Remembering Civil Rights Icon Julian Bond, The Voice Of ‘Eyes On The Prize’

August 17, 2015 at 10:51 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Former NAACP chairman Julian Bond takes part in the "Heroes of the Civil Rights Movement" panel during the Civil Rights Summit on Wednesday, April 9, 2014, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Jack Plunkett)

Former NAACP chairman Julian Bond takes part in the “Heroes of the Civil Rights Movement” panel during the Civil Rights Summit on Wednesday, April 9, 2014, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Jack Plunkett)

Commentary by Callie Crossley
Callie Crossley was a producer for the iconic documentary series “Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years,” which earned her an Oscar nomination, a National Emmy, and the Alfred I. DuPont-Columbia Award.

We were gathered around a weather beaten table on one of the top floors of a nondescript red brick building in the pre-gentrified South End. This was the headquarters of what would turn out to be the most respected and honored documentary series about the civil rights movement, and the seminal experience of my career.

Our boss Henry Hampton opened that first production meeting making two things clear—the name of the series would be “Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years 1954-1965.” (All worries about how that long title would fit into the tiny squares of the printed newspaper TV guides were summarily dismissed.) Second, Henry declared the narrator of the series would be Julian Bond. Julian Bond? We were confused. Bond was not a professional narrator; in fact he’d never narrated so much as a public service announcement.

Of course we knew Julian Bond’s civil rights credentials—as a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee or SNCC — he’d been a leader during some of the most dangerous protests during the ten years of history we were chronicling. He’d gone on to a distinguished career in politics marked by his two-year battle to be seated in the Georgia House of Representatives. A fight that went all the way to the Supreme Court when the court finally ruled that his opposition to the Vietnam War did not make him ineligible to be a State Representative. Julian was the first President of the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization he co founded with Morris Dees. He was already in the history books when I met him, already embraced by an international community of activists. That’s why we saw him as an important witness whose story should be a part of the series. But Henry said no, one of the few times he made no room for consensus decision making. Julian Bond would be our narrator.

He was never so right. Henry saw then what we didn’t appreciate until much later — that Julian’s first-hand experience would bring a depth and gravitas to the storytelling that would trump even the most skilled professional narrator. And his voice was a wonder — Julian’s even, unhurried read was just the right note to accompany a story that was at turns horrifying, heartbreaking, and hopeful. He gave no hint of partisanship; instead he was deliberately unobtrusive as he wove the narrative of the young Freedom Riders signing their wills before they went off to ride the segregated buses; the funeral of the 4 little girls killed by a bomb blast while in Sunday School; and the triumph of voting rights demonstrators at Selma joining the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. in the 50 mile walk to the capital of Montgomery.

In the years following Eyes I would cross paths with Julian at discussions about the meaning of the civil rights movement. I hadn’t seen him for a while when I bumped into him a couple of summers ago on Martha’s Vineyard. We were both at a discussion about race relations attended by more than a few notables. I reminded him who I was and was immediately treated to the humor he was famous for. “Oh no,” he said laughing, “If you weren’t here, I was going to tell everyone I did all the work on Eyes.”

Eyes brought Julian another kind of recognition. He went on to enjoy a second career as a narrator. But his first mission, his life-long work, was always social justice. He distinguished himself as an academic and as a global organizer traveling the world sharing protest strategies. And always, always mentoring the next generation of activists. He saw his charimanship of the NAACP as part of that work. And he lobbied hard for a young Benjamin Jealous to succeed him. Nobody knew better than he the power of youthful energy and passion.

I suppose it is inevitable that this is the season of loss for the now aged, once young people whose determination and sacrifice more than 50 years ago fundamentally changed this country. But it still hurts when a giant like Julian Bond slips away. I’m ever so grateful that I got to know him and that because of Eyes on the Prize his voice will never be stilled.

Why The ‘Selma’ Soundtrack Deserves An Oscar

February 22, 2015 at 9:34 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Screen shot 2015-02-22 at 9.12.22 AMGuest editorial by Emmett G. Price, III

Selma is powerful, provocative, conversation starter on race relations in our nation. While pundits and critics focus on the portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson and others bemoan the lack of awards, don’t sleep on the music!

Selma offers the perfect soundtrack to not only make the screenplay come to life but to make history live again. The partnership of Music Director Morgan Rhodes and Director Ava DuVernay is not a new one (In 2012 they teamed up on DuVernay’s Sundance Award Winner, Middle of Nowhere and in 2013 they completed a short, The Door), but with Selma they made a timeless treasure.

Any attempt to chronicle the diverse lives of black folks, and others, must rely on the right music, stitched and weaved together, the right way. Within the black experience, whether historical or contemporary, music is never simply a background. Music is the foreground and it matters!

During the civil rights movement music provided the esprit de corps. Music kept thousands of individuals and families motived, encouraged and inspired to keep their “eyes on the prize.” The music of the movement set the pulse, stabilized the cadence and amplified the rhythm of masses of people into one combined force for change. DuVernay and Rhodes understood this and executed in impressive fashion.

The soundscape of Selma brilliantly balances tone and texture in order to empower the many voices of the people of the movement and not just the leaders. In this chronicle of a three-month journey, the music elevates the voices of women in a way that offers an enlightened correction to the often male-dominated depiction of the movement. We hear the voices of Sister Gertrude Morgan, Martha Bass, Sarah Vaughn and Odetta as we witness the priceless contributions of Amelia Boynton, Annie Lee Cooper, Diane Nash and of course, Coretta Scott King.

As curator, Rhodes demonstrates a sonic journey that includes folk, blues, jazz, gospel, funk, R&B, Black improvisational music, Hip Hop and new compositions by Jason Moran. Yes, Jason Moran!

The soundtrack offers not only a demonstration of the diversity of ideas, thoughts and voices within the movement but it also offers an informed notion that music is both sound and text. In moments where there were powerful verbal exchanges or pivotal speeches, there is a courageous amount of musical silence. Music is not merely the presence of sound but the negotiation of sound and silence.

It is in the music that the most comprehensive notion of resistance is heard and felt. From the opening silence, to the cacophonous explosion to the “voice of God” (phenomenally performed by Ledisi) to well calibrated excerpts of Otis Redding, The Impressions, Joyce & Johnita Collins, Fink, The Staple Singers, the Soul Stirrers, The Orions, William Attoway & Irving Burgie, McCoy Tyner and Yusef Lateef. What an amazing collection of differing voices with a wide range of approaches towards voicing the same goal of fighting for freedom.

Rhodes’ inclusion of J.B. Lenoir, Duane Eddy and Seabell Kennedy proves that she can crate dig with the best! A true testament to her sincerity, sensitivity and savvy was the inclusion of the actual field recordings of the Selma demonstrators recorded in 1965 by Carl Benkert and released on Moses Asch’s Folkways Records as Freedom Songs: Selma, Alabama (FH 5594).

Yet, the most powerful contribution is Common and John Legend’s protest anthem, “Glory.” The opus has already earned a Golden Globe and is nominated for an Academy Award. More important than accolades, though, is that the three-minute inspirational hit connects the events of Selma to the movement in Ferguson challenging all to understand that the struggle continues and must be fought until the war is over and victory is won.

Don’t sleep on the music of Selma, for it is the music that best connects generations, cultures, ethnicities, spiritual beliefs and races towards the pursuit of equality and justice for all. The music highlights the “drama” that Dr. King taught and modeled as a strategy for justice-based civil disobedience. It is in the music that we are challenged to “negotiate, demonstrate and resist!”

Emmett G. Price III, Ph.D. is a pastor and associate professor of Music at Northeastern University’s School of Music. He is the author of Hip Hop Culture and editor of several works including The Black Church and Hip Hop Culture: Toward Bridging the Generational Divide. Follow him on Twitter.

A Road Map Beyond Black History Month

February 20, 2015 at 1:53 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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bb_flag_1_6_2012Guest editorial by Rev. Irene Monroe

Black History Month (which kicked off on Feb. 1) became a national annual observance in 1926. The goal of the month is to honor and celebrate the achievements of African-Americans.

If Dr. Carter Woodson, the Father of Black History, were alive today, he would be proud of the tenacity of the African American community. It speaks volumes about our survival here on this American soil, after centuries of slavery, decades of lynching and years of racial profiling.

However, for decades now, Black History Month has not broached the topic of the socio-political construction of white privilege.

There’s a reason why.

During Black History Month in 2009, Attorney General Eric Holder received scathing criticism for his speech on race. His critics said the tone and tenor of the speech was confrontational and accusatory.

“Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot,” Holder said, “in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards.”

Many communities of color contest that white people—straight or LGBTQ—show no real invested interest in engaging in this country’s needed dialogue on race. While many whites have confessed their aversion to such a dialogue, stating that while a cultural defense of “white guilt” plays a role in their reticence, so too does their cultural fear of “black rage” for inadvertently saying the wrong thing.

It’s a polemic that has been avoided because of the politics of political correctness as well as how any discussion on race, no matter who’s stirring the conversation—a rabid racist, the president or Attorney General Eric Holder—invariably inflame our emotions more that inform our faculties.

Ironically, or tragically, the aversion to a conversation about race not only continues to harm people of color, but it also harms whites as well.

In her recent book “Waking Up White, and Finding Myself in the Story of Race” Cambridge author Debby Irving’s wrote the following:

“I can think of no bigger misstep in American history than the invention and perpetuation of the idea of white superiority. It allows white children to believe they are exceptional and entitled while allowing children of color to believe they are inferior and less deserving….Unless adults understand racism, they will, as I did, unknowingly teach it to their children.”

On one hand we have the dominate culture’s continued indelicate dance of white privilege and single-issue platforms which thwart coalition building with communities of color. On the other we have some people of color dismissing the notion that white marginalized and struggling groups (white women, LGBTQ, the poor) may have something to offer communities of color in terms of advice and shared (not same) experiences.

Both hands are right. And both hands are wrong. The only way forward it to keep talking about race. But how do we make our way through the current tangle of misguided good intentions and valid suspicions?

My answer: past harms need to be redressed.

For example, the killing of unarmed black males has awakened the movement. “Black Lives Matter” has taken to the streets.

Sadly, civil rights struggles in this country—black, women, and gay—have primarily been understood and demonstrated as tribal and unconnected rather than intersectional and interdependent of each other. But that is a false assumption.

When we look at how we moved forward on the issue of same-sex marriage, LGBTQ activists remember that an African-American woman named Mildred Loving set the precedent for marriage equality. Loving gained notoriety when the U.S. Supreme Court decided in her favor that anti-miscegenation laws are unconstitutional. Her crime was this country’s once racial and gender obsession—interracial marriage. Married to a white man, Loving and her husband were indicted by a Virginia grand jury in October 1958 for violating the state’s ‘Racial Integrity Act of 1924.’

For many years I taught a college-level course titled “Power and Privilege,” exploring how many of our stereotypes about people whom we perceive as being different invades our lives without much conscious deliberation on our part. Issues of race, gender, social class, sexual orientation, age and ability, among others, were considered, and how such distinctions often lead to an inequitable distribution of political power, social well-being, and the resources available to individual members of society.

On the syllabus I laid out the rules regarding classroom interaction:
1. We will address our colleagues in our classroom by name.
2. We will listen to one another—patiently, carefully—assuming that each one of us is always doing the best that s/he can. We will speak thoughtfully. We will speak in the first person.
3. Although our disagreements may be vigorous, they will not be conducted in a win-lose manner. We will take care that all participants are given the opportunity to engage in the conversation.
4. We will own our assumptions, our conclusions, and their implications. We will be open to another’s intellectual growth and change.
5. We cannot be blamed for misinformation. We have been taught and have absorbed from our U.S. society and culture, but we will be held responsible for repeating misinformation after we have learned otherwise.
6. We each have an obligation to actively combat stereotypes so that we can begin to eradicate the biases which prevent us from envisioning the well being of us all.

As we celebrate Black History Month, 2015, in what is clearly not the post-racial era many had hoped for, I wish as a nation we begin an honest talk about race.

Rev. Irene MonroeRev. Irene Monroe is a Ford Fellow and doctoral candidate at Harvard Divinity School. Rev. Monroe can also be heard every Monday on Boston Public Radio, WGBH 89.7. One of Monroe’s outreach ministries is the several religion columns she writes – “The Religion Thang,” for In Newsweekly, the largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender newspaper that circulates widely throughout New England, “Faith Matters” for The Advocate Magazine, a national gay & lesbian magazine, and “Queer Take,” for The Witness, a progressive Episcopalian journal. Monroe states that her “columns are an interdisciplinary approach drawing on critical race theory, African American , queer and religious studies.

Opinions expressed in the guest editorials are solely those of the author.

Martin Luther King, Jr. and the power of righteous anger

January 18, 2015 at 10:10 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Screen shot 2015-01-18 at 9.44.44 AM

Guest opinion by Kevin C. Peterson

As we celebrate the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday this weekend its difficult to say exactly what he would be angry about. But he’d be angry.

Yes, it’s accurate to describe King as an “apostle of love” because of the gospel of non-violence he preached. King obsessively sought the “beloved community” which was rooted in his commitment to peace and pacifism.

He would say: “Non-violent resistance is not for cowards. It is not a quiet, passive acceptance of evil. One is passive and non-violent physically, but very active spiritually, always seeking ways to persuade the opponent of advantages to the way of love, cooperation, and peace.”

If he were alive today, King would be 86–a lion in winter ignored by most. A national holiday would not exist in his name. The glow from the great marches and the noble pursuits he followed would be faded national memories.

But King would likely still be on fire: He would be disappointed by the state of the nation on race relations. He would oppose our U.S. foreign policy that relies so heavily on drone strikes. And he would decry our country’s uneven economy that has resulted in a class crisis and a bloated oligarchy.

During this weekend’s reflections on King, many will evoke his famous “I Have A Dream” speech where he evoked the grandeur President Lincoln and wrapped the aspiration of the American people around symbols of fairness, opportunities and the hope that the present generation of black Americans would “not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

Ironically, if he was alive today, King would reject such historical romanticizing on a speech he made decades ago.

He would point to the irony that 50 years after the struggle in Selma for voting rights–where Rev. James Reeb, a white Unitarian minister from Roxbury (Boston, MA), was murdered– there are ongoing battles across the South where voter ID laws and redistricting suppress the electoral power of blacks and the poor.

King would certainly oppose the police murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. He would evoke the spirit of “hands up, don’t shoot,” and “I can’t breathe.” But more than this, he would challenge — with exacting moral authority — the remaining vestiges of institutionalized racism that grip our society.

Perhaps King’s most lasting legacy was his criticism of the persistent “evils” which continue to plague American progress.

In 1967 he said: “I am disappointed with our failure to deal… with the triple evils of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism. We are presently moving down a dead-end road that can lead to national disaster. America has strayed to the far country of racism and militarism.”

For all his preaching about peace, King’s passion–his smoldering anger about injustice–would be as apt today as it was when he walked the streets of America.

Kevin PetersonKevin C. Peterson is founder of the New Democracy Coalition and a senior fellow at the Center for Collaborative Leadership at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s expansive dream

January 18, 2015 at 9:53 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Screen shot 2015-01-18 at 9.44.14 AM

Guest opinion by Rev. Irene Monroe

Martin Luther King’s actual birthday is January 15th, and I believe if MLK were alive today he would be well pleased with Ava DuVernay’s film “Selma.”

Many people working for justice today stand on the shoulders of Martin Luther King Jr and what he achieved in Selma. But I believe King’s vision of justice is often gravely limited and misunderstood. Too many people thought then, and continue to think, that King’s statements regarding justice were only about race and the African-American community. We fail to see how King’s vision of inclusion and community is far wider that we might have once imagined. And his vision always included lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

For King, justice was more than a racial issue, more than a legal or moral issue. Justice was a human issue. And this was evident in King’s passionate concern about a wide range of concerns: “The revolution for human rights is opening up unhealthy areas in American life and permitting a new and wholesome healing to take place,” King once told a racially mixed audience. “Eventually the civil rights movement will have contributed infinitely more to the nation than the eradication of racial injustice.”

Moral leadership played a profound role in the justice work that King did. He argued that true moral leadership must involve itself in the situations of all who are damned, disinherited, disrespected and dispossessed, and moral leadership must be part of a participatory government that is feverishly working to dismantle the existing discriminatory laws that truncate full participation in the fight to advance democracy. And surely part of our job, in keeping King’s dream alive, is to also work to dismantle discriminatory laws and dehumanizing structures that we see young people now taking to the street to protest about across the country.

But if King were among us today, he would say that it is not enough just to look outside ourselves to see the places where society is broken. It is not enough to talk about institutions and workplaces that fracture and separate people based on race, religion, gender and sexual orientation. We must also look at the ways that we ourselves manifest these bigotries, how we are the very ones who uphold and are part of these institutions and workplaces.

Often, we find that these institutions and workplaces are broken, dysfunctional and wounded in the very same ways that we are. The structures we have created are mirrors not of who we want to be, but who we really are.

King would remind each of us that we cannot heal the world if we have not healed ourselves. So perhaps the greatest task, and the most difficult work we must do in light of King’s teachings, is to heal ourselves. And this work must be done in relationship with our justice work in the world.
In “A Farewell to Arms,” Ernest Hemingway said that the world breaks us all, but some of us grow strong in those broken places. King’s teachings invites us to grow strong in our broken places – not only to mend the sin-sick world in which we live in, but also to mend the sin-sick world that we carry around within us. And we can only do that if we are willing to look both inward and outward, healing ourselves of the bigotry, biases and the demons that chip away at our efforts to work toward justice in this world. And our differences have been used to divide us instead of uniting us, so consequently we reside in a society were human brokenness, human isolation and human betrayal are played out every day.

I know that the struggle against racism that King talked about is only legitimate if I am also fighting anti-Semitism, homophobia, sexism, classism – not only out in the world but also in myself. Otherwise, I am creating an ongoing cycle of abuse that goes on unexamined and unaccounted for.
We are foolish if we think we can heal the world and not ourselves. And we delude ourselves if we think that King was only talking about the woundedness of institutional racism, and not the personal wounds we all carry as human beings.

Ironically, our culture of woundedness and victimization has bonded us together in brokenness. The sharing of worlds to depict and honor our pain has created a new language of intimacy, a bonding ritual that allows us to talk across and among our pains. In exploring our common wounds, we sometimes feel more able to find the trust and the understanding that eludes us as “healthy” people.
When we bond in these unhealthy ways we miss opportunities in ourselves for moral leadership, and to work collaboratively with others to effect change in seemingly small ways that eventually lead to big outcomes.

Both Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. were leaders in the Montgomery bus boycott in challenging Alabama’s Jim Crow laws. Both were working together for a desired outcome, and they could not have done it without the other.

Had Rosa Parks not sat down by refusing her seat to a white man that day on the bus in December 1955, King could not have gotten up to promulgate a social gospel, which catapulted the civil rights movement.

Each year, I mark the Martin Luther King holiday by re-examining myself in light of King’s teachings. And in so doing, I try to uncover not only the ways in which the world breaks me, but also how it breaks other people. That keeps us fractured instead of united toward a common goal – a multicultural democracy.

I believe that when we use our gifts in the service of others as King has taught us we then shift the paradigm of personal brokenness to personal healing. We also shift the paradigm of looking for moral leadership from outside of ourselves to within ourselves; thus, realizing we are not only the agents of change in society, but also the moral leaders we have been looking for.

Our job, therefore, in keeping King’s dream alive is to remember that our longing for social justice is also inextricably tied to our longing for personal healing.

Rev. Irene MonroeRev. Irene Monroe is a Ford Fellow and doctoral candidate at Harvard Divinity School. Rev. Monroe can also be heard every Monday on Boston Public Radio, WGBH 89.7. One of Monroe’s outreach ministries is the several religion columns she writes – “The Religion Thang,” for In Newsweekly, the largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender newspaper that circulates widely throughout New England, “Faith Matters” for The Advocate Magazine, a national gay & lesbian magazine, and “Queer Take,” for The Witness, a progressive Episcopalian journal. Monroe states that her “columns are an interdisciplinary approach drawing on critical race theory, African American , queer and religious studies.

Opinions expressed in the guest editorials are solely those of the author.

I’m Mad as Hell… and Thankful

December 12, 2014 at 2:27 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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(Photo - Associated Press)

(Photo – Associated Press)

Guest editorial by Emmett G. Price, III

I’m mad as hell!

Regardless which side of the street you stand on there are no winners in Ferguson.
Just a glimpse at ongoing news coverage, or a peek at the comment sections of online sources reveal rage- both black and white – concerning Michael Brown Jr.’s death.

This rage is often articulated through the lens of “ LEO” – law enforcement officer – supporters or critics. Unfortunately, most of these polarized jousts neglect to consider that not all LEOs are white. And, these stinging jabs, often from anonymous commenters, do not capture the emotions of the huge number of quiet sympathizers – those whose hearts continue to be heavy with the realities faced by so many families of the courageous women and men who don uniforms and take the oath to “never betray my badge, my integrity, my character, or the public trust.”

Yet, with Brown lying four and a half hours in the hot August sun…I’m mad as hell.

Ferguson is no longer a dot on the Greater St. Louis area map; it is now a national landmark of injustice akin to Tulsa Riots, 1921, Watts Riots, 1965, and Bloody Sunday, 1965). Though rarely given adequate coverage in schools, these volatile moments in United States history transformed the national landscape. Ferguson, like Tulsa, Watts, Selma, has sparked a national conversation that is felt deeply in the hearts and minds of us all- sympathizes, separatists, loyalists, compassionists, activists, self-selective non-participants and everyone in between. Ferguson challenges our national commitment to growing a democracy that works for everyone.

But, where do we begin?

In the spirit of gratitude and social justice – I believe we need to be whole-heartedly invested in listening to the voices of young people.

And I am thankful that the surrogate children of Dr. King’s children – in all hues, ethnicities, nationalities, gender expressions – are joining hands as they sacrifice themselves in order to call for justice to extend its embrace around everyone – not just the entitled and privileged.

I am thankful that this young generation chose to use this clarion call to bridge social divides, class partitions and political platforms in order to be contemporary champions of freedom. These young people don’t see Michael Brown, Jr. or Trayvon Martin, or Tamir Rice or Dillon McGee or Cameron Tillman or Laquan McDonald, to name just a few of the young black unarmed men killed as their sons or nephews – they are their brothers!

I am inspired by this generation of freedom fighters who refuse to let the legacies of Ella Baker, Bayard Rustin, Fannie Lou Hamer and Medgar Evers die. And as Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon and Sweet Honey in the Rock said it best “we who believe in freedom will not rest until it comes.”

I’m thankful for all the young people who have retained the spirit of ethical discontent and righteous indignation through the use of civil disobedience. From the metropolitan streets to suburban driveways and on to remote rural places, our nations’ young people are sick and tired of being sick and tired. From sit-ins to mass marches to taking over interstate highways to writing the digital translations of these stories that are now flowing through various channels of social media, these millennials, who have previously been labeled a selfish generation, are using their voices to call for a change.

I am not a fan of violence. I am not a supporter of looting, destruction of private or public property and I do not condone or support any of this deviant behavior. Despite media presentations, the majority of the protests across the country have been peaceful, respectful and meaningful.

No matter how mad I am, I am also Thankful!

Young People, thank you for your courage to prove that hope lives! Thank you for reminding us all that #BlackLivesMatter!

Emmett PriceEmmett G. Price III, Ph.D. is a pastor, professor and weekly contributor to WGBH’s Boston Public Radio “All Revved Up” segment. He is the author of Hip Hop Culture and editor of several works including The Black Church and Hip Hop Culture: Toward Bridging the Generational Divide. Follow him on Twitter.

(The views expressed are solely those of the author.)

African American history through a life of service: Lee Daniels’ The Butler

August 23, 2013 at 2:59 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines in Lee Daniels' The Butler

Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines in Lee Daniels’ The Butler

A guest post by Kevin C. Peterson

At the very center of Lee Daniels’ The Butler is the poignantly resonating reminder of the country’s enduring conversation about race–its many complicated tensions, variations, contradictions and resolutions.

The movie, which opened in Boston-area theaters last weekend, is a compelling meditation loosely based on the long career of Eugene Allen, a stoic Southern-born son of a murdered black sharecropper who eventually rose from a restaurant wait boy to the position of maitre d’ at the White House, serving in fine fashion 8 Presidents over 34 years and enduring the protracted pains that are associated with a man of his race and intelligence in a country determined to keep him invisible.

The Butler is based on a 2008 Washington Post article written by Wil Haygood, who formerly worked for the Boston Globe. It chronicles a remarkable swath of American history that highlights the Civil Rights era of the last century where countless citizens, including the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., made signal contributions to ending American apartheid and advancing domestic democracy.

The Butler spans Allen’s White House employment, beginning with President Dwight Eisenhower, who desegregated United States military bases, and ending with Ronald Reagan, who signed into law the Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday. Depicted in between are Allen’s (in the movie his name is Cecil Gaines) high hopes in President John F. Kennedy, his ambivalence toward President Lyndon Johnson, and a smoldering intolerance for Richard Nixon. Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter are barely mentioned. Through the course of this film, directed expertly by Lee Daniels, one feels the slow, inexorable move toward civic inclusion for which Allen and many other Americans yearned. The change is propelled at times by acts of Southern violence, the slow grind of the political legal system and the gradual melt of old customs weighted in racist mores.

Written and performed brilliantly by a cast of actors in their prime (see Robin Williams as Dwight Eisenhower, John Cusack as Richard Nixon, Vanessa Redgrave as a southern racist and Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan), The Butler is an allegory of our post World War II domestic experience, mining the social fears and guilt within our national psyche.

Viewers are prompted to reflect on the rapid changes in our racial terrain over three generations, emerging from de facto racism to a civic culture that would elect the first American of African descent in 2008.

Forest Whitaker plays Allen skillfully. He will likely earn another Academy Award nomination (he won the best actor award in 2006 for his role as an African despot in the King of Scotland) and Oprah Winfrey, who plays Allen’s adulterous and dipsomaniac wife, Gloria, gives a performance that matches the superior effort she gave as Sethe in the movie Beloved. Their oldest son, Louis, portrayed by David Oyelowo, gives the movie added narrative depth, providing youthful angst and rebellious conflict toward his parents.

The Butler falters in only minor areas. It fails to offer fully rounded characters and also treats its audiences as if it is completely knowledgeable of the complex nuances of the modern civil rights movement.

Where it succeeds extraordinarily is in offering its take on universally human themes that transcend race. Its nuanced depiction of the strains between the father and son summons the tragic feelings of loss, alienation and separation. The often cold marital relationship between Allen and his wife is likewise told with realistic pathos and the tang of sacrifice, slow forgiveness, and then enduring love.

There is a political subtext in The Butler about hope and change, the same tagline branding that was reflected in the Barack Obama 2008 presidential campaign.

The Allens also possessed those sentiments as they bore witness to their evolving lives and ever shifting commitments to each other. Unfortunately, as Haygood reported in his 2008 story, Allen’s wife died just days before the Obama election, but he savored the victory nonetheless.

On a parallel level, change was reflected in Allen’s late reconciliation with his son, an act that gives this picture an overall fullness and resolve that nothing is really over until it’s over, including our enduring struggle over race.

Kevin PetersonKevin C. Peterson is founder and director of the New Democracy Coalition, an organization focused on civic literacy and electoral justice, based at the College for Public and Community Service at the University of Massachusetts Boston.  The views expressed are those of the author.

Rosa Parks: A National Day of Courage

February 4, 2013 at 12:15 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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In commemoration of Rosa Parks’ 100th birthday, Detroit Public Television and The Henry Ford Museum are presenting A National Day of Courage: a full day of performances, speakers and tributes (livestream below.)   In 2010, TIME Magazine called Rosa Parks one of the 25 most powerful women of the past century.

Relevant links:
National Day of Courage
Rosa Parks, Eyes on the Prize (American Experience/WGBH)

One of the tallest trees in our forest

March 23, 2012 at 3:10 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Guest Editorial by Rev. Irene Monroe

This month around the country LGBTQ communities will be celebrating Bayard Rustin’s 100th birthday anniversary. Next month, AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts will have their annual Bayard Rustin Breakfast. And, last month, “State of the Re:Union,” a nationally aired radio show distributed by NPR and PRX was awarded first place in the Excellence in Radio category from the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association for the Black History Month special they did on Bayard Rustin, titled “Bayard Rustin – Who Is This Man?”

Bayard Rustin

To date, he’s still largely an unknown because of the heterosexism that has canonized the history of last century’s black civil rights movement.

Born March 17, 1912 in the Quaker-settled area of West Chester Pennsylvania, one of the stops on the Underground Railroad, is Bayard Rustin’s beginning. A handsome six-footer who possessed both athletic and academic prowess is most noted as the strategist and chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington that catapulted the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King onto a world stage. Rustin also played a key role in helping King develop the strategy of nonviolence in the Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955-1956), which successfully dismantled the long-standing Jim Crow ordinance of segregated seating on public conveyances in Alabama.

One of my favorite quotes by Rustin is this: “When an individual is protesting society’s refusal to acknowledge his dignity as a human being, his very act of protest confers dignity on him.” For LGBTQ African Americans Rustin is the only open gay hero we have, and for many of us his work and words give us courage to fight homophobia in ourselves and in our communities.

In a letter to a friend explaining his predilection toward gay sex Rustin wrote, “I must pray, trust, experience, dream, hope and all else possible until I know clearly in my own mind and spirit that I have failed to become heterosexual, if I must fail, not because of a faint heart, or for lack of confidence in my true self, or for pride, or for emotional instability, or for moral lethargy, or any other character fault, but rather, because I come to see after the most complete searching that the best for me lies elsewhere.”

During the Civil Rights movement Bayard Rustin was always the man behind the scene, and a large part of that had to due with the fact that he was gay. As Albert Shanker, then president of the American Federation of Teachers and friend of Rustin stated in a review on Jervis Anderson’s biography Bayard Rustin: The Troubles I’ve Seen that Rustin “…was the quintessential outsider—a black man, a Quaker, a one-time pacifist, a political, social dissident, and a homosexual.”

Many African American ministers involved in the Civil Rights movement would have nothing to do with Rustin, and spread rumors throughout the movement that King was gay because of his close friendship with Rustin.

In a spring 1987 interview with Rustin in Open Hands, a resource for ministries affirming the diversity of human sexuality, Rustin recalls that difficult period quite vividly. Rustin stated, “Martin Luther King, with whom I worked very closely, became very distressed when a number of the ministers working for him wanted him to dismiss me from his staff because of my homosexuality. Martin set up a committee to discover what he should do. They said that, despite the fact that I had contributed tremendously to the organization…they thought I should separate myself from Dr. King. This was the time when [Rev. Adam Clayton] Powell threatened to expose my so-called homosexual relationship with Dr. King.”

When Rustin pushed him on the issue to speak up on his behalf King did not. In John D’Emilo’s book Lost Prophet: The Life and times of Bayard Rustin he wrote the following on the matter:

“Rustin offered to resign in the hope that his would force the issue. Much to his chagrin, King did not reject the offer. At the time, King was also involved in a major challenge to the conservative leadership of the National Baptist convention, and one of his ministerial lieutenants in the fight was also gay.

‘Basically King said I can’t take on two queers at on time,’ one of Rustin’s associated recollected later.”

When Rustin was asked about MLK’s views on gays in a March 1987 interview with Redvers Jean Marie he stated, “It is difficult for me to know what Dr. King felt about gayness…”

As a March on Washington volunteer in 1963 Bayard Rustin was Eleanor Holmes Norton’s boss. The renowned Congresswoman of D.C. recalls the kerfuffle concerning Rustin’s sexuality.

“I was sure the attacks would come because I knew what they could attack Bayard for,” Norton stated to Steve Hendrix in a 2011 interview. “It flared up and then flared right back down,” Norton stated. “Thank God, because there was no substitute for Bayard.”

The association of Rustin to the March was inseparable to those who worked closely with him. “The 53-year-old known at the time as “Mr. March-on-Washington” was a lanky, cane-swinging, poetry-quoting black Quaker intellectual who wore his hair in a graying pompadour, ” Hendrix wrote in Bayard Rustin: Organizer of the March on Washington.

“When the anniversary comes around, frankly I think of Bayard as much as I think of King,” stated Norton. “King could hardly have given the speech if the march had not been so well attended and so well organized. If there had been any kind of disturbance, that would have been the story.”

Rustin was a complex man and often times seemingly a contrarian. To the surprise of many, Rustin was an opponent to “identity politics,” and most likely would not have been waving a rainbow flag or approve of queer studies departments at colleges and universities. To many conservative African Americans Rustin wasn’t only “queer” in the literal sense but was perceived also as one who didn’t have any of the approved and appropriate black sensibilities.

“Rustin’s steadfast opposition to identity politics also came under criticism by exponents of the developing Black Power movement. His critical stance toward affirmative action programs and black studies departments in American universities was not a popular viewpoint among many of his fellow Afro-Americans, and as at various other times of his life Rustin found himself to a certain extent isolated,” Buzz Haughton wrote in his article “Bayard Rustin Civil Rights Leader,” in the Fall 1999 issue of Quaker Studies.

As we comb through the annals of history more of us are learning that Rustin was also one of the tallest trees in our forest.

Rev. Irene Monroe is a nationally-known writer, speaker, and theologian.  She  has been profiled in O, Oprah Magazine, and is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post.  (The views expressed in this essay are solely those of the author.)

Maid In America

March 1, 2012 at 2:47 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Guest Editorial by Rev. Irene Monroe

When Viola Davis lost the Oscar for best actress portraying an African American maid in Katherine Stockett’s The Help to Meryl Streep portraying former Britain Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady at the 84th Academy Awards ceremony, there was a collective sigh of relief from many of us African American sisters.

Tulane University Professor Melissa Harris-Perry, the author of an upcoming book on racial stereotypes, summed up my feelings best when she told MSNBC that “what killed me was that in 2011, Viola Davis was reduced to playing a maid.”

Earlier during the Academy Awards ceremony Octavia Spencer won best supporting actress for her stereotypical role as the sassy, tart-tongued “mammy-fied” maid, Minny Jackson, in The Help, making Spencer the fifth African American women to receive the coveted Oscar, and the second sister portraying a maid.

Sixty-two years earlier, in 1940, in Jim Crow America, Hattie McDaniel became the first African American to win an Oscar, and for her supporting role as a maid called “Mammy” in Gone With the Wind. When civil rights groups, like the NAACP, criticized McDaniel for her portrayal as “Mammy,” McDaniel famously retorted, “I would rather get paid $700 a week for playing a maid than $7 for being one.”

Knowing of the controversial legacy stemming from McDaniel’s role, Davis told Fresh Air’s Terry Gross her “role of Aibileen, in the hands of the wrong actress, could turn into a cliché. …You’re only reduced to a cliché if you don’t humanize a character. A character can’t be a stereotype based on the character’s occupation.” Davis contest she gave depth and dimensionality to her character by pulling from the actually lived experiences of both her mother and grandmother, who worked as maids.

Spencer, too, had trepidations about portraying a maid, telling reporters that her mother was a maid in Alabama, and “her heart sank when Stockett gave her the manuscript to read, worried that she might appear as a character like Mammy from Gone With the Wind. ‘And then I read it and I couldn’t stop reading it. It was brilliant.’”

In this “post-racial” Obama era, the subject of race and the politics of black representation in films are constrained by neither political correctness, personal enlightenment, nor moral consciousness.

For example, in 2010 the historical legacy of the devaluation and demonization of black motherhood was both applauded and rewarded at that year’s Oscars. And the point was clearly illustrated with Mo’Nique, capturing the gold statue for best supporting actress in the movie Precious, based on the novel Push by Sapphire, as a ghetto welfare mom who demeans and demoralizes her child every chance she can.

Mo’Nique’s role juxtaposed to Sandra Bullock’s, who captured her Oscar as best actress in the movie The Blind Side, offering the hand of human kindness to a poor black child in need of parenting.

But the images of African-American parenting have historically been viewed through a prism of gendered and racial stereotypes. And the image of Mo’Nique as the “bad black mother” and Sandra Bullock as “good white mother” is nothing new. The images of the “bad black mother” have not only been used for entertainment purposes but also used for legislating welfare policy reforms.

With international stars like Iman, Oprah, Whoopi Goldberg, and Beyonce, to name a few, signaling that women of the African diaspora have come a long way, what’s up with Hollywood’s—and much of white America’s—fixation of us as their maids and welfare moms?

“Portraying African-American women as stereotypical mammies, matriarchs, welfare recipients, and hot mommas has been essential to the political economy of domination fostering Black women’s oppression,” sociologist Patricia Hill Collins writes in Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment.

In a skit imagining what actors are thinking, Oscar host Billy Crystal said the following referring to Davis: “I want to thank my writer and director for creating the role of a strong black woman that wasn’t played by Tyler Perry. …When I came out of The Help I wanted to hug the first black woman that I saw, which from Beverly Hills is a 45-minute drive.”

The iconography of black women is predicated on four racist cultural images: the Jezebel, the Sapphire, Aunt Jemima, and Mammy. With the image of the strong black women who can endure anything and “make a way out of no way,” her strength is either demonized as being emasculating of black men or impervious to the human condition. The Aunt Jemima and Mammy stereotypes are now conflated into what’s called “Big Mamma” in today’s present iconography of racist and sexist images of African-American women.

While the Aunt Jemima and Mammy stereotypes are prevalent images that derive from slavery, for centuries both of them have not only been threatening, comforting, and nurturing to white culture but also to African-American men like Tyler Perry’s “Medea.” The dominant culture doesn’t see and hear African American women voices on this issue because our humanity is distorted and made invisible through a prism of racist and sexist stereotypes. So too is our suffering.

And our suffering is exacerbated when black women’s stories are told and/or scripted through a universally popular feel good but nonetheless racist trope of the white hero/rescuer.

This trope principally conveys the following: black liberation comes about through white agency.

While white guilt and paternalism are clearly pawned off in this trope as compassion, so too is its accompanying fictive narrative about black people.

And given our unresolved and embarrassing history of race relations in this country, only such a trope as the white hero/rescuer could be believed and made in America.

Rev. Irene Monroe is a nationally-known writer, speaker, and theologian.  She  has been profiled in O, Oprah Magazine, and is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post.  (The views expressed in this essay are solely those of the author.)

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