Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Reflections on "You did it my nigga"


No he didn’t!

Larry Wilmore ended his comedy routine with “Barry, you did it my nigga.”

My first reaction may surprise you. I cheered on the inside. You know, I couldn’t be to loud with my shout because I knew the nigga police might be listening.  

They wouldn’t understand my inner praise.

I knew white people would condemn the moment because it’s something they can’t say.  They are fully aware of what happens when they say what black folks nurtured in the culture that affirms “you my nigga” say freely.  They know not to cross that boundary, no matter how much they know about life on the black side.

Dread locs, a T-shit with Malcolm X on the front, and a swag that screams hip-hop, fails to secure permission. Nigga please. Don’t go there and don’t even think about it!

But, disdain for that dreadful word isn’t limited to white people. Those old enough to remember being called that word are quick to remind people what hearing it conjures. Those memories are too deep to use the forbidden word. Nope. Not even when it avows a bond between two brothers who understand each other just because they understand each other.

It’s one of those things that many just can’t understand. It’s code for I got your back my nigga. It’s used to assert a love that’s deeper than everything that stands in the way.

It’s a language built from the context of the black experience. Yes, it comes with a troubling past, but it says something that no other word conveys. It defies logic. We shouldn’t use it. It’s disgusting due to how it is used by white people. It’s a reminder of over yonder in Dixie land when black folks dangled from trees like strange fruit.

There’s so many reason not to say it.

But, my nigga says something deep among those who have endured close to eight years of contempt of our nigga the President. That’s right, he’s legitimate black. Through and through like gold that has traveled through the fire. That word suggests enduring without compromise. Wilmore was saying we see you bruh. We know who you are, and we got you. You one of us, and, yeah, you did it my nigga.

You haven’t been tainted by your Ivy league education. No, we don’t agree with all your policy decisions. We have issues with your inability to impact change for black folks. We wish you would have done more, but we see you bruh. We know you may have wanted to do more, but we understand the pressures that comes with having to satisfy white people who can’t get past the fact that you are one of us.

“You did it my nigga,” wasn’t meant for the white folks in the room angry because of what they can’t say. It wasn’t meant for the people with ears plugged after failing to bury the word for the past 20 years. It wasn’t used to disrespect the office. I heard it as a statement regarding a level of respect that comes with witnessing Obama endure all of it.

Yes, all of it.

Yes, every bit of the attacks that come due to not being able to do enough. You did it my nigga even with a Congress and Senate committed to obstruct your agenda. You did it within a culture were hate is intensifying because of racism. Yes, my nigga, you did it even with vicious attacks from black people who want you to lead a charge promoting a pro-black agenda.

You are not perfect. Many are angry that you placed Sister Assata Shakur on the “Most Wanted List”. We deplore your use of drones to murder men and women around the world. I’m disgusted at how you have censured the press in ways that are the worse we have ever seen in America.  We wanted more to reduce black incarceration.

Oh, we want you to pardon our brother – Mumia Abul-Jamal. Get on that one before you leave office. Come on, keep it real Brother Obama.

Many despise how you attack young people in that paternalistic fashion that millennials can’t stand. These emerging leaders hate it when old folks tell them how to think and act. Your arms too short to box with God. Chill bruh.

You did it my nigga is a collective sigh. This thing is about to come to an end. It’s time to affirm what it all has meant for those who didn’t believe they would live to see a black President. We watched them post memes of you as a monkey. We listened to people compare you to Hitler. We listen as people call you the worse President in the history of the United States.

And, we’ve watched hate fuel the nomination of the man who started the birther movement. Are you kidding?

There’s more.

We read stories with comments attacking your daughters. All of this has happened, and we are sick of it. Brother Barack, we see you. We feel you. More than all of that, we are proud of you for enduring all of it with class.

You a bad man. You and Michelle have made us proud. No one has done it better.

How does one convey how it feels to have witnessed you serve our country? You’ve endured the deaths of Trayvon, Mike, Sandra, Freddie and, and there are too many to name. You had to take all of the corruption in police departments and the anger of white people trapped in the evil world of cognitive dissonance.

We see all of it.

So, how do we say it? How do we say it in a way that goes deeper – deeper than many can understand.

Let me think.

Yeah, you did it my nigga.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Why black voters pass on the Bernie-olution


What is it about Bernie Sanders that hasn’t translated into widespread support among black voters?

Bernie supporters contend black voters don’t know enough to make a calculated decision. Bernie blamed it on the extreme conservatism in the deep South. Black enthusiasts of the Bernie-olution say supporters of Hilary have been brainwashed by the Democratic Party. In other words, the house Negroes are unwilling to unite with the Negroes in the field.

The language used to expound on the counter-Bernie-olution is divisive and problematic for reasons beyond the common rhetoric intended to explain black voters lack of passion related to Bernie’s message. There is much more in this pot of gumbo. The fixings in this tub aren’t about black stupidity, Uncle Tom and Aunt Tamisha being brainwashed or black folks dancing to the Clinton bullstank because of some deal made long ago.

Black voters aren’t getting burned by the Bernie juice for reasons that can’t be supplanted by the damage of the 1994 Crime Bill. It doesn’t help when a few black intellectuals and celebrities scream like doomsday is coming if we pull the lever for Hilary. It doesn’t help when Bernie supporters throw Michelle Alexanders book “The New Jim Crow” at black folks like it’s the word of God in flesh.

There’s a condescending pitch that feels like white privilege condemning black people for being too dumb to get it. It’s time out for all of that. Let’s get down with the get down.

Bernie assumed his message was enough

As powerful as the messages of Wall Street greed and corruption, the loss of American jobs after the passage of NAFTA and the need to replace Obamacare with a one payer option may be, policy statements and promises aren’t a replacement for the building of authentic relationships.

Bernie waited too long in building the type of soul ties that inspires black voters.  It’s not enough to talk that talk. It’s hard enough for black voters to trust an old white man from Vermont who promises to elevate America beyond the Obama years. It’s painful when he shows up with a platform that reads like a bad review of the first black President’s administration.

It sounded like a dis that needed to be checked.

But there’s more. There was insignificant relationship building connected to those revolutionary claims. Bernie stepped into the black Kool-Aid with an agenda to change the tune of the inner city blues. That’s business as usual in the hood. White folks are known for walking in black space with a formula for change.

This is when you better ask somebody. Before telling black people what they need, spend some time listening to what black people have to say.

Bernie failed to consider the divide between millennials and old school black activist

So, the response to my previous argument is the Bernie camp listened to the concerns of representatives from “Black Lives Matter”. Yes, Bernie added the groups concerns to his platform statement. Good move, but don’t drink that Kool-Aid.

You need to do some homework before signing on that dotted line. In other words, get in there and ask about the dirty laundry. There are some messy dynamics that require pondering before jumping in like “Black Lives Matter” is reflective of the common voice of black people.

Not so.

The truth is there is major tension between some of the millennials in the ‘Black Lives Matter” movement and old school activist. That tension relates to the perception that millennials refuse to listen to and learn from older activist.  In many cases, older black activists are asked to leave the room.

This isn’t new drama. It’s the same type of generational battle that caused tension between Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr and members of Black Power movement. Back then, young people felt tremendous disdain for those old school ways. They pressed for a new type of revolution that rejected going to jail without fighting back.

Bernie’s support among black millennials was a critical decision that put him at odds with black leaders who feel rejected and disrespected by young leaders.

Bernie failed to frame economic disparity within the context of slavery

“No, I don’t think so. First of all, its likelihood of getting through Congress is nil,” Sanders responded to a reporter with Nando Vila involving his position on reparations. “Second of all, I think it would be very divisive. The real issue is when we look at the poverty rate among the African American community, when we look at the high unemployment rate within the African American community, we have a lot of work to do.”

Sander’s response raised the ire of Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates, a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist with the Atlantic, wrote a critical response in “Why precisely is Bernie Sanders against reparations?”

“But judged by his platform, Sanders should be directly confronted and asked why his political imagination is so active against plutocracy, but so limited against white supremacy,” Coates writes. “Jim Crow and its legacy were not merely problems of disproportionate poverty. Why should black voters support a candidate who does not recognize this?”

Sanders has been unable to communicate the extent of systemic racism beyond its impact on economic disparity

Sanders has a strong message for poor black people. It is true that the economic disparity between blacks and whites leaves one wondering if slavery has returned in America. The low wages some earn, coupled with the free labor of the men and women in prison, is a challenge to understand.

The problem is with the assumptions Bernie makes about race.

“When you’re white, you don’t know what it’s like to be living in a ghetto and to be poor,” Bernie responded during a debate when asked what he has learned about racism.  “You don’t know what it’s like to be hassled when you walk down the street or get dragged out of a car. I believe as a nation in the year 2016, we must be firm in making it clear: We will end institutional racism and reform a broken criminal justice system.”

It was a great answer to a complex question. It was honest, heartfelt and comforting. It also left many black people confronted with other questions. Primary on the list is does Bernie understand the black people who don’t live in the ghetto? Oh, why did he use that word?

What is the message for black people beyond Wall Street reform, socialized healthcare and education? What reforms are proposed for black people who confront racism beyond their pocketbooks and the consequences of mass incarceration.

What is the lesson?

The jury is still out regarding the meaning of it all. What is clear is a real revolution demands significant participation from black people.  A band of disgusted black millennials is not enough to bargain for radical change. As much as young people have reason to be outraged by the world we have created for them, there is a level of brokenness carried by their parents that shows up in places that require a sit down and long talk about what it meant back then.

Those stories may be more than most white people can handle during this season of change. Yes, stuff is unravelling before our eyes.  All it takes is a quick glance at the Trump-olution to feel the rage. One has to ask what’s behind the resistance toward old school politics.

For many black people, it has something to do with the brother in the White House. Is America resisting because there’s too much black to feel comfortable. Or, is it a combination of policies that make it impossible to accept business as usual.

Another thing is clear. It all feels like microaggression when confronted about perceived ignorance related to voting.

“Hey dummy, can’t you see you’re voting against your own interest?”, sounds like “Hey, why don’t you take your black ass back to Africa.”

I’m just saying.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Why "Bern or Bust" is hard for black people to concede


I understand the “Bern or Bust” movement.

It’s a challenge voting for the other candidate after believing in the revolution.  It’s especially difficult when the other candidate represents everything you fought to defeat. How can you legitimately cast your vote for a person married to Wall Street while willing to bomb a foreign country just to prove who carries the biggest stick?

Those millennials fighting on behalf of change aren’t crazy for refusing to jump on the Hillary bandwagon. They have real concerns that make it difficult to distinguish between Trump and Hilary as the lesser of two evils. They need valid reasons to accept the call for party unity.

Many will refuse to vote. Check your Facebook newsfeed. Articles are circulating that justify handing this election over to the Republicans while building the base for the 2020 election.

That argument works for white voters who don’t carry the legacy of black people who fought for and died for the right to vote.  The willingness to give up is rooted in the type of privilege that fails to concede the hardships taken to get the right to vote.  They don’t have to listen to grandmothers and grandfathers who stood on the other side of police brutality while marching just to obtain the right to vote.

Not voting is a position engrained from a culture shaped in assumptions of power.  Black folks have always compromised when it comes to making these types of decisions. There is something to be said about having the privilege to forfeit an election for the sake of something better in four years. While some millennials are willing to lose to make a point later, black people can’t afford to lose.

Those who fight for “Bern or Bust” fail to consider the loses black people potentially face with each election. There are few safe bets among the people blacks support to become President of the United States.

How can blacks trust the Bern enough to not vote?

The majority of blacks aren’t down with the revolution. Black millennials insist older blacks have failed them, and have sold out to the Democratic Party in a way that jeopardizes the future of the black community.

Those older black voters say they have no reason to trust the Bern. They lack enough evidence to forfeit the election. They ask, what has Bernie done, prior to his bid for President, to give black voters reason to not to vote?

Those older black voters say too much has been invested to justify not voting. Why should black people commit to not voting after the Obama years? What resistance will be established to shield them from the white people fuming after the Obama Administration? The post-Obama years may witness the type of backlash that stirs America back to the days before the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

That message has already been spewed. We are witnessing a rise in white hate groups. Some argue that the deaths of unarmed black men, women and children by police, is proof of implicit bias and systemic racism that results in mass incarceration and a disregard of black lives. What will it mean over the next four years to have a president that fails to consider the implications of these matters as it relates to public policy?

Black people have always voted for the lesser of evils. 

There has never been an election, prior to Obama, were blacks felt confident the person chosen understood and honored the concerns of black people. Sadly, many are left troubled by how race and racism impeded Obama’s ability to press forward on an agenda that addressed many of those concerns.

If the first black President wasn’t able to push a national black agenda, why should blacks trust a white President to achieve that goal? Those who feel the Bern believe the difference is Bernie’s socialist perspective. They say his focus on Wall Street, universal healthcare and free college tuition is enough to wait on the revolution.

But, what happens as we wait?

Who gets appointed to the Supreme Court in a Trump administration? What wars will we be left to fight and what will happen to the bond built with Cuba? Will the push to build the wall negatively impact relationships with Mexico and will Trump’s rhetoric regarding the Islamic community impede the way we think about diversity and inclusion?

Will we witness a rise in laws that limit the number of black people who vote? Will a Trump presidency influence advances toward equal pay for women? What happens to reproductive rights and efforts to increase the minimum wage? What can we expect related to protecting the rights of members of the LGBTQ community? What about efforts to grant Christians the right to discriminate against members of other faith traditions?

There’s too much to be lost within the space of four years. This is a point that black voters know by experience. The election isn’t always about supporting the person you believe in the most. It’s often about blocking the person you fear the most.

Black voters know the consequences of electing a President that refuses to acknowledge the power of black voters.

Black people watched Regan kick-off his 1980 presidential campaign in Neshoba, Mississippi, a stone’s throw away from where three civil rights workers were murdered in 1964. Reagan pledged to undermine civil rights. Regan called the Voting Rights Act of 1964 “humiliating to the South” and implied he wouldn’t support it when it came up for renewal in 1982.

Reagan lashed out against affirmative action. He told reporters “I’m old enough to remember when quotas in America existed for the sake of discrimination, and I don’t want to see that again.” He gutted the Civil Rights Commission, slashed federally funded jobs programs and called welfare recipients “queens”

During hearings to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by naming a holiday after him, Reagan said the jury was still out on whether King was a communist sympathizer.

Black people know the damage that can be done in four years. They’ve seen opportunities taken away by legislative action and executive orders. 

Not voting is not an option for black people. The management of black lives doesn’t afford black people the choice of waiting four more years for the revolution to start. Black people have been fighting a revolution since 1619.

People with privilege might be willing to wait for the candidate of the choosing, but black people have been conditioned to select the lesser of evils.

After Obama, it’s back to business as usual.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

A black man's confession after watching "Lemonade"

A smart man knows when to keep his mouth shut. When women start talking about their pain, it’s best to keep your thoughts to yourself and listen.

It may not be wise for me to step into the conversation involving “Lemonade”, the video album that has people wondering about Becky with the good hair. The album is one of those special contributions that leaves you thinking “well damn”.

Watching it reminded me of how I felt after my first viewing of Ntozake Shange’s “Colored Girls Who Considered Suicide/ When the Rainbow Is Enuf”. It happened in 1977 when I was coming to grips with what it means to walk around with a black man’s body. In that moment, I knew there is a part of me that symbolizes the brokenness of black women.

My very presence conjures an ache that can’t be resolved by the holy dance on Sunday morning. Shange helped me contend with the limits of the faith I preach like a medicine man peddling hope in a bottle.  There’s something black men have done that makes it hard for black women climb up after we beat them down, again, with our words and false assumptions.

“The most disrespected person in America is the black woman,” Malcolm X said in Queen B’s video. The images of brokenness are a reminder that I share in the pain they carry. Look at them. Look at them lined up to challenge us to see them for the best they represent. Look at the worst caused by our inability to see beyond our desire to use them more.

Look at their beauty. All of it. More than the brilliance of hue packed on bodies with curvatures envied by others, look at their will to love us. Look at their desire to lift us. And what do we do with it? We abuse the gifts they bring in hope that we will be better because of their yearning to help us see.

I don’t know if Jay-Z cheated. The truth is it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t because of the games black men play with love. The ways we cheat transcend the minor technically of the insertion of a sexual organ. We cheat with our lack of love and support, and do damage to black women by refusing to acknowledge their strength.

I admire the black women who stand in formation with the promise not to take no more. How do they do it? How do they continue to fight for our right to live when we rob them of their will to breathe? Watch them as they hold arms high while screaming “hands up, don’t shoot”. Watch them as they march because another black man dies too soon. How do they do it? Why do they care so much for us when we fail to give back the love they extend like roses seeking the sunlight?

I twinge at the image of Beyonce’ swinging a bat to acknowledge the rage that can’t take no more. My heart is pounding because she walks alone. No black man there to hold her hand while see seeks answers to the misery that causes her to find a place to beat the angst until there reason to believe again.

Why do we do this to our women?

And, why do they believe in us when we lack the will to say thank you. How can we blame them for how they feel? Why is it so hard for us to part lips while screaming I need you? Why no apologizes after we cheat love with an obsession to fill our voids with something other than what they freely give.

“Lemonade” may not be Beyonce’s personal story. My sense is this is the journey black women take in search for more than the alone that keeps them searching for more. Maybe I’m wrong. I’m in no position to speak to what black women carry.

I am a black man. I do know the pain I carry after watching my Queens suffer because of what we have done to them. I do wish I could help soothe the pain. I can’t. I’m limited by my own need for change coupled with being linked to a long history of bondage.  Some of this is mess rooted in generations of self-hate. Most of it remains due to an unwillingness to tell the truth.

We need change.

So, I’m sorry for what I have created. My prayer is to do better. In doing so, I hope that other black men will understand their place in Beyonce’s story. As much as they don’t want to admit it, we play a role in dismantling the hope of black women.

The good news is they carry a strength like no other. They are bound by the power of sisterhood and a faith grounded in the universe.

I love all of you.

Raising my glass of lemonade to you

Friday, April 8, 2016

The crime bill in historical context


The year, 1995
Hundreds of people marched to the Few Gardens housing complex. The sadness in the crowd felt like we had discovered more than we could bare.

Shaquana Atwater was accidently shot and killed. The bullet was meant for someone else. It was a drive-by shooting and the person who pulled the trigger failed to see the baby playing on the porch.
Pictures of the two-year-old in the newspaper and on television made it hard to fight back the tears. We walked to the place where it happened.

The week prior to the march, members of the community packed the room where the Board of Durham County Commissioners meet to demanded more police presence. They wanted to build a collaborative effort to end the cycle of death in their community.

This is the context of the crime bill.  The push for its approval came from people living in communities like Durham’s North East Central Durham. At the time, I served as pastor of the Orange Grove Missionary Baptist Church and helped facilitate the North East Central Durham Partners Against Crime Project.

It helps placing opinions within a historical context. For me it’s the same as reading the Bible. I can go with a literal interpretation, or I can consider the culture and context to gain a better understanding regarding the intent of those behind the construction of the original document.

This is the disconnect created when people evaluate the crime bill. Retrospect helps us understand how and why it shouldn’t have been signed into law.  What people miss is the massive pressure placed on lawmakers during the rise of crack cocaine.

"You are defending the people who killed the lives you say matter," Bill Clinton told Black Lives Matter protestors at a rally where he was campaigning for his wife.

Protestors shouted "black youth are not super predators," taking issue with a phrase Hillary Clinton used in a 1996 speech about violent crime committed by young people.

Hilary Clinton’s 1996 speech reflected the pain of many back then. It reflected how those living in and working in those communities felt. It’s the language many used to express their rage after the death of innocent bystanders. It’s how we talked that day when we marched to Few Gardens to draw attention to the need for more police protection.

It’s what I said when I spoke that day. I talked about outsiders coming into the community and creating what felt like a war zone.  I talked about people being afraid to walk in their own neighborhoods because of drugs and violent crime.

Mistakes were made back then.

Members of the community pressured the police to take a more aggressive approach to law enforcement.  They demanded random stop points and increased presence.  Residents of the predominately black North East Central Durham community wanted to arrest and punish the men and women they saw as predators. They used that language to describe their experience back then.

This was the language used to describe youth who embraced gang culture in Durham. The documentary “Welcome to Durham” exposed how gangs were a growing fear. In Durham, people like Otis Lyons, founder of Campaign 4 Change, use their personal stories to help youth avoid gang activity.

“I do it basically, to save lives. You know I was a gang banga too,” Lyons, who goes by the name Vegas Don, told Christopher “Play” Martin of Brand Newz.  “You know I sold drugs, so I know that ain’t the route to go, so I’m just trying to save as many lives as I can.”
Youth crime and gangs play a large role in how we process conversations regarding mass incarceration. It's a reality that can't be dismissed.

There were 35 murders in Durham, NC in 1994. A 2004 study from the Governor's Crime Commission documented more than 8,500 gang members and 387 gangs in North Carolina.

Lawmakers, under pressure from citizens, sought ways to strengthen anti-gang legislation. A bill calling for stiffer penalties enforced under the crime bill did little to curtail increases in youth crime.  
"When your social fabric is one where the community doesn't believe in the school system, doesn't believe in county government, doesn't believe in the things that are important, it opens up the door for persons to look at something else to believe in," said Donnie Phillips, a retired juvenile justice officer in Durham, during a community forum at the Hayti Heritage Center in 2008.

One death followed by another.  One funeral, with people crying because death came too soon, followed by another. The stabbing of Kenan Odom, 22, came just six weeks after his cousin Kordero Odum, 19, was shot dead, amplifying the grief of that family.

Odum had been out on bail on a number of charges, including murder charges for his involvement in two separate shooting deaths in 2005. Xavier Moore, 22 was suspected of killing Odum. He was shot outside a Miami Boulevard Wendy’s restaurant in 2005.

Odum was arrested for being one of the four men present when 18 year-old Sesaley Hunter was shot in the head. In April of that same year, he was charged again with being one of the four present when 17 year-old Kashaun Patterson was shot to death.

I still remember the death of Skye Lee, an 18-year old student at Northern High School, killed while her 10-month old child was nearby. Cory Anthony Jiggets, 19, was charged in connection with the slaying. Jiggets is the father of Skye’s child.

Over the years, I’ve attended close to 100 funerals of young people killed. I waited and prayed with the family after Tia Carraway left for a lunch break and never returned. She was found two days later in a wooded area with a bullet in the back of her head.

What do you call young people who commit murders? What do you say to families after they receive the bad news?

Is Bill Clinton right? Are we defending the people who take the lives of other people when we focus too much on the language of rage outside the context of those old statements? I seriously doubt that he possess the moral compass to help us filter through this issues.

More critical than Bill and Hilary's involvement in passing the crime Bill is the black communities participation in moving the Bill forward. Understanding the context in which the bill was passed aides in understanding the manipulation that assured the bills success. Rather than point fingers at the Clinton administration, it becomes more productive to ask what it takes to prevent bills like this being passed again.

This is the meaning of black empowerment.

I stood before the masses and prayed at Few Gardens. I can’t remember the prayer. I do remember the emotions. There was a bunch of God fix it entangled with please show us the way. We didn’t know what to do other than to collaborate with a community under siege.

In 1994, we began to feel the burden related to the rise of crack cocaine in black communities.  We watched as boys transformed into criminals and took weapons to protect their territory.  Mistakes were made back then. Now we can learn from those mistakes

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Darryl Hunt's death challenges us to listen


(Photo: Darryl Hunt with April Garrett during panel discussion on the movie The Trials of Darryl Hunt at Harvard University)
The text message I received from April Garret forced the type of reflection that made me mad and sad within the same breath.

“Darryl Hunt died today at 51,” I paused before reading more. “He was in a truck with a suicide note and a gun.”

April and I were introduced to the life of Hunt at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, North Carolina. It was during the showing of The Trials of Darryl Hunt, the documentary that exposed the world to the malfeasance that led to Hunt’s wrongful conviction of the rape and murder of a Deborah Sykes, a white newspaper copy editor in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Hunt was imprisoned in 1984 and spent 20 years incarcerated. In 2005, he was exonerated by DNA and other evidence that proved the district attorney was complicit in the handling of the case. In December 2003, Hunt’s DNA was run against those in a database which determined the DNA in his case belonged to Willard E. Brown. Brown, who was a primary suspect prior to Hunt’s arrest, confessed to Sykes rape and murder long before Hunt’s release from prison.

On February 6, 2004, Superior Court Judge Anderson Cromer vacated Hunt’s conviction. Getting there wasn’t an easy task. Hunt, and his legal team, were forced to maneuver through dynamics that continues to impact black men and women caught in the criminal justice system. Concerns like cross-racial eyewitness identification, prosecutorial misconduct, implicit bias in death penalty cases, inexperienced defense attorneys assigned to capital cases and errors in police procedure are documented in The Trials of Darryl Hunt.

Barry Scheck, of The Innocence Project, worked on Hunt's case for ten years. After his release, Hunt worked with the Innocence Project and The Darryl Hunt Project for Freedom and Justice, the group he founded to educate the public regarding the flaws within the criminal justice system while advocating for the rights of the wrongfully incarcerated and providing resources and support for people after serving time in prison.  

The news of Hunts suicide is difficult to take.

I met Hunt after writing a column that profiled Hunt published in the Durham News. The column spoke of Hunt’s humility and faith during his journey for freedom. Hunt was in Durham to speak during the annual meeting of Durham Congregations in Action (DCIA). He approached me after someone informed him I wrote the column he read earlier that day.

His response reflected a level of appreciation I have never experienced as a columnist.  His voice was broken and his eyes exposed a few tears.

“Thank you for what you wrote,” he said. “It means more than you will ever know.”

“I’m amazed by you,” I responded. “You are a model of strength.”

It’s a point that Garrett and I shared prior to Hunt’s death. Garrett conducted a screening of The Trials of Darryl Hunt at Harvard Divinity School in collaboration with Harvard Law School. Garrett, a Harvard Divinity School graduate, held the event as the founder and president of Civic Frame, Inc. In addition to Hunt, the panel included my friend John Mendez, pastor of the Emmanuel Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, NC, members of Hunt’s legal team, public defense advocates and Katie Brown who produced the documentary.

Both of us have been changed after meeting Hunt.

"From day one, I told them I was innocent,” Hunt said.  “And the question has always been, was anybody listening?”

Is anybody listening?

There was so much that deserved our attention. I’m sure his closest friends noticed the depression that came after Hunt was diagnosed with stage IV prostate cancer. It had to be hard not to notice the pain after the separation from his wife.  She was the rock that anchored him after they were married during his incarceration. It had to hurt when their love wasn’t enough to endure the challenges that come with making a marriage work beyond the limits of prison bars.

Few of us fully understand the torment of serving 20 years in prison. It has to be worse when you’re innocent and youth is swallowed up with the passage of the days.  I don’t understand the burden of incarceration. Few of us do. Prayerfully, we never will.

Hunt committed suicide.

 I’m in no position to judge why he gave up on life after clinging to the dream of freedom.  Hunt asked if anyone is listening. Maybe he is challenging us to continue to listen.

Hunt leaves behind the witness of his struggle for justice.  Maybe his release from prison wasn’t enough to set him free. If so, this is the strain among those who endure this form of mistreatment.

This is the weight carried when people fail to listen to the cries of the innocent.

Live well in paradise my friend.

I hope we are listening.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Does anyone understand the struggles of black men?




On yesterday, I was pulled over by a Highway Patrolman for driving while black.

I felt it coming as soon as I passed him.  I was driving at 70 miles per hour headed West on Interstate 70.  I wasn’t speeding, but I sensed the worst when he pulled behind me as I followed a truck in the right lane. The tension increased as he followed me for what seemed to be too long. I knew it was coming, but I wasn’t sure why.

The revolving motion of the blue light confirmed my suspension.

“Driver’s license and insurance card please,” the tall, lean patrolman requested. Of course he’s white. “You know you only have one license plate. In Missouri, you need two.”

In Missouri you need two – one in the front, one in the back.  No big deal.  The mistake wasn’t mine. The attendant at the DMV only gave me one after I paid the property taxes when I purchased my car last year.

“Where you from. Where you headed. Where you purchase your car, why do you have a North Carolina license?” he probed like I’d been sworn in to testify in court. I was given a warning. End of story, right?

No, it’s the next page of a never ending saga.

It took me 45 minutes to reach my destination. A lot happens within a mind left alone to contemplate a series of questions with no more than assumptions to form a conclusion. Why did he really stop me? Was it because I’m black? Is it just my imagination, and I’m not talking about a groove from the Temptations?

I hate the fact that I’m left to ponder these questions

It’s not the first time I’ve been pulled over for driving at or under the speed limit.  It’s not the first time I’ve debated with myself regarding the meaning of a simple traffic stop.

It’s part of what I carry as a black man. Or, is that an overstatement? I’m certain white readers will discount my being stopped as no more than an officer doing his job. Insert loud sounds in my head coupled with words I was told not to use when I attended Sunday School.

I searched for someone to process the moment. Who? Hello! Will someone help me keep from losing my mind up in here, up in here?

Who understand the mass of pain that kept my mind glued on queries that many can’t understand? Each question framed the thesis of a topic that requires a dissertation to answer. It’s enough to keep me locked on stupid. Welcome to my world. Sadly, I know I’m not alone.

Once I parked my car in front of city hall and rushed to the meeting I had with the city manager, that bone I wanted to pick was too big for me to bite alone.

Do people understand how it feels to be a black man? That one is easy to answer. Hell no! the second question simply made me mad. Does anyone care?

The questions forced deeper scrutiny of the rage in my belly covered by layers of pretension and avoidance.  I envy the privilege carried by people not stuck on that lingering stupid prompted by years of not understanding the friction that makes it hard to embrace authentic freedom.

Maybe that awful feeling, like smoke venting from my head like a message telling people to stay out of my way, was the result of being single for too long. It could be the angst of being a big, black man is more onerous because there’s no one to scream at and hold at the end of the day. Maybe, just maybe, it’s more about me than the fact it takes people time to figure out I’m not the brother who robbed their mother last week.

Get out of my way. I don’t want your wallet. Hello, I said move!

Excuse me for venting, but it takes a lot to walk around in this body. Can I please get a witness?

Yes, let me testify. It’s not just what white people think. Part of the torment is the result of being forced, and I mean forced in real terms, to carry the unrealistic expectations of black people.

There, I said it!

Frantz Fanon is one of my literary mentors. His book Black Skin, White Mask helps me understand the divided self-perception black folks carry as a result of losing their native culture. Their embrace of white culture results in an inferiority complex that begins a scuffle to overcome the hideous place I call the middle. 

The middle is the place in between acting white and being too black. The quest for authentic identity is a battle between conflicting world views – black skin versus the white mask.

You get attacked for taking white and assimilating to firmly into white culture by obtaining education and other symbols of white culture. Getting paid, accepting certain jobs and taking care of yourself and family becomes risky business.

Being a black man is a constant battle of legitimizing authentic blackness within the context of seeking normalcy. By normal I mean paying your bills and making a difference beyond what others define as appropriate.

Being a black man requires that we always, and I mean always, “keep it real”. By real I mean not doing too much to question black solidarity.  It means being careful not to become a sell-out. What does that mean?

It means not taking a job that forces you to sing and dance to a white person’s music. It means not forfeiting blackness for the sake of some of that white prosperity.

This is the point that forces the smoke erupting from my head to send those messages.

It’s all a lie.

I don’t care how hard a person works at forfeiting their blackness for the sake of embracing a white identity – it doesn’t work. Black remains black, and no suit, tie and college education can change any of that. People see my blackness as soon as I walk in a room, and there is nothing I can do to alter the assumptions in their heads before I say hello.

What’s the point?

Give me my freaking freedom. Isn’t that what all of us want? Don’t we seek the freedom to function devoid of the labels that limit what we desire to do? Isn’t slavery about being defined by the supposition people make after boxes are made to keep others in their assigned places?

I was wearing a blue tailored suit, silk tie, white shirt with cuff links when stopped by the highway patrol. I drove my luxury car under the speed limit when others passed me like I was standing still. I was listening to classic Coltrane – Giant Steps. Darryl Pinckney’s book Black Deutschland rested on top of my IPad on the front passenger seat.

I handed the officer what he requested. Again.

Exhales followed by old memories. When will I be free to be me?

Too white for some. Too black for others. Off to my sell-out job to fight to create opportunities for black people.

Does anyone understand how it feels to be a black man?