Akilah Monifa

A Poet in the Sun

This year marks the centennial of the birth of James Langston Hughes, who was known as the "Poet Laureate of the Negro Race." Many people who are familiar with Lorraine Hansbury's play, "A Raisin in the Sun," may not know that the title and the opening poem are derived from Hughes' poem, "Dream Deferred."

What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up / Like a raisin in the sun? / Or fester like a sore -- And then run?/ Does it stink like rotten meat? / Or crust and sugar over -- Like a syrupy sweet?/ Maybe it just sags / Like a heavy load / Or does it explode?

Hughes was one of the earliest African-Americans to earn his living exclusively as a full-time writer. He wrote poetry, novels, short stories, articles, plays, musicals, operas, autobiographies, radio and television transcripts, essays and columns. He also edited anthologies. Alice Walker's first published short story, "To Hell With Dying," appeared in "Best Short Stories by Negro Writers," which Hughes edited.

He worked with Carter G. Woodson, founder of Negro History Week, later Black History Month, and founded the Harlem Suitcase Theater. All told, he had 50 books and 800 poems published during his 65 years, according to the Library of Congress bibliography.

His "Simple" series of books started as articles about Jesse B. Simple, a Harlem everyman who needed to be encouraged to support the racially segregated armed forces during World War II. Hughes and others in the black press wrote about the "Double V," the need for a victory against fascism overseas and against racism at home.

Hughes remained unswervingly faithful to his craft and his people with one notable exception: when he was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1953. Hughes chose to preserve his career and livelihood rather than risk blacklisting and certain economic ruin. He disappointed many by disavowing his admiration for socialism and communism and for abandoning Paul Robeson, W.E.B. DuBois and others by testifying that his past pro-communist works did not represent his current thinking at the time.

The U.S. Postal Service honored Hughes this year with a self-adhesive stamp in honor of his centennial and the 25th anniversary of the Black Heritage Series of stamps. One hundred years after his birth and 35 years after his death, Hughes remains a preeminent literary figure. His writings are timeless, and few, regardless of race or gender, can fill his literary shoes.

Akilah Monifa is a regular contributor to AlterNet on issues of race and social justice.

Stranger Inside

Women in Prison movies have long been a popular genre. Susan Hayward won an Oscar in 1958 for her portrayal of a prisoner on death row in "I Want to Live." Pam Grier's movie career was bolstered by the baring of her breasts in many a prison shower scene. The plots of these genre movies tend to be the same. Sex looms large, particularly lesbian sex. Of course, there is always the obligatory sexual relationship with male prison guards. Going back to Ida Lupino, the wardens are usually portrayed by women and run the gamut from naively sweet to brutally sadistic. And there are always gang factions that separate the prisoners, usually along racial lines.

Lately HBO has upped the ante with its raw and violent portrayal of men in prison with its series "Oz." But "Oz" is off production and no new episodes are scheduled to air until 2002. HBO thrives on hooking folks into episodic TV and then having long program hiatuses.

Since the violence in "Oz" and the "Sopranos" worked so well for the HBO ratings, "Stranger Inside," a new movie by Cheryl Dunye, comes along to fill the void. Dunye came to prominence with "The Watermelon Woman," a somewhat autobiographical film about an African-American lesbian searching for an African-American silent movie star. "Watermelon Woman," which Dunye wrote, directed and stared in, won numerous awards and toured the festival circuits.

"Stranger Inside" is also about a search. The main character, Treasure Lee, is searching for her mother. At the film's opening, Treasure is being transferred to a state facility for women, hopefully to meet her mother, a lifer, of whom she has no recollection.

Dunye's film, which was selected for special presentation at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival and which won the Special Jury Award for Outstanding Achievement at the Miami Gay & Lesbian Film Festival, and tied for the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature at the San Francisco Film Festival, seems true to life probably because Dunye spent four years researching her subject. What she found is little known: that United States prisons hold 90,000 women, and 90 percent of these prisoners are single mothers, leaving 160,000 children outside prison walls.

"Stranger" follows Treasure on her search to find her mother, played by Davenia McFadden. (McFadden, by the way, made her television debut on Rosie O'Donnell, pretending to be a housewife and trivia buff on the Mary Tyler Moore Show. She has since parlayed her 15 minutes of fame into numerous supporting film roles and guest television appearances.) McFadden's Brownie is the ultimate portrayal of tough, sadistic hardened criminals. No one survives prison without learning a way to do time and, sure enough, Brownie has her "play family" of which she is the matriarch. When Treasure meets Brownie and reveals her identity, she is accepted into the family fold.

Treasure is eventually accepted into the play family although some jealousies emerge as the meaning of family gets blurred. There is the feeling among some despite the creation of a family, that the biological links trump any other family formations. She both admires Brownie as a lifer who works the system while still having issues with her past and present parenting as well as her violent ways.

Says Dunye, "I wanted to follow up 'The Watermelon Woman' with another film that focuses on an African-American protagonist in the present day. I wanted to create a slice of life of poor women living in the 21st century. Unfortunately, many of these women happen to inhabit the prison system, and I decided to focus on what it was like inside this community."

During her research, Dunye got access to the Minnesota Shakopee Women's Correctional Facility and inmates there to get a sense of their personal histories. She wasn't interested in their crimes, she said. Rather she "just want[ed] to know how you survive a day in here."

So "Stranger," like the fictional "Watermelon Woman," has the feel of a documentary. In a successful attempt to "keep it real," Dunye cast former convicts in the prison group therapy scenes. And much of the dialogue from those scenes resulted from improv among the convicts.

For even more realness, the movie was shot at the non-operational Sybil Brand Institute for Women in East Los Angeles. The result is that Dunye goes beyond the classic women in prison genre. These women feel like the real deal. Racial, ethnic and age diversity adds to the authenticity of the film. Without giving away the twists and turns, suffice it to say that this is a strong, smart movie. For the faint of heart, note the violence and blood flows freely.

"Stranger Inside" shows on HBO July 1, 9 and 11.

Juneteenth

Juneteenth is the original African-American holiday.

Most folks are familiar with African-American History Month in February and Kwanzaa in December. Many people also celebrate Martin Luther King's Birthday, which is now a federal holiday.

But Juneteenth commemorates the end of slavery, the central event in African-American history.

There are several stories of how the Juneteenth celebration started. One version of Juneteenth says the holiday commemorates the day slaves first heard the Emancipation Proclamation in Houston, Tex., on June 19, 1863 -- five months after Lincoln first issued it. According to this version, African Americans coined the word "Juneteenth" to commemorate the June 19 freedom day.

Another version has Union General Gordon Granger, commander in charge of Texas, landing in Galveston on June 19, 1865. He supposedly issued a proclamation declaring the end of slavery as well as the end of the Civil War.

My favorite version of Juneteenth's history is that word of the slaves' freedom traveled slowly. Most folks learned of their freedom sometime between June 12 and June 20.

There are an equal number of stories about why the news of freedom took so long to spread. One version says that slave owners kept the slaves ignorant about their freedom in order to get their crops harvested. Another version says one messenger traveled by mule to deliver the news of the Emancipation Proclamation and it simply took more than five months to arrive from Washington, D.C. Yet another says the messenger was murdered before he could deliver the message.

Regardless of which version you accept, Juneteenth has always marked the end of slavery in the United States. It's an official state holiday in Texas, but the celebrations take place all over the country now. Although primarily an African-American holiday, it has now evolved into a celebration of the end of slavery by people of all races.

Happy Juneteenth.

40 Acres and a Mule Plus Interest

It's 2001 and we are still discussing the same thing we did in 1865 -- reparations for African Americans. Not that the discussion has been constant for the past 136 years. On the contrary, we spend most of our time refusing to discuss the issue.

In 1865, the original reparations package, the so-called "40 Acres and a Mule," was issued. Each black family was supposed to receive 40 acres and later was offered the loan of Army mules.

The same year, Congress established the Freedmen's Bureau, which was created to oversee the transition of slaves to freedom. The goal of the Freedmen's Bureau was to distribute 850,000 abandoned and confiscated acres of land to former slaves. But the distribution never happened. Former Confederates were allowed to reclaim the property.

In his book "Why We Can't Wait," Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote about the issue of reparations for African Americans": [While] no amount of gold could provide adequate compensation for the exploitation of the Negro in American down through the centuries, a price could be placed on unpaid wages."

Since 1989, Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich) has introduced a bill every legislative session to establish a commission to examine slavery and its lingering effects on African Americans and contemporary U.S. society. The legislation would "acknowledge the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery in the United States. And it would create a commission to study the impact of slavery and post-Civil War discrimination and recommend remedies." Conyers' immediate hope is simply to start the conversation by establishing a commission of historians, legal scholars, geneologists, economists and lawmakers. The commission would issue a report with recommendations to Congress.

Some of the key questions that the commission would raise include: (1) Should the U.S. government issue a formal apology for sanctioning slavery? And (2) Is a debt owed to the descendants of slaves who helped build the United States without compensation?

Randall Robinson has joined the fray with his book, "The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks" (Dutton, 200) Robinson writes: "No race, no ethnic or religious group, has suffered so much over so long a span as blacks have, and do still, at the hands of those who benefitted, with the connivance of the United States government, from slavery and the century of legalized American racial hostility that followed it. It is a miracle that the victims -- weary dark souls long shorn of a venerable and ancient identity -- have survived at all, stymied as they are by this blocked road to economic equality."

Robinson and others are prepared to fight the fight and begin the discussions about adequate reparations not only for slavery but for the racial discrimination that still exists today.

It is not about affirmative action (Robinson says that America owes us a fortune and "affirmative action is but a thin dime"). Robinson dismisses critics who say that we are too far removed for reparations. He knows of no statute of limitations and argues that the harm is ongoing.

And it is not about a mere payout, such as the one afforded to some Japanese Americans, 60,000 of whom received $20,000 each in 1988 for their internment during WWII as well as an apology from Congress.

The difficulty of offering reparations to African Americans is that the injuries began in 1865 and continue for many to this day. That's something that most folks don't want to admit, much less talk about.

Robinson, Johnnie Cochran, the NAACP, and the National Bar Association (an association of lawyers of African descent) are crafting legal arguments for a restitution claim against state and federal governments for "the derivative victims of slavery and the racial abuse that followed in its wake."

The harms did not end with slavery. Despite the gains of a few, African Americans are not playing on a level playing field, especially when you look at statistics on poverty levels, education, employment, and health.

Robinson and others argue that we cannot heal the wounds of racial differences until we minimally acknowledge what has happened in the past and come to terms with that.

This is no small task. It is not as simple as apologizing and/or repaying economic debts. That's why a commission such as the one Conyers suggests must be enacted. Former President Clinton's Commission on Race did not begin to scratch the surface.

The Reparations movement is gaining momentum. There is a California law which requires insurance companies not only to research its past business and those of its predecessor companies, but to report to the state whether it ever sold policies insuring slave owners against the loss of their slave property, and if so to whom. The Oklahoma Commission to Study the Race Riots of 1921 recommended reparations for survivors and their descendants. Aetna Insurance apologized for having written insurance policies for slave owners on the lives of their slaves. The Hartford Courant apologized for having run advertisements for the sale and capture of slaves. The Philadelphia Inquirer ran two full page editorials calling for a national reparations commission.

Yes, this is a painful subject -- as are discussions about the Nazi Holocaust and the treatment of Native Americans. But if we are truly in denial of the past, then we are condemned to repeat it. So, as painful as it will be, if there is any hope for healing the racial divides, we must first talk fully and openly about the past.

Abolish the Farce of Black History Month

Black History Month has turned into a mundane, meaningless and commercialized farce.

The celebration was started in 1926 by the educator Carter G. Woodson as "Negro History Week." Woodson selected a week in February because that is the birth month of two heroes, Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.

Woodson's purpose was to recognize the importance of black history to America. He never intended the celebration to continue.

Woodson "fervently hoped that soon the history of African Americans would become an integral part of American history and would be observed throughout the year," according to historian John Hope Franklin, "...down to his death in 1950, he continued to express the hope that Negro History Week would outlive its usefulness."

Instead, in 1976 Negro History Week became Black History Month. Many in the media take notice of this month, giving token nods by publishing articles about African Americans and airing special programs and movies. Museums and libraries hold special exhibits, lectures and events. And of course there are the omnipresent parades and food festivals.

As Lynn Elber, the Associated Press television writer recently wrote, "Television barely dips a toe into the breadth and depth of black experience, so some amends are made in February."

Amends is the word. Black History Month has become a ready-made excuse to ignore African-American history for the other 11 months of the year. It's little more than a bone thrown to us, not amends enough.

Our evolving story should be told, it cannot just be bottled up and packaged in the shortest month of the year, or any other month for that matter.

At a 1998 symposium on the value of Black History Month, The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education noted that it has become a "marketing weapon" allowing advertisers and book publishers to boost sales and then abandon them for the remainder of the year. There are also special marketing efforts directed to the African-American communities during the month for products like liquor, cigarettes and sodas, according to the Journal.

Broadcast networks and cable channels can dust off old movies and show and re-show tired programs, add a few original programs and then forget about any commitment to diversity in front of and behind the cameras the remaining 11 months.

What is lost in this commercialization is the essence of Woodson's dream -- to recall the contributions of African Americans in history, industry, the arts and sciences and all aspects of our country.

Grade school students do benefit from the Black History Month curriculum, but most citizens don't gain much of an appreciation for African Americans in February. For the record, February is also American Heart Month, International Boost Self-Esteem Month, International Embroidery Month, Library Lovers Month, National Cherry Month, National Children's Dental Health Month, National Snack Food Month, and last but not least Return Shopping Carts to the Supermarket Month.

M. Dion Thompson of the Baltimore Sun, who supports the continuation of Black History Month says, "[It] is coming and I don't know what to do, the calendar is going to be crammed with more events than I could possibly attend, even if I were cloned."

And that's the problem. We're kidding ourselves if we think that by designating February as Black History Month we're really doing anything to honor African Americans or to combat racial prejudice. Prejudice still divides our country.

So I will boycott Black History Month and instead of a month of perfunctory gestures, I will have a yearlong effort of recognizing African Americans who made and continue to make a contribution.

Akilah Monifa is a writer who lives in Oakland, California.

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