Monday, December 3, 2007

The Cost of Living

Members of our Saturday morning breakfast club listened as I shared with them my experiences of riding on the city bus. My brief experiment left me with an enormous admiration for the men and women who toil the way to get from point A to point B on public transportation.

It was the inspiration of a previous blog. The bus driver had to make a detour after missing a turn. The mistake meant those on the bus missed the transfer at the downtown bus terminal. After two days of riding the bus, I knew I lacked the stuff to do what those who travel on the bus do each day. I couldn’t handle the inconveniences that come with public transportation.

What followed disturbed me even more. Not one city official responded to my blog post. Not one. I send it to each of them, but no one serving on the city council, no one from the city manager’s office, felt the story was compelling enough to receive a response. Members of the Saturday morning breakfast club helped me sort out this a bit. It was clear to them, and to me, that the lack of reply is an upshot of the economic status of many who ride public transportation.

It saddens me to think of how hard life can be for those with limited resources. Riding the bus taught me a lesson-the people who make decisions for those with limited resources are functioning from the position of privilege. I know because of the assumptions I made before getting on the bus. I too believed that our public transportation system is suitable in meeting the needs of those who have no other option. That is not true. The system sucks!

The disconnection between the poor and those who decide for the poor leaves those lacking resources trapped in a vicious cycle of impairment. One thing leads to another, and another and then another. Public policies coupled with the greed of corporations leaves many left out in the cold with few options to pull themselves out of the muck.

Local examples of how greed, when married with government, can be a deadly combination are legion. As Durham resurrects its downtown and rebuilds the eyesores surrounding these developments, the poor suffer the most. The poor suffer when rent prices increase across the city while few jobs are created for those living on the fringes. Gentrification is a great occasion for those with the means to take advantage of all the change, while serving as the source of frustration for those who lack the means needed to find a way.

What happens to the poor when new things replace those dreaded places? Take a look at what’s happening down in New Orleans. Down in the Crescent City, the housing authority recently approved the demolition of 4,000 public housing units at five projects damaged by Hurricane Katrina. In their place, the authority plans to build mixed-income projects, large parts of which will not be affordable to previous residents.

The number of homeless men and women living under the bridges and in parks has increased. Social services providers say about 12,000 people are living in the city, about double the number before the storm.

Last week, FEMA announced that it would close all the trailer camps it runs by the end of May. More than 900 families are living in FEMA trailer parks around the city. In addition to the housing shortage, the cost for utilities has more than tripled over the past year, leaving many struggling to balance things.

It’s easy for us to point that wicked judgmental finger at officials in New Orleans. It’s always safe to uncover the dirt over there while failing to see the correlation to what you are doing over here.

The biggest threat to the poor in Durham is recent property-tax revaluations. Average assessed property values rose 135 percent. The biggest culprit is the revitalization of downtown. Greenfire, Scientific Properties, Maverick, and other developers, have received incentives from the city in the form of vast property tax breaks, while the citizens of Durham endure increases in their taxes due to the advances that come with the corporate incentive.

Increases in revaluations are passed through to tenants. These increases will impact the cost of renting in the city of Durham, a price that is already higher than in surrounding areas. Increase rent combined with rises in utilities makes it difficult for those void of resources to move past the drudgery of public transportation. They can’t buy a car, pay for the insurance, upkeep, registration and the high cost of gasoline, without letting something else go.

What would that be? They can’t afford health insurance. With rent and other necessities on the rise, they can’t afford to get sick. All of this while facing those with privilege who assume your state of existence is all because of some character flaw.

One thing leads to another. The hardest part is when the people driving their cars have no clue.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Sean Taylor: 21 Means Change

I’m headed to the mall to purchase a number 21 Washington Redskins jersey. It will be the first and only jersey in my closet. That thug life look is not the image I want to reflect. I want the jersey to honor the changes Sean Taylor was making. Taylor was killed during an invasion at his Miami home.

From all accounts Taylor’s life changed with the birth of his daughter 18 months ago. His bad boy ways had landed him in trouble on and off the field. He was suspended by the league after spitting in the face of a player and had a history of gun-related legal issues. Having a baby changed all of that.

Antrel Rolle has known Taylor for most of his life. The two played football together at the age of six for the Homestead Hurricanes and went on to play together at the University of Miami from 2001-2003. Rolle, a cornerback for the Arizona Cardinals, says Taylor was being targeted for more than three years.

During an interview with ESPN, Rolle said Taylor lived scared everyday of his life while in Miami. “It was not a burglary under any circumstances,” Rolle said. “Lot of people knew Sean. There was a lot of jealously, lot of envious people. A lot of people he no longer hung out with.”

Miami-Dade police are still investigating a link to a Nov. 17 break-in at Taylor’s home, in which police said someone pried open a front window, went through drawers and left a kitchen knife on a bed. If Rolle’s assessment is correct, the death of Taylor may provide a glimpse at the struggle NFL players have in pulling away from the thug lifestyle.

Close to a year ago, Broncos’ cornerback Darrent Williams was killed in a drive-by shooting following an argument at a Denver nightclub. University of Miami defensive lineman Bryan Pata was sot to death in November 2006 several miles from Taylor’s home. Then there’s the brawl with Adam “Pacman” Jones of the Tennessee Titans at a Las Vegas strip club where three people were shot.

After that incident, Robert Susnar, co-owner of the Minxx Gentleman’s Club, told ESPN “the NFL is starting to look like an organized crime family, and I find that objectionable.”

Sad is the jealously that brews hostility among those frustrated because of their own condition. Rolle said there are jealous people who targeted Taylor. People he once hung out with before the birth of his daughter. Could it be they reaped the benefits of Taylor’s lifestyle until he decided to rid himself of all the bad that came with hanging with the boys? Could it be that separating oneself from the thug life brings consequences that those on the outside don’t understand?

Of course all of this is speculation. For now no one knows who shot Taylor. We do know his life had changed. We know this wasn’t the first break in at his home and that a knife was placed on a pillow. Burglars normally don’t leave weapons on pillows. It was a warning.
Taylor died at the age of 24. “It’s hard to expect a man to grow up overnight,” said Clinton Portis, the star running back with the Redskins. "But ever since he had his child, it was like a new Sean, and everybody around here knew it. He was always smiling, always happy, always talking about his child."

So, I’ll wear number 21 in honor of Taylor and his desire to change. I’ll think of him on Sunday when I preach my sermon. I will think of him the next time I watch a football game. What will I think? Change is a good thing, but it’s much better when you don’t have to deal with the pain that comes with change. There are so many people who refuse to let it happen. They would rather see you suffer with them than to grant you the space to become the man God wants you to be.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Durham: A Self-Portrait

Steve Channing’s documentary, Durham: A Self-Portrait, gave me cause to reflect on my purpose as an advocate, minister and columnist. A few days after seeing it, I was informed by a friend that I have a reputation for burning bridges. My friend’s words stunned me due to the great ends I have taken to build rather than damage relationships since coming to Durham.

Durham: A Self-Portrait gave a historical account of race relations in Durham. It was noted that while things were out of control a few miles down the road in Wilmington, North Carolina, blacks and whites had formulated a system that maintained harmony in Durham. Throughout the years blacks and whites have discovered a way to coexist. Central in maintaining the peace was the emphasis and power of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People.

The documentary examines how John Merrick, founder of the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company, used his connection with the Duke family to position himself as the owner of a company that would grow to become the largest African American owned financial institution in the nation. Merrick played the race game to convince whites in Durham that life for all would be better as long as the blacks stayed on their side of the tracks.

Merrick, C.C. Spaulding and other leaders of the African American community helped maintain accord by crafting a wedge between the blacks on the Hayti side of the city and whites on the other side of the tracks. African American leaders kept the poor, uneducated factory workers in their rightful place. They were the voice of the city, and tension was minimized due to the confidence whites had in those leading African Americans

These leaders espoused the philosophy of Booker T. Washington. The key to success among African Americans, in their opinion, could be found in each person pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps. This perspective was embedded in the Puritan work ethic which held to the promise of The American Dream. For those who work hard, blame no one and trust in God, success is a certain outcome.

Merrick, Spaulding, Aaron McDuffie Moore, James Shepard and others were examples of the fulfillment of the dream among African Americans. This notion redeemed whites of any obligation to assist African Americans beyond the end of their enslavement. It discarded any inference suggesting the significance of any policy formulated on the basis of racial indifference. Sadly, Durham is a rare community that has long denied the presence and dominance of systems created to deny the mobilization of a group due to their race.

Durham has played the race game. The elite blacks were charged with the task of keeping the poor and disgruntled blacks in the rightful place. They were entrusted with the obligation of convincing them that any shortcoming they face was the consequence of their own limits, and that race had nothing to do with all of the doors slammed in their face.
This brings me back to the charge presented to me by my white friend related to my reputation as a person who burns bridges. I was quick to note the difference between a politician and a prophet. Politicians operate out of a desire to convince as many people as they can. Prophets are given the charge to expose injustice. By definition, a prophet can never stand on the side of a particular agenda. We are called to remain free from the causes of others.

His comments deal with a matter even more difficult to embrace given the significance of race. At the heart of it all is the uneasiness white people feel when a black man has the bravado to refuse to stand on their side of the fence. It is rare for African American leadership to function completely free from the power of white privilege. People are taken aback when a person can march to their own drum and speak the truth from their own perspective.

John Merrick learned to play the race game. It involved giving the white man what he wanted to free himself up to get what he wanted in return. Those who rose to power in Durham learned to play this game. Sadly, may continue to play the race game. There is a difference. Those who haven’t gained from the game elite blacks play, no longer respect those reaping the benefits of playing the game.

As much as we would love to celebrate the history of our fine city, we should stand back from it all and ask some pressing questions. Like, what happens when a black man refuses to shuck and jive in a way that honors what white people desire? Will he be minimized? Will he be invalidated for refusing to play the race game? Will they be promoted? Will people listen to what they have to say? Will they be recognized for their prophetic voice, or will they be called trouble makers while those who smile, sing and dance to the tune of those with power get pats on the back and compensation to authenticate the way they function.

Durham: A Self-Portrait. It’s sad how we have been fooled.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Time to handoff to Jim Brown

I was wholly disgusted when I read the “Comprehensive Gang Assessment” prepared for the city and county of Durham by Deborah Lamm Weisel and James C. Howell. They were paid $60,000 to tell us what we already knew and gave little guidance on what it would take to reduce gang activity in Durham.

I’m dismayed due to the way Durham has historically dealt with gangs and in how we continue to function as if we have no clue as to what it would take to solve the problem. For the past ten years I have been yelling like John the Baptist in the wilderness begging people to wipe the sleep from their eyes and take a look at what is happening before it is too late.

Instead of creating well conceived strategies to shift the tide, we pay a few academics to study the problem, spend a few years evaluating the study, pull together a committee to design solutions, call a meeting of power brokers to raise some money and, after a few years, hire a staff to implement the recommendations. By the time we get to the stage of execution the study used to fuel the discussion is long outdated.

I have seen this process used over and over again in Durham. From the years of planning that went into the now defunct Youth Coordinating Board, which promised to be Durham’s fix all solution to youth service delivery, to the long gone community resource center housed in the former Holloway Street Elementary School, Durham is good at planning for the short haul while being weak on envisioning beyond the next wave of leadership in government.

I’m fed up with meeting to talk about ways to fix things. I’m also disgusted with all of the programs created to mend our youth gang problem. The truth is most lack substance, creativity and access to those we need to reach. In other words, those involved in gangs aren’t participating, for the most part, in these programs. Most of what we do is all hype.

I’ve noticed a disconnection between most program models and the youth served and their parents. Many models are operating with assumptions related to the economic conditions of the families being served. As hard as it may be to believe this, not all gang members come from poor families. An obstruction to productive outcomes is, to a large measure, the result of building structures that force youth and their families to fit into a specific definition.

We’ve been seduced into believing all gang bangers come from homes where dad is not present, where there is a cycle of incarceration within the family combined with substance abuse and meager academic preparation. By pitting all within these neat pockets many are lost along the way.

That’s why I called Jim Brown last week. The Hall of Fame football legend has dedicated his life to empowering individuals to change of their lives and achieve their full potential. Since 1988, Amer-I-Can has made a major impact in communities across the nation.

“We infiltrate gangs by finding the talented in the gangs and offer them a jobs,” Brown told me last year during a conversation. “You get the best in the gangs to work with you.” One feature of the program, and therefore a powerful weapon in accomplishing this task, is that 95% of the Amer-I-Can staff is composed of former gang members and/or ex-convicts. Brown effectively contributed to the Los Angeles Bloods' and Crips' gang truce and helped keep peace among rival gang sets during the Los Angeles Uprising.

That’s what’s missing in most of the programs created to address Durham’s youth problem. The experts at the table lack the understanding and access to those most impacted by the issue at hand. Brown has the star appeal that will draw youth in, and, once in, he has a curriculum designed to help people make the changes.

The objective of the program is to cause one to examine their past conditioned behavior patterns and to systematically apply proven methods to overcome behavior that negatively influenced their lives. It’s a comprehensive approach that does what most programs overlook-it begins by enhancing a person’s self-conception.

Youth get involved in gangs because they’re convinced it’s the best option available given their limits. Academic enhancement fails when the student can’t make the connection between performance and outcomes. Once they buy into the notion that they are less likely to succeed academically they make decisions to nurture their tarnished self-esteem.

Giving a student options to bolster poor academic performance is needed, but none of it works if that student fails to believe it will make a difference. Amer-I-Can begins on the inside. It’s a spiritual process that helps youth and their parents take ownership of the unlocked power within them. That’s what’s missing in Durham. We need more than program models. We need to rekindle the flames of imagination within our youth.

“Reverend, we have been making a difference for 20 years,” Brown said. “All we need are the resources.”

If Durham can find $60,000 to pay for a study, certainly we can find the resources to bring Amer-I-Can to our city. Amer-I-Can gets at the root of the problem. If you’re interested in learning more let me know.

Friday, November 16, 2007

A Day at Orange High School

“I don’t think I can go to college,” the words came to easy. Tameka Chambers, a student at Orange High School hurled those repulsive words in response to my question-who wants to go to college?

“Why would you say that?” I attacked back. There’s not much in the world that I detest as much as a young person limiting themselves based on a self-imposed constraint.

“My attitude gets me in trouble,” she said. “I keep getting kicked out.”

“Don’t ever say that about yourself,” I attacked back, holding back the rage that forced me to fight back the tears. “For you to say that about yourself is to say that all that I’ve achieved can not be done in you.” My words triggered a reflection on how far God has brought me since my high school years. I wanted the students to locate the same faith that has landed me work as a professional writer.

I was there to speak to students for career day. My friend Jae Peterson is a teacher at Orange High School over in Hillsborough, NC. At her request, Anne Jelinek, the career counselor, contacted me to speak to students about my work as a journalist and novelist. My day started at 8:45 a.m. and ended at 2:30 p.m. I went back and forth between classes taught by Peterson and Sally Satterfield.

Tameka’s comment took me back to the frustration I felt while in high school. I shared with each class a moment of transformation in my life. After dropping out of school, Mr. Battle, my school counselor, showed up at my house one day to take me back to school. While sitting in his office he rearranged my class schedule. He refused to allow me to fail.

For two hours each day I served as a student aid for the American History class that combined English and history. I took great pride in serving my teachers from the previous year. I learned some things about teaching that have served me well over the years, but there was more to what Mr. Battle did. Every day, for an hour each day, he placed me in a room and forced me to write. He told me to write feelings down. There’s more. He introduced me to Thomas McAfee, a professor at the University of Missouri, to begin a mentorship.

Battle, Ms. Westerfield, Coach Fred and my other teachers at Hickman High school saw something in me. They saw promise. They refused to allow me to fail. They witnessed my sorrow after the death of my sister and came to my rescue. They saw potential in me and went above and beyond the norm to protect me from the destructive behavior that was jeopardizing my future.

I told the students my story. Then I made a confession. “They saw a great writer in me,” I said. “They believed in me, but it really didn’t matter. You know why? Because I didn’t see it in myself.”

I wanted to drive that point home. After reading an essay written by a student in Sally Satterfield’s class, I asked him an important question. “What are you going to do with your words? Your words are power. Lives will be changed due to your words. You are walking genius. What will you do with your words?”

He told me he lives in a group home. The years of misery caused by his surroundings had limited his perspective. “Your words can be written wherever you live, and your words can take you places beyond what you see.” I prayed for the spirit of Mr. Battle to move in that moment.

I was escorted back to Jae Peterson Creative Writing class. The first face I saw was Tameka’s. She stood before the class to introduce me. In the middle of he introduction there was a confrontation with another student. “Shut up in listen,” she demanded.

The student removed himself from the classroom after an emotional outburst. “I can go home and smoke one. I don’t need this shit..,” Were his last words as he walked out the door. Peterson did her best to calm the situation. Was this the reason for my coming? Had God placed me in this space to touch this hurting youth?

I stepped out to speak with him. I gave him a lesson on respect. He agreed to return to class. We can’t help them if they’re not in the room. Something may have been said to spark a change. You can’t catch the fire unless there is a match to start the heat.

I left all of the classes with a challenge. I begged them to create. I admonished them to start a blog, to put their thoughts out there for people to read. To use writing as a way to get the feelings out, to grow and inspire.

Yesterday I opened my email. Words from an angel appeared before me. A wonderful gift from God posted the first words on Jae Peterson’s class new blog. As I read her words the tears flowed. The spirit of Mr. Battle was with me that day.

“I think Mr. Carl Kenney is a great speaker. He had lots of thing to share with us. He reminds me of myself, and I feel like if he can get though hard time and struggles then I can to,” Tameka wrote “He showed me to not pay attention to what everybody has to say and just to look at them and laugh. Cause the people that I have problem with they are not going to be there when I get my diploma. Now I should look forward to going to collage even if I think I'm not going. I should just have faith in myself. That's why I feel like MR.CARL KENNEY is a great speaker. He helped me to believe in myself!”

When I get my diploma-she wrote. I believe in myself-she wrote. Those words inspire me. Those words remind me. Keep writing Tameka. I’ll be there on graduation day.
Support Jae Peterson's Class by reading and commenting on their blog at:

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

My Time on the Mountain

I had to take a break from writing. For the past week I have put my blog on the shelf while processing a number of personal issues that made it difficult for me to focus. I had to travel to the mountaintop to spend a little time alone with my God. It has been hard for me to come back down into the valley, but there is work to be done.

My time away has given me cause to consider the importance of balance. All of that time dedicated to processing social matters has left me drained due to the pain felt after writing about the chaos all around us. I’m reminded of the basic tenants of my faith. My love of the Quaker theologian Rufus Jones compels me to find the spark of God within every person. The throbbing of my spirit has challenged me to love beyond my own capacity.

This love that I carry is greater than anything I have previously felt. In a strange way, God has taken me to new heights of spiritual reflection. It comes out of the frustration related to contending with those who develop opinions based on their own imagination. I have been harmed by the ways others perceive me. I have allowed the aggravation of years of exertion to immobilize me. My deep sadness reminds me of the significance of the mountain. Lingering among the broken too long can shade the truth of God’s work.

My tears have dried up now. The mending of this broken heart has provided me the strength to return to the valley. It was lonely on the mountain. There I was forced to hear God’s voice after being confused by the words coming from people who say they love me. So much of what I have carried forced me to operate behind a shield of strength. Often, I listened to others while contemplating my own pain.

Those lonely nights of isolation introduced me to my true self. Paul Tillich spoke of the God beyond the God of our understanding. The God beyond the teachings of the Church. Beyond the inspiration poured into our spirits when the choir sings an old hymn. God is found beyond the gist of our claims. When none of what we’ve maintained produces the outcomes we desire-God is found there.

My sorrow is rooted within the context of both personal and communal pain. I’m fed up with reading and writing about young men and women cast into cold rooms with iron bars due to poor decisions. I’m tired of driving through neighborhoods, chock-a-block with brown and black skinned people, where death and dismay fills the air. My heart is broken by the disparity between those who have versus those who have not. The wealth of some juxtaposed against the poverty of others feeds a resentment within me that brews my tears.

There, on the mountain, I asked those hard questions. Why God? When God? How God? Where God? No answer fed my interest. No fire to point the way. No cloud to beg my praise. I shouted to my God, I’m tired of meeting with people to discuss these matters. I’m tired of hearing the same solutions while living with the same outcomes. Does anyone care that our children are suffering? Am I the only one willing to place my neck in the guillotine to take the risk for a cause?

Yes, the community I love keeps me on my knees. I pray for the broken in my midst, but there’s more. I too am broken. I too need some semblance of hope. Years of fighting and writing, preaching and teaching, praying and meeting, protesting and believing have drained me of all my strength. After being thrown out, stripped, discounted, downsized and battered-the wounds have left me in spiritual intensive care. I couldn’t find the words to write. I lacked the hope that has inspired me over the years. My passion emaciated to a pot of bleeding tears.

Faith is found in these moments. There, alone to question the work we do, God speaks. Inspiration comes in remembering the journey of our faith. I was reminded of other days like this. The reminder of the last whiff of weed sparkled will to move again. There, on the mountain, I remembered the smell of cocaine and the blood flowing from my noise after using too much. The memory of the heroin gushing trough my tender veins and loss of memory after a weekend binge dug deep into my throbbing spirit.

All is not lost. Too many challenges overcome to retreat to the land of empathy. This is the reason for my passion-a life of brokenness transformed into a vision filled with possibility. In my quest to find a way to survive, there are others, like me, in search of the road less traveled. Mine is to help them find their way.

To rise on top of the mountain while glaring at the world below presents a new perspective. It is ours to lead them to this place of refuge. This is the place of rejuvenation. Here we find presence and peace. You can’t lead them if you never visit this place. For those who toil in the valley, there is a place to restore after the bombardment of ones dreams. We can’t stay long. The work is down in the valley.

I’m back. Let’s get ready for this work together.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Bell versus Stith

Thomas Stith scares me. As much as I respect him for the fire shut up in his bones, I’m afraid that he’s more mad scientist than friendly family doctor. Tuesday’s election to determine who will lead the city of Durham as Mayor is a fight for the spirit of the city. Will we continue down the path of building bridges or will we, under the leadership of Stith, see the unraveling of collaboration as we have come to celebrate.

With all the bad that has hit the front pages of our local newspapers, life Durham, NC is much better today than when I first arrived in 1988. One of the truths related to life in Durham has been the tension our local governments have received for the mishandling of public funds. This coupled with an expanding achievement gap between black and white students, drop-outs and youth violence, Durham constantly fights the perception that it is the worst place to live in North Carolina.

Stith claims that he offers a fresh approach to the recent handling of government affairs. He offers an alternative to Bill Bell’s reckless management of a city that has been cited for the handling of a smoky yard-waste fire in the summer of 2006, the failure to meet the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s drinking water standards, and the treatment of the Duke Lacrosse case. Stith contends that his management style will force more accountability.

The contention that Durham is in need of change can’t be refuted. At issues is the job performance of City Manager Patrick Baker. Bell has been open in his critique of Baker, and has acknowledged that his job is on the line. More critical than Baker’s performance is a reasonable assessment of the assumptions we make related to the role of the Mayor.

Bell has offered a more hands on approach to the office. Prior to his tenure, the Mayor served as a glorified member of the city council. Bell has taken a more active position and, as a consequence, is under attack for the way in which he has shifted the function of the office in Durham.

Stith’s attack of Bell paves the way for an even more active person in the office. His evaluation of Bell assumes the role of manager of the City Manager and all supervised by the City Manager. Are we prepared to support a mayor with the power of those within a more mayor centered system?

Stith scares me because of what I believe to be important limits placed on local government. His attack of Bill Bell assumes a role that will provide the office even greater control in the management of city government. The mayor will be elevated above that of the City Manager, and will, in many ways, assume the position and authority of the City Manager.

It is easy to blame the mayor for crime problems, issues with EPA, yard waste and a police department investigation when there’s the presupposition that the Mayor is directly accountable for all of these. If the management of city government is a marriage between the council, city manager and department heads, then an evaluation of all activity involves a critical examination in how all have impacted outcomes. If however our view of management places all outcomes in the hand of the Mayor, we have, as a consequence of that claim, altered the way we understand the infrastructure implored to manage local government.

I’m not quite ready to make those assumptions. I do appreciate a more active Mayor, but I’m not prepared to give the Mayor authority that changes the way are city is managed. That scares me.

That’s why Bill Bell gets my vote.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Death, Enslavement, and the Pursuit of Unhappiness

B.J. Lawson handed me a copy of “The Declaration of Independence” and “The Constitution of the United States”. He challenged me to read it, to absorb the intent of its crafters and to embrace a wave to go back to the truths of these documents. I wasn’t buying it.

It’s the old Libertarian argument-all that talk related to economic issues, state rights and person freedoms had me back peddling. Lawson then made a pitch for his man for President, Ron Paul. The Texas congressman and former Libertarian U.S. Presidential candidate is considered to be a philosophical libertarian, even though he is technically affiliated with the Republican Party.

We went back and forth on the consequences of being tagged as a supporter of one political part. I told him it would be painful for me to align myself with anyone with ties to the Republican Party. Call me blinkered for refusing to see the merits of Lincoln’s Party, but I carry too much old baggage around actions taken by those Elephant folks. I’m still in need of therapy for the damage done during the Reagan years.

My issues with Ron Paul go deeper than his political affiliation. At the heart of my disgruntlement is his presupposition that all of America’s problems can be solved by revisiting the merits of “The Constitution of the United States”. By going back to the conceptions outlined by Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson, and the other so called Father’s of the country, we will undo the mess created by those who have misused their power to lead us down this miserable road of confusion.

To begin, I hate it when anyone approaches me with an easy solution to all of our woes. Granted, America is in a mess. It is true we are enduring castigation caused by centuries of congressional misconduct. America has functioned while refusing to honor the very document created to rule the way we operate as a nation. That is a given.

My problem is with the assumptions of the Constitution. Getting back to the original intent is as confusing as finding the kernel of truth in the Bible that will put an end to this muddle called denominationalism. The variety of viewpoints regarding authentic faith makes it virtually impossible to shift the tide when it comes to the way we embrace Biblical truth.

The interpretation of the constitution clouds our ability to step back into the minds of those who wrote those words we hold so dear. That’s not to mention the matter of culture, and how they were operating within a specific historical ethos; which makes it difficult for us to evaluate their truth as relevant to our own. An example is gun control. I doubt if they had the prudence to write those words mindful of how guns have changed the way we function in this country. I’ll buy dinner for a year to the first person who can prove to me they had the foresight to envision a world embedded in gang activity.

Then there’s the matter of contradiction that stands as a reminder of our historical truths. I told Lawson that I, as an African American male, find it difficult to celebrate “The Constitution” when it was fashioned by people who failed to live according to the creeds mentioned in “The Constitution”. That Libertarian notion that states “WE hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights..,” is difficult for me to read knowing the slaves they owned weren’t included in their definition of manhood. The document also assumes that women aren’t provided with the same rights as men. So, based on what is written, those given the Rights of life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness are white men.

The point is in the way one enters into a conversation of the intentionality of those who craft an old documents. Void of interpretation, we would be forced to make many of the assumptions made by those who decided to construct laws designed to rule the way we govern our nation. They were locked within their historical vantage point, and, as a result of that, were unable to foresee many of the variables that now block progress.

For some, the Constitution stands as the recipe to the nation’s ills. For others, it is a reminder of our historical hypocrisy, and is regarded as an instrument manufactured to keep certain people in the rightful place. For those with the power, it is a great thing. For those broken by the continuation of manipulation and misuse of power, it is a very bad thing.

I wish it was an easy as going back to the intent of those dead white dudes. I didn’t trust them then and I certainly wouldn’t trust them now. Sorry, come back with another solution.

Friday, October 26, 2007

The Test of Inclusion

The statement I’m about to make may catch the ire of many of my Black Nationalist friends. It’s time to let go of some of the institutions organized specifically to promote black agendas. The road to authentic inclusion into this melting pot experiment called America may mean a regretful release of some of the institutions organized to promote and protect the rights of black people.

That’s a tough thing to say given the long history of oppression and the continuation of racism within our nation. It in no way implies that race no longer matters, or that we have become the colorblind nation that Shelby Steele so firmly embraces. Rather, it points to the changing dynamics of our nation, and a shift in the way we address the notion of race within a context in which culture, class, gender and sexual orientation mutate the age old categories of exclusion.

One of the reasons I love living in Durham, NC is the way in which we deal with the matter of inclusion. Durham is one of those rare places where race and class remains in the face of those living in the city. Years ago, I was brought on board as columnist for the hometown paper-The Durham Herald-Sun-after John Hope Franklin was appointed by President Bill Clinton to head a national committee to address race in America. I was one of four local columnists chosen to dig deeper into local matters with the hope of helping the community do the very thing Franklin, who lives in Durham, was entrusted to do nationally.

The consequence was the expansion of the voice of a local paper that became a model for how editorials can be used to engage a community around matters irreplaceable to those living there. Durham became a model in how to use the press to promote inclusion. That wasn’t an easy task given the great divides caused by difference.

An example of this was the request coming from David Smith, leader of the Friends of Durham, a local conservative political action committee. Smith made a request to become a member of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, a powerful political action committee organized to address issues specific to the black community. At the time of the request, I challenged my readers to consider the significance of his appeal. It was my contention then that the agenda of the organization needed to expand to reflect the changing demographics of our community.

Specifically, what that meant was the emergence of a rapidly growing Latino population. With the influx of Latino’s within Durham’s inner city communities, came a rise in crimes involving blacks who preyed on Latino’s. The result was mounting tension between blacks and Latinos. My column was a call to black leadership to respond by opening the gates for Latinos to sit at the table to create a more powerful organization merging the agendas of these two minorities.

Inclusion is a tough pill to swallow because it implies a loss of historical bearing. The strength of the Southern black community is sited in its institutions. Most notable among these are the Historically Black Colleges and Universities. These schools have molded the minds of incalculable men and women who have gone on to provide strong leadership in a variety of disciplines. They have stirred the social consciousness of black students by creating a safe haven for them to learn void of the impediments caused by racial enmity. Parents have craved the assurance of leaving their children to be taught by professors willing and able to view their children based on their ability, rather than some preconceived notion of worth based on their race.

More and more, we are seeing the end of these institutions. A case in point is the recent acceptance of Chowan University into the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association. The private, predominantly white Baptist school of about 900 students in northeast North Carolina will join the nation’s oldest league for historically black colleges and universities next football season.

The decision to accept Chowan into the CIAA was necessitated by the departures of Winston-Salem State University and North Carolina Central University. These schools left to enter the more fertile ground of Division I, leaving a void in what has been a rich history among many proud HBCU alumni.
"The color of power is green," league commissioner Leon Kerry said. "I'm trying to build teams, I'm trying to add teams, and I’m trying to keep the CIAA successful. What's going to make the CIAA successful today? Imagination and the willingness to make things different, and I think it's far past the time to make things different. ... Because the school's not an HBCU, do you overlook that school? Absolutely not."
Now comes the hard part. Imagine the panic coming from members of the Chowan University band during the halftime performance. HBCU’s have a way of doing things that is completely different from what I remember as part of life at the University of Missouri. Our band didn’t giggle like that. One of the best things about the Eagle (North Carolina Central University) Aggie (North Carolina A&T University) Classic is the halftime show. The battle of the bands gets as much attention as the game. The boys and girls at Chowan may have to learn a few moves.

Culture and history are powerful variables. Each are important actions in constructing positive self-imagery and helping to make the much needed association with the world not mentioned in most history books. Black people suffer due to a lack of information regarding their truth. HBCU’s help fill in those blanks and build strength among those vulnerable to the coldness of those ingrained in racial hate. The nation may not be ready to be colorblind right now.

The institutions have been there to protect black people. Slowly, there purpose is changing and, more and more, their function is taking on new meaning. The time has come to rethink what they mean. As painful as that process may be, in the end, we shall overcome. We shall overcome, someday.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Black Pain, White Guilt

One of the upshots of writing columns and blog post is in witnessing the extreme narrow mindedness of those who read your work. After 15 years of writing social commentary, I have become anesthetized by the callous words uttered by those to superficial to regard the pain of others or the consequences actions play in the demise of society as we know it.

I’ve come to take for granted threats on my life and the mean spirited words voiced by people deeply enamored with the memory of the good ole days when white people ruled and black people stepped aside when white people walked their way. Column writing has a way of exposing the stuff within people that is often overlooked by the big smile on their faces.

I’m careful not to paste the racist label on people based on the traditional list of variables. Things like living in the South, driving a pick up truck with a gun rack in the back or flaunting a confederate flag license plate-well that’s another story-shouldn’t be assumed as evidence that a person has a white hooded robe hanging in their closet.

The old adage to not judge a book by its cover has come back to haunt me on a number of occasions. Some of those people I wanted to judge based on some circumstantial evidence have proven to be the very opposite of what I believed. The sad converse to that truth is some of the people I measured up as living their lives beyond pigeonholing people have proven me wrong.

It’s the reason I write so much about race. I would love to focus on other matters, but the ways in which people limit themselves in allowing other people access to their lives continues to be one of our nation’s biggest problems. Today, I’m convinced more than ever that the race problem lingers as America’s biggest obstacle.

Of course Clarence Thomas and his cohorts would dismiss that statement as no more than another ploy to stir the pot of white guilt and to further press black people into the stew of black victimization. Thomas, in his recent autobiography, argues that his Yale Law school degree is worth about 15 cents because of the affirmative action tag placed on it. He claims he couldn’t find work after graduating due to the assumptions people made related to his true intellect.

The rhetoric of Thomas, and others like him, forces a critical examination involving the ways in which black people think of themselves and how their self-imagery influences the ways in which other evaluate those who are black. The growing dissension among black people around the significance of historical oppression, within this contemporary context, complicates the formation of any agenda that offsets the growing hostility toward black people in America.

Many of my white readers failed to understand the significance of the Jena 6 case. For them it was a matter involving ruthless behavior among a gang of black boys who had beat a white boy until he be passed out. For them it was clear that a crime had been committed and that those boys needed to be punished. What they fail to comprehend is how the mounting of historical imagery can lead to extreme hostility among those aching due to the refutation of their sorrow.

Put another way, Jena is an example of how black people are incessantly being asked to get over it. The aftermath of Jena forces a critical glare at how agony related to symbolic pain can dig at the self perception of those struggling to find meaning after continuing to scrutinize examples of nations neglect.

The Jena 6 case has led to a shocking wave of noose-hangings throughout the country. Following the massive march in support of the black teens on September 21, at least 18 noose-hanging incidents have been reported throughout the country. A House Judiciary Committee hearing has been set to explore expanding federal laws to require that noose-hangings always be punished as a hate crime, regardless of the age of the offender.

The noose as a symbol rekindles dark memories. At least 3,500 blacks were lynched between 1882 and 1968, according to “Without Sanctuary,” a documentary project currently touring the U.S. I will never forget a conversation I had with the father of a white friend when I was in college. “We once had a Nigger who lived here,” he said. “They said someone robbed the bank. Next thang we know he was hanging from a tree. Wonder who did that,” he chuckled.

It was his way of warning me, of reminding me to stay in my rightful place. I will never forget the fear that came with those words. That symbol of hate has a way of taking black people back to a time not to long ago. It takes you back to a time when the life of a black man wasn’t worth the pursuit of justice.

Such symbols need to be dealt with. It’s more than a youthful prank. That noose conjures old scars that are hard to overcome. Those hangings are too close to forget. My grandfather told me stories of friends hanging from trees like that strange fruit that Nina sung about. I’ve seen too many pictures to forget. I’ve heard too many stories of black boys getting into trouble for looking at a white girl the wrong way.

Which gets to the point of this post- some people will never understand the pain because its not part of their struggle. You can’t blame them for that. At the same time you can’t deny a person their pain. Pain is real. Pain takes time to overcome, and understanding requires more than a nicely written apology for the burden of slavery. To stand with those with pain suggest a willingness to enforce policies punishing those who open those deep wounds.

It’s sad that the noose has never received attention from Congress. Why has it taken this long for a discussion on the memories instigated whenever a black person hears of a rope hanging to remind them of their historical placement in this nation? This matter should have been taken care of before now. It hasn’t because of the assumptions often made when it comes to the matter of race in America. As always, it’s understood that black people hold the burden of forgiveness. That it’s for them to overcome.

Why not? It’s not as bad as it seems. It’s only a rope. You’ve come a long way. Suck it up.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Bil Cosby, Charles Chestnutt, and that silly little thing called race

This race thing goes much deeper than some may think. The unrelenting pursuit of the American Dream has created a tension between the races that forces a new discussion related to the impact of class when juxtaposed against the historical battles related to race. Over the past few days, I have watched Bill Cosby and Alvin Poussaint pitch their new book “Come on People: On the Path from Victims to Victors”.

I’ve seen them on the Oprah Winfrey Show. That same night, they were interviewed by Larry King. This morning they pooped up on Good Morning America. I laughed as I noticed Cosby wore the same suit and refused to take off those dark shades. When Oprah asked him why he was wearing the shades, he said his eyes were red. Back in the day we wore shades to be cool or to hide eyes bloodshot from smoking those funny cigarettes.

Cosby and Poussaint are on a crusade to bring to the world’s attention the plight of black America. They denounced all those men who refuse to take care of their children. They blasted black people for out of control black on black crime and the mounting of poverty and despair. While acknowledging the bearing of systemic racism, they are imploring black people to take responsibility for their lives and to rise above the posture of victimization.

This dare brings to the forefront the significance class plays in the way we interpret matters related to race. After years of struggling to undo the burden of slavery, reconstruction, Jim Crow and Ronald Reagan, black America continues to wrestle with the biggest enemy of them all-the perceptions they have about themselves.

A case in point is the insane decision made by Yasmine Toney, a promoter in Detroit. Toney opened a deep wound by promoting a party that allowed all-night free admission to black women with fair or light skin. The party was canceled after numerous complaints, but the damage has been done. Within the black community there is a cast system based on the tone of a person’s skin, the grade of their hair and the color of their eyes. In other words, the closer one cones to looking white, the easier it is for them to gain acceptance.

You would think we have grown past the power of the Willie Lynch strategy. For those who do not know, Lynch wrote a document during the early years of slavery that instructed slave owners on how to keep their property in their rightful place. It was as simple as creating tensions among them by bring to the forefront their differences. Get it, light skinned coloreds over here. Go to the big house. Dark skinned coloreds over there. Go to the fields and pick that cotton.

Color distinction became a major issue at the end of Reconstruction and the turn of the century. Many blacks discovered the power of color and engaged in a common practice-passing. They were able to enter into the world of white America by simply using the evil caused by slavery to their advantage. The raping of women created a mixing of the races and many carried features that allowed them to function as white and to receive the benefits afforded by that privilege.

Passing resulted in damage within the race. Years later, we continue to endure the consequence of this historical practice. The end result is a deep-seeded self hatred that leads many crippled by the inferiority complex caused by the color of their skin.

History helps in undoing so much of what stymies us. I get frustrated with hearing all of that rhetoric with few solutions. Uncle Bill and Poussaint are raising important questions. The problem is in the way they throw stones with little help in undoing the damage created by more than 300 years of psychological damage.

In comes Dante James. James, an Emmy Award winning director and producer for the “Slavery and the Making of America”, has brought the work of Charles Chestnut to film. The work of Chestnutt is critical because of his keen sense in how passing hindered the progress of black people. Chesnutt was of mixed race but could pass with relative ease for a white man. During that time in America he was considered "legally" black. Issues of miscegenation, "passing", and racial identity would influence his writing throughout his career.

Dante has taken Chestnutt’s short story “The Doll” and adapted it in way that stirs a critical conversation involving revenge, integrity, and love for family and overcoming a history of oppression. It’s the story of a man faced with an opportunity to impose vengeance for the death of his father. There is a price for taking matters into ones own hands-those who remain after to repay the debt must suffer. The doll of a daughter is a reminder of those depending on you to do the right thing.

The people carry loads of insecurities tied to the color of their skin. People like Cosby stand on their soap boxes beating at the already weary spirits of those locked in despair. While Cosby preaches his gospel of responsibility, black men and women hold to age old stereotypes about themselves.

Chestnutt can help lead the way. Thanks to Dante James, we have found a place to start. Let’s pray that Dante remakes “A Marrow of Tradition.”

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Crime Talk as Political Spin

Politicians have a way of using misery to their advantage. That’s one of the reasons I detest campaign season. After years of serving us, they come out with cow manure in perfume laced words. No matter how hard you work at it, dung is still dung after you pour expensive smelling scents on it to cover the odor.

One of the issues that arouse emotions is crime. When in doubt regarding an election bid, talk about crime. Blame the incumbent for failing to curtail all of that violent crime. Point a wicked finger at anyone and everyone who has served in leadership for people killing one another at alarming rates.

Problem is I’m not buying it. It simply seems unfounded to assert a rise of iniquitous behavior on a few good men and women elected to govern a community. The foolish person takes too much credit for all that is good, and far too much blame for all that is bad. The truth is mounting crime in communities across the country has more to do with changing dynamics within our nation, than with public policy within our municipalities.

None of that suggest that leadership isn’t accountable for unearthing ways to fight these trends. The opposite is true. What bugs me is in how crime is used to launch a political agenda. I’m disturbed whenever a candidate comes forward with a promise to be tougher on crime, and to reduce it all due to a new improved strategy.

In Durham, NC. Thomas Stith is in attack mode. His criticism of current Mayor Bill Bell is that he is too soft on crime. His primary assumption is that the city hasn’t taken advantage of all of that federal money that could be used to improve law enforcement in the city. He preaches the good news of some prefabricated plan that, once initiated, will end gang activity, violent crime and will improve the economic strength of our community. To all of that I say, bah hum bug.

I lack sensitivity toward anyone who uses crime stats as a weapon against those who didn’t pull the freaking trigger. Those who are to blame for crime are those who commit them. It is hard for me to envisage that a new boss in town will scare all of those criminals from getting busy once he or she is sworn in. “Oh my, did y’all hear that Thomas Stith is the new Mayor!” can you hear this. “Let’s move to Cary, things are bout to change in Durham!”

Those who commit crimes could care less about who leads the city. I doubt they are reading the newspaper to keep track of new policies that sway their criminal actions. A promise to be tougher on crime has as much bearing as a promise to not exceed the speed limit. What is needed is an approach that understands the dynamics that lead to crime. All of that cheap talk about crime is just that-talk about crime. For every time a person talks to me about the need to create jobs, the need to do this, that, or that, my response is the same. You are clueless when it comes to the culture that stirs a climate for crime.

Leadership doesn’t point fingers and make promises. It listens to those who are in the middle of the heat and begins the process of addressing what they say related to the pain in the streets. Crime continues to rise because of the talking heads and experts who have no connections with the people impacted by crime.

Leadership moves past reputation and gets down in the trenches with those suffering. Don’t tell me not to worry about crime because the only people in danger are those who sale drugs. Don’t tell me I’m safe if I live in the suburb and to trust all is well in your life because it’s really not your problem. Again, that’s the breed of political spin that drives me up the wall and has me screaming for the politicians to shut their mouths and listen to what the people have to say.

Crime is not a public safety issue. It’s not a problem relegated to those elected to serve us. Crime is a community issue, and, as such, it takes each of us to solve all of this. The last thing we need is to have it on the front burner once every four years around November. If it hasn’t come from your lips on a consistent basis, do me a favor. Stop talking long enough to hear the truth.

Otherwise, you’re wasting my time with your rhetoric. Like most people my time is too important to watch you make a fool of yourself with all of those assumptions.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Another murder at Northgate Mall

I took a sip of the light roasted coffee from Mad Hatters Bakery and Café. It’s my Sunday morning ritual in preparation for worship. I pulled the City & State section from the local newspaper and began skimming the pages to make any connection for the sermon I would soon preach. The theologian Karl Barth wrote that good preaching holds the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.

There, on the front page was the news I didn’t want to read. Days earlier I had disparaged the editors at the same paper for printing a story that exposed Durham, NC for being in the middle of the state in bank robberies. Since when is being average deserving of headline news? Like so many I know, altering the negative perceptions of our city is on the top of the priority list. I often talk to others about the disparity in how news in Durham is treated in contrast to Raleigh, NC.

I read the story and trembled. Another young black male was killed at the Northgate Mall. The significance for me is related to the place where we worship. We meet in a space in Office Area six at Northgate Mall. Within an hour I would go to the place were a man had been killed, and would face a variety of emotions coming from those who would gather to thank God for another week of life.

Death at the Northgate Mall has become too common. Four people have been killed at the mall since 2002. The stabbing of Kenan Odom, 22, comes just six weeks after his cousin Kordero Odum, 19, was shot dead, amplifying the grief of that family.

The cycle of violence is spreading like wild fire in a community grappling to improve its public image. Most, who live in Durham, would agree things aren’t as bad as they seem. This is juxtaposed against stories of boys and girls gone wild.

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 is 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.

The cycle didn’t end there. After being charged with murder twice, he was arrested on drug charges, weapons charges, assault and strangulation charges, but continued to post bail while spending little time in jail.

Odum is an example of why the Durham Roundtable exists. The group, which I am a member, has spent the last few years critiquing the tracking of criminals and the methods used to determine bail. The loop holes within the system make it easy for criminals to get released before the magistrate has a chance to evaluate their previous record, or to consider outstanding warrants.

I would like to think that all our violent crime problems could be solved by making adjustments in the way we process those who commit crimes. As committed as I am to that progression, it has become increasingly clearer to me that there is venom that is destroying the youth of today. At the very core of it all is a spiritual void that leaves many making incredibly poor decisions.

I have seen this up close and personal of late. For some strange reason I have been surrounded by young men and women caught up in the ways of the streets. It becomes hard for them to let go of a life that, in many ways, has molded their perceptions of the world. This has always been a problem for those coming from the streets of America. Keeping it real is correlated with keeping it black, and no one wants to walk away from celebrating their people.

The problem is with a shifting in what it means to be defined by the norms of the streets. Once upon a time it meant affirming the power of a community, and the worth of the elders. It once meant having role models in the hood that would provide encouragement to press beyond the burdens of life in the hood. Sadly, hood life is now celebrated for its destructive ways, versus the hidden gems among the dry bones of the streets.

A hard exterior and mean spirit has become the preferred posture among young people. Exterminating the criminally minded, when taken out of the context of the larger spiritual matter, leaves communities broken more as the ages of those being locked up gets younger and younger and the problems become more difficult to contain. When public policies are made based on outcomes alone, those besieged by deep seeded demons are compromised for the sake of the appearance of making a difference.

I sipped my coffee and began altering my sermon to reflect the stabbing at the mall. I pressed for words to appear on the yellow post-it dangling from my Bible. No words appeared, only tears soaked the pages as years of anguish released a volcanic eruption of sorrow. I prayed through the hurt connected with being kicked out of a church while witnessing death walking in streets like zombies in a Michael Jackson video. I tussled with the emotions cultivated through years of witnessing Holy people playing games with religion as young people marched from the church angered by the irrelevance of these sanctified havens.

I trembled more as the rage mounted up in me. I remembered the murder of Tia Carraway, and my last sermon at the Orange Grove Missionary Baptist Church. It was her eulogy, and I blamed the church for her death. I pointed an angry finger at God’s people for being so stanch in their quest for political correctness, that a generation of hurting people found no comfort in their claims. I remembered Tia and others that had their lives taken violently. No words. Only tears.

I picked up my Bible, headed for the car and drove to the mall to preach. “Pour into the broken a faith in what they can be. In the meantime, Lord, give me the strength to walk a little longer. I need you now more than ever before.”

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The mood of America's youth

What has happened to America’s youth? The recent shooting at a Cleveland High School raises questions related to the state of mind of young people in this country. A 14-year old suspended student opened fire in his downtown Cleveland High School, injuring four people before killing himself.

One has to be careful not to over generalize when it comes to an event like this. It’s safe to say that what happened in Cleveland is not indicative of the mindset of all youth. With that being said, there seems to be a shifting of the mood among youth in America. There is sadness in our nation that has impacted the psychological well-being of this generation.

For every time a student takes his or her hostility out on their peers, one stops to reflect on if the same could happen in their backyard. Could Durham, North Carolina be the next Columbine? That’s a tricky question due to the way these incidents happen. One never knows who among them is close to going over the edge.

These horrific acts force us to contend with a number of assumptions we make. Parents rest in the confidence that their children are safe and will be provided a quality education due to where they are enrolled. The “good schools” become no more than figments of a parents imagination when placed within the context of one child going wild. It can happen anywhere at anytime. It’s humbling to think that resources aren’t enough to secure the safety of a child.

What is that breaking point? There must be some deep-rooted angst eating at the soul of America’s youth. What change within our society has fostered an environment that creates space for young people to contend that violence within the school is an option for resolving pain?

I’m not one to glamorize the good ole days. People are often too quick in pointing back to days gone by as a reminder of what should be done. I’m not convinced that yesteryear was much better, but one thing is certain-youth didn’t shoot people in their schools. There were other issues that consumed society. Problems like black people hanging from trees and the objectification of women for the purposes of a males self gratification and leaders being killed for standing for a cause, but, again, kids didn’t shoot their peers at school.

I’m not going to blame all of this on the removal of prayer in the schools, the end of corporate punishment in the school or the demise of neighborhood schools. I won’t point a finger at the withering family unit and impugn single parents for the decline of civility in America. I won’t even point that nasty finger at Hip-Hop culture, violence on television or the emergence of video games and the internet.

We are quick to find easy answers to complex problems. Beneath all of the brokenness there is a more pressing subject to be raised. What is the mood of the country? Have we been seduced into a state of depression? Is the country suffering from corporate low self-esteem? If so, what is it that has robbed us of the confidence we need to overcome the brokenness we feel?

To their credit, my parents have instilled in me an amazing confidence. They have poured into me a faith in me that will never be hindered by any obstacle that comes my way. My mother has imparted to me a commitment to social action. While in High School, she took a trip to Haiti after learning of their pain. She wanted to make a difference. When she confronted the load of homelessness in Columbia, Missouri, she took up the cause of opening a homeless shelter. When inspired to do more with her life, she went back to college late in life to complete a degree in social work.

Then there’s my dad. In his twenties he was out hunting one day. His rifle backfired as you shot at a rabbit leaving him in the woods bleeding to death. They found him drenched in blood. Miraculously he survived. Now, there is the reminder of that day. The fingers on his right hand remain clutched like claws due to the injury. His handicap never stopped him. His passion for life, faith in himself and love for his children were enough to keep him focused on providing the best he could.

Never a complaint parted his lips. Never did he allow his race or handicap mold his perception of himself. He pressed me to do my best, always believing I would go off to college and never forcing me into deciding on a career because of how much it would pay. These virtues helped mold me. My parents battle to achieve and my witnessing their grappling propelled me to dream.

There was no space for competition with my peers. The only thing in my way was me and my inability to see what can be, no matter what, if I keep pressing forward.

Maybe we have lost our confidence in our youth. If so, maybe it’s because, deep down, we have lost faith in what each of us can achieve.

Thanks mom and dad. Pray for my pops. He’s recovering from heart complications. Love you. I am who I am because of you

Monday, October 8, 2007

The Endorsement Shuffle

Politics is a tricky game. Winning often comes down to endorsements and political affiliation versus the credentials a person brings to the office. Candidates hide behind their positions on issues, while being very quick to deviate from those positions once elected.

All of this is hard to unearth for those to lazy to do the research before casting their vote. It’s so much easier to depend on a source they trust-the local newspaper, a political action committee or a close friend.

Candidates are allowed to slip and slide their way through the campaign maze with little or no accountability to the platform they pressed to get elected. It’s who you know that matters. It doesn’t hurt if you have a bit of charisma to go with the fertilizer shoveled at the feet of voters.

If its sounds like I’m disillusioned, I’m not. More than anything I’m optimistic that voters will open their eyes to the manipulation and start doing their homework. There’s nothing like a good local newspaper, community forms and a real face to face discussion with candidates. I would rather come to a conclusion of my own than to trust the back room endorsement of some political action committee.

I’ve come to wonder about political affiliation. In the good ole south has little bearing on the way a person functions in office. The Dixiecracts function more like Republicans with that Democratic tag that makes it easy to win in cities like Durham, NC. People can be tricked into picking a person for office thinking they align with a Democratic agenda, only to have their feelings hurt after the joker gets in office.

Of course the other option doesn’t work. Many young voters are prone to go the route of selecting the best person without regard to political affiliation. The problem with that position is in how the views of a person get changed once they’re surrounded by their partners in office.

The local political machinery offers a whole different set of issues. In Durham, NC one doesn’t have to declare political affiliation. The assumption is that party lines don’t matter in local offices. What matters it seems is finding people willing to take the job. The pay is low, the work is hard, and the turnover rate is a killer.

With all of that being said, there are times when a candidate emerges with the stuff that makes all of what I just said unnecessary. Such a candidate has surfaced among the long list of candidates who have run for office more times than the Cubs have failed to make it to the World Series.

Farad Ali has broken ranks with the status quo. He refuses to declare party affiliation. Why should he. It’s a nonpartisan election. By saying no to the temptation to get in bed with a political party, he has maintained the integrity of the election process. Why depend on that party label when the election is set up not to take it into account.

Ali is an enigma to those accustomed to calling the political shots in Durham. The Durham Committee on the Affairs on Black People had the good sense to endorse him. Why not He’s black, smart, an amazing businessman and has a history of working with the outcast. Who better to serve us than a guy who has traveled the country to help women and African Americans develop businesses?

The other PAC’s didn’t know what to do with Ali. The People’s Alliance stayed the course by endorsing the incumbents and David Harris, who has served the community well as President of the InterNeighborhood Council and Partners Against Crime. It’s interesting that Harris, who is black, wasn’t endorsed by the Committee on the Affairs of Black People. Some say it’s because he has gone to battle with Lavonia Allison, the organizations chair.

By all accounts, Harris gets the nod over Ali because people know him more. That’s scary. Although the development of relationships goes a long way in the world of politics, you would think that a person with a background like Ali’s would be the superstar of this election class.

Not so in the world of getting elected. Some may say he’s not black enough. Others may say he’s a Muslim-which isn’t true. Personally, it would mean more to me for him to be on council if he were Muslim. Others may think he can’t be trusted because he’s calling for something that seems strange-to raise the bar when it comes to the business culture in city government.

A business man with a heart for people; that’s hard to find in a candidate for local politics. This guy has what it takes to run for the U.S. House or Senate and the bone heads who control the way we think about candidates are too stuck in the quicksand to know what they have before them.

That’s what happens when you can’t be placed in one of the pigeon holes. I’m glad that I have sense enough to pull myself out of the sand and vote based on what’s staring at me rather than a piece of paper printed by folks who have failed to take the time to see.

Vote on Tuesday.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Stith Stiffs Durham

Excuse me for a minute as I vent regarding local politics. I am disgusted, disappoint, baffled and totally pissed off at Thomas Stith. It is rare that I would be so consumed with indignation related to the campaign antics of a local politician, but this joker is jeopardizing the stability of local affairs.

For those not living in Durham, and for those who refuse to read the local news rags, Stith is accusing incumbent Bill Bell of pressuring the Durham Police Department into charging those guys on the Duke Lacrosse team. The city is being coerced into settling out of court for falsely accusing David Evans, Collin Finnerty and Reade Seligman. Reports have lawyers for the players asking for $30 million dollars.

The city halted and internal investigation of the proceeding leading up to and after the arrest after being warned that the findings could be used against the city. The city of Durham is under attack, and most citizens agree, according to numerous polls on the matters, that the city should not settle the case.

In jumps Stith, who has been critical of Bell for failing to exert strong leadership to curtail crime in the city. The release of a timeline documenting early meetings between Bell, City Manager Patrick Baker, the lead detective of the case, Durham Police Department Investigator Ben Himan, is being used to fuel the flame.

On Thursday, Stith pushed Bell to say whether he asked police to expedite the case. Stith has implied the rush to judgment was the result of the Mayors intrusion in the investigation. That’s what has me pissed off.

By using this case to advance his political career, Stith has put the city at risk of having to fork out money to compensate the damages done. In taking this position he has become a spokesperson for the lawyers seeking a judgment against the city. The problem with that position is he, as a current member of the city council, has an obligation to protect the interest of the city, and by attacking the mayor, he places his desire for political gain above his desire to serve the people of the city.

In doing that Stith has used the case in a way reminiscent of another politician- Mike Nifong. By aligning himself with the agenda of the lacrosse players, he has allowed his selfish need for power to overshadow his need to function as a person of integrity. There’s more.

This is also a case of speaking out of both sides of ones mouth at the same time. In one breath Stith claims the Mayor lacks leadership when it comes to crime. In the next exhale he attacks the Mayor for exerting leadership in this particular case. I’m not sure how to read that contradiction. Is the expectation to take leadership in some case but not in others, or is it left up to people like Stith to jump down a persons throat after they have the benefit of all the facts?

To his credit, Bell has reminded us of the context of that meeting. The city of Durham was on a national stage. The city as divided in a way that outsiders may not have understood. Part of that was a consequence of a number of local matters that reporters from the outside hadn’t covered. They didn’t know about t he long history of hostility with the school board. They didn’t know about the scandals within city government that led to the termination of a city manager, and how many in the city blamed black leadership for a lack of accountability.

They didn’t know about all the news related to students at Duke University and how the residents of Trinity Park had berated school leaders for failing to control those problems. They hadn’t reported on the hostility between students who attend North Carolina Central University and those at Duke University. No one bothered to deal with the great divide that existed in a city with two universities that rarely found occasion to deal with the presence of the other.

Bill Bell was facing a city ready to explode. The outside agitators threatened to destroy any sense of unity that had been built up over the years. Some didn’t know it was Bill Bell who put his job on the line as Chair of the Board of County Commissioners to fight for the merging of the city and county school systems. They didn’t know that this is a man who has fought for unity for a long time, and that all that makes Durham special was under serious attack by the national media and outsiders who labeled Durham as a city in need of some help.

Hindsight is 20.20. It is certain that mistakes were made along the way. Many assumptions were made. As a reporter on the case, I made my share. It’s hard not to when emotions get in the way of sound judgment. What’s the price we should pay for that mistake? It certainly isn’t $30 million.

The city of Durham needs strong leadership. The type that doesn’t put us out to dry. Not even when it will help you win an election.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

A Mother's Prayer

The sweet stroke of his jump shot hit the bottom of the net. In euphoric celebration of another shot made, DeCarlo Legran Polk kept his arm dangling reminiscent of the great kings of the court. Soon the jubilation of a two point shot was tainted by a tinge in his chest. All who knew him are still shocked at how his life was taken doing one of the things he loved the most-sports.

The 2007 graduate of Hillside High School had earned a scholarship to play football at St. Augustine College. His popularity at Hillside High was reflected in his being named the Homecoming King. He modeled excellence by serving as class treasurer, member of Sigma Beta, student government and National Achiever’s Society.

His death on June 27, 2007 marked a rare occasion were the name of a young black man’s death wasn’t tied to some form of violence. His exodus from the world was caused by a silent killer-Hypertrophic Cardiomypathy (HCM).

His mother, Tommie “Lady” Polk is on a crusade to assure other young men and women won’t die from this deadly disease. Recently, she made her pitch before at the Durham Public School Board of Education meeting.

“The public only knows that an athlete has died while playing a contact sport, leaving us to think that perhaps it was heat exhaustion or an enlarged heart,” she said. “We never know the final cause of death. Which is sad. If only someone would have made me aware.”

Polk is pushing for parents to have their children take an EKG. The test would have uncovered DeCarlo’s problem. “I know that I would have requested an EKG test for my own piece of mind,” she said. “But I did not know. Since I've learned about HCM I have read so many stories about parents stating if they had only known to have their child's heart tested.”

“As parents we sacrifice to afford the best for our children to wear,” she continued. “Then surely if we consider the alternative to not having them tested could mean a sudden death. I'm almost certain that many parents would request a test. After all isn't life way more important than a pair of sneakers.”

The beeper signaled the end of her 3 minute limit. Minnie Forte-Brown, the board chair, motioned to the other board members. A sign that this needed to be heard. A sign of respect for a grieving mother who has found the courage to warn parents of the danger facing their children.

A quick look across the room revealed the wiping of tears from the cheeks of teachers, administrators, parents and concerned citizens who gathered to discuss the business of public education. “I stand before you barely able to hear my own voice but I can hear my spirit. You see I am hearing impaired and my son DeCarlo was my voice and ears. He was always willing to do whatever he could for me, now he's not here.”

She spoke from her heart. “Now even though I'm hearing impaired, I am now HIS voice! For DeCarlo would have wanted me to be. Anyone that knew DeCarlo knew him to be a very compassionate young man. Always for the underdog.”

The reason for her coming was simple. “So this evening I stand before you hoping to make sure another child has a brighter tomorrow and another family does not endure what I've endured for the past 90 days,” she said “If we can be as passionate about spreading word about silent killers as we have become about gangs, guns, and violence OH WHAT A DIFFERENCE SAVING A LIFE WOULD MEAN!”

She walked back to her seat. The message has been delivered. It’s up to the rest of us to spread the news. Get you children tested for HCM. If you don’t have children, tell someone who has a child. Stand with Lady Polk.

That last shot was like a prayer. Hands stretched out to God. Into your hands I give my Spirit. Well done DeCarlo. Well done.

Monday, October 1, 2007

The Erick Daniels Story: Injustice in Durham, NC

After writing columns for more than ten years nothing surprises me anymore. At first I was stunned to receive emails and letters from readers so consumed with rage related to what I wrote that they felt it necessary to give me a piece of their mind. The hate mail and death threats are proof that I told em like it tis.

The truth of the matter is most people fail to read works within their context. American readers are quick to make judgment after a few words, or refuse to place themselves outside their world of comfort. In other words, folks are more prone to find ways to linger in their narrow-mindedness versus using the works of others as an instrument of enlightenment.

A case in point is the work I’ve done on Jena 6. “Are you serious? You surely can not be serious,” a response to my blog began. “You want our country to rally around this group of young men based on the simple fact of their color? This is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard. You want the white population to look at you based on your character, abilities, personality and so forth, YET, you single handedly hold your own race back by this one simple gesture. It is amazing to me that you blame us for differentiating between the races and then you turn around and DO IT YOURSELF. This is absolutely absurd to me. Do you personally know any of these boys? Or are you just backing them because you share a similar skin tone? Yes I am white but I say all, including the white kids, who participated in the wrong doings of the day need to face charges for the actions. NOW WHO IS BEHAVEING IN A PREJUDIST MANNER?”

Get the point? The reader is dismayed at my insistence that we support the Jena 6 exclusively on the basis of their color. The problem with his presupposition is his failure to understand this issue within the broader context. People are outraged over what is happening down in Jena, LA. because it isn’t an individual case of the disparities within the judicial system. Jena is reflective of what is happening across America-young black men are being railroaded to prison devoid of proper legal representation; while white boys get a do not go to jail card for reasons that cause people to think it’s all about race.

A good example is a case in Durham, North Carolina. Erick Daniels was a 14-year-old Chewning Middle School student when Ruth Brown identified him as one of the men who broke into her home and stole thousands of dollars from her purse. There was no physical evidence linking Daniels or anyone else to the crime. Daniels was picked out from a picture in the Chewning yearbook. The deciding factor-she recognized his eyebrows.

The assailants were wearing bandanas so the only thing she saw was those eyebrows. In December 2001, Daniels was convicted of first-degree burglary and armed robbery. He has served 51/2 years of a 10 to 14 years sentence while maintaining his innocence.

An investigation by a member of Daniels appeal team uncovered that Brown, a police department employee, was running an illegal poker game at the time of the robbery. In her initial statement she said her assailant was light-skinned with braids. Daniels is dark-skinned with hair too short to braid.

After his conviction, police discovered pictures of a second suspect posing with guns next to a man that fit Brown’s description. The prosecutor received word after the conviction that a man was ready to confess, but failed to pursue the lead.

Many may say so what to all of this. It’s big news because despite the coverage on the case it wasn’t enough to land the type of attention that would prevent prosecutorial misconduct. The media circus created by the Duke Lacrosse rape case proves how race, power and money can influence the legal process. Most people in Durham, NC are unaware of what happened to Erick Daniels. Everyone in the country knows what happened at 610 Buchanan St.

Some of the people involved in covering this case will be on hand Sunday, October 7 at the Ideas! Coffee House, 5607 HWY 55, Suite 105 in Durham, to help us understand what happened. One reporter covering the case was arrested. Demorris Lee, formerly with the News & Observer was there from the beginning. Mosi Secret, from the Independent Weekly, wrote an amazing investigative piece on the case. Both will be at Ideas. Carlos Mahoney, an appellate court attorney, and Karen Daniels, Ericks mother, will also be present to give their perspective.

It’s asking a lot, but it would be nice if my Jena 6 critic would show up. Maybe the discussion will help him understand why black people are hurting so much. For some, race doesn’t matter, but for those who are black, it really matters if you don’t have the money to pay for a dream team defense.

Meet me at the coffee house!
For more information on the Community Conversation at the Ideas! Coffee House, contact DJ Kraze at (919) 405-4140 or email him at

To read Mosi Secret’s article in the Independent Weekly go to:

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Hate Crimes and Justice in the Black Community

Note: Today’s blog is written by a special quest. Melissa Harris-Lacewell is Associate Professor of Politics and African American Studies at Princeton University. She received her B.A. in English from Wake Forest University, her Ph.D. in political science from Duke University and an honorary doctorate from Meadville Lombard Theological School. She is also a student at Union Theological Seminary in New York.

She is author Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought, (Princeton 2004). I’m featured in the section that examines the Black church role in molding political ideologies. The work was awarded the 2005 W.E.B. DuBois book award from the National Conference of Black Political Scientists. It is also the winner of the 2005 Best Book Award from the Race and Ethnic Politics Section of the American Political Science Association. Her academic research has been published in scholarly journals and edited volumes and her interests include the study of African American political thought, black religious ideas and practice, and social and clinical psychology. She is at work on a new book: For Colored Girls Who've Considered Politics When Being Strong Wasn't Enough. It is an examination of the connections between shame, sadness, and strength in African American women's politics.

Black Christians understand justice. Rooted in a history of struggle against oppression the black church has historically led the nation in a moral quest for human dignity and freedom. Unfortunately, some outspoken African-American clergy have rejected the moral vision of black Christianity by fueling anti-gay prejudice in their opposition to the Matthew Shepard Act. These African-American preachers are more interested in the media spotlight than in honoring the black Christian tradition of justice.

Poised for a vote in the Senate, the Matthew Shepard Act extends federal hate crime protections to citizens who are violently victimized because of their sexual orientation and gender identity. It provides local law enforcement with the resources to thoroughly investigate heinous, bias-fueled crimes. Intending to shift public opinion against this bill, a few conservative African-American pastors are working overtime--through protests and provocative advertisements--to spread the false message that this legislation will criminalize them for condemning gay people.

It is time for black Christians to speak out against this distorted and ugly campaign against the Matthew Shepard Act. The proposed federal statute does not punish nor prohibit free expression of one’s religious beliefs. The hate crimes bill includes language protecting individuals from race-based and religion-based crimes as well. The Act protects first Amendment rights for everyone while ensuring that the authorities fully investigate all violent crimes intended to degrade and oppress their victims. The bill protects our children, because black youth are proportionately targeted and victimized in anti-gay hate crimes.

Homophobic black clergy do not speak for the entire black Christian community. Though they receive dramatically less media attention than Bishop Harry Jackson, many African-American religious leaders are encouraging acceptance and inclusion in their congregations and communities. African-American Christians have long resisted readings of the Bible that exclude and oppress. Enslaved blacks were admonished to “obey their masters” but they believed the story of Moses leading his people from bondage. Jim Crow religion told black people to be silent about oppression because the” meek shall inherit the earth," but Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. called for “justice to run down like waters and righteousness as a mighty and ever-flowing stream.” Lamentably, as the Matthew Shepard Act debate has illustrated, the Black religious voices urging inclusion and respect rarely receive as much media notice as those preaching division and bigotry.

To be sure, there is still much work to be done before homophobia ceases to cause pain and division. African-American gay men and lesbians continue to find themselves marginalized in some churches and in the mainstream black media. On the news, a handful of Black athletes and performers received enormous media attention after making hateful anti-gay statements this year. While homophobia remains a serious and pernicious problem across this nation, it's important for us to recognize that there are far more people within the black religious community who support equality and dignity for gay people than the media has given credit. The public--especially those young people who are now recognizing their sexual orientation and gender identity--should know that those who preach bigotry in their unfounded assault on the Matthew Shepard Act do not define the level of open-mindedness and acceptance in the African-American religious community.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote from a letter from a Birmingham jail to express his grave disappointment in his fellow clergy because they failed to support eh struggle for equal rights and human dignity. Let us now register our equal disappointment with the intolerance or homophobic clergy in our community. When asked why he’d come to Birmingham, King wrote “I am here because injustice is here.” When asked why we support the Matthew Shepard Act black Christians can respond the same.

Melissa Harris-Lacewell will participate in a symposium entitled: "Sites of Struggle: Centering African-American Women in Politics and Culture" on Monday, October 8 from 5-7 pm in the Hitchcock Room of UNC's Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History on the campus of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.