These are strange days indeed. We are firmly into the 21st century, and yet the 80s are haunting us. For African Americans it is yet again a decade of dream and deferral.
Back in the ‘80s, for the young Black and college educated, the doors of corporate America and other professions opened up and broadened the spectrum of the Black middle class like never before. But also, back in the ‘80s, crack cocaine and the aftermath of deindustrialization crippled areas of concentrated blackness in major urban centers.
Now in the 21st century, a new Black elite floods the popular imagination as Capitol Hill, the president and his administration become more and more colorful. But also now, in the 21st century, the recession hits Black communities hardest, and at the intersection of devastating rates of imprisonment, joblessness, and inadequate education lie a critical, hurting, mass of Black Americans.
Then came Precious.
The film, released in the Fall of 2009 elicited a flurry of responses. The debates over the film were complex, nuanced, impassioned. In fact, among the Black intelligentsia there seemed to be more discussion about Precious than there was about President Obama’s education agenda, the stimulus package, or rising unemployment and imprisonment. That was troubling. But then again, it is easier to fire off a blog post or provide a commentary about a movie than it is to write a concise response to a complicated web of policy, law, and economics. However, I believe the film elicited so much engaged response precisely because it highlighted the challenge of this moment when it comes to race in America.
The film tells an individual story, a poignant one, about an abused young woman in Harlem in the 1980s. If we attend to the individual story, fictional though it may be, our hearts go out to Precious. We see in her story personal resilience, possibility, healing. Those are good things.
The film tells a collective story. The story it tells is about the devastation that the 80s wrought on Black communities, and the failure of the public school system to provide a path out for “the underclass.”
In both the collective story and the individual story, there is truth. There is a real Precious out there. The story is fictional, but it is human. The problem is that fictional stories, especially ones on film, don’t just stand as individual stories, but they do “representative work.” They become part of the way we make sense of the world in which we live. The story of one novelist or filmmaker’s imagination becomes the story of entire groups of people or “types” of people. This is especially true when the kind of social location depicted in the story is remote from the experience of the majority of the viewers.
We . . . yearn for the stories of those who sustain humanity and decency
in the face of devastating poverty and marginalization . . . for those stories . . . are, after all, far more
representative of Black life than the wreck that is Precious’ life.
On the one hand, many of us who are familiar with the way the story of Black America in the 80s was told, and the way the story of the rise of imprisonment in contemporary Black America is being told, are frustrated with the spectacle of Black violence, deviance, and dysfunction that appears over and over again. We are tired of this story of pathology that we see yet again in Precious. Instead we want a story that reveals the laws and policies and economic conditions that produce concentrated poverty and its violence. We also yearn for the stories of those who sustain humanity and decency in the face of devastating poverty and marginalization. We would prefer for those stories to be told because they are, after all, far more representative of Black life than the wreck that is Precious’ life.
And so, we balk at a film like Precious, rhetorically asking: Doesn’t it just recycle those old images of Black pathology? And isn’t it reviving those stories just when we are beginning to suffer so much again, just when we don’t need a convenient explanation of “they are pathological” to facilitate the nation turning its back on the responsibility to provide conditions for all citizens to lead productive lives as participants in the democracy and economy?
[S]ome of us want to embrace a film like Precious because it highlights a kind of suffering that our society fails to respond to.
On the other hand, some of us want to embrace a film like Precious because it highlights a kind of suffering that our society fails to respond to. Children who are poor and of color, are inadequately protected in our society. They are more vulnerable to predators, more likely to be victimized on the street and in school, and less likely to have families that are able to marshal resources to deal with trauma, mental illness, and addiction. At the same time, poor, emotionally scarred parents who become abusers have virtually no resources to repair themselves. So when we see a movie like Precious, we applaud it for encouraging sympathy and investment in young women like Precious. We think “yes, the reality of her life deserves to be depicted, maybe it will inspire action.”
The film does both kinds of work on the audience at once. Strange indeed.
Earlier, I referred to how the film reveals the challenge of this moment. The challenge is this: When it comes to race: critically thinking members of this society have to consider the implications of symbolism (like the Black president, or the Oscar worthy dysfunctional sexual abusing welfare mother played by Mo'nique) at the same time as we consider the messy, complicated, content of our society, without assuming that these things have a clear or consistent relationship to each other.
Additionally, the film demands that we bring more to the table than just an analysis of its as a piece of art. If the film stands alone, it gets deployed and interpreted every which way. But if we use the film to open the door to conversations about society, ones that are filled with knowledge, data, and careful analysis, rather than mere anecdote and fiction, then it can do some useful work in our social and political lives. Perhaps it can inspire solutions to problems of representation and policy challenges.
President Obama is on our televisions, and a young Black man is selling drugs on a corner near my home in Philadelphia. Precious is on our movie screen, and my classes are filled with brilliant young Black women pursuing degrees at a world class university. These are realities. But what relationships do these individuals have to each other and to the society at large, and how do those relationships reveal the resilience of inequality or the promise of democracy?
Asking and answering these sorts of questions is key for understanding race in the 21st century United States.
Imani Perry is a professor at Princeton University and regular contributor to Afro-Netizen. She is an interdisciplinary scholar who studies race and
African American culture using the tools provided by various
disciplines including: law, literary and cultural studies, music, and
the social sciences.
President Obama says the stimulus saved or created two million jobs
in 2009. But is the recovery really working? The American dream of good
jobs and strong communities is still just a dream for too many. The
unfair economy hurts certain groups more, and that ends up hurting
everyone. From the bottom line to the unemployment line to the color
line, watch a new in-depth program from Link TV and Applied Research Center (ARC) for a closer look: ColorLines: Race and Economic Recovery.
ColorLines: Race and Economic Recovery
follows communities making ends meet in the Great Recession. The
program narrates the moving story of Tisha, mother of three in
Connecticut, facing a social safety net shredded further by the crisis.
Then the program goes to Los Angeles where community-based organization
SCOPE has mobilized to win green jobs for communities of color. Learn
more on ARC's ColorLines page.
So, tune in to Link TV Friday, February 12, for ColorLines: Race and Economic Recovery
on DIRECTV Channel 375 or DISH Network Channel 9410 at 9:30 PM
Eastern/6:30 PM Pacific.
The entire 28-minute show is also available online
Afterwards, please join the roundtable discussion about what you've seen on Twitter @racialjustice.
"He is the last living person to have performed with Duke
Ellington at New York’s legendary Cotton Club. He played with Benny
Carter at the Apollo
Theater in 1934, the year it opened its doors to black customers. He played
Armstrong for several years and was the best man at his wedding."
Mr. Lucie, you have been on so many records and you have set several yourself. We salute and celebrate your latest record. Happy 100th! Happy birthday and congratulations.
David Whettstone is a Washington, DC based public policy advocate and
writer who works at national and local levels, particularly in the areas of
civil rights and criminal justice. A native New Yorker, he’s proud that
his hometown has folks like Mr. Lucie and plenty of jazz – a genre that he
hopes is infectious.
I remember being in front of the television once, mindlessly
watching a stupid movie, and this guy on the screen pulls out a gun, identifies
himself as an I.R.S. agent and begins firing at some poor fellow, a shocked tax
I thought the scene was hilarious. I always had this notion
of I.R.S. agents as trigger-happy, overly zealous, poor excuses for law
And now, having read the recent New York Times exposé
revealing that it was a wild I.R.S. agent who targeted Barry Bonds, things began
to fall into place for me.
All along I had been wondering what the big deal was. Why
were “they” going after this guy who in his 40s did an amazing thing – hit more
home runs than anyone before him in professional baseball?
All of a sudden there's a mission to go after athletes for
using drugs?In this case Barry Bonds for allegedly using body-building
And now the answer. An agent named Jeff Novitzky – who seems
almost high on speed in his zealotry and who tried to get the Times not to
publish his name or use his picture – is the one who went after Barry Bonds.
Herewith is the story and above is the photo, showing I.R.S.
Special Agent Jeff Novitzky, left, walking ahead of Barry Bonds in 2003 when
Mr. Bonds gave his grand jury testimony.
The picture was originally taken by Paul Chinn and published
by the San Francisco Chronicle.
(Most of you know that Bonds was recently indicted for
perjury and obstruction of justice related to the steroid using case.)
Ron Howell is a veteran journalist and neophyte blogger. Over the years, Ron has been a
reporter – domestic and overseas – for Newsday, The Associated Press, Ebony
Magazine, The New York Daily News and The Baltimore Evening Sun.
Stevie Wonder is completing concert tour after a ten-year absence. Here at the Verizon Center, he kept the sold out crowd “Too High” for two and a half hours. Introduced and accompanied by his daughter Aisha with an awesome complement of backup band and singers, Wonder did not exhaust his endless stream of hits. His music and lyrics are undoubtedly spectacular. Yet it is his spirit, words, and messages that seek to reach the listener’s heart. And this may be the more important thing.
At the start of the concert, Wonder let us know that his tour was in honor of his mother who died on May 31, 2006. What a fitting memorial to be given by a most beautiful son.
Anyone familiar with Lula Mae Hardaway, Wonder’s mother, also knows that she prevailed against tremendous odds and had her son to do so as well. She co-wrote three of Wonder’s biggest hit singles, "Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I'm Yours" (1970), "Don't Know Why I Love You" (1969) and "I Was Made To Love Her" (1967).
Wonder’s performance is an act of commitment, renewal, and reinvigoration. But these attributes are not just for Wonder himself. He extends these virtues to the audience for them to partake.
His energy seems effortless and without limits. He kept reaching back and giving. But the charm of it all – in his being his natural self – is his simplicity.
Wonder spoke, as he has done throughout his career, to the social and the political things of our lives. He can forcefully preach without seeming preachy. He had power and authority in his engagement of us. And for all the immensity of the moment, he makes a simple request of us: love. Everything leads to that. Anything that is meaningful, purposeful or worthy in his book (and probably in ours as well) is based on love.
Wonder hammered poverty, war, racism, and hate. He called for the ending of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. He highlighted the conflict and dilemma of Darfur. And he surely did not overlook the problems of cities throughout the United States.
He was appropriately hard on poor leadership and mass inaction. Without being didactic or maybe it was unconscious, he attacked learned helplessness.
Politicians say a lot of things are not possible, but Wonder insists and proclaims otherwise. The people have to leverage political will to make things happen. Community and all good things are the possible. I don’t think you’d find a single person who would disagree with him this concert night or at any other time.
Wonder was there with us not just to entertain us, but to lift us up. Indeed, it’s fair to say his mission in life is to uplift people. He spoke both to Black folk and any folk. The message and audience for him are universal.
His bold remarks weren’t broadsides but very precise and practical – clear. His focus is always at the grassroots. He called on churches, mosques, and other places of worship to be cultural centers – particularly conduits to help children grow and mature.
When his comments addressed the confusion of our time (and the perpetrators thereof), he had this to say, "Haters might as well go on [if they continue hatin’] and go to hell." Youch!
But for the most part Wonder stayed on the positive. So it comes down to … and ends in this:
These three words Sweet and simple These three words Short and kind These three words.
Let’s take the time to find different ways to say and act upon: I love you.
David Whettstone is a public policy advocate, educator and writer who works at national and local levels, particularly in the areas of civil rights and criminal justice. Based in Washington, D.C., David recently finished an eight-year tenure as a religious lobbyist and advocate on Capitol Hill. A native New Yorker, David has studied in the areas of religion and theology, political science, and urban studies.
As the summer closes, a number of significant mileposts have occurred regarding America's favorite pastime, baseball.
Jackie Robinson was again commemorated. To honor him this year, Major League Baseball (MLB) players donned Number 42 (the number now retired is no longer worn) for Jackie Robinson Day. The season has complemented this event with repeated recognition of Mr. Robinson's life and the 60th anniversary of his entry into the National Leagues with the Brooklyn Dodgers, April 15, 1947.
Some fans suggest MLB retirement of Larry Doby's No. 14 be as he endured hardships similar to Robinson's when he was the second African American to enter the Major Leagues and the first for the American League, 11 weeks later playing for the Cleveland Indians. The team has retired his number. It took 33 years for Mr. Doby to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1998.
Homage has been given to other superstars as well. Many who have baseball on their minds perennially think of Roberto Clemente and Willie Mays, who was honored at this year's All Star Game.
This year (2007) marks the start of the MLB's annual Civil Rights Game which will always be played in Memphis, Tennessee. The city was chosen to honor Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. However, the inaugural match up between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Cleveland Indians was not without controversy. The identity and participation of the latter team poses an affront to First Nations people. Cherokee people populate the Memphis vicinity and were part of the Native American tribes (i.e., bands/nations) forced to sojourn The Trail of Tears which passed through the area.
August has brought two other notable baseball occasions:
San Francisco Giant Barry Bonds surpassed Hank Aaron's leading record of 755 home runs. In the midst of controversy and mixed feelings, Mr. Aaron graciously recorded a video message to congratulate Barry Bonds. Readers may want to check out Terence Moore's Atlanta Journal-Constitution column, Aaron Happy to Be Finished with It All, and an Associated Press feature at SI.com regarding this hallmark.
Henry Louis Aaron will always outstandingly represent endurance, courage, wisdom, poise, and dignity to say the least.
Facing overt and subtle racism, one wonders how he and other veterans of color of the game thrived. This may still be an issue for present times. There's a new twist to the matter of subtlety, recent news indicates:
One pitch can make a difference.
A study concludes that major league home plate umpires are more likely to call strikes for pitchers of the same race or ethnicity. The research team was led by Daniel Hamermesh, an economics professor at the University of Texas at Austin. They analyzed every pitch from the 2004 through 2006 major league seasons, about 2.1 million, to see if discrimination occurred with calls for either balls or strikes.
Disparities were found to involve one percent of pitches. This would at least average to one pitch per game. It does not take long (even for the non-fanatical baseball observer) to realize that one pitch does count, possibly affecting the outcome of a game. By some estimates, a typical game may involve about 75 - 135 calls on pitches for each team.
Allegedly, potential disparities are mitigated when the umpire's calls are more closely scrutinized. Such factors would include ballpark electronic monitoring systems, watchfulness of full count situations (a pending pitch on the count of 3
balls and 2 strikes), or play under the auspices of well-attended games.
Is this another case for civil rights monitoring ... analogous to efforts preventing racial profiling? One is also reminded of heated debates, earlier this year, as to whether National Basketball Association referees exercised racial bias with their calls. Questions give new meaning to the phrase, "Let's go to the video tape."
There may be other implications as well. The power to evaluate and judge a player's performance remains overwhelmingly White, 87 percent of umpires and 71 percent of major league pitchers are White. Blacks make up three percent of pitching staffs. This study did not find disparities associated with racial differences between batters and umpire.
A pitcher's record, his value individually and that associated with a team's record of wins and losses, speaks volumes for further employment and lucrative compensation. The whole nature of baseball's labor market/force can be impacted. According to The 2006 Racial and Gender Report Card: Major League Baseball from the DeVos Sport Business Management Program of the University of Central Florida, there were 707 White, 100 African American, 350 Latino, 29 Asian, and 3 other players.
Black players made up about a peak 27 percent of players in the mid-1970s; last season they were slightly over eight percent share. Dare to think about and compare this sport to other sport industries. The MLB is now at work to attract more players of color ("minorities").
With baseball's mileposts and a cavalcade of heroes and legends there is an acknowledgment of individual achievement. Yet an engagement with the systemic is also needful. In the larger frame of things -- our institutions, organizations, history, and activities of life -- systems affect the advancement and thriving of all people. Recognition is useful regarding the past and present, but action is needed for securing the best future. Let's (everybody) play ball.
David M. Whettstone is a Washington, DC-based public policy advocate and
writer, who works on national and local issues (including civil rights and
criminal justice) and with religious and community-based organizations. By now you probably know he likes baseball.
Let's take time to remember jazz great, drummer Max Roach who died at age 83, August 16, 2007.
His life spanned many generations and eras. A prodigy, virtuoso, composer, and activist, he often cited as a founder and leader of modern jazz. He collaborated and played with the company of greats -- Clifford Brown, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Coleman Hawkins, Abbey Lincoln (at one time, his wife), Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, and Sonny Rollins.
Mr. Roach is credited with taking us through bebop to hard bop and beyond. A powerful provider of imagination and innovation throughout the ages, a phrase frequently used regarding Mr. Roach is "he rewrote the rules of drumming."