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Archive for the tag “black history month”

Blue Line Black Men: I am not afraid

There were black men yelling on the Market Frankford El today.  We all got on the train at the same time, but separately, at 69th Street, the end/beginning of the line.  The first guy, who sat across the aisle from me, was on his cell phone.

“Did you hear about the Sixers?… They tradin’ Hawes!… That’s a bad move, man!”

Other guys pile into the car, in uniforms and work boots, bundled in puffer coats or in hoodies covering their heads.  They take empty seats or stand near the poles at the double doors, some of them with their friends and in their own conversations.  But the man on the phone is loud and the other passengers are forced to eavesdrop.  A murmur begins among the strangers.

“Naw, that’s good!”

“That’s a good move for the Sixers, dawg!”

“That’s what they need!”

The man on the phone hangs up with the caller as the train begins to leave the station.  Before hitting the button to close the call, he is responding to the other passengers. The men all become passionate about the subject. There are hand gestures and scrunched up faces, “naw dawg’s” and “C’mon man’s.” The oldhead tucked in the corner of the car offers up a comment and they all pause to hear him before they all chime in at once again.

The train stops at Millbourne, 63rd and 60th Streets, gaining and losing passengers, both pushing traffic through the loud, good-natured discussion.  It’s all gibberish to me. I know nothing about the 76er’s and could care less about basketball.  But I enjoyed being caught up in that moment with them—black men yelling, unafraid for those moments, interacting with each other, passionate about a thing.

I am used to black men yelling: my father is a Pentecostal preacher, my grandfather was a bit of a pimp, my brothers get pretty riled up when telling stories, my Uncle Joe sits on my grandmother’s couch quoting Farrakhan from behind an open Final Call.  I am not intimidated.  I am not shaken. I am not moved.  As a matter of fact, I feel right at home when it gets loud and rowdy—whether it’s on a Septa train, in a family room back home, or when walking past a neighborhood basketball court.

More importantly, though, I am used to black men.

I am reminded of this when I enter the classroom of Philadelphia FIGHT each week to teach my writing workshop, “Making Each Word Matter.”  When collaborating with FIGHT’s Institute for Community Justice and their weekly creative writing class, I am in a classroom with black men, 20-30 of them, ages ranging from early 20’s to late 60’s, all of them armed with pens and paper, spilling ink and creativity.  And I tell you, it is only here, in this room full of black men, first loud with their ideas, then quietly writing their words, then patiently waiting to share what they’ve written while patiently listening to others… it is here in this room, full of stagnant stale air, yet vibrant with fresh art, that I become afraid.

I am afraid that no one will hear their stories or know their worth.  No one will hear the rhyme, the rhythm, the cadence of their poetry.  No one will hear the questions, the answers, and the brilliance of their tales.

I am afraid that whether black men are yelling on the El or yelling on the page, the only ones who will listen are those of us who are not intimidated, shaken, or moved—those of us who are used to black men yelling. Or more importantly, used to black men.

The others, too busy blinded by the darkness and deafened by the noise, will continue to keep black men silenced and make up their own stories.

And I am afraid that that will not be enough.

It’s raining sunshine

I am soaked down to the bone

My skin is my proof

—- John Tolbert, haiku from “Making Each Word Matter”

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Lookin’ Ass Nigga: How Black Entertainment is Selling “Niggas” for Free

There has already been a lot of talk about notorious female rap star, Nicki Minaj’s new single, Lookin’ Ass Nigga, since it dropped a few days ago. And rightfully so: Just in time for Black History Month, the artist and her team thoughtfully selected an image of Malcolm X which has been coined “By Any Means Necessary” and depicts him holding a gun and looking out of a window. There is going to be plenty of dialogue about this in the days to come, I assure you and already, in less than twenty-four hours since the video’s debut, Minaj has issued a lackluster apology to her critics. Of course, I have many issues with all of this, but none of it is what I want to address here.

Instead, I would like to point out the fact that there are too many “niggas” in mainstream rap and hip-hop music.

A day after the song’s debut, TIME Magazine’s Entertainment Section praised Nicki Minaj for getting back to her “rhyme-spitting roots” and referred to the lyrics of the new single as “wickedly spat put-downs and punchlines.”

Really? Because all I heard was “nigga.”

And I’m sure that’s all a lot of listeners will hear, whether they are fans or not, whether they are black or white, whether they live in the city or suburbs—they will hear Nicki Minaj, watch the video of her fishnet covered bubble butt balanced on a chair and, after a couple of views, learn a few lines and sing-along—“niggas” included.

Am I the only one who thinks that with the racial integration of hip-hop (so much so that three of the four Grammys won this year by rap/pop music duo, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, were in rap categories), the n-word is heavily overused and sensationalized by black artists?  And if the defense is going to say that it is a form of expression and that we have a right to give the word its power, am I the only one who thinks that if the word won’t be eradicated then it should be completely desensitized?

I can’t be the only one who thinks that fighting for the sanctity of the n-word while simultaneously recklessly using the word makes us look incredibly incompetent to the rest of the world.  Here it is that one half of us demands reprimands and jobs when white folks—the same people who are now buying and listening to Lookin’ Ass Nigga, Niggas in Paris and every other “Nigga” song out there—utter the word publicly while the other half of our community laces every other line of their chart-topping hits with the n-word.  So are we also supposed to pretend that people don’t sing-along to songs anymore just because they pause at the word when they’re around us? C’mon.

Listen, I am just as uneasy as the rest of us when I hear non-blacks say the word.  It is incredibly uncomfortable.  But as rap music becomes pop music, interracial relationships become more prevalent and America pushes towards a “post-racial society”, I think it’s time we have a real, honest conversation about what we are going to do with this word. We can’t keep pretending that the non-black kids of this new generation aren’t saying/singing it behind our backs, whether endearingly or maliciously. And we can’t just pretend that “You just can’t” is a sufficient enough answer when we confront them and, as a response, they ask why they can’t say it.

Yes, there are much bigger issues, implications and answers.  There is, there is! But we need to start with our music—or maybe the whole entertainment industry.  Can rap music eradicate the word? Can actors stop using it in movies? Comedians in their stand-up performances? Us in our everyday vocabulary? Does this seem like a tall order? Maybe. But presently, black entertainment seems to be selling “niggas” for free and giving away our dignity.

Is it just as hard to desensitize the n-word?  What are we preserving by keeping the word around? What have we accomplished by dropping the –er and adding an –a? What do you think about the n-word and it’s supposed sanctity in the black community? Thoughtful and constructive comments/criticism welcome.

must be the gods’ black

I am, unfortunately, down and out with the flu this week.  Please enjoy a creative piece instead of new commentary.  This was an assignment to describe beauty without using the word.  I think it’s the perfect piece to usher in Black History Month.   

 

she had that black skin that was much deeper than the blacks from savannah, memphis, or new orleans—places where they say the sun don’t show no mercy on the backs of colored folk who belonged to slaves.  you could tell that she wasn’t blackened by no angry, punishing sun.  it was like her color came from gods who grew tired of pinks and yellows, tawnies and terra cottas.  she wore the color of the sky before it knew stars and moon, and when they arrived, situated themselves behind her lips only to shine when she parted them.  there were no lines, no flaws in the darkness that blanketed her body which she sometimes clothed in printed cottons or pieces of matching mud cloth. but I preferred her nakedness and its enviable endlessness of the color from which I came.  that blackness untouched, untainted, and Righteous.

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