Sunday, April 01, 2012

"Don't Get Caught Up in No Throne": The Pharisee Complex in Black America

Everyday I think of the question that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. posed in his last speech to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, “Where Do We Go From Here?” This was one of King’s more militant and fiery orations during his last year of life and also the title of his posthumously published book. Aside from it being a speech and a book title, I believe it is something that our contemporary society needs to consider more often than not. No, this is not 1967, but in 2012, Dr. King still urges us to ask the difficult questions of not just our society and how it is governed, but how we live in it and engage each other.

There are no shortages of international and domestic situations that bring us to ponder such questions. Currently in America, the tragic killing of Trayvon Martin has garnered all types of media headlines and rightfully so. This is potentially one of those great watershed moments in our nation’s history, not just about race but also about the very fabric of this nation—who it is and is not for—who it will and will not protect. I can hear my late grandfather, Pastor John Mitchell, Sr., in his commanding ministerial tone reciting Matthew 25:40, “And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” Meaning that how we treat the most vulnerable in our society says much about the society in which we live. Particularly in a nation that has a selective engagement with its association to Christianity—America likes to pick and choose which parts of the faith and its Holy text it adheres to—the cries for justice about the Martin case illuminate a series of issues in the United States.

Many have responded to join the fight for justice for Trayvon and his family. Speaking truth to power, however, will require more than just wearing hoodies. While a great gesture, as Prof. Patricia Hill Collins reminds us, we cannot “confuse the symbol with the politics.” In a recent lecture at Ithaca College she spoke about a parallel situation during the late 1980s, early 1990s, when blackfolk wore “X” hats in honor of Malcolm X and later because of the movie by Spike Lee. Still, the hats were more than just a celebration of the film and much more than a fashion statement, it spoke to a growing frustration within our society about unfair and continued unequal treatment under the rule of so called law. For further proof, all one needs to do is listen to and watch the video for Public Enemy’s anthem “Fight the Power.”

Today I am urging us to take this moment and not to lose sight of the bigger issues at play; and to re-evaluate where each of us is in terms of our commitment to making this nation, our communities, our families and ourselves better. Freedom is a “constant struggle” as the old hymn reminds us and we need not forget that. Right now it is “cool” to talk about fighting against an oppressive system of misapplied laws, and injustice that seems to find new and innovative ways to replicate dominance and past repression. Right now, everyone wants to be seen as being on the right side of the Martin case, just like other injustices that capture the attention of the nation. However, what happens in those days when Trayvon Martin is not on the news? Where will the concern be in our communities and families when it is no longer fashionable to wear a hoodie or weigh in on the case on your favorite social networking site? Even now there are those who have been baptized in the waters of self-righteousness, who will go (and have gone) to unbelievable and embarrassing ends to demonstrate how much they are dedicated to this cause –when in fact, their actions are more about displays of their own egos—and not about Trayvon or injustice. People like this remind me of Scene V from MacBeth, “…full of sound and fury signifying nothing.” We don’t need these types of people rushing to be out in front of any cause, protest or movement. Nor do we need those who want to be associated with being on the “right side” of history following them either. We need commitment and dedication to ideals bigger than self. We need to continue to not just be reactionary, but vigilant in a world bent on suppressing our right to exist and be respected as human beings.

Dr. King once gave a sermon about the “Drum Major Instinct” that dealt with the innate need for humans to seek praise and adulation from peers--sometimes at any cost. Instead of selfishness and arrogance he said the he wanted to be remembered as a “Drum Major for Peace.” We should each try to find the courage to speak and act similarly. Today, we still have folks who want to be drum majors—not for peace or justice, but for their own desire for attention and glory. Furthermore, we also have a Pharisee Complex that infects many more within our race and in our nation.

In the Book of Luke, Christ chastises the Pharisees—one of the priestly classes of Jews in the Bible. They, along with the Sadducees, were part the ruling elite of Israel and came into constant conflict with Jesus of Nazareth. In the Book of Luke, the eleventh chapter specifically, Christ famously scorns some of them for being hypocrites. His rebuke of them is based on their arrogance, pride and sanctimonious attitude toward their fellow Jews. The Pharisees believed that they were the keepers of knowledge and all things decent and just—according to God’s law. Christ informed them they were indeed mistaken.

Additionally, the Biblical Pharisees and Sadducees, as Howard Thurman points out, loved their Jewish faith and their Hebraic traditions, but they loved the physical and psychological perceived "safety and security" that Rome provided just a bit more. Thus, Jesus of Nazareth had to go, just like the minor prophets before and after him. If that narrative doesn't work for you think about how Dr. King had to convince his congregation at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church to help with the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Those folk were not too keen on blackfolk who took the bus riding in their nice Buicks and Cadillacs. Then too, there were those who were scared about losing their jobs and more importantly for them, their so-called middle class status. “Ye Hypocrites!”

Likewise, "Ye Hypocrites!" is all I hear when I think about the over 50% of blackfolk who vehemently disagreed with Dr. King at the time of his death, yet those same folk were there in D.C. during the unveiling of the MLK Memorial furthering lies about how they marched with him.

Many of us are just comfortable enough to NOT do anything of substance...nothing that creates institutional change or empowers our righteous minds and those of our children.

We suffer from the same intra-race class antagonisms the plagued our forefathers during the nineteenth century who tried to legislate what was "good, decent, and respectable" for Africans—slave or free (check out discussion of the Free African Schools in places like New York City in Leslie Harris' In the Shadow of Slavery). Continuing such thinking and action will be our own undoing.

One of my favorite emcees ever, Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def), best captures my point. In his artistic rebuttal to Jay-Z and Kanye West’s hit track, “Niggas in Paris” entitled, “Niggas in Poorest” he ends the song by imploring his listeners, “Don’t get caught up in no throne,” a phrase he repeats nine times—he could have repeated it many more. Outside of that being a fine piece of artistry, Bey is doing more than just turning the name of Mr. Carter and Mr. West’s hit album on its head for the sake of what many mistakenly think is a ‘diss record.’ Bey is getting at the fact that many of us seek and are defined by the very trinkets and shiny things that are mentioned and celebrated in “Niggas in Paris.”

Similarly, and I would argue more damaging, are those who have the ability to help on a small scale, yet refuse to do so because they want to protect their perceived class status like a government secret. I’ll give you an example. There are many who have signed petitions or written letters in support of Trayvon Martin as a show of solidarity—I know of one group of black men, who belong to an organization founded to help provide positive engagement with the community, who said they were not interested in writing or crafting any such letter because the Martin case had nothing to do with them. “Ye Hypocrites!” These types of blackfolk are more dangerous than any avowed racist. They too suffer from the Pharisee Complex. They are defined by their proximity to structures of white power and perceived privilege and to hell with those who dare to compromise their happy little world.

This is just one of many instances of how time and time again, we turn our back to the voiceless, while compromising the integrity of our communities and any movement for justice. Many want to be viewed as “down for the cause” and “authentic” yet when help is needed in the smallest of ways, they retreat to a paternalism that trumps that of their oppressors. I think back to the Book of Luke again. When Christ chastises the Pharisees he explicitly mentions their love for the “uppermost seats and the synagogues and greetings in the markets,” which is no different than those who want to be seen and acknowledged as “important” in their places of worship, in their communities, etc., but are not willing to do the work required for such respect. The notion of servant leadership is lost to them.

I return to the question posed by Dr. King, “Where do we go from here?” We must first ascertain where we are. Then we need to be mindful of those of us who provide the illusion of hope, change, and empowerment, but only want the association with those terms in the abstract. Yes, rhetoric is good for inspiration, but after the rallies are over and the issues important to us are no longer part of the 24-hour news cycle, we need the brilliance, creativity, passion, and imagination of those willing to do the work required to pick up where our forebears left off. We need those who are ready to actualize justice for our people and our communities…but remember as Yasiin Bey says, “Don’t get caught up in no throne!”

Sunday, March 25, 2012

A Prayer of Purpose, Thanks, and Humility

"Help me, O God, to see that I'm just a symbol of a movement...
Oh, God help me to see that where I stand today,
I stand because others helped me to stand there
and because the forces of history projected me there. 
And this moment would have come in history 
Even if M.L. King had not been born."

Martin Luther King, Jr.
11 August 1957

A Tale of Two Trayvon's

Trayvon Martin

Trevonne Winn
Many of us have been bombarded with coverage of the case of 17-year old Trayvon Martin—and for good reason. From all the available information it is a situation that highlights how the United States is still a nation tragically governed by a psyche of racial stereotyping, fear, ignorance, violence, and dehumanization—particularly with regard to African Americans. This situation is not merely a “Black Thing” however. This situation is one that all Americans should take “with the seriousness that it deserves,” as President Obama mentioned in his comments to the parents of Trayvon Martin, Friday.

Since the case broke, there have been excellent articles written by journalists and bloggers from all over the country. Add to that the outpouring of television coverage from mainstream media outlets as well as local and regional news. Moreover there have been several well-publicized rallies and protest marches and even more planned in the coming days, I am sure. As far as I know most of the interest developing over the last two weeks was largely spurned by the attention given to Trayvon Martin by social media networks like Facebook and Twitter. I have not written anything before now because I did not feel the need to do so. As I wrestled with my emotions, trying to understand why there was another high profile killing of a young Black man, I did not know how my voice would necessarily add to the national discussion outside of my tweets urging others to read up on the case, be informed and act in solidarity—that was until I heard about Trevonne Winn.

After informing a close friend of the Trayvon Martin case last week, he initially thought I was talking about the case involving Mr. Winn, which I was as ignorant of as he was Trayvon Martin. Trevonne Winn was a 24-year old, African American man murdered on the streets of East Flatbush, Brooklyn—in New York City almost a year ago. According to reports, Mr. Winn was in New York City visiting family and his life was taken because of mistaken identity. His grizzly murder, which is better described as an execution, was captured on surveillance cameras where he stood outside a local fast food restaurant. While talking on his cell phone a man emerged from the shadows and fired two shots into Mr. Winn’s chest. He was pronounced dead later at Kings County Hospital. The video was graphic and just mind numbing given all the thought and discussion about Trayvon Martin.

After watching the surveillance video, local news coverage, and reading about the case in several New York papers, I immediately thought about his family—especially his mother, Tracy Winn. Hearing her explain how she had to come from South Carolina to see about her first-born child was just gut wrenching. I thought about Trevonne’s twin sister, and his children and girlfriend he left behind as well. What had he done to deserve such a fate? The quick answer is nothing. To date, I do not think the killer of Trevonne Winn has been identified or brought to justice.

When I think about both these tragic scenarios I think about the unnecessary loss of life. Both of these young men were minding their own business and were taken from their families in an instant. The difference was that another Black man killed Trevonne Winn and thus, his murder did not garner the type of national media attention that Trayvon Martin has.

Tracy Winn and her family did not have Rev. Al Sharpton standing by to comfort them during a national press conference. There was no “Million Hoodie Rally” or loud outcries on social networking sites. President Obama was not asked about how he felt about the tragedy. There was no TODAY Show interview with Matt Lauer. There was just the Winn family alone.

Last week I tweeted that Trayvon Martin’s death was emblematic of larger issues. I still stand behind that statement. My prayer is that we collectively get just as outraged in our local communities about wanton violence perpetrated by Black men against our fathers, brothers, nephews, cousins, friends, and loved ones typically over four feet by four feet plots of concrete over where we duel to facilitate our economic crimes, as we do about cases that make national headlines. It is easy for us to talk about and rally behind the senseless deaths of Yusef Hawkins, Oscar Grant, Sean Bell, and Travyon Martin. They are just a few of the national stories about young Black men murdered unjustly and senselessly.

We need to start seeing ourselves in those who have fallen victim to crimes and injustice and seek to find sympathy with the families that doesn’t just say, “I’m sorry for your loss,” but that says, “I’m going to work to make sure we do not have to bury another young man taken from his family and community due to violence—no matter the color of the shooter.” Trayvon Martin and Trevonne Winn were both my brothers. And both would have looked like President Obama’s son. They are both me.

It shouldn’t take a national outcry for justice to be served—or for us to care. Let’s make sure that our collective energy is used to seek justice; but let it also used as a proactive measure in declaring the respect of our humanity to those who seek to oppress and destroy our families and put such little value on human life.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Beats, Rhymes, and Life: Not a Documentary, But An Irresponsible Disservice

Recently, I had the chance to view Beats, Rhymes, and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest, the new documentary directed by actor Michael Rapaport. You’ll likely remember him from his roles as “Zack” in Zebrahead (1992); “Remy” from Higher Learning (1995); or from Spike Lee’s film Bamboozled (2000); where he portrayed “Mr. Thomas Dunwitty,” the racist, self-centered, and egotistical television producer who believed he knew black people better than they knew themselves.

Like most folk my age who love hip hop—the culture and the music — I have an affinity for what A Tribe Called Quest (ATCQ) brought to our lives. For a self-professed “brainy jock” (cool term for nerd who played sports) like myself, ATCQ was part of my life’s soundtrack. I distinctly remember when each album dropped and what I was doing when the day I purchased it. All five albums mean something different to me—though some are better than others. Like most fans I can have an intense debate about why I believe The Low End Theory was the masterpiece of their discography vs. Midnight Marauders, much in the same way folk argue over sports or politics. Thus, it was with the greatest anticipation I went to see Rapaport’s documentary.

I entered the theater like a Star Wars or Harry Potter fan—all decked out in my ATCQ gear, rocking my Midnight Marauders tee and a super fresh pair of Air Jordan Retro Ones that were dedicated to the group (my most coveted pair of sneaks). I sat down ready to see what I hoped was a reliving of some old musical memories and a telling of Tribe’s story by another fan—Michael Rapaport. Unfortunately, from the very outset of the film Rapaport shows his hand. He is out to sell the story of family feud and personal beef. The documentary begins by looking at the rift between Q-Tip and Phife—an unfortunate, sad, and self-serving mistake.

As a historian, this is a mistake I’m intimately familiar with and must always be cautious of in my own writing. As juicy as personal details are, one always has to resist the temptation to allow them to drive the analysis. Why? Because history is not about sensationalizing subject(s). When that occurs it ceases to be history and becomes tabloid-esque sensationalism. For instance, many have critiqued and criticized the late Professor Manning Marable for his recent biography of Malcolm X entitled, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. Scores of folk find Marable’s scholarship slanderous because they believe he is sensationalizing aspects of Brother Malcolm’s private life. I’m not saying exclude private details or conflicts, because they are important, but they should not be the driving force of the story you tell.

Documentarians face a similar challenge. Like historians, they have to be able to provide a narrative that explores the nuances of their subject without allowing them to overpower the larger story. A good documentary should leave the viewer with a fuller understanding of the inner workings and outside influences that inform why this subject’s story is worthy of telling. It is not about taking sides, but providing a three-dimensional view of your subject matter.

Q-Tip and Phife’s relationship, or the complex nature of it, is no secret. It has never been. Any fan has known that for years. We all have family issues. We all have functional levels of dysfunction. Those issues however, do not have to be put on display to understand how the persons in that family interact. Instead, Rapaport seems to have let his fictional character “Mr. Dunwitty” take charge of directing.

It was great to reminisce about A Tribe Called Quest, but Mr. Rapaport did Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Jarobi, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and hip hop a disservice. What he directed is not a documentary. Sensationalized, with a few moments of welcome nostalgia for fans like myself, it is a patchwork quilt of a film —more akin to reality shows on the family of Viacom networks.

Part of the problem is Rapaport’s use of external sources — or lack there of. I found it incredibly odd that he used not one journalist or scholar that could capture the broader implications of what the group was able to create and the indelible mark they left on hip hop and popular culture. Hell, I would have even liked to hear from fans on the street giving their reflections of the group during their 1990s reign.

The absence of journalists from The Source, VIBE, or The Village Voice from that era is at the very least irresponsible. During the late 1980s and the entire decade of the 1990s an argument can be made that journalists were just as integral to the development and analysis of hip-hop as the artists themselves. Their insight, even on a small scale, would have been a great supplement to artist interviews and help to contextualize the Native Tongues Movement.

One of the gross missteps of the movie, and my biggest critique, is that Rapaport did not devote more time to the most important thing about ATCQ — the music. More time should have been spent examining the five albums that A Tribe Called Quest created. What Rapaport gave us was akin to making a documentary about The Beatles that focuses solely on the deteriorating relationship between Paul McCartney and John Lennon. If Rapaport set out to make a film about Q-Tip and Phife’s relationship, then mission accomplished. If the goal was to make a documentary about A Tribe Called Quest, then it is a miserable failure.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

"I'll Always Love My Mama"

Music tends to be the one thing that can always serve as a muse for me, but I guess that is what music is supposed to do in the first place, right? As I went through my usual Sunday morning ritual of reading newspapers and simultaneously watching CBS Sunday Morning, I had one of those special moments. I don’t know and can’t remember what the context was for the song, but I heard The Intruders’ 1973 classic, “I’ll Always Love My Mama.”

Immediately a flurry of emotions and memories went through my mind. I’ll get to those in a minute, but it was great that on Mother’s Day the first voice I heard and spoke with was my own mother, Norma Mitchell. I tried to wait to call until I thought she might be up, for I didn’t want to disturb her, not today or any day this week, as her birthday was just 72 hours ago. The first week of May tends to be a celebratory time for my family—celebrating "Mama."

Though our conversation was brief, as Mama was rushing off to church, it was just what her son needed as he prepared for his own day of engaging in the life of the mind—as a graduate student. My mother and I have, since I’ve been in graduate school, been closer than we’ve ever been. At my worst and best moments she’s continually been the warm, reflective, calm voice to my erratic, tense, anxiety-filled existence during my academic sojourn.   From kindergarten to what will soon be three graduate degrees later, she helps me keep perspective and peace--in mind and spirit. I don’t know how, but she does.

Now about those memories I mentioned earlier…my mother is a nurse and I will never forget her working a twelve hour shift then coming home to prepare dinner, take a few moments to sit down as my father asked how was work and a low rumble erupted from her mouth almost inaudible, but you definitely could sense the tenseness of her day. Afterward she’d make sure my sister, then a toddler, was in bed and then she’d look at me and tell me it was time for flash cards.  I used to cringe when she mentioned those flashcards. I would deliberately eat my dinner slow to take my mind off what was coming after I finished. 

Now, let me tell you that those damn flashcards were the bane of my existence—an anathema to my spirit a kid. You remember those multiplication cards? I’m sure you do.  My mother would drill me over those cards until I had them memorized. As I would start to get tired and irritated wanting to just quit and go to bed, she pushed me.  Tears would well up in my eyes out of frustration.  I wondered to myself, “Why was I being subjected to this harsh treatment?” Of course it wasn’t harsh, but it was maternal dedication. My mother was still in her uniform from work as she continued to drill me. Once we finished she gave me a hug that only a mother can give her son and it all in some weird, but marvelous way, in my young mind seemed worth it. It was.

As I started high school my mother was the one who would wake me up after I had fallen asleep at the dining room table—exhausted physically from basketball practice or work. She’d nudge me and I’d wake up from under a Calculus, Chemistry, or some other book I was now using as a pillow and tell me to go to bed. Such moments are what filled my mind as I heard the Intruder’s tune this morning in a flash.

Yesterday afternoon, I had to make a pretty big professional decision and the person I called immediately was my mother. Just like when I was young she gave careful insight as I contemplated my next move in life. The anxiety I felt subsided and I made my decision. I tried to reach out to some of my mentors and professors, of which I was only able to speak to one. His first words were, “What did your mother say?”  After hearing that I knew that once again my mother was still the awesome woman my father married and the mother that I still marvel at. From making decisions about school to the most mundane things, I’ll call in a second to get her advice. I guess in writing this I forgot about my mother’s love of music, which is the reason I started to write in the first place. It is through my mother that I learned to love music too—she introduced me to everything from Earth, Wind, & Fire to Beethoven, The Beatles, Aretha Franklin, Al Green, Patti LaBelle, Santana, and ironically enough The Intruders. My mother is simply amazing and I am glad, thankful, proud, and humbled to call her “Mama.”

I still hate flashcards though.

Monday, April 11, 2011

It's Bigger Than Basketball: Intra-race Class Antagonisms & Public Discourse


March Madness has finally come and gone, much to the bewilderment of college basketball fans like myself. Lost in the hype over what have been thrilling upsets and just great basketball (except for the Championship game) is a controversy of former college basketball greats, Michigan’s Jalen Rose and Duke’s Grant Hill. A couple weeks before the NCAA “Selection Sunday” the passionate responses of two former college basketball superstars took center stage in two of the most widely recognized newspapers in America: The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. The opt-ed pieces were written after the fallout from the ESPN documentary the “Fab Five” which was produced by Rose, whose comments about Hill, cascaded into a firestorm of opinion pieces and uncomfortable moments on camera and in print.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

He Was One of Us

Over the past few days we have been bombarded with images and videos of Dr. King, from his “Normalcy, Never Again” (“I Have a Dream”) speech, to his final public address, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” However, I was surprised to see an image of King making its rounds on the internet (via Twitter) that I had not seen in a long time. The photograph is of King preparing to take a behind the back shot at the eleven ball during a game of pool. From the photo, it looks like he knew what he was doing—this definitely was not the first time Dr. King had held a pool cue in his hands. In reading the comments of those who tweeted and re-tweeted (RT) the photo, many had never seen this particular image of the famous civil rights leader. As I started to follow discussions about the picture, most people really just hinged on how cool it was to see a picture like that of King in that setting, or some mentioned things about the artistry of the photograph. I looked at it, remembering the last time I saw the picture and I began to think about it differently.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

What Does Democracy Look Like?

This latest blogpost was taken from a collection of tweets I rattled off in the immediate aftermath of the Arizona shootings. Due to the number of responses I received, and after some careful thought, I compiled my tweets (and a few responses) into an essay of sorts. I’ve edited the tweets as I thought was necessary and also cited some of my “Twitterfolk” in this piece. I look forward to hearing any comments you may have.

With the recent shooting of congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, I ask the question, “What does democracy look like?” We tend to think of America as the bastion for this system of government, a true personification of the Greek dÄ“mokratia. It is easy believe in the myth of “American exceptionalism” this notion that we are unlike any other nation before or after us. Thus, as the protectors of this system, our government historically has been the champion of making the world safe for democracy. That in mind, an even better question, posed by @NvrComfortable was, “What does our democracy look like?” That is something to consider. What does American democracy look like? At this moment we need to seriously analyze our so-called democratic republic. When fear mongering, ignorance, and hate are allowed to fester like a diseased wound, there are disastrous consequences for us all. When faced with a tragedy such as the Arizona shooting, it tends to bring out all the fringe aspects of our political culture who unfortunately hold even more fervently to warped ideologies of hate afterwards.

Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords pleaded with her fellow Americans in March of 2010 after her offices were attacked in Tucson, Arizona. “It’s really important that we focus on the fact that we have a democratic process, “ she explained. We need to remember that. Now, six people have lost their lives and twelve others have been injured. This was not the time to start spewing more incendiary rhetoric, as some have. That is how we got into this mess in the first place. This is not a Left or Right issue, it is in fact an American one. We need to understand that this is serious. People have lost their lives, and for what?

DOCUMENTARY: "I Am a Man: Dr. King & the Memphis Sanitation Strike"

This documentary gives great context to Dr. King's final public address. Watch. Listen. Share with others.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., "I've Seen the Promised Land/I've Been to the Mountaintop" April 3, 1968 (excerpt)

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Negrointellectual by Vernon C. Mitchell, Jr. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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