Vote Smart: Millennials, Alternative Parties & Your Vote in Context

every-vote-counts

 

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A little over 20 years ago Gil Scott-Heron put these lyrics in a song (poem) entitled “Message to the Messengers”. It was primarily directed toward the next generation of rappers (poets) in an effort to help ensure their intentions were not lost in battles over their word choice or the methods of rebellion for change their songs seemed to endorse. It was wisdom shared from an old falling star to the new meteors on the rise. It is in this vein that I share these words with both the old falling stars (50+) and the new meteors rising (18+) in the world of politcs.

While this campaign season has been one of the most ridiculous things I have ever seen, bar none, for the most part this election will be no different than all the others. Without question, there is more at stake but the election process will include the same five groups that every election has had in my voting lifetime.

There will be those firmly planted in either the Democratic or Republican party because they “have always been” and/or they are heavily (in)vested. We will hear from the cynical, wisecracking savants who consider themselves “too smart” and their refusal to be “ignored or taken for granted” by either party. Breaking onto the scene will be the new voter, recently awakened to the world of politics. Some of these young folk will just be glad to be able to vote and will most likely vote for who they “think” will win. Then there will be others in this group who will wave their voter card around like a blindfolded, drunken man with a loaded gun ranting about all of the ills of politics that they can now help “fix”. And last but not least – in what could be the largest group – we have the disenfranchised. Here we find the apathetic; those locked away in prisons; those who were once locked away but are now back in society, yet unable (because of politics, mind you) to vote. Many of these folk have only seen government do something “to” them (Republican)  or “for” them (Democrat) but rarely “with” (utopian) them. From their point of view, government – led by either party – is not only limiting with regard to their ability to progress but also limited in an overall desire to deal with the systemic, societal challenges.

Look, I understand people have problems with both candidates running for President of the United States of America, I promise you, I GET it! But this is so much bigger than disdain for one personality or the other. There is so much more at stake. Our vote is the most powerful right we possess and in this election, in particular, I am worried that my “too smart” and “newly awakened” voting brothers and sisters could unwittingly place the standard bearer of a mindset in the White House that has no problem with the fact it was built by slaves.

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We can ill afford to just register new voters without informing them of the power and responsibility of their vote. We wouldn’t give a newly licensed sixteen-year-old the keys to a car and turn them loose without instruction nor should we give new voters the effective keys to the White House with the assumption they grasp the depth and importance of that right. I am not saying we should indoctrinate but am saying it is incumbent upon those of us who understand the power of the vote, and the political history of this country, to at least try to respectfully educate these new voters.

I hate to speak of Politics as a “game” but it seems to be “played” all day, everyday and as with all games, there are rules that must be learned and adhered to. Does adherence assure you will always win? Of course not. However, it can help ensure you won’t always lose. The fact is in the game of politics you can do more than just win or lose outright. It may sound ironic but you can also “win” by losing (giving something up) or “lose” by winning (refusal to give something up).

In my mind there are only six voting scenarios for every citizen in this election:

  1. Vote for Hillary Clinton
  2. Vote for Donald Trump
  3. Vote for Jill Stein
  4. Vote for Gary Johnson
  5. Vote for a write-in candidate of your choice
  6. Don’t vote

Only one of these scenarios assures Donald Trump will not be elected President of the United States. Anything other than a vote for Hillary Clinton is, in effect, a vote for Donald Trump and all votes count… especially after the Presidential election of sixteen years ago.

New voters are too young to remember the Presidential election of 2000. Al Gore and George W. Bush were where Hillary and Trump are now. The same five voting groups I mentioned earlier existed. Gary Johnson and Jill Stein were embodied in Ralph Nader, the Green Party candidate.

According to the 2000 Census, 111,000,000 people voted in that Presidential election; that made up about 55% of voting age population of the entire country. But the election essentially came down to the votes in one state, Florida. When the Supreme Court decided to halt the recount, George Bush was ahead by 537 votes. Florida declared Bush the winner by a 0.00048% margin. I would rather lose by 10,000,000 votes! Oh, and what about Ralph Nader, you ask? Nader got 97,488 votes in Florida and since most 3rd party candidates are to the left of mainstream Democrats, it is safe to assume the majority of those votes would have gone to Al Gore if Nader were not in the race.

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Imagine for a moment that Al Gore won the election. There would have been no Cheney, Rumsfeld or Wolfowitz, no trumped up “weapons of mass destruction” claim, no speculation of whether we were at war for legitimate reasons or simple revenge. There would have probably been more diplomacy and respect. And quite possibly, no war in Iraq.

Sometimes I think the good Lord allows history to repeat itself just to see if we were paying attention and if we learned anything.

With your vote you help to directly determine who is in power and those in power directly determine who sits on the Supreme Court, and so many other important positions.

So let this serve as proof your vote does indeed count. So, Vote and Vote Smart! #allvotesmatters #votesmart #holdthemaccountable

 

Cuban. Crisis?

Some may be surprised but I, for one, am not mad at Mark Cuban. I am neither Cuban fan nor detractor but his comments and our reaction to those comments deserve examination. Cuban was open, honest and true to himself. And while we’re being honest, his “crossing the street” statement merely described the behavior of many people – Black, white and other. I agree Cuban’s “hoodie” reference was insensitive at best but he recognized and apologized for it in hindsight. Some will choose to park the focus of their argument here but to do so skirts the issue.

The media will seek to sit Mark Cuban on the same bench with Don Sterling but their game isn’t the same. Both Cuban and Sterling were speaking in a seemingly relaxed and controlled setting. They were under no pressure to say the “right” thing. Cuban spoke his mind and Sterling was obviously out of his. Sterling never expected his words to be heard outside of where they were spoken, while Cuban’s words sought no such confinement.

I do not believe Cuban is racist but he is prejudiced. Which makes him just like the rest of us, although given the background of a number of players on the team he owns, one might think Cuban would be more aware than most of the dangers and fallacy of such broad statements. However, if we really want to work at the eradication of racism, prejudice, bigotry and all things related then we must allow people the space to be honest and to grow. We must sanctify safe spaces where people can speak freely without judgment.

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America has been infected with a terminal case of prejudice for a long time; I dare say since it’s inception. It manifests itself as bigotry, racism and all things related. Cuban’s words come from a mind tainted with the residue left by years of the social construction we have come to know as racism; that system of beliefs that values or devalues people on sight. It is an illness that many refuse to recognize as such, especially since the election of Barak Obama to the office of President of the United States. Many believe we now live in a “post-racial society” and I say there is no such animal. Can we ever get there? Prayerfully, but not without doing the work and not without open and honest conversation.

Cuban was direct and honest. I appreciate his honesty because now there is something with which to work; I know what to focus on to correct his thinking or at least to give it pause … and perhaps next time he will think differently when he sees a Black guy in a hoodie or a white guy with a bunch of tats. Cuban described his behavior when he saw certain Black and white folk.

Mark Cuban painted a picture and revealed for us at least two things he considers dangerous or frightening. If we look past how he chose to say it, Cuban’s words reveal his truest concern and the most basic human instinct: self-preservation. How can he stay safe while walking the streets? Well that’s a conversation we all could be interested in, right? Right! But before we have that conversation we need to address the flaws and stereotypes that riddle his (and our) thoughts.

If we continue to attack those who are simply speaking their truths then people will stop speaking altogether. They will harbor their truths internally and those truths will manifest in thoughts that become actions, lies that produce laws and perversions the become policies conceived in fearful minds. Let’s work at meeting folk who are stumbling in the dim light of ignorance and walk with them toward enlightenment.

If we want to help change the world in which we live let’s work at creating safe spaces to be honest without judgment for each who care to understand all; that is, if you truly believe changing the world is a cause worth your while.

Election’s Over; All Hands on Deck!

So the election is over but the problems persist. Over the past four years America’s foundation rocked just a wee bit more. The solutions are as uncertain and elusive today as they were prior to Tuesday’s historic election.  Whether you care to tout the electoral or the popular vote results the divide is apparent and it remains parked at the intersection of Race and Class streets in every city all over the country. And so it was for our parents before us and theirs before them.

The day after Election Day, Facebook was all atwitter with careless comments revealing how some of our Facebook “friends” really felt … “click”, “click”, highlight “unfriend”… “click” … dammit!. So the “friend” is gone but the mindset still prevails; hovering, like a storm cloud, over all that would make this country great. Comments like, “So we just elected a guy who believes I should go to work so others can stay at home …getting free housing … free food and a fat tax return for doing absolutely nothing!” ruled the day on some posts. Really?! This is what it’s come to?! No, this is how it has been for our parents before us and theirs before them.

We take the liberty of turning a blind eye to these sentiments and trends that are slowly destroying the fabric of this diversely fibered quilt called the United States of America; at times, seemimg to ignore the suffering of our fellow citizen. The founding papers establishing this country were handwritten so typos didn’t exist but in moments like these, I begin to wonder, perhaps our founding fathers suffered with dyslexia … perhaps these United States never were really all that united but untied.  Oh, what a difference little letter order can make. Indulge me for a moment. What if we really were supposed to be the Un-tied States of America?

If we were the Un-tied States of America then the institution of slavery and all its offspring, Jim/Jane Crow would make sense; the KKK makes sense; the polarization of Blacks and whites make sense; the schism between the “haves” and “have nots” makes sense; States’ rights vs. individual human rights makes sense. “Othering” and blaming everyone who is not like us – whoever “us” is today – makes sense. But wait, if we are untied, does a “we” or an “us” even exist? Or is it always going to be me preying on you instead of me praying for you? If we are untied perhaps all of this makes sense. But, thanks be to God, “United” wasn’t a typo and it isn’t symptomatic of dyslexia.

We weren’t created to be untied. We were created to be tied up … tight together … united. As the old Bondei proverb goes, “sticks in a bundle cannot be broken”. I am only human because you are. I exist so that you don’t have to stand alone. My voice works when your voice is disenfranchised or otherwise silenced and vice versa. Those of us who believe in something greater than ourselves are called to be our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. No matter how disparate. In Tuesday’s aftermath, do some people feel they lost something? Sure. Do others feel they won something? Absolutely. Yet, neither side is whole; there is still work to do – and lots of it.

As Dr. King said, “we may have all come (to this country) on different ships but we’re in the same boat now”… and it’s taking on water. Our time is better spent taking the finger of blame we point at everyone else and using it to plug the hole in the boat. We just rehired a captain for this ship on Tuesday and he needs his entire crew. All hands on deck!

The Threat to Democracy

My friends, here we are on the eve of yet another Election Day. This Election Day, like many before it, has been touted by many as “the most important Election Day …” and guess what? Each claim has been correct in accordance to the condition of these United States of America at any particular moment in time. In fact, there were some elections that turned out to be “most important” in hindsight – each Presidential election this millennium has been extremely important.

I am reminded of the well-known experiment of the frog in the boiling pot of water: If you place the frog in boiling water, it will immediately and instinctively jump out as an obvious measure of self- preservation. Place the same frog in a pot of water and turn up the heat incrementally? The frog is boiled alive in the pot.

The heat of new voter suppression tactics became noticeable with the activity surrounding the election of 2000 and each subsequent election. In 2000 Florida’s “hanging chads” made it hot! In 2004? The denial of more than 5.3 MILLION Americans who had previous felony convictions made things a little hotter. In 2008? More than 98,000 registered Georgia voters were removed from the roll of eligible voters because of a computer mismatch … making things hotter still. And here we are, the heirs to democracy – on the eve of the 2012 Presidential Election – more nervous than a long tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs; sweating profusely, insides boiling from the fire, barely able to breathe, hoping against hope that our impressive, albeit last ditch, exercise in early voting pays off.

Below you will find a letter from O. Patrick “Pat” Scott, the youngest member of the Baltimore’s famed Goon Squad, still on his “j-o-b”, still arming the community with information explaining what we need to watch for tomorrow. It is obvious part of the letter is partisan but readers who may not agree with Pat’s choice for President should not lose sight of the greater message – the threat to democracy that voter suppression represents.

Thank you Pat,

WFP

My Friends:

Forgive me for preaching to the choir, but not many people really want to hear this.

SECURING THE VOTE for OBAMA & the DEMOCRATS

If our frame of reference is the U.S. Federal Elections of 2000 and 2004, photo ID laws, the campaign of 2012, the catastrophic flooding of the northeastern states, and the national conversion of voting machines to devices that do not provide for recounts, to say the least, then we should expect the worst next Tuesday … Vote Stealing … and not be surprised.

We should expect vote stealing where:

  •  Confusion exists due to dislocation caused by the weather or by voter suppression attempts.
  •  Published poll results show competing candidates are “tied” or either is leading by an amount within the poll’s margin of error;
  •  One party “spins” that their own negative poll results actually reveal how close their candidate is to the other and therefore should be viewed as a “virtual tie”, no matter the margin.
  •  Polling organizations release “consolidated” polls that reveal almost everything is a “toss-up”. And the media amplifies this kind of message because it provides controversy, drama, or great story lines;

In a national election, a state’s Exit Polls are not covered by the national media because that state is not considered to be “in play”. For example, on Nov. 6, 2012 “TV Election Night news coverage” will cancel “exit poll data in 19 states” while House and Senate seats are still at stake. Given the circumstances above, the following states might need extreme monitoring:

  •  Toss-up states are: OH, NH, VA, WI, IA, CO and FL.
  •  Leaning states are: MI, MN, PA, OR, NV, and NC.
  •  States excluded from detailed exit poll data coverage are: AK, AR, DE, DC, GA, HI, ID, KY, LA, NE, ND, OK, RI, SC, SD, TN, TX, WV, UT, and WY.

According to Bev Harris, BlackBoxVoting.org, the people have the right to know:

1. Who can vote

2. Who did vote,

3. The chain of custody, and

4. The accurate count

Thanks,

Patrick Scott

November 1, 2012

On Maryland’s Question 6

Though Marylanders will be spared the barrage of presidential campaign commercials those in “battleground” states are forced to endure, they do have to deal with commercials and media campaigns on a different battleground. Question 6, a referendum to vote FOR or AGAINST same sex marriage, will be on the ballot for Maryland voters this November and it is causing divisions within political parties, ethnic groups and religious affiliations throughout the entire state.

As Election Day draws nearer my inbox seems to get fuller! Lately, emails about Question 6 and my thoughts on the issue appear most often. While the temptation to offer a knee-jerk response is, for me, ever present I have learned over the years it is better to start with investigation before prognostication. I am sure we all have “feelings” about the issue; many of us feel something about this issue yet one fact remains; I have neither seen or heard any legal basis for denying anyone anything this referendum attempts to address.

Question 6: Civil Marriage Protection Act

Establishes that Maryland’s civil marriage laws allow gay and lesbian couples to obtain a civil marriage license, provided they are not otherwise prohibited from marrying; protects clergy from having to perform any particular marriage ceremony in violation of their religious beliefs; affirms that each religious faith has exclusive control over its own theological doctrine regarding who may marry within that faith; and provides that religious organizations and certain related entities are not required to provide goods, services, or benefits to an individual related to the celebration or promotion of marriage in violation of their religious beliefs.

A few of the commercials I have been able to find online feature some of the biggest names in today’s Black church with a few local Maryland pastors sprinkled in.  Most of the email I have received has been from those who would consider themselves Christians – mad Christians. Their disgust is aimed at the commercials but some are clearly conflicted as to why they are harboring so much anger; is it because many well-known and heretofore well respected ministers are speaking up in support of Question 6? Or are they bothered by the silence of others in the local faith community they feel should have something to say? At the end of the day, the responsibility of how we vote on this, or any other issue, ought not to be dependent upon what celebrity dictates.

There are those in the faith community who are choosing to support this referendum for one of two reasons. First and foremost, many in the faith community see this as a “civil rights issue” – declaring the struggle of the LGBT community “the same as” the struggle of Blacks in the ‘50s and ‘60s.  While I believe wholeheartedly it is an issue of civil rights I do not believe it is the same as the struggle of Blacks in the ‘50s and ‘60s.  People can’t always see that one is gay but they can certainly see if you are Black and that, for some, was all that was necessary to determine how you would be treated (pardon my digression, we can argue about that later).

Secondly, this referendum protects churches and other places of faith from having to perform these services should they choose not to. Further more it protects them from fines and prosecution for making the choice to say “no, not here” though it may not protect them from persecution for the same. Is this new? No. Don’t believe me? Is buying alcohol legal? Yes. Can you buy a drink in your church? No. I don’t care how “jiggy” your pastor is or how many buttons his suit has or how fly her hairdo may be! Those are choices that churches make based on their religious beliefs and they have a legal right to practice those beliefs as long as no one is harmed.

Still others in the faith community are arguing against this referendum and doing so solely on the basis of “what it says in the Bible”. Am I belittling that? No. Does the Bible have any legal standing? No, and those who support a wide distance between matters of Church and State should be ecstatic regardless of what side of this issue they find themselves sitting. But let’s flip it for a moment. Let us, for a moment,  suppose we were going to consult the Bible as the basis to make laws. If we stick with this argument of doing “what it says in the Bible” – that marriage is between a man and a woman – would we also allow a man to take multiple wives? Should we be happy if our daughters settle for being concubines? I mean, why not?! That, too, is “what it says in the Bible”. And let’s not even talk about “what it says in the Bible” about divorce and the acceptable reasons for getting one. We all know a lot of divorced folk and I am willing to bet not all have divorced for reasons the Bible deems acceptable.

At the end of the day I have heard no legal argument against this referendum. In fact, all that I have heard against this referendum has come from self-proclaimed Christians, based on  biblical interpretation, emotion and judgment. Should that be enough? For some, perhaps but if memory serves me correctly, Christians are not supposed to judge others, right? At least that’s “what it says in (my) bible” … how ‘bout yours?

 

The Help, The Oscars® & The Questions (Part 1 of 2)

So once again Oscar’s night has come and gone and I’m left with a couple of thoughts that I’d like to share. Since I am apparently hardwired to pick up on certain social vibes from these events it just makes sense to use this space to posit my thoughts.

These events always tend to make a statement about us all. Beneath the hype, glitz and glamour looms evidence of our values, politics and even the fragility of both. We are confronted with things we perhaps thought we believed and still other issues we may have found ourselves ignoring wholeheartedly.

All the buzz this season had been around the film adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling novel, The Help. I never thought The Help would win Best Picture; movies that deal with race issues –especially Black/White issues – no matter how much critical acclaim or box office success (also rare) never do. Don’t believe me? Check it out and get back to me. Now, let’s move on.

There was much discussion about the strong possibility of Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress nominees, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, respectively, winning two of the big three entertainment awards (Screen Actor’s Guild, Golden Globes and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences).  Davis finished the run with only the SAG award for Best Actress while Spencer came away winning all three. She actually won four awards but since Americans tend to ignore what’s happening in other countries I figured it pointless to mention that she also won the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) award for the Best Supporting Actress category.

Those of you who know me or have read me before will not be surprised by this fact but I tend to notice things. Being the social/cultural critic and humorist I am, I feel it’s my duty to bring them to your attention. If you are the type who thinks entertainment is just entertainment, that politics and social critique ought not be comingled then you should probably stop reading. You will no doubt take offense to what I am about to suggest. If you are still reading then I will assume you are, to some degree, interested. Let me offer a couple observations. I don’t suggest these are negative or positive; merely observations … my observations.

Let’s begin at the beginning. Being a lover and student of comedy, I was excited to hear last September that Eddie Murphy was going to host the 84th Annual Academy Awards show. Imagine my surprise when, not three months later, he wasn’t going to host the show. Murphy pulled out after his friend and Tower Heist producer, Brett Ratner, resigned as the producer of the Academy Awards Show after making some pretty raunchy public remarks and topped it off with an anti-gay slur. It stands to reason that Murphy would step down since Ratner is the guy who bought him to the table; but, man, was I upset – relatively speaking, of course. Whatever the case, this highlights an example of politics or “political correctness” coming into play. Eddie Murphy, arguably a very capable host, through no fault of his own, is out and Billy Crystal, also a very capable host, is in. Mind you, I am not agreeing or disagreeing with any of this, I am just… observing.

Now let’s move to the undercurrent of tension surrounding The Help. I read some of the book and listened to most of it as I was often on the road between Washington, DC and Greensboro, NC during that time. Sidebar: If I can find a good unabridged audiobook, preferably read by the author, I can think of no more thought provoking a companion on long drives. If not read by the author, then a well-produced rendering with great voice actors is a wonderful experience. Such was the case with the audiobook version of The Help. In fact, I was first introduced to Octavia Spencer through the audiobook where she first embodied “Minny Jackson” (a well-deserved shout out goes to Bahni Turpin for her portrayal of “Aibileen Clark” on the audiobook). I found the story humorous, mildly disturbing, corny and oversimplified at times, deserving of being told yet entertaining throughout.

Never once did I think, “Why is a white woman telling this story?!” or “Who does she think she is?!” There were those who knocked the book for not being factual and a host of other things the author probably never set out to do. She set out to tell a fictional story her way, loosely based on factual events as a reference point, nestled in a turbulent time in America’s history. Something we all are at liberty to do should we so chose. Would we have felt better if Stockett had sided with the racist white women and told their story and justified their treatment of the domestic workers? Or how would we have felt if the story was ignored altogether? But I digress. Let’s get back to the Awards show.

And the Oscar goes to … Octavia Spencer”, said Christian Bale as he pointed to Ms. Spencer seated just below stage and to his right. A shocked Spencer covers her face with her hands and hugs and kisses cast mates on her way to the retrieve her Oscar. The crowd almost immediately erupts with applause … and … a standing ovation! For the best supporting actress?! Please know that I am taking nothing away from Ms. Spencer’s performance. She was masterful and I believed she was Minny but … a standing ovation for one of the earliest awards in the evening?! Why? Make your your seatbelt is securely fastened, I’m making a hard left turn here using a right-wing writer. I believe, in large part, white guilt is to blame. What is that you ask?

In the fifth chapter of his twenty year old, nationally best-selling book, The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in America, conservative author Shelby Steele gave name to a phenomenon most Blacks have experienced and many whites have exhibited – White Guilt. Essentially, Steele asserts that Black American politics is rooted in “challenging” whites or any white power structure with the assumption they are racist until proven otherwise. So-called Black leaders work to keep “the pressure on”, to keep white folk “on the hook” for all of the issues that hold Blacks at a disadvantage. That type of “pressure” causes whites – and to some extent our institutions –  to live under threat of being called or considered racist, thus personally attaching individuals to the shame of America’s cruel and racist past. The need to do, say, advocate for or promote anything to the contrary is driven by what Steele refers to as White Guilt. It can manifest in something as mundane as an extraordinary tip at a restaurant to something all-encompassing like political policy, i.e., the civil rights act of 1964 or even affirmative action programs, according to Steele.

So when people started standing up to join in the ovation, what white person would have wanted to have been caught sitting down when the whole friggin’ room was on their feet applauding and cheering for this little known Black actress from Alabama (Racism Headquarters during the Civil Rights era) who played a maid in Mississippi (Racism Headquarters II)? Spencer wasn’t the first Black to win best supporting actress. Hell, she wasn’t even the first to win Best Supporting Actress for playing a maid. Hattie McDaniel holds both those distinctions from her Oscar win in 1939 … and you know she didn’t get a standing ovation! Fast forward fifty one years to 1990; Whoopie Goldberg wins for best supporting actress – no standing ovation; Jennifer Hudson wins the for the same in 2006 followed by, my homegirl, Mo’Nique in 2009 and neither of them were met with such a rousing standing “o”.

Why not?

Because none of the films for which they won their Oscar had characters that had to suffer racist white people or institutions, directly, for much of the movie in the movie. So, I contend, Steele’s “White Guilt” got a holiday. The only other standing ovation for a Black actress was given to Halle Berry for her 2001 Best Actress win for Monster’s Ball. On that same night Denzel Washington won for Best Actor and as he said during his acceptance remarks the Academy got “two birds with one night”. The first ever Black actress in the Academy’s almost seventy-five year history to win Best Actress and only the second Black actor to win Best Actor? In the same night?! White Guilt was working overtime because they both got a standing ovation that night!

(Continued on March 13, 2012)

Public Thoughts & Private Schools (Part 3 of 4)

(Continued from January 9, 2012)

I have no idea if the same ideology is still employed but back then the teachers in grades one through three were all white females. They taught the basics; reading, handwriting, composition, social studies and the like. Industrial Arts (commonly referred to as “shop”) was the only exception with one of two white male instructors. Shop was taught in the basement of another building with an enclosed drawing room and a work area that would have made any “do-it-yourselfer” proud. I don’t remember even seeing a woman so much as walk through the “shop” and my first and third grade homeroom teachers were married to the shop instructors! But once we got to the fourth grade all of my teachers were white and male. I got along and played well with everybody for the most part. I was invited to birthday parties and sleepovers and my family followed suit and did the same. I had no “behavioral problems” to speak of and managed to stay on the honor roll with consistency through the third grade and into the fourth before things started feeling different. While rummaging through old pictures and papers in preparation for this essay, I ran across one of my fourth grade report cards. I noticed that the teacher made reference to my being “scrappy”. This was a sudden and definite change in the character that had been exhibited in grades one through three. It seemed as if this new character trait was beginning to stick without anyone questioning what might be causing this previously likeable, friendly “young man” to become so “scrappy” all of the sudden.

 

 

Most of the “scraps”, of any kind, happened at recess or on the way to the gymnasium. For me, they were usually the result of being called some name or having to somehow prove my right to be there. One student used to constantly call me “motor oil boy” but because my last name was Phillips I didn’t initially hear this as an insult. Phillips 66 service stations were all across the country back then and they sold motor oil.  Being in school with the children of rich business owners, chief surgeons and law firm partners, I imagined being part of the Phillips petroleum dynasty would afford me membership to the rich kids club. Little did I know that even if my father had owned the entire city, I could never have been a member of that club. With the naiveté of a child, I would smile when he would say it … the first 100 times … then I began to look at him with a tilted head … as the fact that motor oil was black kicked in. I rushed him with fists blazing wildly. Of course, I was viewed as the aggressor because no one heard any profanity. Motor oil ain’t a bad word. And the troublemaking, “Eddie Haskell” types are always keen on where figures of authority are and when they are not nearby. But in those days, calling me or any other Black kid, “boy”, was enough to warrant a beat down. You may as well have called me “nigger”. And some did.

 

 

In January of 1977, Roots, aired on network television.  The miniseries was based on Alex Haley’s semiautobiographical book, Roots: The Saga of an American Family that follows Kunta Kinte from Gambia, West Africa to America spanning from 1750 – 1867, five years after the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation and two years after the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. I remember the air being thick with nervous anticipation in the Black community. On the one hand, we felt like the story of slavery in America was finally going to be told on a large scale from our point of view; the same story told to everyone at the same time. On the other hand, with the cynicism that accompanies centuries of murder and abuse, decades of desegregation and years filled with countless broken promises and deferred dreams; some quietly feared the Black man’s story would be whitewashed. Nevertheless, it was reported that 130-140 million viewers, as many as eighty-five percent of American households with televisions, watched all or some of Roots on ABC. Clearly, it wasn’t just Black folk who were watching. The miniseries began airing on a Sunday evening, January 23, and ran through January 30, 1977. I was in the seventh grade, a little less than a month away from my thirteenth birthday.

 

 

As that week progressed so did the depictions of mistreatment and struggle for Kunta Kinte and his descendants. I remember hoping none of my white classmates would mention anything about the miniseries. I felt, either intentionally or unintentionally, it would just come out of their mouths wrong so it was better left alone. If it had to be mentioned at all, I would rather have had it come from a teacher. Acknowledgement on that level could serve as an endorsement and would have given it even more validity. As fate would have it, the opposite happened; I don’t recall any official class time being devoted to Roots. However, I do remember it being mentioned by some of my classmates.  One encounter is to this day as vivid in my mind as if it happened only just yesterday. As you may have guessed, it was outside at recess. Now in middle school, we were much closer to the gymnasium and relegated to playing between it and the middle school building, on or around the curve of the track that served as the “home stretch” or the last leg of the relay races we used to run in gym class during the spring. There was blacktop just inside the curve that held four basketball hoops and ample field space to kick a soccer ball or toss a football around.

It was late one sunny, crisp, Baltimore morning. It was a normal, uneventful recess and then I heard it. The poor imitation of a supposed African chant rose above the snickering and laughter of a small group of troublemakers convened at the end of the track. As far as I can remember, the other Black kids were otherwise engaged with the rest of the kids or too far away to hear. I then began to make out certain words amidst the cowardly incoherent mumblings of my WASP “friends”. “Blah, blah, blah … Roots”. Giggles. I stopped. “Yada, yada, yada … slaves … back to Africa”. More giggles and snickering. I turned. “Blah, blah, blah … niggers”. I began walking toward the crowd that was now dispersing. Leaving this incident’s ring leader to fend for himself.  “What did you say?” I asked, now standing right in front of his face with fists balled at my side. It felt as if everything stopped moving. All the other games stopped and a crowd of kids began to close in around the two of us.

“Nigger!” he said. And as he swung, I blocked then countered with a shot to the gut that robbed him of the wind to produce any words much less derogatory racial epithets, as if there were any other kind. I drew back ready to deliver a hellacious left hook but by the time it reached his face my hand was wide open with fingers fully extended. When my palm made contact with his face it rang out with the loudest slap I had ever heard. As he fell back to the ground I could see his face had reddened almost instantly and his glasses were knocked off his face. The crowd moved in closer as I followed him to the ground straddling his chest with my knees pinning the great wrestler’s arms down. I drew back once again amid the cheers and jeers to “Kill’em Phillips!” Ironically, some of the cheers came from members of the original group of troublemakers that were moments ago part of the problem. He was clearly the underdog and at a definite disadvantage.  Just when I was about to unleash the blow he, while bawling, looked at me and said, “So what?! Hit me! You’re still a nigger!” With that my arm, already cocked, began to tremble and my fist shook with rage. I burst into tears and got up having never thrown the punch. I didn’t understand what had happened but I was momentarily inconsolable.

I was too young to know what I was experiencing but I remember being awestruck at the level of what I then could only describe as hate. How does a preteen child build up enough hate for another anything much less another human being?! Most people in a position of such disadvantage find some way to compromise or plead for mercy even if they are right … but to find someone to be so wrong and so defiant … someone who seemed to dislike me that much solely because of the color of my skin was heartbreaking. If I had to offer some explanation of my tears, I would have to say they were, in part, from the shame of allowing this fool to cause me to lose control and come outside of myself but my tears were also representative of the hopelessness I felt about the possibility of this ever changing. The realization that no matter how many classes or experiences we shared, some would never consider me or anyone who looked like me their equal, was disheartening at best.

By this time one of the teachers monitoring recess was rushing over to break up what I had already stopped. The bell signaling the end of recess was sounding simultaneously. While everyone else went to class my “friend” and I were marched to Head of School’s office. I am sure we must have been a sight for the Head of School.  There my “friend” was with broken glasses resting askew and half of his face reddened and swollen in a spot that, oddly enough, was shaped an awful lot like my hand and me sniffing and drying tears but untouched.

 

 

We sat together but were asked for our account of what happened independently. My “friend” spoke first and said that I “hit him in the face and broke his glasses”. Hearing no denial from me the Head of School looked to me as if to ask, “and what do you have to say, Wendell?” to which I quickly retorted, “He called me a nigger!” With that, I was sent back to class with a note explaining my delay. My “friend” stayed in the office for an extended period of time and while I have no idea what was said I do know that he had to report to detention for the better part of that week.

For those who think my punishment was really no punishment at all I suppose we could argue that point, after all, I was the aggressor but what would a fair punishment for me have looked like? If I were the Head of School what would I have done … especially if I never had to deal with a race issue like that before? This was more evidence of the murky water that Dad and Finney muddled through years before.

The unchartered waters of race relations and other culture clashes made visible an Achilles’ heel not only for private schools but society in general. There were rules on the books that seemed to unintentionally expose the cultural exclusivity of some schools. For example, here’s one rule that actually worked in favor of Black kids; there was a rule that stated your hair could not grow past your shirt collar. Well, we all wore afros and our hair grew straight up and out instead of down our neck toward the collar. We got to let our hair grow as long as we wanted. While that sounded cool to us as kids, as an adult I realized that was proof of the fact that we were never expected to be there in the first place.

My worst experiences regarding race were perpetuated by a small group of “blue-blooded”, “WASP” kids who had an elitist, untouchable air about them and their parents were loaded. They seemed to get some joy from giving me hell for being Black in much the same way they may have gotten joy from teasing a poor white kid from Arbutus or Dundalk. Whatever the reason … whatever the case … this was getting old.

(Continued January 23, 2012)