Sunday, December 20, 2020

The Best in the Worst of Times

I don't believe there is a better way to sum up 2020 than with the opening of Charles Dickens' famed novel, "A Tale of Two Cities," which reads, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...." Whether that best was simply a reprieve from a daily work commute or the worst being the loss of a loved one, it's safe to assume, at this conclusion of the year, we could all perform a soliloquy built on both of Dickens' sentiments with the "worst of times" reigning supreme. Because of this, I won't add a monologue. Instead, I've decided to close out the year reflecting on and sharing a brief list of those things that brought me joy, laughter, or generated deep thought during this time of great uncertainty. Hopefully, as you await the promise a new year brings, these "best of" recommendations will help turn any of your frowns upside down. 

Best Movie 
With the amount of movies I've indulged in during quarantine, you'd think it would be difficult to identify a "best." It's isn't. But how did I make that determination? Simple: It was the first movie that would come to my mind whenever friends would ask me for a recommendation. That movie is none other than Radha Blank's "40 Year Old Version." The semi-autobiographical flick gives the nostalgic feel of Spike Lee's "She's Gotta Have It" (thanks to it being shot in black and white) and the artistry of Theodore Witcher's "Love Jones" (thanks to its writer-based premise, dope tracks, and nuanced love story). And it's hella funny too. Thanks to Blank's honest and raw portrayal of a down-on-her-luck playwright who feels the only way she can make her voice relevant again is to become a rapper at 40, "Version" made such an impact upon its release, that it took home the U.S. Dramatic Competition Directing Award at this year's Sundance Film Festival and has garnered praise from Los Angeles and New York Times' critics. Gen X'ers will enjoy this all-to-familiar fear of a pre-midlife crisis yet be inspired to blow the dust off any dreams they may have placed on their proverbial shelf. As an added bonus, be on the lookout for your fav hip hop artists who are cast as "regular folk." Available on Netflix. View trailer here

Best Documentary
There was no shortage of Netflix offerings this year and the streaming service went above and beyond in the documentary genre from its now cult classic "Tiger King" to the rebirth of the 80s hit TV series, "Unsolved Mysteries." However, none of them left the emotional stain on my soul as "Trial 4." The eight-part crime docuseries directed by Rémy Burke tells the story of Sean K. Ellis, who was unjustly convicted as a teen for the 1993 killing of a Boston police officer. While Ellis fights for his freedom thanks to a courageous defense attorney who refused to be intimidated by "the powers that be," systemic racism and corruption in Boston's justice system, political arenas, and even churches is put on full display. For persons of color, these stories are not new, but this deep-dive, investigative look at the relentless collaborate efforts across four trials to keep Ellis incarcerated despite a lack of evidence is both astounding and heartbreaking, while his ultimate redemption is empowering. Available on Netflix. View trailer here.

Best "TV" Series
It is often said you gotta laugh just to keep from crying. And when it came to the groundswell support this summer centered around justice reform due in part to protests over the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd at the hands of the police, there was more than enough reason to shed tears upon tears. There was also more than enough reason for us to take a few minutes to breathe and recharge, and HuLu's "Woke" provided the perfect relief. Co-created by Keith Knight and Marshall Todd and starring Lamorne Morris, the series loosely based on Knight's own life, follows a Black cartoonist on the verge of mainstream success who prides himself on 'keeping it light' regarding topics of race until mistaken identity lands him--literally--in the hands of police and he's finally forced to confront his "blackness." Now that Knight is "awake," it's impossible for him to lookaway from the microaggressions and blatant acts of racism confronting him daily, thanks in part to the talking inanimate objects around him that he's suddenly now able to hear thanks to his "roughing up." As crazy as it may all sound, it works due in part to the diverse cast of characters including Knight's funny, polar opposite, black and white roommates; an editor friend at a Black-owned newspaper (played by SNL's Sasheer Zamata) who's been critical of Knight's past ambivalence; an unexpected love interest; and, of course, those inanimate objects--a pen, a trash can, and a 40 ounce--voiced by comedic greats such as Cedric the Entertainer and J.B. Smoove, all helping Knight navigate through his newfound "wokeness." The series' eight episodes are extremely short but nonetheless entertaining, and the series has already been renewed for a season 2. View trailer here.

Best Album 
When I was alerted that Nas' would be dropping a new album this year, I was certain this would be the "musical oasis" we needed that would give us a much needed reprieve from the chaos. While "King's Disease" wasn't horrible, it definitely wasn't "it" if you will (due to what I believe was a push for a more commercialistic approach). And just as I was prepared to return to the hip hop classics that always sustain us, boom, guess who stepped in the room: Busta Rhymes with Extinction Level Event 2: The Wrath of God. Now if there was ever a way to use the devastation of 2020 as a marketing tool for an album, this was it! Whether Busta already had this album in the works and the Universe gave him the perfect platform to perch it on or if he was inspired by the chaos that soon became our norm, I'm not sure. All I know is it was both right on time and right for these times. This sequel to 1998’s E.L.E. (Extinction Level Event): The Final World Front (which I kept on repeat back in the day) and his first studio album since 2012's Year of the Dragon, E.L.E 2 offers a variety of soon-to-be classic, base-heavy tracks and features guest appearances from a roster of musical icons including Kendrick Lamar and Mariah Carey to Q-Tip, Mary J. Blige, and Rakim with narration intervals from both Chris Rock and Minister Louis Farrakhan. We don't know how long this pandemic pandemonium is going to exist, but whether you're in these streets fighting for social justice or fighting for household supplies, be sure to rock out to Busta while you're at it. Available across all music platforms. 

Best Book
There's nothing better than the assurance you get when one of your favorite writers whole-heartedly endorses another. That's how I felt when Damon Young from Very Smart Brothers and "What Won't Kill You Makes You Blacker" fame encouraged his supporters this summer to pre-order writer Deesha Philyaw's debut novel, "The Secret Lives of Church Ladies." If the title alone doesn't grab you, its collection of nine stories that explore the intersection of sexuality and Christianity through the lens of infidelity, casual sex, and same sex relationships will. With black women as the protagonists in each story, this finalist for the 2020 National Book Award for Fiction is an unapologetic, thought-provoking collection of short stories that capture the complexity and diversity of black women struggling to live authentically despite the religious strongholds that conflict with their desires. Grab a glass of sweet tea and enjoy. Available on audiobook, Kindle, and in paperback from Amazon here. Blogger's Fun Fact: Upon receipt of the book, my plan to read one chapter before bed turned into me completing the entire novel by 3 a.m. Enjoy. 

Best New Discovery
Whether we want to admit it or not, 2020 probably found us all imbibing our favorite libations more than we normally would (or should). However, with nowhere to go and streaming offerings aplenty, we sat back and toasted to the weekends and sometimes weekdays alike. And when those moments called for a smooth red, everyone's favorite nephew Snoop Dogg delivered fo shizzle with Cali Red courtesy of his partnership with 19 Crimes wines. According to 19 Crimes, the Cali Red is considered "full and dense, with strong black & blue fruit notes from the Petite Sirah, complemented by bright red, slightly candied fruit from the Zinfandel...tied together by a darkly toasted oak." In other words, it's good. Let's face it: there's not much the D-O-double-G doesn't successfully have his hand in and this bold red is no exception. Cheers! For more information, check out 19 Crimes.

Best Virtual Experience
Apologies to all of my friends who lamented over the missed brunches, homecomings, and happy hours 2020 robbed them of. However, my greatest missed opportunity this year: live entertainment. As one of the things I love most, not being able to sit in a concert hall or jazz club and immerse myself in a live music experience was disappointing. However, thanks to the City Winery corporation's partnership with the Mandolin Concert Livestreaming Platform, music lovers were able to purchase tickets to real-time performances at a few of its seven locations. As artists ranging from Chante Moore to Keith Washington to Chrisette Michelle played to a limited in-person audience, viewers at home were able to sing--and chat--along with fellow fans for a close-to-the-real-thing experience. Of course, there's nothing like being front and center for a live performance but connect an HDMI cable to an HDTV, set the right lighting, and grab a glass of Cali Red, and you got yourself some "homemade" vibes. For more information on upcoming live and streaming shows from City Winery, click here.

Dickens would continue his famed quote by writing " was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” And, yes, 2020 has delivered on all of those fronts. However, as we anxiously await that "spring of hope," I wish all of you the best of whatever those good things are you've discovered this past year that will continue to sustain, uplift, and invigorate you until we can all safely meet again. Be blessed, happy holidays, and happy new year!

Photo Credits: N/A

Friday, September 4, 2020

A Tribute Fit for a King

One week has passed and the melancholy cloud I found myself under has yet to lift, although the world seems to have found a way to continue its rotation. News features and tribute specials have ceased; social media reflection posts have been replaced by satirical memes, blooper reels, and ever-present dance challenges. Verzuz battles have resumed and the never-ending call to vote has recommenced. Yet I'm stuck. Stuck in the painful disbelief that another one of our shining stars has left us. 2020 had already stolen so much--187,000 lives to date due to COVID-19; the continuous black and brown victims of police brutality whose names we continue to shout out less we forget; icons and civil rights heroes from Kobe Bryant to Andre Harrell to John Lewis--and now there was this: our King T'Challa, our Black Panther, our beloved Howard brother, Chadwick Boseman, had ascended at the young age of 43. And, again, it was simply all too much to bear.

So much so, I refused to believe it was just me that was still wrestling with such pensive sadness days later. It couldn't just be me who decided to shut the world out last weekend to just lie in bed and grieve or as writer Damon Young implored in a curt yet impactful essay, to remove the need to "gotta do anything" else in this moment besides just cry. No, I couldn't be the only one re-watching Boseman's blockbuster movies and related interviews, or scrolling through photographs looking for any sign we all must have missed that revealed our black superhero was in the fight of his life battling stage 3 and, ultimately, stage 4 colon cancer, all the while expending his complete energy to bring us joy, inspiration, and hope. 

Whether reminding graduates to "take the harder way" in his 2018 commencement speech at Howard University or in simply offering a sly yet empowering smirk standing at home plate to embody the fullness of the late great Jackie Robinson or commanding the full attention of a courtroom to portray the honorable Thurgood Marshall or, of course, delivering a tour de force performance as Marvel's Black Panther in both a leading movie role and within the Avengers franchise, it was no debating Chadwick Boseman was "The One."

So, no, it could not just be me that felt this loss as greatly different, unshakable and, dare I say, unnecessary. That's when I reached out to a friend, whose reaction in a group chat the evening the devastating news of his passing broke, mirrored my own. "Is it just me...?" I asked. Her response read in part: "Nope, it's not. Still sad and took off from work last Monday to process this...still trying to figure out why I feel this it the HU connection...the way he related to and spoke on the injustices that plagued us...his activism...his gentle spirit...his awesomeness in Black Panther...knowing there was so much more for him to do...?" I replied, "All of it." All. Of. It. And then some. 

I was never a "comic book head" but, growing up, my bedroom was directly across from someone who was: my youngest brother, who cherished comic books so much, he ran to our local 7-11 on a regular basis with me in tow to snag latest releases and first editions, then ran back home to lie across his bed and read them, before storing them in his nightstand, pulling out his art pad, and recreating near perfect renderings of his favorite characters, demonstrating a natural gift in drawing that ironically was never pursued beyond his childhood past times. And so, while the Barbie collection had my full attention, I was keenly aware from watching the joy that engulfed my brother of the transformative power of comics and superheros and what that meant to other kids like him. So, it would be no surprise that this transformative power would be tenfold when brought to the masses on the big screen in Black Panther, highlighting black excellence and the beauty of the African diaspora while giving little black boys and girls (and the rest of us "big kids") the representation we never had but so desperately needed on the big screen. That an aspirational kid from Anderson, South Carolina, would not only set his life's course on a deliberate path to change how Hollywood saw us but would, as a result, change how the world saw us was nothing short of astounding. 

Therefore, it was comforting to know that although the world was returning to its "new normal," my continued sadness was justified, although I was sure it paled in comparison to those who knew him personally, and would continue to wrestle with this loss for weeks, months, maybe even years to come. So, I felt and still feel no rush in needing to push through my grief; yet, I was ready to try and make some sense of it so that I eventually could. And that's when I realized the ability to do so lies directly in understanding the very arc of almost every superhero story: that it starts with an every day person, serendipitously bestowed with supernatural strength that leads to a life of wielding goodwill and honor, that inspires and transforms, until it encounters that one villainous enemy that ushers them toward death. However, it is in what happens to the superhero next where the real magic is found: the rebirth. Be it in a person of a different gender, a different ethnicity, or a renewed storyline, the superhero never really dies: they simply transition and transform. 

I believe that is what Chadwick knew that allowed him to quietly face the reality of his mortality and what he hoped we would all come to embrace as well: that although he may have left us, he would be "reborn" and allowed to live on in every life he touched again and again and again. He would show up in little boys and girls who could now dream bigger than ever before; in men and women who would reflect on his tenacity and courage to push through their own personal hardships; in his fellow black actors and actresses who would be encouraged to always seek the roles that celebrate and uplift us first; in the graduates who he reminded on that hot summer day to "[find that] life purpose that crosses disciplines"; and in every child from that small town of Anderson, who would now beam with pride in knowing they come from a place where a legend was born. Actor Aldis Hodge once said, a superhero is simply someone who "represents hope, opportunity, and strength for everybody." If this is true, Chadwick Boseman was always a superhero. He never needed Hollywood for that; Hollywood needed him. And his legacy will live on in each and every person he inspired, as only superheros can. 

Rest in peace, Brother Chadwick. Job well done. 

Photo Credits: N/A

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Troubling the Waters: Remembering a Monumental Man

When the news of the passing of the honorable Congressman John Robert Lewis began to trend and was subsequently officially announced on the evening of July 17th--ironically, mere hours after famed civil rights activist and friend Rev. C.T. Vivian would leave this earth as well--I was filled with an enormous amount of sorrow that was surprising even to me. After watching CNN's late night broadcast that evening, which would offer the first major media coverage of the loss of the great icon, the tears began to flow. And they would continue as I reached out to family to make sure they heard the news. And as I drifted off to sleep and awoke the next morning. They continued when scrolling pass quotes, memorials, and the now viral "Happy" dance video of him that was posted across social media platforms. They certainly continued when a horse-drawn carriage carried him one final time across the infamous Edmund Pettus bridge--both the backdrop of Selma's 1955 Bloody Sunday and concomitantly the footstool on which Congressman Lewis would cement his legacy. And the tears would undoubtedly continue as he would lie in repose and in state at the Georgia State Capitol and the U.S. Capitol, respectively, before fittingly and finally being eulogized in his representative state of Georgia at Ebenezer Baptist Church--the church of his own hero and mentor, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 

As the tears remained unceasing throughout the week, I texted a friend that I had grown sick of my own self at that point--an attempt to inject humor in a somber moment but also to try to reconcile why the loss of Congressman Lewis aside from its humanistic implications was hitting me so hard. I'd never met him personally like some friends were blessed to do; I missed witnessing him speak about the "good trouble" we all needed to get into although I was in attendance at the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington; and I never marched beside him although I prayed my footsteps at least traced his at some point during the times I did take to the streets of Washington in protest for the very ideals he'd fought for his entire life. But the sorrow remained palpable.

In examining my feelings, I was forced to recall that the last time an icon's passing had impacted me so deeply was that of D.C.'s Godfather of Go-Go, Chuck Brown, which I blogged about as well in 2012. At that time I was able to instantly and undeniably pinpoint the source of my sorrow: the tears for Chuck were equally being shed for a city us D.C. natives were no longer recognizing greatly due in part to gentrification. Losing Chuck was losing a giant, living, breathing symbol of the heartbeat of our youth that would forever tie us to our native city even when many of us had long moved away. And in losing Chuck and thus that connection, it gave us trepidation about a new D.C. that was emerging where we weren't certain we would be embraced let alone included. And that's when I was more clearly able to understand the relative pain in losing the great Congressman: because his passing, too, symbolizes a country were we aren't certain we'll ever be embraced and were we are continuously fighting to be included. In losing Lewis, there was fear draped in sadness that we were not only losing a great man, but were also losing our compass, our consciousness, and our last living "civil rights caretaker."

On the night of his passing, I recall struggling to convey to my sister that I was so pained at the thought that after 65 years of literal blood, sweat, and tears that would start as a dream in the heart of a 15-year-old boy from Troy, Alabama and ultimately lead him to a 34-year tenure in Congress, that Lewis may have left this world brokenhearted at the state where it currently finds itself; where the renewing of the Voting Rights Act hangs in the balance; where black and brown bodies continue to be destroyed and discarded before our eyes at the hands of law enforcement; and where social determinants put minority groups at greater risk of contracting and dying from COVID-19 than any other group.

To have lived the ultimate purpose-driven life that Congressman Lewis did, yet to leave this world behind with resolutions to so many of our social ills continuing to be at stake, was too much for my soul to bear. Gratefully, I would be comforted in the coming days hearing from those that knew Congressman Lewis best that he was not only pleased with the work of the Black Lives Matter movement and the social activism that continues to grow from it but had taken comfort in believing the torch had been successfully passed. And I also found relief in hearing that Congressman Lewis never expected to solve or see a resolution to all of the "trouble" he dedicated his life to eradicating, but that instead he was wise and hopeful enough to know that as long as we're on this earth, there would be wrongs to right; that the fight for freedom is both continuous and renewed with each generation; and that--as former President Barack Obama reminded everyone during  Congressman Lewis' homegoing service--we don't have to do everything he did; just do something!

That first something for me is to finally dry my tears and turn the sadness to gratefulness to live in a time where I was able to witness principled men like Lewis and Vivian and Lowery, and women like Waters and Jackson-Lee and Bottoms, and so many countless others past and present, who led and continue to light that path toward liberty and justice for all. The second something is to remain hopeful and continue to find that "good trouble" John Lewis beckoned us all to get into by working toward change at every level whether its voting, marching in protest, or holding our elected officials accountable to make good on the promises on which this country was built. And the third something is, as Lewis himself would personally write in his farewell words to us all, "to let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide." Message received, dear John. Rest well, and may your good and faithful service be rewarded on high and forever held in sweet remembrance.

Photo and Video Credits N/A

Monday, June 1, 2020

The High Price of Cheap Talk

It has been a long 90 days. Period. So much so, one blog post is not enough to express the mind-numbing thoughts and feelings that have consumed me from the healthcare disparities highlighted by the disproportionate number of Coronavirus cases that more readily plagued and caused the death of black and brown persons to the systemic racism that continues to manifest in the form of police brutality (read: murder). It's safe to say our souls, bodies, and minds are tired. Tired of the loss. Tired of the cycle. Tired of the broken promises. But mostly, tired of the empty rhetoric. Tired, in other words, of the cheap talk we are constantly being fed either by law enforcement agencies and leadership figures across our local, state, and national governments. Cheap talk that has resulted in the high cost of lost lives and lost hope that has again resulted in the rallying cry for change.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. most famously stated, "A riot is the language of the unheard." And so the "shared language" that is being "spoken" in over 27 states across 33 cities, particularly in response to law enforcement's murder of George Floyd in Minnesota and Breonna Taylor in Kentucky and of white supremacists' murder of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, is not surprising nor new. What also is not new is the endless hours of news coverage where talking heads and politicians pontificate and postulate about what needs to be done for change and equality to be both effective and lasting. I repeat: What NEEDS to be done; not what is BEING done. It is a simple shift is verbiage that while slight is what is needed to make all the difference in the world--literally and figuratively.

This message was driven home more profoundly for me during a recent devotional reading from John 5:1-8 when Jesus encountered the invalid man by the pool Bethesda. The disabled man had sat alongside the pool 38 years unable to be healed because no one had helped him into the healing water when it was stirred. He stated, "While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me." Now for those who've read the story, you know how it ends: Jesus commands the man to get up, and pick up his mat and walk and, so, the man does. However, what was most notable about the passage to me was that before Jesus performed His miracle (one of many He had already demonstrated, and could and would do again), He first asks the man a simple yet seemingly obvious question: "Do you want to get well?" Now, it goes without saying, Jesus did not need the man's permission or assistance to conduct this miracle but His inquiry suggested something more: Jesus was curious as to this man's true desire for change that would be needed to accompany his new walk. After all, he had remained in his physically disabled state for 38 years. Surely someone at some point could have assisted him into the pool, no? Or had he simply gotten used to lamenting about his condition instead?

And herein lies the complexity in the collective fight for social justice that leadership must honestly ask itself: Do we, as a country, truly want to get well? There is no debating that since the inception of slavery in this country, the United Stated has profited off of the disenfranchisement of others, and there is still great profit being gained today. And so the systems that many leaders complain about are the same systems keeping those leaders gainfully employed and repeatedly elected--and that, sadly, is not exclusive to non-minorities in leadership (as is said, "not all skinfolk are kinfolk"). It is past time leadership confronts and rectifies this inner conflict with itself, but black and brown America is done with cheap talk. And so in the meantime we must continue to make our demands known and move, whether it's taking to street in protest, joining a organization for social change, donating to a bail fund, contributing directly to those organizations that are already in the fight for equality, or even registering people to vote. There has been more than enough time given to leadership for talking about what needs to be done; there needs to be more doing that starts right now.

Relatively, a video went viral over the weekend of Genesee County Sheriff Christopher Swanson who did just that. Addressing a group of protesters in Flint Township on Saturday, Sheriff Swanson assured the group his officers were there only to protect their right to peacefully protest and that his officers were putting down their batons and helmets in solidarity. It was at that moment that the crowd held the officer to a higher level of accountability and began chanting for him to "walk with us." Sheriff Swanson briefly paused, considered the request, and then he did just that: an act that sparked law enforcement officers in other cities to follow suit marching, kneeling, and demonstrating to the communities they are entrusted with protecting that they are willing to "walk the talk" toward a better tomorrow. Now, we can spend time dissecting whether these officers' actions are indeed genuine or we can see it as a glimmer of hope of what it looks like when leadership stops talking about it and starts being about it.

God knows we all have been guilty of lamenting over yet procrastinating about things we need to improve even in our personal lives but, similarly, if we haven't actively made one step in the direction toward change, it's all just talk. Just like the talking heads who clog up our media airwaves recounting the issues we already know exist or the celebrities who do nothing more than post countless memes featuring quotes from famed civil right leaders or the numerous television round tables asking "Where do we go from here?," time's up on talking. If change won't start with leadership, at the very least, it must end with leadership. Like Jesus asked the man at Bethesda "Do you want to get well"? If so, the answer will always remain the same: "Take up your mat...." and march, protest, engage, create, build, legislate, and get resolute about being in the trenches in the fight for justice and social change. Leadership, that means YOU.

Photo Credits: N/A
Instagram video courtesy of Hollywood Unlocked
Donation list courtesy of Rolling Stone

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

More Hidden Figures: Celebrating (Black) Women's History Month

It would've been a no-brainer to highlight the achievements of African-American women during Black History Month, but as a believer that our accomplishments should not be limited to a less than 30-day window, I'm purposely choosing to highlight three African-American women pioneers in March instead. Luckily, March is observed as Women's History Month as well, which makes it more than the perfect time to say "thank you" to these women, whom without them, our daily interactions, sense of direction, and even vision would have been greatly impaired. I present Drs. Marian Croak, Gladys West, and the late Patricia Bath.

Dr. Marian Croak - VoIP Pioneer
Alma Mater: Princeton University; University of Southern California
Employers: AT&T, Google

Marian Croak, a native New Yorker, is credited with developing Voice over IP (VoIP), and creating most of the methods and features that improved its reliability and led to its nearly universal adoption. VoIP is a method and group of technologies for the delivery of voice communications and multimedia sessions over Internet Protocol, such as fax, SMS, and voice-messaging. After attending Princeton University and completing doctoral studies at the University of Southern California, Croak joined AT&T at Bell Labs in 1982, where she began advocating for the switch from wired phone technology to IP. In addition to her successful advocacy, Croak holds over two hundred patents, including over one hundred in relation to VoIP. Croak also pioneered the use of phone network services for donating to crisis appeals and also for the now popular phone voting practice utilized by many television shows such as American Idol. In 2014, Croak joined Google, where she currently serves as a Vice President for Engineering, leading Google's service expansion into emerging markets. In addition, Croak led the deployment of WiFi across India's railway system, and has assumed responsibility for reliability engineering for many Google services. Croak was inducted into the Women in Technology Hall of Fame in 2013. Dr. Croak, we salute you!

Dr. Gladys West - GPS Pioneer
Alma Mater: Virginia State University; University of Oklahoma; Virginia Tech 
Employer: Naval Surface Warfare Center (formerly Naval Proving Ground)

Gladys West, a native of Sutherland, Virginia, is heralded for her contributions to the mathematical modeling of the shape of the Earth, and her work on developing the satellite geodesy models that were eventually incorporated into the Global Positioning System better known as GPS. In 1956, when West was hired to work at the Naval Proving Ground, she was the second black woman ever hired and one of only four black employees. West was a programmer in the Naval Surface Warfare Center for large-scale computers and a project manager for data-processing systems used in the analysis of satellite data. In the early 1960s, she participated in an award-winning astronomical study that proved the regularity of Pluto’s motion relative to Neptune, and also began to analyze data from satellites, putting together altimeter models of the Earth's shape. She became project manager for the Seasat radar altimetry project, the first satellite that could remotely sense oceans. From the mid-1970s through the 1980s, West programmed an IBM computer to deliver increasingly precise calculations to model the shape of the Earth. Generating an extremely accurate model required her to employ complex algorithms to account for variations in gravitational, tidal, and other forces that distort Earth’s shape. West's data ultimately became the basis for GPS. West retired from Dahlgren in 1998 after 42 years, and was inducted into the United States Air Force Hall of Fame in 2018. Dr. West, we salute you!

Dr. Patricia Bath - Laserphaco Probe Inventor
Alma Mater: Hunter College; Howard University 
Employer: Jules Stein Eye Institute at UCLA

Patricia Bath, American ophthalmologist, inventor, humanitarian, and academic, is credited with being a pioneer in laser cataract surgery. A Harlem, New York native, at the age of 16, Bath became one of only a few students to attend a cancer research workshop sponsored by the National Science Foundation. After graduating from high school in only two years, Bath entered Hunter College, where she earned a bachelor's degree in 1964. She then attended Howard University to pursue a medical degree. Bath graduated with honors from Howard in 1968, and accepted an internship at Harlem Hospital shortly afterward. The following year, she also began pursuing a fellowship in ophthalmology at Columbia University. Through her studies there, she discovered that African Americans were twice as likely to suffer from blindness than other patients to which she attended, and eight times more likely to develop glaucoma. Her research led to her development of a community ophthalmology system, which increased the amount of eye care given to those who were unable to afford treatment. In 1981, Bath began working on her most well-known invention: the Laserphaco Probe--a laser technology device that created a less painful and more precise treatment of cataracts. She received a patent for the device in 1988, becoming the first African American female doctor to receive a patent for a medical purpose. She also holds patents in Japan, Canada, and Europe. With her Laserphaco Probe, Bath was able to help restore the sight of individuals who had been blind for more than 30 years. Dr. Bath, we salute you! Rest in peace.

To all of the phenomenal African-American women, past and present, who continue to create visions, chart courses, and give us voice, we salute and celebrate you!

Photo Credits: N/A

Thursday, February 6, 2020

When Grief Hits Different: The Kobe Effect

It was just over a week ago on January 26th, when the world felt like it came to an abrupt halt upon hearing the news of basketball sports legend Kobe Bryant's tragic helicopter crash death that also claimed the life of his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven of his fellow friends while traveling to Bryant's Mamba Academy. For me personally, every plan I had for that day was derailed as hours upon hours passed well beyond midnight with me glued to my television, phone, and laptop desperately searching for--but mostly trying to process and sort through--the copious amounts of information (and misinformation) to make sense of what was simply incomprehensible: a seemingly indestructible athletic powerhouse was snatched from us on an early Sunday morning without warning. However, as hours turned to days, theories became facts, details emerged, and acceptance began to set in, there was something else just as incomprehensible: the widespread mourning that was both palpable and unshakable.

I'd be the first to admit that although I admired his athletic prowess, I'd long gotten stuck in my opinion of Kobe as the arrogant high school phenomenon who sauntered into the NBA with a chip on his shoulder and a ball in his hand. Decades worth of rumors of selfish antics on the court, feuds with fellow teammates, and one well-known, widely publicized sexual misconduct allegation left me comfortable in my feelings about Kobe for years; feelings I never really checked back in on. Yet, as time passed, it became more difficult to ignore the evolution of Kobe as a man through his leadership on the court and his engagement off the court as husband and father, all which seemingly coincided with his retirement from basketball and his foray into a second act of life that would include an Academy award, business collaborations, philanthropic efforts, mentorships, and a beloved youth basketball league coaching "job." It was the promise of this second act that made his untimely death all the more, well, untimely and painful. But there was still something more begging to be considered.

The loss of icons and the accompanying sadness we all feel is nothing new. In fact, the last decade has forced us to reckon with the departure of some of the world's biggest and brightest stars from Michael Jackson to Whitney Houston to Prince. And although the hurt and pain from those losses was real, I believe the impact and the speed at which our healing occurred was directly related to how we view our own mortality and the unspoken false belief that in some way we can control our destiny by "living right." None of us are without our challenges, but with the passing of the aforementioned icons, reports about their deaths without fail also included narratives on the ways in which they may have contributed to their early demises be it through substance abuse or prescription drug addiction, thus providing us a sort of pedestal on which we could sit and safeguard our own mortality. But Kobe's death hit different. There was nothing to blame. No rhyme; no reason; no foreshadowing from a life lived on the edge. Granted, he hadn't always done everything right, but for all intents and purposes, he was doing so now, which only left the rest of us who struggle every day to do our absolute best feeling strangely vulnerable to the unexpectedness of death's grasp. We comfort ourselves in believing there's a reason for everything but this all felt "reason-less."

Kobe's former teammate Lamar Odom struggled with his own form of "survivor's remorse" stating in an Instagram post, "No way God took my brother this early. I know I been through my own stuff in life with using drugs and not being good to myself...if God would have came to me and said we would take me and spare Kobe I would have rather that happened," further reinforcing the false narrative in which we often take comfort that our good or not so good deeds can somehow change the trajectory of whatever is meant to be. It does not, which is why almost every tribute to and about Kobe was punctuated with a reminder to live in the now; forgive now; reach out to loved ones now, because as Kobe's passing reminded us, when death calls, no amount of money, fame, prestige, or "good works" can cancel its appointment. I know this sobering reality caused the shock of Kobe's passing to hang on me like a weighted blanket for far longer than I expected and, honestly, longer than it made sense. And that's when I had my greatest revelation about Kobe's death and the shared pain everyone I spoke to from family to friends to neighbors to coworkers to even complete strangers was experiencing: the world needed a collective reason to mourn.

In talking to a friend, I described the unrest in the world as of late as that of a cauldron that's been bubbling with political and social unrest, unthinkable violence, and life-changing natural disasters. Add to that pot our own personal daily struggles and losses, and you have a "perfectly imperfect" recipe of unshakable pain we repeatedly push down as we attempt to push forward until that cauldron tips over and every hurt we've been holding onto spills at our feet. I believe Kobe's death tipped that cauldron for many of us and gave us a chance to release. A recent Grio opinion piece highlighted this very notion stating that Kobe's death had provided black men an opportunity to do something they are often shamed and shunned from doing: letting tears flow unapologetically and without question. As Blue Telusma stated in her piece, "Since Kobe Bryant's tragic death, Black men have shown emotions that many forget they have. It's time to let them have their wake for the NBA legend and show that despite stereotypes, they are human."

In Kobe's death we all found a freedom to unabashedly feel, be it for a day, for a week, and for some, what will be even longer. Of course there's no time limit on mourning and time does indeed heal all wounds, but for once, no one is rushing us to reconcile our feelings, which in a world of growing superficiality is remarkable in itself. Yet, while no one will ever be able to explain the reason or necessity of Kobe's absence from this world at 41 nor reconcile all the promise his continued existence on this earth could bring, if his passing brought #GirlDad(s) closer to their beloved daughters; if his passing caused someone to make that phone call to a loved one they hadn't spoken to in years; if his passing caused the world to stand together in the humanity of shared mourning for one black man, regardless of our political, religious, or racial differences, then he was able to do exactly as he planned to in the second act of his life: make an impact on the world far greater than basketball.

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