Friday, October 21, 2016

Will America ever be sane again?

Will America recover after the election? A better question is will America ever be sane again?

That question comes with numerous assumptions. Those who support “The Donald” are hoping to “Make America Great Again”. They crave for the days when black and white television reflected the type of separation that kept people on opposite ends of the tracks. Being great was summed up as keeping black people removed from the American Dream.

Where are black people in “Leave it to Beaver”?

Great meant limiting leadership to white men who assumed credibility based on their ability to define the dream. The attainment of the dream was quantified by the type of country club status that influenced who deserved a seat at the table.

Greatness was life before words like inclusion and diversity established the terms for an equal playing field. It was before policies influenced by affirmative action sought to undo centuries of systemic racism and male domination. Great was about not giving a damn about how people outside white/male command felt about laws used to enforce subjugation.

While some desire to “Make America Great Again,” far too many have been denied the full benefits of greatness. It’s why some refuse to stand during the singing of the National Anthem. It’s why some scream “Black Lives Matter”. It’s why masses of people wanted to “Occupy Wall Street.” It’s also why people in Flint, Michigan demand clean water and women continue to request the right to decide what happens to their bodies.

Greatness is a subjective term. It depends on the background and culture of the person in question. The same applies to sanity. Like greatness, sanity is in the eyes of the beholder.

Will America ever be sane again?

Well, America has never been same. We are a nation defined by a thread of insane actions. Albert Einstein said “insane is doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results”. If nothing else, America is a nation defined best by an ability to overcome insane actions.

In America, stupid is what stupid does. It’s who we are. It’s what we do.

It’s what we consistently overcome.

This election exposes the vastness of America’s diversity. Diversity is more than a way to describe unlike races, religions, gender identities and cultures. Diversity is about political ideologies and agendas. It’s about moral positions and opinions.

This is Democracy at its best. Democracy is about people yelling at one another because of their passion. It’s about believing in something enough to show up at rallies to endorse a candidate.  It’s about yelling at the top of your voice regarding the lame ways of the people who oppose your views. It’s also about believing the world will come to an end if your candidate loses.  For me, it means checking for discount tickets to get out of the country if Trump defeats Clinton.

It’s the big dint in democracy that makes it hit and miss. When you win, it feels good. When you lose, head for the hills because the Apocalypse is coming soon.

Face it. We are an imperfect nation prone to do stupid things. Insanity is what we do – over and over again. We may never be great in the way some people think, but it is our grappling with imperfection, and plugging holes in the dam, that makes becoming great a possibility.

Will America ever be sane again?

Nope. We have never been sane.

It’s the insanity of our process that makes America great. How else can you explain a system of government that places its trust on a bunch of insane people?

It’s not greatness I seek.

I prefer a life of freedom.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Nate Parker's "Birth of a Nation" reveals the frustration of being stuck in the middle of impending change

There are things I’ve learned to help me maneuver around the myriad of issues and concerns that keep people rift by division.

Top on that list is the awareness that I am a man. My world view is shaped by the massive privilege afforded me due to my gender. Some would argue my maleness is offset by my blackness. In other words, the fact that I face discrimination based on my race offers me points to get me out of the privilege camp.

Sorry, not true. There are certain things that I can’t fully understand. It’s best to shut up, suck it up and listen. Case dismissed.

This has been my position related to Nate Parker, the man behind “Birth of a Nation”.  Arguably the best movie of 2016, the buzz following the Sundance Film Festival was enough to land Parker a record breaking distribution deal. Based on the insurrection led by Nat Turner, the movie tells a story not taught in high school American history. Far too many Americans haven’t heard about Turner, Denmark Vasey and Gabriel Posser.

As a black liberation theologian, I was thrilled when I heard about the movie. I revisited many of the books I’ve read over the years about the radical edge of black religion. My working thesis is black Christianity is the appropriation of white evangelical Christianity. I argue that the normalization of white Christianity in black churches was constructed during the post-reconstruction years. In an effort to affirm and justify the role of blacks in white public space, the nuances of white Christianity became more influential at the end of reconstruction.

The faith of Nat Turner, and other insurrectionist, was influential in crafting a counter religious claim that inspired revolution. Gayrud Wilmore, author of “Black Religion, Black Radicalism”, distinguishes black Christianity inspired by white evangelical thought from black religion which is rooted in the traditions of African religion and a desire for liberation.

When I heard of Parker’s movie, I was excited due to how it can be used to shift conversations related to how we talk about black faith in contemporary context. I’m mindful of the disconnection between the scholarships involving black religion versus how it is appropriated today in most black churches. The break between the historical journey of black religion and the practice of Christianity is noted in Raphael Warnock’s book “The Divided Mind of the Black Church.”

Little has been done to bridge the gap between history and practice. Packed on top of this divide is the population of theologically untrained clergy. Far too many churches are led by Biblical literalists who lack the theological tools, understanding of history and ability to communicate a message of faith not rooted in Eurocentric analysis.

“Birth of a Nation” has the potential of pressing these conversations. As a filmmaker determined to tell the story regarding black, radicalized religion, I’m saddened by what happened to “Birth of a Nation”. I’m hurt that people aren’t watching the movie. I’m disgusted that an opportunity to spread the message has been lost due to accusations from Parker’s past.

As Dante James (“Eye on the Prize”, “Slavery and the Making of America” and “This Far by Faith”) and I press to obtain funding for “God of the Oppressed”, this tragedy stirs inward hostility regarding the difficulties of telling black folk’s truth from a place not compromised by who funds the project.

Keep in mind that “Birth of a Nation” is not history. It’s a heavily fictionalized account of Turner’s revolution. It’s not a perfect movie. Black women didn’t get enough credit for their role in the revolt. There are parts left out, and there are things that should have made the final cut. This is part of the burden of filmmaking.

But, it’s an important message. It’s one that resonates with my work. I’m concerned that “God of the Oppressed” will be hindered by the poor box office numbers. I’m troubled that investors will respond with “I told you so.” You know, after everything said about the Academy Awards selection process, why should white people support black films.

I’m also disgusted, as a filmmaker, that the black community lacks significant funding streams to advance projects like “God of the Oppressed”.

But, again I say but, that’s not the point. The point is I’m not a woman. The point is I can’t feel what women feel. The point is I have no right to challenge women to support a work that stirs emotions that I will never fully understand.

I can talk about the challenges of filmmaking. I can discuss the need to educate people on the history of black faith. I can relate my personal anxiety related to the white washing of the black church. I can do all of that with a level of authority and integrity - but I’m not a woman.

So, here I am betwixt and between conflicting agendas. I listen to women talk about Parker’s lack of sensitivity involving the woman who accused him of rape. I understand their need for an apology to reflect sensitivity after she committed suicide. I’m listening, and God knows I want to understand.

But, once again I say but, I’m a filmmaker and theologian interested in telling that story. I’m caught in the middle, knowing the significance of each, while not dismissing the claims women make. Yes, I’m utterly confused due to my desire to listen. I’m baffled because it’s a story that must be told.

It has to be told.

But - there we go again.

So, I’m stuck in the middle of the need for change.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Durham School of the Art's enforces a ball of confusion

“I can’t talk with you. You’re not the parent,” Michelle Hunt, assistant principal at the Durham School of the Arts said.

“I’m with the parent,” I responded.

“I’m here, I give him permission,” the mother chimed in with the type of disdain that needed a few bad words to accent her feelings.

“I need it in writing,” Hunt said while rushing to avoid the subject.

“I can write it now,” the parent said.

“Talk to our lawyers,” were Hunt’s last words before leaving us in the middle of the hallway to process what had just happened.

The confrontation with Hunt followed an attempt to understand the suspension of a student for sexual harassment. The suspension was the result of a combination of hearsay evidence, loads of implicit bias that assumed the merits of a white, female’s version to a story about youth playing in the back of a bus and kids talking about a black boy and a white girl doing what kids often do.

It was all consensual. It all ended after he reached first base.

The boy in question is an honor student. He has more A’s than B’s and is the type of young man who will soon be courted by schools like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Duke and Stanford. His short-term plan is to apply for the North Carolina School of Math and Science. His academic credentials make him a prime candidate for the illustrious school.

This is a kid with professional parents. He’s never been in trouble. He spends his spare time reading books about astronomy and history. The only thing standing in the way of his becoming one of the nation’s who’s who is the time it takes to get from point A to point B.

So, why was he suspended?

That’s one of the questions I wanted to ask Hunt and David Hawks, principal at the School of the Arts before I was given the proverbial speak to the hand. I also wanted detailed information related to the process used to determine the need for a three day suspension.  I was seeking evidence from the system policy manual that justified the decision because I couldn’t find any.

Beyond my need for answers, I had a point to make. It’s a critical point involving the psychological burdens that black boys endure after being suspended. I felt compelled to give a quick lesson on how the decision could potentially damage the student.

What was make clear, based on the actions of Hunt, is a total lack of appreciation for the role advocates and parents play in protecting students from the damage of implicit bias. Her lack of respect for me, as an advocate, combined with a lack of support in meeting the demands of a concerned parent, sent a message that left both of us troubled.

She needed to hear how parents feel when their sons get labeled and harassed by their peers. She needed to consider how a suspension can feel like the beginning of a life deconstructing the positive self-imagery of a black boy. She needed to consider the process used to determine guilt, and how the race of his accuser titled the way she handled the investigation.

I would say more about the investigation, but, due to my desire to protect both students from further bullying, simply trust me. Oh, yes, this is a case of bullying. This boy has been bullied by both students and members of the staff. What happened was a witch hunt that assumed guilt versus a real conversation about moving forward after students began making fun of her and labeling him.

This is also about her being bullied. After the word spread regarding what happened, both students were bombarded by other students who craved the details on what happened. Sadly, the administration lacks the insight needed to bring healthy closure to this situation.

My research on the Durham School of the Arts has uncovered a sad truth. There is a vast disparity in the suspension of whites versus blacks. It is also clear that David Hawks tends to rule too harsh in the suspension of black boys. Beyond the apparent discrepancy reflected in those numbers, is a lack of passionate customer service. Hunt’s lack of patience in this case exposes a clear case of implicit bias.

I recommend some serious cultural sensitivity training for both Hunt and Hawkins. If not granted, I present to you evidence that suggest the need for rapid changes in leadership at the Durham School of the Arts.


Stay tuned-in for updates.