Friday, January 11, 2013

Django, the Drug War, and Black History Month

My blood tends to run a little faster every year when the calendar flips to January. It’s not so much the Cleveland winter — global warming is taking care of that; rather it’s the one time of year when our community kinda sorta celebrates blackness, or at least says it’s ok to talk about it in a positive way. The period lasts about six weeks or so, from the observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day through the end of Black History Month, and then it’s “ok, recess is over, back to normal.”

I’m not referring to “our community” as either just black folks or white folks. It’s almost as if an unspoken pact exists between in-laws. Most everybody around here tiptoes around race. We know the subject is explosive; we know it’s problematic. We know it’s the Eight Ton Gorilla in the family room. Which is why we stay in the kitchen and visit the family room only on special occasions, and even then according to carefully scripted rules of engagement. So during MLK day we talk about the content of our character but not about our national propensity for warmongering and sustained violence at home. And during BHM African Americans can salute our ancestors and how they overcame the Middle Passage, Slavery, and Jim Crow, without any discussion or analysis of why we are not doing anything about 21st Century New Jim Crow in education, criminal justice, or the economy.

This year feels a little different to me. Thank you Django! It seems everywhere I turn people are talking about the movie, and therefore talking about ticklish aspects of our history. If there were an Oscar category for most provocative film, Django would be a hands-down winner.

Of course a lot of our discourse on race is echoed in views long ago forged into cast-iron. Many times when we think we want to talk about race we can’t get past skin. So an ESPN commentator questions the racial bona fides of Washington ‘Skins quarterback Robert L Griffin III — is he a ‘down’ brother or a ‘cornball brother’? — because RGIII: a) has a white fiancée and b) disdains simplistic comparison to other mobile quarterbacks who happen to be black, aspiring to one day achieve the status of the best QBs ever. (The commentator, Rob Parker, was first suspended and then let go. This was an appropriate result, not because Parker crossed some forbidden line but because his analytical frame is too flat for him to be a social commentator in any medium.)

Jeffrey Blanck, Reno NAACP president
In a similar vein is the reaction of many across the country to the headline that the Reno NAACP elected the first white president in its 66-year history. Many blacks greeted this news with groans from a familiar grab bag of perpetual victimization and helplessness: ‘white folks gotta run everything’, ‘couldn’t they find a black man’, ‘black people always think white is right’, etc. They were oblivious to the story of the NAACP’s interracial founding, its guiding principles, or the decades of civil rights advocacy that justified the fellow being entrusted with the honor of serving as branch president.

These examples of call to mind the succinct and wise counsel my friend Julian Earls likes to share with young, aspiring black folk: “Every black person is not your friend, and every white person is not your enemy.”

Agentic African Americans

Still, this season seems different to me because I see local African Americans who are not making automatic skin responses but choosing instead to be agentic in the struggle to address core community issues. Microsoft Word doesn’t seem to like “agentic”, giving it the red underline; it is a fine word, and I use it here to describe people who do not accept victimhood but are “active agents in their own deliverance”.

That quote is from another friend Trevelle Harp. Trevelle is a community organizer who heads the Northeast Ohio Alliance for Hope [NOAH]. In two weeks his group will present the Cleveland-area premiere of “The House I Live In”, which last year won top documentary honors at the acclaimed Sundance Film Festival. The powerful film questions why the United States has spent over One Trillion Dollars on drug arrests since the beginning of the Nixon Administration, only to become the world’s leading jailer of its own people, while drugs remain cheaper, purer and more available than ever.

To quote Eugene Jarecki, the film’s director, a prime result of the “drug war” is that “We have more black men incarcerated today, in one form or another, than were enslaved at the end of slavery 10 years before the Civil War ended.”

The special screening will be Saturday, January 26, at the East Cleveland Library, 14101 Euclid Ave. Admission is free and doors open at 1 PM. The film will start at 1:30 PM. A moderated discussion will follow the screening.

NOAH under Harp has concentrated its efforts on the East Cleveland community. Its organizing approach involves training and developing local leadership, identifying common issues, finding collaborative and strategic ways to address those issues while systematically strengthening the institutions in our regions. They are on a perpetual search for agentic partners.

South Euclid councilwoman Ruth Gray is advancing a second example of agentic approach. Concerned about her community’s failure to offer sufficient resources to its youth, she has convened a forum next week to address this issue. I will talk about this effort more on Monday but I encourage you to put the event, “Youth in Peril”, on your calendar. It will be held Wednesday, January 16 from 7-9 PM at the South Euclid Community Center, 1370 Victory Drive, in South Euclid OH 44121.

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