Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Five Questions The Big O Should Have Asked Sarah Palin

Talk about missed opportunities.

Since no real journalists are likely to get a sit-down with Sarah Palin during her book promotions blitz, it sure would've been nice for Oprah to have made a stab at a serious questioning of the former Governor of Alaska.

Remember in '06, when Oprah took apart that fabricating novelist James Frey and his enabling editor, Nan Talese? At that time, I gave The Big O big props for wielding a fine stiletto of truth in the name of defending the precious line between Fact and Fiction in print. Now, though, I wonder if maybe Oprah had rolled so hard on Frey at that time because his deception had put her reputation at risk, and the degree of personal humiliation she felt at having been duped by the dodgy writer created a volcano of Oprahnic anger, one that would only be sated by a Public Sacrifice.

Sure, she apparently apologized to Frey several weeks ago, in a weirdly-timed, but ultimately understandable gesture. (Oprah is big on forgiveness, so her apology to Frey for having flayed him in front of a billion viewers tracks as consistent.) Yet I anticipated a stronger roll on Palin from Oprah, not just because of what she'd laid down on Frey but also because Oprah kinda-sorta used to be a broadcast Journalist, and she has over the years expressed clear-eyed simpatico with the increasingly besieged practitioners of the Fourth Estate.

But no.

Instead, in her interview yesterday with Palin, we witnessed a spectacle of polite nudging and Girlfriend-ey winks and nods. How tellingly Show Biz was it, for example, when at the end of the 40+ minute talk, Oprah asked Palin if a national television talk show is in Palin's future. "Should I be worried?," Oprah asked playfully. To which Palin replied, with characteristic faux modesty, 'Oprah, you are the Queen."


Their interview has been parsed, dissected, and chewed over ad infinitum ad naseum elsewhere -- including on my Facebook page, where I live blogged it -- so I won't rehash it here now.

Instead, I present five questions that The Big O should have asked Sarah Palin....if only The Big O had decided to put her Journalists’ Hat, rather than her Show Biz Lid, squarely atop her well-coiffed head during her talk with the ex-Gov.

1) While campaigning with John McCain last fall, you repeatedly accused then-Democratic Presidential candidate Barack Obama of "palling around with terrorists." Many more of your stump speeches contained references to Obama as promoting a "socialist" agenda. Do you still believe these things about President Obama? (Thanks to Donald Collins, who suggested this question.)

2) In your book, you describe the moment when you learned that the child you were carrying, your son Trig, would likely be born with Down Syndrome, and that for a fleeting moment, you 'understood' how some women might consider abortion. So isn't it hypocritical of you to support anti-choice legislation?

3) Did you order or arrange the firing of your brother-in-law from his job supervising a unit of the Alaska State Troopers?

4) Did Nicolle Wallace advise you that Katie Couric had "low self-esteem?"

5) You studied journalism in college, and worked for a local news program for a time. How do you describe the role of journalism and journalists in a free, democratic society?

Now, that would have made for some Must-See TV.

A final point on the current Palin-palooza that is sweeping across the fruited plain: You may have heard that quite a few folks have mounted "rejoinder" publications to coincide with the appearance of the former Governor's "autobiography" this week. (Yeah, I put quotation marks around "autobiography" since it is not likely that Palin actually WROTE her own book.)

One of the rejoinders dropping today is called (quite cleverly) Going Rouge: Sarah Palin, An American Nightmare. It is put out by a new publishing concern, OR Books, and edited by my colleagues at The Nation, the estimable Betsy Reed, Executive Editor of The Nation, and the dashingly brilliant Senior Editor, Richard Kim. I am a Contributor, one of several writers who published essays and articles in the Nation and elsewhere last year during the frenzied weeks after Palin popped up on the GOP presidential ticket.

My essay, titled, "Sarah's Steel Ones," makes the point that Sarah Palin is worthy of respect for a couple of reasons: A) she is a human being and B) she appears to possess a high degree of ambition, moxie and self-confidence, traits that, in and of themselves, are valuable inclusions in a woman’s personal arsenal.

A year later, even in light of the...unfortunate nature of many of her recent choices, I do not rescind my original argument. I will however take this opportunity to amend it: Self-confidence, moxie, and ambition are great, but they are most effective and self-sustaining when combined with equal measures of self-awareness, intellectual curiosity, honesty, and compassion.

I believe that women who successfully achieve this balance are often called "difficult" by men....while other women will choose the word “together.”

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Is it Just Me, or Is the Movement to Save Journalism Too Damned White?

Autumn is the time of year when journalists and media educators fire up their Vision Machines and apply for grants and fellowships. Since the media eco-system is in massive flux, the past few years has seen a growing number of hyper-local and citizen-journalism projects receiving funding from organizations like the Knight Foundation. Too few, however, are designed by journalists of color, and aimed at addressing the news and information needs of black and brown people in the US and around the globe.

Here's the story of one person who is seeking to change that.

I recently had a great conversation with Ron Nixon. He is a reporter at The New York Times, and a friend. Like me, Ron is concerned about the future of the news business, and more pointedly, about opportunities within the evolving media eco-system for journalists of color.

Can I tell you how refreshing it is to know someone who is not just thinking about how journalists of color are faring in this new landscape but who is actually doing something to improve conditions for journalists here and abroad?

Take a look at Ujima Project, an investigative reporting and research initiative for African journalists and others who cover the continent. It is the brainchild of Ron and colleagues at the non-profit Great Lakes Media Institute, in Kigali, Rwanda.

Based on a newly-minted principle that Ron calls "reverse transparency," Ujima is an online database of information on the spending and workings of African governments, non-governmental agencies and businesses operating on the continent.

Ron coined the phrase "reverse transparency" after he'd spent years covering development and emerging technology in Africa -- and kept running into major hurdles whenever he sought to obtain relevant data and statistics from officials in the countries where he was reporting, including Nigeria and Rwanda.

"There's no such thing as 'open records' laws, or open access to government data in many African nations, not even in Botswana, which is a darling of US development efforts," Ron told me recently. But what can be obtained is information from the US and the European Union, and many other nations that do business with African countries.

"The problem has been that the information that is available is all over the place, and takes a lot of work and time to figure out where it is and how to get it. But with this [Ujima Project] database, it will now be available in one place," Ron said. For example, there are lots of NGOs spending billions of dollars across the continent to fight HIV/AIDS, and to provide education programs designed to influence public opinion about the causes of the disease. But for journalists in Africa seeking to track the progress and efficacy of these initiatives, knowing where and how the money is spent can be hard to ascertain, Ron said.

"While these NGOs are there doing good work, you still would like to be able to see where their money goes. But there is no transparency, since many of the NGOs avoid dealing with the governments, for many reasons," Ron said.

"So, for example, when you learn that there's a company in Boston that has a contract worth eighty million dollars to do AIDS work in Kenya.....you look at that and think,'So where is all that money going?'" Without disclosure from the Kenyan government, journalists there can't be sure if that Boston company is directing the money to appropriate efforts.

At the same time, Ron says, the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the US State Department, and a handful of other American agencies must approve and vet such arrangements.

These agencies have open records policies for key relevant information on international aid groups and the African nations which do business with them. Thus, by using Freedom of Information Act requests, open records rules, and available online data from American and participating EU nations, the Ujima Project is building a comprehensive, one-stop-shopping resource to help journalists on the Continent "follow the money."

You may be interested to know, for instance, which African nations are buying military weapons and "toxological agents" from U.S. companies. You can find that out at Ujima.

Funded in part with small grants from the Investigative Reporters and Editors, the Open Society Institute; the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's College of Media, the project in beta was unveiled last month in South Africa.

On hand for the unveiling, along with Ron Nixon, dozens of African journalists and academics, was Adam Clayton Powell, III, of USC's Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism. In his role as Vice Provost of Globalization at Annenberg, Powell had attended the Highway Africa Conference, an annual development, media and democracy gathering sponsored by Rhodes University in Eastern Cape, South Africa.

Powell said he was impressed by the demo of Ujima, and told me he believes the Project can emerge as a "go-to" resource for journalists and investors working on the continent.

"Transparency is an issue everywhere, no more so than in Africa, where lack of transparency is a barrier to development," Powell said in an email interview over the weekend. "Assistance and investment just won't take place unless grantmakers and investors can follow management and administration -- and see where their money is really going."

The database's main target group of users, though, is journalists, in which case Powell added, "...as with everything online, the [information at Ujima] is the start not the ending of reporting on a subject. Given the leads in the Ujima database, reporting can become that much more efficient and effective."

The project went up in beta form early in September, and was developed by Ron and by programmers and designers at AppFrica, Appfrica Labs, a softwear and development firm in Kampala, Uganda. Ron built most of the programming himself, and entered the information in portions of the site's databases painstakingly, line by line.

"There were a few times when I felt the RSI happening, but it had to be done," Ron said, laughing.

Going forward, though, as the estimated ninety-plus investigative journalists currently working for news organizations on the African continent begin to use the site, Ron estimates that Ujima's collections of data-sets will broaden, following an increase in demand.

The "reverse transparency" operating principle of the the site can be replicated, too, in the Middle East and in Asia, with journalists taking advantage of the open-records laws of Western nations that fund projects in those parts of the world, Ron said.

He and his colleagues have applied for a grant from the Knight Foundation's Knight News Challenge contest.

The members of the Selection Committee for that august organization may be interested to know that "Ujima" is the Swahili word for "collective work and responsibility."

Friday, October 9, 2009

Up From Slavery, Indeed

POTUS' and FLOTUS' Most Excellent Week Ever

I set out early this morning to post the top three reasons why the Oct. 8 front-page New York Times story on Michelle Obama's slave ancestors is a signal achievement in American journalism.

I get to it, below. First, a word about President Obama's receiving the Nobel Peace Prize:

Don't waste your brain power on the Inside-the-Beltway chatter that will ensue.

Here in Washington, D.C., the President's receiving a Nobel will be cast in the usual horse-race framework, i.e., the Peace Prize represents a redeeming "win" for the President, after his "humiliating loss" of the Chicago 2016 Olympics bid. The Republicans and their increasingly-unhinged constituents will ignore it, or attempt to use this honor in some twisted way to de-legitimize the President, and their enablers in cable talk-land will give them oxygen to feed that incendiary narrative.

But that story-line is not merely false, lazy, and destructive, it is also petty and mean-spirited.

President Obama was awarded the Peace Prize, according to the release from the Norwegian Nobel Committee, for his extraordinary efforts to make the world a safer, more equitable place for all.

As the Committee put it:

Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world's attention and given its people hope for a better future. His diplomacy is founded in the concept that those who are to lead the world must do so on the basis of values and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world's population.

To which we all should say, Amen. Don't give the anti-Obama lunatics any light. Don't fall into the game of "win" or "lose." Don't sleep on the historic significance of the President's Nobel Peace Prize: It means, among other important things, that the American Renaissance is nigh.


Speaking of historic significance, here are the top three reasons why yesterday's front page New York Times story on First Lady Michelle Obama's family history is a watershed in American journalism:

1) It demonstrates in clear, unadorned language and images how present the “peculiar institution”—slavery – remains within our body politic.

2) It belies the widespread if unspoken belief among top news editors and publishers (and the awards and fellowship committees that laud them) that white journalists are better equipped than black journos to deliver “serious” reports about race, and the history of racism in America. No, I am not hating on the authors of "The Race Beat," which received a Pulitzer Prize in 2007, or on Jerry Mitchell of the Clarion-Ledger in Mississippi, who recently received a MacArthur "genius" grant for his reporting on Civil Rights era racial crimes. I simply point out that black journalists at legacy media organizations rarely enjoy the same latitude -- and frankly the trust -- of white editors and publishers that would allow them to focus on such coverage.

3) It throws a big bucket of water over the prevailing, shockingly dumb idea that inexperienced, under-paid bloggers and “citizen journalists” can match well-paid, experienced, ethical journalists at producing accurate, well- written, exquisitely contextualized work that resonates beyond the 24 hour news cycle.

In my next post, I will unpack each of these. For now, big, big props to the Washington, D.C. Bureau of the Times: Yesterday's edition featured a trio of high-performing (if little known) Times reporters who happen to be African-American -- Rachel L.Swarns, co-author of the FLOTUS's slave ancestors story, and Ron Nixon and Ginger Thompson, who teamed up on a stunning (if somewhat less sexy) Page One story about the influence of lobbyists in the unfolding drama of the ousted Honduran president.

If you haven't heard of these three Timespeople before now, it may be because they tend to avoid the crap-tastic circus of political talk shows that insanely has come to define the worth of journalists in Washington, D.C. Yes, in the past 24 hours, Swarns has made select television appearances to talk about the First Lady's Roots story, including a hilarious turn on MSNBC's "Hardball, with Chris Matthews" last night. (I don't recall ever seeing Matthews so well-behaved: it was as if Swarns' understated, dignified style had miraculously dampened his mania for the duration of their talk.)

Still, habits die hard in these parts. And I suspect that bookers at these cable programs will get a rude awakening if they now think they can count on Swarns to be the go-to "black NYTimes DC Reporter Who Will Talk About Race." Ladies and gentlemen of the Inside-the-Beltway glitz-media classes, it is time to re-think more than just your Rolodexes.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Really, Really Big Green For All: Why I'll Be Watching Ken Burns Series on National Parks

How cute was Ken Burns the other night on "The Rachel Maddow Show?"

Okay, maybe "cute" isn't the best adjective. I mean, Burns is kind of creepily perpetually youthful, what with that John Denver-circa-1975 haircut and those twinkly eyes. I'm not quite saying he's the Dorian Gray of the highbrow filmmaker crowd but it is impossible not to notice that he has been making these lovely docs and giving promotional interviews for thirty-some years....and yet, mysteriously, he can pass for a grad student at USC's School of Cinematic Arts.

But watching him on Maddow Thursday night, I was quite taken with his impassioned comments describing "The National Parks: America's Best Idea," his 12 hour-long series that debuts this Sunday night on PBS television stations nationwide.

There were many highlights during Burns' nearly nine minute-long interview, including these, which commence at 3:36, following Maddow's intro and a short clip:

-- "Building human happiness, that's what government's supposed to do."

-- "There was a time when government stepped in and made things better in every single way....that we could bring jobs, and money, and a sense of cohesion and that's what the parks are about, that's why they thrived during the Depression, and not just because they got the first shovel-ready stimulus dollars from Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal but because they brought Americans together."

-- "We started out by saving natural scenery but now we save alot more....Shanksville, Manzanar, all these places that reflect our complicated past."

That last reference alludes to portions of the series dubbed, 'Untold stories." Clearly Burns learned an important lesson after the minor racial kerfluffle he experienced as his last mega-series, "The War" prepared to air in 2007. Back then, a handful of ethnic historians raised a ruckus because Burns had ignored stories from the heroic contributions of Asian American, black, and Latino enlisted men and women who had fought in World War II. He eventually admitted to having dropped that ball, and it seems from this National Parks series, that he has avoided making the same mistake.

In "National Parks: America's Best Idea" there are apparently several segments that focus on histories of the more recent inclusions into the nation's Federal parks system, including slave cabins in the South and Mid-Atlantic, and the infamous former Japanese internment camp, Manazanar, in Northern California. (I say "apparently" because I have not viewed the entire series, only trailers available online.)

The "complicated past" Burns was getting at in his comments to Maddow may already be known to many ethnic minorities in the U.S., though, truth be told, its presentation in the series will likely be illuminating to all viewers, including some people of color. The sad fact is that few Americans are aware of how deeply our identities -- personal and tribal -- are tied to our landscape, and to the social and political historic narratives that are bound up in our physical surroundings.

For instance, I lived in California's Central Valley for three years during the early 1990s, and only learned in my final few months there that a dusty, barren section of Tulare County had been designated the Col. Allen Allensworth Historic State Park. Named after a black Civil War veteran who had been born a slave in Louisiana, Allensworth State Park is anchored by a small village that was once the center of a nascent blacks-only township. It is located near what is now the tiny city of Earlimart. Allensworth had fled the racist terrorism of the Deep South in the 1880s, and settled on the west side of the great San Joaquin Valley; back then, fed in part by an immense fresh-water lake called Tulare, that section of the Central Valley was verdant and prime for farming.

Allensworth and a consortium of other black veterans and businessmen first bought 20 acres of land beginning in 1908, soon expanded to 80 acres of land, and by 1914, drew some 200 black residents to the area. The town was self-sufficient, with its own stores, a post office and a school. But -- insert sigh, head-shake, and You-Guessed-It here -- state officials and the surrounding (white) ag-barons colluded to divert a crucial railroad line and water systems away from Allensworth. By the 1930s, the little town with big ambitions literally died on the vine.

Granted, Allensworth is not a national park, and you don't learn his story from Burns' PBS series, but you get the idea. What "National Parks" endeavors to accomplish -- along with the surface message that our Great Outdoors are sacred spaces that require our eternal vigilance and respect -- is that brown and black people in America have terra firma ownership rights that are quite as valuable (if not more, in the case of native Indians) than those of whites. Our investment in our National Parks should not be merely symbolic or distant but genuine, spiritual, and worthy of our constant attention.

I am a native Northern Californian, so maybe I'm too inclined to rhapsodize about the Wide Open Spaces. But the "green movement" is really quite old, and I wish our current political discourse reflected its historic ethnic diversity. Long before Van Jones and Majora Carter hipped white progressives to the idea that black and brown people care about the environment, too, my City Girl's mind was blown (in the best possible way!) by my early exposure to the grand vistas of my home state.

If you have never felt the chilly mist from Bridal Veil Falls in Yosemite, or stood at the amber-colored rim of the Grand Canyon, or craned your neck trying to see the tip-top of a towering Redwood, you are missing out a chance to see yourself as a different kind of American. I'm going to watch at least some of "The National Parks" with my two children, so they will be prepared for the grand treasures I will introduce them to the next time we go West.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Skip, POTUS, Cops, and the Press: Why the "Teachable Moment" Should Be a Decade

On the evening of the day that Henry Louis Gates, Jr., was arrested at his Cambridge, Massachusetts home, I was at the Hilton New York, on Avenue of the Americas, watching President Barack Obama's address to the 100th Anniversary Convention of the NAACP.

At that time, we had no clue about what had transpired in Cambridge a few hours earlier.

We floated on a cloud of happy anticipation, there at the Hilton: How extraordinary to be at the Centennial anniversary of the nation's oldest civil and human rights organization, the very group that played a significant part of paving the way for Barack Obama's historic election to the US presidency. (I joined the Communications staff of the NAACP on June 10, 2009. The commentary here at Community Forum reflects my own views, not necessarily those of the NAACP.)

President Obama spoke for 33 minutes at the Hilton New York, during a dinner known as the Spingarn Awards. As we'd expected, his address was focused closely on the subject of black progress in America, more than in any previous speech he'd given.
And yes, even surpassing his landmark March 2008 "Philadelphia speech." That Jeremiah Wright-inspired address was certainly a model of nuance and historic sweep, on the general topic of race relations. But by design, it was primarily conciliatory in tone, and he diluted the Black Thang by folding in (legitimate) themes of the disenfranchisement and social disconnection of not just blacks but also poor whites and other marginalized Americans.

I covered the March 2008 Philadelphia speech for The Nation, and noted that the only genuine "news" to emerge was that so many of my colleagues in the press seemed surprised by Candidate Obama's views on the complexity of race and class in America.


The day after the President's July 16 speech at the NAACP, then, I wasn't entirely surprised to see that many of the mainstream journalists who covered it had emphasized one part of his speech over another -- the Black Personal Responsibility note he had sounded in the second half of the address. It was just that, a note, not the entire piece, though you couldn't really get that from much of the next-day coverage.

The first part of President Obama's NAACP speech had been a swift, sharp tutorial on the trajectory of racism and discrimination in America, from the brutalities of lynchings and racial domestic terrorism, through the legalization of discrimination that arrived with Plessy v. Ferguson and Jim Crow segregation; to the subtler, more elusive forms of racism that are currently embedded in our major public and private insitutions. President Obama made it clear at The Hilton that he believes that most African-Americans begin the game at a disadvantage -- and that the nation's history of slavery and racial discrimination is the cause.

He brought it on home with a solutions-oriented disquisition on the need for increased responsibility and accountability, and not just from blacks but also from American government and corporate insitutions.
Basically, said the President, everyone needs to sharpen their Values and Responsibility Chops in order to shrink the gaps in black achievement, and to lift up all Americans who struggle. If we do not, "America cannot compete" in the global future, he observed quite appropriately.

And yet...... USA Today, The New York Times, and a few other big print outlets in their live and next-day coverage focused almost exclusively on the portions of his speech in which President Obama urged black Americans to, "...accept our own responsibilities. That means putting away the Xbox, and putting our kids to bed at a reasonable hour." Nearly every mainstream outlet carried that quote, and wrapped their stories around that thread. (By contrast, Krissah Thompson's and Cheryl W. Thompson's July 17 story in The Washington Post got it right.)

To many of us present at that July 16 speech, the most important line came earlier, as President Obama transitioned between the historic injustices of lynchings and Jim Crow segregation, to the solutions portion (boldface added by me):

Government programs alone won’t get our children to the Promised Land. We need a new mindset, a new set of attitudes – because one of the most durable and destructive legacies of discrimination is the way that we have internalized a sense of limitation; how so many in our community have come to expect so little of ourselves.

I wanted to hear more from President Obama on that last idea, how the long history of racism, brutality and discrimination created a damning image that has been internalized by generation after generation of black Americans. The inability of many blacks to vanquish that internalized racism -- which leads to fatalistic thinking, which in turn opens the door to a variety of high-risk and self-destructive behaviors -- is truly our biggest challenge as we close the first decade of the new century. But it was not to be, not in that talk to the 100th Anniversary gathering of the NAACP.

A small buzz around the mainstream media's lame coverage of the President's speech began in the first day after the Convention. Apparently anticipating some media drama, President Obama had given a handful of journalists from black press outlets a lift to New York and the NAACP Convention aboard Air Force One. (Do I agree with an elected official attempting to run the access to power game, in the run up to a major public event? Hell no. But I am learning alot from the Adminstration's craftiness on this front....)And yet, much of the next day's coverage was dominated by a one-dimensional narrative.

Make that one and a half dimensional, since the other false-note narrative that initially dominanted coverage of President Obama's July 16 speech at the Hilton New York centered on the question, Is the NAACP still relevant?

A lazy approach, considering that two days before the Centennial convention kick off, a few dozen black kids got kicked out of a predominantly white private "swim club" in suburban Montgomery County, Pennsylvania for "changing the atmosphere" of the joint....and considering that more people of color were sold risky mortgage loans than whites, no matter their income level and credit histories....and considering that in mid-spring, a black off-duty New York City policeman was shot dead by a white cop co-worker who didn't realize the Brotha was a Brother in Blue.

Barely a day after his NAACP speech, even the President made note of the shortcomings of that prevailing media narrative, the Black Responsibility tip being emphasized above all else that he'd covered. This is a sure sign that the jig is up for big news outfits that continue to ignore the importance of comprehensive, nuanced race and class coverage. But within two news cycles, that buzz, faint to begin with, was fading.


I returned home to Montgomery County Maryland, in suburban DC, on Friday, July 18. I thought I'd have to wait who knew how long for another POTUS-related "race moment" that would expose the media's historic blindspots of race and class coverage. Or maybe until the "birthers" just come straight out and publicly accuse the President of being a race-relations Manchurian Candidate, lying in stealthy wait for the clandestine signal to allow him to activate a Secret Black Agenda.

Mostly, I wondered what it would take to finally smarten Americans up about the full history and implications of the Black Experience in this country.


On July 20, four days after President Obama spoke at the Hilton New York, The Boston Globe posted a story of how Henry L. Gates, Jr., had been arrested right on his front porch in Cambridge, Massachusetts, apparently by a white cop who mistook him for a black burgular.......on the same day that President Obama had addressed the100th Anniversary gathering of the supposedly no longer relevant NAACP.

I won't rehash the ins and outs of the Gates Situation, or should I say, Confrontation. By now we know the details, and are well and truly queasy at the sight of any more lurid cable news network headlines belching, "The Professor, the Police, and the President."

But I encourage you to read Glenn C. Loury's brilliant analysis published in the Sunday, July 26 edition of The New York Times. He astutely argues that the "teachable moment" that everyone seems to be hoping will come out of the Skip-Gets-Jacked-Up-and-POTUS-Rides-to-the Rescue flap, must last longer than a hot minute.

The crucial topic of how racism, power, and entitelment has done a mind-fuck on uncounted blacks (and whites) in this country can't be answered with a flashy show'n'go...or with a beer'n'go at the White House. A successful search for genuine, stick-to-your-rib solutions requires a major adjustment to our thinking, and to the sputtering engines of our democracy

I agree with Loury's premise, even though he could have sold it equally forcefully without taking the swipes at Skip that he does in the piece.

Having collaborated with Skip on a book about black leadership, and socialized with Skip, and written for his first web venture, Africana.com, and at TheRoot.com, I know that he can be, shall we say, impish. But he is a genius, and quite determined to improve race relations in America. He is also marveously strategic about doing the intellectual shovel-work required to bury lingering white perceptions of black inferiority.

If Charles Ogletree and Alvin F. Poussaint are the Wise Men of Harvard -- towering, casually elegant figures who've spent decades at the methodical, unglamorous work of educating young achievers of every skin color while also shoring up black self-love -- Skip is the precocious gadfly who flits from project to project, spinning out the gold of black achievement... while sometimes knocking over the heirloom vases.


Loury says what President Obama, perhaps doesn't quite feel he can say, just yet. Loury calls for significant policy and funding changes to directly address the underlying causes of high rates of black incarceration, school drop outs, and unemployment. He observes that the disparities in these categories have always existed, that they have been climbing steadily for decades, and that the rate of increase has accelerated exponentially since the current Recession (Depression for black folks) began, roundabout mid-2007.

In other words, as the President's NAACP speech telegraphed, there needs to be a monumental shift in our national psyche in order to sincerely begin to address the root causes of the symptoms, rather than just the symptoms. And a shift in funding and policy priorities to provide the kind of comprehensive therapy to our criminal justice, education, and social services systems -- as well as to the poor and ethnic minority populations that are historically resistant to The Couch -- that is urgently needed.

Maybe now, thanks in part to what took place on July 16, in New York, and in Cambridge, Mass., President Obama will have the necessary opening to start leading us toward that shift. He will need the help of all Americans, and the strength of a hundred ancestors, stretching back further than a Centennial.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Michael Jackson: A Postmodern American Tragedy

It is challenging these days to get folks to slow down, connect the dots, and step back until the Big Picture emerges. But here goes:

Michael Jackson's life and death is a quintessential American Tragedy, as epic, cinematic and paradoxical as that of the main character, Clyde Griffiths, in Theodore Dreiser's 1925 classic. The postmodern twist, of course, is that Michael was black, and that the desperate materialism and longed-for upward mobility that was Griffiths' undoing came not from Michael himself but from his father, Joseph. Overlay that with the peculiar black male fear of being viewed as "sensitive" or "weak," and an archaic belief in corporal punishment as an effective child-raising technique -- both of which are vestiges of our history of slavery in America -- and no one should be surprised that Michael eventually fell apart. Lots of regular black men fall apart from this stuff every day, we just don't see their drama splashed across the networks and cable news shows wall to wall....unless they do something spectacular like murdering family members of Jennifer Hudson.

A thick weight of self-hatred, internalized racism, and sexual identity crises are as much a part of the story of Michael Jackson as are his soaring artistic achievements, criminal troubles, and global cross-cultural appeal. Black people could sense the first part of that equation within Michael, even if we didn't share it with the world. But maybe now we will. The same kind of self-hatred and other internalized emotional toxicity that combined to take Michael Jackson down has largely proved too messy and complex for discussion in public, especially by the media. And in this, I will cut my colleagues a small amount of slack: How do you sound-bite the story of the continuing negative fallout of slavery and racial discrimination in America? And how can you do it in the context of the death of one of the biggest modern pop stars in the world, a black man born in the height of the post World War II boom, a millionaire many times over who "transcended race?"

Really, it is almost too much: a classic, layered narrative that doesn't fit this era of quicksilver, mile-wide-inch-deep InstaNews. But Michael isn't the first, and won't be the last to succumb to our history. May as well put it on the table right now.


I am in my mid-40s, and have learned the hard away that black men in America, even Michael Jackson, do have it rough. My late 20th Century Methodist upbringing conditioned me to forgive, always to forgive. But in this mean first decade of the new century, I struggle against losing patience with black men who cannot shake the worst aspects of the history of slavery that have unfairly defined them for so long in this country. I know it is not easy to just "snap out of it," when your father, grandfather and great-great grandfather failed you by abandonment, or withholding, or physically or emotionally abusing you.

Yet there are opportunities now -- real, tangible, call them on the phone and get an appointment opportunities -- for a brother to inch his way back from the brink of self-destruction, including the self-destruction of repeating the same unhealthy behavior with his own children. Courage is required, and that is in short supply.

By many accounts, including interviews with Michael over the years, Joe Jackson believed he could beat his children to teach them discipline. He was not alone in that belief, during that time, and clearly his boys did come away with an amazing amount of poise and professionalism. But the lasting, debilitating imprint on Michael, at least, is evident.

Even before Barack Obama appeared as a lanky example of how it is possible for black men to Overcome the insidious legacy of racist discrimination, lifelines for inching back from the precipice have been there. I know, because I found many of them, sussed them out, and published them nine years ago, in a book that unpacks the direct connection between America's second-biggest sin -- slavery, with the decimation of Indians being the first -- and the urgent contemporary matter of black folks' mental health. There are other resources now too, as some of the stigma around this subject begins to recede. But a surfeit of the pathological misbehavior persists.

And while the Intellectual me knows that it may take several more generations for masses of black men to find the courage to seek and embrace a profound, positve psychological breakthrough, the Emotional me is about done in. I don't know if Michael Jackson was a child molestor. But I know there is a big pile of research showing that children who are abused are at high risk of becoming abusers.


The soundtrack of Michael Jackson's story should contain as many blues standards as the pop, R&B, and rock'n'roll that earned him fame and fortune.

Look at this black and white video of Michael and his brothers, the footage apparently shot in 1968 or so, around the time Berry Gordy first met the young dynamos from Gary, Indiana. They are performing a cover of James Brown's barn burner, "I Got the Feelin.'" Notice that young Michael in motion is fundamentally a minature version of James Brown, with the same fly footwork and diamond-sharp spins as those perfected by the Godfather. Ten year old Michael is tearing it up at a lightening pace, and to watch him is breathtaking.

He was emulating, mimicing Soul Brother Number One, probably unaware that Brown's famous work ethic and discipline emerged from one of the most violent and repressive regions in America, Augusta, Georgia and nearby Edgefield County, South Carolina. Brown was born and raised there, and before his death, he wrote and talked extensively about how desperate he'd been, while growing up, to get the hell out of that poor and violent place. Also, if you read All God's Children, former New York Times reporter Fox Butterfield's account of one African-American family from that region, the Boskets, you get more heartbreaking, voluminous details of the lasting negative fallout of slavery, racism, and decades of Jim Crow segregation on generations of black men. The Bosket men are like uncounted others of black men in America, the great-great-great grandsons of blacks who endured cruelty beyond imagination. They continue to walk among us.

Michael learned important artistic lessons from Brown, and from the other black soul brothers he idolized, including Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke. Those men were of Joe Jacksons' vintage -- and Joe Jackson came from a small town in Arkansas, another pocket of racist terrorism. You can't believe that, along with their artistry, the same desperation and blues that had infused those men's lives did not also get absorbed by Michael Jackson. As Stanley Crouch has observed, the blues is the purest expression of both the tragedy of America, and its eternally promising ability to improvise.


Finally, Michael Jackson most certainly understood the blues. I think he rather embodied the blues, under all the grotesque, Norma Desmond-style drama. Listen again to the Jackson 5's version of William "Smokey" Robinson's early hit, "Who's Lovin' You?"

On Friday night, I dug it out of a box of cassette tapes that had been gathering dust in the storage crawl space next to my laundry room. It is a reissue, from the crappy 1992 telemovie, "The Jacksons," that Susan de Passe produced. I had fallen upon the two track cassette in a music store in Boston, and bought it because it contains the original 1969 studio recording of the Jackson 5 version of "Who's Loving You?", and a re-mixed, re-mastered "Live" recording of it, too. (I don't know why the word "Live" is in quotation marks on the sleeve of the cassette but I suspect it means that the original recording, captured in front of an actual audience during a concert in the late 1960s, received some cosmetic work for this re-issue.)

Listen to 11 year-old Michael sing that song, and tell me he didn't know, at that young age, that life can be a motherfucker. That life can be rich, sorrowful, exhilarating, and cruel. The song was written by Smokey Robinson, who was, of course, Motown's greatest author. Back then, he was especially masterful at combining Tin Pan Alley ardor with roadhouse gut-bucket and then wrapping it in the sheen of Gordy's hit-squad of studio musicians, the Funk Brothers.

In this recording, Michael is as pure an entertainer as he would ever be, his delivery so precise, full, and plaintive that it raises goosebumps on my arms every time I hear it.

I found a cassette tape of the "Thriller" album in that box, too. But I'll be listening to "Who's Loving You?" this weekend. For now, anyway, it is my favorite blues record.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Why "Assalaamu alaykum" is The "Ich bin ein Berliner" of Our Time

It seems like only yesterday that Minister Louis Farrakhan was the scariest Muslim in the world (at least to some uninformed Americans.)

Yesterday, President Barack Hussein Obama used a respectful term of greeting -- assalaamu alaykum -- in his speech at Cairo. It is Arabic, and it means, "peace of Allah be unto you." It is a term that may have stumped (or troubled) some of the same uninformed white Americans who once quaked at the rhetoric of Minister Farrakhan. But black Americans, and most followers of Islam around the globe, have no problem decoding the term, and the spirit in which it was delivered yesterday. For one thing, most of us probably heard the term for the first time in our own neighborhoods, from members of the Nation of Islam, or other African-Americans who have converted to orthodox Islam.

Its invocation yesterday by President Obama was a big deal, as significant as John F. Kennedy's busting out in German to demonstrate solidarity with citizens of that nation, as they struggled to rebuild their cities and reputation two decades after World War II: Ich bin ein Berliner. POTUS use of assalaamu alaykum in Egypt yesterday is also important in this respect: It is another key signal that Reality Rules, in this administration.

No more wasted energy chasing imaginary Bogeymen, at home or abroad. The Scariest Muslim in the world -- Osama Bin Laden -- finally has a worthy opponent, one who not only speaks the same language but who is likely to cite the Koran as he hunts him down.


Is it time to revive the "Black personal responsibility" debate?

I'm thinking, Yes, but this time with an important change: How about we recast it as an "Adult Responsibility" debate, de-emphasizing ethnicity, and replacing it with a generational focus?

Here is why:

Several key developments in the past few days have reinforced a sad universal truth -- Plenty of adults behave irresponsibly, quite dangerously, in fact, notwithstanding their economic status, education level or skin color:

-- Scott P. Roeder, the Kansan charged in the murder of a doctor who performed late-term abortions, is a 51 year-old white man.

-- Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the United States House of Representatives, sends a Tweet calling Supreme Court Justice nominee Sonia Sotomayor a "Latina woman racist." (He later issued a half-assed apology but by then, the poison was unleashed, sparking an orgy of racist speech in the blogpshere.) He turns 66 years-old later this month.

-- Abdulhakim Muhammad, aka Carlos Bledsoe, is a 23 year-old African-American from Little Rock who was arrested early this week and charged with the murder and attempted murder of two U.S. soldiers. According to authorities, Muhammad shot the two young men from inside his pick-up truck as they stood in front of an Army recruiting office near Little Rock.

Three wildly different episodes, but each connected by a single unmistakeable thread: The perpetrators were all adults, and yet they exercised the judgement of an angry three-year-old, i.e., impulsive, vengeful, and horribly destructive to others. It is not a dynamic unique to blacks, Latinos, whites, or East Asians. The reasons why so many "adults," (meaning those who have crossed the threshold to the legal definition of adulthood, age 18) fail to clearly and rationally perform the act-for-consequence calculus before they do a dumb thing are not important here: We are a nation of laws, and our Constitution obviously attempted to account for such human failings.

What is becoming urgently clear is that we must find effective ways to reshape our culture and institutions -- families, schools, workplaces -- to more directly account for, and as best as possible, to prevent, the tragic outcomes that are inevitable when individual "rights" collide with the safety and progress of others. (The Second Amendment, for example, is most certainly due for revision -- can the Democrats on the Hill please find their spines and stop horse-trading on crazy things like allowing "campers" to bring assault weapons into National Parks?)

I am not interested in getting into a "preventive detentions" - style fight with the ACLU. Nor do I want to revive the "blacks only" issues beneath the rather amusingly one-sided dust-up between Michael Eric Dyson and Bill Cosby a couple years back. God no --been there, done that, bought the refrigerator magnet....although it is delicious to see my boy Dyson dialing back on the Cosby-Hates-Poor-Black-Folks rhetoric now that President Obama has pretty much endorsed Cos' position. Remember then-candidate Obama's Father's Day talk at Apostolic Church of God in Chicago last June? The one where he urged African-American males of all incomes and education levels to "make responsible choices," and to teach their children that, "there's nothing weak about being kind...nothing weak about being considerate and thoughtful." I watched it again just now, and will probably do so again soon.)

No, I'm concerned about our apathy in the face of Adults Behaving Badly, and the terrible message such acquiescence sends to our children. Surely there are innovative front-end measures we can take to make sure children, teens and young adults develop the critical thinking skills -- not to mention the empathy and compassion -- to prevent them from behaving like murderous caricatures?

What solutions have you encountered, I'd like to know?

Meanwhile, here is another clip of a conversation with an individual who cares deeply about finding realistic answers to this profound and confounding question -- How do you create a society and government where individuals can have the "right" to act up, but not at the expense of the safety and progress of us all? His name is Colbert King, and he writes at The Washington Post.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Obama-Holder-Sotomayor Conspiracy Exposed! (Or, how to make American Institutions Resemble America)

Welcome to Amy Alexander Community Forum, an online meeting place for smart, fun and respectfully free-wheeling conversations about our 21st Century American experience.

If "our 21st Century American experience" sounds broad, it is -- by design: Community Forum takes a Socratic approach to ideas, events and movements. I want to know what you are thinking and feeling because I value your opinion. I'm also curious to know how others are envisioning the future, and what (if any) steps they are taking to nurture themselves and the burgeoning American Renaissance.

Here, we will raise many questions, probably many more than are answerable. Politics, especially of the cultural variety, are the topical meat and potatoes in this space. But appetizers and drinks flavored by stories of faith, history, and family are most welcomed, with the goal of encouraging a healthy flow of solutions-oriented ideas.

This column is Vox Americana, with a weather eye on Pax Americana: a location where discussions will bridge the generational, class and race divides that have nearly undone our republic. Community Forum is inclusive, but distinctly American in its origin, since it springs from the brain of an American woman, living in suburban Washington, D.C. I am a content producer by trade, a black San Franciscan by birth , and an American who feels fortunate to have the White House in her backyard at this time.

With that, let's begin in the nation's capitol, where parallel universes are increasingly evident -- dreamy mountaintops of big policy changes that loom larger than ever on the horizon....and deep valleys of human despair that also stretch far and wide.

These days, here in D.C., there is so much going on that keeping your eyes on your own plate can be a challenge. It helps to believe that the psychic pendulum cannot possibly continue its wild swings between shining optimism and pitch dark, but that is what living in Washington, D.C. requires right now, strong beliefs and values, if not necessarily blind faith. Nearly six months after Inauguration Day, many residents in this region are still in a swoony honeymoon with President Barack Obama and his family. Like many others here, I too have had an up close and personal Sighting -- at a kiddie theatrical performance in Montgomery County, Maryland earlier this month. I am happy to report that POTUS and FLOTUS indeed appear to want to bridge the vast gap between "the two Washingtons." You know, the one occupied primarily by poor, under-employed mostly black and brown-skinned residents, and the one occupied by the Establishment people.

On one front in particular -- the extraordinarily high rate of HIV diagnoses in the District, which is tied to poverty and race -- the void seems so wide that closing it sometimes appears to be impossible. And yet.........

On June 9, the Whitman-Walker Clinic is scheduled to host a big fundraiser. The clinic is a leading provider of educational, preventive and outpatient services on HIV/AIDS in the District. Its honoree will be U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. If you are wondering why the nation's chief law enforcement officer is the right person for such an award, listen to what Donald Blanchon, director of the Whitman-Walker, said earlier this month in announcing the choice:

"For three decades, Eric Holder has been a leading advocate for civil rights and justice for minority communities. He has been a tireless defender of the most basic American values of individual dignity, access to justice and safeguards against unchecked government power. While serving as an inspiring national leader, he has remained deeply involved in the needs of his own city, the District of Columbia, which continues to stagger under the burden of the HIV epidemic.”
In a city where at least 3 percent of residents have the virus, according to a report by the District's own HIV/AIDS office March 16, Holder's appearance at the Whitman-Walker fundraiser has the potential to keep the spotlight on a topic that is adept at staying in the shadows.

Such symbolic efforts from top officials, I believe, can have a positive accumulative impact on individual behaviors on the ground, over time. (And so, clearly, can more substantive efforts -- President Obama's nomination of Sonia Sotomayor, being the best recent example.) Holder, like President Obama, is a "brother" in the eyes of many of us. The images and sound-bites from his appearance at that June 9 dinner may encourage otherwise apathetic folks to pay attention, maybe even put on a Jimmy hat once in a while, or even get an HIV test. At least, that is what I hope happens, should Holder make the event and get some decent publicity.

Your thoughts?