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.

An Open Letter to City Council President Stephen Murphy on Boston Redistricting

October 12, 2012 at 11:41 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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Guest editorial by Kevin C. Peterson

Honorable City Council President Stephen Murphy:

In the Boston City Council redistricting process currently underway, the city stands at a crossroads of electoral crisis, marked with ugly reminders of race-based gerrymandering and the suppression of black voting rights.

While it has pleased many in the voting rights community that Mayor Thomas Menino recently vetoed two redistricting laws approved by the city council this month, in general many of us remain disheartened by the redistricting process overall. To date, two different redistricting maps have been voted on to become law by the city council. Yet, advocates disappointedly note that both pieces of legislation offered little electoral advancement and equity for black, Latino and Asian citizens in Boston. Put in a different way, each council plan failed to express a full commitment toward addressing the existing reapportionment opportunities that the city’s emerging diversity presents.

The demographic realities before the Boston City Council are multiple and undeniable: First, the city is 53% people of color—a vibrant mosaic of African-Americans, Latinos and Asians. Yet, these groups represent only 26% of those elected to district seats on the council. This troubling anomaly speaks not only to historic practices of racialized voter suppression in Boston, but is also indicative of the intractable race-conscious electoral proclivities of established conservative white voting blocs which have been reluctant to share their political power as the city has grown more diverse.

Second, in the three-decade history of city council district representation in Boston, never has there been an Asian or a Latino elected from the districts created. To many, this fact is egregiously troubling, specifically when it is gauged against the knowledge that the system of district representation was created in 1982 to ensure diversity on the city council body. To many observers, the political apartheid now characterizing the composition of the council is disconcertingly striking. This reality is the result of past redistricting plans that have organized voting districts in such ways that the electoral strength of so-called minorities has been effectively diluted.

Third, the legislation the city council recently offered essentially eviscerates the civic and political core of the Mattapan neighborhood and poses similar problems for communities such as Chinatown and the Lower Mills section of Dorchester. The city council redistricting legislation proffered ignores the importance of neighborhood cohesion, especially as it pertains to historically disenfranchised voting classes.

In this regard, I am sure you and your esteemed council collegues well know that Mattapan is a unique community, which is both ethnically diverse and racially cohesive. Its residents share common commercial and geographic boundaries as well as known problems such as extreme poverty, high crime and persistent health disparities. Sociologists and political scientists would agree that these commonalities and problems could be more effectively addressed by Mattapan residents if the neighborhood was not split between two districts. Yet, many redistricting map iterations that the city council has favorably entertained ignore fair representation in Mattapan. By including the community of Mattapan in a singular district, the council can promote community-wide organization among residents and support civic purpose and action.

In conclusion, I wish to briefly reflect on an often-misunderstood redistricting concept which has impeded the development of a fair and racially representative redistricting plan in Boston. The matter is this: Some advocates for fair redistricting–even some city councilors–have grossly misunderstood the matter of “packing” and cracking” as it refers to ensuring the voting rights of protected class citizens under the 1965 Voting Rights Act. This misunderstanding has led some to argue that to “pack” a district is wrong or that to “crack” a district is injurious.

Nothing could be further from the truth. And it is unfortunate that civic advocates, city council members and even the mayor of Boston labor under this misnomer.

The issue of “packing” and “cracking” as it appears in federal case law is actually value-neutral. The reality is that forms of “packing” can be used to bolster a case in support of the voting rights of so-called minorities. In similar redistricting cases requiring corrective redress “cracking” district maps is also a proven voting rights protection strategy. There is nothing inherently wrong with “packing” or “cracking” per se. These actions are tools that can be used constructively or destructively. When “packing” or “cracking” harms or “injures” historically disenfranchised voting classes these groups have legal recourse in the federal court.

Some advocates, including MassVote, The Chinese Progressive Association and the NAACP Boston Branch have said that reuniting Mattapan into a single district is a form of “packing”. And they believe they are correct. But in the context of protecting the voting rights of so-called minority groups under the Voting Rights Act, this logic is faulty, at best. Again, the effects of packing, in this instance, can have the effects of strengthening the electoral capacity of a protected voting classes and communities of interest.

Advocates eagerly await redistricting legislation from your body in the coming weeks. We hope that it will include a number of the following desired aspirations: First, the plan should fully represent the demography of the city so that all racial groups are valued equally as citizens. Second, the map should reflect the lowest one-person-one-vote variance to ensure equal representation. After all, this is the expressed and fundamental purpose of redistricting according to the U.S. Constitution. Third, the neighborhoods of Mattapan, Chinatown and the Lower Mills section of Dorchester should be placed in a single district. And forth, a district should be created to allow for the potential of a Latino or Asian to be elected on the district level.

A redistricting plan possessing these broad and inclusive elements will allow the city to avoid the electoral crisis it presently confronts and position Boston toward a more robust, fair and engaged civic life in the years to come.

Sincerely ,

Kevin C. Peterson
Executive Director
New Democracy Coalition

Kevin 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.

A walk around the web…October 3, 2012

October 3, 2012 at 4:51 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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Headlines and ruminations from around the internet…
Editor: Valerie Linson

Hopefuls line up for auditions to appear in It’s The Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown! Little do they know…

The 10 Most Memorable Moments in Presidential Debates
Sean Sullivan, The Washington Post (The Fix by Chris Cilliza), October 2, 2012
Who doesn’t like a good debate? (Here at The Fix, we certainly do.) Debates hold the potential to etch lasting impressions in voters’ minds about presidential candidates’ personalities and policy positions. And part of the appeal of debates stems from memories of past showdowns that have left enduring imprints on our collective political consciousness. (Though, as history shows, there are few examples of debates dramatically shifting the trajectory of a campaign.)
Read more here…

President Obama will win re-election because he’s …black
George Will, The Washington Post, October 1, 2012
Perhaps a pleasant paradox defines this political season: That Obama is African American may be important, but in a way quite unlike that darkly suggested by, for example, MSNBC’s excitable boys and girls who, with their (at most) one-track minds and exquisitely sensitive olfactory receptors, sniff racism in any criticism of their pin-up. Instead, the nation, which is generally reluctant to declare a president a failure — thereby admitting that it made a mistake in choosing him — seems especially reluctant to give up on the first African American president. If so, the 2012 election speaks well of the nation’s heart, if not its head.
Read more here…

Obama, Romney Reject Invitation to Address Black Issues
Freddie Allen, NNPA, October 2, 2012
The NAACP collaborated with the National Newspaper Publishers Association, MSNBC-TV, the Grio, and American Urban Radio Network in preparation for the forum. Veteran award-winning journalist Lester Holt had agreed to moderate.

Jerry Lopes, president of American Urban Radio Network, said on Monday that both candidates declined to appear, citing scheduling conflicts.  NNPA President and CEO Bill Tompkins said that the forums like the one proposed by the black groups would have given Obama the opportunity to outline his support for programs that hope to address issues plaguing the black community.
Read more here…

Black [Consumer] Power! New Report Examines African American Spending
Zerlina Maxwell, Ebony, October 3, 2012
When it comes to consumerism, Black people run things. Well, sorta.
A new report shows that the Black consumer is among the most powerful of any group. That position means that Black people have clout when it comes to which businesses are successful and which are not. This information reminds us of the possibilities for Black-owned businesses who target their products to Black consumers.
Read more here…

The Blacker the Hair, the Rarer the Cut
Rebecca Carroll, Jezebel, September 30, 2012
The receptionist at Tommy Guns had to “double check,” but then came back on the line to let me know with great enthusiasm that “we actually have two stylists” who can deal with black hair (with cuts starting at $95 a head). How does she know? “Well, they actually rotate in between both our locations” (their other spot is on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where there are black people, right?). At another salon, the woman who answered the phone sounded almost indignant that I’d asked: “Yes, as a matter of fact we do have someone who cuts black hair.” I told her I didn’t want to be difficult, but how could she be sure? “Well, she is black, so, you know.” Okey-dokes. Promising-ish.
Read more here…

A walk around the web…

October 2, 2012 at 12:46 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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Picking up headlines from around the web…
Editor: Valerie Linson

Random image from my office because I like the colors…

 

Obama, Romney face similar debate test: Staying cool under fire
By Amie Parnes and Justin Sink, TheHill.com – 10/02/12
President Obama and Mitt Romney face a similar test heading into Wednesday night’s presidential debate: staying cool while under your opponent’s fire.

At their first debate in Denver — when tens of millions of voters will tune in to see the competitors clash in Denver — each candidate will have to do his best to keep calm despite the other’s best efforts.
Read the entire article here…

7 of History’s Most Racist Political Ads
The Root, 10/2/2012
This election has produced its own share of memorable ads, among them one that is being touted as potentially effective by some, but racially charged by others. The controversial Romney campaign ad attempts to depict President Obama as the welfare president.

Whether or not the ad is appealing to racism in the electorate may be up for debate, but there’s no doubt that is a timeworn strategy in American politics. Plenty of campaign ads over the years have been undeniably racist. The Root looks at the worst of the worst, in no particular order.
Read entire article here…

Pennsylvania Voter ID Law Ruling: Judge Halts Enforcement Of Law For Election
Marc Levy, The Huffington Post, 10/2/2012
A judge is postponing Pennsylvania’s tough new voter identification requirement, ordering that it not be enforced in the presidential election.

Tuesday’s ruling comes just five weeks before the election. An appeal is possible. The 6-month-old law requires each voter to show a valid photo ID.

Democrats and groups including the AARP and NAACP mounted a furious opposition to a law Republicans say is necessary to prevent election fraud. Critics have accused Republicans of using old-fashioned Jim Crow tactics to steal the White House and have highlighted stories of registered voters struggling to get a state photo ID.
Read entire article here…

Can Social Media Kill Homophobia?
Michael Arceneaux, Ebony, 10/2/1012
Recently, like everyone else of color who has ever written anything online, I was sent a study from the Institute of Sexual Minority Studies and Services at the University of Alberta in Canada chronicling the various forms of homophobia found on social media.
Highlighting how pervasive anti-gay sentiments remain, the study revealed that the word “faggot” and all its variations have been used over 2.5 million times on Twitter. Those variants include words and phrases like “dyke” (300,000 tweets), “no homo” (800,000 tweets) and the increasingly proper “so gay” (800,000 tweets).
Read entire article here…

Everything you need to know about Elizabeth Warren’s claim of Native American heritage
Washington Post (The Fact Checker) Josh Hicks, 9/28/2012
Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) has focused his campaign’s attention back on the self-proclaimed Native American heritage of his Democratic challenger, Harvard Law School professor Elizabeth Warren, who listed herself as a minority in professional directories commonly used by recruiters.

The controversy had faded in recent months while Brown maintained a steady lead in the polls. But Warren overtook the Republican incumbent in more recent polls after delivering a high-profile speech at the Democratic National Convention this month.
Brown brought Warren’s lineage back into the spotlight with his remarks during a debate last week and with an ad that uses old news accounts instead of his own words to renew skepticism about his opponent’s ancestral claims — cleverly avoiding direct accusations. Warren responded with an ad of her own, saying: “Scott Brown can continue attacking my family, but I’m going to keep fighting for yours.”
Read entire article here…

The Past Is Never Dead With The N-Word

October 6, 2011 at 1:30 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments
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Guest Editorial by Rev. Irene Monroe

In a supposedly post- racial society one would think that the n-word was buried and long gone with it troubled eras of race relations in this country.

But as American novelist William Faulkner wrote in his 1951 novel Requiem for a Nun, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

 

As we all try to move from America’s ugly racial past, there are still rock solid vestiges of it.

At the entrance of a secluded 1072-acre property in the West Texas town of Paint Creek is a rock painted in block letters with the word “Niggerhead.”

For decades Rick Perry’s hunting camp hosted fellow lawmakers, friends and supporters.

Already in a declining bid for the GOP presidency, former front-runner Gov. Rick Perry and his father once leased a Texas hunting camp known by a racist term.

When Perry ran for re-election in 2010 for the governorship, no one knew of the rock. And as one observer of the rock glibly told “Real Clear Politics,” “Honestly, it wouldn’t have hurt him in a Texas primary.”

If Perry, however, doesn’t decline into oblivion in this GOP bid, he’ll face off with President Obama and will also have a lot of explaining to do to African American voters — Republicans and Democrats.

Can Perry recover from this?

And can talk show host Barbara Walters of the “View”?

In discussing the offensive racial moniker of Perry’s property, Walters used the n-word, sparking a debate with her co-host Sherri Shepherd.

“I’m saying when you say the word, I don’t like it,” said Shepherd, who said she has used it among African-American family and friends. “When white people say it, it brings up feelings in me.”

I am troubled, however, in this recent kerfuffle concerning the n-word and how many of us African Americans, in particular, go back and forth on its politically correct use.

Let’s do a walk down memory lane:

In December 2006 we blamed Michael Richards, who played the lovable and goofy character Kramer on the TV sit-com “Seinfeld” for using the n-word. The racist rant was heard nationwide and shocked not only his fans and audience that night at the Laugh Factory in West Hollywood but it also shocked Americans back to an ugly era in U.S. history.

In July 2008 we heard the Rev. Jessie Jackson used the n-word referring to Obama. And Jackson using the word not only reminded us of its history but also how the n-word can slip so approvingly from the mouth of a man who was part of a cadre of African Americans leaders burying the n-word once and for all in mock funeral at the 98th annual NAACP’s convention in Detroit in 2007.

And in 2009 Dr. Laura Schlessinger ended her radio show, a week after she broadcast a five-minute-long rant in which she used the n-word 11 times.

In January of this year, the kerfuffle concerning the n-word focused on Samuel Langhorne Clemens, known fondly to us as Mark Twain, in his New South Books edition of the 1885 controversial classic Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

In a combined effort to rekindle interest in this Twain classic and to tamp down the flame and fury the use of the n-word engenders both from society and readers alike, who come across the epithet 219 times in the book, Mark Twain Scholar Alan Gribben, an English professor at Auburn University in Alabama, proposed the idea that the n-word be replaced with the word “slave.”

In 2003, the NAACP convinced Merriam-Webster lexicographers to change the definition of the n-word in the dictionary to no longer mean African Americans but instead to be defined as a racial slur. And, while the battle to change the n-word in the American lexicon was a long and arduous one, our culture’s neo-revisionist use of the n-word makes it even harder to purge the sting of the word from the American psyche.

The notion that it is acceptable for African Americans to refer to each other using the n-word while considering it racist for others outside the community unquestionably sets up a double standard. Also, the notion that one ethnic group has property rights to the term is a reductio ad absurdum argument, since language is a public enterprise.

The n-word is firmly embedded in the lexicon of racist language that was and still is used to disparage African Americans. However, today the meaning of the n-word is all in how one spells it. By dropping the “er” ending and replacing it with either an “a” or “ah” ending, the term morphs into one of endearment. But, many slaveholders pronounced the n-word with the “a” ending, and in the 1920s, many African Americans used the “a” ending as a pejorative term to denote class differences among themselves.

Too many of us keep the n-word alive. It also allows Americans to become unconscious and numb in the use and abuse of the power and currency this racial epithet still wields, thwarting the daily struggle many of us Americans work hard at in trying to ameliorate race relations.

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.)

Boston’s Connection to Harlem Filmmaker’s Story on Marriage Equality

May 11, 2011 at 9:56 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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by Rev. Irene Monroe

African American lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) communities have always existed in Harlem, residing here since this former Dutch enclave became America’s Black Mecca in the 1920s.

The visibility of Harlem’s LGBTQ communities for the most part was forced to be on the “down low.” But gay Harlem, nonetheless, showcased it inimitable style with rent parties, speakeasies, sex circuses, and buffet flats as places to engage in protected same-gender milieux.

And let’s not forget Harlem’s notorious gay balls. During the 1920s in Harlem, the renowned Savoy Ballroom and the Rockland Palace hosted drag ball extravaganzas with prizes awarded for the best costumes. Harlem Renaissance writer Langston Hughes depicted the balls as “spectacles of color.” George Chauncey, author of Gay New York, wrote that during this period “perhaps nowhere were more men willing to venture out in public in drag than in Harlem.”

As expected, however, African American ministers railed against these communities as they continue to do today. Given Harlem churches’ spiritual and sexual stronghold over its churchgoing communities, the church continues, to its detriment, to police the entire community concerning queer sexualities. Any healthy dialogue about God’s love and unquestioning acceptance of LGBTQ people is kept on lockdown, maintaining a “politic of silence” not only about LGBTQ sexualities but also about the various expressions of black sexuality as part and parcel on the continuum of human sexuality.

While most Harlem churches won’t touch LGBTQ issues, various gay-friendly arts venues in Harlem will. And the Harlem Stage is one of them, allowing a safe and uncensored space for black queer expressions.

On April 26 the Harlem Stage premiered the new documentary short film Marriage Equality: Byron Rushing and the Fight for Fairness, allowing the largest public dialogue on same-sex marriage by LGBTQ people of color in the country. New York native and award-winning African American gay filmmaker Thomas Allen Harris directs the film, sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign.

Harris tackles the continued hot-button issue in both the African American and LGBTQ communities. Civil rights: black vs. gay. Harris dismantles the false dichotomy of this on-going debate by connecting the Black Civil Rights Movement of 1960s with the same-sex marriage equality movement of today. And he does it by focusing on African American Democratic Massachusetts State Rep. Byron Rushing, a veteran of the Civil Rights Movement who, in the past decade, took the campaign for same-sex marriage into African-American communities here in Massachusetts.

Byron Rushing was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1982, and he was an original sponsor of the gay rights bill and the chief sponsor of the law to end discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in public schools. Rushing was also one of the leaders in the constitutional convention to maintain same sex marriage in Massachusetts.

Rushing is one of the legislative pioneers in Massachusetts’s black community to address the topic of LGBTQ rights as a civil rights issue. And Harris’ film, the first of this genre, will keep the topic from slipping into the “down low” culture of black life.

“Like the Civil Rights Movement did 50 years ago, the marriage equality movement is dominating politics in the current national landscape,” Harris said. “I hope the event at Harlem Stage will launch a movement across the country where community members use the film as a way to discuss marriage and other issues of political and social importance, especially as it relates to communities of color.”

With over 200 LGBTQ people of color and allies in attendance at the Harlem Stage, renown gay African American Washington Post editorial writer Jonathan Capehart moderated the forum on same-sex marriage with a panel that included entrepreneur and activist Russell Simmons; Cathy Marino-Thomas, board president of Marriage Equality New York; Human Rights Campaign board of directors member David Wilson; myself; and a host of rights advocates, political activists, and religious leaders.

Whereas many African American ministers will continue to hold fast to the erroneous belief that the battle for same-sex marriage is not a civil rights issue, there are, however, many African American elected officials like Rushing who know same-sex marriage is a civil rights issue.

For, example, during a June 12, 2007 Capitol Hill ceremony commemorating the 40th anniversary of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down anti-miscegenation laws — and sponsored by several straight and LGBTQ civil rights organizations across the country — the Legal Defense & Educational Fund of the NAACP released an historic statement that best explains why the LGBTQ struggle for same-sex marriage is indeed a civil rights struggle: “It is undeniable that the experience of African Americans differs in many important ways from that of gay men and lesbians; among other things, the legacy of slavery and segregation is profound. But differences in historical experiences should not preclude the application of constitutional provisions to gay men and lesbians who are denied the right to marry the person of their choice.”

LGBTQ Harlemites have resigned themselves to have dialogues on same-sex marriage — if not in their black churches, then in various public gay-friendly arts venues throughout Harlem.

And in so doing, they will be standing on the shoulders of their brothers and sisters of the Harlem Renaissance.

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.)

Huck Finn’s n-word: Preserving Artistic Integrity or Ethnic Property Rights?

January 14, 2011 at 11:35 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Guest Editorial by Rev. Irene Monroe

As Americans we have a hard time talking about race in this country when the n-word is not involved. And when this epithet is, predictably, we behave schizophrenically.

And much of the kerfuffle is about who’s staking a claim on its use.

The now recent kerfuffle concerning the n-word is focused on Samuel Langhorne Clemens’, known fondly to us as Mark Twain, New South Books edition of the 1885 controversial classic “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”

In a combined effort to rekindle interest in this Twain classic and to tamp down the flame and fury the use of the n-word engenders both from society and readers alike, who come across the epithet 219 times in the book, Mark Twain Scholar, Alan Gribben, an English professor at Auburn University in Alabama, proposed the idea that the n-word be replaced with the word “slave.”

“The n-word possessed, then as now, demeaning implications more vile than almost any insult that can be applied to other racial groups. There is no equivalent slur in the English language. As a result, with every passing decade this affront appears to gain rather than lose its impact. Even at the level of college and graduate school, students are capable of resenting textual encounters with this racial appellative,” Gribben writes in the introduction of the new edition.

I think for grade and middle school students, the word should be removed. I remember reading the text as a sixth grader at a predominately white public school in Brooklyn and suffering mightily from both the teacher’s inept ability to contextualize the text and from my classmates’ insensitivity concerning the epithet. But several years later, unfortunately, I experienced “deja vu all over again” with this text. This time, I was a first year student at Wellesley College and suffering mightily, because of the professor’s ineptitude in contextualizing the use of racist language.

Gribben’s intent in substituting the epithet with the word “slave” is to make the book user-friendly for a certain school-age group so that a teachable moment on the inflammatory use of racial epithets can be civilly addressed and analyzed in a learning environment. However, because of an often volatile reaction to Twain’s use of the n-word in“Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” we miss not only the intended lesson but also the beauty of the story and the bonding that take place between Huck (the protagonist) and Jim (an adult enslaved African American who escaped from slavery) because both are runaways trying to reach freedom.

I am troubled, however, in this recent kerfuffle concerning the n-word how many of us African Americans, in particular, go back and forth on its politically correct use.

Let’s do a walk down memory lane:

In December 2006 we blamed Michael Richards, who played the lovable and goofy character Kramer on the TV sit-com “Seinfeld” for using the n-word. The racist rant was heard nationwide and shocked not only his fans and audience that night at the Laugh Factory in West Hollywood but it also shocked Americans back to an ugly era inU.S. history.

In July 2008 we heard the Rev. Jessie Jackson used the n-word referring to Obama. And Jackson using the word not only reminded us of its history but also how the n-word can slip so approvingly from the mouth of a man who was part of a cadre of African Americans leaders burying the n-word once and for all in mock funeral at the 98th annual NAACP’s convention in Detroit in 2007.

And in 2009 Dr. Laura Schlessinger ending her radio show, a week after she broadcast a five-minute-long rant in which she used the N-word 11 times.

In 2003, the NAACP convinced Merriam-Webster lexicographers to change the definition of the n-word in the dictionary to no longer mean African Americans but instead to be defined as a racial slur. And, while the battle to change the n-word in the American lexicon was a long and arduous one, our culture’s neo-revisionist use of the n-word makes it even harder to purge the sting of the word from the American psyche.

We must, as Americans, look at the systemic problem of what happens when an epithet like the n-word, which was once hurled at African Americans in this country and banned from polite conversation, now has a broad-based cultural acceptance in our society today.

Popularized by young African Americans’ use of it in hip hop music, the bantering and bickering over this word today is no longer about who has been harmed or hurt by its use, but who has the right to use it, which is why some people are publicly pulverized and others are not.

Our culture’s present-day cavalier use of the n-word speaks less about our rights to free speech and more about how we as Americans – both White and Black – have become anesthetized to the damaging and destructive use of this epithet.

Many African Americans, and not just the hip hop generation, state that reclaiming the n-word serves as an act of group agency and as a form of resistance against the dominant culture’s use of it, and therefore the epithet gives only them a license to use it.

However, the notion that it is acceptable for African Americans to refer to each other using the n-word while considering it racist for others outside the race, unquestionably sets up a double standard. Also, the notion that one ethnic group has property rights to the term is a reductio ad absurdum argument, since language is a public enterprise.

African Americans’ appropriation of the n-word as insiders neither obliterates the historical baggage with which the word is fraught nor obliterates its concomitant social relations among Blacks and between Whites and Blacks. Just because some African Americans use the term does not negate our long history of self-hatred.

The n-word is firmly embedded in the lexicon of racist language that was and still is used to disparage African Americans. However, today the meaning of the n-word is all in how one spells it. By dropping the “er” ending and replacing it with either an “a” or “ah” ending, the term morphs into one of endearment. But, many slaveholders pronounced the n-word with the “a” ending, and in the 1920s, many African Americans used the “a” ending as a pejorative term to denote class differences among themselves.

Language is a representation of culture. Language re-inscribes and perpetuates ideas and assumptions about race, gender and sexual orientation we consciously and unconsciously articulate in our everyday conversations about ourselves and the rest of the world, and consequently transmit generationally.

My enslaved ancestors knew that their liberation was not only rooted in their acts of social protests, but also in their use of language, which is why they used the liberation narrative of the Exodus story in the Old Testament as their talking-book. The Exodus story was used to rebuke systemic oppression, racist themes, and negative images of themselves.

However, too many of us keep the n-word alive, because reclaiming racist words like the n-word does not eradicate its historical baggage and its existing racial relations among us.

Instead, it dislodges the word from its historical context and makes us insensitive and arrogant to the historical injustice done to a specific group of Americans. It also allows Americans to become unconscious and numb in the use and abuse of the power and currency this racial epithet still has, thwarting the daily struggle many of us Americans work hard at in trying to ameliorate race relations.

I think Gribben’s is trying to do that with his edition of Huck Finn.

Reverend 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.)

The Saga of Shirley Sherrod and America

July 22, 2010 at 3:24 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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Much has been written and there’s been much said about the Shirley Sherrod incident.  I’m on my way into the studio to produce this week’s Basic Black (yes, Shirley Sherrod will be one of the topics…) so unfortunately I don’t have the time to write a piece.  In the meantime, I’m more interested in your opinion on the whole affair.  For your convenience, I’m providing the timeline of events (created by Carrie English, our production assistant extraordinaire) and the video of Sherrod’s full speech.

Peace,
Valerie Linson
Series Producer, Basic Black

Shirley Sherrod Controversy Timeline

March 27, 2010

  • Shirley Sherrod, a black woman appointed last July as the USDA’s Georgia state director of rural development, made a speech at an NAACP Freedom Fund banquet. In her speech, Sherrod described an episode in which, while working at a nonprofit organization 24 years ago, a white farmer had come to her for help saving his farm, but he had acted “superior” and so she “didn’t give him the full force of what I could do.” To prove she had done her job, she said, she took him to a white lawyer. “I figured that if I take him to one of them, that his own kind would take care of him,” she said. But that lawyer failed to help, she said. She was able to find an attorney to file Chapter 11 bankruptcy to help the family stay on the farm, she said. She went on to say that an examination of her own prejudice taught her that those who are struggling have much in common, regardless of race. “The only difference is the folks with money want to stay in power. It’s always about money, y’all,” she said. “God helped me to see that it’s not just about black people. It’s about poor people. I’ve come a long way.”

April 2010

  • Conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart (best known for posting videos of two young activists posing as a pimp and prostitute seeking help from ACORN offices) says he received a DVD of the speech from a source he would not name, but the DVD would not work. He says he then forgot about it.

July 2010

  • Andrew Breitbart, angry at the NAACP for denouncing the Tea Party’s racism and wanted to prove that the NAACP was itself racist, contacted the source again asking for copies of the speech.

Thursday, July 15

  • Breitbart referred to the speech in a radio interview. Sherrod learned of this and tried to contact Vilsack and Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan through e-mail accounts the department had created for employee feedback. But they are checked infrequently, according to a spokesman, so her messages were not received until after the scandal.

Saturday, July 17 and Sunday, July 18

  • Breitbart says that over the weekend he obtained two already edited clips of Sherrod’s speech.

Monday, July 19

  • Andrew Breitbart released the edited clips on his blog, and the story went viral.
  • Shirley Sherrod was asked for her resignation. Sherrod said she got four calls Monday from Cheryl Cook, the USDA rural development undersecretary. In the first, she said, she was told she was being put on administrative leave. In the second, she said, she was told she needed to resign. She says that she was told that the White House wanted her to step down. “They asked me to resign, and in fact they harassed me as I was driving back to the state office from West Point, Georgia, yesterday,” she said. The last call “asked me to pull to the side of the road and do it [resign],” she said. She claims she was told to “do it, because you’re going to be on ‘Glenn Beck’ tonight.” Asked if she felt she had an opportunity to explain, Sherrod said, “No, I didn’t. The administration, they were not interested in hearing the truth. No one wanted to hear the truth.”
  • Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack issued a statement Monday announcing he had accepted Sherrod’s resignation, noting a “zero tolerance” policy for discrimination at the USDA, adding, “I strongly condemn any act of discrimination against any person.”
  • The NAACP condemned her comments as “shameful” and supported Vilsack’s decision. “Racism is about the abuse of power. Sherrod had it in her position at USDA. According to her remarks, she mistreated a white farmer in need of assistance because of his race,” Benjamin Jealous said. “We are appalled by her actions, just as we are with abuses of power against farmers of color and female farmers.”
  • Ironically, Beck defended Sherrod on Tuesday, saying that “context matters” and he would have objected if someone had shown a video of him at an AA meeting saying he used to pass out from drinking but omitting the part where he says he found Jesus and gave up alcohol.
  • Bill O’Reilly said Ms. Sherrod “must resign immediately.” (His show was recorded before her resignation was announced).

Tuesday, July 20

  • Tom Vilsack said that the controversy, regardless of the context of her comments, “compromises the director’s ability to do her job. This isn’t a situation where we are necessarily judgmental about the content of the statement, that’s not the issue here. I don’t believe this woman is a racist at all,” he said. “She’s a political appointee, and her job is basically to focus on job growth in Georgia, and I have deep concern about her ability to do her job without her judgments being second-guessed.”
  • While Sherrod was being grilled in an interview on CNN, Eloise Spooner, wife of the farmer in Sherrod’s story, called in to say: “She’s a good friend. She helped us save our farm. She’s the one I give credit for helping us save our farm.”
  • Later Breitbart asked CNN’s John King how they knew that the incident happened 24 years ago and that the call was really from Mrs. Spooner. He emphasized repeatedly that his target was the NAACP and not Sherrod. “This was about the NAACP attacking the Tea Party, and this is showing racism at an NAACP event,” he said. “I did not ask for Shirley Sherrod to be fired.”
  • In the evening the NAACP said they were “snookered” by the video and retracted their original statement.
  • Both Roger and Eloise Spooner appeared on CNN’s Rick’s List to defend Sherrod. “They don’t know what they’re talking about. I was never treated no better, no nicer, and looked after, than Shirley. She done a magnificent job. I don’t have words to explain it,” Roger Spooner told Rick Sanchez. “I don’t know what brought up the racist mess. They just want to stir up some trouble, it sounds to me if you want to know my opinion… There wasn’t no racist nowhere around it. We were shocked. We couldn’t believe it… If it hadn’t been for her, we would’ve never known who to see or what to do,” he said. “She led us right to our success.” Eloise Spooner said that when she saw the story of the tape and Sherrod’s resignation on television, “I said, ‘That ain’t right. They have not treated her right.’

Wednesday, July 21

  • In the morning Tom Vilsack said he may have been too hasty and would review the firing.
  • Sherrod did back-to-back interviews on the Today show and CNN’s American Morning. She called the possibility of getting her job back “bittersweet.” “I’m just not sure how I would be treated,” if taken back at Agriculture, she said on Today. “I’m not just not sure at this point.” Sherrod laid some of the blame for the controversial chain of events on the civil rights organization that had sponsored her speech. The NAACP, she told CNN, is “the reason this happened. They got into a fight with the tea party, and this all came out as a result of it.”
  • In the afternoon, Tom Vilsack held a press conference on the incident.
    • He revealed that he had spoken on the phone with Sherrod, offered her a sincere apology, and offered her a new job at the USDA that would take advantage of her “unique set of skills” as a result of the prejudice and bias she has experienced. He said she asked for time to think about it.
    • He also denied having gotten any pressure from the White House.
    • He explained his hasty behavior by saying, “for the last 18 months, we have really focused on trying to address the longstanding history of civil rights claims against the Department. They’re outstanding claims brought by black farmers, Hispanic farmers, women farmers, Native American farmers, and these are not just a few incidences or a few isolated claims. These are tens of thousands of claims that have been brought against the Department. I made it as a goal when I took this office that we would try to reverse that history, we would try to close that chapter, that we would be a Department that would not tolerate, in any way, shape, or form, discrimination.”
    • He then met with representatives with the Congressional Black Caucus.
  • At his daily briefing White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said, “On behalf of the administration, I offer our apologies.
  • Bill O’Reilly led his program by criticizing some of Sherrod’s language but acknowledging his own mistake: “I owe Ms. Sherrod an apology for not doing my homework . . . and for not putting her remarks into proper context.”

Thursday, July 22

  • In the morning the Agriculture Department emailed Sherrod a specific job offer.
  • At 12:35pm President Obama phoned Shirley Sherrod. They spoke for almost ten minutes. He had tried to reach her twice the night before, but was unable to leave a message, as her voicemail was full.

Sources for the timeline:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/07/21/AR2010072101460.html

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/07/21/AR2010072103871.html

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/07/22/AR2010072201265.html

http://blogs.abcnews.com/politicalpunch/2010/07/president-obama-phones-shirley-sherrod-urges-her-to-take-new-agriculture-department-job.html

http://www.cnn.com/2010/POLITICS/07/20/agriculture.employee.naacp/index.html

http://voices.washingtonpost.com/plum-line/2010/07/white_house_apologizes_to_shir.html

Guest Editorial: On the Loss of Lena Horne

May 14, 2010 at 2:39 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Lena Horne Was More Than Skin-Deep
Rev. Irene Monroe


Lena Horne died this Mother’s Day at the age of 92.

If you are of my generation of Lena Horne fans, your first encounters with the star was her role as Glinda, the Good Witch of the South, in “The Wiz” the 1978 film of the all-black version of L. Frank Baum’s children’s classic “The Wizard of Oz.”

But Ms. Horne’s breakthrough on the silver screens was decades before 1978. It began in 1943 when Horne was in the all-black production, “ Stormy Weather,” where she performed the title song that became her signature tune.

With the help of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Horne broke the color barrier that year when movie mogul Louis B. Mayer signed Horne to a seven-year contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), the first African American performer to receive a long-term deal with a major Hollywood studio.

However, in an era when African American actors in Hollywood were portrayed as toms, coons, bucks, mulattoes, and mammies, Horne’s roles were limited because she refused to play stereotypes.

When Ms. Horne was asked by Hollywood agents to play mammy roles, she shared in a 1997 PBS interview that her father chimed in emphatically stating, “ I can get a maid for my daughter. I don’t want her in movies playing maids.”

Horne discovered her light-skinned complexion and white facial features might have opened MGM doors for her, but once she got through them her tenure with MGM was fraught with all sorts of racial problems, the biggest one being her light-skinned complexion.

“I was unique in that I was a kind of black that white people could accept,” she told PBS. “I was their daydream. I had the worst kind of acceptance because it was never for how great I was or what I contributed. It was because of the way I looked.”

For example, her first screen test at MGM was alongside African American comedian Eddie Rochester Anderson, who played the happy-go-lucky “darkie” to Jack Benny’s eponymous hit radio and television series “ The Jack Benny Program.” Because her complexion was too light juxtaposed to Anderson’s the make-up department came up with a special shade for Horne called “light Egyptian” to dispel the notion that the movie studio was promoting an interracial couple.

However, as much as Horne detested how the white show business world exploited her light-skinned complexion, she also exploited the privilege of having it, because of intraracial discrimination — or in laymen’s terms, “colorism” in the African American community.

While it is true that America’s pigmentocracy began with slavery, many of its vestiges are with us today where still lighter-skinned blacks are preferred, trusted, and perceived to be more intelligent and attractive than darker-skinned ones.

Just look at how American soul, and R&B singer Beyonce’s career is a cross-over success compared to American soul and R&B singer India Arie’s.

Study: Darker-skinned Black Job Applicants Face More Obstacles(Issues in Higher Education, 2006) stated that “a light skinned African American male with a bachelors degree and mediocre experience is more likely to be hired for a typical job than a dark skinned man with a Masters in Business Administration and past experience in the field.”

One aspect of President Barack Obama’s appeal to those whites who would give him a listening ear during the presidential campaign was not only because he is a brilliant orator, legal scholar, and Harvard Law graduate, but also because his light-skinned complexion engenders less fear – both visually and emotionally.

And if truth were told, so did Barack’s looks for many African Americans.

During the Lena Horne era, the “ brown paper bag test” was used in the application process for admission to many of the prestigious Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Any African American darker than the hue of a brown paper bag was automatically denied admission. But the admission process also included the “comb test” and the “flashlight test.” For the “comb test,” if you were light-skinned and your hair was coarse — or as we say in black vernacular “nappy ” — you were denied admission. For the “flashlight test,” if your light-skinned features were not close to those of whites, you were denied admission.

Horne dropped out of high school at sixteen to join the famous chorus line of the renowned Harlem’s Cotton Club showgirls. The club only wanted “tall, tan, and terrific” dancers.

In 1947, Horne married her second husband, Lennie Hayton, a Jewish American conductor and arranger at MGM, 20 years before the U.S. Supreme Court 1967 ruling in Loving v. Virginia that anti-miscegenation laws are unconstitutional. In a 1980 interview with Ebony Magazine, Horne spoke about the pressures of being in an interracial marriage. But she also stated in the interview that she married Hayton to advance her career and to cross the “color- line” in show business because she knew her looks and his connection could make it happen.

Born in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn in 1917, Horne belonged to New York City’s “brown bourgeoisie” whom W.E.B. Dubois called “The Talented Tenth,” because of her family’s wealth, education, and light-skinned complexion.

Many will argue that Horne got involved in civil rights activism at a nadir in her career to advance herself, after having benefited all she could from light-skinned privilege.

“A kind of racial anger began to grow in me,” Horne told PBS. “I had to ask myself if I were merely attaching private feelings, disappointments, and resentments to a larger, more critical, crisis.”

But Horne was more than skin-deep. As an activist, she worked with Eleanor Roosevelt to pass anti-lynching laws; she refused to lodge in black sections of towns; and, she criticized the treatment of African American soldiers during the war, to name just a few.

While it is true that Horne was exploited because of her light-skinned complexion, and she also exploited the privilege of having it, I argue that all of what Horne did in her lifetime can neither be understood nor judged merely by the color of her skin.

Reverend 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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