The Good Old Days of Slavery

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.

What Now for the NAACP?

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.

The Definition of a Sellout

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:

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Terror in Black and White

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.

Beatifically Human

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.

Stander Delivers

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.

Pass the Mic

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.

The Tragedy of Colin Powell

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.

Letter From Crown Heights

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.

A Pillar of Soul

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.

A Vital Sign

Given Bill Cosby's explosive comments about the misplaced values among the African American lower class, the many impassioned protests against the MGM film Soul Plane and the recent 50th anniversary of the Brown vs. Board of Education decision to desegregate the nation's public schools, HBO's latest film coup Something the Lord Made, which debuted May 30, could not have come at a better time.

The largely unknown story of an African American carpenter's collaboration with a Northern-educated white doctor to pioneer the field of cardiac surgery during the era of Jim Crow is a bold and necessary undertaking that underscores yet another quiet yet vital contribution of African Americans. As Vivien T. Thomas, "raptor" Mos Def delivers an award-worthy performance in his portrayal of the soft-spoken yet dignified Southern lab technician who aids Dr. Alfred Blalock (Golden Globe- and Emmy-winner Alan Rickman), a respected white surgeon, in the extraordinary "blue baby" operation (medically known as Blalock-Taussig Shunt) that saved the lives of babies suffering from "Tetralogy of Fallot," a congenital heart malformation that robs the blood of oxygen.

"Mos Def does a great job," says Dr. Koco Eaton, a physician for the Major League Baseball team the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and "nephew" of Thomas. "I think Denzel Washington needs to be put on alert that Mos Def is going to be the next black actor to win an Academy Award. He is just incredible and this film really shows the depth of the characters that he can play, because my uncle was a reserved and quiet yet dignified Southern gentleman and Mos pulls it off. You get the sense that he is understated but yet strong in his convictions."

Something the Lord Made is far from a vanity piece, taking care not to overstate Thomas' contribution to the Blalock-Taussig Shunt. "Certainly, I think, one of the significant things was, in fact, the research element of it," emphasizes Dr. Gary H. Gibbons, Cardiovascular Research Institute Director and Professor at the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta. "That's what Vivien Thomas was, the director, or supervisor of Dr. Blalock's research laboratory. And that was really critical because they really innovated a new technique and so, in order to innovate something obviously you don't want to practice on the first patient. And so that means that you have to develop approaches in an experimental laboratory that you think will apply to take care of the patient. It is clear that Vivien Thomas was instrumental in setting up the models and the approaches that Dr. Blalock could practice on before he had the first case some 60 years ago. So, to have someone like Vivien Thomas was clearly critical to this innovation and it is very special that he didn't have medical training on his own."

But such work was even lost on members of Thomas' own family. "I really didn't fully appreciate his accomplishments until I was accepted in medical school and then I had a chance to understand what his contribution was to medicine," shares Dr. Eaton, who is biologically a cousin to Thomas but knew him as an uncle. "So it's kind of one of those things where your uncle or relative is almost the equivalent of Michael Jordan but you never watched basketball."

He further adds, "When I was in medical school, it was an awakening. It was almost a rediscovery of a man. Here he was with his portrait hanging in the hallway, so you got an appreciation. But then as I started to understand medicine and understand the science behind it; then I got a true interpretation of this genius."

Thomas' significance wasn't lost on Gabrielle Union, who plays Clara, Thomas' wife. At a special screening at the Morehouse School of Medicine, she shared with the audience that, thanks to her husband's encouragement, she did not miss this screening even though her father-in-law passed just days before. "It is what my dad would want," she recounted her husband's words to the audience. "He was so proud of you for being a part of this project to begin with and telling this man's story. You couldn't possibly miss it."

No one should miss this story, filled with the very values Cosby insisted that some of us no longer hold dear. Adversity, such as losing the money he saved to attend college, did not stop Vivien Thomas from taking advantage of the opportunities that presented themselves in a medical environment. He educated himself so well that he was at home around trained medical experts despite being devalued by the white world, and told that what he was able to do in a lab was nothing short of a miracle for a "colored" man. With the support of his wife, he moved his family from the comforts of Nashville to the harshness of Baltimore. He rose above society's limitations with dignity and class, but when pride got in the way of the important work that he loved, he humbled himself and let the work guide him. Through following his heart, he literally helped improve the hearts of others.

But it is also the story of an unlikely and sometimes troubled friendship between an established and renowned white doctor and his "assistant." Dr. Blalock's support of Thomas underscores what the elders of Thomas' generation knew: Only mastery of a craft ensured elevation for black people. In some ways, it is what Bill Cosby was trying to communicate during that now infamous speech. Fifty years following the Brown vs. Board of Education decision, which is threaded through the film via Thomas' brother Harold's involvement in a lawsuit in Nashville to get equal pay for the city's black teachers, those like Cosby suggest that some have gotten comfortable and forgotten that we have a responsibility to accept nothing less than greatness for ourselves.

Vivien T. Thomas did not get his portrait placed among the most acknowledged minds of medical history by accepting less than his best. The odds he faced were insurmountable, yet with a commitment to excellence, an unwavering love for his family and undoubtedly a strong belief in God, his life serves as a testament of the timeless theme of African American life: There is always a way out of no way.

Chicago native Ronda Racha Penrice, who has lived in both New York and Los Angeles, is a writer currently living in Atlanta, Georgia.


You had to bypass your automatic race-loyalty circuits in order to fully appreciate the scenario. Under normal circumstances, the sight of a lone, brilliant and articulate black woman deftly fending off hostile inquiries from a delegation of power-suited white guys would go down as a miniature Great Moment In Negro History. But Condoleezza Rice, the most powerful black woman on the planet, has all but deleted race from the narrative of her personal success and she certainly doesn't need a partisan racial cheering squad when she has George W. Bush holding it down for her.

Rice's appearance before the 9/11 commission on April 8 was the definition of a Catch-22: a public failure on her part would invariably be read as yet another example of black incompetence. And a virtuoso political performance from Rice would be a victory for an administration that has squandered international goodwill, undermined the United Nations, used the horror of September 11th as a political trump card, run the economy into long-term recession and started a war to protect us from non-existent Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

For what it matters, Rice was convincing -- even as her testimony was starkly at odds with the historical record, her own previous claims and those of other members of the administration. And the underlying point is this: In the long, tangled history of black people in the United States, we have at last reached the point where black politicians have earned the right to be just as dubious and questionable as their white counterparts.

Given the antagonistic racial history of this country, it would be almost impossible for the presidency -- or presidential scandals -- not to reflect the prevailing currents of racism. By the time Frederick Douglass was appointed to the Santo Domingo Commission -- which gathered information supporting President Ulysses Grant's plan to annex Haiti -- he had become the most influential black political appointee of his era. Nevertheless Douglass had difficulty explaining to his supporters why he was still not invited to official White House functions -- even those regarding Haiti. Later, when Rutherford B. Hayes appointed Douglass as US Marshall for the District of Columbia, Douglass saw the responsibilities of the office curtailed so as to not offend white residents.

Booker T. Washington served as the unofficial advisor on Negro matters to President Theodore Roosevelt, but when Roosevelt made the mistake of having lunch with Washington in the Oval Office, it set off a firestorm of criticism that threatened to undermine Roosevelt's support from Southerners. (Roosevelt later downplayed the meal, saying that he had simply ordered sandwiches and happened to offer one to Washington.)

When the Great Migration began shifting the population balances in Northern cities, Franklin Roosevelt attempted to attract black voters into the Democratic Party by creating a "black cabinet" of advisors. Roosevelt appointed Robert C. Weaver as an aide to Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, placed Mary McLeod Bethune at the head of the National Youth Administration's Office of Minority Affairs and created an interagency Department of Negro Affairs.

Still, it was a political scandal that pushed Roosevelt to expand his list of black appointees on the verge of World War II. When Roosevelt's Stephen Early knocked down a black police officer during a dispute in New York, the administration feared it would lose critical black support in the coming election. Within 24 hours of the incident, Roosevelt had appointed Benjamin O. Davis, Sr. as the first black general in the Army, federal judge William H. Hastie the first black civilian aide to the Secretary of War, and Campbell C. Johnson as first black head of the Selective Service.

The civil rights era provided the backdrop for Kennedy's appointment of Thurgood Marshall as Solicitor-General and Johnson's elevation of Marshall to the Supreme Court (acts that ironically set the precedent for the nomination debacle of Clarence Thomas three decades later). Jimmy Carter famously appointed Andrew Young as the US Ambassador to the United Nations, but Young was forced out of the position when his decision to meet with Palestinian representatives ran afoul of the Administration's Israel policy.

The Clinton Administration boasted more high-level black appointments than any previous presidency. It also featured more scandals and subsequent resignations of black appointees than any previous administration. Clinton nominated -- and subsequently abandoned -- Lani Guinier, as an Under-Secretary in the Department of Justice amid racialized charges that she was a "quota queen." He was less than steadfast in his defense of Jocelyn Elders, who resigned from the post of Surgeon-General for mentioning masturbation publicly (an indulgence that might have saved Clinton from further scandals of his own.)

Mike Espy, the former Mississippi Congressional Representative who had staked a claim as an early Clinton supporter, was appointed as Secretary of Agriculture and resigned as a result of a probe into his relationship with the Tyson Chicken company. And Ron Brown, the Clinton-appointed Treasury Secretary, managed to buck the trend, fending off charges that he had accepted a $700,000 bribe from the Vietnamese and retaining his position until his death in a plane crash in 1996.

Condoleezza Rice's position is fundamentally different from those of her black predecessors. Unlike these others, she is not solely waiting upon Presidential support. The Bush administration's credibility is, on one level, dependent upon Rice's credibility as an individual. Still, if anyone will be called upon to fall on his or her sword to spare the Administration further scandal, it will be Rice.

Media attention of late has passed over the more serious allegations made by Richard Clarke -- that the administration had essentially special-ordered intelligence linking Saddam Hussein to September 11th to justify attacking Iraq -- and focused on events prior to the attacks on New York and Washington, DC. And the result of this was the demand that Rice testify in public under oath about failures which, at worst, can result in charges of incompetence, rather than a demand that Bush and Cheney answer questions about impeachable offenses.

When you boil away the excess, Condoleezza Rice may have more in common with John Erlichman and H.R. Haldeman -- the Nixon-era appointees who were forced out in the vain hope of sparing the President further political fallout from Watergate -- than she does with Mary McLeod Bethune, Andrew Young or any previous black politician. And that's a dubious honor.

Voice Of a Movement

When Keith Boykin describes himself as "one of America's leading commentators on race and sexual orientation," he's not bragging. Currently president of theNational Black Justice Coalition, an organization established late last year to marshal African American support for same-sex marriage rights, Boykin has become the face and voice of a movement that some see as a logical extension of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, and that others see as its usurpation.

Boykin, 38, has the pedigree of a national leader: a Harvard Law School classmate of Democratic Senate candidate Barack Obama a former Special Assistant to President Clinton on gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender issues, and the former director of the National Black Gay and Lesbian Leadership Forum. He is also a successful author (One More River to Cross: Black and Gay in America and Respecting the Soul: Daily Reflections for Black Lesbians and Gays), a syndicated columnist, publisher of an influential website and a sought-after speaker.

A native of St. Louis who moved with his family to Clearwater, Florida, at the age of 15, Boykin has been a public figure of sorts since his days as a high school columnist for the St. Petersburg Times. After graduating from Dartmouth College in 1987, he worked for Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis' presidential campaign as a press aide. As a second-year Harvard law student, he was part of a group that filed a lawsuit charging the school with discriminatory faculty hiring practices. The suit bolstered a protest by the school's first tenured black professor, Derrick A. Bell, Jr. who took an unpaid leave of absence over the failure to grant tenure to qualified women of color.

While Bell eventually left Harvard for New York University Law School, Boykin graduated, practiced law briefly, then joined the 1992 Clinton-Gore campaign as Midwest regional press director. His first job in the Clinton Administration was as director of news analysis for the White House communications office. His appointment as liaison for African American and gay and lesbian issues followed soon after, making him the highest-ranking openly gay person in the Clinton Administration. In 1995, Boykin left the White House to assume leadership of the now-defunct National Black Gay and Lesbian Leadership Forum.

Boykin has publicly challenged black leaders on homophobia and gay leaders on racism. In 1995, he was a vocal and visible presence at the Million Man March, led by the anti-gay Nation of Islam. He again made national news in 2000 when he spoke at the Millennium March, a massive gay rights demonstration that was criticized for not including more people of color. The poem Boykin read at the Millennium March includes the following lines that go a long way toward explaining why he believes it is important that blacks support the same-sex marriage fight:

as a proud African-American
Christian-identified man
unashamed of who I am
unwilling to be divided into identity camps, and
unbowed by the demons of hatred that would incite me
to fear instead of love.

The National Black Justice Coalition held a major rally a few weeks ago in Los Angeles. How did it go?

Very well. We had a good turnout with lots of media. We also had a rally in New York March 14th at City Hall. Everybody who was there seemed to be very excited and encouraged.

You've said that while many black people do not support civil marriage rights for gays and lesbians, black leaders "get it." Why do you say that?

Just by looking at the people who have been speaking out about this issue. It's an unprecedented list of supporters who represented the best-known leaders in our community: Julian Bond, John Lewis, Michael Eric Dyson, Coretta Scott King, Carol Moseley Braun, Al Sharpton. Many of the black political leaders really understand the importance of equality and the importance of stopping a constitutional amendment that takes away people's rights.

And yet, even some black leaders who have been supportive of gay rights in the past haven't been supportive of this cause � Jesse Jackson, for example.

I haven't talked with Jesse Jackson; I've only read the newspaper accounts, so I don't know what the issue is. I know it's been reported that he says that gay rights is not a civil rights issue. A lot of people have made that argument, and I think it's a red herring. I have yet to hear any prominent gay leader say the two movements are the same. No one is saying that.

There are some parallels in the rhetoric of the two movements, aren't there?

This is what confuses people. There are two many "civil" words here: civil rights, civil unions, civil marriage. If someone says marriage is a civil rights issue, it is [not] the same as the black community. It's just saying that marriage is a civil right. It's not even saying that it's a gay civil rights issue. The Supreme Court established that marriage is a civil right for everyone in the Loving decision in 1967. Separate the rhetoric from the reality.

At the end of the day I would say that there are two key points. First, the black community does not own the Civil Rights Movement. When Dr. King went to Riverside Church on April 4, 1967, and condemned the Vietnam War, a lot of people condemned him for talking about that issue. They said he should just talk about civil rights for black people. When Dr. King died exactly one year later in Memphis, he wasn't in Memphis working for black civil rights. He was there for poor people. He was building a coalition. Those people who want to pretend that the Civil Rights Movement is only to serve blacks are not being faithful to what Dr. King stood for. Besides, the same arguments get recycled from one group to another to another. The same arguments get used against blacks, gays and women.

The second point is that it doesn't matter which group is oppressed. What matters is that no group is oppressed.

Why do you think so many blacks object to connections being drawn between the movements?

Many African Americans don't want to be lumped into the same sort of "bag" as the gay community � nobody is trying to do that, though. A lot of it is homophobia. I am not one of these people who buys into the argument that black people can't be prejudiced because they're black. That's baloney. Black people can be prejudiced against gays, just as white gays can be racist. That's part of growing up in a country with racism, sexism, homophobia, cultural imperialism.

You've written that the marriage issue isn't the highest priority issue for black gay and lesbian folk, particularly in comparison to such issues as the economy, AIDS, crime or education. If that's true, why focus on this issue now?

I didn't really decide to focus on it. The right wing decided to focus on it. Two things happened: the Massachusetts Supreme Court issued its ruling in favor of same-sex marriage last November, and then a group of black ministers in Massachusetts came out very publicly against same-sex marriage. From that point on it was clear that the battle for marriage equality would be the issue in 2004.

What do you say to those ministers who argue that we need to uphold heterosexual marriage as an ideal in order to strengthen the black community?

I guess I would have to have a discussion with one of these ministers to ask how my wanting to be married to someone that I love threatens their relationship. If marriage is under attack, if marriage is not working in the black community, why would we want stop people who love each other and want to take on the responsibilities of being married? If someone can explain to me how that threatens anybody else's family, children and relationships, please let me know.

Some theologians say that instead of focusing on a divisive issue such as gay marriage, we should be paying attention to issues that have broader support in the black community, such as health care, education, or crime.

I really don't understand what that argument is all about, because we can still focus on those issues. Nobody is forcing them to focus on this issue. Nobody is putting a gun to their heads. If they are focusing on this issue, it's because they are choosing to.

Some conservatives believe that homosexuality in general, and gay marriage in particular, is contrary to what it means to be a man, what it means to be a woman, and how men and women are supposed to relate to each other.

When I was in college I won this award one year called the Churchill Prize. It had an inscription on it that I think is very true: "Honesty with oneself, fairness toward other, sensitivity to duty and courage in performance � on these hang manhood." I would say, "On these hang adulthood, period." These are the things that matter, not sexual orientation.

I don't think [the opposition is] about logic, I think it's about fear. People are afraid of love. They are afraid of difference. There are six billion people on this planet Only five percent of the world's population is American and most people aren't Christian. Just because a certain way of life or set of beliefs works for you, you can't impose that on others.

At least one writer has argued that if black people accept homosexual marriage, they should also accept polygamy. He argues that the insistence on monogamy is just as discriminatory as the insistence on heterosexuality.

The first thing they teach you in law school is to recognize the "slippery slope" argument, where you take your opponent's point and say a whole lot of other dire things are going to happen. But, it's not a slippery slope at all.

Where do you draw the line? You draw it at one person. I think that argument misses the point. The gay and lesbian people who would marry under our law are not people coming from other countries.

To the extent that we want to be bound by the history and cultural traditions of this country, we could say that interracial marriage shouldn't be allowed, or that blacks shouldn't be allowed to marry, or that women are property. Let's face it � marriage is a legal fiction created by government. We're just saying that the government has to treat people equally.

If there was one thing that you want readers to understand about this issue, what would it be?

It's very important that we understand the religious dynamic here. We're talking about civil marriage, not religious marriage. If Walter Fauntroy doesn't want to perform a same-sex marriage in his church, I don't want him to do so. But once the government starts giving out benefits based on marriage, it can't discriminate.

Kim Pearson is a teacher, magazine writer, and creator of the blog Professor Kim.

The Next Black Senator?

I first met Barack Obama in the old Kroch's and Brentano's bookstore on 53rd Street in Hyde Park on the South Side of Chicago. His memoir, "Dreams From My Father," had just been published and he was just beginning to emerge as a name to know in the post-Harold Washington, black political Chicago of the mid-1990s. And I -- not one to miss an opportunity to meet a progressive newsmaker, not to mention a fine brother -- approached him. I was the only person in the store who did.

He looked every bit the law professor, peering studiously at displays in the store and jotting down notes, clearly wondering where his book was and why it was not out front. I sidled next to him with a broad smile and asked, "So how's the book doing?" He took my extended hand, smiled back and said, "I'm trying to figure that out right now."

Obama, 42, has clearly "blown up" since that quiet, bookstore encounter. First as a popular and effective lawmaker in the Illinois Legislature; then as a candidate in an ugly and unsuccessful Congressional race against former Black Panther Bobby Rush; and now Obama, who won the US Senate primary in Illinois against seven candidates, is poised to make history.

And now he can't go anywhere without scores of people recognizing and approaching him.

Obama is now positioned to carry the November election in this overwhelmingly Democratic state. If that happens he will join an elite club of African American US senators, becoming the second from Illinois behind Carol Moseley-Braun, and the first black man to hold a US Senate seat since Republican Edward Brooke of Massachusetts served from 1967 to 1979.

His political positioning and rising star should be unsurprising because for much of his life Obama has been a "First Black," gaining attention most notably for being the first black president of the Harvard Law Review. But in Chicago's well-established African American political community, which prefers its leaders homegrown, Obama has struggled against criticism from some blacks who mocked his Ivy League education, biracial heritage and African name, painting everything from his smooth speech patterns to the multiculti neighborhood where he lives as anything but "authentically" black.

The stinging loss in 2000 to a lackluster, unpolished and largely inarticulate Bobby Rush, who was successful in painting Obama as an over-educated, elitist outsider, led to a retooled image for Obama in this campaign. The revamping of Obama's image has made it difficult, if not impossible, for his presumptive African American political base to see him as anything but theirs.

He makes fun of his name ("My name is Obama, not Yo Mama") but speaks little of the prominent, long-dead Kenyan father for whom he was named. Although the African Committee to Elect Obama in Illinois has held fundraisers for him, they are largely on the margins of Obama's campaign. He speaks little of a childhood spent in Indonesia and Hawaii and offers little about the white mother who raised him. He said recently that his mother, now deceased, recognized that "he was a black man in the United States and my experiences were going to be different than hers."

"My view has always been that I'm African American," he said recently. "African Americans by definition, we're a hybrid people."

Campaign commercials made reference to his historic appointment at the Harvard Law Review but his status as an alum of Columbia and Harvard, and as a senior lecturer at the University of Chicago, were downplayed.

Played more prominently is Obama's early work as an organizer, registering 100,000 African American voters in Chicago in the early 1990s. He touts his membership in one of the city's most popular black churches, Trinity United Church of Christ -- something that clearly endears him to older, more traditional black voters. He has also leveraged political relationships with people like Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) and others who haven't always supported him in previous races. He has an African American wife (let's face it, sisters wouldn't have it any other way) and two daughters whose presence is prominent in campaign literature.

The strategy worked. Through an already strong network of black professionals and liberal whites, Obama built a campaign that appealed broadly to urban voters and those in predominantly white-collar counties and rural areas downstate.

"He was always a part of us but somehow it seemed to be a secret before. White people are always looking for somebody black who pulled himself up by his bootstraps and can tell the Horatio Alger story," said Chicago political consultant Delmarie Cobb. "That doesn't play well in the black community because we've always done that."

"What makes him attractive to white people is that he's biracial. But he has never distanced himself from the black community, even when others tried to distance it from him," she said.

Oddly enough Rush, the former Black Panther, persisted in singing the "he's not one of us" song and supported Blair Hull, a white, independently wealthy trader. The baiting fell on deaf ears and now Rush finds himself on the outs with black Chicagoans, who are suspect of his support for a rich, white man who has never held elective office.

Illinois Senate President Emil Jones, one of the most powerful black elected officials in the state, said at a prayer breakfast for Obama that politicians like Rush will eventually regret that they were "on the wrong side of history."

"Barack Obama is our son. All of the other candidates combined do not have his intellect," Jones said. "This is our son and our son deserves a chance."

Whether he realized it or not, Jones had invoked the most African of sayings in urging black Chicagoans to vote for Obama: I am because we are and because we are, I am.

Sabrina L. Miller is a Chicago-based freelance journalist who has written for the Miami Herald and the St. Petersburg Times, and covered City Hall for the Chicago Tribune.

Sexual Segregation

Outside, on an uncharacteristically cold Georgia night, stood a stubborn knot of people holding flickering candles, singing and demanding justice. Civil Rights veteran Reverend Joseph Lowry led the chorus. We Shall Overcome. This is not taking place in 1964, but 2004 and in the ongoing plotline of American history, racial injustice has become our most enduring cliché. The specific injustice at hand was the incarceration of Marcus Dixon, an 18-year-old honor student, football star and college scholarship recipient who is currently serving a ten-year prison sentence. His crime: consensual sex with a class mate two years and some months his junior. The young woman is white.

On one level, the case highlights universal problems with inflexible automatic sentencing laws that are the current political vogue. On another level, however, this is a race-specific concern. It would be difficult to imagine this happening had both young people been of the same racial classification. Only a specific brand of American racial naiveté -- the same kind that denied for centuries that Jefferson was capable of having sex with Sally Hemings -- would dismiss the racial elements at play here. Ultimately, the Marcus Dixon case brings to light more racial dynamics than a James Baldwin play: a young black boy is adopted by a white family in the American South; he does well in school, scores a 1200 on the SAT and is pursued by Vanderbilt University. In a dizzying sequence of events, he is arrested after having sex with a classmate and although he is acquitted on all other charges, he is found guilty of aggravated child molestation -- a crime that carries an automatic ten-year sentence in the state of Georgia.

His case, which is under review by the Georgia Supreme Court, would be unbelievable were it not part of a legacy of interracial anxiety that is literally older than this country itself. As a nation, the US invested enormous social and legal resources in what can only be called sexual segregation.

The specter of black men having sex with white women has been used to justify everything from lynching to segregation and is rooted in an aged specious concern with alleged racial purity. In slaveholding societies like Santo Domingo (later Haiti), a complex caste system for persons of biracial -- or triracial -- lineage evolved and South American states, particularly Brazil, developed Byzantine codes for racial classification. In the United States, however, the general dogma held that if one is black at all, he or she is all black. The idea was that blackness is a toxin, a single drop of which ruins an otherwise useful white person.

In the early colonial era, it was not uncommon for black and white indentured servants to intermarry, though there appeared to be some social ambivalence about these unions. In 1630, a Virginia settler named Hugh Davis was whipped "before an assembly of Negroes and others for abusing himself to the dishonor of God and shame of Christians, by defiling his body in lying with a Negro." At the same time, the colony had no specific prohibitions against interracial unions. By 1662, however, the colony had mandated that all children of biracial parentage were to be afforded the status of the mother -- meaning that white men would not be compelled to support offspring born to slave women and simultaneously giving white women specific reason not to reproduce with black men. By the end of the century, marriages across color lines brought mandatory expulsion from the colony.

In the early republic, however, sexual access to black women had become a cherished privilege of slaveholding white males. It was understood that concerns with racial purity were not to interfere with white men's sexual liberty. Harriet Jacobs, who was born into slavery in North Carolina in 1813, reported in her autobiography that she was pursued relentlessly by a slaveholder 40 years her senior.

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Macho Macho Mamet

"I saw the sign!" Derek Luke exclaims in Spartan. This is his first mainstream Hollywood role since his debut as Antwone Fisher and the B-movie Biker Boyz. Here Luke plays Curtis, a novice in the special task force of the Secret Service, working under his superior officer, Scott (Val Kilmer). Searching for the kidnapped daughter of the President of the United States, the duo uncovers a ring of white slavers. Young Curtis shows the evidence of his sharp eye, good training and political sensitivity when he spots proof of the girl's sequestering. As he raises his voice and demands to be heard, the relationship between Curtis and Scott takes on a fascinating dynamic. The jaded Scott mellows, becomes benevolent and trusting. When the two agents uncover an in-house conspiracy and go underground to break the slave ring, Scott's instructions to Curtis became familiar; he refers to him as "baby."

This form of address is not sexual but it, too, is a sign. It shows us Hollywood's typical seduction of black audiences, through dangerously deceptive terms of endearment. As intimacy grows between Curtis and Scott, Spartan uses their closeness as a unique demonstration of military solidarity. These soldiers share a belief in duty, which translates as a dedication to American principle. The movie is a coolly played espionage action thriller, so there isn't much pretense of warm, fuzzy, uniracial compassion. Spartan suggests that something tougher goes on in the company of men; it's the brotherhood of sacrifice -- a very timely subject. This topicality gives Spartan some fascination beyond the usual genre exercise.

Note the remarkable flash in Luke's eyes when Scott tells Curtis he will have to kill on an upcoming mission. None of the many gangsta movies we've been subjected to has approached that complicated look of shock, fear and -- ultimately -- consent that Luke expresses. For a very brief moment, Spartan allows a black actor to demonstrate a rare complexity of feelings. Curtis carries a rule book given to him by his father that later comes in handy for Scott, who treats it respectfully. This moment comes across more credibly -- and more trenchantly -- than the clichéd father-son parallel between Robert DeNiro and Cuba Gooding, Jr. in the maudlin Men of Honor.

Spartan upholds the classic myths of military masculinity with unexpected seriousness. There was a fresh take on the new military when David O. Russell's Three Kings showed the various antagonisms among Ice Cube, George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg and Spike Jonze; those Desert Storm enlistees brought all of America's social striations with them to the Middle East. Spartan is based in current geopolitical history but it is essentially a fantasy about teamwork: the common, soldierly sense of obligation that is needed to hold a military unit together; to compel men -- and women -- to make caring sacrifices (at one point a female secret service agent tells a suspected bomb carrier "I'm 10 minutes from the bomb squad. If it's Happy Birthday, let's do it now!"); and finally to unite a nation in war.

When Curtis announces that he saw the sign, it indicates his compliance with the military system. Having been taught how to look at the world, he has unconsciously come to a particular political perspective. His story is that of an apolitical kid's political indoctrination. Luke delivers this strong dramatic moment so effectively that he instantaneously becomes the film's hero. Some viewers, understandably swayed, may not realize how this scene manipulates our usual ambivalent feelings about black movie characters who are shown to be part of authoritarian institutions.

Derek Luke's open, youthful quality helps the film's writer-director David Mamet deceive the audience and win its assent to a story that isn't altogether flattering to African Americans' political and cultural participation. First, the movie never gets close to the startling topic of contemporary slave trading in Sudan. Mamet concentrates so thoroughly on the personal tension among his various G-men that they never engage in an actual political discussion. Spartan is the flip side of Mamet's political satire Wag the Dog. This time he scrutinizes the sacrifices of warrior grunts rather than political wonks and politicians. "I'm just a worker bee," Scott says, trying to convince himself and others that there are no moral quandaries connected to the cold, efficient execution of his job.

Mamet devises such a baroque political fable in Spartan that his implicit critique of perfidy and dishonesty in several recent government administrations (showing how it extends to overseas missions and costs the expendable lives of unempowered citizens like Luke's Curtis) gets lost in all the covert mystery and macho daring. This movie is one weird testament to the sacrifice of the working-class soldier. Through Derek Luke's involvement, it also makes a bizarre parallel of the way black actors are frequently sacrificed to the predictable routines of Hollywood action-film production. Just compare his character's destiny to that of Samuel L. Jackson in Twisted and Charles S. Dutton in Secret Window.

Any smart viewer of Spartan would do well to regulate their responses to Derek Luke's performance. We should think about it culturally and politically. In Hollywood terms this bright, energetic worker bee contributing to a politically loaded action movie is also a soldier. Look at the signs in Spartan: Luke undeniably contributes to another kind of ideological war, another kind of slave trade.

Armond White is film critic for the New York Press and the author of two books on pop culture.

Stamp of Approval?

Word on the street has it that the person who told us that hindsight is 20/20 vision was blind in one eye his damn self. And that explains why in 2004 it's increasingly difficult to recognize the difference between this country's history and its alibis.

Here history is a mass market of collectible heroes who are bereft of moral conflict and flaws, the dead equivalent of pop stars: American idol, 1776. Time was when there was restricted access to this kind of embalmed celebrity, but in recent years we've become way more democratic with our half-truths. Case in point: on Public Enemy's 1989 incendiary "Fight the Power," the rage prophet Chuck D rhymed:

"I'm black and I'm proud, I'm ready, I'm hype 'cause I'm amped Most of my heroes don't appear on no stamps."

But since that song first hit the airwaves, W.E.B. Du Bois, Carter G. Woodson, Langston Hughes, Malcolm X and, most recently, Paul Robeson have appeared as part of the Post Office's Black History stamp series (Robeson's is the 27th issue in the series to date). On one level, this belated recognition of African American history is an indicator of how hard black people have fought to force the United States to recognize our centrality to the national storyline -- and how successful we've been. After centuries of whitelisting, black American historical figures have finally begun to emerge in the public consciousness.

Viewed from another angle, though, issuance of postage stamps is curiously ironic, given the relationship the US government has had with black dissenters and the current assault on civil liberties under the guise of fighting terrorism. It is no coincidence that so many black leaders in the 20th century have, at one point or another, found themselves behind bars. Fannie Lou Hamer and Martin Luther King were arrested -- and Hamer beaten viciously -- for having the audacity to demand that the United States obey its own Constitution. Marcus Garvey was arrested for mail fraud and deported after his Universal Negro Improvement Association began demanding an end to colonialism in Africa.

The list of those harassed or placed under federal surveillance is even longer: James Baldwin, Medgar Evers, Bayard Rustin, Adam Clayton Powell and Roy Wilkins, among many others. Langston Hughes was not arrested, but was hauled before Senator Joe McCarthy's House Un-American Activities Committee and coerced into admitting that his early poems were unpatriotic and should be censored. Mary McLeod Bethune was accused of being a communist sympathizer for advocating equal rights. W.E.B. Du Bois was placed on trial at age 83 for allegedly violating the McCarran Act -- a piece of McCarthy-era legislation that made it illegal to work on behalf of a foreign government without registering with the State Department. (Du Bois' advocacy of peace amid growing threats of nuclear conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union had been construed as near treason.) The accumulated weight of this history raises a question of whether belated recognition marks progress or an attempt to gloss over the undemocratic history of the Unites States -- to provide a racial alibi for America at large.

That Paul Robeson is being honored with a stamp in the current era of repression and political paranoia is the height of historical irony. The catalogue of Robeson's achievements is incredible, but his demise, amid allegations of being a communist in the 1950s, is almost a metaphor for the experience of black heroes who have been enstamped by the US Postal Service. Robeson was born in 1898 to parents who were both former slaves. His mother died in a fire when he was six years old. His father served as minister at a number of churches in New Jersey (being pushed out of at least one post due to racial factors) and settled in as the pastor of St. Luke A.M.E.-Zion church in Westfield. Paul Robeson entered Rutgers College in 1915 as only the third black student to be accepted by the school. He went on to earn 15 letters in sports during his time there, joined in the debate team and graduated as valedictorian of the class of 1919. He went on to Columbia University Law School, graduated in 1922 and practiced law briefly before becoming disillusioned with the racism practiced by New York law firms. He decided to embark upon a career as an actor and vocalist.

After landing theatrical roles in "Shuffle Along," "Black Boy" and "The Emperor Jones," he appeared in a 1930 production of Shakespeare's "Othello," eventually being recognized as the definitive enactor of the tragic Moor. Robeson had graduated to film in 1924 and starred in Oscar Micheaux's Body and Soul, but abandoned the genre because of the limited roles available to black actors. He traveled extensively, visiting Africa in the 1930s and becoming friends with a number of African students, including the Kenyan Jomo Kenyatta, who were actively fighting against European colonialism. He would eventually learn to speak over a half-dozen languages. Radicalized by his exposure to African struggles, Robeson began to articulate an increasingly critical perspective about racism and American politics. By the beginning of World War II, he was widely acclaimed as a vocalist, actor, athlete and intellectual. Paul Robeson was possibly the best known American artist in the world.

By 1949, however, the Cold War had begun to heat up and the lines between dissent and treason were deliberately blurred. Robeson's comments at a 1949 peace conference were deliberately misinterpreted to say that African Americans would never fight in a war against the Soviet Union. The denunciations came with fury and swiftness: Walter White, Jackie Robinson and Mary McLeod Bethune lined up to distance themselves from him. He was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1950, where he refused to state whether or not he was a member of the Communist Party. Robeson, though he had a number of friends who were Communists and had himself visited the Soviet Union more than once, had never been a member of the Communist Party. His issue with the McCarthy inquisition was a moral one: he objected to any form of political expression being criminalized and saw McCarthy as a greater threat to the Constitution than Communism was. Asked by a committee member why he didn't simply move permanently to the Soviet Union, Robeson famously replied: "Because my father was a slave and my people died to build this country and no fascist-minded people will drive me from it. Is that clear?"

There would be consequences for this kind of democratic audacity. Robeson was refused permission to perform in venues across the country and his passport was revoked, making it impossible for him to tour abroad. His alma mater, Rutgers University, omitted his name from its list of football greats and all but dismissed his significance as an alumnus of the institution. A planned concert in Peekskill, New York, devolved into a riot when local residents began throwing bricks through the car windows of Robeson's entourage. Within a decade, the most famous black person in the world had quite simply disappeared.

Robeson could have ended his internal exile by simply stating that he was not a Communist, but to do so ran counter to his deep belief in intellectual freedom. He fell into financial ruin. The accumulated strains -- along with his discovery of the horrors of Stalin's tyranny in the USSR -- took their toll; he suffered a series of nervous breakdowns. The Supreme Court ruled in 1958 that it was illegal to deny a passport to a citizen on the basis of political beliefs and Robeson was allowed to travel abroad later that year. He performed internationally, but never came close to his former prominence. He died in 1976, a legend who had been quietly forgotten.

With a sitting President who tells the world, "you are either with us or against us," endorses secret military tribunals, and condones eavesdropping on confidential discussions between a person and his or her attorney, it's almost impossible to ask whether the Robeson stamp is tribute or hypocrisy. These days, presidents visit Martin Luther King's tomb -- before appointing former segregationists to the federal bench. And a defamed icon is given accolades a half-century after his life was ruined by an overzealous government that had declared Communism its primary threat and told him that he was either with us or against us. With history as an alibi, you can't expect anyone to plead guilty.

William Jelani Cobb is an assistant professor of history at Spelman College and editor of The Essential Harold Cruse.

Blogging While Anti-Black

Imagine if there were a website where you could vicariously cruise the halls of power in New York and DC via deliciously campy witticisms about the gossip and gaffes that plague powerful media moguls, real estate barons, and politicos that delight the reader in ways that can only be described with overused nihilistic German words.

Enter Nick Denton. Denton, a former journalist with dot-com money, owns two website blogs called Gawker and Wonkette that serve just that purpose. Gawker and Wonkette have become the sine qua non of the New York and DC cultural elite, or at least those wishing to be a part of it. They chronicle the intricacies of the media power structure, the players and their sycophants in all their hubris. Their succinct invectives come from snippets found in established gossip columns, newspaper articles, wire copy, email tips, and an occasional instant messenger-inspired epiphany.

Denton has mapped out a route for monetizing the blog world in short order. It is a strategy to provoke outrage and publicity by taking the piss out of celebrities and luminaries of New York and DC. And I don't have any problem with that. It's just that these sites have decided that one way to telegraph their supreme coolness is to continually joke about non-whites as marginalized second-class citizens. It's this casual, damaging disregard that is hard to quantify, and yet, Gawker and Wonkette exemplify the growing phenomenon of white hipsters adopting a casual racism. Is it any wonder so many still feel blogging's a white man's sport?

Soi-Distant Solipsism

Gawker is run by a New York Observer contributor named Choire Sicha, whose vibe is that of a young Rex Reed -- a man riffing on the superficialities of life with the highly self-referential banter one expects of a Lower East Side scenester who turns to writing when his dream of being discovered as an underwear model at a gallery opening in SoHo has evaporated. Sicha's writing style is composed of a bitchy stream of consciousness peppered with metaphoric comparisons to viscous fluids, queer malapropisms, and three-part neologisms such as "man-f*cking-hattan."

In an article covering the New Yorker Magazine Festival, Sicha reports that, "around me the audience is white," although he also says that he sees people like ZZ Packer and Edwidge Danticat (of whom he says "Edwidge is also adorable -- you want to drive around with her in a giant Haitian-mobile and smoke a little weed"). Both of these women writers appear, at least to casual inspection, not to be white. In truth, there were several people at the three-day event who aren't white, despite his claims, and whom he characterizes suspiciously by ethnicity. Sicha's descriptions of non-whites seem to fall into the usual pattern of one part paternalism and two parts Maplethorpeian admiration.

Ana Marie Cox, a.k.a. Wonkette, is Sicha's DC counterpart. Her mission: to plumb the DC gossip scene for any signs of life in a town where getting invited to a Beltway power party is harder than getting a reservation at Nobu during a Mad Cow Disease scare. For a city that arguably controls the fate of the known world, DC has a social scene that is only slightly more interesting than life on an Alaskan oil field -- this city's idea of a velvet rope is ten secret service guys standing in a row. Cox's current main source of stories seems to be blog-refusnik Matt Drudge (oddly, she's simultaneously constantly plugging rumors that Drudge is gay). She also has a penchant for reminding everyone on the Internet that Wes Clark, Jr. seems to be within six degrees of her via his past conquests, while boosting his Google entries high enough so that he can sell his scripts. In exchange for that, she is hoping to prime his pump as a gossip leak, as she missed a golden opportunity to slam his father, former Democratic Candidate Clark, for admitting that he knows what a metrosexual is. Who said a bug doesn't know it's a bug? Unfortunately, she missed the scoop of Clark retiring from the race, Clark's endorsement of Kerry, and Clark's knowledge of Kerry's alleged affair.

Like Sicha, Cox injects ethnicity into even the most mundane occurrences. After a VH-1 Pop Quiz given to Democratic candidates about various music, sports and film icons, she declares "Wes Clark: The whitest candidate in a very, very white field." Evidently, not knowing who starred in Total Recall or who wrote the Harry Potter books makes you white. Both sites seem obsessed with the eugenics of not just people, but ideas. But you don't have to take my word for it, let's examine some actual entries from the websites:

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What Ice Cube Needs to Know

Independent filmmaking didn't start with the Sundance Film Festival. Black independents can be traced back to the silent-era films of Oscar Micheaux and the "race films" of Spencer Williams in the mid-1940s. These facts are introduced in Movies of Color: Black Southern Cinema (Wellspring), a newly released DVD that examines the history of black independent filmmaking. Bonus features on the DVD include two full-length Spencer Williams shorts The Blood of Jesus andGo Down, Death -- in all, an over two-hour package and a good resource of African American popular art and heritage.

The choices Oscar Micheaux faced during the silent era are no different from those that challenge contemporary black filmmakers Network and cable-TV documentaries on film tend toward such flashy topics as celebrity biographies or the American Film Institute's yearly nostalgia polls, and are meant to send viewers off to the nearest rental store. Movies of Color: Black Southern Cinema is more useful, providing an overview of a neglected aspect of American filmmaking. It's a less glamorous history than that associated with Hollywood extravagance and mainstream recognition, yet it is a central part of the development of film culture and black expression.

Director Tom Thurman organizes this study around talking-head commentaries by an assortment of film scholars. Rather than the usual suspects trotted out on PBS, here's a refreshing panel of faces and disciplines: Bishetta Merritt, John Cawelti, Charles Regester, Gregory A. Waller, Stan Campbell, Stanley Booth and Charles Pace. These black and white representatives of mostly Southern colleges impart a distinctly personal commitment to this obscure topic. They give Movies of Color its sense of discovery and an air of urgency. Pace, who identifies himself as a "visual anthropologist," indicates how important it is to know this relatively forgotten history, implying it is part of the struggle for black identity and self-respect. The essence of independent filmmaking is to be found in the self-definition that under-capitalized, non-mainstream forbearers provided for themselves and their audiences. Ice Cube and Will Smith need to know: these historical examples of regional filmmaking (and regional scholarship) are models for an original, valuable cinema culture.

The choices Oscar Micheaux faced during the silent era are no different from those that challenge contemporary black filmmakers and observing Micheaux's filmography demonstrates how differently he responded. Such films as Body and Soul, Birthright and Within Our Gates were made with the audience's political needs -- and its emotional appetite -- foremost in Micheaux's consciousness. That he was more than a commercially aware filmmaker is what makes his movies matter nearly a hundred years later. Movies of Color relates the history of Within Our Gates to the rise of black social and film consciousness following the impact of D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation. Charlene Regester clarifies Griffith's aesthetic innovations from his backward, racist politics. This historical paradox - crucial to understanding American film culture -- has rarely been stated so incisively. Thurman helps by juxtaposing images from the Micheaux and Griffith films (side by side in the same frame) to point out the different perspectives. This not only indicates contrasting film styles, but also vividly illustrates the opposing ideologies.

Although Micheaux was from the Midwest, he pursued the interests of Southern blacks. His movies were informed by the social perspectives that developed in the black American south and then spread northward during the Great Migration. In Within Our Gates, Micheaux's story focuses on the Southern practice of lynching (here called "a symbol that the white power structure used to control black behavior"). Pace cites the film's "representation of the major terror, major horror, major reality of black life in the South." Black independent filmmaking of this sort eschewed escapism. It proved that more substantive forms of drama and entertainment were possible.

African American film culture flourished in the new urban communities of the early 20th century. In 1939 nearly 430 black-built theaters provided a showcase for filmmakers like Micheaux and Spencer Williams. This culture derived from the church-based community center because black-themed films (then called "race movies") would be exhibited in churches when white-owned movie houses were restrictive. As a result, many of the Southern black indie films were tailored to church-going audiences. The extraordinary Spencer Williams films The Blood of Jesus and Go Down, Death are among the most spiritually adventurous movies ever made. They conveyed the moral crisis of the urban/country, blues/spiritual musical dichotomies through their documentary style and fable-like narratives. (Go Down, Death was derived from the famous James Weldon Johnson poem.) Among their still-amusing features is Williams' incorporation of moral metaphors and live musical performances. Williams himself was a performer, best known for TV's Amos and Andy series. As a director, he anticipated the same mix of message and music recently seen to less charming effect in The Fighting Temptations.

Evangelism was the purpose behind movies by Eloyce Gist, a Howard grad and a Bahai recognized in Movies of Color as a pioneer. She was America's first black woman filmmaker. Gist's films Verdict Not Guilty (1933) and Hellbound Train (1930) were parables about spiritual struggle on earth. Stan Campbell describes Gist's films as "Astonishing, however crude or primitive or amateurish. For a woman in this time it was like defying gravity." Gist exemplifies the art-making struggles that are taken for granted in today's film culture. Campbell addresses the problem black artists had "at that period of American history to get distributed, to be seen and heard." But these problems have not disappeared for such filmmakers as Charles Burnett, Wendell B. Harris, Neema Barnette and others. Being a filmmaker means becoming an evangelist for black pop expression.

The last part of Movies of Color finds an ideal paradigm for this dilemma in the 1940 film Broken Strings, written by the actor Clarence Muse and directed by Bernard B. Ray. Muse played a concert violinist who wants his jazz-loving son to continue in his tradition. With his visionary belief in creativity, Muse comes to appreciate his son's (the new generation's) taste. In a deep, authoritative voice, Muse confesses, "My heart still belongs to the classics but look what swing has done for me" -- one of the most trenchant moments in American movies, equal to the recent father-son, classical music Chinese film Together.

Armond White is film critic for the New York Press. White was staff writer for The Nation for 12 years and is the author of two books on pop culture.

The Other L-Word

They have been together for a millennium -- or at least look as if they have. They are seated beside each other, arms touching, him shoeless and her head wrapped in cloth and God only knows what they've seen. They are barely past the bitter years of slavery and to tell the truth, it's still hard to tell the difference. The photograph is grainy and slightly out of focus, but you can still make out the weathered lines of years and experience on their faces. And you can still sense the connection forged of those years.

The picture speaks of a quiet fortitude, togetherness in the crucible of slavery, an intimacy that is rarely seen in our discussions of black history.

It's ironic that Valentine's Day takes place during Black History Month, but those two events manage to overlap without ever coinciding -- as if there were no love or romance within our collective history in this country. We know of husbands sold away from wives and wives taken from husbands to face the sexual exploitation of white overseers. We know of black men and women who were bred like livestock.

But what we rarely speak of is love in the context of adversity.

The question goes loudly unasked: Who needed love more than the enslaved? Beyond the uprisings and the daily resistance, outside of the escapes, arsons and thefts, the most subversive act committed by enslaved black people may have been daring to love each other. The ten-plus generations of black men and women who lived through the ordeal of slavery went to extraordinary lengths to give meaning to their own lives, to construct relationships that might, if only momentarily, dull the pain of forced servitude, to care for others in a society which sought to make black love a contradiction in terms. And that reality is all but lost in our present love deficit.

Filtered through lens of popular media, it seems like there's a civil war going on between black men and black women. African Americans are the least likely segment of the population to marry and have a divorce rate that exceeds fifty percent. We are also far less likely to remarry after a divorce than members of other groups. Black radio's airwaves are congested with loveless ballads; rappers boldly declare themselves love-proof -- and thereby pain-proof -- and disgruntled sirens sing songs of fiscal obligation. In an era where baby-daddies and baby-mamas replace husbands and wives, it's easy to see the destructive legacy of slavery, segregation, incarceration playing itself out. But that's only half of the history -- and we've never needed to hear the other side of the story more urgently.

The truth is that marriage and family were extremely important to enslaved black people -- despite the obvious difficulties that confronted their relationships. Slave marriages were given no legal recognition, but slaves constructed binding traditions of their own. In addition to "jumping the broom," they also presented each other with blankets whose acceptance indicated that they were now considered married within the community. Others, who could not find a willing clergyman or who had been denied permission to marry, simply married themselves. Still, recognition of their union was important enough that ex-slaves besieged the Freedman's Bureau with requests for marriage ceremonies after emancipation. Three Mississippi counties accounted for 4627 marriages in a single year. The end of slavery also brought with it literally thousands of black people wandering throughout the South in search of husbands and wives who had been sold away from them.

Prior to emancipation, individuals went to great lengths to maintain their relationships. One of the most common causes of slave escapes was to see loved ones on distant plantations. One man set out before sunrise each Sunday morning and walked the entire day to spend a few hours with his wife before having to walk back in time to begin the next day's work. George Sally, enslaved on a sugar plantation in Louisiana, ignored the slaveholder's demands and left to visit his wife -- an offense for which he was arrested. (He later stated that he did not mind being arrested for seeing his wife.) Others risked their lives to protect their spouses. While sexual exploitation of married black women by overseers was a constant concern, it was not unheard of for husbands to kill whites who had attacked their wives. One unnamed slave attacked an overseer who had attempted to whip his wife and was himself forced to flee into the woods for eleven months.

William Grose, a slave in Loudon County, Virginia, married a free black woman -- against the wishes of the plantation owner, who feared that she might help him escape. William was sold to a widower in New Orleans,who demanded that he take another woman as his wife. He wrote in his autobiography, "I was scared half to death, for I had one wife whom I liked and didn't want another." The couple managed to remain in contact and his wife travelled to New Orleans and found work as a domestic in the family that had bought William. When their relationship was discovered, she was forced to leave New Orleans. Incredibly, William devised a plan to escape and fled to Canada where he and his wife were reunited.

Some black couples managed, despite all odds, to construct long, close-knit unions. In the 1930s, Barbara, a woman who was born into slavery in North Carolina, told an interviewer the story of how she had met her husband Frank:

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The B-Word

Check the tenth song on The Love Below, Andre's half of Outkast's latest double album, a song called "Roses."

In the first half of the song, Andre belts out, "Caroline, you're the reason for the word 'bitch.'" Later Big Boi eloquently says, "But game been peeped, dropping names she's weak. Trickin' off this bitch is lost. Must take me for a geek." Andre continues with this theme: "Better come back down to Mars. Girl, quit chasin' cars. What happens when the dough gets low? Bitch, you ain't that fine. No way... no way... no way!" Then at the end of the song, several times, Big Boi chants "Crazy Bitch."

What is it with this word? Everywhere I turn my ear I hear it.

For a while, women tried to reclaim the word, just as black people tried to reclaim the word "nigger." It didn't work. Instead, use of the word -- not by women to empower women, but by men to demean women -- has multiplied, in music, on television, in books, in movies, in arguments, in everyday life as a whole. The B-word crosses color and age and class lines. It seems like everyone feels entitled to use it.

I have no problem with curse words (as long as they aren't used too often or around children). Sometimes they're the only way to express what one is feeling. But I take exception to the B-word. This word has a key linguistic issue that no other curse word in current American slang has.

What makes a woman a "bitch"? There seem to be infinite criteria, but only one is really necessary. To be a "bitch," all you have to be is a woman. Any other attributes -- positive, negative -- are secondary. These days, people use "bitch" when they mean "woman" -- it's an insult that attacks the core of one's identity.

These days, men sometimes face the B-word, too. The reason it's insulting to call a man a bitch is the same reason men don't want to, for example, hit the baseball "like a girl." To call a man a bitch is calling him a woman. In our sexist society, that alone is an insult.

A little more background on the history of this word: According to The Women's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, "The word bitch became a naughty word in Christian Europe because it was one of the most sacred titles of the Goddess, Artemis-Diana, leaders of the Scythian alani or 'hunting dogs.'...In Christian terms, 'son of a bitch' was considered insulting not because it meant a dog, but because it meant the devil -- that is, a spiritual son of the pagan Goddess."

So basically, a goddess has been turned into a curse word. A true sign of the times.

This is not the first time I've seen a powerful goddess made into something less. In my research of African spirituality I have seen one goddess transformed into many less powerful goddesses (all of whom were married to one god). I've also seen powerful goddesses simply turned to male deities, gods. The common theme? The debasement of female powers.

This word is so ingrained in our common vocabulary that it'll be hard for some to stop using it. A small dose of anger toward any woman easily sparks its use. But why not replace this one with something that suits the situation? For example, if a woman is being mean, call her mean. Call her nasty, lowdown, whatever you want -- but curse her meanness, don't insult her for being a woman.

Is being female something to laugh at or mock? We all come from women. Would you want someone to call your mother the B-word? I didn't think so.

During an argument, does it typically help to hurt to call a woman a bitch? Is this your goal?

I know some of you will chalk this essay up to just another woman writer bitching. If you do, please think about why you consider it so. And try to use another word.

Thriving on Death

To pass through any market or street in any Zambian town reveals an unusual industry that is thriving when many others in the country are collapsing.

Joseph Bupe conducts business from a roadside shack at a street corner in the capital, Lusaka. He employs three youths and says business is growing.

"Business is good and in the next few years, it is going to be even better," he says as he attends to his next clients.

Bupe sells coffins, and his is just one of the several businesses that have sprung up around the country to serve the ever-growing number of deaths as AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria claim more lives every day.

It is estimated that malaria claims about 37 percent of Zambian deaths, while the rest are TB/AIDS-related. And according to Family Health International, only 10 percent of the predicted AIDS-related deaths have yet occurred -- the vast majority of people with AIDS in the country are still living with the disease, with new infections every day. Family Health International estimates that Zambia will face more than 200 AIDS-related deaths each day in 2004. Annually, 40,000 new TB cases are reported. In this country, where 80 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, death rates from TB are very high as well.

Bleak as the situation is, many Zambians have taken the initiative to profit from the so-called "death industry." Businesses involving coffins, tombstones and funerals are growing by the day, employing whole families in some cases.

Plagued by widespread unemployment, many youths have taught themselves the art of making low-cost but impressive headstones and caskets that they sell at street corners, markets and hospitals. Today, many youths are enrolling for carpentry lessons at local colleges for the sole purpose of specializing in making coffins. It is a big industry.

"We are seeing more deaths today than ever before. That means more business," Bupe says.

This is ironic, given that traditionally in Zambian culture death is a somber subject, spoken of only in whispers. To even think of people treating it as a potential business venture was previously taboo.

But times have changed, says Richard Tembo, who sells tombstones at a market in Kitwe, Zambia's second largest city after Lusaka.

"We used to treat death as something unusual. But look around. There is death everywhere," Tembo says.

Indeed there is death at every other fifth house in the country. That means more business, and the result is more fly-by-night tombstone and coffin makers.

Despite the fact that businesses like Tembo's and Bupe's are unregistered (and therefore, technically, illegal), the financially troubled local councils in Zambia are not in a hurry to close them down. Instead, they are also trying to benefit from the death industry by imposing fines on all the illegal operators -- and many are going one step further, attempting to enact laws that will allow them to impose tax on every coffin sold.

"It is a good idea and would help the council raise money, considering the council's current situation," says Kitwe City Council spokesperson Dorothy Sampa.

"It is a good idea and an area that management is trying to pursue," says Lusaka City Council spokesperson Peter Kashiwa.

Sampa and Kashiwa, who represent the two largest councils in the country, agree that the death industry is a potentially enriching one, for the government as well as individual entrepreneurs. In the absence of codified tax rules on coffins and tombstones, however, all they can do now is fine the illegal operators for doing business without licenses.

"The council is losing money all right, but we cannot impose levies on them because they are illegal," says Sampa. "However, we do pass their stands and fine them for operating without licenses. We pass their stands as often as three times a day and fine them every time, but they do not want to stop trading because the business is lucrative."

Small business owners disagree, pointing out that if their businesses really were illegal, the councils could shut them down. What the councils call a fine, the coffin-makers say, is a tax. (In truth, given Zambian law, the fines assessed on the industry are actually more than the levies that could be imposed, meaning that it's in the government's interest to keep the businesses nominally illegal, yet open)

Says Ronald Kalunga, who sells coffins from his backyard in Kitwe's Buchi Township: "The council should stop pretending that we are illegal. We pay them every day and if we were illegal they would have closed our shops long ago."

Sampa counters that the councils don't want to shut the businesses down, hoping instead that the operators will legalize their businesses. She adds that the death industry has had a paradoxical effect: empowering citizens, enabling them to take better care of their families, send their children to school, and so on. And, of course, to maintain a steady cash flow into the council's coffers.

These arguments aside, all stakeholders agree that the death industry serves a need that must be met. Even mourning families say the fly-by-night operators provide a useful service in their time and grief. On the street, a good, well-decorated coffin fetches between $150 and $200, while the same would cost twice as much at a registered funeral parlor.

The sad fact is there is enough business for everyone. Bupe, for instance, says he sells at least 90 coffins in a good month, and predicts that sales will increase throughout 2004.

It may be the only business that finds itself in good health. With the HIV infection rate at 27% in urban areas and 13% in rural areas, the illegal coffin industry will continue to grow -- while economic uncertainties and a shrinking labor force spell doom for conventional businesses.

Mabvuto Zulu is a freelance journalist based in Zambia. He writes on social, health and economic issues affecting the African continent.

The Hidden Black Iraq

Enter the words "black," "city" and "fuel" into the search engine of the American psyche and you'll conjure up the image of a Chevron station in Detroit. But add a historical element into the equation and you come up with Basra, Iraq.

In the three-card hustle of American foreign policy, the port-city of Basra is the elusive Queen. (The other two bluff cards say "Saddam Hussein" and "War on Terrorism.") Recently, Iraq's delegation to OPEC gleefully reported that 2.1 million barrels of crude oil were flowing from the Basra wells daily. The city's contemporary significance centers around its oil production; historically, though, the city was a commercial and governmental center that rivaled Baghdad for wealth and influence. It is also home to the little-discussed populations of black Iraqis.

Thirty years of black and Diaspora studies have shed light on the scale, intensity and impact of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade -- the 400-year traffic of Africans between the continent, Europe and the colonies of the alleged new world. Less attention has been paid, though, to the millennium-long slave trade that scattered African slaves throughout present-day Iraq, Turkey, Kuwait, Iran, Pakistan and India. Emerging European capitalism and the labor requirements of cash crops like sugar, cotton and tobacco drove the Trans-Atlantic trade; the Trans-Saharan trade, which flourished from the eighth century AD through the 1840s, brought African labor to the hazardous enterprises of pearl diving, date farming and the raw, brutal work of clearing Iraqi salt marshes. African boys were commonly castrated to serve as eunuch guards of royal harems. Unlike those who were enslaved in the West, however, blacks enslaved in the Arabic-speaking world also served as guards, sailors and high-ranking soldiers. In the 19th century, Basra was one of the most profitable slave ports in the region, commonly offering slave traders as much as 50% returns upon their "investments."

There has been a black presence in Basra -- present-day Southern Iraq -- as early as the 7th century, when Abu Bakra, an Ethiopian soldier who had been manumitted by the prophet Muhammad himself, settled in the city. His descendants became prominent members of Basran society. A century later, the writer Jahiz of Basra wrote an impassioned defense of black Africans -- referred to in Arabic as the Zanj -- against accusations of inferiority which had begun to take root even then.

The Zanj, who were primarily persons of East African descent, were to have a significant impact upon Iraqi history. They had been traded from ports along the African coast (Zanzibar, which is derived from the term "Zanj," was a major slave exporting center during the era) to clear salt marshes. Laboring in miserable, humid conditions, the Zanj workers dug up layers of topsoil and dragged away tons of earth to plant labor-intensive crops like sugarcane on the less saline soil below. Fed scant portions of flour, semolina and dates, they were constantly in conflict with the Iraqi slave system. Between the 7th and 9th centuries, the Zanj staged three rebellions, the largest of which occurred between 868 and 883 AD.

Led by an Iraqi poet named Ali Ibn Muhammad, the Zanj uprising of 868 galvanized thousands of black slaves who laid siege to and eventually overran the city of Basra. In short order, black soldiers in the army of the ruling Abbasid emperors based in Baghdad began to desert and swelled the ranks of the rebellion. Similar to later rebellions that created liberated "maroon" communities throughout the new world, the 15-year conflict, known as "The Revolt of the Zanj," led to the establishment of an independent Zanj capital city, minting of currency and the decade-long control of Basra -- one of the most important trade ports in the Abbasid empire. At their zenith, the Zanj armies marched upon Baghdad and got within 70 miles of the city.

The Zanj uprising was crushed in 883 by the Abbasids, but doing so required vast amounts of the empire's extensive resources. African slavery in Iraq continued to exist throughout both the Ottoman and British empires which incorporated the region into their holdings. In the mid-19th century, decades after the Trans-Atlantic trade had been (technically) outlawed, the Arab trade persisted. As historian Joseph Harris writes in his African Presence in Asia:

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Sister Showcreator

Last year, USA Today ran an article about UPN and, at the time, their four black female executive producers or "showrunners." This season, the grand total is five. It is no secret that UPN, in an effort to establish itself like Fox and the WB before them, has embraced the African American television audience. It is also no secret that the aforementioned networks both loosened that embrace as their white audiences became larger. According to Mark C. Terry, the Chief Financial Officer at Western International Syndication, which distributed It's Showtime at the Apollo for over a decade, this is the way networks like Fox and the WB established themselves. "Clearly," he says, "there's an understanding that there's a market out there that's been underserved. But clearly there's a need and there's an interest on the part of viewers for [shows] targeted towards them." That seems to be the Hollywood formula and at UPN it has been to the benefit of black women working behind the scenes.

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The Identity Game

"Where are you from?"

Seems like a fairly innocuous question, right? It fascinates me, where people are from, especially living in New York, where I am not from.

But if their race is ambiguous, or even if it's clear, sometimes I ask, "Where are your people from?"

For me, racial identity is a source of liberation, and it conjures up the memory of my family. "Why do you ask people that?" my friend asked me one day as we ate dinner and I told him about one my latest "finds" -- a woman who I had always assumed was "white" but who was Haitian, a political refugee, in fact, and who had married a man from Vietnam. I was in thrall of my "only in New York" novelty at the match.

"I like to know where people are from," I responded, now a little defensive since he wasn't buying in the "fun" of my discovery, which was the reason I told him; I hadn't shared this tidbit with him to have my motives questioned.

"You don't like to know where people are from," he began, his eyes squinting a little as they focused on me, slightly more intense to make his point. "You have to know what people are."

The possibility sent me into a reflective space for some days, as I started to piece together certain threads of a larger narrative I participated in about identity.

On the one hand, there was something generous (or at least innocent) in my inquiry. In North Carolina, where I grew up, folk often asked, "Who are your people?" It was a way of finding a connection. I tell people, "Look, my mother has over 70 first cousins! It's a likely thing that if you ask someone down in those parts enough questions about where they're from, you might find yet another family member."

Asking who someone's people were was an echo of the search of the freed slaves as they made their way down dusty roads, looking for kin or "fam'ly" who had been scattered and displaced. When connections were found -- then and now -- it offered a space for celebration that we were one, and had survived the attempts to discard us to the wind.

However, as my friend hinted, there can be an ugly side motivating the need to know where someone's people are from: at the same time all those freed Africans were searching for their children, parents and siblings, the law herded people into a confined racial identity to maintain a social order bedrocked on white supremacy. It was illegal to gallivant without a racial moniker in the white world if you had a determinable amount of African blood.

Today, white supremacy is no longer explicitly enforced by the law. But I'm still reminded of the motivation to treat people according to what their race has been determined to be when I hear stories like my friend Amanda's. Amanda is a fair-skinned black woman from Texas who works in financial services in New York. Her colleagues constantly bombard her with questions about her race -- "What are you?" and the like. "It seems that no one at work knows how to talk to me, or how to be comfortable around me if they can't pin down my race," she complained. "And for some reason, they find it difficult to believe and accept what I tell them. Which is the truth!"

What ignorance! I exclaimed -- my first reaction. It seemed to be basic American history that because of the mixing of races -- especially during slavery -- there were some blacks who were light-skinned. Nothing less than genealogy explained the unpredictability and range of skin color today.

But later I thought of my experience in Paris, where I lived for some time. In the States, my dark brown skin never prompted inquiries about my racial identity. But in Paris, white Europeans rarely believed I was American. In racist incidents on the street, there was never any question about where I was from: I was always assumed to be African. (Once on the regional public train, I had my feet slightly propped on the seat in front of me, which caused a white Frenchman to exclaim, "All you Africans need to stay where you are! You come here and don't respect our country!")

In casual conversation -- over dinner at someone's home, for example -- white French watched me with a somewhat amused look as I explained that I was American. They waited patiently. And when I was done, they insisted, "But where are your parents from?" It was clear I was being given the chance to cut to the chase and tell the truth about how I could be a black American and look so African. After several conversations like this, I realized that they were having difficulty believing where I was from because of how I looked. So the next time this sort of exchange came up, I tried to give a short history lesson (to their ignorant asses) about slavery and the African Diaspora. No success. As I lectured, they had the same patient waiting in their eyes. When I finished, they focused on, "so where are your ancestors from?" Still waiting for me to "admit" I was really from Africa.

But wait -- wasn't I?

The whole thing left me with a strange sort of guilt about whether I was denying I was African. When I was in Senegal (where I had to go since I rarely had a Senegalese person approach me without saying, "Nangadef!" in Wolof -- the predominant language there) I was again forced to deny I was African. But being there confirmed that I wasn't. Although there was a comforting familiarity in so much of what I felt and experienced, at the end of my trip, I had more comfort with the fact that I was a black girl, from Fayetteville, North Carolina. (And as folks say back home, "Won't nothing wrong with that!")

Which brings me full circle. I looked across the table at my friend's face, where he sat waiting to hear my reaction to his accusation that I just had to pin down a person's racial classification. The defensiveness that had surged in me earlier subsided. It was true: I did like to know what people were.

For me, racial identity is a source of liberation. When I tell who I am, whose I am, and where I'm from, I conjure up the memory of my family. When "Fayetteville" floats from my lips, out waft memories of being little with my cousins, us running and running around the yard, while adults sat and fanned themselves under the big sycamore trees in the yard of the house where my great-grandparents raised all 14 of their children. I am inviting the listener to tell me how they identify themselves -- how they celebrate their own creation story. And whatever answer they offer is the one I accept.

Alicia L. Young is a freelance writer and civil rights attorney who recently moved from one end of the world to another -- Brooklyn to Harlem.

The Rev in the Race

The big man is punctual. He rolls into a room accompanied by a blaxploitation soundtrack that only he can hear. This fall there are eight Democrats imagining strains of "Hail to the Chief" when they enter a venue, but only Al Sharpton is listening for Impeach the President.

To the skeptical world, Sharpton may be tilting at his own lofty set of windmills, but for his target audience he is the first legitimate black populist of the new millennium. Sleep if you want to, but beneath the comic appearance, the self-deprecating one-liners -- "I understand deficit spending. I was born in deficit spending" -- and the deliberately Ebonic diction is a political rationality that Sharpton has parlayed into his present standing as the most influential non-elected black Democrat in the party. Never mind the snickers of the wine 'n' cheese set, because Al Sharpton knows he can't win. He also knows he doesn't have to win -- all he needs to do is not lose.

Understanding Sharpton's standing as a reputed leader of the race requires understanding of recent history. Understanding Sharpton the Presidential candidate requires delving a bit farther into the past. Sharpton is a populist, and like most populists dating back to the turn-of-the-century Negrophobe Tom Watson, his approach to politics relies upon equal measures of demagogy and democracy. The Reverend who galvanized thousands to confront the near-fascism that was the Giuliani-era NYPD after the rape of Abner Louima and murder of Amadou Diallo is also the clergyman who decried the incursion of "white interlopers" in Harlem and rode the Tawana Brawley enigma to public prominence.

Having copped the elements of his style from James Brown, a Republican, and Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. -- quite possibly the two most flamboyant black men of the 20th century -- Sharpton fit right into the era that witnessed his political ascent. New York in the 1980s was the Wild West with a theater district, a town Ed Koch ruled with an aluminum fist. Beneath the veneer of cosmopolitan liberalism was a knotted skein of racial antagonisms. It was an era pock-marked by epidermal hostilities, crack wars and lawmen who were quick on the draw. Names from that time's headlines include Bernard Goetz, subway vigilante; Eleanor Bumpurs, an elderly black woman shot to death by NYC housing police; Michael Stewart, a black graffiti artist who was arrested for vandalism and died in police custody; Yusef Hawkins, a black teen gunned down on the streets of Bensonhurst, Brooklyn for wandering into the wrong neighborhood. And then there was the mad Scottsboro saga of the "Central Park Jogger" rape case. The only thing missing was the tumbleweed.

Times were so hard back then that even a fat preacher with a perm, jogging suit and gold medallions could get a superhero's welcome. For better or worse, Sharpton parlayed his rapid racial response tactics into a position as unofficial kingmaker among New York Democrats -- the evidence being his non-endorsement of mayoral candidate Mark Green and Green's subsequent defeat by Michael Bloomberg in 2001.

Sharpton the Presidential candidate fits into a long historical tradition of symbolic black presidential campaigns. James Ford, a black Communist, was tapped as the Communist Party's vice presidential candidate in 1932 -- largely to underscore the CP's commitment to racial equality in the midst of its campaign to save the lives of the Scottsboro Boys. Charlotta Bass, the black radical and publisher of the California Eagle newspaper, ran for VP on the Progressive Party's 1952 ticket, just four years after the defeat of Henry Wallace and burgeoning winds of McCarthyism had relegated them to the sidelines of American politics. Brooklyn Congressional Representative Shirley Chisholm ran for President in 1972 in a campaign that rejected "soft money" decades before John McCain had ever heard of the term. Her campaign failed to win even the endorsement of the newly formed Congressional Black Caucus. Doug Wilder, the first black Governor since Reconstruction, spent a weekend in 1992 running for the High Office and Maryland conservative Alan Keyes threw his hat into the ring in an all but forgotten run in 2000. But the historical reminder that Sharpton wants to play up most explicitly is Jesse Jackson's 1988 campaign.

Jesse's seven million votes didn't win him the Party's nomination, but the ripple effect figured into Wilder's election and Ron Brown's ascent to head the Democratic National Committee (and eventual stewardship of Bill Clinton into the Oval Office.) Sharpton's platform ranges from the idealistic: an Amendment guaranteeing the right to healthcare, to the unlikely: statehood for Washington, D.C. The first reason he cites for running is to "raise issues that would otherwise be overlooked -- for example affirmative action, anti-death penalty policy and African and Caribbean policy."

But the real ethos behind Sharpton's campaign is his desire to recreate the so-called "Jackson Effect." Al Sharpton wants to galvanize black voters into a bloc that can influence if not determine outright the direction of the Democratic Party. And, implicitly, extend his own influence inside the Party to the national level.

The main problem that confronts the Sharpton campaign is the fact that the Jesse model is ready for retirement. Jesse's "effect" notwithstanding, the DP has become consistently more conservative (or in their terms "centrist") in the 15 years since his last campaign. Plus, Sharpton has no hope of garnering even a handful of the votes Jesse received from gays or hard-pressed middle-American farmers. Jackson's Civil Rights Movement pedigree helped him finesse the transition from protest politics to the electoral kind, but it's doubtful that model can work for another generation of black leadership.

Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.'s recent endorsement of Howard Dean might signify that the handwriting is on the wall for Sharpton. His decision to lash out at Dean -- declaring him "anti-black" for his positions on the death penalty, affirmative action and gun control -- was simply bad politics, an echo of Sharpton's "white interloper" days. While Sharpton hopes to build a bloc within the Party, there's reason to believe that black people's best hope for furthering their interests within the Democratic Party is to organize outside of it -- as evidenced by the thousands of young black people registering as independents.

Jesse Sr. famously divided black leadership into "tree-shakers" who stir up social tension and inspire action and "jelly-makers" who carry out the nuts-and-bolts work of daily organizing. Given his preferences, Al Sharpton would like to shake the hell out of the Democratic Party Tree -- which might serve some purpose, provided the rest of us don't end up in a jam.

William Jelani Cobb is a professor of history at Spelman College.

See Quentin Kill

When you think of the resounding flop of Jackie Brown -- the film Quentin Tarantino made after his 1994 Pulp Fiction changed contemporary movie history -- it's no wonder he offs Vivica A. Fox early in his new movie, Kill Bill: Vol. 1. He wasn't about to repeat the mistake of asking mainstream movie audiences to take a black person's emotional life seriously.

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Covering Race and Mental Health

Rare indeed is the news story that sensitively describes the strange, scary things that can occur at the intersection of race and mental illness. But, thanks to a pair of conscientious writers at the Boston Globe, the story of a troubled black woman who gave birth while standing on a crowded subway train turned out to be one of the more gripping, poignant news stories I�ve read in a long time. Appearing on the Globe's front page on Jul. 31, the story by C. Kalimah Redd, a Globe correspondent, and Mac Daniel, the Globe's transportation writer, described the bizarre case of a suburban Boston woman named Joyce Judge.

On the morning of Jul. 30, Judge, 42, awakened feeling sick in the motel south of Boston where she was living with her two children. She left them -- a 15 year-old and an 11 year-old -- and boarded a Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority subway train bound for Boston. As the train neared a stop just inside the city, Judge let out a moan. To the astonishment of passengers, Judge stood looking out of the train window and holding a handrail while a full-term baby boy dropped from between her legs, hit the floor of the subway car, and rolled several feet, "stopping when he bumped up against the next row of seats," according to the Globe story. Judge scooped up the baby, tied the umbilical chord in a knot, and wrapped the baby in a silk scarf. In another shocking detail of the story, Judge "cradled the baby in one arm and grabbed the handrail with the other and continued to ride the T and stare out the [train] window," according to passenger Chris Chin, who told The Boston Globe that he stood four feet from Judge. "Either she didn�t know it happened, or she didn't want to acknowledge it," Chin said.

The story is front-loaded with all the details you need, short but vivid descriptions of Judge before and during the birth, the passengers' reactions, and the chaotic scene that unfolded among police, MBTA officials and passersby as the woman, incredibly, leapt from the train after it stopped, clutched the baby and waved off passengers' offers of help as she "hustled" out of the station and onto busy Columbia Road. "It was simply surreal," passenger Bill Mahoney told the newspaper. Another witness, Robert Busby, was in the train station when he saw Judge drop her placenta as she ran by. "She just literally picked it up with her hand and put it in some kind of bag she was carrying, and this was in mid-stride," Busby said. "It was the craziest thing I've ever seen."

By the story's end, I decided I had to speak to the reporters who had written it. Not only had the writers excellently presented a chronological account of the incident and the necessary details they also presented them in stark yet unbiased language. Moreover, the story included a bedside interview with Judge, and quotes from her worried relatives. For a "first day" story, it was rich with details and depth. How on earth did the reporters get the interview with Judge, who had been stopped by police blocks from the train station, and taken to Boston Medical Center? How did they track down the passengers who had watched the incident unfold?

I phoned Mac Daniel and Kalimah Redd to find out. What they described is a textbook study of solid, aggressive, run-and-gun reporting overlaid with a refreshing appreciation of restraint, and healthy doses of integrity and compassion. In total, the story is "both sad and happy," Daniel told me. "It is sad that an obviously troubled woman had to go through what she did. But, at the same time, its happy in the sense that she's got a beautiful baby boy, and its happy that she's getting some help," Daniel said.

For his part, Daniel used technology to help track down passengers who had witnessed the incident: by mid-day, he posted a note on the Globe's website,, asking to hear from anyone who had been on the train where Judge had given birth. Within hours, Daniel said, he was inundated with e-mails and phone calls from people who had been on the same subway car. After quizzing the respondents carefully to make sure that they had, in fact, witnessed the incident, Daniel began shaping his story.

"It seemed like the passengers just wanted to talk about it, they had gotten to their offices or homes or wherever, and logged on to their computers. I think that because they had been so touched by what they'd seen, they felt they needed to check in, somehow. And they went to" Daniel�s determination to make sure the passengers� accounts were accurate was accompanied by a strong desire to avoid judging Judge. It would have been easy, he explained, to write a story loaded with outraged derision, one that could have exploited the woman�s delicate mental state.

"It�s a strange story, so I knew we needed to be careful to tell it accurately, but tell it for all the right reasons," Daniel said. "It was important that we not lose sight of the fact that we�re talking about someone who doesn�t have very good coping skills." He knew, that readers would pick up the story the next day and say, "judgmentally, �how could she do this? What was she thinking? �" Daniel told me, "We had to be careful."

Kalimah Redd, meanwhile, was in the Boston neighborhood where Judge�s family lived. After getting a call at home that morning from her editor at the Globe, Redd went to the subway station where Judge had alighted with her newborn. But, since a few hours had passed between the time that the incident occurred and Redd�s arrival at the T-station, there were no passengers who had witnessed the birth on hand. Boston police and MBTA police, however, held a press conference, and afterward, Redd approached the MBTA officer who had finally stopped Judge as she jogged away from the train station. "He was very open, and very good," Redd said. "And he was very concerned about Judge and her kids."

From there, Redd learned that the police in Braintree, a suburb just south of Boston, had already gone to the motel where Judge had been living and retrieved her two other children. Redd phoned that officer, who also spoke at length about his concerns for the two older children and Judge. After the Braintree officer mentioned that Judge had family members in Boston�s Mission Hill neighborhood, Redd set about tracking them down. She returned to the Globe newsroom, "dumped everything," and huddled briefly with her editors, who told her to stay on the story. By early afternoon, she had used the Globe�s databases to find the Judge family, and drove to the Mission Hill apartment building where Judge�s mother lived.

"She wasn�t home, but there were some neighbors on the front stoop, so I talked with them," Redd said. Over the next few hours, Redd met and interviewed several former neighbors, a few relatives, and, importantly, Judge�s mother, Marie, who arrived at the apartment building just as Redd was preparing to depart. To Redd�s credit, she stayed cool once she realized that Judge�s mother had not yet heard the news of her daughter giving birth on a crowded subway train. "She had been out all morning, and hadn�t heard anything about it," Redd told me of that first encounter. "I told her and, at first, she panicked. She is an older woman and she had no idea�I had to explain it to her, as calmly as possible." After Marie Judge calmed down, she invited Redd inside her apartment, where they talked, and she gave Redd a photograph of Judge. One of Judge�s sisters arrived, and she, too agreed to be interviewed.

When I asked Redd to describe Marie Judge�s response to her daughter�s situation, Redd sighed. "You could tell she�d been frustrated with [Joyce], and had tried to help her. She seemed very tired. She seemed disappointed, but not terribly surprised." And so, later that afternoon, Marie Judge invited Kalimah Redd to accompany them to Boston Medical Center to see Joyce. Lisa Judge, Joyce�s sister, explained that Redd wanted to interview her to help clear up what would undoubtedly be widespread misconceptions about the incident. "I said I wanted to humanize the story, [knowing] that our readers needed to hear from Joyce what actually had happened, and what she had been thinking," Redd told me.

At the hospital, Redd spoke with Joyce Judge for approximately fifteen minutes, she said. "She seemed very jittery, she spoke really fast, and would sometimes go off in tangents�she was very sharp and very bright but every so often she would talk on and on". And, curiously, there in her hospital bed, Joyce Judge had shades on, Redd said, and was sitting up "writing something." When Redd asked her to describe her actions and mindset, Joyce Judge said "she was trying to go to the hospital, but once the labor started, it didn�t make sense for her to be on the train because the people on there couldn�t help her. She had been trying to make it to the hospital but she ran out of time," Redd said. When the reporter asked Judge why she had refused passengers� offers of help after the baby was born, Judge�s reply was telling: "She said, �Some people can�t take the sight of blood�.they were overreacting.�"

There are numerous reasons why this story, and the Globe�s handling of it, are important: foremost, Joyce Judge�s history of mental illness is vague yet it clearly figured into her behavior on that subway train. As Mac Daniel pointed out, it would have been easy -- and in my estimation, cheap -- to write a story that lacked compassion. In the recent past, for example, stories about African Americans with mental illnesses who have become embroiled in highly volatile situations with law enforcement officials typically take the cheap tack, in that cops or other officials who mishandle mentally unstable perpetrators are allowed to set the tone of the story.

Since the mid-1990s, numerous stories of mentally ill blacks who come into contact with police officials have not ended happily, including incidents involving gun-toting mentally ill black men in Florida and Pittsburgh who engaged in stand-offs with police. And just last summer in Boston, a black single mother who suffered from bi-polar illness was shot and killed by several city police officers after they found her in a basement at her apartment building, holding a knife over the bodies of her two dead children. In that case, the Globe, like other news organizations, initially covered the story from a law enforcement angle -- although in the ensuing months reporter Ellen Barry delivered a lengthy profile of the dead woman and her long struggle with mental illness and the health care bureaucracy.

In the case of the Judge story, however, it seems that nearly everyone involved -- including cops and social service workers -- were refreshingly mindful of the woman�s right to privacy, as well as the need for compassion in describing her circumstances. By contrast, the recent murder of a black New York City Council Member James Davis by a spurned adversary who was also African-American (and possibly suffering from a form of mental illness) drew scary and unhelpful headlines from some news organizations, notably The New York Daily News, which ran a hundred-point headline calling Davis� African-American assailant a "wild-eyed killer."

The fact that New England�s largest news organization exercised such good judgment in its handling of Joyce Judge story is significant, primarily because it perhaps indicates an awareness on the part of journalists that sensationalizing such events only causes more harm than good -- especially for African Americans who have historically been reluctant to seek mental health in times of emotional or psychological crises. The recent case of a black man who was found hanged in Belle Glade, Florida, is another example of how the press can further cloud a story involving blacks and mental health -- an area that is already deeply murky and under-researched.

In that case, police in Belle Glade say they found the man, Feraris "Ray" Golden, hanging from a tree in a relative�s yard, and that they cut him down. After the county coroner declared the death a suicide, some of the man�s family members protested that he couldn�t possibly have killed himself. He had been dating the daughter of a white cop, the relatives said, and so racist white cops probably conspired to kill him. "Explain to me how a drunk man can climb a tree and hang himself," one family member shouted during the public inquest. Stoking the flames of anger in that case, of course, is the family�s reluctance to admit that Feraris could possibly have taken his own life.

As Gregory Lewis, a Florida Sun Sentinel writer who has been covering the story told me when I spoke with him last week, "it�s hard for them to admit that he may have committed suicide ... in their minds, black people don�t commit suicide." And that, of course, is the crux of the Belle Glade story and most other stories involving blacks, mental illness and the authorities: the archaic and destructive notions that most Americans -- black and white -- hold regarding blacks and mental health contribute to widespread confusion during volatile situations that usually result in disaster. The old saw that blacks who are preternaturally strong, incapable of complex emotions or thoughts, and unlikely to experience depression gets folded into news stories, which then perpetuates the myths, rather than dispelling them. Thus, the Globe�s handling of the shocking story of Joyce Judge is remarkable, and should stand as a valuable touchstone to other journalists faced with the complicated challenge of describing African Americans and mental health crises.

Amy Alexander is a Boston journalist who has written for the Miami Herald, the Village Voice, and the Fresno Bee, and is co-author of "Lay My Burden Down: Unraveling Suicide and the Mental Health Crisis Among African-Americans" (Beacon). She can be reached at

Black History Month Shall Set You Free

In one of the Magic Johnson-owned Starbucks I frequent, I glanced at the specials chalkboard and noticed someone had rendered a smiling effigy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Beneath him read the tagline: "Share the Dream...over a Toffee Nut Latte!"

This served to remind me that Black History Month is upon us. And why I have come to despise it.

Don't get me wrong: Black History Month has value. White kids learn that black folks invented stoplights and peanut butter, and if it weren't for those token tidbits of information, the young honkems wouldn't respect any nonmusical, non-athletic Negroes at all. Sadly, they don't learn much about African Americans the rest of the school year. Public school curricula are slow to integrate history lessons because blacks don't insist upon it: Instead we settle for one month, the shortest month of the year, to espouse tales of a gloried past.

When Carter G. Woodson began observing Negro History Week in 1926, it was to offset the misinformation propagated in American history books. But since Negro History Week became Black History Month in 1976, American educators have seen no need to blend black history into a greater, more inclusive American narrative. I have school-aged children and can testify that black history is taught much the same way it was when I was in school: Harriet Tubman-style, with a few antiheroes tossed in for good measure -- like the original African Booty Scratcher, for instance. Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X are resigned to the footnotes, if they appear at all.

And that just doesn't cut it. An annual mini-series on black history won't provide black children with the tools to succeed in modern America, which is arguably more prejudiced, hateful and treacherous than the America our forbears knew. Sure, things have improved in some areas, but not enough in America has changed to merit a look at how bad things used to be. I'm still catchin' too much hell to tell -- buses, bathrooms and lunch counters be damned. I have a place to pee without getting beat up, but only by the grace of God.

Our responsibility to history requires us to be in a race to greatness, not in an annual lock-step march into mediocrity. Why should we settle for the false distinction of being kings and queens for just one month of the year, especially as black history has become the come-on for thousands of commercials and consumer products? Alcohol and tobacco advertisers use Afro-centric trinkets to push their smack on an unsophisticated community quick to buy anything for any reason. Certainly we'll open our pockets for anything claiming kinship with some forgone hegemony that, between "Million" marches and Moesha reruns, most of us couldn't possibly conceive of, much less emulate. That for one month a year the school system, beer companies and Al Roker decide to embrace black people is farcical. Television networks run patronizing PSAs featuring Alf, Eriq Lasalle or Will and Grace spouting little-know Negro factoids. Some find those informative, but I say if you need must-see TV to fill the gaps in your history lessons, then you're too far gone to know any better.

I agree that it's important to honor great men, but the Starbucks promotion and the hundreds of others like it are something less than honorable and delineate what the MLK holiday and Black History Month have both become: a bait-and-switch to create one feel-good moment, in hopes that you will forgive and forget the rest. America takes a day off, totally absolved and refreshed, and nothing changes. They get a vacation day and you get another dream deferred, murdered by assailants unknown, for you to mourn and benevolently forgive.

For me, Dr. King was real , a man more like me than not. He told dirty jokes at inappropriate times: He was a drinker and womanizer -- me too. He was imperfect, but rose above his imperfection to become a measure for lesser people. He didn't put his life on the line for the T-shirts, the parades or the "I Have a Dream" sound-bite used to sell soda, feminine hygiene products, hamburgers and airline tickets. Black Americans have gotten caught up in the pageantry of Black History Month, of Martin Luther King Day, and the myth of Rosa Parks without realizing an obligation to live the legacy. Black History Month has been cross-marketed and copyrighted to the point where pretty soon you'll be able to buy a McMartin burger with Malcolm X-tra cheese. I have little time for it, because every day at my home is Black History Month. Every family dinner is an opportunity to teach.

"I think," I told the young black barista at the Starbucks counter, "that is the most distasteful thing I have seen in some time."

"Well, you know," she said, "You can come in here, grab a Toffee, and discuss and debate the legacy of Dr. King." She continued. "This particular Starbucks does a lot of volunteer work, and we go out into the community with MLK T-shirts on..."

"With a conspicuous Starbucks logo on the back, I imagine?"

"'s on the back."

I shook my head. "Oy vey."

"So can I get you a Toffee Nut?"

"No...I'll have a mocha."

"We don't charge for extra sprinkles, you know. Some coffee places do."

"Wow," I said. "Free at last."

jimi izrael ( is a journalist and e-columnist living in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. His biweekly column, "What It Iz," appears every other Wednesday on

Anti-Arab Backlash Grows

In America's zeal to find and punish those responsible for the terrorist attacks of September 11, the focus on Arab and Muslim suspects may be causing a wave of jingoism and scapegoating. Threats and hate speech have been directed against Arab Americans, transmitted in anonymous phone calls, email messages and websites.

In one case, gunshots were fired into the windows of an Islamic center that includes a mosque and a school in Richardson, Texas, a Dallas suburb. Attacks like this have put many Arab Americans on alert.

"We brought the police in today and we also hired private security," James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, a Washington-based political and policy organization, told Reuters. "Our hope, of course, is that it doesn't get worse, but we just don't know."

Sam Hamod, President of the American Islamic Institute, said that threats have been made to mosques in Ohio, San Diego and Detroit, but he said that as far as he knows no one from the Arab and Islamic communities has suffered bodily harm.

"The vast majority of the American people have been sane," said Hamod. "But there is always a crackpot fringe in every society and in every ethnic and religious group."

In addition to Americans of Arab descent, the scapegoating has targeted Islam as a religion. Muslim leaders in some areas have cautioned congregants who wear traditional Islamic clothing -- such as veils on women -- to stay at home, rather than face possible misplaced retaliation.

And some fear that the legitimate search for the culprits could become a witch-hunt in which everyone's civil liberties are trampled. "The biggest danger is that a state goes beyond the limit of acceptable precautions in the name of security, and tries to safeguard itself by scrapping the very freedoms and principles it's trying to defend in the name of counter-terrorism," Peter Chalk, a Rand analyst who specializes in domestic terrorism, told the San Jose Mercury-News. "Plenty of states have done that."

Indeed, reports Wednesday of a man being detained on a train outside Boston developed into a story of false identification - the man, a Sikh, was seen as "suspicious" for wearing a turban, traditional for men in his culture. Many expect such profiling to increase in the wake of Tuesday's events.

For Hamod, a man of Lebanese descent and a practicing Muslim, the threats, accusations and blame being pointed at American Muslims and Arabs is sad and misplaced. Born and raised in Gary, Indiana, Hamod taught American history at Howard University in Washington, DC, for many years. The attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon violated his freedom as an American, he says, adding that true Muslims would never have committed such a devastating crime.

"If someone who calls themselves Muslim did this maniacal deed, they are not behaving like Muslims," said Hamod. "They are behaving like animals."

Hamod goes on to say he wants the culprits found and punished quickly - but he doesn't want his neighbors to view him as the enemy because of his religious and ethnic heritage.

"I am just as American as the next person, because I was born here just like anyone else," said Hamod. "I have probably educated some of their children in universities where I was a professor. Anyone who discriminates against someone else because of their ethnic background, race or religion is anti-American, because we are a nation of immigrants."

While America may be a nation of immigrants, last week's horrific events have provided an excuse for many Americans to express hatred toward Arabs and Muslims. In the days following the attacks, bomb threats shut down several Arab American charter schools in the Detroit area, home to one of the largest Arab American communities in the nation. On Wednesday night, 300 people - some carrying American flags - were stopped by police in the Chicago suburb of Bridgeview, Illinois, after trying to march to a mosque.

In San Francisco, a plastic bag labeled as pig's blood was thrown through the front door of Minority Assistance Services (MAS), an organization serving mostly Middle Eastern immigrants. According to San Francisco police, someone called the MAS office and said the package was "for your brother Osama bin Laden."

These events are not going unchallenged by Americans who feel that this xenophobia can be poisonous. Figures from all over the political spectrum, including President Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Attorney General John Ashcroft, have denounced the scapegoating of Arabs and Muslims.

"We must not descend to the level of those terrorists by targeting Americans based on race or religious origin," Ashcroft said in a press conference. "That is in direct opposition to the ideals that America stands for."

Congressman David Bonior, a Michigan Democrat, echoed this theme, saying that anti-Arab bigotry needs to be fought and challenged. "I come from Michigan, home to hundreds of thousands of Arab Americans and American Muslims," Bonior told Reuters. "Already, leaders in the community there - patriotic Americans who every day give so much to this country, who have condemned these attacks, and who are as sickened by the carnage as everyone else - have been getting death threats. Such hateful prejudice offends us all."

Immediately following the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, many American Arabs and Muslims came under attack when it was still widely believed that Muslims or Arabs were responsible. This pressure and hostility would last until Timothy McVeigh, a white American, was found, charged and convicted of the bombing, which was until last week the biggest act of terrorism ever committed on US soil.

The American Civil Liberties Union has set up a phone line for Arab Americans to report threats, violence or violation of their civil liberties. "We want to collect information and take appropriate action if necessary," Dorothy Ehrlich, executive director of the San Francisco office, told the San Francisco Chronicle.

This may relieve some of the tensions felt by many American Arabs and Muslims, but many say the crimes, threats and anger directed against them must be fought and spoken against by all Americans.

"Those who commit these crimes against American Arabs and Muslims are anti-American and anti-democratic," said Hamod. "The people doing this are as much a part of the lunatic fringe as those who committed those maniacal deeds in New York and Washington."

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