Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Black Boy Joy...and Pain

Jenkins and McCraney. Photo Credit: N/A
At the close of another (always too brief) Black History Month, celebrations of our accomplishments past and present recently reached a pinnacle on one of the world's largest stages: the 89th Academy Awards. In a year that broke records for presenting the most African-American nominees with Oscars wins, the barrier was further broken when the year's Best Picture award was (ultimately) presented to "Moonlight," the fictionalized story of a young black man's arduous journey to manhood and in discovering his sexuality, while growing up on the tough streets of Miami. Having received the Best Adapted Screenplay award earlier in the evening, when its writer Tarell Alvin McCraney gave his acceptance speech, he thanked everyone on behalf of himself and director Barry Jenkins as just "two boys from Liberty City (Florida) up here on this stage representing the 305."

Trayvon Martin. Photo Credit: N/A
Amidst so much "black boy joy," however, I was reminded of the pain, as the Oscars February 26th award date also marked the fifth year anniversary of the death of Trayvon Martin--a non-fictionalized, young black man on his own journey to manhood, whose life was cut short on a Florida street, and who's death sparked the movement we came to know as Black Lives Matter. Yet, such a stark juxtaposition of highs and lows has always been the norm within "our community," where we're often leery of celebrating too long in anticipation of what may be yet to come; where the same weeping that endures for the night and brings joy in the morning easily gives way to those joys that endure for a moment but can give way to tears that last a lifetime; where on our journey toward progress, we tread lightly lest we make one wrong step; and where we're reminded that although awards and accolades, while warranted and often long overdue are appreciated, will never compare to the magnitude of change that's still needed and of the work that's left to be done.

Kalief Browder. Photo Credit: N/A
On such a note, the debut of hip hop mogul Jay-Z's powerful six-part docu-series, “TIME: The Kalief Browder Story”(trailer here) premiering March 1st on Spike TV could not be more timely. Having debuted at the Sundance Film Festival and also featured in Ava DuVernay's powerful Netflix documentary "13th," that examines the prison to pipeline phenomenon, the docu-series follows Browder, a former Bronx resident, who was sent to Rikers Island prison in 2010 at age 16 without a trial following allegations over a stolen backpack. His experience at the prison complex unveiled abuse from guards and inmates, as well as countless days in solitary confinement. The case was eventually dismissed and Browder was released from prison in June 2013. He committed suicide in 2015. And, yet, Browder's story is but one of many that need to be told and for whom we continue to fight.

Ava DuVernay. Photo courtesy of Instagram @ava
So, as the fanfare of award season concludes and we're able to give the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag a rest (for now), let us not be blinded by temporary celebrations of "inclusion" and continue to invest our time and best resources in what really matters: keeping the movement alive and moving it forward. As African-American, history-breaking, Emmy, Tony, and now Academy Award winner Viola Davis said in her acceptance speech this year, "[When I'm asked] what kind of stories do you want to tell, Viola?” I say, exhume those bodies, exhume those stories. The stories of the people who dreamed big and never saw those dreams to fruition..." Stories just like Trayvon's. Stories just like Kalief's.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

A Black History Love Letter

Photo Credit: Erica Kennedy
As February competes with two of my favorite celebrations--Black History Month and Valentine's Day--it was difficult deciding which would be the focus of this month's blog. Luckily, a recent New York Times article highlighting the historical wedding announcement (here) of one of my favorite icons in Black History made me realize the two need not be autonomous. So, for the love of my people and the written word, I salute Ida Bell Wells-Barnett (July 16, 1862 – March 25, 1931).

I was a print journalism major at Howard University when the life of Ms. Wells, also a journalist, in addition to being a newspaper editor, activist, suffragist, sociologist, and feminist, became more of interest to me. Notably known for strapping herself with a pad, a pencil, and a pistol, Ms. Wells set out to document the conditions of blacks in the south and, most hauntingly, the lynchings that were taking place there. Fast becoming a target from angry white men and women, Wells was advised by friends to ease up on her editorials. Instead, she declared "[I had] already determined to sell my life as dearly as possible if attacked. I felt if I could take one lyncher with me, this would even up the score a little bit."

Photo Credit: Erica Kennedy
With that same fiery will, determination, and tenacity, it would be no surprise that, in addition to the many movements she created and was a part of throughout her life, that her most impacting would be working closely alongside historians and activists, W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington to found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1909. Ms. Wells would continue her activism, working with Frederick Douglass to organize boycotts, touring the U.S. and Europe with her anti-lynching campaigns, and serving as an educator, all the while continuing to publish articles and pamphlets to bring awareness about the "Negro experience" in America, proving that she always knew the pen was mightier than the sword--even if not mightier then her pistol--and continued in the fight for equality, until her death.

Photo Credit: N/A
Although there are countless African-American heroes who not only shaped black history but American history, Ms. Wells' "unapologetic boldness" as an early female journalist is worthy of recognition and celebration, which is why on an anticipated visit to the National Museum of African-American History & Culture, I anxiously made my way through countless, powerful exhibits stretching from the Middle Passage to the Reconstruction Era, searching earnestly, until I came "face-to-face" with her, and then I smiled. And I exhaled. Because long before the Oprah's, the Cathy Hughes',  the Gwen Ifill's, and countless other tellers of our stories, there was Ida: courageous, intelligent, innovative, unshakable, and determined to not only make a difference but to be the difference.

At a time when claims of "fake news" is used in an attempt to dismantle the truth and the ethics of journalism are being constantly called into question, I am reminded of the power of the written word and in the importance of capturing both the good and bad of history. As we venture forth in this country's uncertain climate, where justice and liberty are facing a "lynching" of their own, let's all remain steadfast and vigilant in our fight to speak the truth and to be the truth, whether by picking up a pen or even a protest sign and, like our ancestors, continue to be foot soldiers for justice--just like Ida.

Happy Valentine's Day and Happy Black History Month!

Photo Credit: S. Ffolkes