Squeaky Wheel

There’s an old saying: “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.”

Baltimore Uprising
Baltimore Uprising

In light of what happened in the aftermath of the homicide of Freddie Gray in Baltimore and the subsequent uprising, which brought on all the media attention and national debate, one thing is clear the residents of Baltimore ‘squeaked’ and now folks all over the country are paying attention.

It shouldn’t take an uprising over the obvious problems that the police department has when dealing with it’s “black” residents, note the millions of dollars that have been paid out to settle claims of police abuse of the citizenry that it is sworn to “protect and serve.” And we know from all of the many recent incidents of unarmed “black” folks shot down and treated worse that dogs, this is a national epidemic.

This situation is nothing new. Black folks have been ill treated and dying at the hands of representatives of the power structure since before America was America. No one has more claim to be an American than its “black” citizens. Yet time after time their voices aren’t heard until their righteous anger explodes in some form of “riot.”

Yet we know that “white” folks riot all time for something as innocuous and inconsequential as their favorite team winning or losing a game. And as Time Wise states in his article posted on Salon, “it is undeniably true that when it comes to our political anger and frustration (as contrasted with that brought on by alcohol and athletics) we white folks are pretty good at not torching our own communities. This is mostly because we are too busy eviscerating the communities of others—those against whom our anger is aimed. In Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Panama, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Manila, and on down the line.”

I would add to that, “whites” really have no reason to have “righteous” anger or “rage against the machine” because by and large “the system” political, economic, social, cultural inures to their benefit. It has been that way since the very beginning of the Republic.

Despite America’s many failings and shortcomings for the most part still as another old saying goes: “If you’re white your’re right.”  So why ‘squeak’ at all because despite how bad the situation may be or how corrupt, unequal or unjust the society is, at least you’re not “black.” Damn, thank heaven for small favors.

However, if in the future we really want to stop so many Baltimores from repeating itself over, and over again, like Watts in ’65 or some other city 50 years hence, America will truly have to be transformed from bottom to top. And that means “white” folks are going to have to give up their privilege.  That is going to be painful indeed. White folks have been “white” for so long ( read How The Irish Became White or Buying Whiteness), it may take burning down Main Street, rather than The Ghetto, before people get the message.

For America to finally live up to its motto: E Pluribus Unum will require sacrifice from all concerned, not just those named Freddie Gray or Emmett Till or Medgar, Martin, Malcolm, or communities like Tulsa, Rosewood, Watts, or East Baltimore.


Empire Strikes Out!

As the saying goes: “You can take a nigga’ out of the ghetto, but you can’t take the ghetto out of the nigga’.”

Empire1That’s how I would describe Fox’s new hit prime time soap, Empire, starring Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henderson. Like Miami Vice of the 80’s which according to the grapevine Michael Mann sold on the basis of an idea using the catch phrase “MTV Cops,” I can imagine Lee Daniels and Danny Strong going to Fox execs and pitching a “Hip Hop King Lear.”

Not unlike  most Hip Hop and Rap videos that now show up on that same MTV, the genre is nothing but “ghetto fabulous” and America is tuning in. The audience for the show has grown week by week where according to an article titled ‘Empire,’ The Meteor That Never Fell To Earth in yesterday’s New York Times, 14.9 million viewers watch the penultimate show last week.

If past is prologue even more viewers will watch and tweet in front of their TV’s for tonight’s final two-hour season finale.

Fox execs shouldn’t have been surprised by the response the show has gotten in the coveted 18-49 demographic among men. After all more Rap and Hip Hop records are bought by white males than black folks. Hip Hop isn’t and hasn’t just been a “black thang” for a very long time, if ever. Back in the day when MTV first got started the tone deaf execs of the erstwhile “music network” had to be coerced by CBS Records to play Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” the first “black” artist to break through MTV’s color barrier.

So when “white” network TV want’s to make a splash with a “new” show why not a Hip Hop “Dynasty,” or “Dallas.” At some point given Lucious’ gangsta’ background I can see a “Who Shot Lucious?” episode at some point in the series. Think of the ratings!

Empire’s Ghetto Boys

Of course “white” TV isn’t about image, or uplift, or even imagination particularly when it come to presenting “black” characters. Any shows that do would be the exception. Most go for the stereotype, the trope, the prejudice that the audience has become inured to.

Imagine an alternative universe where Lucious isn’t a ghetto expat, from a single parent home, but a self-conscious “black” man from a working class background who through sheer will and entrepreneurial determination has created a multi-media empire that consists of publishing, broadcasting, digital. He has to deal not only with his terminal illness and his dysfunctional family, but the larger “white” institutional roadblocks that despite his success have to continually be addressed to keep his “Empire” together. Imagine that unlike Daniels’ characters our Lucious understands his history, doesn’t just move in a “black” world, but in the larger society where, being bi-cultural, he must “code-switch.”

Imagine a show that not only “represents” but confronts the fallacies of American exceptionalism, critiques the notion a “post-racial” society, and skewers the growing inequalities among the one percent and the rest of us, that examines the conventional wisdom of what it means to be American.

Now that would be a show worth watching. And it can still have a Hip Hop sound track, if you insist.


Chains of Identity

There are two events in the existence of every human being past present and future which binds us together,-birth and death. In Jefferson’s “all men are created equal” that is the underlining message even though his meaning would have been filled with caveats. Non-“white” people and women weren’t really included in his pronouncement.

But no two humans experience the world and their existence in the same way. Even identical twins are different just from the standpoint that two things cannot occupy the same space at the same time. So no two things are exactly the same. Rather than copping to that fact the human animal seems to need to classify what are unique individual entities into groups, based upon some perceived similar characteristics or traits.

Our identities become “smushed,” formed or reformed based upon not only how we experience the world as we travel the distance between birth and death, but also how we are described and categorized by others.

I can remember very distinctly a sense of “otherness” when traveling to see my “granny” from Philadelphia, PA, my hometown to Bainbridge, GA sometime in the late 50’s early 60’s. It was my first time travelling alone to see her. I was filled with excitement. The long overnight train ride was an adventure watching the landscape rush by my window of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s West Coast Champion heading from Boston to St. Petersburg with stops in Wilmington, Richmond, Rocky Mount, Florence, Savannah, and Waycross, GA where I changed trains.

From the sleek express, I would transfer to the Atlantic Coastline’s local and go from one world to another. Life in the south was in transition. Since the Brown Decision in 1954 there was fierce “white” resistance to integration and mores died hard.

So even though I was schooled in the ways of segregation both Northern and Southern varieties it was still a rude awakening when the elder colored fella who was the station’s janitor informed me after having seated myself in the main passenger waiting area that where I was seated wasn’t for me. I belonged over here, in the small unkempt, dusty, dark, dingy anti-room off the main terminal reserved for “us.”

Now mind you I had been very comfortable in my chosen seat for maybe a half an hour and none of the other passengers paid me any attention. I wasn’t perceived at that point as some threat to “the way things were down here” by the “white” travelers waiting as I was for the next leg of my journey.

I was perturbed. I was just minding my own business. Why should I have to move? I briefly thought of ignoring his admonition to move, but as “other” as it made me feel, I somehow knew that this fellow Negro was looking out for one of his own.

Georgia wasn’t Mississippi or Alabama, but Negros still “disrappeared” as my granny used to say in the Peachtree State. I knew what happened to Emmett Till even though my parents tried to shield me from seeing his mutilated face in the Jet Magazine photo. Thinking that it might give me nightmares, but like every other young person my age on my block we had to see what all the fuss was about.

Identity is a precious thing. For “black” folks particularly throughout the Diaspora, given our history, there can be a deep schism between who you know or think you are and how you are perceived by others. Other “blacks” want you to embrace “the cloak of blackness,” of Negritude, of “racial” solidarity as a survival and empowerment strategy. To be “white,” has come to mean seeing oneself atop some human imagined hierarchy with others being “less than.”

The concept of “race” is an invention that empowers some to diminish others based upon some specious category like skin pigmentation or national origin. Like that friendly janitor of my youth schooling me as to where I belonged, but according to whom? Him? The people who ran the railroad? The society in which I was living and the strictures of the culture? I think not. No one has the right to tell another where or to whom they belong or how to be. That is for the individual and only the individual to decide.

As the narrator intoned at the beginning of each episode of the old TV series, “There are eight million stories in The Naked City.” Yet rarely if ever were there stories that featured “black” folks as central characters. We can go further and say there are 6 billion stories in our world today, each unique and individual and no two are alike. Each protagonist in that story makes survival choices based upon what their needs are.  And each of those six billion individual stories make up what we collectively call The Human Race. There may be intersections, interactions, cooperation, conflict, but each of us goes through life as a single entity. Each of us has our own unique identity. To be self-defined is to be self-empowered. As The Bard said, “To thine own self be true.”

Walter Harris Gavin is the author of The Autobiography of Obsidian Dumar, a novel of identity,

Black Film?

This is reprinted from a post which appeared originally on The Gavin Media NU World Blog.

Bert Williams, The Quintessential Minstrel

Trying to define what makes a “black” film, television program, play, book, any form of art has to be analysed from the standpoint of its motivation, purpose and not just whether the participates happen to have a certain hue of skin tone and cultural background.

I’m always struck sometimes as to just how “white” so-called black films, black media really are. In some ways to be very super critical most “black” media (not being a student of media created by black folks throughout the Diaspora, I’m referring to media created by black folks in America) is in many ways an “aping” of white media forms and conventions. Because in many ways that is what we all have been conditioned to expect. Every mode of expression contains two essential elements, form and content. Both should be taken into account when defining what makes a film or any other mode of expression “black.”

Poster for Lee Daniels’ The Butler

Most “black” storytelling in the commercial space copies the same “western (white) narrative” form and conventions when it comes to film, television, theater, etc. Anything which strays “outside the lines” is considered “experimental” or avant-garde. Black film/media has essentially been boiled down to stories that have black characters as their protagonists and told by a “black” artist.

The problem I’ve always had with this definition is that it is shortsighted and does not take into account POV, (point-of-view), or motivation, which are the two key elements that truly set a story apart as being “black.” I think for example you could have a “black” film that wasn’t primarily about black people, but about “white privilege,” and its destructive nature.

Black when it comes to African Americans is never just a color, but must always have a cultural component and perspective. Black has to capture the universal as well as the specific. It has to seek to free our minds -to enlighten, inform, entertain, and most importantly, inspire. It must always not just deal with what is, or was, but what can be, possibilities. It must seek to change how we think about ourselves as humans be-ing, not just as “black folk.”

I am reminded of the so-called Black Arts Movement that came alive in the 1960s and 1970s, where poets, writers, playwrights, visual artists, were experimenting with new forms of expression that sought to break the bonds of white convention. Today we have settled in to a place, artistically speaking, that seems less about braking barriers or inventing something new or being creative and more with being popular.

ColtraneBlack media can be both “black” and popular. We only have to look at the history of “black music” as an example. There are no black filmmakers working today (commercially) who can claim the same kind of creative innovation that a Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Louis Armstrong, Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, had in the musical arena. These “innovators” created a whole new musical genre with that same “raw material” that was available to every musician.

When will “black” film artisans do the same for the motion picture, or television program that these black musical artisans did for records?

Sins of the Fathers

Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, Malia Obama, Sasha Obama, Marian Robinson, John Lewis, Amelia Boynton Robinson
Obama Leading March in Selma

“Keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” – Exodus 34:7

The Bible in many places talks about sin. America’s original sin isn’t slavery as many would argue. Slavery is the economic and cultural by product of a mind-set. America’s original sin is “white supremacy.” The notion that one group of people should have dominance over another because of skin color or what became codified in the aggregate as “race.”

On the 50th Anniversary of the crossing of the Edmond Pettus Bridge, the beating, biting, hosing of Americans of African descent who dared to challenge “white” privilege and the structural inequities of the American political and economic system it’s worth noting how far we’ve come and how far we have to go.

“Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said he agreed with Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote the Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder that found the VRA had achieved its purpose and that voting discrimination was largely a thing of the past. Congress can consider some new changes, he said, but not a whole new VRA.

“I don’t think that the Supreme Court ruling has damaged voting rights in any real way,” Sessions said, as reported in a post by Edward-Isaac Dovere in Politco titled Selma highlights hypocrisy on voting rights, Democrats say.”

“An absolute disgrace for Republicans in the year 2015 to work overtime to deny people the basic right to vote,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), quoted in the same article. America is changing. Demographically America will become a minority-majority country. That’s a scary proposition when the lens through which you gage you own self-worth either individually or collectively is a racial one.

We’ve had Civil Rights Acts and Voting Rights Acts, but Acts as we can see from the decision in Shelby get reversed, bad decisions based upon faulty reasoning and the continuation of “white” privilege keeps us from achieving that elusive more perfect union. Colorphobia and racism and “white” fears of having to compete in a world where their skin color means nothing remains the biggest challenge faced by Western Civilization.

In Christianity, certainly in the Baptist tradition in order to be “re-born” one must wash away “the sins of the fathers” through a literal dunking under water replicating the “baptizing” ritual performed by John the Baptist on Jesus the Christ.

For America, the current iteration of the “white” supremacist legacy, when will it ever experience the rebirth necessary to expiate that original sin, 50, 100, 200 years? Only time will tell. May be there are people alive today who will be around when the day comes.

Obama in his remarks during the Selma commemoration this past weekend as quoted in an article in The Huffington Post by Igor Bobic said, “You are America. Unconstrained by habits and convention. Unencumbered by what is, and ready to seize what ought to be,” speaking to the young folks gathered. “For everywhere in this country, there are first steps to be taken, and new ground to cover, and bridges to be crossed. And it is you, the young and fearless at heart, the most diverse and educated generation in our history, who the nation is waiting to follow.”

Slavery is gone. But the “white” gaze remains. That is the constant. And America will never be free of its original sin until “white” folks stop being “white.” The notion of “white” supremacy/superiority/privilege must be cast into the bowels of Hell where it belongs.

Above The Law

Steven Segal in Above The Law
Steven Segal in Above The Law

A former Special Operations Vietnam vet works as a Chicago cop and uncovers CIA wrongdoing. -From IMDb Description

“Today, the Department of Justice (DOJ) failed to indict Officer Darren Wilson for racially profiling and brutally killing Michael Brown.1 While the DOJ found Ferguson and St. Louis police guilty of widespread abuse, racial profiling, and brutal misconduct, it’s not enough.

Darren Wilson should have been indicted and made to see a day in court for his brutal action. After all, a young man was killed for being Black. The DOJ’s failure to do so highlights deep-seated structural problems that must be fixed in order to keep our families safe.2 And the reality is Ferguson is America and President Obama must be held accountable. He must do everything in his power — more than speeches and commissions — to stop unjust killings by police, increase police accountability, and expand community control over policing nationwide.”

The above quote is from an email blast from the organization Color of Change. And what the findings of the DOJ’s Civil Rights probe into policing practices in the city of Ferguson, MO bring into stark relief, unlike Hollywood’s fictional characters, for “black” folks (young men in particular), it’s the ordinary “cop on the beat,” who’s “above-the-law” mentality and worldview provides the greatest threat to life and limb.

The DOJ found that The Ferguson Police Department has a pattern and practice of:

  • Conducting stops without reasonable suspicion and arrests without probable cause in violation of the Fourth Amendment;
  • Interfering with the right to free expression in violation of the First Amendment; and
  • Using unreasonable force in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

and of;

  • Focusing on revenue over public safety, leading to court practices that violate the 14th Amendment’s due process and equal protection requirements.
  • Court practices exacerbating the harm of Ferguson’s unconstitutional police practices and imposing particular hardship upon Ferguson’s most vulnerable residents, especially upon those living in or near poverty.Minor offenses can generate crippling debts, result in jail time because of an inability to pay and result in the loss of a driver’s license, employment, or housing.

In addition the DOJ also found racial bias in both the police department and the municipal court system:

  • The harms of Ferguson’s police and court practices are borne disproportionately by African Americans and that this disproportionate impact is avoidable.
  • Ferguson’s harmful court and police practices are due, at least in part, to intentional discrimination, as demonstrated by direct evidence of racial bias and stereotyping about African Americans by certain Ferguson police and municipal court officials.

Despite these findings Michael Brown’s killer is walking free, above the law. You don’t swim in a sewer and not get covered in shit. Atmosphere, attitude and behavior matters, particularly when it comes to the use of deadly force by an officer of the law against and unarmed citizen.

The DOJ findings demonstrate why ALL shootings by police of unarmed “black” folks need to be brought to trial and adjudicated by juries who can look at the situation and deliver justice. Laws themselves can be and are unjust in many circumstances since they are enacted within and by a corrupt political “law-making” system. In the end it is only WE THE PEOPLE who can deliver justice, “by any means necessary.”

TV & Diversity – Strange Bedfellows

In a recent post published in the Huffington Post by Gabriel Arana titled,  How Melissa Harris Perry Beat Out The Other Sunday News Shows On Diversity (the bulk of the post is included below, used by permission), we see another example of the disconnect between the editorial and creative decision making and the bottom-line when it comes to media diversity. Why?

A recent study by the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA, titled Flipping The Script makes the point very clearly that “diversity sells,” both in movies and on TV. But you would never know it from the vast majority of programs that continue to be churned out by the Hollywood studios’ and TV Networks’ monochromatic cultural mindset.

“This year marks yet another inflection point on our way to becoming a “majority-minority” country. In 2015, for the first time, millennials — 42 percent of whom identify as non-white — are set to outnumber the majority-white baby boomers.

But you’d have little clue America was in the midst of a huge demographic shift from watching the weekend news shows, which more closely resemble a Tea Party rally than the rising “Obama electorate.” In the last year, around 75 percent of the guests on the major Sunday programs were white, according to liberal watchdog group Media Matters.

There was one exception: “Melissa Harris-Perry” on MSNBC, which featured more guests of color than white ones.

“My curiosity about the world, how it works and the choices people make in it tends to drive the choices we make about stories and topics to cover,” says host Melissa Harris-Perry, who is also a professor of political science at Wake Forest University. “The entire team is dedicated to the idea that the best way to satisfy our curiosity is to gather a diverse table of guests.”

Sunday Shows

It’s not that the other hosts and producers aren’t curious; it’s that in the flurry of activity before the “on air” sign lights up, few dedicate time to thinking about the makeup of their panels. If asked, almost all see diversity as a worthy goal in the abstract, but with guests booked on the same day and with frequent cancellations, most are happy just to have someone in the seat come airtime. But in relying on the existing Rolodex of middle-aged white men, producers are limiting the scope of the discussions they broadcast — and their appeal.

“Part of what we’re trying to do is make sure you’re not hearing from the same cast of characters giving the same talking points time after time,” says Eric Salzman, executive producer of “Melissa Harris-Perry.” “The very people who you invite to the table for discussion are going to inform how the discussion takes place.”

While Salzman says the show has no formal mechanism for keeping track of the racial composition of their panels — “Media Matters lets us know,” he says — the staff talk openly about diversity every time they assemble a lineup.

“If we’re doing a survey segment, we very deliberately talk about the race of our guests,” Salzman says. “We don’t shy away from it on the program and don’t shy away from it at the office.”

The primary challenge for producers looking to expand their circle of contributors is that bringing on guests of color frequently requires inviting those without previous television experience — drawing from the backlog is a safer, easier bet. One thing that’s helped “Melissa Harris-Perry” cultivate a diverse array of guests is the host’s ties to academia; as a black woman and scholar of African-American politics, Harris-Perry is also plugged in to a wide network of intellectuals of color.

“One of very first things we do is say, ‘Melissa, anyone come to mind?’” Salzman says. “One of great things about working with Melissa is that she is an atypical news television host — the background she comes from, the work she does in academia means she’s just aware of all sorts of different people.”

Among the regular contributors of color the show has tapped are Columbia University professor Dorian Warren and University of Connecticut history professor William Jelani Cobb, who are black; Yale law professor Akhil Reed Amar, the son of Indian immigrants; and Cristina Beltrán, director of Latino Studies at New York University.

But while Media Matters commended the “Melissa Harris-Perry” show for far outpacing its competitors in terms of diversity, its annual report noted that the bulk of the program’s contributors of color are African American; Latinos, Asian-Americans, and other racial and ethnic minorities are still underrepresented.

While NBC shows — including Harris-Perry’s — may have room for improvement on the diversity front, Salzman praised MSNBC’s commitment to inclusivity.

“It sounds horribly corporate, but the company we work for has a huge commitment to this issue,” Salzman says. “I can’t begin to tell you how much that matters — the most important thing to do is first acknowledge this is something [the company] cares about.”

MSNBC has a diversity committee and meets regularly with minority journalism associations like the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, Asian American Journalists Association and National Association of Black Journalists to ask for recommendations. The company recently hosted a mixer to introduce Asian-American scholars and experts to executives and producers.

“The idea was to get producers in the room and let experts from different fields deliver pitches,” says an NBC spokesperson. “Diversity is important throughout the whole company.”

Among the event’s attendees was Sayu Bhojwani, founding executive director of the New American Leaders Project. Bhojwani was booked on “Melissa Harris-Perry” shortly thereafter.”

Walter Harris Gavin is a writer/producer & author of the novel, The Autobiography of Obsidian Dumar