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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Are you tired of election season like me?

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It usually sets in much later, but my election fatigue has set in already. It’s that feeling that you have when you’ve been inundated with television ads, robo calls, and emails requesting donations for a candidate, be it your candidate or maybe someone you’ve never heard of and will never hear from again after November 6th. Some mornings, I want to rise and fast forward past Election Day to find peace. I don’t think I’m alone in this and it may be due to a twenty-four hour news cycle and social media inundation.

Could it be that our hyper-connectivity is leading folks to disengage from politics?

To be fair, I am not an electoral politics fan or stan. While I am very much interested in policy and the way that government affects the life chances of people, but analysis of exit polls, convention speeches, and watching the electoral votes come in turns my stomach. The 2008 election was so phenomenal because we saw a leveraging of the Internet, particularly social media, crowd sourcing, and the turnout of people across a broad spectrum. However in 2012, this same approach has not sparked my inner politico. Instead, I think of responding to Barack Obama’s emails as informally as he messages me every single day:

Hey Barack,

I’m glad you recognize times are hard. I know you need my support. I don’t think Romney is a good choice for this country but I need you to have a little more discretion with your emails. I’m tired man!

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Helping Black Boys Succeed in School – from MANifest for Ebony.com

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For the past few weeks I’ve been writing at helping Black boys succeed in school. These recommendations are aimed at parents and guardians in hopes of ensuring Black boys get a fair chance at success and are nurtured in positive way inside and outside of school. While I typically write about structural changes like policies and research evidence, I also recognize those analyses serve long term change, but many of your young people need assistance today. For that reason, I am sharing 5 tips for helping Black boys succeed from a “what can I do level.” The series is broken up in three pieces.

Tips 1 and 2: Strong Summers/After-School Times and Clear Communication with Teachers

Tips 3 and 4: Understand the School’s Behavioral System and Identify Gaps Early

Tip 5: Foster an Intellectual Environment

I hope this creates a dialogue and space for nurturing Black boys to success.

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Talking Education & Innovation with Thomas Friedman

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If you’re not familiar with Thomas Friedman, you are probably familiar with his arguments in “The World is Flat” which looks at globalization as a net positive force increasing opportunity, collaboration, and innovation. I recently appeared on HuffPost Live to engage him on some of his ideas in “That Used to Be Us“, particularly around education and global change. It was a really cool segment hosted by Marc Lamont Hill and accompanied with some pretty awesome guests who ranged from entrepreneurs to other academics. Check it out here.

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Manifest Series by Ebony.com

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Ebony.com has launched a Manfiest series which concentrates on issues facing Black men and boys. The series spearheaded by the website will feature articles, videos, and whatever you bring to the table! To learn more about Manifest and possibly submit click here.I had the esteemed pleasure to co-moderate a Sunday afternoon conversation with a room full of talented, diverse, and insightful Black men. I shared directing the conversation with Jamilah Lemieux – Lifestyle Editor (and the blogger formally known as Sistertoldja) and Kierna Mayo – Editorial Directyor (she’s a legend in journalism, get familiar if you aren’t already).

Photo by Karl Ferguson

As I was saying, in a Sunday morning Ebony.com pulled together a diverse group of brothas at B. Braxton’s in Harlem (real nice spot, check it out if you want upscale professional barber experience … this is not a paid endorsement). On that morning we talked for about two hours on subject ranging from when we believed we became a man to the significance of the “black head nod.” It was an amazing experience that I pray we will replicate and I know many of you would have loved to be there … now you have a chance. Part 1: Manhood and Fatherhood is here and Part 2: Women and Relationships is here.

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The Renewed Gender Wars

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As a child, I used to look forward to the fabled moments in recess and gym class when we would play “girls versus boys.” While rare, it was a chance to go head-to-head with my classmates for gender supremacy. The stakes in gym class were bragging rights at best, but when we look at the current educational landscape, the competition between boys and girls is a bit more complicated. In recent years, we have seen the gender gap—the gap in average scores between males and females—reverse with girls surpassing boys in academic subjects like science and reading. This, not surprisingly, has led to a reincarnation of the battle of boys versus girls. But this time, school culture and societal inequality will be up for grabs.

Recently, David Brooks penned an editorial in the New York Times on the gender gap in our schools. Brooks cited research evidence to suggest that schools are geared towards female students, leaving boys at a disadvantage. This is not a wholly original argument, and the response from Soraya Chemalay suggests that any disadvantages that males face in school are but a microcosm of the larger gender inequities that females face in the world-at-large. While both Brooks and Chemalay are rightfully concerned, we must be careful to ensure that the education of children will not be taken as a zero-sum game, where one gender must win and one gender must lose.

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A Primer on Obama’s African American Education Commission

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On Thursday July 26, 2012 President Barack Obama signed an Executive Order creating the White House Initiative for Educational Excellence for African Americans. The initiative creates a commission that is tasked with monitoring and improving the educational performance of African American students. At its best, Obama’s creation of this commission is groundbreaking and signals the start of a national commitment to the educational needs of Black children. At its worst, this could be a political hat tip but provide little force in shifting the trajectory of Black education. What will be the deciding factor between these two? You will be.

The creation of the commission should come as no surprise with the 2012 Election campaign in full swing. This is not to suggest that this is simply political pandering by Obama, rather I’m suggesting that the president knows keeping the African American electorate on his side is essential.

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We Must Save Black Bookstores

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A sacred space is disappearing from our communities with too little fanfare: the Black bookstore. Recently, one of the largest Black bookstores in the nation—Hue-Man Bookstore—announced it would shutter its doors in Harlem, the proverbial capital of Black America. Hue-Man is just the latest in a line of Black bookstores in particular, and bookstores in general, that are disappearing from the urban landscape. As bookstores continue to go out of business— if we’re not careful—a culture of literacy, interpersonal engagement and community building may disappear with them.

I am part of the problem. I spend more time and money purchasing books online than going into brick and mortar bookstores. But there was a time when the bookstore was one of my favorite destinations because it held a wealth of information and people who showed me another side to my community, culture, and intellectual life. Black bookstores have never been mega-stores like Barnes & Noble but often have been small individually-run libraries of community enrichment.

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Additionally, I was featured in video for the Manhattan Times that discussed the closing of the Hue-Man. Special thanks to Sherry Mazzocchi. Also, don’t forget to support Hue-Man at their online portal and look for pop-up events in the coming months.

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