Thursday, July 30, 2009

Big Ben's Pass

Innocent until proven guilty. It’s one of the many things that makes me proud to be an American. Our Constitution protects the rights of those accused of wrongdoing. Our judicial system is designed to protect the reputation of those charged until they have their day in court. Sadly, the evolving role of the media has severely hindered a person’s right to maintain innocence until a judge or jury says otherwise.

The role of the press has grave implications in stirring public perception. Decisions are made before that important day in court. Evidence is filtered through the sieve of public opinion until all is known before attorneys make opening statements. This is most critical when it comes to cases involving celebrities. The media catches hold and keeps the story before us until we’re tired and in need of a new fix.

The media’s fascination with sensationalism, combined with the public’s need to know as much as possible about the lives of the rich and famous, has me confused as to why more hasn’t been reported on the Ben Roethlisberger sexual assault case. Big Ben has gone about business as if nothing has happened to disrupt his life.

On July 17, 2009, a lawsuit was filed in Washoe County, Nevada District Court accusing the All Pro NFL Quarterback of sexually assaulting Andrea McNutty, 31, in 2008. The lawsuit claims the incident happened in Roethlisberger’s hotel room while he was in Lake Tahoe for a celebrity golf tournament. The suit seeks at least $400,000 in damages from Roethlisberger and also alleges hotel officials went to great lengths to cover up the incident.

According to McNutty, she was working as an executive casino host in July 2008, when Roethlisberger struck up a friendly conversation at the front desk. The following night she claims Roethlisberger called her to complain about the television sound system not working properly. He asked her to look at it. After determining it was functioning properly she turned to leave, but he stood in front of the door and blocked her, then grabbed her and started to kiss her. The lawsuit claims she required hospitalization for treatment for depression after the alleged attack.

Critics of the suit point to the failure of the alleged victim to file charges at the time. Proving guilt void of a criminal conviction raises questions related to the validity of the lawsuit. The absence of a police report raises concerns about the motives of the alleged victim. She is portrayed as a lunatic in search of a big payday. Roethlisberger gets a pass from the press, and none of his sponsors see the need to pull his ads as we wait for that important court date.

Why has Roethlisberger been given a pass? I saw one of his ads run on Sports Center within an hour of the press conference where he stated emphatically that he did not sexually assault that woman. I’m not surprised by his declaration of innocence. What shocks me is the ease in which he has wiggled his way through the media maze with little damage to his reputation. There’s hardly any mention of it on the multitude of junk food news broadcast. Those sponsors keep running those ads as if nothing has happened, and the public has failed to respond in a way consistent with when other ball players found themselves in trouble.

There’s a long list of athletes gone wild-O.J. Simpson, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Adam “Pacman” Jones, Jason Williams, Isaiah Thomas, Barry Bonds, Cedric Benson, Donte’ Stalworth, Plaxico Burress, Michael Phelps and Michael Vick. Some faced major hits to their public image. Others had their day in court. The sad truth is most of them are black. Michael Phelps got caught smoking weed, and had to forfeit, for a little while, some of his endorsement contracts. The others on this list are black.

So, is there a double standard in the way the media and the public approaches the news of a person charged of a crime? Does the race of the person charged impact the assumptions made regarding the guilt or innocence of the person charged, or has Roethlisberger been given a pass merely because of the specifics of the case. With that being said, does the public have enough information to come to that conclusion, or is it possible that the white boy is assumed innocent until proven guilty, while the black boys are assumed guilty until proven innocent.

I don’t have the answer. I’m just shocked that Big Ben is treated so kindly in this case.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Black Man Walking

I’m looking forward to the boys having that glass of beer at the White House. I would love to be present to listen as Henry Louis Gates, Jr., affectionately known as “Skip”, Sgt. James Crowley, the dude who arrested “Skip”, and President Barack Obama, the dude who stuck his foot in his mouth, come together to share thoughts on how Gates getting arrested has become the biggest story since MJ died.

From the beginning the arrest of the celebrated Harvard scholar was placed in the racial profiling box. People from around the country are incensed that a black man can get arrested in his own house. Making matters worse is this black man isn’t your typical case study of black folks pulling the race card. Something went wrong up in Cambridge. I could hear the doves crying. If a Ph. D can’t keep you out of jail, what’s a brother with a GED supposed to do?

Obama decided to throw in his commentary during a national news conference. “They acted stupidly,” he said, obviously enraged at how his good friend had been treated. How does a man get thrown in jail while making comments from his own house? It’s hard to keep that card in your pocket when faced with the facts.

Fact one-black man. Fact two-white police. Fact three-go to jail. For those not mired by memories of skirmishes with the law, it all seems so simple. A man should never, ever, under any circumstances, question the man with the badge. The assumption is the police are present to protect and uphold the law. As much as we all want to honor and respect the role of the police, there is too much personal and communal evidence to contradict that claim.

The stories of these many clouds of witnesses are hushed before they have a chance to become a part of a larger body of dialogue related to the grip of stereotypes about black men. Black men get stopped by the police for no reason. Black men become the target of security guards at the mall. Black men are watched and followed for no other reason than being tied to the most feared cluster in America-black men.

Time builds rage. It comes after each occasion one gets stopped for no reason, watched for no reason, devalued for being a black man. Many can’t understand the rage that comes after being watched or stopped. It has happened to me on a number of occasions. I’ve been stopped for driving while black. I have been followed for shopping while black. I have even been stopped for walking while black.

It hurts being stopped for walking in your own neighborhood. It happened close to a decade ago, but the memory still haunts me. Like so many of my neighbors I took advantage of the walking trail in the Woodcroft subdivision of Durham, NC. An officer stopped me one day and asked where I was going. “Home,” I responded.

I was walking home. I was taking a stroll to reduce the stress caused from dealing with outlandish circumstances in both my life and in the lives of people I worked with. I didn’t deserve to be stopped for walking. What I needed was time alone to meditate. I needed time to reflect on my work. I needed space, alone, to unload the pain caused after witnessing countless people caught up in cycles of frustration-addiction, abuse, poverty, incarceration, death and fear. I walked and prayed searching for answers after enduring the despondency of one day of disappointment stacked on top of the previous day of the same.

I needed a reminder of God’s presence in the hub of my pain. Each step, each breath, and each teardrop sought sanctuary from the sadness that comes with the work I do. There, walking down the manicured landscape of Woodcroft Parkway, I tried my best to forget, for a moment, the stack of ills was too heavy for me to carry. I walked in search of some comfort from the sorrows of those residing in the North East Central Durham community. “God, grant me the courage and strength to keep pressing forward,” I prayed. “Give me reason to believe that those over there, on the other side of this place where I live, will break free from the misery caused by living with their lacks.”

Then it happened. A reminder. A reminder that my living in isolation from those who fill victimized by their human condition did not protect me from the perceptions my skin stirred. In that moment I was no different from those living with less. The police stopped me because of an assumption linked to my race. The rage stirred in me. I stood in shock as the officer calculated my worth. I fought back anger and tears. This was not supposed to happen out here.

I calmly kept the rage inside. Soon it was over. The walk home left me pondering the work of Elis Cose. I had recently read his book The Rage of the Privileged Class. I felt that rage brewing. None of it mattered, it seemed. The work done to make a difference, the neighborhood where I lived, the degrees earned, being named “Tar Heel of the Week”, all of the community accolades and boards I served on-none of it mattered. In that moment, I was measured by the externals-black man walking.

It’s difficult to put in words how it feels when none of what you have done matters. That rage brews deep in the belly of those who have fought through all the stereotypes coming from those incapable of understanding the burden black men carry. It’s hard to explain how painful it feels when you catch Hell in your own house. It’s one thing to endure it over there, but leave me alone when I’m at home. This is my rekindling place. This is the one place that should be an oasis after dealing with the feedback of those who think they have license to attack the work I do.

Maybe a glass of beer will help explain all of this. What Sgt. Crowley did may not have been about race, but it hurts just the same.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Not a Word

Yesterday was my birthday, so I didn’t make Chester Jenkins’ funeral. I picked up today’s Herald-Sun to read about the service. I assumed it would be on page one, section A. It wasn’t there. I moved on to page 2, 3, 4-all the way to the end of section A. Must be on the front page of the metro section. Not there. Not on page 2, 3, 4-not anywhere in section B. I even checked the sports section. Of course it wasn’t there. Must have missed it, I thought, so I went through the paper a second and third time hoping to find something.

I didn’t know how to feel after taking a few sips of coffee to ease the sting of this major gaffe. How could the paper that claims to be the place to get local news miss one of the biggest local stories of the summer-the death of Durham’s first black mayor? As I journalist, I wanted to find a reason to explain the oversight. Maybe, just maybe, it was one of those rare days when there was too much news and not enough space.

I read the headlines above the fold (the most important news stories of the day). Afghanistan’s deadliest month claims 4 U.S. Troops. I threw the paper on the table in front of me at Parker & Otis. That story was pulled from the AP wire and fit best in the section with national and world news. County hires new director of DSS. That’s an important story, but it belonged on the cover of the metro section. There was another story about school construction and folks taking advantage of the early retirement package offered at Duke.

The cover of the metro section was worse. I was left speechless regarding the mindset that led the paper to fail to report on the Jenkins funeral. Maybe, just maybe, the failures of the editorial staff over there had something to do with a lack of understanding related to the historical significance of Jenkins becoming the first black mayor of Durham in 1989. I had just moved to Durham when it all happened. It came during a time when racial tension was frenzied and some feared the city would explode in ways common to the Watts riots of 1965.

Durham was more discordant then. Race mattered in a way different than today. Things changed due, in large part, to the leadership of men and women like Chester Jenkins. He came on board as mayor before Ken Spaulding called for a memorandum of understanding between members of the Friends of Durham and the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People. He took office before the heated battles over school merger and the highly charged debates that came after the board of education hired Ann Denlinger over a black man who was chosen as the National Superintendent of the year. It happened before loangate, troubles within the police department, controversial black city managers and a myriad of issues that had citizens venting on the editorial page of the Herald-Sun.

I wrote columns during those years. William Hawkins and Bob Wilson were dedicated to creating a space for the citizens of Durham to reflect on matters important to them. They were committed to quality journalism. They weren’t afraid to follow the money to investigate corruption in local government. It is true that the paper was criticized for being overly aggressive. Some contended the paper was run by a gang of closet racist who used the pen to destroy blacks in leadership. The truth is Hawkins and Wilson were visionaries who managed a paper that became as central to the political process as the offices of local government. They created a place where the news became a part of community discussions.

The paper was a vital part of the community. You could depend of the paper to be present, for better or for worse, to delve into the affairs impacting our community. It was a true community paper that understood the validity of consistent local voices writing commentary, and how those writers would inspire others to write in response. They did more than look at the bottom line, they competed with the other local paper because they offered a brand that no one else could match-they knew Durham, and they knew what the citizens wanted to read.

I was proud to write columns for the Herald-Sun. They allowed me the freedom to share a vantage point committed to making Durham a better place for all its citizens. All of that has changed. The paper has come to this-a rag too foolish to understand the significance Chester Jenkins made as the first black mayor of Durham. I’m sure the paper will rebuttal with a reminder of what was written before the funeral. Thanks for sharing, but the reader deserves for the story to be followed to the end.

We want to know what was said at the funeral. We want to know who was there and how people felt when they walked away. We want to know because history was made when Jenkins became mayor. It’s a sad day when history doesn’t get a line on the first page. It’s even worse when it’s not mentioned at all.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Cortez Sings the Blues

“Carl, I didn’t get the job,” Cortez, my girlfriend’s son, moaned the disappointment of his rejection. “I just got the letter in the mail.

Cortez faithfully went through the process of applying for the City of Durham’s summer youth jobs program. He filled out the application, dressed up to turn in the application, contacted his school’s guidance office to obtain a copy of his transcript-he did everything he needed to do only to be denied summer work.

His 15-year-old spirit was crushed by the rejection. Beneath the hard external he attempts to construct to replicate the persona of hip-hop icons, is a sensitive teenager doing his best to find his way. Beyond his fondness of Lil Wayne is a young man determined to make his mother proud by completing his high school education with grades that will pave the way for an academic scholarship.

Cortez is like scores of other young men in Durham, NC. He’s looking for that break- just some way to endorse his assessment that his dreams can be fulfilled. Some proof that what he feels is real has been witnessed by others. The letter in his hand gave him reason to believe his stab at proving the worth of his gifts was futile. Why try when they will deny me a chance? I could hear it in his voice.

“Cortez, let me get back with you,” I said holding back the rage brewing within. I called one of my friends on the city council to get a feel for what went wrong.

“Cora, this is Carl Kenney,” I began. “I need your help in understanding what went wrong.” I called Cora Cole McFadden because she always tells the truth. I called her because of her love for youth and her passion to make a difference. I called Cora because I knew she shared my concern for the youth of the city.

“Carl, we didn’t have enough jobs,” she informed me. “The businesses didn’t come through. “ I listened as she scolded local businesses for reaping the benefits of city services yet failing to support this worthy cause. The challenge to locate jobs to match each applicant was an arduous enterprise. The state of the economy forced many companies to cut back, and it’s difficult to justify hiring youth while failing to employ a parent.

It’s certain that the demands facing small businesses are overwhelming. Many grapple with keeping the doors open long enough to give the stimulus plan time to kick in. Many wonder if the plan will be enough. Employing one more person-just one more- may be the thing to forces them out of business.

I ended the conversation with Cora and ruminated on the consequences of not having enough to take care of our youth. Each major decision made-be it on the state or local level-seemingly has major implications on the delivery of services for youth. Be it the reductions of programs in our schools, cutbacks in funding to nonprofits who provide support for youth, or summer jobs for youth-young people are getting the bad end of the bargain.

It all comes at the worst possible time. Our youth are engaged in a battle comparable to the epic clashes between the forces of good and evil. They have been forced into a battle to preserve the credibility of their very existence. Their challenge is to transcend the judgments of older generations. This war is reflected best in the sullenness of African American boys who stand between years of promise and a culture of subjugation.

Needed is proof that hard work and abiding by all the rules will produce the rewards promised. What difference does it make when a letter appears to give credence to the claim that you can’t make it in a world that holds you in contempt? None of that may be true, but in the mind of person doing their best to find a way it all seems like a waste of time.

How could I tell Cortex the community let him down? How could I challenge him to keep pressing forward in faith when he played by all the rules and believed he would get a job because of the promise offered? “Why would they have me go through all of that if they didn’t have a job for me,” he asked. “They wasted my time.”

So true Cortex. So true. Once again we let our youth down. And we wonder why we have so many problems with helping them find their way.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Remembering the King

The death of Michael Jackson stirred a variety of emotions. I will never forget that night. I sat at the West End Wine Bar sipping a glass of wine. My close friend Monica Daye and I were celebrating the King’s life. “Do you have any of his music,” Monica asked the bartender. “We need to celebrate.” It was hard to hold back the tears.

“What’s going on,” a customer asked. We informed her MJ was dead. “Noooo.”

I bond was created that night. “Your name is Wenny Wiggley,” I joked. You have to change your name when you get married.” Her fiancĂ© shook his head no. His last name is Magill. It seemed to fit better than Wiggley.

It was a fitting way to remember the King. That night he brought us together. An African American male, an African American female, a white female and a white male. We told stories about back in the day when Michael glided across the stage. We talked like he was our best friend. “Damn, I’m gonna miss him,” I thought doing my best not to cry.

Less than an hour later, Monica and I danced to “Thriller” in a parking lot near Brightleaf Square. We danced and laughed while waiting for her boyfriend to join the celebration. We remembered the moves from that amazing video. The lyrics came easy. Again, I fought back the tears.

The emotions overwhelmed me. A few days later I marveled as people in the teens, twenties, thirties, forties, fifties, sixties and seventies danced to his music. I watched as young and older sang and danced. Everyone knew all the lyrics. It was a wedding like none I have ever seen. The bride, Nicole Owens, and the Groom Kahlil Thompson, joined the crowd during the tribute. Everyone sang. Again, I fought the tears. What is it about Michael Jackson that appeals to so many people?

Maybe it’s the way he broke through the barriers that stood prior to the launching of his career. I remember a time when black music remained on the other side of the tracks. It wasn’t played on the top 40 formatted stations. Jackson forced MTV to place his videos in heavy rotation. He refused to acknowledge categories of division. In his life, and in his music, he rejected the notion of classification. He was more than R&B, Rock or Pop music.

More than that, he rejected constructs that measured racial identification. He was more than a black man-he was a man with a social consciousness articulated in his music. “We are the world”, “Man in the Mirror”, “Too Soon” and other songs challenged the world to consider love and peace. The world is mourning his death because of the void created once his music vanished from heavy rotation. We’re left with Drake’s song about a woman being the best sex he ever had, or Lil Wayne’s new song featuring Young Money. Check out the lyrics:

Uh I like a long haired thick red bone Open up her legs then filet Mignon that pussy Ima get in and on that pussy If she let me in Ima own that pussy Gon' throw it back and bust it open like you posed' to Girl I got that dope dick Now come here let me dope you You gon' be a dope fiend Your friends should call you dopey Tell em' keep my name out they mouth cuz they don't know me Huh But you can call me tune chick I'll fuck the whole group Baby I'm a groupie My sex game is stupid My head is the dumbest I promise I should be hooked on phonics haha But anyway I think you're bionic And I don't think you're beautiful I think you're beyond it And I just wanna get behind it and watch you (back it up and dump it back- back it up and dump it back) [CHORUS:] Cause' we like her And we like her too And we like her And we like her too And we like her And we like her too And we like her And she like us too I wish I could fuck every girl in the world I wish I could fuck every girl in the world I wish I could fuck every girl in the world

Some call it club music. Others claim lyrics like these aren’t problematic. Some even claim they’re suitable for youth to listen. With all of that being said, the world was a much better place when we had Michael Jackson instead of Lil Wayne and the other promoters of social degradation. Many claim music has always been laced with lyrics about sexual pleasure. That is true. I remember Marvin Gaye’s anthem about the force of sexual healing. Sex has always been there, but there is a serious difference.

There are no boundaries. Women are presented as objects to fulfill a man’s urge for gratification. She is a toy to be used by a man with no sense of commitment. Once done with her, his boys can use her. In the meantime, it is made clear that the goal is to have as many as he can. His wish is to fuck every girl in the world. How pathetic.

Michael will be missed.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

McNair: Midlife in Crisis

“Nothing is ever guaranteed in life,” Mechelle McNair told USA TODAY in 2003. “If I have to go out and work and put my skills to work, I can. There’s no guarantee that Steve and I are going to be together forever.”

Those words came to pass over the weekend when Steve McNair was murdered on Independence Day in his Nashville condominium. The body of 20-year-old Sahel Kazemi – a waitress whom McNair, a married father of four, was having an affair – was found dead next to his.

It marked the end of the celebrated life of the former NFL Co-MVP. Born on Valentine’s Day 1973, McNair’s death exposed his life off the field. He leaves behind Mechelle, his wife, and four children who will be haunted for life by the circumstances surrounding his death. They are left behind to ponder what others are asking-what was on his mind? How is it that he got caught up in a relationship with someone so young?

I’m no prude when it comes to matters of the heart. Those who have taken a few strolls around the block understand firsthand how easy it is to get tangled in a relationship that challenges logics. The list of reasons not to go there far outweigh the sensation that comes with having that person there to bring comfort. It could be that she or he makes you feel young again. Maybe he or she brings out something lost long ago.

In those moments of yearning it is easy to forget what is waiting back home. Those vows made before God and witnesses seem disposable when held against the gratification produced by the bond of the other person. It’s easy to forget the significance of reputation, the fulfillment of parenthood and the bliss that comes with getting old together. It is so easy to become mesmerized by the carnal draw of someone new.

Mine is not a critique of McNair’s actions as much as sadness for the anguish facing his wife and children. The life of a husband and father is bare for the world to critique. The front pages and TV gossip accounts are fuel for kin tears. The voices on the airwaves will remind them of the burden they must carry. He died like this. He decided to live for this. Why did he do this….?

The man born on Valentine’s Day leaves us pondering issues related to love. Few can judge the rise of urges to leave when the flame begins to die. How it happens is easy to understand. That it happened with McNair, and that it has happened in the lives of people we know and love, prompts dialogue on the nature of love and commitment; marriage and parenthood and the emotions stirred when the cheers of the crowd fade away and one is left to unravel what it means to have meaning when the game played has come to an end.

It’s hard to talk about the feeling of emasculation driven by years of affirmation. Years of exhilaration after each touchdown are exchanged for a life of tediousness existence. Some call this a midlife crisis. Those who endure it grapple with finding meaning after discovering the implications of change. Families suffer due to the grip of midlife. It is sad to hear children narrate the horror of adjusting to life after a parent discovers life isn’t working anymore.

Adult survivors are inundated with questions that can’t be resolved. The delicate battle to understand is convoluted enough when left within the circle of a family discussion. It becomes even harder to grasp and forgive when held within the context of a national discussion. This is the stuff that should be left for wife and children to process far removed from the media and public. Children should be left alone to remember the good while pondering the bad. This is a family matter that exposes the cruelty of change.

For the countless men and women who have walked down this path, thank God for the grace to find peace after things fall apart. Thank God for a few more days to apologize and grow beyond each mistake. McNair was denied that gift.