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,