was, God mercy and grace? How can only anyone who claims to be pro-life turnaround and take one? The contradiction is frightening.

I am sad and disillusioned. If the church stays silent while people continue to kill in its name, it will begin to no longer recognize itself.


Hit Me Back…

Monday, June 1, 2009

Smart Girls Rock!

There is so much to blog about right now my head is spinning. From the GM bankruptcy to the senseless murders of Wichita OB-GYN and abortion rights advocate George Tiller and Chicago Police Officer Alejandro Valadez, who was gunned down in Englewood, there's a lot going on globally and locally.

But there's one thing, one name, one person that keeps sticking out that I can't shake: Kavya Shivashankar.

As you by now know, 13-year-old Kavya won the Scripps National Spelling Bee last week. I'm not ashamed to admit that I watch the Spelling Bee every year, even when it was on ESPN. I've watched Kavya for the last several years and have always been impressed with this young lady's discipline and her strong family support. Every year that she lost was a heartbreaker because she was always so obviously well-prepared. This year was her final year to win it all before aging out of the competition and she did it!

Grace under pressure, calm, determined, prepared, brilliant. In short, Kavya is a salient reminder that Smart Girls Rock!

LaVida, I think of girls like Kavya and am automatically reminded of your 12-year-old -- another card-carrying member of the Smart Girls Rock Coalition.

We grew up with a lot of privileges and I think we both were fortunate to grew up in households and communities where it was ok to be a "smart girl." To a large extent, I think we were both rewarded for being "smart girls."

But girls like Kavya and Asha? They are Smart Girls 2.0. To the 10th power. To infinity. Seemingly unscathed by the self-doubt and mixed signals that crept into our generation. We were "self-sufficient" smart girls. I think of a lot of my friends who were in "accelerated" and honors programs and our parents all largely left us alone. My parents both were educators and yet they spent little hands-on educational time with me checking my work or really finding out what I was doing.

I was so encouraged to see footage of Kavya's father and spelling coach working with her for hours each day, helping her sharpen her craft and preparing her for victory. As close as my retired-college-professor dad and I are, he never spent that kind of time with me on academics, and I don't think would have even had the patience to coach me in spelling words. Tennis and swimming, yes. Spelling words? Not so much. When I was in the 6th grade spelling bee I was my own coach, scrawling out words, definititions and etymologies from the dictionary on notecards in pencil.

Your own "smart girl" benefits from the same kind of hands-on academic and extracurricular involvement as well. Excellence is the norm; exemplary and extraordinary are expected.

These young ladies are matriculating in a time where there, truly, are no limitations to what they can do. Their president is African-American. Their Supreme Court includes women and people of color. Women who look like them are represented in nearly every discipline they're interested in. And most importantly, they come from families where their nurturing and self-esteem supercedes whatever negative influences exist in the larger culture.

But for every Kavya and Asha, there are scores of girls just entering their teen years who are wracked with self-doubt and lacking the support to shine as they should. As proud as I am of Kavya, my dream is to see more kids like Kennyi Anouad in the spelling bee. Kennyi, whose parents are from Ghana, was the only African-American boy to make it to the final round, tying for 5th -- up from 91st place in 2008. I want to see a real-life Akeelah in the final round, like from the movie Akeelah and the Bee -- a bright and shiny "smart girls rock" kind of Black girl from the public school system. Someone whose mom, dad, grandma, mentor, pastor, etc., is coaching her to greatness in the spelling bee, in academia, in life!

Were I blessed enough to have a daughter, I'd make sure she was part of the Smart Girls Rock Coalition. I'd tell my daughter to forget about Miley Cyrus or Hannah Montana or any other fictional "tween" phenomenon. I'd want my daughter to be like Kavya -- tenacious, persistent, disciplined. I'd want my daughter to never feel conflicted about being "smart" like so many African-American children are. LaVida, I want our generation to raise geeks and not gangsters.

I want our generation to be raising the baddest little girls in the world; girls who will smile onstage just like Kavya, confident, when they get a word like laodicean.

From one Smart Girl Rockin' to another,

Friday, May 29, 2009

The Hit Back...A Black Love Ethic

Hey Sabrina,

I am also alarmed at the number of children dying in Chicago and how the larger culture has not responded. Black and Brown life does not have value. But what is more striking to me is OUR lack of response to this violence. What do people on the block think? What do we think as the larger Black community?

As an organizer I can certainly look at systems and structures that exacerbate the situation. We can talk about how the closing of Chicago public schools and federally subsidized housing has forced students to leave their communities. While I don’t think dilapidated housing and ill-performing schools should be maintained, we have to consider how their closures have impacted the community.

In lieu of dismantling federally subsidized housing, mixed income housing has been put in in its place. With mixed income housing, only 1/3 of the units are set aside for low income people. The remaining 2/3 must find their own housing and by default are displaced.

The same can be said for the newly created schools, which are mostly charter schools. After a poor performing schools is reopened children who initially attended the schools are not guaranteed placement. Enrollment is now open to the entire city and neighborhood kids are forced to enter a lottery to secure a slot. If they are not accepted they will have to a attend school outside of the neighborhood and more than likely it is similar in performance to the school that was closed.

They also have to deal with additional safety issues because they now have to cross gang lines to get there. I have heard colleagues describe incidents where mothers in tears have pleaded with CPS officials not to send their sons to schools outside of their community because they were frightened for their safety. How can these children feel valuable and worthy when things are always closed down in their name and whenever anything is new and improved it’s never for them?

But you know what? We have heard this all before. In fact I am tired of talking about the problems in our community in the same old antiquated ways. You are right Sabrina, this is not just about more resources and social programs. While targeting issues like housing and education is part of combating violence, we have to seriously consider the larger problem of self hate. Because our children have repeatedly been told that they are not valuable and now they believe it. What else could explains the blatant disregard for life? Violence is so normalized that we have become desensitized. Something has died in the hearts of our children and what’s left no one recognizes. Talking about, modeling, and creating a culture of self-love, Black love is far more daunting than tackling any other issue.

As a people historically we have struggled to make it but there was always a Black middle class. Back then we all lived in the same neighborhoods; doctors and teachers on the same block as number runners and garbage man. No matter what obstacles we faced -- ill-equipped schools, run down housing, lack of political power -- we always believed that education was the key and our children could and would be better off than us.

It was this belief that created historically Black colleges. It was burned in our hearts that these opportunities were bought in blood by those proud Black folks that went before us. It’s the same story that Michelle Obama shared at the Democratic National Convention. Her parent made sure that she and her brother had opportunities.

So what changed? All I know is that something happened with the baby boomer generation. Maybe we are seeing the consequences of an 80s drug culture that eroded segments of an entire generation. Maybe poor youth no longer are reminded of the possibilities because Black folks with class privilege no longer have to live in the hood. While I can continue to speculate on why, what I know for sure is that there is hope.

But what about President Obama and Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latina to be nominated for the Supreme Court? Here you have two people of color who did not come from privileged backgrounds but worked hard and made it. Real people that look like them and with similar backgrounds. In spite of all barriers, they made a choice to move in a different direction.

When I think about all the violence our children witness daily, I am reminded of the work I do in the domestic violence community. It takes a survivor on average seven times to leave an abusive relationship. Exposure to violence can begin to impact their sprit and forces them to make decisions that are not healthy in order to navigate the situations they are in. Maybe this Black love ethic must be coupled with non-judgment and the understanding that this situation was not created over night and won’t be solved in a day.

While I don’t have all the answers I will hold on to our history and the image of Obama and Sotomayor standing together at the White House. I will also pray that our youth will see this image and be able to recognize themselves in it.