Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Empathy, Not Judgement: Are We Our Brother's Keeper?

The religious principle I've always had the most trouble with is "Judge ye not". I am a pretty judgey person by nature. Whenever I'm reading the news, or observing my fellow citizens in traffic, ("Thanks for nearly running us over, jerk!") my gut reaction is "How can people be so completely selfish/intolerant/cruel? What kind of decent person does that?"

I've been reflecting on my judginess as I'm reading this month's African American Lit discussion book.

Imagine your son is a freshman at an exclusive liberal arts college. Late one night, a scholarship student from Newark gets in a loud argument in the dorm with several guys from his old neighborhood. Angry that your son and other students are watching, the Newark kid yells at them to leave, and when you son refuses, threatens him, then pick him up and hurls him headfirst against the floor, breaking his leg. It transpires that the scholarship student had been jailed the previous summer for the attempted murder of a crack dealer he had stabbed. You are asked if you want to press charges, and send the assailant to jail.

Is there any question how most of us would react?  All your son did was stand up to intimidation: he didn't call the guy names, or threaten him or use violence, and yet this thug with a violent criminal record, this ANIMAL dared to lay hands on your child in his own dorm. Of course you would press charges.

And if you had, you would have ended the life and career of Dr Rameck Hunt, currently an internist at Princeton's University Medical Center  and Assistant Professor of Medicine at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. Dr. Hunt is the co-author, along with his friends Dr. Sampson Davis and Dr. George Jenkins of The Pact, the story of 3 young black men from the Newark projects who supported each other in their dreams to become successful doctors.

Unlike many stories of poor but saintly children triumphing over the odds, this one doesn't sugarcoat the difficulties. Looking back, Dr. Hunt explains (but does not excuse) his behavior: "On the streets where I grew up if someone disrespected you, you beat his ass. Period. If I did nothing I'd look like a punk". 

How many times have we read about violent young people and thought "Punk". "Lowlife". "Thug". After all, how could decent people do that?

In fact, Dr. Hunt says that the weight of being judged by his white middle class dorm-mates was what had enraged him: "To the average white stranger I was an instant security threat a thug, not a human being with a heart and dreams and family and fears. We were a spectacle confirming white folks worst stereotypes".

President Obama speaks with black youth about the "My Brothers' Keeper" initiative
Fortunately for Dr. Hunt, (and for all of us) the mother of that student chose empathy and compassion over judgement, and declined to press charges, and her decision changed his life. We'll be talking about Drs. Hunt, Davis and Jenkins next Tuesday, and the many decisions large and small which led to their current success. And we'll ask: how are we, as a society, treating the Ramecks of today? Are we offering empathy and encouragement, or are we squelching them with 3 strikes laws and zero tolerance policies?



Monday, March 24, 2014

Saving Black Boys

DaJae Coleman, died 9/22/2012
In Jesmyn Ward's bittersweet new memoir, Men We Reaped, she speaks eloquently of the pain of losing 5 young men she loved, including her brother, to drugs and violence. This is a maddeningly familiar scenario for many in the African American community: losses as varied as Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis and, right here in Evanston, DaJae Coleman, Leslie Calvin, Marcus Davis, Javar Bamberg, and Justin Murray keep us asking: why can't we keep black boys safe?



Dr George Jenkins was a black teen boy from the Newark projects  who made a personal commitment to survive and succeed, despite the odds. He enlisted his two best friends, Sampson Davis and Rameck Hunt, and they formed a pact: that all three would do whatever it took to overcome their challenges and become successful doctors. And they did. They recount their story in The Pact: Three Young Men Make  a Promise and Fulfill a Dream,  our April 15th discussion topic.

Trayvon Martin, died 2/26/2012


The Pact is one of a number of memoirs chronicling the rise of a young black person from inner city poverty. A few months back we read Rosemary Bray McNatt's equally inspiring Unafraid of the Dark, about her journey from the Chicago projects to Francis Parker school and then Yale; and we have also discussed The Other Wes Moore, in which a successful journalist ponders the different circumstances that pointed him on to success, while another young man with the same name and a similar background ended up in prison for murder. Several common themes emerge: the need for strong role models, family support, and the empathy to see beyond bad behavior and recognize potential.


Jordan Davis, died 11/23/2012
It's that empathy that is often lacking in discussions of why black young people go wrong. All of these authors admit to making bad choices as kids: McNatt stole money from her private school classmates, Moore flirted with street gangs, Davis was arrested for shoplifting, Hunt served time in juvie. Yet all had caring, engaged adults who refused to give up  on them: parents, grandparents, teachers, coaches who were willing to give them second, and often third and fourth chances.


Died 11/29/2012
All of these authors were hard working and talented, but they repeatedly stress that they could easily have gone the way of their classmates and friends. They remind an uncomfortable public that there is very little difference between them and the thousands of young black teens who don't make it to successful adulthood,
and that instead of offering judgments about "personal responsibility" we should be reaching out, and affirming our belief that young black lives have value. Rather than trying  to distinguish between the “good” victims and the “bad” boys who got what they had coming, Moore, McNatt, Ward and the Three Doctors urge us to stand up in support of all our young people, and give them what it takes to survive and thrive. To learn about some existing mentoring and support programs see:

The Three Doctors Foundation - Drs Sampson, Hunt and Jenkins foundation.

The "Elevate" Blog -
Wes Moore’s listing of “organizations that answer a call to action everyday and empower those who are less fortunate but equally deserving”

DaJae Coleman Foundation - offers programs that motivate Evanston youth and instill positive values to help guide them.
Leslie Calvin, died 7/4/2010







Saturday, February 15, 2014

Approaching Slavery by Another Name

Tuesday February 18 is our discussion of Slavery by Another Name. This is a difficult book to get through: dense with detail, but also extremely sad.  If you're feeling overwhelmed, here are some suggestions:

Read the introduction, Chapter 2, "Industrial Slavery"; Chapter 7' "The Indictments"; Chapter 14 "Anatomy of a Slave Mine"; and the Epilogue. That will give you a feel for the book and plenty to discuss, in only about 60 pages.

Check out the video interviews Blackmon gave to Eric Holder, Gwen Ifill, Bill Moyers, and Tavis Smiley.

Some questions to consdier: Blackmon maintains that industrial slavey was worse than traditional plantation slavery in part because of the loss of family connections between master and slaves. Would you agree?

For those of you who read The New Jim Crow, how does the prison system of today described by Michelle Alexander compare to that of the late 19th and early 20th?

The question of prison labor remains controversial. Federal prison labor is a $900 million industry, and companies such as Walmart rely on it for cheap labor. And that's just federal. Private prisons run by for-profit companies are responsible for approximately 6% of state prisoners, 16% of federal prisoners, and, according to one report, nearly half of all immigrants detained by the federal government. In 2010, the two largest private prison companies alone received nearly $3 billion dollars in revenue. (See the ACLU report, Banking on Bondage: Private Prisons and Mass Incarceration.)

In the Epilogue, Blackmon suggests that companies such as Wachovia, and U.S. Steel that profited from slave labor, or that acquired or were merged with such companies, should be held accountable for damages. Do you think this is feasible? What would be a fair way to award damages?

Looking forward to seeing everyone this coming Tuesday. February 18th at 7:00 in the Small Meeting room of the main Evanston Public Library!

Monday, February 3, 2014

Prison as a fact of life

There is a moment is August Wilson's play, The Piano Lesson, when several of the male characters spontaneously start singing, "Berta Berta", a familiar folk song. Had it been another  group of men from another place and time, it might have been a school song, a fraternity song, a camp song. But for  these African American men who came of age in the pre-civil rights south, it was a prison song that bound them together, because this was one experience few black men could avoid.

I thought about that when I started reading Slavery by Another Name, Douglas Blackmons's gripping, horrifying explanation of how thousands of African American men were re-enslaved through the prison labor system in the decades after the Civil War. It was no ...coincidence that so many black men found themselves deprived of the very rights they, and so many others had fought so bloodily to achieve.

When we read The New Jim Crow back in  October 2012, we considered how the prison system could be manipulated to rob black men of their vote. Blackmon suggests it robbed them of far more than that.

Join us Tuesday February 18th at 7:00 for our discussion. Call 847-448-8620 to reserve a copy.

We'll be reading and discussing The Piano Lesson on June 16th with legendary director Ron O.J. Parson as part of our 11 Months of African American History. Don't miss it!

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

11 Months of African American History

February will be here in a few weeks, and events celebrating African American History Month will become ubiquitous. As mentioned before, on this blog, squeezing an entire culture into one month of events seems arbitrary and limiting, so this year, Evanston Public Library is taking a different, and somewhat radical approach.

You will not see a February Black History display. We will not have a list of African American History Month events. Instead, in March we are launching a series we're calling "11 Months of African American History". Rather than attempt to fit all of our  rich African American cultural offerings into 28 short days, we are committed to offering at least one African American themed event every month between March 2014 and January 2015.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Discovering Black Paris


Next Tuesday, we'll be discussing Passing Love, the story of an African American woman who discovers that her mother was part of the postwar generation of African Americans who sought equality and dignity in Paris when it was denied them at home. The story is fiction, but based on a very real cultural phenomenon, one that has been getting renewed attention recently. (Get in the mood with this bluesy evocative piece by Mighty Mo Rodgers, "Black Paris Blues".)

African Americans have been fleeing to Paris since the early 19th century, but it was after both the first and second world wars that black soldiers, (like Squire in the novel) who had been stationed in France, discovered  that French attitudes towards race were far more accepting, and that their home country was by contrast becoming even more intolerant. As Tyler Stovall, a history professor at the University of California Berkeley, examined in his exploration of Black American life in Paris, Paris Noir: African Americans in the City of Light, many Southern Whites “feared that glimpses of racial tolerance in France had spoiled Black soldiers” and would refuse to go back to the ways of subjugation".

Many of the greatest African American writers, artists, musicians and thinkers made their home in Paris in the early 20th century: Jack Johnson, Richard Wright, Chester Himes, Sidney Bechet, Nina Simone, and most famously Josephine Baker. This cultural heritage is now the subject of college courses, blogs, and specialty travel sites such as Walking the Spirit, Entree to Black Paris, and Black Paris Tours, profiled here on  NPR: "Paris Has Been a Haven for African Americans Escaping Racism".
For more on African American life in Paris, past and present see:

"Blacks in Paris",  Ebony, July 19 2012. Highlights the musical influence of Paris on African Americans, from Josephine Baker through Jay-z and Kanye West.
Entree to Black Paris blog, link to article on African American  soldiers


Spirit of Black Paris blog, "My Top 30 Books on Black Paris and Beyond"

See you next Tuesday! 



Thursday, December 12, 2013

Ujamaa: Buying Black for Kwanzaa

Upadate: Listen to Maggie Anderson's  interview with Tony Sarabia and Richard Steele  this  morning on WBEZ!

My head is reeling after finishing Our Black Year. I found myself profoundly moved by Maggie's struggles and sacrifices, but also profoundly irritated. Why was a socially conscious woman with a 6 figure income shopping at Wal-Mart? Why was she so judgmental towards lower income African Americans, and so quick to generalize about "other" ethnic groups?

I also pondered the underlying premise of the experiment. Which is better: patronizing black entrepreneurs who do not live in distressed black communities, or supporting non black owned companies based in the neighborhoods? Should the focus be on black ownership or black employment?


We'll sort through these and other thorny questions at our discussion next Tuesday December 17th at 7:00 pm. If you're interested, but haven't had a chance to read the book, no worries: check out The Empowerment Experiment website, for summaries, statistics, and some great video of Maggie Anderson and family explaining the project.  And remember: Kwanzaa is coming soon! What a great time to consider the 4th principle, Ujamaa: Cooperative Economics.

And BTW...like AAL on Facebook! You'll find many ore tidbits about African American media, issues, and book selections, including Maggie Anderson's tips on Buying Black for the holidays.