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,


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

Race Across America


Race Across America, an intercultural journey, began with an idea back in the mid-nineties. The concept was to travel around the country in an RV ala “On The Road with Charles Kuralt,” and engage people from all walks of life on the subject of “race.” What it is? What it isn’t!

It was the goal of The Gavin Media Institute to have an on-going series of programs throughout the country that would take various forms . One such project was an “installation” hosted by the Capitol City YWCA, in Washington, DC which featured the documentary short, “People Like Me.”

Now Gavin Media NU World is reviving Race Across America as a series of webcasts available via Youtube as well as a broadcast TV series.

Why now? Well even in the age of Obama, and maybe especially now, it seems more than ever that the concept of “race” effects much of our public policy, from Healthcare to Welfare, from notions of “Makers vs. Takers,” from Prisons to Drugs, Housing, Immigration, Education, and remains a hindrance to forming that elusive “more perfect union.” We can’t get past it until we deal with both the Truth & the Consequences. The Racial agenda of privilege and power is promulgated, reinforced everywhere throughout popular culture.

This first installment is called “We The People Are Racists” and features an interview with Anthropologist Nina Jablonski, author of the book Skin, A Natural Evolution on how skin color became racialized, empowering some, while devaluing others.

Everything that America is and isn’t must be examined through its “racial prism,” if we are ever to put that past behind us and move forward. “Racism” is part of the DNA of America. It hasn’t gone anywhere and won’t until folks deal with it from that place. In this case America is guilty until proven innocent. Race-ism in America is always going to be a matter of degree, unless and until folks embrace the notion that “race” is a fiction, but “racism” is very much alive and well.

Walter Harris Gavin is the driving force behind Gavin Media NU World and the author of The Autobiography of Obsidian Dumar