Is ‘My Brother’s Keeper’ a Marshall Plan for Males of Color?

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obamabrothersIn President Obama’s last State of the Union address he said, “I’m reaching out to some of America’s leading foundations and corporations on a new initiative to help more young men of color facing tough odds stay on track and reach their full potential.” These words built excitement across the country and many of us found ourselves asking – could a Marshall Plan for young men of color be on the horizon?

The answer is no, but that does not mean the effort is without merit. To create serious traction any effort to help young males of color must battle on two fronts: the empowerment of young males and changing the institutions and systems through which these young males travel. Choosing one front and not the other is a dangerous move.

Read more at Ebony.com.

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American Promise and the Hazard of Stewarding Black Boys

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Last week, I finally watched American Promise on PBS POV. American Promise follows two Black boys – Idris and Seun – and their families as they pass through the Dalton School for primary school and split paths in high school. In so many ways, the film opens an understudied and seldom discussed experience of Black families in elite schools. While we often discuss the fates of Black boys in urban schools, particularly high poverty settings, we talk less often about Black families in well-to-do school settings. What can and should Black parents expect in these settings?American-Promise-poster (1)

While cameras follow Idris and Seun, the film is more about their parents’ educational and social negotiations than the boys’. Idris’s parents (Joe Brewster and Michele Stephenson) double as central subjects and filmmakers. A moment that stood out to me was Michele Stephenson’s commentary on their choice to send Idris to a historically and predominantly White private school. “Initially I didn’t want to even go to the interview at Dalton. I didn’t want Idris to be part of this elite school that didn’t give him any sense of grounding or sense of self. You know? A bunch of rich white kids disconnected from the larger world that [are] self-involved etc., etc. But going to the school, experiencing commitment to diversity and comparing it to the other schools that I went to, I finally gave in. I can’t say that I regret it. It’s going to hopefully allow him to compete at the top level with his peers.”  Stephenson’s analysis is like many Black parents who seek high quality education for their children but simultaneously recognize that schools are often alienating to students of color, at best, and devaluing of them, at worst. Seun’s parents share similar concerns about the issues that they face as they steward young Black males through school.

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The Importance of Hashtag Activism

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At the close of January I was honored to write an Op-Ed piece for the Detroit News. During my time in Michigan I’d often look to the news for diverse coverage on local and national issues. When I asked to write about the #BBUM (Being Black at the University of Michigan) campaign I jumped at it because it lies at the nexus of social media activism and on-the-ground activism. With Black enrollment dropping 30 percent in recent years at University of Michigan there is a lot to be said and active about. Link after the jump.

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On Nov. 19, 2013, the University of Michigan’s Black Student Union tweeted, “We want to hear your unique experiences of being Black at University of Michigan! #BBUM.” That Tweet has sparked international conversations and is angling to change the way University of Michigan operates.

While some dismiss “hashtag activism” — the use of social media to raise awareness and sometimes launch campaigns about social issues — the BBUM (Being Black at the University of Michigan) campaign may help prove that activism that emerges via the Internet can shift policy and realities on the ground, particularly when it comes to colleges and universities.

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R.I.P to Our Griot Amiri Baraka

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I was honored to be invited to share a reflection on the passing of Amiri Baraka. His work and the legacy he left behind have meant so much personally and politically.

amiribarakaAmiri Baraka—author, cultural critic, revolutionary, professor and intellectual—passed away today in New York City after a long illness. There is no doubt that he will be remembered fondly in circles of poets, politicians, and the proletariat, all of which audiences Baraka moved between in his 79 years on earth. Amiri Baraka was, as Maya Angelou called him “a griot”— a griot that dynamically approached the stories and lives of Black and oppressed people. From decade to decade, Baraka dynamically changed his approach to the problems facing oppressed people but always remained committed to producing revolutionary art.

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MLK Day Benefit Keynote – Morehouse Manhattan Alumni Association

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On Monday January 20th, I have the honor of keynoting the 24th Annual Morehouse Manhattan Alumni Association’s MLK Day Awards and Benefit Breakfast in Harlem. This occasion is particularly special for me given that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr is an alumnus of Morehouse College. I’ll be delivering a message that speaks to King’s legacy and our contemporary necessities for social change. The proceeds of the breakfast go to scholarships and multiple Morehouse Alumni will be awarded and honored. For tickets click here (early bird special ends 1/7/2014).

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The Meaning of Mandela

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The passing of Nelson Mandela has stirred emotion around the globe. Recently, Ebony.com invited me to share my thoughts on Mandela’s legacy as an African-American with Pan-Africanist sensibilities. Check them out below.

mandelaapolloOn December 5th, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, affectionately known as Tata Madiba to some, transitioned to the ancestral realm. His name rings in many corners of the globe and on Tuesday he was memorialized in South Africa, but his relevance and importance to global and local freedom struggles cannot be underestimated. In the past few days, many accounts have sought to paint him as both revolutionary and peaceful, anti-establishment, as well as establishmentarian—the truth is that in 95 his years Mandela was all of these things. Through my own lens as an African-American with Pan-Africanist sensibilities, his diverse personas lent me insight into what “a long walk to freedom” looked like and why we all must engage in the process of creating, not only more just communities, but a more just world.

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Molly Madness (Remix)

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What you’re about to read is an extended version of “Molly Madness” which I wrote for Ebony.com. They edited and produced a piece which is very much to my liking but after subsequent discussions with some folks I decided it’d be good to post the unabridged version. This version contains more information on molly/MDMA as well as resources on research about drugs, harm reduction, and importantly how to talk to your kids about drugs in a way that will keep them safe, not make them think you’re a NARC, out of touch, or scared they’re going to end up like Pookie (your kids won’t get this reference but you likely will). This is a subject I wrote on because I was/am concerned about the harm misinformation can do and even went as far as to consult a good colleague and friend who does work on drugs, addiction, and harm reduction (you’ll see him shouted out below). Enjoy!

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“Popped a Molly I’m sweating, Whoooo!” – Trinidad James

If this refrain is not familiar to you, you should get familiar. In the past year, the Hip-Hop industry has been discussing the street drug “Molly” and the controversy, confusion, and hysteria over it should have us all sweating.

What is Molly?

Widespread mentions in hip-hop and electronic music have left many asking, “what is Molly?” At base, Molly is a street slang for a powder or crystal form of MDMA—methylenedioxymethamphetamine—more commonly known as ecstasy. Now here is where it gets a little bit tricky, with an unregulated drug market what comes in a pill that is sold on the street may differ from what it is called. While every pill called Molly may not be “pure MDMA” there have been long standing non-profit efforts to research “what’s in it?” like Ectasydata.org and DanceSafe.org which test street drugs for the contents in order to inform users so they can reduce harm.

Even still, there is a fear-based campaign emerging that Molly is the “new crack.” Recently on social media I’ve seen a number of images floating around that argue that are designed to “inform” readers about Molly and its harms. One reads, “It’s a drug that has cocaine, crack, excasty [sic] & bathe salt all in one. It stops your heart rate, pop one or 2 it damages your brain without you realizing it.” The image goes on to talk about the damage it does to your immune system and claims the drug is “more powerful then CRACK itself” and that rappers are responsible for the impending death of a nation. There is only one problem with this, nearly every claim is false, fear-inducing, and likely does less to help us deal with drugs than to stigmatize drug users and the culture of Hip-Hop.

As a Hip-Hop head of the 90s I can remember conversations with peers and friends about “blunts”, “chronic” and “illy.” I remember being told, “the chronic is weed with crack mixed in it”, “blunts are pure weed in phillies” and “illy is sess mixed with embalming fluid.” This was a conversation among teenagers and as well intended as it was, it was grossly misinformed. And more importantly, didn’t really stop anyone in my generation from seeing if Bill Clinton’s claims were possible. The conversation I’m hearing about Molly today reminds me of those conversations!

Hip-Hop just “discovered” Molly; Molly is not a new drug! Across race, class, and nation, discussions of Molly have been ongoing and serious discussions about its use and consequences are becoming more common. The reality is thatmany youth and adults will experiment with drugs; ecstasy being among them (ecstasy users tend to be younger). Contrary to hysteria about Molly, there is little evidence that it is more harmful than many legalized drugs like alcohol. Yes, read that again, recent scientific research has not found ecstasy is often more stigmatized (by governments and everyday people) than it is actually harmful to users or communities. That doesn’t mean I want your children to do it, but it does mean that we have to be realistic about consequences and have informed conversations.

This is Your Hip-Hop on Drugs

Drugs are not new, hip-hop is not new, but maybe our approach to talking about them should be. Hip-Hop and the Black community have had a precarious relationship with drug use to say the least. In 1983, the now classic song “White Lines” by Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel was released which warned against the use and selling of cocaine. The song featured a funk-laden baseline, which framed cocaine use as more of a social problem than a social stimulant. For some, this was the start of Hip-Hop’s support of the anti-drug movement, but this was not the only view on cocaine at the time.

In 1984, Funk Master Wizard Wiz released an ode to the newly arrived drug crack cocaine called, “Crack it up.” As the individual and communal impacts of crack cocaine became more clear there was a public rebuke of the record causing Tuff City Records and Funk Master Wizard Wiz to add “you better not” before the song’s original refrain of “crack it up.” The public pressure to make the song explicitly “anti-crack” was fueled by a fear that the song glorified the use of the drugs and rap would spread the influence of crack. The spread of the crack ultimately had little to do with music and much more to do with poverty and the media’s fascination with a new “demon drug.”

Most drug education in the United States comes from casual conversation, campaigns to abstain, and drug enforcement policy from the government. This often means that drug use is misunderstood and punitively dealt with, rather than a rehabilitative approach that considers individual and community well-being. Michelle Alexander’s book “The New Jim Crow” has masterfully demonstrated the impacts of such policies on the Black community.  Furthermore, it is socially dangerous to rely on rumor and abstinence only approach. Ironically, the message of abstinence advanced in “White Lines” by Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel did not deter them from using and eventually abusing cocaine. We need to have a different conversation about drugs that are based in reality and responsibility.

Like the Reefer Madness propaganda of the twentieth century the emergent concern and fascination with Molly is likely misdirected. Ecstasy is far closer to marijuana than crack in individual and collective consequences. Weaving narratives of community destruction, instant addiction, and moral decay will not deter people from trying drugs and will only further stigmatize and likely criminalize drug users. The only way to break Molly Madness is to have responsible and accurate conversations about drug use, drug abuse, individual and community impacts. While a song may start a dialogue, it is our responsibility to continue the discussion with sound information and realistic approaches to drugs in our communities, not fear and fantasy.

Special thanks to Jack Levinson, PhD for resources on this article.

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Django and Self-Determination

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It’s the most wonderful time of the year … Kwanzaa! No, I’m serious! I’ve come to cherish Kwanzaa as an occasion to reflect deeply about principled existence and plot our course forward. In the spirit of Kwanzaa, and giving myself a break from grading, I’ve decided to reflect on today’s principle: Kujichagulia – Self-Determination and Django Unchained.

First things first, I am a Quentin Tarantino fan. This should not be interpreted to mean I stan for the guy. I remember seeing Pulp Fiction in high school and falling in love with it. Subsequently I went out and to dig up Reservoir Dogs and have since followed most of his catalog. I have to admit he’s an excellent film maker with some deeply problematic politics around race and gender. I can analytically separate the two, but figuring out if I really can or do like Tarantino is a whole ‘nother conversation.

Second, Self-Determination is probably one of the most important things to me. When asked my politics I often simply respond, “self-determination.” The classic definition associated with the Kujichagulia is, “To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves, and speak for ourselves.” I think that what you are called matters (don’t believe me? just say Dumi “isn’t your real name” and see what my response is). I believe that defining our condition, our responses to oppression, and creating our path is the height of our political and spiritual potentials.

So now onto Django Unchained.

When I first heard of Django Unchained I thought two things, “ugh oh, Spike Lee’s not gonna like this” and “I loved Inglorious Bastards, I wonder will it be like that?” Well on both cases I was right. With good reason, Spike Lee is concerned that Tarantino’s portrayal of slavery will be off-mark and that Tarantino’s general regard for Black people is questionable. After all, for hundreds of years when White men have loved the word Nigger or Nigga so much we’ve been right to question their affinity for Blackness, today is no different. I think Django Unchained was much like Inglorious Bastards, comical, gory, and decontextualized enough to be watchable by all without the pesky feelings of guilt or animus.

The major problem is that Tarantino is Tarantino. Witty, irreverent, violent, and hyper-masculine in a film that could (note that I said could not should) be treated with more care. Tarantino has never been interested in carefully addressing an issue, instead he’s an over the top film maker (in my non-film critic opinion). He has been heavily influenced by Westerns and Blaxploitation and Django Unchained is just that – a Western Blaxploitation film. I think its strength and weakness lie in this fact.

I love a number of Blaxploitation films (Coffy is my favorite) but I have to acknowledge as potentially liberating as they could be, they fall far from the mark of actually letting us speak for ourselves, determine our path, and create the world that we want. In classic Blaxploitation fashion Django is a bad nigger and is almost a bad nigga (word to R.A.T. Judy). In all senses of the word he is spoiled property, lawless, dangerous to the order around him, but still held in by that world. When Django draws his gun someone White is gonna die, it’s just that we know it’s only going to be “the bad” White folks. While Django is the best shot in the West you never think he’s going to shoot his white partner Dr. Shultz and Tarantino writes the other Black characters as too stupid to shoot anyone but who they are told to shoot (I’m sure one of those brothas on that chain gang would’ve freed themselves and Django from the jump).

I have seen a split response (though definitely not 50/50) on Django among my friends in looking over facebook, twitter, and in casual discussions. There are a lot of folks who saw Django and loved it! Some of my more radical leaning comrades said it was brilliant and sweet song of revenge for our enslaved ancestors (yeah, some folks were that dramatic! I’m sure subsequent discussions will likely drag them back from these hyperbolic reflections). Another cadre has decidedly said the film was unfulfilling, obsessed with “the n word”, and another liberal White fantasy about slavery and its (dis)contents.

I think both are equally right and wrong. The first group misses that Django is as programmed and scripted as any “Black liberator” in a Blaxploitation film. He does nothing that is beyond his own personal interests and has no connection to his community other than saving his and his wife’s butt. Look at Django’s dialogue with others who who are enslaved, sparse yet telling (even in the final two scenes). When Django speaks white folks listen because of the gun and Black folks listen because they’re (in Tarantino’s imagination) too dumb to do anything else. Django Unchained is not about creation of maroon colonies, it’s not David Walker’s call to arms, it’s not Harriett Tubman’s “freeing a thousand slaves and could have freed a thousand more if they knew they were slaves.” It’s a portrait of a super human bad nigger who gets revenge and his prize (yes, women are prizes in this tale).

Django however is a tale about manumission, about breaking Southern race rules, and limited-justice being served. The film is written in such a way that in 2 hours and 20 minutes the audience rarely has to contemplate the ills of slavery as connected to their legacy or inheritance. Instead, you get the “privilege” of a far out tale without the icky feelings of contemporary inequities. I didn’t expect Tarantino to really do “the peculiar institution” justice, but I was amazed at how he could deal with many elements of slavery without making viewers grapple with racial memory or reconciliation (the dog scene largely being the exception).

All in all, Django is a good movie, but it’s not a movie about actual self-determination. Django “settles some scores” but never really “rights the wrongs” of the institution of slavery. Admittedly that’s a tall task for a movie, but don’t we go to movies to see the impossible if not the improbable? Django Unchained is so important because as Salamishah Tillet pointed out there are so few popular movies that wrestle with slavery and in a moment of racial amnesia we can identify with Black individual success but collective Black progress is left unturned.

In fact, I think there will be more Djangos–good films with kick ass characters that speak to a racial past– but I dream of the day that we (Black folks) are able to write ourselves into the pages of slavery’s past with the vibrance, diversity, genius, and power that we actually exhibited. As Anna Julia Cooper told us, “Only the BLACK WOMAN can say “when and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole Negro race enters with me.” We need more griots who understand our lives across gender, class and sexuality. Telling our stories is difficult work, but people of African descent has specialized in the impossible and done it against all odds. I guess we’re simply being called to create ourselves anew, but more fuller whether in movies or in our daily lives.

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When the Giving Gets Tough

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It seems every few years I’m struck with a similar dilemma, in a time of disaster relief, where and to whom should I give? With Hurricane Sandy having an impact radius from the Caribbean to Northeast the decisions are not getting easier. I cannot tell you where to give, but I do want to share some of how I make decisions about giving.

Nightmares – The worst-case scenario has occurred. Not the disaster, but the funds that were intended for disaster relief getting diverted. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina the US public got one of its first glances at issues the Red Cross had with doing disaster work by stumbling, squandering, and misappropriating relief funds. After the earthquake in Haiti, globally donations poured into Wyclef Jean’s Yele foundation, only to learn that the infrastructure was not on the ground and the organization as grossly mismanaged. And now Hurricane Sandy has left many with donation skepticism given increasing claims that the Red Cross is not doing a sufficient job.

Things I tend to consider in giving:

Capacity – Does the organization that you are sending money to have the capacity to get the needs of the affected met? This question is probably the biggest “black box” that you have to consider. In moments of tragedy everyone wants to help, but the question of do they have the skills or the access to do it is tough to discern. In general, I will sift through sites like Charity Navigator or Charity Watch to see how they rank major charities. Keep in mind; they deal with larger established brands, so you won’t see many local organizations that are asking for assistance. Additionally, they rank “efficiency” which gets defined differently depending on the service. If you’re into number and policy wonky stuff you can check out their methodologies or buy a Guide Star Charity Check report.

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Deeper than Rap: Chief Keef isn’t the problem

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I have to admit, until recently I didn’t really know who Chief Keef was. I recognized his name from the hit “I Don’t Like,” but not much else. I starting inquiring about him more as he feuded with Lupe Fiasco, Lil Jojo got killed, and people started telling me, “Chief Keef is a problem.” The more I learn about him, the more I feel endeared to and concerned for him, as with many of our young Black males. As the rapper gets more and more attention, we have to realize that he is only one person. And like many of our youth, he is trapped in crises of identity, community and opportunity. Until we start to shift those things we can expect to see more loss in Chicago, Philadelphia, and other metropolitan cities.

Identity Crisis

“Know thyself”— two words that can be as simple or complex as we make them. The process of self-discovery is one fraught with benefit and consequences; nonetheless, it is a journey that all must undergo. While we spend a great deal of time telling our young people what to do and socializing them into what to consume, we often miss the chances to help them discover themselves and help them figure out what their role on the planet is, not just what they can make money doing.

Chief Keef, entrenched in a heavy gang culture, is a prime example. To him, Chicago’s Black Disciples is central to who he is and who he should be. Each of his tweets carries #300, a reference to the gang, and he’s been known to only state his age as “300.” A gang, for many, meets a craving for community; however, as this bleeds into an all-consuming sense of identity, the consequences can be large. Gangs are not likely to leave today or tomorrow. Chicago is no stranger to gangs; in fact, they are so much a part of the city’s history that there have been numerous attempts to organize them for progressive social action and governmental intervention to destabilize political alliances.

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