Kind of Red

January 12, 2013

Sho Baraka Talented Tenth Interview

Filed under: Uncategorized — The Painted One @ 8:33 pm

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In the fall of 1903, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois famously penned an article entitled “The Talented Tenth” for the Negro Problem: A Series of Articles by Representative Negroes of To-day. In it, he argued, “the Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men.” In writing his article, Du Bois found it his duty to demonstrate that this “talented tenth,” these “exceptional men,” were worthy of leadership, and that with the proper education and development, they too could remedy the problems plaguing the Negro. Over a century later, Du Bois’ words still carry great weight. They also served as the inspiration for the title of Sho Baraka’s third studio album, which bears the same name.

The release marks a watershed moment in Sho Baraka’s career, as it is his first solo release since he left Reach Records in March of 2011. Conceptually, the album itself promises to offer listeners a more in-depth perspective of Sho’s worldview and passion for remedying ills that plague urban communities, as he compels “exceptional leaders, who have the time, talent and treasure to take initiative for the benefit for others,” similarly to how Du Bois once did over a hundred years ago. Sonically, the album is the capstone of a steady evolution in the Atlanta-based emcee’s career. It is sure to leave listeners well pleased.

Sho recently sat down to talk with me about the album, its inspiration and his maturation over the course of the past few years. Throughout the course of the interview, we discussed everything from W.E.B. DuBois, Sho’s departure from Reach Records, 2Chainz and the merits of Kobe Bryant’s legacy compared to that of Michael Jordan’s. What follows is the better part of that conversation.

Red: It would appear as though you solved the mystery as to who stole your notebook. I suppose the more important question to ask at this juncture is did your wife ever find her wallet?

Sho: (Laughs) I don’t know man. (Laughs) That’s to be continued. You can never trust brothers some times, they do some sheisty stuff, so you never know. You might have to find that out later. I am appreciating the responses to the video though. I’ve gotten some great feedback from it. And by the way, that was not my wife. That was a friend playing a role for the video.

Red: Oh, okay. Speaking of Johnnie Cochran, were the characters in the video metaphorical representations of “the Worst” who contaminate “the Mass” that Du Bois spoke of in the Talented Tenth? Are they representations of you at different stages in your life? Are they based on people you know or have encountered through the years, or some combination of all of the above?

Sho: Ah, good question. I like to leave some mystery there. Ultimately what I want people to walk away from is a dialogue. Why are we so quick to pass judgment on others? Who is the real jerk in the situation? If we investigate ourselves we will find there is a jerk in all of us. I find myself in a bit of all of those guys. I see the ignorance and freedom in those guys, and in some instances I find it liberating. Ultimately I want people to evaluate themselves after watching the video. So there’s a strategy involved [in making the video]. There’s a reason why. What I want people to walk away with is the question of, “What is the message?” Who is the real crook? Who is really wrong in the whole situation?

Red: Yeah, okay. That makes sense. What about the idea that these characters are simultaneously misguided and misunderstood in that while their flaws are readily apparent, you assuming the worst in them (that they stole your notebook) proved to be problematic?

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Sho: Exactly, exactly. This is the reason why you are the professor. You got that exactly right. When you look at it it’s a lot of what I see. In urban communities, when you see a male wearing certain attire, and there is an assumption that is made. There is a perception and a rap sheet that is formed almost. When we see them, we should understand, even if it is not a cultural intelligence we appreciate, we all should admire that there is a high level of cultural intelligence there. We should see that he knows life and communicates life, although it is a different expression. In the [Johnnie Cochran] video, I seem to have it all together but I am just as flawed as the other individuals. My flaws might not be as visible. The judgments I am imposing on others could just easily be applied to me. I am flawed too.

Red: Indeed. In previous interviews leading up to the release of Talented Tenth, you speak a great deal of maturation over the course of the three years since you released Lions and Liars. What does that look like for you? How does it translate in your music?

Sho: Ah. (Sighs) Like all growth, it’s been hard. I’ve been learning about areas I need to grow in, learning areas I am strong in. I’ve been learning how not to use my gifts and talents to make people subservient or feel lesser than, but rather use them as a blessing, as a gift. I’m constantly dealing with insecurities, constantly dealing with the idea of feeling significant. How it plays out in the life of an artist, once you get that first taste of blood—the approval of man, it becomes intoxicating. You always want more. So there is a constant struggle of feeling relevant, whether it’s likes on Facebook or having my name mentioned in tweets or whatever. I’ve come to learn that just because I am not on trending on Twitter [at the moment] or have an album that is heralded as the album of the year, I am no less important. A pastor in Atlanta that I follow—Crawford Loritts—once said, “Good leaders slay their insecurities.” That is what I have been trying to do, learning when you are not important to people at a time does not mean you are not important.

Red: That is powerful.

Sho: It is.

Red: You also said in a previous interview that this—Talented Tenth album—is the first time that you have the “courage” and the “bandwith” to show all that Sho Baraka can do? What do you mean by that? What is different now?

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Sho: ‘All that I can do,’ hhmm, it’s really ‘more of what I can do.’ I now have the ability to release more videos, like the Johnnie Cochran video, there are more videos to be released. I can now deal with more issues and rather than try to just be palatable for people. There are issues that I did not address before; I want to deal with them. I want to say some things; I want to show the roledex that is Sho Baraka—to be meek but fierce.

Red: So you decided to release an album on Dr. King’s birthday, no pressure.

Sho: (Laughs)

Red: All jokes aside, considering this is your first solo studio album since you left Reach Records, some would argue this is your most important album to date, or at the very least your most important album since your debut–Turn My Life Up. How do you respond to that suggestion, and how did you juggle the weight of that pressure with the desire to create the music God has given you?

Sho: I see it more as an honor, releasing an album on that day is an homage [to Dr. King]. The title is an homage to the Du Boises, and the Robesons, the Douglasses, the [Harlem] Renaissance, those who do not always get the credit they deserve because the Christian culture we live in does not like to give credit to their type of accomplishments. It likes to give credit to a different type of individual honor. So in releasing Talented Tenth, I wanted to honor them and of course honor the Lord, and not pull punches. The easy thing to do would be do business as usual and still be hurt everyday. I couldn’t do that any more. There is a difference from someone who has no experience with oppression from someone who feels it, you feel the pressure, the pain and say nothing. I could not ignore it any more. There is large amount of apathy in our culture. I wanted to combat that.

Red: In a recent CNN article about the relationship between Rev. Charles Stanley and his son Andy Stanley, John Blake wrote that shortly before Andy Stanley decided to leave his father’s church he was reading Gene Edwards’ book about David and Saul—A Tale of Three Kings. Specifically, they said Andy stopped in his tracks when he read, “Beginning empty handed and alone frightens the best of men. It also speaks volumes of just how sure they are that God is with them.” Would you say that sums up some of your experience in deciding to leave Reach?

Sho: Yeah. Yup. My man that thing is right on. [When I left Reach] I did not have . . . I knew what I was doing had to be of the Lord, because only an insane person would do that. No sane person would do that . . .

Red: True.

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Sho: This was not a week decision; it was a two-year decision. I dealt with [the idea of] I cannot do this any more. Everything in my body was like “It’s like a Isaiah 42 thing.” I physically I do not feel good. I think part of that can be like a depression. When you feel like you are not operating the way the Lord wants you to, you can experience chemical reactions in your body that cause depression. When I broke out this, I felt so much peace. I knew this is of the Lord, this is clearly what God called me to do.

Red: I completely understand. The Church has a long history of shunning what it deems amalgamations of sacred and the secular, particularly within the arts, even if it eventually embraces those whom it previously chided. Mahalia Jackson exemplifies this quite well, in that she and Thomas Dorsey received more than their share of criticism in their day only for her to be widely heralded as the greatest Gospel singer of all time. Would say there is a parallel criticism of you and those who adopt similar stances that you have with regard to how you desire to impact the culture and present the Gospel?

Sho: Yes, I do. There were artists before them, artists after them, that revolutionized the genre, and only five to ten years later, it’s acceptable. Kirk got the same thing. Rance Allen got the same thing.

Red: The Clark Sisters too.

Sho: Yeah, the Winans got some of that too. The main goal is to please the Lord. My heart’s desire is to please Him. I can’t juggle the idea of wanting to please God and please man. I’m not trying to compare myself to Dorsey and Jackson, but I do believe there is a similar criticism in our little genre. I knew that once I made the decision I would probably have that. I did not make the decision sooner in part because of fear of criticism. I cannot let that worry me now.

Red: It makes sense in that often times those closest to us do not fully understand our work in the moment. It is widely held that Jesus’ half brother James did not come into faith in Christ until after His ascension. To further that point a bit, Church Clothes was admittedly Lecrae’s first deliberate attempt to reach nonbelievers. It’s hard to fathom now, especially considering the shifting approach of Reach and the continual emergence of other like-minded artists. What does it say about the insular nature of CHH that its most prominent artist has never made such a deliberate attempt to reach nonbelievers previously? What does it say about the genre’s expectations of its artists?

Sho: I think it’s tough when people say the goal is to reach the Church and reach the streets. We don’t write our music in a way to reach the streets. To be clear, it’s not just nonbelievers; it’s those who are not churched, those who are not a part of church culture. Church culture is the conferences, Christian clothing, Christian websites, et cetera. There are people who love Jesus who do not go to John Piper conferences every month, who don’t go to Rapzilla everyday. They have a life rather than what’s the latest in the TMZ culture of Christianity.

They’re not listening to CHH in part because it all sounds like John Piper stuff. It then becomes a struggle [for some CHH artists] making music not part of Christian culture. [For Lecrae] To say it’s the first deliberate attempt shows some maturity. I don’t know to what extent the perspective is evolving [at Reach]. I am not in contact with them as much, outside of Tedashii. I do believe it’s greater than making an album. It’s about placing oneself in circles, writing intentional lyrics that deal with life people deal with outside of reading scriptures, going to conferences. If I’m a single mother and find out daughter is pregnant, I don’t want to be “crunk for Jesus.” I want to hear how do I deal with that. We must ask ourselves, “How do we write prevalently about issues people deal with on a regular basis?” And when get older, we will start to realize some of the things we deal with in life are different, and we will write differently.

Red: That is so true. When I first began listening to Christian rap, that was one of my primary issues with the genre as a whole. It seemed like most of the artists did not do anything but read the scriptures all day. While I obviously have no qualms with reading the Bible obviously, I wanted music that would address issues I faced on a regular basis. Especially now that I am older, I’m thirty; I’m married; I have two children; I’m a professional. I just hate it when rappers who are older do not make music that relates to their current place in life. For example, 2Chainz is thirty-seven and raps like he’s seventeen.

Sho: (Laughs)

Red: He does. Aside from my objections with his content, I also hate that he raps like a child. All of his songs sound like a sixteen year-old who hit the lotto.

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Sho: Yeah, that’s true. Have you had a chance to listen to the album?

Red: Not yet. I spoke with [your management team] about that, but they weren’t able to get it to me before the interview.

Sho: I ask because that’s what Peter Pan talks about.

Red: I thought that’s what that song was about! I have not heard the album, but I had access to the track-listing. That is what I thought when I saw that title.

Sho: Peter Pan talks about this artist I grew up loving that still talks about the same thing he did when I first started listening to him years ago. In a nutshell hip-hop has not grown up with its audience. We need more artists who talk about things I struggle with in my thirties, but almost all the music I hear is what was relevant when I was eighteen, fifteen.

Red: I’m glad you mentioned Peter Pan. In looking at the track-listing, I noticed you identify several prominent figures in African American history—both real and fictional—who seem to embody key ideas and characteristics (e.g. Ali (individual greatness), Mahalia Jackson (pioneering spirit), Cliff and Claire Huxtable (stability and upward mobility), Denzel Washington (excellence in one’s craft) and who I presume to be Michael Jordan) in addition to other notable figures in recent news or literature (e.g. Peter Pan, Bernie Madoff). How did you go about selecting these people/themes? Why are these particular individuals important to the message of Talented Tenth?

Sho: At one point I knew I wanted to name all the songs after proper nouns, which would cause the most intrigue. 80% of the songs do not say the name of the person it is named after in the song. The song is more of a representation. As you see the title you have a reference for some of the people. Some people may have no clue who Mahalia is, no idea who Madoff is. There may be others who are not as familiar with Christian history. They may not now what Bethesda is. My hope is they will relate that title to the concept I am speaking on in the song. When I was working on the songs, I went back in forth some things. Ali was one of those songs last song I titled, and one of the last songs I recorded.

Red: That’s a great song by the way.

Sho: Thank you sir. My buddy, whose name is Ali, who is on the song, said, “You should name the song Ali. Muhammad Ali always talked about he’s the greatest.” I was like, “Cool. Let’s do it.” So there was definitely some intentionality. For people who may not be familiar with some of the names, I wanted people to research names, like Jim Crow. They may say, “What the heck is a Jim Crow.” That was an important time in our nation’s history. For those who might not know much about Bethesda, they may learn about it after hearing the song then researching the place. The song also has Wade in the Water in It.

Red: Oh wow. That makes a lot of sense.

Sho: Mahalia is a church feeling song. It is very old school black church type of mood.

Red: Again that makes perfect sense. Does the Michael represent Michael Jordan o r Michael Jackson?

Sho: Michael Jackson. It’s not really about Michael Jackson. I say Michael Jackson in the hook but it’s not about Michael Jackson, it’s more about fatherlessness. In the hook I say, ‘On and on I know life goes/I’m mourning the death of Michael/Not Jackson, but one missing in action/One who was shot over his fashion/Who lost hope when his dad split/Who got AIDS from a self proclaimed bad . . ./Watch your mouth homie /Gather around, my culture’s going down/Gather around, my culture’s going down . . .”

Red: That’s dope. I asked about Michael because for all your considerable gifts and your depth of wisdom, you have terrible taste in basketball teams and players.

Sho: Ahh (Laughs) I rebuke that Satan.

Red: (Laughs)

Sho: So tell me who’s your team? Who do you root for, so I can see where this hate is coming from.

Red: Well, like I told you before, I was born in Memphis, but grew up right outside of Atlanta. I went to college in Atlanta, so I cheer for all Atlanta teams pretty much.

Sho: Oh, okay.

Red: But I am not a delusional fan. I know at the start of the season that our peak is a graceful exit in the second round.

Sho: Okay. Good. So you are not delusional.

Red: I am not, but it also seems like you are not one of the crazy ones that I have to remind that Kobe is not better than Jordan. I will say that I have a tremendous level of respect for Kobe and his seventeen years of sustained excellence.

Sho: Seventeen years. It has been a lovely seventeen years. Jordan is probably the greatest player of all time

Red: So you do understand.

Sho: I said, “probably.” I said, “probably . . .”

Red: That is still progress, I am praying for you.

Sho: (Laughs) Let me tell you why. I tell you why Kobe cannot be greater than Jordan. He’s [Jordan] a shadow because everyone exalts the statue of Michael Jordan so high that no one ever will be able to ascend to his height. That is why I say he is probably the greatest player. I didn’t say it was definitive. We all have to admit a lot of his legacy is nostalgia. If he played today I am not sure he would be great as he was. . .

Red: Whoa. Slow down there . .

Sho: He definitely would have won championships, but he would not have dominated as much. Everyone is as athletic as he was now. What would still set him apart is that mental aspect of the game, that tenacity, that killer instinct. Only Kobe can match him in that.

Red: I will give you that Jordan would face more athletic competition on the perimeter, so his physical advantage would be diminished to some degree, but he would still dominate. We also have to consider that he had better statistics than Kobe in every meaningful category, was fouled more (Jordan Rules anyone) and played stiffer competition . . .

Sho: I disagree with stiffer competition.

Red: You do?

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Sho: I would say in his day he played those New York Knicks teams. They played well for a nice amount of years, but the perimeter players he played against were, meh. It was Jordan and nobody else. The next best player on the perimeter was on his team. From 2000 to present day, the League has seen Kobe, Lebron James, Kevin Durant, A.I., Tracy McGrady, et cetera. Thos guys on the perimeter exceed anyone Jordan faced in his day. He came in on the tail end of Magic, Bird and Isaiah and Barkley. In his career he met Boston, he met Detroit and got bounced. Then he finally beat Detroit and started winning championships.

Red: You just made the Roy Jones, Jr. argument in that people criticized his legacy because he arguably faced inferior competition. The whole, “who did you beat” argument. You cannot belittle Jordan’s greatness because he was that much better than everyone else.

Sho: True. I’m not trying to belittle Jordan’s greatness . . .

Red: Besides, Jordan did face tough guys on the perimeter, Clyde Drexler. . .

Sho: Maaaannn Clyde Drexler was ninety years old when Jordan met him in the Finals.

Red: (Laughs)

Sho: And who else? Let me see. He played the Paces, and you know Reggie Miller played noooooo defense.

Red: I will give you that the last two finals when he faced Utah. You or I could have guarded John Stockton and Jeff Hornacek, but Jordan did face Gary Payton and the Sonics, he faced Barkley at his peak. He faced some tough competition. What I will give you is that Kobe has maintained a high caliber of play for seventeen years, that’s a long time.

Sho: That’s what I’m saying. After seventeen years, Kobe is still winning championships! Man you got me heated!

Red: Kobe has not won a championship in two years! Another thing you must take into account with Kobe is that he has always had a dominant big man on his team who could demand a double team. That will certainly add years to your career. Jordan never had that.

Sho: You mean Pau Gasol?!! That trade does not look so bad now.

Red: Pau Gasol was a perennial All-Star who led a 50-win Grizzlies team before he went to the Lakers.

Sho: That was like one year!

Red: It was at least two. Remember, I was born in Memphis. I was following them. And do not forget, Kobe did play with this guy named Shaquille O’Neal. I heard he was pretty good. I know Scottie Pippen was a Top 50 All Time Player, but you must admit that a dominant big man is more important than a dominant perimeter player in basketball.
Sho: Yeah, but another dominant perimeter player could provide more space on the floor, et cetera. We could probably go back and forth like this for a while. I have to cut this short though. I will have to get my daughter soon.

Red: I will have to do the same. I am just glad I do not need to send you some Jordan highlights like I have to do with my other friend who is a Laker fan.

Sho: Naw, I’m good. (Laughs)

Red: Thanks for spending some time with me.

Sho: It was my pleasure.

Talented Tenth is now available on iTunes. You may also order a physical copy from http://www.lionsandliars.com

May 10, 2012

30 for 30

Filed under: Uncategorized — The Painted One @ 12:15 pm

I am 30

“The glory of young men is their strength: and the beauty of old men is the gray head.”

-Proverbs 20:29

On this day three weeks ago, I turned thirty.   Though I have had plenty of opportunity to consider that notion over the span of the past twenty-one days, I still find it a bit surreal to fathom that I have walked the earth for three decades.  Our culture has placed deep significance on this milestone, and along with it come expectations for the subtle amalgamation of juvenescent vigor and geriatric wisdom, the impulsive imagination of anklebiters and the guarded optimism of elders.  In other words, some time around thirty, we are supposed to enter the prime of life, while have the strength to fulfill our goals and the understanding to examine the costs associated with those desires.  It is then that we should meet our strength with our beauty so to speak.

There would seem to be no shortage of musings on life, death and aging.  I have even contributed to the discussion.  Aging seems to fascinate us in ways few other phenomena can.  The inevitable descent of our youthfulness is both fascinating and frightening.  The slowed pace, the new wrinkles on the face and the sprinkling of gray hair are subtle reminders that death will come for us all.  If we live long enough, we all grow old and die.  Perhaps the certainty of death and its promise of mortality intrigue us because we know we cannot escape it, despite our many efforts to the contrary.  Suffice to say, thirty is not the new twenty, as it was once suggested.  Thirty is thirty, and to believe otherwise is a dangerous  attempt at entertaining today’s obligations and expectations tomorrow.

As I often do at this time of year, I plunged into deep introspection to examine my life up to this point as I neared my thirtieth year.  Considering the milestone I just witnessed, I found it appropriate to offer thirty thoughts, lessons and/or observations relevant to turning thirty.  Certainly you might have heard much of it before. Alas, “there is no new thing  under the sun.”  What you will find below are my humble thoughts.  Take them as they are.

  1. There has never proven a more opportune time to take your faith seriously and seek a genuine encounter with God.
  2. Make time to pray.
  3. Some say life is a journey, others will note it is a destination.  It is both, and you should not overemphasize the process (journey) or the appointed end (destination).
  4. When you find the woman fit to share the rest of your life with, marry her and love her the rest of your days.
  5. Conversely, “One can be too many if that one is the wrong one . . .”  While you should certainly share your days with the person fit to do so, there is no need, and often harm, in placing someone on your arm simply for the sake of doing so.
  6. Fatherhood is one of the foremost blessings in life, embrace it and cherish it.
  7. If fatherhood and marriage occur outside of the abovementioned order, do not let your children suffer because you might no longer get along with their other parent.
  8. Speaking of children, one of the best gifts a parent can give a child is their childhood.  While they all need discipline and a sense of responsibility, children need to be children.  It is part of the process of life.  As I have written previously, much can be said of the youthful innocence that adorned us as children.  For that very reason Jesus admonished his disciples to allow people to bring little children to him while he was teaching on the coasts of Judea beyond Jordan, saying, “Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” Quite simply, the Lord offered a reminder, among other things,  that there is something precious about childhood.  Allow your children to experience unadulterated.
  9. You will never know the have all the answers, there is no need to pretend otherwise.
  10. Some people never grow up, they merely get older.  Do not be one of them.  Likewise, turning thirty, or any age for that matter, will not beget maturity within you on its own, it is something you must develop, and part of that development is the realiztion that you must continue to grow.
  11. Similarly, high school, and to varying degrees undergrad, should not be the the “best time of your life.”
  12. By now we should have learned who our true friends are.  We may not see them as often as we like, but can depend on them when we need them.
  13. Today was tomorrow yesterday . . .”  Savor today, it is a precious gift from God.  We often lay plans for the days ahead, and in so doing, we often “neglect the gift of the present as we flirt on dates with destiny.”
  14. Stop procrastinating.  In the end, it hurts you the most.
  15. Similarly, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once said, “It takes less time to do something right the first time than it does to explain why you did it wrong . . .” I am learning this to be true more and more by the day.
  16. Some times the adventure is at home.  Many men, particularly within our culture, strive to obtain status, material wealth and/or prestige, almost to a fault.  We are taught to do so.  Nevertheless,  many do so to the point that they neglect spending quality time with their families, hence the reference to a fault.  The immediate justification of their pursuits hinges on the idea that such exchanges in time are merely temporary sacrifices made to position the family for a more comfortable lifestyle in the not so distant future.  Consequently, the adventure of climbing the corporate ladder, though it may contain individual gratification, is often framed as an altruistic endeavor.  Nevertheless, if you have a family, they need you at home as much as they need your pay check, this may call for sacrifices at work.
  17. “It would seem the life we want most is the one we don’t live . . .”  Ambition is a beautiful, and it compels us to grow dissatisfied with stagnation.  Nonetheless, there is much to be said on being content with the blessings we do have, rather than always seeking the life society tells us to live.
  18. If you have not done so already, now is a great time to begin dressing like an adult.  Certainly there is no harm in being fashionable, but dressing like a teenager should have ended about a decade ago.
  19. Whether you frame it as disappointment, failure or setbacks of some form, there will come times when you fall short of your expectations (or the expectations of others). It is important to acknowledge these moments for what they are, learn from them and continue onward.
  20. Acknowledge your mistakes, and do not to repeat them.
  21. Much of what you worry about is not worth your time.  In other words, relax, smile more.  You probably do not do that enough.
  22. Similarly, much of what you worry about will probably never materialize.
  23. In the words of Rob Bell, saying “no” to one thing invariably means you have said or are saying “yes” to something else.  It is easier to prioritize upon remembering this.  It also makes it much easier to “let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay.”
  24. “We may get what we reached for, but we lose what we had/What do you have?”  We rarely find contentment in  “whatsoever state [we are], therewith . . .” Rather we continue to reach to add more to our lot, and in so doing, “We may get what we reached for, but we lose what we had.” When more is never enough we become “imprisoned in picket fences.” The prayer is that we will see through them long enough to understand we do not have to remain confined by them.
  25. Your parents were right; you should take time out some time and tell them.
  26. Do not forsake that you’re living “for the sake of making a living.”We let this beautiful life pass us by with our “meetings after meetings, appointments, agendas/We miss the beauty of this life when the point is its splendor.”  Most certainly our days are “few and full of trouble,” but we should enjoy the days we have, and fret about tomorrow if and when it comes.  Life is beautiful.
  27. It is not too late to dream, but dreams worth dreaming while awake require work that will cost much sleep.
  28. We unearth our legacy as we move at this reckless speed/Working our fingers to the bone, so it’s in death we rest in peace.”
  29. There is a difference between a job and a vocation.  Notwithstanding, we might find ourselves with unfulfilling jobs that support our vocation.
  30. Life is beautiful, death is peaceful–the transition is troublesome/And it troubles some, when at last they prevail and then they grasp/This life is a test we will fail until we pass–on . . .”

April 9, 2012

Probable Cause

Filed under: Uncategorized — The Painted One @ 1:15 pm

Editor’s Note: The Trayvon Martin incident has sparked intense national debates regarding the association of African American men and violence, gun violence more generally, racial profiling, etc.  What follows is a personal account of racial profiling I experienced on or about December 22, 2002.  It has been one of many for me, and seemed appropriate to share during the course of these debates, particularly considering how several public figures have recently come forward with racial profiling stories of their own.

“Yes, I am going to yell at you!”  The officer’s words shot from his lips, pierced the brisk night air, and struck my cheek.  I turned the other in an effort to better look him in the eye.  The muscles in my jaw clenched, and the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end as my anger kindled.  For a brief moment, his words were indistinguishable, muddled sounds that sent my brain scurrying to unearth an answer to my mind’s persistent question of, “Why?”  “Why am I outside in the cold while this badge-wielding simpleton berates me?   “Why did he pull me over in the first place?”  Why is he still yelling, but more importantly, why is there nothing I can do about it?”  Failing to provide a viable explanation I sought solace elsewhere, for as Morrison once wrote, “Since why is difficult to handle, one must take refuge in how.”

At 2:33am, on the morning of December 15, 2002, my car cruised down Connelly Street in South West Atlanta, as it caressed each corner and curve of the long, narrow, winding road, traveling onward to our destination.  Laughter echoed throughout the car as three friends and myself recalled the events of the previous day.  We were returning to campus from a recording session at a nearby studio.  Unbeknownst to us all, a police car pulled directly behind me and followed us for roughly a mile and a half (the officer later told me how long he followed me).  As his bright lights’ red glare burst through the air, laughter that once pervaded the car dissipated as shock quickly adorned the faces of all four of us.  I obediently pulled my car over, as the lights summoned me to do, and parked in a nearby parking lot.  As the officer approached the car, I assured my friends all was well, and that the matter would resolve itself quickly, having no inclination of what lay ahead.

        “What seems to be the problem officer?” I asked somewhat jokingly.

“I’ll tell you as soon as you get out of the car!” he yelled.

Stunned, I asked, “Why do I need to get out of my car?”

“I’ll tell you as soon as you get out of the car! “ he screamed in response.

“Hold on, let me get my license and registr-,” I began, but before I could complete my sentence he erupted, this time clearly agitated.

“Never tell an officer of the law to ‘hold on,’ when he gives you an order!  One more time and I’ll have you arrested for obstruction of justice!” he roared.

“I’ll be back,” I told my friends, not overly confident of my assertion.

I climbed out of the car, adhering to the officer’s command and followed him over to his squad car.  My mind juggled thousands of thoughts in an effort to make sense of the situation, but to no avail.  I was a bit frazzled, but anger seemed to predominate any discernable emotions.

“What is the problem officer?” I asked again, this time with the absence of my previous humor and a clear sense of frustration.

“Do you know how fast you were going?” he asked sternly.

“45,” I replied irritated he implied I drove any faster.  Clearly, my response was not the desired one, for he erupted again, this time more livid than before.

“You were not going 45, do you know how fast you were going?” he shouted repeating his previous question.

“45,” I replied.

“You were not going ‘45,’ ‘45’ is the speed limit! Do you think I would pull you over for no reason?  I would not pull you over for no reason!”

Though his outbursts were rhetorical in nature, I almost felt the need to respond and notify him that, in fact, he did pull me over for no reason.  I restrained myself, however, knowing such was not the time, nor the place for my commentary.

“Have you ever been shot before?” he asked.

“No,” I replied.

“Have you ever been stabbed with a straight-edged blade,” he asked while gesturing at my abdomen.

“No, I can’t say that I have.”

“I haven’t either and I don’t want to experience that!  Every time I pull someone over I run that risk, so I would not pull you over for no reason!”

He roared sentence after sentence of his superfluous soliloquy, elevating his tone, repeatedly, as though the increased volume better conveyed the significance of his speech.  In that regard his assumption failed, and his raised voice and incensed yelling only allowed for the periodic spraying of my face with his saliva, rinsing away all dignity I sought to retain as each drop splashed onto the concrete.  It was around this time that his words became mere muddled sounds and my anger kindled.

“Officer, officer,” I said beckoning, for his attention. “You do not have to yell at me, I am not hard of hearing,” I continued.  It was then he yelled his response, “Yes I am going to yell at you!”

“When you speed you put innocent lives in danger, you could kill or maim some child, and it’s my job to protect them,” he screamed, continuing his rant.  He then administered a sobriety test, yelling when deeming it necessary.  When the test concluded and unequivocally determined I was sober, he asked me where I kept my vehicle registration.

“In my car,” I replied, and pointed in the direction of my car.  His eyes crawled down my extended index finger, following it in the direction of my car.  For a moment, he paused, as if some startling revelation troubled him beyond words.  I turned to observe what arrested his attention.   I chuckled as I became cognizant of what apprehended it.  His eyes were fixated on the “got Jesus?” emblem on my license plate, which the glare from his headlights made perfectly visible even from our considerable distance from my car.  Clearly disoriented, the officer’s demeanor vacillated between staggering shock and burgeoning befuddlement.  He quickly gathered his composure as he sought to explain I drove faster than he cared for (never indicating a particular speed) and told me, “In the future you should pay closer attention to the speed limit, I don’t mind you going 5 miles over the speed limit, but after that, you are driving too fast.”  He then walked me over to my car and notified me he would excuse my “excessive” speed that morning, “…And let you go this time…” Waving to each of my three friends and then to myself, he wished us a “Merry Christmas,” and sent us on our way.  I suppose on that night, I had yet another reason to thank God for Jesus.

Unfortunately, my experience with racial profiling did not end with a trip to the White House.

March 30, 2012

You’re Nobody, ’til Somebody Kills You

Filed under: Uncategorized — The Painted One @ 3:14 pm

“If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”

-President Obama

"If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon."

President Barack Obama answers a reporter’s question about the death of Trayvon Martin, Friday, March 23, 2012, in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/ Haraz N. Ghanbari) (Haraz N. Ghanbari – AP)

President Obama uttered those now famous words last week when asked about Trayvon Martin during a press conference in the Rose Garden where he announced his nominee for the new President of the World Bank. His remarks served as his first public comments regarding the notorious incident involving the fatal shooting of an unarmed, seventeen year old African American young man by a neighborhood watch captain in a gated subdivision in Sanford, FL.  They also placated the desires of Martin family supporters who wished to hear the President speak on the matter, and drew the rhetorical ire of his political opponents. President Obama’s remarks, while stirring in their candor and personal nature, also encapsulated the tragedy of the shooting; the horror that befell Trayvon could have visited virtually any young African American man.  One of the more notable tragedies of this incident is that it remained in relative obscurity for roughly ten days.

Notwithstanding, Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton’s nightmare began more than a month ago.   As reported by Daniel Trotto of Reuters, Tracy Martin, is Trayvon’s father.  He was divorced from Trayvon’s mother (Sybrina Fulton) in 1999, and is a truck driver from Miami.  He maintained a long-distance relationship with his fiancee, Ms. Greene, and visited her on weekends, joyfully making the four-hour trek to the Orlando suburb.   As reported by The Grio, on the evening of February 26th, Tracy Martin and his fiancée, Brandy Greene, decided to have dinner after the two spent time together with their children earlier in the day.  They left Tracy’s son, Trayvon, and Brandy’s son at Brandy’s townhouse, located in a “neat subdivision in Sanford, FL” called Retreat at Twin Lakes.  The two young men had bonded previously to facilitate the transition of them officially becoming step-brothers.  On the night of the 26th, they intended to watch the NBA All-Star Game while Tracy and Brandy went out for dinner.  At some point during the game, Trayvon decided to walk to a nearby shopping plaza that housed a 7-11.  While there, he bought an iced-tea for himself, and a bag of Skittles for his soon-to-be younger step-brother.  He never made it home.

When Trayvon did not return home, Tracy Martin believed that Trayvon merely went to a movie with a friend and mistakenly left his phone off.   When he did not return the next morning, Tracy Martin became gravely concerned.  What he would later learn devastated him.

Trayvon returned to Retreat at Twin Lakes some time around 7:15p.m., potentially cutting through an opening in the wall that surrounded the gated subdivision.  Once inside, he eventually ducked underneath the awning of the neighborhood’s clubhouse to shield himself from the rain.  It was some time around then that George Zimmerman, a volunteer for the subdivision’s neighborhood watch, observed Trayvon.  Zimmerman called the police on a non-emergency line, and reported seeing someone who appeared “suspicious.”

When Trayvon left the clubhouse, Zimmerman followed him in his vehicle.  Trayvon seemed to notice Mr. Zimmerman and made initial efforts to distance himself from Zimmerman.  Trayvon walked off the road in order to walk in between two rows of town homes, and hopefully escape the strange man following him.  Mr. Zimmerman exited his vehicle and pursued Trayvon on foot.  Both men were engrossed in conversation.

George Zimmerman was on the telephone with the Standford Police Department. On one of the recordings from the call, Zimmerman can be heard referring to Trayvon as a “[expletive] coon.”  The recordings also reveal that the Sanford Police Department commanded Zimmerman to discontinue his pursuit of Trayvon.  Zimmerman ignored them.

Trayvon was on the telephone with his girlfriend.  Reportedly, Trayvon told her, “Oh, he’s right behind me; he’s right behind me again.”  “Run!” she replied.  Trayvon then said, “I’m not going to run, I’m just going to walk fast. . .”  It was the last thing he told her.  The next thing she heard him say was, “Why are you following me?”  Another voice said, “What are you doing here?”  The pair repeated this overture.  A scuffle ensued, and the phone call came to an abrupt end.

Neighbors flooded 911 operators with reports of a loud altercation, shouting and gunfire.  When police officers finally arrived, they found Trayvon Martin dead from a single gunshot wound to the chest and a frazzled George Zimmerman alleging self-defense.  The responding officers believed Mr. Zimmerman’s account of the incident, despite ample evidence to the contrary, and thereby elected not to arrest him.  In short, the officers determined Mr. Zimmerman reasonably exercised deadly force in an act of self-defense against a young man he pursued and confronted, a young man nearly half his age and literally half his size.  When Tracy Martin consulted with some prominent civil rights attorneys, he was advised to, “trust the system.”

Sanford Police cite FL. Stat. §§776.013, a Florida law more widely known as “Stand Your Ground,” as a basis for their failure to arrest George Zimmerman.  The law affords Florida citizens with the legal right to “stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force” if the citizen “is not engaged in an unlawful activity and . . . is attacked in any other place where he or she has the right to be.”  The law not only affords this wide latitude to Florida’s citizenry during confrontations, it also allows police officers who have responded to the scene of the confrontation that has resulted in the death of an individual to decide whether to make an arrest in reference to the killing.  Essentially, that discretion hinges on whether the police officers believe a self-defense claim raised by the killer.  They must decide if there is sufficient evidence to contradict a claim of self-defense.  Ordinarily, Florida police officers defer to the courts to make this determination.  When they elect to do so, judges decide whether the use of force was reasonable.  In this instance, the police elected to make the determination themselves.

While Florida’s Stand Your Ground statue incorporates numerous rudimentary components of criminal law, it is inherently problematic.  Florida’s Stand Your Ground statute stems from legal notions of justification and affirmative defense.  Every jurisdiction within the United States has affirmative defenses (e.g. self-defense, insanity, etc.) for charges related to unlawful killings (e.g. first degree murder, second degree murder, manslaughter, etc.).  Affirmative defenses provide for justification to even the most heinous of charges; however, those justifications are rare, and they are rooted in age-old understanding of human interaction (e.g. one can not be held liable for one’s actions if one lacks the capacity to fully understand their ramifications, one has to right to defend oneself against the threat of severe bodily harm or death, etc.).  Notwithstanding, affirmative defenses are a tactic for trial, where due process determines the outcome.

Undoubtedly, the Florida legislature drafted their Stand Your Ground statute to circumvent this process, and it remains my contention that legislative maneuvering illustrates the fatal flaw of the law.   In allowing for police officers at the scene of a confrontation to determine, with finality, whether an unlawful killing has transpired morphs the police officers the into judge and jury and private citizens the executioner.  Moreover, as is the case with Trayvon, this perverted process allows for the execution prior to the determination of guilt of the executed.  In short, Trayvon Martin was determined to have committed an act that warranted his killing in the absence of a fair proceeding because police officers at the scene believed Mr. Zimmerman’s claim.  Now only one arbiter remains, special prosecutor Angela Corey, will determine whether charges are warranted.  While the legal wrangling continues, Zimmerman roams free, though he has remains in hiding.  That is a troubling proposition.

Trayvon Martin during happier times.

Also troubling is how the incident reveals deeper, unseemly truths about America.  Florida purports itself to be the very embodiment of the motto, “e pluribus unum,” from our nation’s Great Seal, as it is one of the country’s few multi-racial, multi-ethnic havens. It literally beckons the world’s “tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free” with its warm weather, beautiful beaches to go along with promises of liberty and the chances of upward mobility.  It is in a cruel twist of irony, or merely a telling exposure of the status quo, that a small enclave within Florida’s borders is swiftly threatening to become “the Selma and Birmingham of the 21st Century.”  The Trayvon Martin incident has become emblematic of the divisive nature of concepts such as race, violence and justice.

On Monday Trayvon’s family had to assume a defensive posture as stories began to circulate that Trayvon’s school recently suspended him for ten days because school officials found an empty baggie with marijuana residue in his backpack.  Other reports circulated that Trayvon had a prior suspension for tardiness and for graffiti at school.  Trayvon Martin’s family confirmed the reports.  Without question, these reports emerged to counterbalance the pristine image of Trayvon many of the family supporters gladly embraced as the story of his death continued to unfold.  Nevertheless, the questions raised regarding Trayvon’s past indiscretions are irrelevant and represent little else than thinly veiled attempts to demonstrate that Trayvon deserved to die a violent death. Trayvon’s possession of a nominal amount of marijuana and prior suspensions, certainly demonstrate questionable behavior, but it has no bearing on the factors leading to his death.  They merely distract from the salient issues. By all accounts, Trayvon Martin was walking home, when George Zimmerman, a man with a history of violent, aggressive behavior (and overzealous, vigilante-style law enforcement), followed him, confronted him and shot him to death. Implicit in each leaked story revealing unseemly aspects of his past is the statement that Trayvon was no different than the images we see of young African American men in the media. It is much easier to justify the killing of Trayvon if looks just like the scores of other African American young men are killed regularly because of their involvement in illegal activities.  It would only prove in the minds of many that such a death was an inevitability for Trayvon. The portrayal of African American men in the media only feeds this expectation.

The dominate image of African Americans in American press, literature, theater, film and other popular mediums of expression has evolved from primitive, barbaric, sexually-charged, simple-minded brutes to mutations and permutations of those images. In her article entitled, Mules, Madonnas, Babies, Bath Water, Racial Imagery and Stereotypes, Professor Ammons argues the “subtlest and most pervasive of all influences are those which create and maintain the repertory of stereotypes.” She continued by writing by the time a child has reached the age of four or five, the child has learned the significance of skin color and racial membership. She continues by stating whites are taught implicitly and explicitly they are better than blacks, and adults conform their behavior to what is socially acceptable based on changing laws of social mores. While such lessons begin in the home, our popular culture and media help shape the contours of such perceptions once one leaves the home.  From the minstrel shows of the mid-1800s to the modern day portrayals of African American men in television programming, films and music, these traditions continues.  To worsen matters, hip-hop purports itself to be the preeminent black aesthetic and the voice of the black community, yet the overwhelming majority of its output is violent, misogynistic drivel and or tacit endorsements of drug culture.   Presumably reason many prominent rappers remained silent on the matter, or waited until it became politically convenient to speak, because the “art” they create contributed to the correlation between African American men and violence.  As I once said, “All we ever talk about is X and Coke/Sex and dope, bling bling and the gleam on the Lexus spokes/If I were a white man, I would lock me up too/Because that’s all that we ever say we be up to/We talk about the sex and drugs, drugs and sex/We ‘bubble hard in double Rs and the bubble Lex’/We call it hip-hop, but it’s really hip-hopcrisy.”  It is a shame that we as African Anericans bemoan the prejorative stereoptyping of our people in the media, then perpetuate the same or worse stereotypes when we have the opportunity to speak for ourselves.

N.W.A., known as the godfathers of gangster rap music, are largely responsible for firmly entrenching the correlation between violence and African American men within a hip-hop context.

The Trayvon Martin incident has captivated me in ways that few similar instances has prior.  As a participant of hip-hop culture and a member of the hip-hop generation, I understand full well how hip-hop has assisted in the perpetuation of the very stereotypes that caused George Zimmerman to view Trayvon Martin as “suspicious.”  On a more personal level, I can fully relate to the set of experiences that resulted in his tragic death.  I have lost count of how many times I meandered through my own “neat” subdivision, or the elegant, gated communities of friends, after school or on a weekend after playing basketball.  Both my friends and I have numerous experiences, coupled with the anecdotes of friends and family, of law enforcement accosting us, if for no other reason than because of we are African American men.  Since Trayvon’s story became a national topic of discussion, we all shared stories with each other that effectively have noted any of us could have come to the violent end Trayvon met.

One of the more tragic revelations in the Trayvon Martin incident lies in the fact that it is no aberration. Rather it continues a protracted, torturous history of the untimely death of young African American men at the hands of those charged to protect the community. Namely, Ervin Jefferson, Dane Scott, Jr., Wendell Allen, Trayvon Martin, Ramarley Graham, Alonzo Ashley, Steven Eugene Washington, Victor Sheen, Oscar Grant III, Sean Bell, Travares McGill, Ronald Madison, James Brissette, Aaron Campbell,  Timothy Stansbury, Jr., Orlando Barlow, Ousmane Zongo, Patrick Dorismond, Amadou Diallo, Emmett Till and countless others died in unfortunate encounters with law enforcement, security guards or other individuals responsible for protecting the community.  Only a few of them garnered national attention, and for the most part it was only a fraction of the attention the Trayvon Martin incident has received.   Even fewer discuss the tragic death of men like Trayvon who are killed at the hands of men who look like them.  Philadelphia alone has witnessed 87 homicides this year, many of those men look like Trayvon and died at the hands of someone who looked like him.  Aside from a few news articles and candlelight vigils, those men are almost forgotten.  It would seem as though our society does not value their lives in the same way we value the lives of others, or even the lives of dogs.  It is as though we do not care about these young African American men until they are no longer with us, regardless of whether they might look like they could be the son of the man who holds our nation’s highest office.

November 11, 2011

Lie Down with (Nittany) Lions

Filed under: Uncategorized — The Painted One @ 1:28 pm

Joe Paterno, Joe Pa, Nittany Lions, Penn State, Penn State scandal

Editor’s Note: The post below details the harrowing allegations circling former Penn State defensive football coach Jerry Sandusky.  It includes unsettling details regarding the allegations, and may be unsuitable for some readers.

Late Wednesday evening representatives from Pennsylvania State University announced the university fired Joesph Vincent Paterno, the coach with the most wins in Division I college football, whom many affectionately referred to as “Joe Paterno,” or simply “Joe Pa.”   It ended his nearly half a century tenure with the school, saddened legions of loyal supporters sensing the inevitable and enraged other loyal supporters believing Penn State should allow Joe Paterno to leave on his own terms.  Undoubtedly, Penn State had little choice other than to distance itself from Coach Paterno in response to growing (and alarming) questions regarding his involvement and failure to adequately report hideous accounts of a sickening pattern of child abuse allegedly performed by a member of his coaching staff.  

Earlier in the week, reports emerged revealing that the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office released a  Grand Jury Presentation, which offered damning details of horrific incidents of repeated sexual abuse perpetrated by former Penn State football defensive coach Gerald A.  Sandusky.  In short, the report alleges Sandusky, while a defensive coach at Penn State and years following his retirement in 1999 used his charitable organization, “initially devoted to troubled young boys,”  as a guise to provide him access to vulnerable young boys that he might appease his own deviant sexual appetites.  His nefarious plot, as outlined in the report, is described in harrowing detail.  It  lists repeated instances of Sandusky lavishing gifts upon young men from the program, gaining their trust through said gifts and other means, only to ultimately begin a sexual relationship with each.  The boys ranged in age from eight to thirteen a the time in which Sandusky allegedly began his vile interactions with them. Dozens of adults came into knowledge of said pattern of behavior, and each did little to stop it, or made extensive efforts to conceal it from the public.   The pattern of behavior sadly bears striking resemblance to other sexual abuse scandals.

Joe Paterno, Joe Pa, Penn State, Penn State Football, Sandusky scandal

Joe Paterno early in his coaching carrer

For those unaware, Joseph Vincent Paterno is a former college football coach, who remained at the helm of the vaulted Penn State Nittany Lions from 1966 until Wednesday evening.  He presently holds the record for most victories in Division I college football, and presided over five undefeated teams that won major Bowl games (including national championships in 1982 and 1986) during the course of his career.  He came to Penn State as an assistant football coach shortly after graduating from Brown University in 1950.  He moved up in the ranks, until he eventually became the head coach of the football team in 1966.  He soon became a bastion of academic integrity and upstanding character, as he championed academic excellence and morality over athletic prowess.  He deemed it “the grand experiment,” and it paid huge dividends as his teams enjoyed continued success during his tenure.  Over the years he became emblematic of college football in general and Pennsylvania State University particularly.   Many fondly referred to him as the “Pope of Happy Valley.”  His experiment was challenged when many of his players had encounters with the law, but none have challenged his experiment more than this.  The scandal at the university will forever tarnish his legacy in ironic fashion considering his fabled title.   He is not alone.

The emerging scandal at Penn State has also implicated two other university administrators, Athletic Director Timothy Curley, and Gary Schultz, the University’s Senior Vice President for Business and Finance, as they were charged with perjury and failure to report suspected child abuse.  Penn State also announced it has recently fired the University President, Graham Spanier.  According to the grand jury report, both were keenly aware of Sandusky’s suspicious behavior and did not notify the proper authorities.  Also, according to the grand jury report, others were aware as well. 

More specifically, on March 1, 2002, a Penn State graduate assistant named Michael McQuery entered the football locker room on Lasch Football Stadium on the University Park Campus around 9:30pm on a Friday evening before Spring Break.  As a he entered the locker room, he was surprised to find the lights and showers on, and further surprised to hear what he described as “rhythmic slapping sounds” he believed to be sexual in nature.  McQuery looked into the showers and saw a naked boy (whose age he estimated to be roughly ten years old) with his hands up against the wall being subjected to anal intercourse by Sandusky.  McQuery “immediately left” the locker room without intervening, and waited until the next day to report the incident to Joe Paterno.  The report made its way to then Athletic Director Timothy Curley and then Vice President for Business and Finance Gary Schultz.  Little happened thereafter.   In 1998, a parent reported her eleven year old son’s recounting of Sandusky showering with him after inviting him to the Penn State football facilities to University Police.  A police detective heard Sandusky apologize to the mother of the eleven year old, saying, “I was wrong. I wish I could get forgiveness.  I know I won’t get it from you.  I wish I was dead.”   Sandusky also admitted to showering with the boy to the detective.  No charges were pressed.  In the fall of 2000, two jaintors individually witnessed Sandusky engaging in sexual behavior with young boys on two separate occasions.  They both reported it to their superiors, yet little happened thereafter.  According to reports, the former district attorney in Centre County, Ray Gricar, who chose not to prosecute Sandusky when allegations surfaced in 1998 strangely disappeared in 2005.  In a more disconcerting development new allegations have emerged that Sandusky “pimped out” young boys to wealthy donors

Joe Paterno, Joe Pa, Jerry Sandusky, Gerald A. Sandusky, Penn State

Joe Paterno and Gerald "Jerry" Sandusky earlier in their respective coahing careers

Time and time again, those with the power to stop these tragic crimes opted to not to protect the children harmed.  This is despite the fact that Sandusky repeatedly, unabashedly, engaged in sexual contact with young boys in his home, in their respective schools, on Penn State’s campus and various other locations; at least three adults witnessed said acts, reported them and little seemed to happen thereafter.  Others learned of these despicable acts and remained silent (in a public sense) for years.  Consequently,  Sandusky retired in 1999 without any public reprimand, without any criminal sanctions and was given an office on Penn State’s facility after university administrators had at least some knowledge of his inappropriate contact with children.   As the public outcry bemoaning the failure Joe Paterno to reached a fever pitch, the revered coach reluctantly relented, and indicated he planned to retire at season’s end.  In so doing, he said  “I wish I had done more.”  The university finally came to its senses and released him of his responsibilities on Wednesday. 

Like so many others who find themselves transfixed in compromising situations, Paterno waited unti he got exposed to attempt to do what is right.  His failure to respond adequately to these events prior to this exposure, coupled with his stated desire to coach games after the allegations surrounding Sandusky surfaced to the public represent a callous disregard for the gravity of the horrendous acts that transpisred under Paterno’s watch.    The outpouring of support for Joe Paterno from members of the student body demonstrate a fundamental lack of concern for the gravity of these allegations and further represent a culture of willful blindness at Penn State University. 

It would seem that the rules applied differently to Joe Paterno.   He was lauded for his coaching greatness, yet failed to win a championship in the past twenty-five years, celebrated for his character development despite numerous players encountering struggles with the law.  In what might prove to be the ultimate test of his character, he chose to protect himself, his legacy, his friend  and the institution that gave him power rather than protect innocent children.  It would then make perfect sense then that one of Paterno’s disciples,  Michael McQuery, could witness the violent sexual assault of a child, elect not to intervene, report the incident later, and then proceed publicly as though nothing happened.  In light of such a culture, one can fully understand how university officials could effectively cover up this scandal for years.  Evil persisted on Penn State’s campus (and throughout Happy Valley for that matter) because the professed good people did little, if anything to stop it. 

Joe Paterno, Joe Pa, Nittany Lions, Penn State Football

Joe Paterno leads the Nittany Lions onto the field for the season opener against University of South Florida Sept. 3, 2005. Paterno became the 21st member of the Penn State Football family to be enshrined into the Hall, joining four former coaches and 16 players, seven of whom he coached -- John Cappelletti, Keith Dorney, Jack Ham, Ted Kwalick, Lydell Mitchell, Dennis Onkotz and Mike Reid. Former Nittany Lion coaches Dick Harlow (1915-17), Hugo Bezdek (1918-29), Bob Higgins (1930-48) and Rip Engle (1950-65) also are members of the Hall of Fame.

There have been, and will be, formal statements frm Penn State and Joe Paterno uttering contrition.  The University will distance itself, at least for now, from all those who have become toxic over the course of the past few weeks.   Nevertheless, the institution and its corresponding community’s actions will speak louder.  Beginning this Saturday, Penn State will continue playing football in the same facility where several boys were violated by one of Penn State’s own.  Others involved in the scandal, to varying degrees, will remain involved in the football program.  This should not be.  Presumably we will be made to forget this tragic incident in the days to come. 

Nevertheless, we should not forget, lest these things happen again.  We must also seek to find answers to some of the sinister questions left with all of this.  Why would Joe Paterno initially say the allegations “shocked” him, despite him having prior knowledge of the alleged incidents and offering testimony in prior investigations?  Why did Joe Paterno await for the allegations to become public before he expressed remorse for his involvement and lack thereof?  Why did McQueary say nothing publicly about the incident he witnessed over seven years ago?  Would McQueary have been more prone to intervene in the incident he witnessed had he observed Sandusky raping a young girl?  Why did district attorney Ray Gricar refuse to prosecute this case when he first learned of it in 1998, and why did he turn up missing six years ago?  Why did the Athletic Director, University Senior Vice President for Business and Finance, etal refuse to report the allegations to the proper authorities?  Why was Sandusky allowed to retire gracefully with little more than a presumptive private scolding?   Why did the general public ignore warning signs and initial reports of inappropriate conduct on the part of Sandusky?  How could an academic institution, which prides itself on achieving success honorably, fall so short of its own lofty standards merely to protect the reputation and legacy of its football program?  Why did so many people do so little to stop this continued abuse?  How many more victims are awaiting justice?  How many more took advantage of them?  Why is the NCAA so quiet during this scandal?  Why have there been no public discussions of cancelling Saturday’s game or penalizing the Penn State program?  Why is the program attempting the complete the season rather than devote its complete attention to this matter?  Is it truly more harmful in the eyes of the NCAA for institutions to lie about players recieving “impermissible benefits” or fail to monitor  players recieving gifts in exchange for their own memorablia than it is for institutions to cover up sex abuse of children that happens on its campus?

Surely, this scandal at Penn State is more reflective of broader patterns of abuse of children by adults and communities who refuse to protect said children.  We have witnessed this in communities of faith, both in the Protestant Church and Catholic Church, politics, the entertainment industry. These patterns will continue so long as good people stand idly by.  Sadly, it appears as though we have a long way to go to convince them of that.

July 29, 2011

A Long Way to Go (Ctd.)

Filed under: Uncategorized — The Painted One @ 4:19 am

Bishop Eddie Long, Eddie L. Long, sex scandal, law suit settlement

Almost a year ago, I wrote about the controversy circling Bishop Eddie L. Long concerning the emergence of four civil suits, filed in Dekalb County, alleging that the bishop, “through manipulation, coercion, deception and fraud” engaged in a sexual relationship with four young men while they were teenagers.  (You may read my initial article in its entirety here.)  Each of the four suits presented their allegations with damning details.  They made specific references to expensive gifts, exotic trips financed by funds from the church.  Despite the staggering nature of the allegations, and the enormity of their implications, Bishop Long received, and has continued to receive, an inordinate amount of support from his followers, other high profile preachers and notable celebrities.  When the suits reached the public, Bishop Long initially lurked in the shadows, presumably at the advice of his counsel, and offered little to no direct rebuttal to the suits’ claims.  In his first public address to his congregation, he made curiously ambiguous statements like, “I never portrayed myself as a perfect man . . . but I am not the man that’s being portrayed on television; that’s not me,” “This thing I’m gone fight,” and “I’ve got five rocks, and I ain’t thrown one of them yet.”  He never once denied the veracity of the claims, he merely stated the portrayal of him in the news media was “not [him],” which could mean a wide range of things.

News of the allegations reverberated for weeks on end, then slowly began to dwindle, until it was learned that the parties reached a settlement for a reported amount of nearly $25 million, in addition to a private apology.   According to reports, the settlement awarded the young men $2.2 million to divide equally, and then each would receive $400,000 in payments until the money is paid over the next twenty years.  The final figure totaled $22 million for the four men, and roughly $2.8 million for their attorneys.  Immediately following news of the settlement, New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, Inc. released a “resolution” statement, one which was glaring in its impotence to address the gravity of the matter.  It read:  “After a series of discussions, all parties involved have decided to resolve the civil cases out of court. This decision was made to bring closure to this matter and to allow us to move forward with the plans God has for this ministry.  As is usually the case when civil lawsuits resolve out of court, we cannot discuss any details regarding the resolution or the resolution process, as they are confidential.  This resolution is the most reasonable road for everyone to travel.”

As an attorney, I completely comprehend the notion that the resolution of a civil complaint through pre-trial settlement does not qualify as an admission of guilt or any other liability.  Indeed, wise counsel often advise their clients of the propriety of settling contentious matters prior to reaching trial for a number of legitimate reasons: sparing the cost and expense of lengthy trials, the lesser standard of proof in a civil trials (based on a preponderance of evidence rather than beyond a reasonable doubt standard in criminal trials) can produce an unwanted outcome regardless of evidence in one’s favor, trial records could potentially preserve unsavory details about the matter and present them to the public, et cetera.  Jesus even admonished his followers to “agree with thine adversary quickly” with regard to court proceedings.  Notwithstanding, this controversy is different, especially considering recent reports have named a fifth accuser who also received part of the settlement.  This accuser has Bishop Long’s name tattooed on his wrist, slightly above an inscription that reads, “Never a mistake, always a lesson.”

Bishop Long, Eddie Long, Eddie L. Long, sex scandal, settlement

Will Bishop Long ever explain why he sent this picture to one of the plaintiffs?

Such disturbing details, ones which Bishop Long wanted us all not to believe, deserved the fight the bishop promised.  He told his congregation, and all those watching the service’s broadcast, on Sunday September 26, 2010 that he would fight the allegations.  He told them that the man portrayed on television “was not [him].” He proudly proclaimed he had five rocks and “[had not] thrown one yet.” It was an awkward comparison considering he stood in the position of power, yet it roused his congregation nonetheless.   They expected to bishop to engage in a protracted legal battle that would ultimately vindicate him.

Nevertheless, as the parties moved towards a trial that could have potentially cleared his name of all wrongdoing, he settled the matter and kept the five rocks in his sling.  A reputed holy man seeking to clear his name of unfathomable transgressions should have sought more than the comforts a pre-trial settlement offered.  The aforementioned rationales for settlement should not have been enough for him to make this matter quietly go away.

If Bishop Long was willing to pay a reported award of $24.8 million, could he legitimately argue he settled to avoid the cost of a lengthy trial?  Should we question who is paying this sum considering the church was a named defendant in each of the four suits?  Shouldn’t his “five rocks” have provided sufficient ammunition to counteract the “evidence” presented by the plaintiffs?  Why issue a private apology if he knew he committed no wrong?  If he “was not the man portrayed on television,” would he truly find it necessary to prevent unsavory details from becoming public trial record?  Did he fully understand the implications of settling, especially for such a large sum, rather than at least offering the semblance of a fight?  The answer to all seems to be a resounding “no.”

This settlement suggests the unthinkable; Bishop Long used his stature, influence and access to abundant riches to prey upon some of his congregation’s most vulnerable members, young men seeking guidance from an influential father figure.  It would appear as though Kai Wright of The Root is right in declaring Bishop Long is nothing short of a sexual predator who used The Bible, his church and his position of power to prey upon boys.  It is a vile, despicable, unsettling revelation.  It completely disqualifies him from leading others in the faith, and those in ardent support of him should look inwardly to discover why they support the bishop.  He also violated the sacred trust between himself and his congregants.   He also aroused serious questions about his previously fiery rhetoric against the homosexual community.  It also has rendered tremendous damage to the faith.  As I wrote previously, “[Another] unfortunate truth with regard to this scandal is that it “[has] given great occasion to the enemies of the LORD to blaspheme.” Christianity once again has been marred by the sullied reputation of one its leaders.”  In ten short months, Bishop Long has done more to discredit the faith he has preached about for the past few decades than any of his great works did to advance it.

Jesus offered a stern warning to those who “offend one of these little ones which believe in [Him]“,  and the Bible clearly articulates the standards a bishop, pastor or preacher of the Gospel should uphold.  Bishop Eddie L. Long has failed miserably to meet such standards as evidenced by this scandal he paid handsomely to rid himself of.  While it appears he has escaped judgment in the earth, suffice to say, Bishop will have much to account for in the heretocome.  Those who continue to support him should question their motives in doing so.  Their support of him is a tacit support of a reprehensible pattern of predatory abuse and institutional neglect.   Sadly, it appears as though we have a long way to go to convince them of that.

July 28, 2011

2Pacalypse Now

Filed under: Uncategorized — The Painted One @ 4:19 am

Tupac Amaru Shakur

 Editor’s Note: This article appears in the July 2011 Issue of Hip-Hop Stardom 101

“The tragedy of Tupac is that his untimely passing is representative of too many young black men in this country . . . If we had lost Oprah Winfrey at twenty-five, we would have lost a relatively unknown, local market TV anchorwoman.  If we had lost Malcolm X at twenty-five, we would have lost a hustler named Detroit Red.  If Martin Luther King died at twenty-five he would’ve been known as a local Baptist preacher.  And if I had left the world at twenty-five, we would have lost a big-band trumpet player and aspiring composer—just a sliver of my eventual life potential.”

-Quincy Jones

Quincy Jones penned those famous words as part of the foreword in the commemorative book Vibe Magazine issued in the fall of 1998 celebrating the life and legacy of slain rapper and actor Tupac Shakur.  As Mr. Jones astutely opined, an “untimely” death robbed legions of adoring fans, ardent critics and casual onlookers alike from the opportunity to observe how the rose that grew from concrete would ultimately bloom.  We will never learn what Tupac would have become were he still with us.  Nevertheless, one thing is certain, nearly fifteen years since his death, Tupac Amaru Shakur remains a cultural icon.

His life and professional career are well documented.  Born in the East Harlem section of Manhattan one month after his mother’s acquittal on more than 150 charges of “conspiracy against the United States government and New York landmarks” in the New York Panther Party 21 case, it would seem Tupac was destined to live the life of a revolutionary artist.  His mother named him after José Gabriel Túpac Amaru II, one of the leaders of the indigenous Peruvian people’s uprising against the Spanish in 1780.  As an adolescent, he displayed his considerable artistic gifts as he bounced from Harlem to Baltimore to Marin City California.  It was in Marin City where his immense gifts led to a chance meeting with Atron Gregory, who later set Tupac up as a roadie and backup dancer for Digital Underground in 1990.

Tupac, 2pac, Same Song, Digital Underground

Tupac and Shock G of Digital Underground

With an outstanding verse in Digital Underground’s Same Song, a tune that appeared on the soundtrack to the 1991 film Nothing But Trouble, Tupac emerged as a rising star in urban music.  He subsequently released his debut studio album, 2Pacalypse Now, in November of that year. The album ignited fiery debates about the propriety of its release (Dan Quayle once famously quipped, “There’s no reason for a record like this to be released. It has no place in our society.”) and received Gold certification from RIAA.   In that same year, he appeared in Juice, to critical acclaim, as the combustible character Bishop.  He followed the success of 2Pacalypse Now and his appearance in Juice with his platinum sophomore album, entitled Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z, in addition to a critically acclaimed acting performance in the film Above the Rim and a smattering of television appearances.  Afterwards, he continued releasing material that garnered critical acclaim and commercial success, beginning with his seminal work, Me Against the World (widely heralded as a hip-hop classic and RIAA certified as 2x platinum). Tupac followed Me Against the World with All Eyez on Me (also regarded as a hip-hop classic and RIAA certified as 9x platinum).

In short, Tupac transcended hip-hop and dominated the culture with his five short years in the spotlight.  He sold tens of millions of records, topped Billboard charts, appeared in major motion pictures, sparked numerous national debates on censorship and was a central figure in the legendary inter-coastal hip-hop rivalry.

On a cool evening in September in 1996 it all came to an abrupt end when an unknown gunman fired a barrage of bullets into the car he rode in on the way to a Las Vegas nightclub.  In the first several years after his death, the public was inundated with Tupac: nine posthumous albums, three posthumous film appearances, fourteen documentaries covering his career and legacy, et cetera.

Nevertheless, in recent months, it is as though Tupac is more alive today than ever.  Around this time last year, the Library of Congress added Tupac’s highly revered single Dear Mama to the National Recording Registry, calling the song “a moving and eloquent homage to both the murdered rapper’s own mother and all mothers struggling to maintain a family in the face of addiction, poverty and societal indifference.”  President Obama made a passing reference to Tupac at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner in April.  In May emerging rapper Meek Mill released his enormously popular single, Tupac Back feat. Rick Ross (the song subsequently spawned a slew of uninspiring remixes).  Last month, Dexter Isaac confessed to participating in the November 1994 shooting of Tupac.  This summer, Tupac’s fortieth birthday celebration seemed more elaborate and more publicized than prior celebrations.  Such is a testament to his lasting impact, and while also begging the question, “Is Tupac back?”

Tupac, Poetic Justice, Tupac Shakur, 2Pac

Tupac in a scene from Poetic Justice

In a word, “No.”  Regardless of the number of radio spins and digital downloads Meek Mill’s Tupac Back might accomplish, none of them will prove sufficient to warrant apt comparisons between Tupac and Meek Mill.  If anything, the song serves as a vivid reminder of the stark difference between the two and all other rappers who have emerged after Tupac’s death.  There is yet another reason the answer is no, and that is because it is as though Tupac never left us (all conspiracy theories aside).  Tupac embodied what hip-hop purports to be.

Hip-hop, when done right, is merely a microcosm of a larger cultural, economic, historical, political, spiritual struggle of African Americans in their quest for developing an identity in American society initially, and now other cultures across the world who have subsequently become impacted by that expression. At its core, hip-hop is a distinct expression of the people.  Tupac’s catalog encapsulated that expression.  As scholar Michael Eric Dyson stated, “[Tupac] spoke with brilliance and insight as someone who bears witness to the pain of those who would never have his platform.”  His work captured the joys, struggles, desperation and triumph of African Americans wrestling with an inherently unequal access to this nation’s most precious promises.  It also captured the violence, bigotry, misogyny, lasciviousness and covetousness that have plagued our society.  As Quincy Jones noted in his foreword, Tupac was a man “cloaked in contradictions.”  Indeed he was; the same man who wrote Keep Ya Head Up wrote I Get Around, the same man behind Brenda’s Got a Baby thrust How Do You ant It upon the world.

Perhaps Tupac’s greatest strength doubled as his greatest weakness, his unflinching ability to speak his mind.  This innate quality allowed for him to speak his mind, regardless of whom such thoughts might offend.  He simply had little regard for the consequences of his words.  Tupac seemingly feared the wrath his conscience would inflict upon him for keeping silent more than he feared the backlash of any person.  That desire to tell the truth of what lay in his heart, even when it revealed unseemly desires simultaneously captivated fans and incensed his critics.   It also still fascinates us today, as is evidenced by his continued relevance in the culture.  If Tupac is truly back, perhaps his reemergence will show us of who we truly are and remind us the perilous path where many of our inordinate affections lead.

Tupac, Suge, Vegas, Tyson fight, Tupac and Suge Knight

Tupac and Suge Knight moments before the shooting that resulted in Tupac's death

July 21, 2011

Standard Inequality

Filed under: Uncategorized — The Painted One @ 12:41 pm

Standardized testing, Test, Scantron, Standards based reform, High stakes testing

“[I]t remains to be seen, no matter how deep this thing goes, whether the soul of Atlanta has really been stirred, whether or not Atlanta will recognize that it is facing a genuine crisis of character, character that is decaying because of fear, intimidation and retaliation.”

-Khaatim Sherrer El (Former Atlanta Public School System Board Chairman)

Roughly two weeks ago, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal announced what many familiar with the Atlanta Public School System had long feared, rampant cheating inflated standardized test scores in the Atlanta Public School System dating as far back as 2001.  An investigation, led by former Attorney General Mike Bowers and former Dekalb County District Attorney Bob Wilson, interviewed more than 2,000 people and reviewed more than 800,00 documents.  The investigation implicated 178 educators, principals and teachers alike (all of whom pled the Fifth Amendment), and revealed a “culture of fear and a conspiracy of silence infected the school system, and kept many teachers from speaking freely about misconduct.”  Eighty-two additional educators confessed to participating in various forms of cheating, including erasing wrong answers on students’ multiple choice exams and replacing them with correct answers.  The investigation further revealed how school officials ignored warning dating back to 2005 and also that they provided false statements to cover up wrongdoing.

Former School Board Chairman, Khaatim Sherrer El, warned the city for more than a year that its “political power elite and downtown business community” protected the district’s then-Superintendent Beverly Hall to conceal the cheating epidemic.  When a state investigation confirmed his deep suspicions, he remarked, “I take no solace in knowing my disbeliefs have been confirmed by the governor’s report.”  Rather, he asked piercing questions during a press conference slightly before abruptly announcing his resignation, “Why was this cheating scandal so exclusively pronounced for some children and not others, splitting sharply along racial lines, in its mistreatment of the poor and disenfranchised?” he asked.  No answers emerged, yet one thing remains certain, the scandal will lead to massive changes in the Atlanta Public School System (at the time of this writing, interim Atlanta Public Schools interim Superintendent Erroll Davis has replaced four area superintendents and two principals).

Recent reporting has further indicated that the cheating that has rocked the Atlanta Public School System might have wider ranging implications.  State investigators have begun initial reviews of “suspicious erasures” found on test answer sheets in 191 schools in thirty-five Georgia districts (fifty-eight of which were Atlanta schools).  Similarly, a three-year state investigation has discovered a high percentage of erasure marks on standardized tests at some New Jersey public schools, which has raised the possibility of cheating to boost scores.  Similar reports have emerged from Texas, and anecdotal evidence I have encountered suggest the list of implicated school systems will only grow as more information becomes public.

Public Education Director of the National Center of Fair & Open Testing, Robert Shaeffer, recently noted how the number of “confirmed reports of score manipulation has exploded,” and subsequently concluded the pressure placed on teachers by policies emphasizing standardized test scores (e.g. No Child Let Behind) “foster an environment ripe for cheating.” The investigative report’s summary from Georgia drew similar conclusions; “Cheating was caused by a number of factors but primarily by the pressure to meet targets in the data-driven environment.”  Suffice to say, No Child Left Behind, and other standards-based reform (e.g. Race to the Top) fail to meet their lofty goals and yield a host of unexpected consequences.

In arguably its most important decision of the past century, the Supreme Court in Brown famously stated, “In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education.”[1] Brown introduced new notions of equal educational opportunity and established important goals in educational equity as those to be adopted by federal, state and local governments.[2] More than fifty years later, tremendous deficits in the academic performance of most poor and minority students amounts to a diminished “opportunity of an education” for millions of students nationwide,[3] and represents the most pressing issue in American education today.[4] Scores of advocates and observers have offered proposed remedies to reform education in failing schools,[5] and presently most policymakers have almost unanimously agreed upon the implementation of some form of high-stakes standardized testing—standards-based reform—as the desired means to facilitate the much needed improvement in America’s underperforming schools.[6]

NCLB, No Child Left Behind, standards-based reform, high stakes testingStandards-based reforms, which have become the hallmark of educational reform in the modern era,[7] revolve around the fundamental belief that “all children can learn.”[8]The Federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001 is the capstone in this education reform initiative, and to date remains unprecedented in the depth of its stated commitment to ensuring students across the nation meet stringent academic proficiency standards.[9] Its mandates become all the more important when noting the considerable gap in the current “academic function levels of most poor and minority students.”[10]The Act embarks on the ambitious journey of narrowing that gap and decrees all children must “meet or exceed the State’s proficient level of academic achievement . . .[on] challenging academic content standards and challenging student academic achievement standards,” by 2014.[11]

While notable in its ambitions, NCLB has fallen short of such an arduous task.[12]  NCLB relies too heavily on flawed high-stakes standardized testing models and quantitative measures, and in so doing, it masks a “ceiling as a floor.”[13]  Notably standards-based reform fail to address serious impediments to learning, including “the need for improved instructional opportunities in the classroom, health of students, nutrition, housing, family support and scores of other out-of-school factors.”[14] The Act also creates extensive demands on the states while failing to provide adequate funding to meet these new federal mandates,[15] which in turn continues the ironic reality that the “educational finance systems in most states” provide less resources to students with the greatest demonstrated need.[16] NCLB also inadvertently creates an atmosphere that encourages states to lower their academic standards, promotes school segregation and discourages talented instructors from accepting positions in challenging classrooms—all incentives that stand in direct opposition to the Act’s stated goals.[17]  Instead it reveals how the accelerated pace to achieve goals based on faulty measures tend to yield faulty results.  Unfortunately, the education of millions of children was compromised for us to relearn that lesson.


[1] 347 U.S. 483, 493 (1954) (also stating “Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.”).

[2] Michael A. Rebell, Poverty, “Meaningful” Educational Opportunity, and the Necessary Role of the Courts, 85 N.C. L. Rev. 1467, 1469 (2007).

[3] Id. at 1467.

[4]Anita F. Hill, A History of Hollow Promises: How Choice Jurisprudence Fails to Achieve Educational Equality, 12 Mich. J. Race & L. 107 (2006).

[5] Id. at 108 Accord Funderstanding.com, http://www.funderstanding.com/education_reform.cfm (last visited May. 1, 2008).

[6] Benjamin Michael Superfine, At the Intersection of Law and Psychometrics: Explaining the Validity Clause of No Child Left Behind, 33 J.L. & Educ. 475, 476 (2004).

[7] 85 N.C. L. Rev. at 1467. (stating over the past decade forty-nine of the fifty states have adopted standards-based reforms)

[8] Id. at 1467-68 (quoting N.Y. State Bd. of Regents, All Children Can Learn: A Plan for Reform of State Aid to Schools 1 (1993), which says, “All children can learn; and we can change our system of public elementary, middle, and secondary education to ensure that all children do learn at world-class levels.”).

[9] Id. at 1467.  Accord Charles R. Lawrence III, Who is the Child Left Behind?: The Racial Meaning of the New School Reform, 39 Suffolk U. L. Rev. 699, 702 (2006) (stating NCLB is an expansive statute that contains over 750 pages of law and 1500 pages of regulation and that the table of contents alone is 29 pages).

[10] Id. at 1468.

[11] No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, Pub. L. No. 107-110, §101, 115 Stat. 1425, 1444-45, 1448 (2002) (codified at 20 U.S.C. §6311 (2000 & Supp. II 2002)).

[12] 39 Suffolk U. L. Rev. at 700.

[13] The phrase “[masking] a ceiling as a floor” is attributed to Nicholas L. Townsend, Framing a Ceiling as a Floor: The Changing Definition of Learning Disabilities and the Conflicting Trends in Legislation Affecting Learning Disabled, 40 Creighton L. Rev. 229 (2007).

[14] 85 N.C. L. Rev. at 1469. (advocating for a comprehensive approach to address these impediments to learning)

[15] Gina Austin, Leaving Federalism Behind: How No Child Left Behind Usurps States’ Rights, 27 T. Jefferson L. Rev. 337, 338 (2005).

[16] 85 N.C. L. Rev. at 1469.

[17] James E. Ryan, The Perverse Incentives of the No Child Left Behind Act, 79 N.Y.U. L. Rev. 932 (2004).

March 1, 2011

Up From Slavery

Filed under: Uncategorized — The Painted One @ 12:20 am

“[W]hen we get a little farther away from the conflict, some brave and truth-loving man, with all the facts before him . . .will gather from here and there the scattered fragments, my small contribution perhaps among the number, and give to those who shall come after us an impartial history of this grandest moral conflict of the century.  Truth is patient and time is just.”

-Frederick Douglass, circa 1891

Nearly two hundred and twenty-four years have elapsed since The United States of America “launched its improbable experiment in democracy;” and yet in still the nation unquestionably grapples with the problem of “the relation of the darker to the lighter races,” as it did during the time when a collection of “farmers and scholars; statesmen and patriots . . . made real their declaration of independence at a Philadelphia convention.”  Undoubtedly America’s bitter struggle to navigate the quagmire of its racial caste system arises from the nation’s tortured history of slavery.

Our nation’s original text enshrined America’s most shameful compromise by allowing for the slave trade to continue twenty more years beyond the ratification of the Constitution.  Consequently, the nation’s highest law denied entire segments of the population its most precious bequest, “ the rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by [the founding] fathers.” Congress has long since sought to remedy this injustice with the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution, but America has still searches to absolve its “original sin.”

Four different stories in the recent news cycle have illustrated such points.  Those stories—a congresswoman’s egregiously erroneous account of the founding fathers’ role in abolishing slavery, a Secession Ball in South Carolina, a new edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that removes its use of racial epithets and a parent’s lawsuit against a local school district alleging the school district inflicted emotional distress upon an elementary school student when her school taught about slavery—demonstrate our failed attempts to reconcile our disgraceful past.

While speaking at an event sponsored by Iowans For Tax Relief last month, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) said the United States was founded on racial and ethnic diversity.  Additionally, she proclaimed that the founding fathers worked “tirelessly” to abolish slavery.  Specifically, she stated, “men like John Quincy Adams . . . would not rest until slavery was extinguished in the country.”  While she accurately described slavery as an “evil,” “scourge” and “stain on our “history,” she also heralded America at the time of European settlement as a nation composed of “different cultures, different backgrounds, different traditions,” and further added that the “color of their skin” or “language” or “economic status” did not factor into the treatment of various people.  She said, “Once you got here, we were all the same.  Isn’t that remarkable? It is absolutely remarkable.”   Nothing could be further from the truth.  As the late Judge A. Leon Higginbotham put it: “[T]he Constitution’s references to justice, welfare and liberty were mocked by the treatment meted out daily to blacks from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries through the courts, in legislative statues, and in those provisions of the Constitution that sanctioned slavery for the majority of black Americans and allowed disparate treatment for those few blacks legally ‘free.’”

ST. PAUL, MN – SEPTEMBER 02: U.S. Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R-MN) speaks on day two of the Republican National Convention (RNC) at the Xcel Energy Center on September 2, 2008 in St. Paul,

Critics of Congresswoman Bachmann’s remarks abound, yet one of the more harrowing parts of her preposterous view of American history is that so many people share it, or want to share it.  Few in attendance at the event where Rep. Bachmann made her remarks objected to her comments, perhaps because they too wanted to believe a part of American history that did actually not occur.  Recently in South Carolina, some private citizens also showcased their desire to romanticize distasteful portions of the nation’s history.

Several weeks ago, South Carolina began commemorating the 150-year anniversary of its secession with a series of public events.   On Thursday December 20, 1860, the 169 delegates of the South Carolina state convention voted unanimously to issue “An Ordinance to Dissolve the Union Between the State of South Carolina and the Other States.” The document declared that South Carolina repealed the United States Constitution and its amendments, called for a confederacy of the states and eventually led to the beginning of The Civil War.

While South Carolina commemorated its secession with little fanfare outside of the state, a privately sponsored event sparked a larger controversy.  Particularly, several South Carolina citizens organized a “Secession Ball” in the city of Charleston, in which revelers dress in period costume.  The Ball sparked controversy because of the attendants’ reckless attempt to relish a time many would rather soon forget; moments when the value of its slaves mattered more to South Carolina than its membership in the Union.  It is as NPR host Michel Martin noted during her interview with Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley, “despite being rooted in the past, certain events can cut very deeply in the present.” The same holds true for a time-honored piece of American literature.

 

An Alabama-based publishing company, NewSouth Books, recently released a new US edition of Mark Twain‘s classic novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The newly released edition will feature notable revisions; it will supplant the novel’s now infamous use of the demeaning racial epithet, “nigger” for the word “slave.” NewSouth Books’ newly released edition also expunges the derogatory term “injun” from the novel.  Though the book’s editor, Dr. Alan Gribben of Auburn University, Montgomery advocated for the revisions, they have fostered a vigorous debate. Dr. Gribben has explained the revisions by stating, “We may applaud Twain’s ability as a prominent American literary realist to record the speech of a particular region during a specific historical era, but abusive racial insults that bear distinct connotations of permanent inferiority nonetheless repulse modern-day readers.”

I remember hearing comparable lines of reasoning when similar debates emerged when I read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn while in high school.  Such reasoning, as compassionate as it might be, does not convince me any more now than it did then.  The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which chronicles exploits of a young man along the Mississippi River in the mid-19th Century, has become classic American literature because of its beautiful story telling and griping portrayal of a bygone era.  Readers journeyed with Finn as he rode the curves of the Mississippi and observed along with Finn a time few living persons can scarcely remember.  That is why leaving the original text intact, with all its hurtful language, is necessary.  To remove it would be to pretend as though such harsh realities did not exist.  Nevertheless, those realities did exist, and we must face them as we must face others.   This is a lesson a parent in Michigan has yet to fully grasp.

Jamey Petree, an African American father in Michigan, recently filed a lawsuit against his daughter’s former school district, essentially alleging his daughter suffered racial bias when her teacher read passages regarding slavery.  The suit, filed in Macomb County Circuit Court in Mount Clemens, seeks more than $25,000 in compensation.  Mr. Petree’s allegations hinge on language in passages from a book entitled From Slave Ship to Freedom Road, a book his daughter’s fifth grade class read referencing slavery.  He alleges hearing references to the purchase of slaves, in addition to the use of “nigger” when referring to slaves and other derogatory references to African Americans inflicted emotional distress upon his daughter.

While I certainly empathize with Mr. Petree’s concern over his daughter’s reaction to excerpts from From Slave Ship to Freedom Road, I find his suit a terrible mistake.  Similarly to how proponents of censoring The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn took offense to language referencing African Americans.  Mr. Petree and his daughter should take offense to writings that refer to African Americans’ skin as “satan’s thoughts.”  That is the point.  Slavery was traumatic.  Any accurate retelling of its horrors should shock and appall any who encounter it.

The legacy of chattel slavery is America’s most notorious blight, and the repugnant legacy produced by slavery’s offspring serve as painful reminders of the fallibility of a nation that holds noble truths “self-evident.”  Notwithstanding, that painful history is American history.  The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, Jim Crow, racially motivated domestic terror and the like, are as much a part of American history as Lexington and Concord, Lewis and Clark’s arrival at the Pacific and/or The Louisiana Purchase.  The United States of America must acknowledge its shameful past for what it is, if it is ever to successfully bend its narrative arc above the color line and “rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’”  There is no other way.

Conforming our past indiscretions to what we desire our nation to become, or wish it once was, is intellectually dishonest and dooms are nation to continue rehearsing the feigned theater of racial reconciliation rather than merely accomplishing it.  The founding fathers did not fight tirelessly to abolish slavery. The Three Fifths Compromise is still in the Constitution.  Slavery officially ended within the union seventy-six years after the ratification of the Constitution.  Many of the founding fathers owned slaves at the time of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, including Thomas Jefferson, who fathered an entire flock of children with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings.  The fact that an entire state desired to preserve its “right” to hold slaves trumped its desire to remain in the Union is not worth celebrating.  During the span of our nation’s history, it has proven socially acceptable to refer to African Americans in despicable terms.  Consequently, a work of literature such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn used the word “nigger” 219 times without apology, because the novel merely reflected the spirit of the times.  Chattel slavery as practiced in the United States represented one of the more cruel, brutal and dehumanizing institutions in the history of the world; it’s recounting should shock and upset young children.  Nevertheless, young children, particularly those in America, must learn such tragic details.  To tell another tale of America would simply be one that would find its place amongst myths, epics, fables and other works of fiction.  It would also cement Mark Twain’s assertion that “the very ink with which [our] history is written is merely fluid prejudice.”  We should strive to have the story of our nation’s future written with different ink than the one that wrote its past.

December 29, 2010

Vicktory

Filed under: Uncategorized — The Painted One @ 8:44 pm

“God gave me a second chance, I think you should too.”

-Michael Vick (Interview on ESPN Radio’s Mike and Mike in the Morning)

Recently I used this space to discuss how sports, “like other modes of entertainment, . . . serve as a medium to convey messages of a given society’s mores.” Perhaps no figure currently embodies the polarizing nature of sports more than Michael Dwayne Vick.  His involvement in a dog-fighting ring several years ago has made him one of the more despised people in all of sports, yet his electrifying style of play endears him to legions of fans across the nation.  In the span of a few days he has won praise from President Obama and simultaneously received calls for his execution.

Nearly two years ago, the Philadelphia Eagles signed him to a two-year contract, hoping he would add an edge of unpredictability to their offensive schemes and adequately serve as the backup of the backup.  This season, when newly appointed quarterback, Kevin Kolb, left the first game of the season due to injury, Michael Vick saw himself in a position many believed would never happen again; he was the starting quarterback for a NFL team.  What transpired after that initial game has become a remarkable tale of redemption.

Michael Vick’s tenure with the Philadelphia Eagles would be mildly irrelevant if he played poorly when offered that opportunity in September.  Nevertheless, he has played spectacularly since he filled in as the starting quarterback, and many have begun suggesting he deserves the league’s most valuable player award.  In slightly more than half of a season, he has completely elevated the expectations for a team many projected to lose half of its games or more.  Now his team has won its division title and fans across Philadelphia are beginning to gleefully imagine an exciting postseason run.  He was named a starter in the 2011 Pro Bowl, is near the league lead in passer rating and has amassed an ever-expanding list of impressive statistics and feats.  In short, his spectacular play this season has showcased his exceptional skills.  It also offers deeper insight into how we view nebulous ideas such as culture, class, race and broad ideas such as forgiveness and redemption.

As a resident of Philadelphia, I regularly hear a self-described “lifelong Eagles fan” declare he/she cannot cheer for the team as long as Michael Vick remains a member of it.  They often offer anecdotes such as their parents put them in an Eagles’ jersey when they were brought home from the hospital, or how they braved the bitter cold as a toddler to attend an Eagles game with their family, or how the Eagles fare during the weekend determines how they view their week.  Now some of these same people say they feel “nothing” when the team plays (I heard similar things when I lived in Atlanta at the time of the dog-fighting investigation).  Others have said that he should never have an opportunity to play in the league again because of his status as a convicted felon.  Many others still protest him at games, both home and away, and news outlets continue to publish reports about the surviving forty-seven dogs.  While these individuals remain entitled to their opinion, I personally find it silly.

The NFL teems with examples of poor judgment and reckless behavior from its players off the field.  Ben Roethlisberger has been accused of sexually assaulting three women in two years, and currently stars in league sponsored commercials.  Brett Farve was accused of sending several female reporters, who worked for the team he played for at the time, unwanted pictures of his genitalia along with other sexually explicit messages.  It took two years for the media to give the story regular coverage, the coverage was relatively minimal, and only addressed one woman’s allegations.  Another player, Donte Stallworth, killed a man when he drove while intoxicated after Michael Vick was indicted for his involvement with dog-fighting.  He received a sentence of twenty-four days in addition to a one year suspension from the NFL.  Other players have been accused or convicted of other egregious crimes; however, none of these instances have received the same sensationalized coverage that has shadowed Michael Vick for the past three years.  There are obvious differences in each case, but it appears that the NFL (along with those who cover and follow it) values the lives of dogs more than the lives and well being of people.  Either that, or there is an enormous double standard attached to criticism circling Michael Vick.

Michael Vick deserved punishment for his involvement in the dog-fighting ring, Bad Newz Kennelz.  His actions, and those of the other perpetrators, were cruel, heinous and disgusting.  Few would argue such points.  Few should also argue that Michael Vick still owes a debt to society.

Ideally our society’s criminal justice system adheres to utilitarian and retributive theories of punishment in an effort to both to deter future wrongdoing and punish wrongdoers.  By every objective measure society has met these goals in its treatment of Michael Vick.  He was certainly punished: he pled guilty to the felony charges, spent twenty-one months in prison (and two more in home confinement), his former team filed a breach of contract action (the parties settled) to essentially void what was then the most lucrative contract in NFL history, he filed for bankruptcy, the NFL reinstated him under strict conditions and he ultimately morphed from a lauded sports hero to a social pariah in a matter of weeks.

If the story ended there, our criminal justice system has received its debt from Michael Vick.   He has earned his right to reenter society and resume gainful employment; and it should make little difference that his form of gainful employment is professional football.  He has become a faithful believer and more responsible father.  “The man is contrite.  He is humbled.  He is chastened.” As reported by ESPN’s Rick Riley, Michael Vick has given over twenty-four speeches for the Humane Society and has publicly dismissed his former friends.  Moreover, John Goodwin of the Human Society has noted Vick’s public downfall from his involvement with dog-fighting became the tipping point for raising awareness and toughening penalties for dog-fighting.  Yet and still, it has not proven enough for some, in large part because of the way in which they view animals.

Our culture has a complicated relationship with animals.  Most people in America have no notable aversions to eating meat or wearing (or using) products made from animal remains.  Additionally, while most people in our society admittedly do not relish torturing animals, few see the irony in that admission and their casual acceptance of chasing relatively defenseless animals and then killing them for sport.  Moreover, there are few public apprehensions about diminishing the acceptable level of treatment of animals many would use as pets when it serves our desires for entertainment (e.g. greyhound racing, horse racing, et cetera.).   Culture shades the lens with which we see it all.

Unfortunately, generations of people in the United States (and elsewhere for that matter) grew up raising some dogs as pet and others as vicious fighters.  For the most part, they viewed this no differently than other Americans who chase an animal in its natural habitat for several hours, shoot it, slit its throat, and then bring back portions of its carcass to brag to their friends and family.  We cannot ignore the cultural elements that shape our judgments on these issues, though many conveniently have done so because of their own bias and prejudices.  Some cultures revere dogs as an integrated portion of the familial unit, some view dogs as unclean, and other groups of people simply do not like dogs.  Sportswriter Bill Simmons noted that during a conversation with filmmaker Steve James, he learned that some “African-Americans . . . were terrified of dogs because of what happened in the 1960s and earlier, when police frequently used attack dogs to ‘quell’ racial protests.” With regard to dogs, one man’s companion is another man’s antagonist, just like with cows, one man’s meal is another man’s sacred beast.

This does not excuse or justify Vick’s prior actions.  Regardless of contrasting cultural mores, Michael Vick erred tragically, and has acknowledged so publicly.  He has accepted responsibility for his actions and encouraged scores of youth not to make the same mistakes he once did.  Perhaps those who struggle to forgive Michael Vick for his past indiscretions have difficulty doing so because they cannot fathom what could potentially motivate a person to act so cruelly towards another living creature.  Perhaps they cannot understand the inhumane treatment of a beloved animal in ways they could potentially understand driving while intoxicated or could potentially understand allowing inebriation to transform strangers into a paramours.  Regardless of whether we can relate to Michael Vick’s personal indiscretions, we all can relate to how we too err and fall terribly short of even our own lofty expectations.  We all also fall terribly short of God’s standard of perfection.  We might look better than our neighbor to ourselves, but we are a sloppy mess in the eyes of God.  Presumably, that is why Jesus instructed us fallible beings to “judge not,” or we will be judged, and judged by the same standards we judge others.

Perhaps Philadelphia Head Coach Andy Reid understood that when he offered Michael Vick a second chance.  Perhaps his own experience with his sons has offered him insight into how forgiveness and second opportunities can genuinely transform the lives of young men.  In the event Andy Reid had other motives in signing Michael Vick, we have all still witnessed a remarkable tale of how God can work wonders with imperfect people.  Will Michael Vick make the most of his newfound opportunity?  I do not know; only time will tell.  I simply believe he deserved the chance he received, and so far he has performed admirably.  He now merely hopes to peacefully gain his living running with and throwing that pigskin covered football Americans have come to love.  Hopefully, we all can begin to forgive him as swiftly as we forgive the people charged with slaughtering swine so men can throw a ball covered with its skin on Sunday.

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