These days it's getting harder to tell whether history is repeating itself or if human beings are just becoming more cliche. This was underscored last week when it came to light that Cary Christian Academy, a private school in North Carolina, was using the deceptively titled pamphlet "Southern Slavery, As It Was" in their curriculum. Among the more notable claims presented by authors Doug Wilson and Stephen Wilkins were neglected virtues like: "Many Southern blacks supported the South because of long established bonds of affection and trust that had been forged over generations with their white masters and friends." Or this gem: "There has never been a multi-racial society which has existed with such mutual intimacy and harmony in the history of the world."
Listen close and you can almost hear the banjoes strumming in the background. Officials at the school defended the 43-page tract, arguing that they want to present students with "both sides" of the Civil War story and that students also read speeches by Abraham Lincoln. Ironically enough, the "both sides" approach does not include the perspectives of the actual black people who lived through slavery. A random selection from John Blassingame's "Slave Testimony" yields this first-person dissenting opinion: "[The mistress] took her in the morning, before sunrise, into a room and had all the doors shut. She tied her hands and then took her frock over her head, and gathered it up in her left hand, and with her right commenced to beating her naked body with bunches of willow twigs. She would beat her until her arm was tired and then thrash her on the floor, and stamp on her with her foot and kick her and choke her to stop her screams. She continued the torture until ten o'clock. The poor child never recovered. A white swelling came from the bruises on her legs of which she died in two or three years."
Any few pages in your college-worn copy of "The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass" would put the lie to Wilson and Wilkins claim that "Slave life was to them a life of plenty, of simple pleasures, of food, clothes, and good medical care." And one wonders where Harriet Tubman, bludgeoned so badly as a child that she suffered from bouts of narcolepsy for the rest of her life, fits into this backdrop of happy plantation scenery. And far from supporting the South out of their "bonds of affection," nearly all black Confederates, as James McPherson points out in "The Negro's Civil War," were conscript laborers who constantly sought means to escape across Union lines. To put it simply, this was a case of bondage not bonds. It is pathetic that five years into the 21st century, the societal learning curve is so obtuse that we must still make statements like: American slavery was a violent, oppressive institution responsible for the brutal subjugation and dehumanization of millions of people over the course of three centuries.
Wilson and Wilkins claims that slave life was characterized by "good medical care" is particularly bizarre given the fact that enslaved black people were frequently used as subjects of 19th century medical experimentation. The historian Katherine Bankole, in fact, pointed out in her book "Slavery and Medicine" that given the high mortality rates for the most minor surgeries during the era, doctors in antebellum Louisiana "perfected" their Caesarian-section technique on black women before applying it to white ones.
This is not about accurate history, but about providing the South with a human rights alibi, 139 years past slavery. It is about a vast capacity for willful self-delusion, the need to provide self-absolution for the sins of the so-deemed Peculiar Institution. Thus you see the kind of historical hairsplitting of "Southern Slavery, As It Was": Slavery was wrong ... but not as bad you might think.
And sadly enough, it's not only in the far precincts of the Christian right that we hear these kinds of weak rationales. The Southern Alibi tradition rests upon the now – outmoded arguments of historian Ulrich B. Phillips' "American Negro Slavery." First published in 1918, the book glazed the old arguments that slavery had been a benign and beneficial institution to the enslaved with a new scholarly sheen. Phillips' perspective had a striking longevity, finding expression even in the dissenting works that appeared in the 1950s and 1960s, all the way down to Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman's "Time on the Cross" which appeared in 1974 arguing that poor treatment of blacks would have made slavery unprofitable as an economic institution. Back in my graduate school days, my friend and fellow historian Khalil Muhammad and I were amazed to find that we – and a single white student – were the sole voices in a 15-person colloquium who were willing to argue that slavery was an unqualified moral wrong.
All these defenses – whether presented at academic conferences or passed out to adolescents in private academies of the far right, are invested in viewing slavery as a labor system operated by rational, managerial white folk – the plantation equivalents of Jack Welch or Lee Iacocca. But in order for these theories to work, they also have to overlook the concomitant cruelties of sexual exploitation of enslaved black women, which was common enough to be a defining characteristic of the institution. Again, even a commonplace text like Harriet Jacobs' "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl" or Deborah White's "Aren't I A Woman" would illustrate the fact that rape was an intricate part of enslavement in this country. Nor can these depictions of slavery-lite explain away the dissolution of families for profit and the inhuman breeding of blacks to produce additional chattel for the slave owners.
It would be easy to dismiss these disputes as the arid exercises of the History Forensics Society were the implications for our everyday lives not so serious. Truth told, Wilkins and Wilson are only inches away from the "happy darky" illustrations of black life and if this is "Southern Slavery, As It Was" then they would be hard-pressed to explain the literal hundred of slave revolts, attempted revolts, poisonings and fires that defined the South between the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. In airbrushing the brutality of slavery, we make it possible to ignore the tremendous power that race had – and continues to have – in shaping this society. To cut to the quick, until we are willing to grapple with slavery as it was, we will remain incapable of dealing with America as it is.
This week Kweisi Mfume stepped down from his position as president of the NAACP. Some blame Mfume's decision on friction between Mfume and chairman of the NAACP Board, Julian Bond. There may be something to this – both Mfume and Bond are strong-willed men and it isn't hard to imagine disagreements between the two and between the camps supporting them: How does the NAACP respond to Bush's snub of the NAACP? Who goes to X event to speak on the NAACP's behalf? Some have also noted Mfume's desire to run for political office; a likely scenario has Mfume running for Senate in a couple of years. But to focus on internecine warfare within the NAACP or on the greener pastures calling Mfume is to miss the point.
It is clear that the NAACP is a highly organized and institutionalized bureaucracy that gives some black men and women a chance to develop leadership skills, and a chance to weigh in on some of the pressing issues of the day as they relate to some "black" issues. There are folks who have their jobs because of the NAACP. There are folks who were able to buy homes for the first time because of the NAACP. There are folks who were able to put their kids through school because of the NAACP. I used to sleep on these benefits when I was younger. As I now have mouths to feed I feel a bit differently.
But yet and still, when it comes to considering the NAACP's structure as it relates to the mission of empowering black people in the 21st century, there are at least three flaws that loom large.
First, the NAACP remains a non-profit organization that revolves around a philosophy of expanding political rights (as opposed to political and economic rights). This means that among other things, they cannot actually own property. Inasmuch as much of our problem is the combined function of political, cultural, and economic subjugation, the NAACP is unable to address the relative dearth of black wealth. The NAACP isn't able to buy up blocks and blocks of vacant property in Detroit, for example, and rebuild those blocks to provide sustenance for Detroit's black, white, and brown populations. One of the critiques laid upon the NAACP for years was that it was beholden to corporate donors. Upset the donors ... and watch the coffers dwindle to nothing. It's hard to get rid of the donors when you have no independent way of generating the resources the corporations provided.
Second, the NAACP is a highly centralized organization, with a bloated executive board. While local branches have some latitude, their responses to local issues involving race and/or racism have to be vetted by someone at national headquarters. But the speed at which society moves can be dizzying. How quickly did the Indiana-Detroit NBA fracas die down after it was all that occupied the Web for about a week? More importantly, how soon did the press drop the ball on the administration plan to cut Pell Grants significantly? Think about the speed at which decisions have to be made at the local, state and federal level.
Now think about having to sift some of those decisions through a 64 member executive board. Think about what it would take to get them together (even virtually) to take a vote. Think about what type of event would have to happen to get them all on one accord. Because the NAACP wants to, at some level, protect the national headquarters and the other branches from the potential mistakes of local branch leaders, it has developed a top-down model. But a strong argument can be made that this top-down model squashes the ability of branches to develop unique solutions to their own problems. It also hampers the ability of local chapters to quickly and efficiently deal with issues as they arise. Finally, it replicates the kind of brokerage approach to politics that inevitably neuters black agency.
Third, the NAACP is still largely a middle-to-upper income African American organization. The issues of voter disenfranchisement, of growing black prison populations, of dwindling options in k-12 education, of HIV/AIDS, are direct problems that working class black populations have to face daily. The disjunct between the population hardest hit by racism and by social deprivation and the population of the NAACP is a large one. Take the best case scenario where black professionals not only care about the issues of black working class citizens but actively work to deal with these issues. This best case scenario – which seldom happens – still leaves working-class black citizens in the lurch because they are not given the tools and the opportunity to organize for themselves. They remain in the uncomfortable position of having to be spoken for rather than having the ability to speak.
There are other issues that the NAACP has to deal with that I did not even begin to touch on here. The IRS investigation for example. The fact that the executive board is not only big, it is old. And the central fact that even though the NAACP claims to deal with racism as it affects all minorities, it is an all-black organization.
Mfume's exit has caused people inside of the NAACP and people outside of it to take a critical look at the organization. This is a good thing, no doubt about it. And it would be even better if the person selected to take his place will begin the long hard retooling process that would make the NAACP relevant for a new age. But as it stands I suspect that Mfume's exit will occupy our minds for a little while, and disappear – just like the Indiana Pacers-Detroit Pistons brawl of last week. Leaving the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People using mid 20th century methods to deal with 21st century problems.
Conventional wisdom has it that modern black conservatism has its roots in the philosophy of one Booker T. Washington, the Tuskegee Wizard whose advocacy of self-reliance, thrift, morality and hard work helped him build a respected university, a personal fortune and a political machine the likes of which have not been seen in black America since. But truth be told, given the Sunday-schooled, Southern-born outlook of large segments of black America the phrase "black conservative" is damn-near redundant. (And a black "compassionate conservative" would, in most quarters, be simply called a liberal.)
The theme of self-reliance, self-respect and hard work run through nearly every major black movement of the 20th century – regardless of political persuasion. But there's a reason why Clarence Thomas is considered conservative in pejorative sense of the term and Louis Farrakhan, who is pro-business, anti-abortion, pro-death penalty (believing it should apply not only to homicide, but rape as well) and condemns "government handouts" is not. That difference being that most people believe Farrakhan – no matter his labyrinthine contradictions and metaphysical snake oil – has some clue to the persistence of racism in America.
With a few notable exceptions, the class of black conservatives is not at the forefront of the conservative debates of foreign policy unilateralism, stem cell research or deficit spending. Rather they're given dominion over a fiefdom of unwashed Negroes whose social maladjustment is to be condemned as consistently, stridently and creatively as possible. And this explains why Bill Cosby's case of racial Tourette's syndrome last April was widely viewed as "conservative" as opposed to simply mean-spirited and incoherent. On some level, the terms have become synonymous.
Which brings us to our present concern John McWhorter. In the span of three years, since the publication of his initial foray into Negro punditry "Losing the Race" and its follow-up "Authentically Black," McWhorter has become something a negro-con phenomenon, appearing on television and talk shows and writing in numerous outlets. His arguments that blacks are done in by "victimology" not racism, and that black people are doomed by their own "separatist" and anti-intellectual tendencies amount to old malt liquor in a new 40-ounce. But no matter, it sells.
With McWhorter's school of conservatives we hear strains of Booker T. not so much in his views on thrift and hard work – because those are articles of faith across and political lines in the black community – but in his tradition of accomodationism and comically "putting on" for his (predominantly white) audience. Think about this in the context of McWhorter's obsessive concern – "proving" that there really isn't much racism left in the country and you suspect that his books serve – intentionally or not – as balm for the white guilty conscience. The message to black folk: what you think is racism is actually just coincidental occurrence. Change to song: We have overcome.
We just didn't notice.
Central to his indictment of black America on charges of self-sabotage is the idea that liberal soft-heartedness has made black mediocrity pay off. (He asserts that black students don't work hard, knowing that paternalistic white liberals will let them into the best universities anyway.) A mentor of mine once pointed out that there would be "equality" in America when a black person could be completely mediocre and still achieve astounding success. The point is that among the many pernicious side effects of segregation was its ability to hide white underachievement from black people.
McWhorter indicts universities that consider race as a factor in admissions, but paradoxically has no problem with police using race as a factor in profiling random citizens. After being stopped and questioned by police for walking while black, McWhorter reports in "Losing the Race," "I cannot say that I walked away from that episode furious that I had just been swiped by the long arm of white racism ... I felt that what had happened was a sign that the black underclass is America's greatest injustice, and that I ought to take it as a call to action to do as much as I can to help rescue the underclass so that such encounters with the police won't be necessary – because under the current conditions, whether we like it or not, they are."
The irony here is obvious: he actually endorses race-conscious admissions – if one is being admitted to the back of a squad car. And his steely, self-interested resolve to "uplift" the underclass echoes the same kind of paternalistic social daddying that was once common among white liberals – though it's hard to tell if this constitutes progress or not.
Amadou Diallo? In McWhorter-world, his overdeath is a sad byproduct of the fact that black people need to be policed more aggressively. These things happen. (Among his favorite acts of self-justifying logic is his point that crime in Diallo's neighborhood increased after his murder because the protests prevented police from patrolling as aggressively as they otherwise would have.) And this kind of absence-of-outrage when confronted by the outrageous is precisely why conservatives like McWhorter are so widely viewed with suspicion.
McWhorter is smart enough to know that racial profiling is based upon a logical fallacy. Saying that 99 percent of carjackings in Newark, N.J. are committed by black men is not the same as saying that 99 percent of black men in Newark are carjackers. If those criminals represent only 2 percent of the total population of black men in the city, but using race as the decisive factor in profiling, the police would create a pool of suspects 49 times larger the number of criminals. It doesn't take a quantum physicist to figure out that this is not the most effective way to end carjackings.
At points, McWhorter takes his white absolution agenda to laughable – not comic – extremes. Speaking of hip hop's role in the demise of black America, McWhorter presents this gem:
"Almost all hip hop, gangsta or not, is delivered with a cocky, confrontational cadence that is fast becoming a common speech style among young black males. Similarly, the arm-slinging, hand-hurling gestures of rap performers have made their way into many young blacks' casual gesticulations, becoming integral to their self-expression. The problem with such speech and mannerisms is that they make potential employers wary of young black men and can impede a young black's ability to interact comfortably with co-workers and customers."Nah, dawg, you wasn't denied that job 'cause of racism, the manager just wasn't diggin' your gully steez, feel me? And given the fact that over 70 percent of hip hop is purchased not by arm-slinging black boys, but suburban white teens, it seems inevitable that 50 Cent will eventually be responsible for Great Depression-like levels of unemployment among white people too.
The tragedy is that John McWhorter could advocate persistence in achieving goals, hard work and self-respect without presenting a premature epitaph for American Racism. For all his gratuitously tom-istic humor and accommodation of white folk, Washington was aware of his own irony (he verbally disdained the importance of civil rights while secretly funneling the money of white philanthropists into legal suits that he hoped would overturn the most repressive elements of Southern racism.) Given the direction that this country has headed in for the past four years, we should've expected McWhorter's brand of neo-accomodationism to show up.
But at least Booker T. had good punchlines.
Even before the death-colored clouds had cleared from the skies over lower Manhattan the words 'worst' and 'first' were already becoming synonymous. Three years after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, DC, Sept. 11 has become a sort of touchstone in the common consciousness, a moment of catastrophic unreality that was force-fed into our real world. Looking back at the all-too-recent events of that day, it's easy to understand why 9/11 seems to have blotted out all prior memory and conviction. In its scale and media-age spectacle, it was unprecedented. Its repercussions have only yet begun to echo. It remains the context and subtext for this moment in history.
9/11 is the ghost in our bloodstream.
Still it must be said: the idea that terror is new to American soil has been politically beneficial to the Bush administration which, in the absence of any domestic accomplishments to speak of, has staked its future on "keeping America safe." In the wake of the bombing of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, a misstatement made amid the trauma of so much death and destruction gradually calcified into a fact of public perception: this has never happened before.
But history is long and truth told, terrorism in America is nearly as old as America itself. Only a century earlier, a terrorist had actually succeeded in assassinating a President of the United States. William McKinley died in 1901, shot by Leon Czolgosz, an anarchist assassin. And if we think of terrorism as organized acts of violence directed at civilians in order to instill fear and affect politics, then it is impossible to ignore the fact that racism and terrorism are inseparable in American history. On one level, race is irrelevant on this bleak anniversary – black remains are indistinguishable among the lost thousands cremated in terrorist flames in NY and DC. But the past is relevant here. Race is the link connecting acts of terrorism as disparate as the guerilla raids fought over slavery in Kansas in the 1850s through the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995.
To cut to the chase, American history is a harvest of strange fruit.
It would be easy, at this distant remove, to forget that Timothy McVeigh, the homegrown terrorist who orchestrated the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City that claimed 168 lives did so in order to ignite a race war. McVeigh's attack was literally taken from the pages of Andrew McDonald's racist potboiler "The Turner Diaries." McVeigh himself had spoken at length about the federal government's role in usurping the rights of white people and argued that the government had become an instrument solely for furthering the interests of people of color and Jews.
At the time it occurred, Oklahoma City was referred to as the worst instance of terrorism on American soil. But that assessment required a certain historical near-sightedness to be true. The 1995 bombing was not even the worst act of terrorism in the state's history. The 1921 Tulsa Race Riot, in which bands of armed and deputized whites attacked black residents of the city, resulted in twice as many deaths as the Oklahoma City bombing by the most conservative estimates. (The town of Rosewood, Florida was burned completely off the map by white rioters that same year.) In 1906, entire sections of Atlanta were burned to the ground and untold numbers of blacks were pulled from their homes and lynched. Just after the Civil War, Southern whites killed 46 blacks, injured over a hundred and burned 90-odd homes to the ground in Memphis – while Northern troops stationed in the city watched. And these are only a handful of the scores of town and neighborhood burnings that characterized black life in the pre-Civil Rights era.
Nor can it be said that McVeigh was a historical anomaly. Just over a century earlier, the organized terrorist campaigns of alleged Southern Redeemers began with the goal of eradicating black political participation during Reconstruction. Early in the 20th century, their racist campaigns were mythologized by Thomas Dixon and D.W. Griffith. As the late writer Ralph Wiley pointed out, McVeigh bombed a building in order to live out the plotlines of a novel in the same way that 19th century terrorists attempted to live out the plotlines of "Birth of a Nation." Griffith's masterpiece of racial propaganda was based upon Dixon's novel "The Leopard's Spots." The success of "Birth of a Nation" inspired a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan – which had nearly died out – and became the basis for their ritual burning of the cross (an act that had been invented for it's dramatic value to the story.) The terror directed at black people who had the audacity to take the Emancipation Proclamation at face value resulted in over 3000 lynchings between 1880 and 1920.
The names, dates and casualties of these assorted inhumanities is innumerable: the pandemic of rape directed at black women after Reconstruction, the litany of assassinations, the fatal bombing of the home of NAACP activists Harry and Harriette Moore in 1951, the bombing of Fred Shuttlesworth's home in 1956, the bombing of Martin Luther King's home that same year. The bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 – a city so defined by racial terrorism that it was known as "Bombingham."
And ultimately even the prerequisites for black freedom start to fit the technical definitions: Sherman's march through Atlanta. Nat Turner. John Brown's Raid. Sherman was an early proponent of the concept of "total war," which recognized no battle lines and few civilian zones. His famed march to the sea was designed to both instill fear in the Southern civilian population and to break the will of the Confederate soldiers miles away from their jeopardized homes. Nor are the revolts of Nat Turner and John Brown exempt. The difficult truth is that sometimes the charge of terrorism lies in the eye of the beholder.
None of this is meant to lessen the tragedy of the lives stolen three years ago – it is bad moral mathematics to even weigh any one tragedy against another – but it does raise questions about the current administration's use of the term 'terrorist.' In the midst of a public stricken with post-traumatic stress syndrome and a presidency that has used fear as its primary political tool, we would do well to recall that terror has deep roots in American soil.
Jill Scott is an oxymoron. She's a low-maintenance diva with a breathtaking smile that commands the stage more than any pyrotechnics or scantily-clad dancers ever could. Scott's allure lies in her distinct ability to convey life's common experiences and simple pleasures. Her platinum debut, 2000's Who is Jill Scott? Words and Sounds Vol. 1 introduced a woman unafraid of life. With a unique brand of hip hop/neo-soul, Jilly from Philly flirted with infatuation, confronted a scheming chickenhead, declared love for her then-boyfriend, now husband, and even questioned the government's possible voyeur-like activities. Whew.
Now, Scott returns with Beautifully Human, Words and Sounds Vol. 2, which is sonically more refined, but still rooted in what has become essential Jill: love and happiness millennium style. Invoking Minnie Riperton and Phyllis Hyman, among others, Scott avoids the typical sequel. Beautiful is more reinvention than rehash. She is figuratively basking in the afterglow of true love and, more importantly, in the ultimate acceptance of herself. Beautiful is a testament to the weight and necessity of love.
Jill talked with Africana recently about escaping fame, finding spirituality (at 12 years old!) and what true freedom is.
Everyone has been waiting with bated breath for a new Jill Scott album.
That's definitely good to hear!
What have you been doing?
I have been living my life. I painted my house. I bought a cat. I directed a video for Jeff Bradshaw. I started a foundation called Blues Babes. We keep community centers open and help kids go to college. It's going very well.
You sent out a mass e-mail to your fans saying that you had to take some time away to just be your mother's daughter. What brought this on?
I had a show and I was truly exhausted afterwards. Normally, I am just tired. I could not find the energy. I realized that at that point, when the positive well is empty, you begin to pull from the negative well. Everybody has a yin and a yang. I started to pull from the negative and I knew it was time to go home to replenish.
Despite your celebrity, you seem abnormally grounded. I liken you to Sade. She releases her talent to the world and then retreats back to her life.
Well, I grew up as a Jehovah's Witness. I was never baptized, but one of the truest things that I remember is being humble. I know that every breath is a blessing and every wiggle of the toe is a miracle. I know that I am gifted, but I also know that it's not me. Let's say that there are four steps to get to the stage. By the third, someone else takes over. I never remember the shows and have to ask, 'How was it?'
So, this is your alter ego?
Yes. I am very much a homebody. "Jill Scott" is a lot more powerful than I am. But, I like her a lot!
Are you still a practicing Jehovah's Witness?
When I was 12, I decided that I wanted to see what else was out there. I believe that all of the religions have merit and that it's man that messes it up. I am more spiritual than religious. Sometimes I feel like a Buddhist and I need to chant; sometimes a Baptist and I need to holler and shout and sometimes I need to be a Catholic and need to purge my sins and confess. It just depends on where I am. But, I know I need to get there.
Your mother gave you freedom at 12 years old to explore your spirituality?
Not necessarily. I took it on my own. It was my grandmother who wanted me to remain a Witness.
What do you think of religion?
I remember one preacher who was wearing this beautiful silk suit who left the church in a driven car. There was a family and the children were begging for some hot dogs because they were hungry. I think preachers should make sure that everyone is on the same playing field.
Your new album, Beautifully Human, is gorgeous. What took you so long?
I held out until I couldn't stand it anymore. The songs started waking me up and came to me during dinner or while I was in the tub or on walks. They weren't just one lyric here and there. They were complete songs. My hope was to make an album that was equally as good, but in a different way.
What inspires you to write?
It's a process. I don't listen to anything. Then I will listen to one piece of music and this time it was Minnie Riperton's Anthology, and then it was Frankie Beverly and Maze. Then I waited for the spirit to move, and then its life experiences. This is why I have to take time, in order to see life.
Your album is romance-heavy. I assume this is personally inspired?
Yes! I know genuine love when I see it because I have it. I don't feel alone in love, there is a whole congregation of people out there who feel it, want it, have it and are honored by having it in their lives.
How long have you been with your husband, Lyzel?
We started dating when I was 23 and I am 32 now. We got married when I was 29. We separated for a little bit to make sure that we were making the right decision. I dated other people and found out that they weren't funny, not as smart is he is. He is my match.
When a female celebrity marries a non-famous male, it seems to add certain pressures to the relationship. Have you experienced this?
The only time we feel any pressure is when we are out. We choose very well where we go together so we can just be. Sometimes the responses do bother him, especially if they are inappropriate. For instance, being in the doctor's office and the nurse telling everyone in the building that I am there. It only bothers him when he feels like it infringes on my private self. Other than that, he gets it.
Well, society prescribes that the man should be the head of the household, especially when it comes to finances. Is this ever a problem?
I don't think that making more money [dictates who leads]. However, I am a firm believer that the man is the head of the household and it works for us. He is very manly and I love and respect that. He knows that I am the queen up in here. And in the back of my mind, I know that he is the king.
Your current single, "Golden," speaks on taking control of your freedom and living life. What is true freedom to you?
When you are not held down by anything. Freedom is being able to leave a situation that doesn't help you at any given time, because you are free. My mother was a dental technician for about five years, and she just decided to quit. I was scared because I was in high school, I had my prom and my class ring to get. I was like, "We already broke. Are you we about to be broke, broke?" She refurbished antiques. Then she decided [to cater], and when she was tired of that, she decided to redecorate the basement and make an affordable childcare center in our home. She has always lived her life the way that she chooses. Freedom is scary and it's worth it.
When you debuted, you did not bow down to industry expectations. What advice would you give new artists about being themselves?
We can all see the effects of being false. We see our president. When somebody is just living for money, it becomes a detriment and that they may not be honoring the artist for fear. Fear stops your growth. You have to do this out of love, not out of fear of being broke. If that means paying to get into a venue so that you can perform, or performing for free. Do it because it's in you, not just because it looks good on you.
I had a conversation with Maya Angelou a few years ago, and I asked her what was her motivation to live the nine lives she's had so far, and she told me that she realized that she is going to die one day. What is your motivation?
I really like to smile. I want to do things in my life that make my pores smile, and my nose and teeth smile. And when I feel that glow, I feel so much closer to God.
You may not know who Andre Stander was but Stander, the movie about this modern South African folk figure, brings back vivid memories of the struggle against Apartheid. Not a conventional political statement, the film revives the righteous rebellion that peaked for Americans during the 1980s trade sanctions and the stirring protest anthem "Sun City" (that was a key example of 80's multiculti pop, made into a rousing music video by Jonathan Demme). Americans intrinsically know something of Andre Stander's defiant spirit but writer/director Bronwen Hughes and the film's star Thomas Jane extend that defiance into a welcome action-movie myth.
Stander, who was a white Afrikaner and not a freedom fighter, served on the Johannesburg police force. He was part of the riot squad that quelled the 1976 Soweto uprising. After that experience of a brutal ruling minority attempting to crush the blacks and students seeking equal rights – several were in fact killed – Stander flipped and opposed South Africa's social system by becoming a bank robber. This would be a dishonest movie if it attempted to show Stander as a Robin Hood figure. Instead it takes a more complex approach by illustrating the young man's moral objection but insisting upon his restless dissatisfaction.
As portrayed by American actor Thomas Jane (who first came to prominence opposite Ice Cube and Samuel L. Jackson in Deep Blue Sea), Stander bears some resemblance to the role Cube played in Dangerous Ground (1996) as a transplanted hiphopper living in South Central Los Angeles who returns home to South Africa to bury his father and find his misguided brother. This represents a convoluted Hollywood approach to non-political heroism that is a rather typical mainstream way of seeming topical without too much specificity. Just as Cube had no political position, only acting out of a sense of necessity, Jane's Stander reacts personally, following what could be called a personal sense of honor. He feels the need to take down South Africa's institutions by attacking banks – symbols of its economy. ("He has made us look impotent in our own country," says one of the cops chasing Stander.) But the fascinating thing about Hughes' movie is that it shows this mischief – although only linking it to the Oedipal conflict of Stander's relationship with his father General Stander (played by Maurius Weyer) – with a genuine, deep-hearted sense of triumph.
While Stander is in prison (after three years of flouting the laws he once pledged to uphold), the movie switches the usual Hollywood tactic that would have our hero being taught by an actual black character about how heinous and deeply entrenched are the flaws of South African politics and racial injustice because Stander knows that already. Thus, he meets two other white convicts: David Patrick O'Hara's Allan Heyl, a burly Burt Reynolds' type, and Dexter Fletcher's skittish Lee McCall, run-of-the-mill criminals whose portraits further represent the discontented class in Johannesburg society. A moving speech by Heyl directly connects this discontent to South Africa's racial inequality, yet the film's moral thrust – and the thrill these three gang members get out of bank robbing – expresses a simpler, all-too-human fervor. They're rebels running alongside a cause.
As a result of this undisguised mythic narrative approach, Stander exposes how rare it is to see a movie where the activity of bad-ass characters is held up to moral or political scrutiny. It especially embarrasses the fake sociological alibis used in the ludicrous 1996 female-bank robbers movie Set It Off. That film wound up disgracing the plight of ghetto sisters, while Stander illuminates the unacceptable ideology of Apartheid. It accomplishes this because Hughes shrewdly positions Stander's legend to do more than seduce audiences with the pleasure of free money and greed. (Money itself means little to Stander who always had it.) Hughes cleverly critiques that culture's whites-only ideology. It was a social and psychological problem that would inevitably, eventually lead to dissension – whether Nelson Mandela's, the type Stevie Wonder sang about, or the type Denzel Washington portrayed as Steven Biko in Cry Freedom.
Acting out the white perspective, Thomas Jane has the unique fortune of making anti-Apartheid activity look dashing. Jane brings nuances to the part that reveal Stander's personal neuroses (his second marriage to the same woman Bekka played by Deborah Kara Unger makes this plain). But Stander's quasi-hipster legend is more than entertaining (that's all you could say of Johnny Depp's comic bad-boy performance in Pirates of the Caribbean), Jane makes it enlightening. In the scenes where Stander commits his robberies in broad daylight, sometimes in disguise but mostly simply dressed as himself, the film offers one of the most remarkable revelations in the history of mainstream movies: It dramatizes The Invisibility Of Whiteness.
For those academics and action film fans who were thrilled by the exploitation of race in The Matrix movies, Stander presents more intriguing fodder for intellectual dissection. It's a morally-committed action movie that, in its honesty, shames the subliminally racist antics of movies that ask filmgoers to worship Arnold Schwarzeneger, Sly Stallone, Bruce Willis and more recently Matt Damon in The Bourne Conspiracy and Tom Cruise in Collateral. Those actors embodied shameless, unprincipled action. Thomas Jane exposes the privilege that mainstream culture affords even to white criminals and killers. Jane's Stander behaved selfishly (and ironically was killed in multiculti Miami after having eluded South African authorities), yet his story still stands for something.
As scholar Tricia Rose examined in her book Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America (1994), most women rappers didn't get in the game because they saw themselves as feminist warriors – indeed, quite a few of those women consciously distanced themselves from even the perception that they might be feminist. Besides a basic desire for self expression, most female rappers where driven by the same thing that drives male rappers – they wanted to show that they could rock mic. But too often for the earliest generation of female rappers, the men and boys in ciphers weren't overly willing to pass the mic, so it's not surprising that the first commercially successful female rappers only got play by recording responses to their male peers. Twenty years after the release of Roxanne Shante's "Roxanne's Revenge" and Salt & Pepa's "Showstopper," for the most part women rappers and scholars are still struggling to be included in the cipher of hip hop culture. Taking a page from Jean Grae's Bootleg of the Bootleg EP, Gwendolyn Pough's new book Check It While I Wreck It: Black Womanhood, Hip-Hop Culture, and the Public Sphere (Northeastern University Press) is a bold attempt to grab the mic.
Though Tricia Rose's Black Noise is generally recognized as the first scholarly study of hip hop, the idea of the hip hop intellectual has largely been informed by black male scholars Michael Eric Dyson and Todd Boyd. Long before the publication of his book Holler If You Hear Me: In Search of Tupac Shakur, Dyson had established himself as the mainstream's favorite hip hop critic via books like Reflecting Black: African-American Cultural Criticism (1993) and From God to Gangsta Rap (1995). Boyd's expertise has been at mapping hip hop's influence on film and sports (he's a regular contributor to ESPN), particularly in books like Am I Black Enough For You? (1997) and the recent Young, Black, Rich, and Famous: The Rise of the NBA, The Hip Hop Invasion and the Transformation of American Culture.
Very often black women scholars and journalists were relegated to the margins of public discussions about hip hop (for example, it was only through an 11th hour intervention that Rose was included on a panel for Russell Simmons's first hip hop summit in 2001) unless of course the subject was about the culture's portrayal of women. As Pough notes "Much of the work currently being done by Black feminists and feminists on rap focuses on the sexism and misogyny of Black men rappers...the work of women rappers is being ignored." It is this tendency to ignore the narratives of women in hip hop that Pough challenges throughout Check It While I Wreck It. Pough cites a passage in Nelson George's Hip-Hop America, where he claims that hip hop has produced "no Bessie Smith, no Billie Holiday, no Aretha Franklin," arguing that if no "female artists had ever made a record, hip-hop's development would have been no different" as part of the inspiration for her book: "Those words have troubled me for some time, and I see this project as a way to correct these kinds of misguided statements. Hip-hop may be a uniquely testosterone-filled space, but to say that women have not contributed significantly to its development is false."
Pough links the ignoring and silencing of black women's voices in hip hop to larger societal issues. According to Pough, "Black women's speech and expressive culture have been limited in the public sphere due in part to circumstances...such as maintaining community, promoting Black manhood at the expense of Black womanhood, and constantly vindicating Black womanhood against misrepresentation." Pough adds that black women's voices have also been "limited because the places in which they have been allowed to thrive have been devalued." Pough's comments here challenge the conventional thinking that when black women get together in the beauty parlor or in the kitchen that it is simply a "bitch session" about trifling men and a chance to gossip.
But Pough, an avowed black feminist, also chides the feminist movement for its failure to take seriously the voices of black women in hip-hop. "Black feminism needs to be accountable to young Black women, saving their lives and widening their worldview and the choices they feel they can make" writes Pough, adding that "In order to accomplish this – in order to reach young Black women – feminism needs to come down from its ivory tower. Young black women, like it or not, are getting their life lessons from rap music." Pough's comments echo those made by Pearl Cleage a decade ago when she criticized her fellow black feminists for not being more vocal about Dr. Dre's attack on talk-show host Dee Barnes in early 1991. As Cleage wrote in her book Deals with the Devil and Other Reasons to Riot (1994), "because the noise of the world in which Dee Barnes lives and works – the world in which our teenage children go to school and fall in love and decide to have sex – is so insistently loud and irritating to our thirty-or forty-plus ears, we tune it out completely and hope it will just go away."
What makes Check It While I Wreck It such an important entry into hip hop scholarship is that Pough makes clear the ways that hip hop has not only been responsible for how the mainstream thinks about blackness, but very often the ways in which the mainstream is introduced to contemporary black femininity. According to Pough, "If Hip-Hop culture and rap music made the ghetto a recognizable entity on the U.S. landscape, the Hip-Hop cinema represented by the Boyz 'N the Hood/ghetto exploitation cinema of the 1990s made the ghetto girl a recognizable element of that landscape." Though Pough is clearly critical of these films, with their focus on the "baby mama," "hoochie" and "chickenhead" who are out to undermine black men, she notes that they "grant us a deeper understanding of the negative rap lyrics that men rappers spout about black women.."
Underlying many of the stereotypical images of women in hip hop is the idea that women pursue sexual relations with young black men, simply out of material desire – the relative financial rewards that come with being the "baby-mama" and "chickenheads." But is in the context of this line of thinking that Pough finds value in the lyrics of women like Lil' Kim and Foxy Brown. Pough writes, "The sexually explicit lyrics of these women rappers offer black women a chance to face old demons and not let the stereotypes inform or control their lives. After years of Black women being read as supersexual – or asexual, in the case of the mammy stereotype – the lyrics of these women rappers offer black women a chance to be proud of – and indeed flaunt – their sexuality.
The recent National Hip-Hop Political Convention was a bold step into the future of Hip-Hop. Gwendolyn Pough's Check It While I Wreck It: Black Womanhood, Hip-Hop Culture, and the Public Sphere proves that hip hop scholarship is marching to the same beat.
In the cavalcade of heroes that we trot out each Black History Month, there is a special VIP section reserved for Negro Firsts. The belief is that each one is a barometer charting the falling pressures of racism in America. But the truth is that for every racial pioneer, there are hundreds, if not thousands of black also-rans who made the mistake of being ahead of history. Still, the job is not enviable: the First is generally required to perform a high-wire act in hurricane winds. And, in the last months of his tenure as Secretary of State, one starts wishing that Colin Powell had done so with the benefit of a net.
Since it is unlikely that he will return to the State Department even if a disaster for democracy occurs and Bush is returned to the White House, we are possibly looking at the twilight of Powell's career as a professional diplomat. Historians are trained to avoid snap, in-the-moment assessments, but at this juncture, Powell's tenure at the State Department appears to have no clear diplomatic legacy, save the dubious distinction of being First.
Last year, on the verge of the invasion of Iraq, Harry Belafonte denounced Powell as a House Negro. But it's not as simple as Powell being some species of sellout (Negro Domesticus) – because were that merely the case, Powell the political figure would not be nearly as tragic a figure as he ultimately is. Unlike Thomas and Rice, Powell felt no need to disrespect the in-the-street activism that paved the way for his present position (Thomas decried the "specious" social science underpinning the Brown v. Board of Education decision and has frequently criticized the Warren Supreme Court that decided it, struck down segregated transportation in Montgomery, Alabama and outlawed the anti-miscegenation laws that would have prevented Thomas himself from living in Virginia with his white wife.)
Rice – who grew up in Alabama – has taken great pains to point out that her family was not among that set of activist Christians who felt it necessary to march in the streets to end segregation (a statement that runs counter to her own father's political activism, which included his traveling the country giving speeches denouncing the war in Vietnam.)
Powell, on the other hand, wrote in his autobiography of the fury he experienced as a young soldier in Vietnam when King was assassinated and noted that even the radical voices of H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael were "like a fire bell ring in the night, waking up defenders of the status quo with the message that change had better be on the way."
Powell is the most popular of the black Republicans and has more support within black communities than any of the other institutionally-sanctioned black power brokers. He has benefited from the perception that he is not among the Negro-loathing mean-spirits of the G.O.P. – a grace that does not extend to his son Michael, who as Chairman of the FCC presided over the indictment and arrest of Janet Jackson's right nipple when he wasn't busy slackening the laws that inhibit corporate monopolization of the media. (Asked what he planned to do about the alleged "digital divide" that results in poor – presumably black – children having less access to computers, the Young Powell remarked to the effect "there's a Mercedes divide too. I want one and can't afford one, but it's not government's job to do anything about it.")
But the House Negro indictment can't be dismissed out of hand, either. He took office as the most obvious gesture of racial reconciliation within an administration that required the disfranchisement of black voters in order to come to power. Powell's own foibles played into the House Negro perception – commissioning a Scottish coat-of-arms in recognition of his distant European ancestry, with seemingly little concern for the bitter racial circumstances under which that Scotch blood entered his ancestral line. And even more damning is the sad irony of a black Secretary of State leading the U.S. delegation's walk-out of the United Nations World Conference Against Racism.
The politics of symbolism permeates Powell's – and to a lesser extent, Rice's – role within the administration. Powell broke ranks with the administration last year to maintain his life-long support for affirmative action during the University of Michigan case (the same case where the Bush Administration filed a friend-of-the-court brief against affirmative action). But it has to be recalled that Condoleezza Rice – a former professor and Stanford University Provost who spent her academic career attacking affirmative action – also broke ranks with the administration and supported the Michigan diversity policies. The fact was that Bush benefited from having the top Negroes in his administration disagree with him publicly because that way Rice and Powell at least maintained a degree of melanin credibility. Dissing the sincere efforts of white academics to attract black students would've made those charges of House Negroism stick like bad rice. And when you get down to it, what good is having a racial token if not even white liberals think they're black enough?
But the ultimate irony of the Powell tragedy is that it is not mainly about race, but character. He took office amid grumblings from the left that his background as a general and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff would lead him to pursue militarism instead of diplomacy as the Secretary of State. But Powell – like Eisenhower before him – was a general who keenly understood the dangers of over-reliance upon warfare. Madeleine Albright, Powell's predecessor as Secretary of State, criticized him, in fact, for being too reluctant to commit U.S. troops to activity.
Powell the diplomat was birthed by Powell the soldier. As Secretary of State, his vision for the world – the so-called Powell Doctrine – called for the use of military force only in circumstances where there were clear objectives, where there was domestic support and understanding for the action, and where the military could be used in precise and overwhelming forces. He also disdained using warfare to achieve what were essentially political goals. In short, Powell's vision was an attempt to correct everything that had been wrong about his own experience in Vietnam.
In the early days of the Bush Administration, and even more clearly after 9/11, though, it became apparent that foreign policy was being run out of the Pentagon and the Vice President's office – not the State Department. Powell had set himself up to be the voice of conscience in an administration that did not appear to have one. But there were also other concerns about Powell from the gate: When you get down to it, Powell was smarter, more experienced and better prepared to be President than George W. Bush was, and his status as Secretary of State might be the biggest consolation prize in history.
Powell made his disapproval of the administration's Iraq plans known early on, and as his – and numerous other former general's – calls for caution went unheeded, the Secretary's lack of influence became more publicly apparent. In past, these kinds of unbreechable gaps had led to extreme statements: Powell's predecessor Cyrus Vance had famously resigned from the Carter administration and an entire roster of career diplomats resigned in protest when the Bush Administration began its long march toward Baghdad.
The job requirements for a Negro First, however, explicitly demand that one remain loyal no matter what happens. Under no circumstances does one quit, lest it be said that members of the race are not suited to handle the pressures of the gig in the first place.
But it's hard to say that Powell was thinking about race in February 2003, when he went before the United Nations and made the case for a war he did not believe was necessary – a gesture that nudged his diplomatic career from the politically ignored over into the historically tragic. Given the nature of his comments to the journalist Bob Woodward a year later, Powell recognized even then that the ties between Iraq and Al-Qaeda were tenuous at best and that the war would likely be disastrous.
The central tragedy of Powell's tenure as Secretary of State is the failure of history to act as any sort of guide for the present. The present quagmire in Iraq is almost a made-to-order rejection of everything Powell articulated when coming into office. The ideas underpinning the "Powell Doctrine" were gleaned from Powell's own bitter experiences of combat in Vietnam. Both Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney (along with Paul Wolfowitz) have spoken of the need to erase the failures in Vietnam from the American memory, to avoid history. So in rejecting the Powell Doctrine, Bush & Company were not only dismissing the Secretary's diplomatic theories, the administration was fundamentally rejecting both Powell as an individual and the portion of history that he represents. And Powell himself aborted history in choosing to remain part of the administration.
Simply put, Powell did not know when to quit.
His name, despite his high-profile and abortive dissents, is tied to one of the worst diplomatic fiascos of the past century. The Black History Month calendars may regard Powell well as a Negro First, but those of us concerned with more substantive issues have to hope that Powell is the last of his kind.
Lemrick Nelson's is not a name most people across the country could quickly identify. But in my neighborhood, Crown Heights, Brooklyn, mere mention of the name draws strong reactions. Here, "Lemrick Nelson" is synonymous with the tempestuous co-mingling of race, urban life and the American justice system; here, his name belongs alongside those of Rodney King and O.J. Simpson.
Would Lemrick Nelson's release snap Crown Heights' already strained ethnic relations? I took a walk through the neighborhood to find out. On June 2, Lemrick Nelson stepped from a federal corrections vehicle into a halfway house in New Jersey, where he is to serve nine months of a three-year probation period. Residents of Crown Heights watched the release warily, wondering what it could possibly mean for neighborhood race relations.
Back in the summer of 1991, tensions had been simmering for a long time in Crown Heights between blacks and Orthodox Jews, the neighborhood's two most populous groups. On August 19, a Jewish driver in the motorcade of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneeman, the spiritual leader of Crown Heights' Hasidic Lubavitcher community, lost control of his vehicle and struck and killed Gavin Cato, a black child. The neighborhood erupted in violence. Bands of young people of African descent, fueled by a notion that the Hasidic community usurped power and influence over real estate and public works in the neighborhood, took to the streets, vandalizing property and menacing Jewish residents. Nelson, then 16, was in a group that ambushed Yankel Rosenbaum, a visitor from Australia. Nelson stabbed Rosenbaum, and Rosenbaum later died in hospital.
Nelson underwent three trials in 12 years. In 1992, he was acquitted of state murder charges. After outraged, mostly Jewish, protesters flooded the streets of Crown Heights, federal prosecutors announced an investigation into the case. Nelson was sentenced to 19 and a half years in prison, not for killing Yankel Rosenbaum, but for violating Rosenbaum's civil rights. That ruling ended up being thrown out by a court of appeals, which took issue with the racial composition of the jury: three African Americans, two Jews, three non-Jewish whites and four Latinos. Then, just last year, a subsequent trial reinstated the guilty verdict. The jury in this case comprised eight African Americans, two whites and two jurors of Guyanese descent -- the nationality of Gavin Cato, the child whose death touched off the riots.
Since the summer of 1991, over a decade of community organizing, civic programs and other formal and informal negotiations have gone into bridging the gap between Crown Heights' two defining communities.
In steadily increasing numbers, Crown Heights has also become home to people like me, young middle-class New Yorkers, some with ethnic ties to one of the "founding" groups. All of us washed into Crown Heights on a tide of gentrification. Our presence is a yet another tension.
Would Lemrick Nelson's release snap Crown Heights' already strained ethnic relations? I took a walk through the neighborhood to find out.
The question of who lives in Crown Heights is not nearly as interesting as why we live here.
I began my walk through the neighborhood at its western limit on the corner of Franklin Avenue and Eastern Parkway Boulevard. The boulevard is one of the main arteries in this part of Brooklyn. It has beautiful, tree-lined walkways on either side, to which many residents make use in their leisure time. There's something rather tropical about the Parkway, I have always noted. It is vaguely reminiscent of the leafy boulevards I've seen in Georgetown, the capital of Guyana, the country from which my parents, and Gavin Cato, originated.
I've heard that Scottish settlers in New Zealand by-passed the sunny, temperate North island in favor of the damp, hilly South island because it reminded them of home. Sometimes, when I watch older Caribbean men and women enjoying the late-afternoon calm seated on a bench on the Parkway, or I pass a black couple laughing heartily over some joke one has just told, I imagine that Eastern Parkway operates the same way in the memory of these immigrants.
Also walking along the Parkway are the Lubavitcher Hasidim. Young women in pairs power-walk for exercise, or push toddlers in strollers. Men walk together, debating with each other as their young sons run ahead playing games. Their dress identifies them. They are bearded and wear black suits over white shirts and black fedora-style hats. Often, hanging from the waists of their trousers are white tassels called tzizit, a feature of religious observance that is a commandment from the Torah.
It was through another religious commandment that the Lubavitchers received their interpretation of Crown Heights as home.
In the late 1960s, when most other white groups were leaving the area, the Lubavitchers were instructed by their religious leader Schneerson to stay put. According to Anthony Weiss in the article "Commanded to Stay: Why the Lubavitcher Jews Still Live in Crown Heights," Schneerson interpreted the Torah to say: "The very act of selling and moving houses and neighborhoods from Jews to idolators [i.e. non-Jews] weakens (God save us) the strength of Israel [i.e. the Jewish people] and adds strength to the Haters of Israel, whose intention in buying houses in Jewish neighborhoods is to expel (God forbid) Israel from is inheritance."
The Lubavitchers pledged never to be displaced from Crown Heights.
In hopes that neutrality would be my starting point, I approached a young white man, casually dressed in t-shirt and jeans, whom I took to be neither black nor Lubavitcher, but one of the newcomers. I asked him about Lemrick Nelson, but he said he didn't have time to talk. As I turned away from him, I saw two young black men, talking as they walked towards the subway entrance. When I stated my intention, one immediately agreed to comment.
Q: How long have you lived in Crown Heights? A: Twenty-five years.
Q: Lemrick Nelson was recently released from prison. What kind of effect do you think this will have on neighborhood relations between blacks and Jews? A: It won't have much of an impact because everyone has their opinions. Black people think that he didn't do it -- which he didn't -- and the Jewish population thinks he did and they're going to be angry about it. It's just black and white, no shades of gray.
Q: More than ten years have passed. Do you think people have forgotten about it? A: No. People are not going to be vocal about it. Crown Heights is a seriously polarized neighborhood and people are not vocal about it because people don't want to address these issues.
Q: Do you think that because the issues are not being addressed that, inevitably, there will be another flare-up -- a riot or confrontation? A: I don't think so, because the area is being gentrified and most black people are being outpriced from this neighborhood anyway. For instance, on the block that I grew up on, it costs $1800 to rent a floor-through [apartment] and most people can't afford that. I can't even afford to live on my own block. It's ridiculous. People are angry about it but I don't think there'll be any action. I think everyone just expects a flare-up, but the police presence is amazing here. The police are not aggressive and abusive, but there is a strong presence. For Instance, on Nostrand Avenue where you never saw Jews five years ago, they will walk en masse, with a police escort. The Jews purposely present themselves in areas where they weren't originally, like how they do on the West Bank. It's sort of a very passive-aggressive invasion.
Q: There's a large population of Caribbean-Americans here. Do you think they feel differently than African-Americans about the tension around race? A: No, black people only hate black people when we're alone. Black Americans and West Indians solidify when [a threat is posed from] someone else.
* * * * *
Further up the street, I found Lindel Brown sitting in front of his apartment building.
Q: How long have you lived in Crown Heights? A: I first moved here in 1978. I moved away for about 10 years and then moved back four years ago.
Q: What kind of reaction do you think there will be in the neighborhood to the release of Lemrick Nelson? A: Nothing at all, because one of the problems with the black people in this neighborhood is that they're not pro-active. They never do anything. They riot, as you could say, because things came to a head. But there's a lot of unemployment here. There's no money in the neighborhood, except for the Jews, and money runs everything, you can't do anything in America without money. Black people are really under the gun in this neighborhood.
Q: Do you think the neighborhood is heading towards another confrontation between the groups? A: Yes. This whole area used to be black; you only saw black faces. The Jewish section was a couple blocks down and over. What they did was try to pressure black people to sell... this building was black-owned. It was owned by a West Indian-American. He died and they put it on the market and within a couple of days, it was bought by Jews. I live in the building and it's pretty obvious what they're trying to do. They're trying to get us to move out. They're trying to extend their area.
* * * * *
A black couple unpacking their car and minivan looked puzzled at me when I asked them about Nelson. "Was that the boy with the Jewish story?" the woman said in a Jamaican accent, using "story" in the Caribbean sense, to mean controversy.
"What, what?" her husband interrupted, but his wife ignored him.
I launched into my spiel: "He's been released from prison, and..."
The wife lifted a box from the trunk of her car and held it with both arms. She was pretty and smiling and looked like life was good. "They" -- meaning the Jews -- "will never let up with that thing, eh?" she said.
* * * * *
A couple of blocks down, several yellow school buses were parked in front of Oholei Torah Rabbinical Yeshiva. Students from the adjacent elementary school and their mother-chaperones were heading off on an outing. Six young women stood surrounded by a batch of effervescent preschoolers. None of the women wished to comment, except for one, who said, "I think it's the most horrifying thing on earth."
I headed up the sidewalk towards a small huddle of men. Before I could reach them, a younger fellow emerged from the building and I quickly intercepted him. His name was Yosef Kramer. He was a student at the yeshiva. He energetically took control of my search for interviewees. After an aborted attempt to extract more than a terse sentence from the men on the sidewalk, Kramer led me inside the yeshiva.
"Some of these guys will talk to you," he assured me.
As we walked up the school's stairwell, Kramer told me that there was visible evidence in the neighborhood of younger blacks and Jews coming together.
"You sometimes see kids playing basketball together," he said. Indeed, interethnic basketball games were one of the initiatives of a community group called Crown Heights Youth Collective. The activity drew both praise and criticism in the neighborhood as to its effectiveness.
We reached a small room on the second floor where 18-year-old Berel Lerman was completing his morning prayers. "He's a very good speaker," Kramer informed me. "Can you wait ten minutes to talk to him?"
Lerman looked calmly over at me. His shoulders were draped in a tallit -- a four-cornered prayer shawl -- and his head was bound in tefillin, a small leather case containing scrolls from the Torah which the Orthodox strap to their heads and arms during prayer.
By this time, several students had assembled around us, curious to know who I was and what I was doing there. Their questions came at me one after another: Where was this going to be published? Would Lerman's words be edited? And over and over, what was my personal opinion of the release of Lemrick Nelson?
I felt gravity mounting in the air. Lerman completed his prayers, but before he could speak, he was shuttled into a little area away from the journalist to be prepped for the interview. I peeked around the corner to see Lerman in a tight circle of advisors, nodding pensively as they whispered advice to him.
The group soon emerged, this time with a camera of their own. As I took Lerman's photograph, another student took mine.
"Okay," Lerman said. "I'm ready."
Q: How long have you lived in Crown Heights? A: I've lived here all my life -- approximately 20 years.
Q: Do you remember the riots in '91?
A: I do remember the riots in '91? It was a horrendous experience, looking back. People were scared to walk the streets. It's unfortunate that all that had to happen. Of course, as Jews and as a Jewish community, people do not hold any grudge, any ill feelings against other humanity, so the question is, why so much animosity towards the Jews?
Q: How will the release of Lemrick Nelson affect relations? A: There's definitely a very bad feeling, resentment even, regarding his release. The person that has committed an evil act must be treated as an evil person and receive his punishment. We're putting a lot of effort here and abroad to implement peace and tranquility and to pursue terrorism. In a case where you have in your own community such a mishandlement of judgment, that of course can create bad relationships with the neighbors and with the people that are behind this outcome.
Q: Do you think attitudes have changed? Do you think the younger generation feels differently? A: Things have definitely changed. You can attribute this to many different causes. Number one, security, as far as the police force, has gotten a lot better. And that automatically teaches people a lesson that one cannot commit evil and go against the law. So when people realize that if they do something wrong they'll be punished, automatically they will refrain from doing evil acts. Then, people learn to get along with each other. But first you have to have that security force backing the righteous.
* * * * *
Out on the street, the noonday sun was heating up. I headed to Kingston Avenue, a stretch of which runs through the heart of the Lubavitch community in Crown Heights.
On the corner of Kingston and Eastern Parkway, I approached 43-year-old Yossi Tseredryanski.
Q: How long have you lived in Crown Heights? A: About 4 years.
Q: Where are you from originally?
A: I'm from Australia. And I play cricket.
Q: What does the release of Lemrick Nelson mean to you? A: For everyone, it shows that we have a really corrupt justice system. As far as the relationship between blacks and whites in the community: I get on with a lot of blacks, I talk with a lot of black friends and it's not relevant. We're very friendly with each other and it's not going to affect anything between the people here.
Q: Do you think anything has changed since '91 when there was all that violence? A: Personally, I had good relationships with [black] people before and after, and it wasn't [caused by] people in the community, it was people from out of the community that came and did things. What I see is that it actually brought the community, blacks and whites, closer together. The people here are good people, generally, black and white. Like anywhere, there's always a few that create a problem and our system seems to be good for the corrupt ones and hurts the people that want to live quietly.
Q: What would you like to continue in terms of improving relations between the two groups whether that has to do with community meetings, or anything at the political level? A: I'd love to see a lot more interaction, but I think there are issues that people have, whether political or religious, agendas and ways of life that keep separation. While there is a positive aspect to it, there's the other side. I can't speak for the community because communities always have their issues of separation, but from my own perspective, I don't feel a separation.
Tseredryanski walked up Kingston past an elderly Hassidic woman seated on a wooden crate in the shade of a tree. He flicked a coin into the cup she was holding and exchanged greetings in Yiddish, the language spoken by many in the community.
* * * * *
Kingston Avenue is what in pre-War Eastern Europe might have been called a schtetl, a Jewish enclave, or less charitably, a ghetto. Except unlike the schtetls of that time and place, this area contains residents who are not Hasidic Jews, who are for the most part black. And significantly, whereas the old Jewish quarters in Europe were the creation of anti-Semitic segregation, Kingston Avenue and its environs constitute a chosen community. The schtetls of Europe were constantly under attack from hostile non-Jews carried out in murderous raids called pogroms. Escape from the pogroms was what initiated much of the Hasidic immigration to the United States, Australia, and elsewhere during the early part of the last century. Yet, a feeling of vulnerability to attack naturally lingers in the psyche of older generations and traces of it surfaced in a conversation I had with Isaac, an elder in the community whose store on Kingston Avenue Yosef Kramer had directed me to.
"It was like something you think could never have happened in the 20th century," Isaac told me. "It was a war zone. It's a time that should never happen again." Isaac said he was "disillusioned" that the "riots were allowed to happen," blaming the mayor at the time, David Dinkins, for poor leadership.
And what about the passage of time? What about the idea that Lemrick Nelson has paid for his actions and is being rehabilitated?
"Did he change his mind? Did he improve?" Isaac said. "I don't know. All I know is that somebody is dead."
I noticed that Isaac strictly avoided the language of black and white to express his opinions. Instead, he talked about "the community" and "the outsiders."
"Agitation came from outside people who don't live here and didn't give a damn," Isaac said. "The racial issue is not a problem here." With this, he led me out of his store onto the street. "Go to every block here, talk to any kind of people who live here," he said confidently. "There is no antagonism. Why do we live here? We like it. Otherwise we would run away. Do you think we would live together?"
* * * * *
After Isaac and I parted, I approached a young Hasidic woman who was busy attaching a bag of groceries to the handle of her baby's stroller.
"This is a neighborhood rife with issues," she said. "You've got that and you've also got the fact that in our culture, women do not talk to men they don't know. It's cultural."
"I was a journalist before I became religious," she said. "And I'll be honest with you. A strange black man in this neighborhood coming up to you saying 'Can I ask you a few questions?', you're guaranteed to be ignored or get strange looks or be talked to even more harshly."
But contrary to what this woman told me, I did find a Hasidic woman, Abigayil Raskin, willing to talk.
Q: How long have you lived in Crown Heights? A: Three years.
Q: How do you think the community will respond to Nelson's release? A: I don't think there will be any tactical response, like anything physical, because, first, it's not worth it, like, what would be the point? Secondly, it's been carried on for so long already that you're not going to get anything really new out of it, you're not going to learn anything or be able to gain anything from it, so it's kind of more of the fear that someone can get away with something -- or what we see to be someone getting away with something -- so easily and the fear that it will happen again.
Q: Will this set back efforts that have been made on both sides towards living and working peacefully? A: On a general basis, no. On an individual basis maybe, but not on an overall scale, I don't think.
Q: Younger people have a different take obviously than people who are even ten years older... A: Right. I think that if you lived through it, you had [the tension] built into you much more. You're a lot more aggressive towards it and much more wanting for it to continue. But if you see how there's no purpose in it and how life can be better if you let the tension go... I think that's why younger people are more willing -- not that it makes it any easier or that it hurts any less. Personally, I think that he should have been sentenced harder and I think he was let off very easily, but the treatment of one person doesn't necessarily show how the justice system works.
From the vantage point of 50 years into the future, it is perhaps incomprehensible for folk to truly understand the revolution that was Ray Charles Robinson. In a black world defined by talented-tenths and black-belt denizens, Ray Charles cut through the divide -- his third eye intact -- intuitively understanding that the Saturday night sinner was all too often the Sunday morning saved. Indeed the very foundations of Soul -- and every form of American music that has sprung from it -- were laid the moment Charles opened his mouth to sing the first note of "I Got a Woman" (1954). What Charles did was not unprecedented -- a fellow named Georgia Tom worked the reverse route, bringing those melodies that he so lovingly played behind Ma Rainey to church with him, in the process becoming Thomas A. Dorsey, the father of Gospel music. And the cats who were up in the juke-joint the night before would coyly smile, all the while praising the "lawd." But when Uncle Ray flowed the opposite way, using those same melodies and rhythms to "church" the secular world, no doubt more than a few upstanding Negroes thought it was blasphemy.
That first breakthrough, "I Got a Woman," was in fact based on "Let's Talk About Jesus," a 1951 hit for the Bells of Joy, so imagine the surprise when folks turned on their radio to find out their "Sweet Jesus" was now sweet Sally. A year later Charles took it a step further with "Hallelujah, I Love Her So" (1955). Both recordings were major hits among black audiences and very quickly made Charles the best known Rhythm and Blues artists of his era (there really wasn't even the language to call this Soul music yet). For Charles the idea of "church" had nothing to do with organized religion, per se, but everything to do with tapping into the well of black spirituality. Charles understood that black spirituality had real-world connotations, even as it was being informed by other-worldly desires. When Charles finally broke through to white audiences in 1959 with "What I'd Say" he had proved that mainstream America was ready to be "churched" and folk like Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, Johnnie Taylor, Lou Rawls and so many others who came up "church" took notice. American music has not been the same since -- a fact that was acknowledged when Charles was included among the inaugural inductees of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
And just as so many others would come to benefit from the foundation he laid -- most notably Ms. Aretha -- Charles switched up mid-stride, changing record labels (from Atlantic to ABC-Paramount) and venturing into undiscovered Country (literally) and ultimately conquering the terrain, then known as C&W (Country and Western music). And of course some would say that Brother Ray had sold out, but you have to sit down and hear those songs. First it was Hoagy Carmichael's "Georgia on My Mind" (1960) -- a song that sentimentally aches for the "Old South" just as Civil Rights marchers were trying to rip the South a new one, and damn if it's not like listening to the Soul of black folk. Twenty years later, the state of Georgia named Charles' version the official state song. Two years later Charles is singing songs like "I Can't Stop Loving You" (his first song to top the pop and R&B charts) and "You Don't Know Me" (both from an album called Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music), making it apparent that Brother Ray wasn't selling out, but selling Soul -- humanizing a nation that had for so long dehumanized black folk. By the time Charles records his version of the Southern favorite "You Are My Sunshine" (for volume two of Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music) it is clear that this is a black musical artist who had crossed-over in a way that was unprecedented.
But Charles remained rooted to the music that birthed him throughout his career. It's a sound heard clearly on tracks like "Let's Go Get Stoned" (one of the first writing credits for Ashford and Simpson), "In the Heat of the Night" (from the movie soundtrack produced by his old running partner Quincy Jones) or the funky "Booty Butt" (1970). A perfect example is his surprise appearance on stage with Aretha Franklin during her career-defining recording Live at the Filmore West. Midway through their rendition of "Spirit in the Dark" Franklin turns to Charles and offers her seat at the piano -- "Why don't you sit right here and take this from me"-- and as Charles does his thing on the electric piano, Ms. Aretha chimes "It's funky up in here" as the crowd pushes towards frenzy. It is one of those singular moments in the history of black music -- like when Coltrane and Duke went to the studio to record "In a Sentimental Mood" (1963) or when Marley and Stevie stood on stage together at Madison Square Garden in 1979 or when James Brown and Fela Kuti broke down Diasporic Funk when JB was in Nigeria in 1973 or every-time Albertina Walker, Inez Andrews and Shirley Caesar walked on-stage as the Caravans. When you realize that Franklin and Charles had a bunch of Haight-Ashbury hippies doing the soul clap, indeed it was a metaphor for the Soul that saved a nation.
And it was in singing about this nation -- "America the Beautiful" -- that Charles perhaps made his most important artistic and political statement. Charles' version of "America the Beautiful," like Marvin's "Star Spangled Banner," was never about simply celebrating the opportunities afforded to the progeny of the formerly enslaved, but about taking ownership of the ideals of American Democracy -- "Heroes proved in liberating strife" as Charles sings in that first verse -- and consistently striving to be the moral conscience of this nation (please take a bow, Rep. Barbara Lee). Ray Charles' "America the Beautiful" represents a symbolic moment for African Americans -- a moment when African Americans took control of this nation's spirit, much the same way Charles himself took ownership of our most beautiful patriotic anthem.