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Pulse of the Motherland (a poem on African media images)

They say you can’t judge a book by its cover
But it has become appallingly clear
That you can judge an entire continent
By its media coverage

You can color a whole continent dark
With the paint of poorly placed perception
When you rely on the media
To teach you your Africa lessons
Because I come from a continent,
That the world thinks is a country
And to put it bluntly,
We’re all HIV positive
Until proven negative
In the eyes of the media
It’s like Africa is either one big safari
Or Kalahari with seethin’ heathens
With no sense of religion
And home to animals and animism
Because TV renditions of African afflictions
Have created a depiction
Of a land of savages
Where the world’s most dreadful diseases
Exceed the law of averages
And since American TV only shows the ravages of a select few nations
Most Americans juxtapose the mother of civilization
With phrases like “damnation” and “starvation”
So if we don’t control our own images,
We can’t expect to see
A true representation of our beauty
Most non-Africans believe that the most
Africa has given to the world
Are phrases like “Hakuna mtata”
And “Asante sana squash banana”
Along with exotic vacations in remote locations
‘Cause I’ve never heard an American TV news station
Even say we’re made up of 55 nations
In the eyes of the media,
We’re just underdeveloped wannabe Caucasians
Still searching for civilization
If you buy the media’s interpretation
Of who we are
But am I taking this too far?
Because to me,
The real problem be the WB, ABC, & NBC
Which are the real WMD:
Weapons of Mind Destruction
Because too many people
Including many Africans
See what they see
Through the smart bombs they call TV
And it’s not just the newscasts,
It starts at age 3
Because I grew up
Watching images of Bugs Bunny
Dressed in grass skirts and black face
Speaking in “African dialects”
And every 10 years,
There’s a new version of Tarzan on the TV set
And I don’t know about y’all,
But I recall seeing gorillas pass for Africans
In those “Tin-Tin” cartoons
And if you remove
Marvin Martians’ helmet from Looney Tunes
He’s probably an African illegal alien
Or a fallen, faithless, famine-stricken African child
With his belly protruded
And it’s these convoluted characterizations
That have helped create grown-up policy makers
Who partially base their opinions of our homeland
From films such as “Congo”,
“Gorillas in the Midst” and “The Air up There”
And we can’t forget “Tears of the Sun”
Which left too many tears on the sons and daughters of Africa,
Searching for a positive portrayal of who we are
But that won’t happen until we Africans
Take responsibility for our portrayal
Because the betrayal of our friends
From FOX, CBS, and CNN
Means that we will never see-an-end
To caricatures of the continent of human creation
Which has been made to look
Like she’s on her deathbed
And ready for cremation
But we must show the world
That our Mother Africa is strong, vibrant and defiant
Because the pulse of nearly a billion people can never die
When WE take control of what the world sees,
So we must never comply
To pictures painted by pessimists on TV of our homeland
For we are the pulse of Africa
And we must now show the world
How proudly we will stand!

***Purchase musical version on iTunes.***

 

 

Why I think Darren Wilson is guilty: a reflection on stereotypes

It’s in my blood. It’s how I was raised. My parents never explicitly told me to not trust the police, but they didn’t have to. Growing up in the inner city during the height of the Crack Epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s, the police were seen as public enemy #1. While other communities may have had “Officer Friendly” on every other corner, in my community, the police were associated with planting evidence to justify murders and arrests, random strip searches on black men after a white woman was killed (by her white husband Charles Stuart), and general harassment for walking or driving while black. Jay-Z said it best in his song “Ballad for a fallen soldier” when he said: “Crack was anthrax back then/back when, and the police were Al Qaeda for black men.” We simply had a hate-hate relationship with the police but it would be easy for me to use that to justify the mistrust I grew up with towards the police. I dealt with it first hand.

One day my mother, PhD from Harvard and all and in her 60s, was using the bathroom in a train station where she worked. A 20-something year old white woman told a police officer that my mother tried to sell her drugs. Without question, the officer arrested my mother. When my father went to find her at the police station, he said that the condition he found her in made him want to kill everyone in the station. We went to court but lost the lawsuit against the city. On another occasion, my brother was badly beaten and arrested by police after trying to break up a fight his white friend was involved in (his friend wasn’t arrested). Police told him that he would never be found and when he did get to call, he told my father they were going to kill him. We had to go on a scramble to find him since the police did not release his whereabouts. My incidents with police compared to these were minor and not worth sharing but I think you get the point and this is the point of many from my community—every black person I know has had or has had a family member have a deadly, potentially deadly, or police-provoked confrontation.

Because of this history, I see the Mike Brown killing through darkened lenses. Through thin rims, whether officer Darren Wilson was justified in killing Brown, I see the police working to cover it up. I see them waiting too long to identify officer Wilson so that they could hide him and delete his entire online history. I see them as willing to release video of Brown in a convenience store robbery instead of video of his high school graduation but refusing to release the official photo of officer Wilson because it may make him look a criminal taking a mug shot. Without a second thought, this is what I see. But the question is, what do YOU see and why?

What do the lenses that you watch this tragedy through reveal to you? Do you automatically think that Brown “must have done something” to provoke this shooting? Do you think that if he did not rob the store he would not have been killed though officer Wilson did not know about the robbery? Do you think that black people are always making a big deal about nothing, yet again? Do you think Reverend Al Sharpton is more of the problem then an officer Wilson or a George Zimmerman? Why? What brings you to this conclusion? Have you looked into your own upbringing to see where your innate biases lie? Have you confronted them or is your life situated in such a way that you do not have to?

It is because of my past that I work as a diversity educator and consultant. I travel the country and the globe helping to facilitate courageous conversations on topics such as these. Whether it’s working in our nation’s public and private schools on challenges facing black and Latino boys, or traveling internationally on behalf of the State Department to help alleviate ethnic tensions in developing countries through leadership training, my work is designed to get us in the position to clean our lenses and open ourselves to different narratives. Doing this has caused me to learn about stereotypes I have placed on different groups based on my upbringing. It has allowed me to help others do the same. From the hundreds of thousands of people with whom I have worked, I have learned one simple truth: none of us has it all figured out but working together, we can build something better out of our ignorance.

Today, despite my frustrations with the Brown killing and others, I do not see all police as bad people. I live around the corner from a police station and often greet the ones I see. I know, as was the case in the 1980s and 1990s (though I did not believe it) that most police officers are not corrupt. This helps me look at the Brown case with a bit more objectivity before I engage in a dialogue. Being able to see differing sides of the same story helps build a better country and a better planet. Now that Brown is buried, we need to use this time going forward for continued productive conversations about racism, police brutality, and other issues that plague our global communities such as homophobia, islamophobia, sexism, and anti-Semitism. I love the work that I do but I hate that I have to do it because so much of my work would be unnecessary if we just developed the courage to not only talk, but, more importantly, listen to each other. Someone once said that we have two ears and one mouth and we should use them in proportion. If we could go beyond the yelling at each other whenever there’s a crisis, we can make real progress as a society but that takes work. Are you willing to do the work for a better country and planet for our children? If so, I’m listening. Let’s talk.

Bill O’Reilly was Right

 

Some reading this may actually believe I am late with this. They may say "this Bill O'Reilly comment about Sylvia's and iced tea happened weeks ago." Yes, I know. My reply to that is that in addition to being a poet, rapper, actor, and motivational speaker, I am also a scholar. Scholars do research. Any real academician worth his grain of salt does his research before running his mouth. So as much as I wanted to speak about the conversation between Bill O'Reilly and Juan Williams on the Radio Factor, I vowed to wait until I could make an informed decision.

For those who may have forgotten, Bill O'Reilly got into the media hot seat for comments he made about his experience going to a black restaurant with the Reverend Al Sharpton. He said that there were no black people cussing and swearing about their iced tea. These edited (audio) comments were also paraded across CNN and outlets like Media Matters to further smear Mr. O'Reilly and Mr. Williams.

I, like you, subsequently received a plethora of e-mails about how racist Bill O'Reilly is, etc. I was tempted to get on this blog and join the chorus but I vowed that out of respect to my readers, I would not speak on the issue until I read or heard the transcript. I am glad that I waited.

Anyone who actually took 40 minutes to sit and listen to the show (listen by clicking here) would have found that Bill O'Reilly used the Sylvia's example to show that those who may have stereotypes about Blacks need to realize that we conduct our business like anyone else and that most of us do not like negative rap music. He spent the entire segment celebrating people like Aretha Franklin, the Four Tops, Denzel Washington, Will Smith, Bill Cosby, Morgan Freeman and others. He even stated that he thought democratic Senator Barack Obama is a good role model for kids. No Fox commentator has ever endorsed a democrat like that (though not for president).

Bill also stated quite clearly that it is the white controlled media that is putting out these negative stereotypes of black people. His overall message is that in America, we do not celebrate those actors and musicians who do not glorify violence, sex, and drugs. How can anyone argue with that? We argue with it by being misinformed and using other people's reputations to build our propaganda machine rather than dealing with actual facts. This culminated in Syracuse scholar Boyce Watkins calling Juan Williams a "Happy Negro" though Williams has been a champion of black causes, lives in a black neighborhood, and is married to a black woman. I guess I'm a "happy negro" too. Yowsa, yowsa, yowsa.

Now of course Bill O'Reilly said some things that I disagreed with, particularly about blacks starting to "think for themselves." Overall though, on the issues of black representation in the media and the negative images that come from some of our rappers and are broadcast by white media at our expense, I agree with Bill O'Reilly. The beauty of not being offered a record deal, being rejected by Def Poetry Jam 5 times, and not being embraced by many of these people who criticize rap but don't support positive artists like me is that I can say whatever I want. I have no constituency to appeal to. I just deal with facts.

The fact of the matter is that anyone who speaks critically of Black America gets deemed a sellout if they are Black and a racist if they are of another race. We lament over how Will, Denzel and others cannot be role models because they’re too polished. I guess that means that we must watch "Flavor of Love" and "We can do Better" to get the "real" Black America. This has to stop. We have to be our biggest critics and look at our predicament honestly. In Bill Cosby's absence from TV, we went from"A Different World" to "College Hill." Anyone see a problem here? Bill and Camilla Cosby, for example, have given more money to black colleges than any couple I know. Most people who called him a sellout or traitor have made little to no financial contribution to our schools or other projects but talk a good game. Many of our scholars who criticize Black-on-Black criticism are merely enablers who excuse the ignorance that prevails in communities they no longer live in.

Hey, if you don't like what I'm saying, call me a sellout. Tell me I forgot where I came from, etc. etc. I've seen how this story ends but I am more concerned with the future of our children than I am with critique from my peers who have never walked in my shoes and have not traveled to 16 countries and experienced the negative consequences of the stereotypes we so righteously defend. At some point Black America, we have to stop celebrating our ignorance and start celebrating intelligence. We have to start celebrating college dropins instead of dropouts. Though everyone does not have to be married, we need to still recognize it as a valid institution desirable for Blacks. Let us celebrate artists who got it right the first time like Will Smith and not wait for the reformed pimp, drug dealer, or gang banger to "see the light". We should celebrate both and not the latter. Let's get it together and practice some tough love. We can do better, no pun intended. Our children are watching us.

Senator Barack Obama’s Blackness

Much has been written about the 19 candidates for President of the United States. From questions such as Rudi Giuliani's family values to Senator Hillary Clinton's changing speech patterns depending on which region of the country she visits, this presidential election promises to run the gamut of critiques and personal attacks that will easily trump the 2004 election. Though some critiques are indeed silly, the question of whether Senator Barack Obama is "black enough" to appeal to black voters is by far the most absurd.

The beauty about black figures breaking new ground such as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Obama's rise to Senator (not achieved by a black man since the Reconstruction era) is that one really begins to see just how far America has come as it relates to race relations. But this is an issue that has exposed black opinions of themselves more than whites' opinions of blacks. Some in black America have stated that Obama is not "black enough" because his late mother was white. These are probably the same analysts who list Bob Marley as one of their favorite artists because of his message of black pride and liberation. These critics conveniently miss the fact that Bob Marley had a white father.

Other critics hold that Obama is not "black enough" because his father is not African-American but Kenyan-born. They conveniently forget that leaders like the late Marcus Garvey were not American but identified with the international black plight, which included black America. Furthermore, following this logic of Obama's African parentage would also exclude me from the African American community because my parents are Congolese though I, like Obama, am American born. Gee, I guess I am suffering from a serious identity crisis. The police also seem to not notice that I am not African American when I am pulled over. Maybe I should wear a sign saying "Don't profile me, my parents are Congolese!" Yeah.

The real issue that ills black America is that we actually stereotype ourselves more than we are stereotyped by others. We have about 20 different skin-tones from "high yella" to"dark chocolate" each carrying a corresponding place on our racial hierarchy. We have about 10 descriptions of hair from "nappy" to "good hair", which also denote a certain level or superiority or inferiority depending on where the strand lands. For the most part, White America sees us as the extremes, just light and dark-skinned.

Despite these cosmetic differences, the largest stereotype occurs when dealing with politics. If Obama was as vocal on issues of race as the Reverends Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, there would be no discussion of his blackness because it would be easy to typecast him. Though unquestionably vocal about injustice of all kinds, Obama obviously has a different affect in his methodology. Couple this with his Ivy-league education and mixed parentage, and we have what Senator Joseph Biden and Rush Limbaugh would collectively call the"articulate magic negro." These are their words.

What we in America need to do is revisit this issue of race. We must realize that every black in America has a unique experience. We are democrat and republican, hetero and homosexual, rich and poor, college and street educated and there is enough room in America for all of us. We in black America must realize that our experiences are unique yet similar enough to at least dialogue about identity without asserting a claim to blackness and denying it to others. If neither police (Ã la Amadou Diallo, Abner Louima, & Sean Bell) nor taxi drivers differentiate who is black versus the other, we can indeed at least have an honest discussion about blackness for at the end of the day, Senator Barack Obama is as African American as apple pie.