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.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XQFs462MvXc

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.

The Residue in the Melting Pot

As the years pass I think what I find more frustrating than direct racism is its residue. For example, the other day I deposited a check at the bank – a national bank. It wasn’t a really large check, though I suppose that point is relative, but let’s just say it was large enough that I would not be in the best mood had I lost it. I roll up to the bank in what would be considered an “economically challenged” area and deposit the check at the ATM … in part because I didn’t have a deposit slip but (and here comes evidence of the residue) also because I didn’t feel like leaving a thumbprint or a DNA sample or whatever other ridiculousness customers are subjected to inside banks nowadays.

The beauty of this bank’s ATM is that you can just deposit the check without a deposit slip. So, “beep, boop, boop, beep, bop” code in … annnnd… enter … “We cannot accept this check at this time” … spits the check – from another FDIC regulated bank, mind you – out. What gives?! Reinsert … “BEEP! BOOP! BOOP! BEEP! BOP!” CODE IN! ENTER! Took the check but only made available about a third of the total. That news wasn’t foreign to me and I expected as much. Usually later in the day human eyes will review the transaction or actually see the check and realizing it’s not bogus, make the remaining balance available. But not this time. The receipt goes on to explain that the remainder will not be available until almost a week from now. WTH?! This wasn’t a personal check.

MeltingPot

So what does this have to do with racism and its residue? My friends of color may need no explanation but some (not all) of my white friends, those who are not as experienced in traversing those areas deemed, by many, to be “economically challenged” may need a bridge. In many major cities this challenged area is preceded by the word “East” and followed by the city’s name. Pardon the digression, but why is that? Anyway, here’s the connection: I immediately thought, “I bet if I had deposited the same check in another part of town I wouldn’t have to wait that long!” In an instant, the great start to my morning was altered by the residue of institutionalized racism. No other person had called me “nigger”, no other person had denied me one thing, and no other person was even around … yet I felt denied and somehow violated. Now, the exact same scenario could have occurred at the same bank chain on the “other” side of town, It could have been universal company policy but it just didn’t feel like it to me at the moment.

The problem is not whether there is or is not a difference but the perception that a difference exists. Albeit my personal problem it is still a problem that causes me to step back and recalculate my thoughts and attitudes more often than a GPS device with Stevie Wonder at the wheel. It is mentally exhaustive and even though many of us have learned to make these adjustments subconsciously on the fly, the residue still lingers.

ENOUGH! (for Trayvon Martin, et al.)

Like many of you, I, too, am outraged at the senseless killing of Trayvon Martin. I am sure there will be those who will speak of the tension between Blacks and Latinos or Black and whites; and those discussions will deal mainly – if not solely – with blame and victimization. In that discussion there is little talk of solution. Depending on what they believe, one picks a side and is either declared “racist” or “not racist”. If you side with those who are being blamed you will be considered “racist”; side with the victim and you are cleared. But what if I suggest that while we aren’t all racists, we are all victims? Of what, you ask?

We are all altered, if not victimized by what social psychologists refer to as identity contingencies – the things we have to go through based on our social identity (i.e., race, gender, political affiliation, age, sexual orientation). Claude Steele, in his book, Whistling Vivaldi, speaks specifically to a particular type of identity contingency that he calls “stereotype threat”. It has a negative effect on our performance, our psyche, how we view others and even how we view ourselves. Unfortunately, Trayvon Martin is the latest victim of this phenomenon. My prayers are with his family and all parents ( like Christa Olgesby of CNN ) who live with this fear daily.

The common denominator is “Black”. “Black” seems to carry an almost universal nefariousness. Black Monday. Black October. Black Market. Black Male. I have never been any other race but I can assume that white parents don’t have to have “the talk” with their children before they walk out of their homes and into the world. By, “the talk”, I don’t mean sex … I mean survival. The laundry list of “don’ts” that every Black male has heard from one or both of his parents regarding how to simply be in the world; all the things that must be done just to exist. Growing up it was just another inane rule, we didn’t know any different. As an adult and, especially in light of Trayvon’s murder, I shudder to think of the foolish things I did. Trayvon obeyed every rule.

These rules were and (sadly) still are universal. Washington Post columnists, Jonathan Capehart and Eugene Robinson felt compelled to weigh in on this tragedy. First, Capehart stated “one of the burdens of being a black male is carrying the heavy weight of other people’s suspicions. One minute you’re going about your life, the next you could be pleading for it if you’re lucky”. Jonathan was raised in New Jersey and had the same rules that I had growing up in Baltimore, Maryland years earlier. His colleague at the Post, Eugene Robinson, being raised in South Carolina and nearly ten years my senior certainly knew the rules. “For every black man in America”, says Robinson, “from the millionaire in the corner office to the mechanic in the local garage, the Trayvon Martin tragedy is personal.” Trayvon’s demise struck a low, deep chord that united all Black males in sorrow regardless of social status. It could have been anyone of us growing up.

These statements get at the crux of Steele’s “stereotype threat”. Steele contends while some identity contingencies influence us by constraining behavior, the greater danger, a tad more subtle but exponentially more dangerous, is “putting a threat in the air.” I could recite stereotypes for every social group but since Trayvon is Black, I will summarize the “threat(s) in the air” to which much of society subscribes as it pertains to Black teenagers: they are suspicious by nature, abnormally prone to skullduggery, crime and drug dealing; untrustworthy and generally guilty until proven innocent. Of course all of this is utterly ridiculous but there are those who hold these as self-evident truths. We can place George Zimmerman’s name high atop that list.

What will it take for us to speak life in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s senseless death? What will it take for us to vote those out of office who support legislation that promotes vigilantism – like “Stand-Your-Ground”? Since the passing of that law in 2005, deaths due to self-defense are up over 200 percent. The Tampa Bay Times reported 132 cases where the “Stand-Your-Ground” law was invoked; 74 defendants (56%) were cleared. Now, almost half of the states in America have similar legislation on the books. Laws like these coupled with a growing desensitization to violence and a disenfranchised electorate work to create and embolden the George Zimmermans of the world.

Trayvon Martin was a victim of the stereotype threats that Steele defines. We have allowed these threats to pollute the air for far too long. We will never conquer what we will not confront. Let’s clear the air because all of humanity is gasping, if not choking…pleading for help in the same way Trayvon pleaded for his life. Let it not be in vain.

 

The Help, The “Oscars” & The Questions (Part 2 of 2)

(Continued from March 3, 2012)

I contend, inviting the ire of some I am sure, the standing ovations were less about the performance of the actors and more about assuaging feelings of guilt associated with one of two things (or both): 1) the length of time it took Blacks to be recognized for their talent by the Academy and 2) the type of role they played for which they received the award engendered some guilt, pity or fear. Let’s look at the characters portrayed by the only four Black actresses or actors I have ever seen to receive standing ovations:

BEST ATRESS OR ACTOR

“Leticia Musgrove” (Halle Berry) in Monster’s Ball – the wife of a convicted and executed murderer left to care for her morbidly obese son alone. She begins an affair with the white racist corrections officer, who with his son, assist in the execution of Leticia’s husband. A rough, explicit alcohol and pain induced sex scene ensues that borders on soft porn. While that is not the crux of the movie the scene is burned onto the retina of all who have seen it. – “Make me feel goooooooood!”“Leticia Musgrove”

“Homer Smith” (Sidney Poitier*) in Lilies of the Field – the ex G.I. and itinerant handyman who “carried his home on four wheels”; a “big, strong man” is “just what five lonely women were looking for … just the man to make their prayers and dreams come true” says the voiceover in the movie’s trailer. WTH?! Wait! My younger readers are probably thinking, how can Sidney Poitier win for this kind of smut?! Well, before you go too far down the road I’ve paved so nicely, these five women are nuns in need of a chapel in the Arizona desert. The movie highlights the tension (with tenderness and humor)between a Black passerby and the stubborn, Austrian mother superior, Mother Maria. Seeing this as a very idealistic, “hands across America”, “Kumbaya” kind of movie, the revolutionary in me could attack it but the Christian in me is bigger and can’t argue against a movie that uses the Sermon on the Mount as its foundation. – “I ain’t building no ‘shapel’! Not only am I ain’t buildin’ no ‘shapel’, I’m takin’ off!”“Homer Smith”

Detective “Alonzo Harris” (Denzel Washington) in Training Day – the maniacal sociopathic, highly decorated detective gone bad. A street tough, lying, manipulating, drug peddling, misogynistic, pimp-like thief. – “Myyy nigga!”, “It’s not what you know, it’s what you can prove.” – “ You motherf**kers will be playing basketball in Pelican Bay when I get finished with you … I’m the man up in this piece … who the f**k do you think you’re f**king with? I’m the police, I run (ish) around here. You just live here. King Kong ain’t got (ish) on me!” – “Alonzo Harris”

“Ray Charles” (Jamie Foxx) in Ray – the biopic of a phenomenal American musician and entertainer who happened to be Black and blind. He battled his demons (infidelity and drug addiction) and the demons of this country (racism and segregation) while revolutionizing the world of music with a blend of gospel, jazz, rock and pop music. Charles even crossed over into country music. Biopics are demanding for actors as they are in so many scenes but Foxx masterfully yet believably came to life as Ray Charles. – “I’m gonna make it do what it do…” – Jamie Fox as “Ray Charles”

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Mary Lee Johnston” (Mo’Nique) in Precious – the extremely abusive, unemployed, highly dysfunctional “monster” of a mother of the obese, illiterate, pregnant sixteen year old Precious, for whom the film is named. They live in Section 8 housing and deal with one conflict wrapped in another and covered by yet another. A grim, turbulent look at the lifestyle of a dysfunctional “family” that both Blacks and whites alike spend most of their time trying to ignore. While Precious doesn’t exactly ride off into the sunset, I would guess we would have to consider Precious as somewhat triumphant. – “That was my f**kin’ man. That was my man and he wanted my daughter. And that’s why I hated her because it was my man who was supposed to be loving me, who was supposed to be making love to me and he was f**king my baby … and she made him leave … she made him go away.” – “Mary Lee Johnston”

“Minny Jackson” (Octavia Spencer) in The Help – quick witted, wise cracking opinionated maid, cook and caretaker for whites in the Jim Crow south during the Civil Rights era. Minny is the wife of a physically abusive, never seen husband, who has trouble holding jobs due to her uncontrollable outspokenness. – “You cookin’ white food, you taste it with a different spoon. They see you puttin’ the tastin’ spoon back in the pot, might as well throw it all out. Spoon too. And you use the same cup, same bowl, same plate everyday. And you put it up in the cabinet. Tell that white woman that’s where you gonna keep it from now on out. Don’t do that? See what happens.” –(speaking to her daughter, “Sugar”, before her first day on the job as a maid like her mother and grandmother before her). – “Minny Jackson” .

All of these performers were extremely convincing in their portrayals and all were deserving of their awards but was Training Day’s Denzel Washington really that much better than Malcolm X’s, Malcolm or The Hurricane’s, Rubin “Hurricane” Carter? Or was the Academy more at ease awarding an Oscar for the portrayal of a flawed fictional character rather than a real life figure who helped to expose America’s flaws? Am I reading too much into all of this? Perhaps. Perhaps not. But the only place many in the white community would meet an “Alonzo Harris” would be in the movies. As real as the “Alonzo” is in some Black communities he is distant fiction in the white community and thus easily dismissed. Malcom X (later El Hajj Malik El-Shabazz) was real and he scared folk, especially white folk – and truth be told, some Black folk, too!

I know there were other Black actors who received Best Actor and Best Supporting actor awards but they didn’t receive standing ovations. However, the roles for which they won their award helps to prove my point:

  • “Pvt. Silas Trip” (Denzel Washington) in Glory – a cocky, ex-slave soldier
  • “Rod Tidwell” (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) in Jerry McGuire – a cocky jock
  • “Eddie ‘Scrap-Iron’ DuPris” (Morgan Freeman) in Million Dollar Baby – a not so cocky ex-jock.
  • “Idi Amin” (Forest Whitaker) in The Last King of Scotland – the notorious Ugandan dictator who reportedly murdered no less than 80,000 people.

Again, all well played parts and deserving of awards … but … do I really need to go on?

Let’s look at Monster’s Ball for a moment. Did the standing ovation make those white men feel better? The white men who had father’s like the one the late Peter Boyle portrayed in the movie? The white fathers that told their sons they weren’t men until they “split dark oak”? What about the men – Black and white – who secretly harbored less than noble thoughts about Halle Berry? Did they feel better when they stood and clapped? What about those who wished and hoped they could change places with Billy Bob Thornton just for that one scene? Was their guilt for finding some degree of pleasure, crouched somewhere deep and hidden, in that animalistic sexual display of “Leticia’s” pain somehow washed away?

Many southern whites, even The Help author, Kathryn Stockett were raised and nurtured by “Minnys”, “Aibileens” and even Hattie McDaniel’s, “Mammy” from Gone With the Wind. Was the ovation some way to say thank you? Hell, was the book itself a big “thank you” letter from Stockett to Demetrie, her family’s “Help” in Mississippi for generations? And were those who clapped so feverishly as so many additional signatures upon that letter?

Look, I may have only stirred up a lot of questions but for now, that’s all I have. One of the biggest questions about The Help was raised by Karina Longworth in her piece in the Village Voice: “Why do little white girls who are raised lovingly by black maids turn into raging racist a**holes once they’ve grown to run their own households?” Or let’s take one more trip back to the Awards show when Chris Rock mentioned that a white voiceover actor can portray an Arabian prince but a Black voiceover actor is relegated to “donkeys or zebras”. Yes there was a small amount of nervous, uncomfortable laughter but the question still remains unanswered. Why is that? Are those fair questions? Why does this race thing perpetuate and replicate and, at times, reinvent itself? I think it’s because we won’t have the conversations and we continue to let the opportunities to have those conversations pass us by. We refuse to be uncomfortable for more than about two hours or whatever the average length of a feature film.

I don’t have the answers nor do I claim to … and neither do you. But we, you and I, do have the answers. In fact, we are the only ones who can solve the problems but we will never find solutions to issues we refuse to confront. I’m not looking to blame any one. I’m looking for peace … wanna help?

* – The multiple camera angles and views to which we have grown accustomed were not available to us in the Academy Awards show footage of 1963. I was unable to discern whether Sidney Poitier actually received a standing ovation but the applause sure made it sound as if he did. Since he was the first Black Actor to receive an Oscar, this writer finds it fitting that he be noted regardless.

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)

On Police Brutality

Let me start by saying “some of my best friends are” police officers. No, seriously, they are! In fact, my father’s best friend in the world, George Guest, was a Baltimore City police officer during an ugly time in this country’s history; when the brutality within the ranks was just as bad as the brutality in minority communities everywhere. But that’s another story for another time.

I think there’s a special place in Heaven for those who are willing to risk their life to serve and protect others. My heart goes out to those who lose family members and friends in the line of duty and others who endure sleepless nights worrying if their loved one will make it home safely. While many officers do the right thing every day – or at least try to – there are a number of officers who seem to have forgotten why they joined the force. Some have simply had enough while others have decided to protect and serve only themselves.

It is precisely because of my respect for those who I know do the right thing and those who have lost their lives protecting the rights and lives of others that I feel compelled to touch upon the subject of police brutality; especially in light of the recent brutality and terrorizing of the Latino community in East Haven and New Haven, Connecticut. Star Trek fans will remember the exchange between Spock and Kirk from the movie, The Wrath of Khan, “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” but when it comes to instances of police brutality and misconduct, the acts of the few taint the deeds of the many. The Connecticut case has plenty of attention  so I am not as concerned with that case as I am with the instances that go un– or under– reported everyday because citizens feel their word will never stand against the word of an officer of the law.

If we study all that America believes about justice; all that America believes about law, order and honor; all that she believes about security and protection (both personal and collective); if we funneled all that – and a good portion of the Constitution – into a person … it would be an officer of the law. It could be argued a judge would better personify those values but I would counter with the fact that judges merely offer interpretation. But a police officer? That’s where the rubber meets the road literally and figuratively. Think about it. Why else would the instances of their misconduct command such attention and horror?

Whether consciously or subconsciously, fairly or unfairly, we hold law enforcement officers to a higher standard; at least we used to. The same can be said for ministers, teachers and the like. But lately, there have been examples of each falling hard from the pedestal upon which we’ve placed them. Police officers and, in some cases, entire police departments are only reflections of our larger society. Like it or not, whether your police department is an exception or not, we all bear some of the responsibility when things go wrong. From the Sheriff of a small, one-horse town to the chief (or permeating the ranks) of the biggest metropolitan police force you can bring to mind, these officers are at once a personification of our values and evidentiary of our fears and shortcomings.

What tends to be overlooked in most discussions is the fact that “they” (police officers) are part of “us” (the larger society). They are shaped, molded and affected by the same things that shape, mold and affect us all. They grew up in our neighborhoods, attended the same schools, were impacted – positively or negatively – by the same institutions that impact us all but somehow we expect them to behave differently. We expect them to show up free of preconceived notions or prejudice. We expect them to be able to remedy any situation; most of the time in the heat of some of the most hellish moments … moments with which many of us will never have to suffer. We expect them to enter a situation as blind as Lady Justice, with balanced scales in hand, into areas where nothing is balanced and playing fields have been unlevel for years. But do we enter situations without a certain degree of judgement or prejudice? Probably not. Their prejudices are our prejudices in uniform … fortified with a badge and a gun. And yet, when they (re) act, we find ourselves shocked and astonished … as if they somehow are not representative of us all.

We review footage; we rewind tapes and reenact uncomfortable moments in the comfort of our homes or court rooms frantically searching for some “other” way something could have been “handled”. Somehow, somewhere we must find someone to blame and usually the culpability of the accused is directly related to his or her economic viability. But the news, almost daily, exposes yet another story of police misconduct at the intersection of “Oh God” and “Not Again”, where immediacy and (re)action rule the day; where a “second look” or “another chance” are nothing more than tardy, unaffordable luxuries. And we find ourselves horrified … again. But what do we do? And what do we expect?

Color me naive and idealistic but I, for one, expect us all to do better … to be better … to be better stewards of this God given gift called life. Yeah, I expect that. I expect the Golden Rule to prevail. I expect respect. I expect to be viewed as a human being, first. I expect that all citizens are innocent until proven guilty and should be treated as such. I expect when officers “misspeak” (read: reveal who they really are) that their apologies be remorseful and sincere or not offered at all. I expect that in cases of blatant police misconduct or brutatlity that the Constitution of the United States be interpreted as a weapon of justice for all rather than a shield from blame for some.

Public Thoughts & Private Schools (Part 4 of 4)

(Continued from January 16, 2012)

By the eighth grade, I think, emotionally, I had enough and was ready to go. It had gotten to a point where my day was consumed with trying to discern the motives of others. Did that group of kids really forget that I was going to walk to gym class with them? Or did they just leave me because they didn’t want to walk with the Black kid? Was Mr. “So-and –So” pushing me to uncover and develop gifts or talents that he recognized? Or was he picking on me because I was Black and thus too dumb to be there? My grades had dropped off enough for me to believe the latter and the school to feel comfortable enough to declare me “not Gilman material” which was odd because Gilman was the only school I had ever attended and for the seven years prior, one could safely assume I had been “Gilman material”. That declaration, “not Gilman material”, cut my parents deeply but they didn’t mention it to me until years later.

I remember coming to my father on one particular occasion and expressing my concern about the racial tension I felt I had to endure. We talked but I remember not being totally satisfied with the discussion. I couldn’t put my finger on it but the conversation didn’t seem to help much. It may have stopped the pain, momentarily, closed the wound, at least temporarily, but there was still the ugly scar with which I would have to contend.

As a child I had no idea the fine line my father had to walk. It wasn’t until after he died that I discovered this journal entry and as I read it, I was taken back to that moment and I wept. I wept for him knowing full well he must have wept for me in the aftermath of that moment. And the thought of the strength in his restraint is overwhelming. He was unwilling to project what had been his truth on me … all the while hoping against hope that his reality wouldn’t have to be mine. Aside from the loss of a child, God forbid, there is no greater pain for a parent than the inability to “fix it” for their child. While he had some idea of what I was dealing with I had no idea the bind I was placing him in until I read the following journal entry and prayer:

“I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about my son’s education and motivation or perhaps I should say lack of motivation. I’m torn between him leaving Gilman and not leaving Gilman.

Pooh has bad study habits and lacks discipline. Gilman does not help that situation. I cannot help but think that were he White and I a big contributor, things would be different and they would help us help him develop good study habits.

The racism leaks through in every conference I’ve had at Gilman! It’s not blatant – which makes it even more damaging! The phrase is “Gilman material” – that means preferably WASP!

How does one teach his son pride in being Black and the dangers of White racism without it taking effect in his whole educational process? I want so much for Pooh to be the best possible Christian warrior he can be. It’s an uphill pull! They’ve led him to believe he doesn’t have the brain energy to do the work – when I think of that I get hostile!

I pray God that we correct that and that Pooh will get turned on academically. He’s a fantastic son, bad grades and all – lazy study habits or not. I just pray he clicks on before something happens to me. I’ll die much easier knowing that’s happened.

Hear my prayer O Lord –

Turn not away from me or my son –

Though he seeks not thy help –

Turn to him – make known to him his worth to you – his sonship –

Take him and keep him forever in your presence. Amen.”

EPILOGUE

Though this is just one story, of one student at one school, my purpose here was not to shine a light on the school but rather to lift these young trailblazers. I wanted to create a forum where more stories like these could be told and different experiences shared. Yes, I believe we were trailblazers. No, we didn’t lead marches; we didn’t organize protests or stage sit-ins but we were the children of those who did and we carried their spirit through halls they were never allowed to tread. The sacrifices of our parents’ generation afforded us opportunities they all but demanded we take. We were tramping in an environment they had never experienced and that’s what made us trailblazers. These experiences are the types of things that get swept under the rug or dismissed as part of the coming of age experience we all go through. But I submit this experience, for me, was much more than merely another coming of age story. The fact that it’s been more than forty years since the first day of my private school experience and I am still writing about its effects should prove how large this period loomed in my life; yet I rest assured that things have changed for the better and great strides have been made as now concrete has been laid on the raw trail we blazed.

I have no axe to grind nor any score to settle but issues like these are rarely talked about. You need to know that I have some great friendships that still endure. Some of my closest friends in school (and to this day) were Jewish, Greek and yes, even some folks who would be considered by folks other than themselves, WASPs. They are all over the globe doing great things and if I were to call on them they would remember me and be willing to help. I did sleepovers and parties at their homes, learned about their culture and quirks and my family reciprocated. Though I attended high school and graduated from the New Baltimore City College High School and absolutely loved everybody from my graduating class, I still receive information and invitations to class reunions at Gilman and when I can, I attend. In fact, I plan to attend the thirty year reunion this May.

My parents wanted to give me the best of everything they could afford and often reached beyond what they could afford just for me. I can find no other way to thank them than to continue to grow, learn, teach and love my children enough to afford them every opportunity. I am eternally grateful to them for showing me how to love that much. Education was then and still is such a lifestyle determinant. A private school education has always been a hugely expensive endeavor and an academic leg up. That said, I have grown to count all of my years in private school as extremely valuable though not all of my lessons were academic and while I have no regrets, I cannot tell you how many times I have thought back on those years and the two educations that I received; the academic, paid for my parents and the social, offered freely by immersion and without solicitation.

I am hopeful that this story and others like it will help parents and their children better understand the unintended consequences of their choices regarding education. That is not to say the choice to send your child to a private school is a bad choice. In fact, I could argue, without much real opposition, you will not find greater academic resources or intellectual agility than in private schools. But, parents of minority students, please know there will be “home” work that must be done to reinforce self – esteem and define self-identity. I am sure there are those who will argue that – no matter the school or the child – everyone’s self-esteem and self-identity take hits during the coming of age years. However, I believe these normal struggles are only compounded by issues of race and class; the ever-present, rarely confronted elephants in the room.

Gilman has made great strides and continues to do so. It is only fitting that for all his compassion and hard work that Gilman recognizes Finney’s contributions and legacy by naming an award after him that celebrates the student who distinguishes himself “through his dedication to and practice of those human values necessary to eliminate racism, prejudice, and intolerance”.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention with some level of pride, Gilman’s current Headmaster, John E. Schmick who was my fifth grade teacher. Mr. Schmick was also a product of Gilman graduating twenty years after Finney. Like my father knew that Finney “got” it, I know that Schmick “gets” it. He was not only my homeroom teacher but also my Language Arts teacher. It was in his class where I first remember having good feelings associated with my writing. He would invite us to let our imagination run wild on paper. I remember writing a piece that mentioned most everyone in the class and when I read it aloud. They loved it! Mr. Schmick made it a “treat” and if we finished all of our work early he would allow me to read the story to the class again. He would say, “Wendini, come on up and read that story”. I know Gilman is in good hands and there are probably many schools across the country that are to be commended … but so too are the young trailblazers from all private schools from 1965-1985.