On Sunday, I awoke to the news that some parents of Walter Payton Prep High School students refused to allow their children to play a night game on the campus of Gwendolyn Brooks Prep High.
You have to live in Chicago to fully appreciate this drama. Payton and Brooks are both selective enrollment public high schools in the city. Both are considered “good” schools. Payton is on the Northside of Chicago while Brooks is located on the Southside. Rich white parents use their clout to get their children admitted to Payton but not to Brooks. In case you didn’t know, Chicago is still the most segregated city in the United States. This also extends to our schools, of course.
One can hardly blame the parents of Payton students who were afraid that their children might succumb to violence on the dreaded “Southside.” Over the past three to four years, media accounts have portrayed Chicago as the wild, wild, West. Scarcely a day goes by that there isn’t another account of rampant “senseless” violence in the city.
It’s gotten so bad that the former police superintendent, Jody Weis, felt the need to proclaim during a news conference in 2010: “We are not Chi-raq. We are Chicago.”
This brings me to the main issue that I wanted to address today.
I never knew this but it seems that Ella Fitzgerald spent a year of her life as a teen at a girls’ reformatory in New York. She never spoke about this period of her life. I stumbled upon this information as part of my ongoing research about Billie Holiday.
An article by Nina Bernstein appeared in the New York Times in 1996 which unearths this unknown period of Fitzgerald’s life:
The unwritten story survives in the recollections of former employees of the New York State Training School for Girls at Hudson, N.Y., and in the records of a government investigation undertaken there in 1936, about two years after Miss Fitzgerald left. State investigators reported that black girls, then 88 of 460 residents, were segregated in the two most crowded and dilapidated of the reformatory’s 17 “cottages,” and were routinely beaten by male staff.
At a time of renewed calls for institutions to rescue children from failed families, this lost chapter in the life of an American icon illuminates the gap between a recurrent ideal and the harsh realities of the child welfare system.
Like Miss Fitzgerald, most of the 12- to 16-year-old girls sent to the reform school by the family courts were guilty of nothing more serious than truancy or running away. Like today’s foster children, they were typically victims of poverty, abuse and family disruption; indeed, many had been discarded by private foster care charities upon reaching a troublesome puberty.
When Thomas Tunney, the institution’s last superintendent, arrived in 1965 and tried to bring back former residents to talk to the girls of his own day, he learned that Miss Fitzgerald had already rebuffed invitations to return as an honored guest.
“She hated the place,” Mr. Tunney said from his home in Saratoga Springs, where he retired some years after the institution closed in 1976. “She had been held in the basement of one of the cottages once and all but tortured. She was damned if she was going to come back.”
“Nothing good ever came out a prison.” — Johnny Cash
This is the first of a series of meditations about Johnny Cash. Cash became somewhat of an obsession since I first heard ‘Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison’ when I was 15 years old. I came upon the record quite by accident. I was at a friend’s apartment. Her father was an avid country music fan. He was playing the album while I happened to be visiting. It would be several years before I became an anti-prison activist. So at the time, it was the music rather than the song content or lyrics that piqued my interest.
Later when I was much older, I began to appreciate the album for its social significance. It is a statement about the marginalized in our society and fits perfectly into the protest music of its era.
According to Michael Streissguth (2004), Cash learned about Folsom Prison in 1953 by watching a film titled “Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison.” The non-critically acclaimed film inspired him to write the song “Folsom Prison Blues” with the memorable line “I shot a man in Reno/Just to watch him die.” This line and most of the song have been criticized as being plagiarized from various sources. Regardless, Cash recorded the song in 1955 and it became one of his biggest hits.
The genius of Bob Dylan as a songwriter is unparalleled and the theme of prison features prominently in a lot of his work. Here is one of my favorite songs written by him in 1968 “I Shall Be Released” and covered perfectly by the incomparable Nina Simone.
Someone got really angry at me last week. She asked me to “defend” Chief Keef and I said no. I declined to engage with her not because Chief Keef isn’t “worth” defending but rather because he is a proxy & therefore irrelevant. What this woman really wanted me to do was to condemn Keef. I won’t do it. [Full disclosure: I've been asked to appear in the media to talk about Keef & have declined too.]
Many people cringe when they watch Chief Keef’s video for his song “I Don’t Like.” Some people find their fears of young black men confirmed by the images that they see. Others rage against him for embodying the worst stereotypes attributed to black boys. Are we to believe, however, that the negative ideas that people have about young black men originate with Keef and his videos? Come on. Those stereotypes and ideas predate Keef by several generations. The cultural work of racism that set the stage for dehumanizing black people has its roots in the 19th century. Keef really didn’t make this world; he’s inherited it and we are all culpable for this.
If you are taking to the media or the pulpit to skewer Keef, you are wasting your time. It is easy to rant and much more difficult to propose constructive solutions for the social problems that give birth to the destructive realities that Keef raps about and that he lives.
Every institution in Chicago fails Black youth. Segregated and systematically inequitable, Chicago is a town where white kids exist in an increasingly idyllic new urban utopia, and Black and Latino kids weave and dodge through a war zone. The largest specter in the spectacle and circus that surrounds the city, Chief Keef has become its poster boy and scapegoat. He is a young man who looks and sounds like thousands of young people in Chicago—reared in a culture of nihilism, death, and capitalism. He is a young man who sings the demented measures and results of white supremacy, the legacy and maintenance of grand inequity. Chief Keef sings a tortured and tormented Chicago song. It is a song we need to listen to carefully.
Like some other young black men in Chicago his age, Keef has already been in trouble with the law. He’s been arrested and spent time in jail. He is also unapologetic about these things. Keef is a symptom and product of Chicago’s devastated and blighted inner city communities. This past July, Daniel Shea wrote a profile titled “Chief Keef: Lost Boys,” it’s worth reading.
Keef is just 17 years old and he is basically a commodity at this point. He performs and probably makes much more money for corporations than he does for himself. I don’t know the young man personally but I would bet that he is no different than the other 17 year old black boys that I meet and interact with daily. He is no doubt holding a lot of anger, he is probably funny & mercurial, he might be sullen & sweet, he does a lot of weed and it’s clear that he is brilliant. In other words, Keef is as Kevin points out like “thousands of young people in Chicago.”
And the truth is that thousands of young people in Chicago are being failed on a minute by minute basis. So I won’t waste my time moralizing against Keef. I will instead continue to condemn and to hold accountable the systems and institutions that are supposed to ensure the health and well-being of the thousands of youth like him.
This week, the Detention Watch Network identified the 10 worst immigration detention centers across the U.S. in a new report. The report suggests that:
At all ten of the facilities, people reported waiting weeks or months for medical care; inadequate, and in some cases a total absence, of any outdoor recreation time or access to sunlight or fresh air; minimal and inedible food; the use of solitary confinement as punishment; and the extreme remoteness of many of the facilities from any urban area which makes access to legal services nearly impossible.
Detention Watch Network calls for the immediate closure of these facilities. One of these detention centers is the Tri-County Detention Center which is the only privately-run immigrant detention center in Illinois. You can read a summary of the terrible conditions at Tri-County HERE (PDF).
WASHINGTON, May 23, 2013 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- The Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) has published an application programming interface (API) that provides access to the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) dataset in open, machine-readable formats.The NCVS API is a dynamic feed that allows developers and researchers to […]
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Gurgaon, May 19 (IANS) Supreme Court's Justice P. Sathasivam, who is also the executive chairman of the National Legal Services Authority (NALSA), Sunday said that cases related to women are being given priority by courts after the Delhi gang-rape. […]
India, May 17 -- "Judge saheb, meri beti ko insaaf dilaiye (please ensure justice for my daughter)," the mother of the December 16 gang-rape victim, with her hands folded, requested the special court hearing the horrific rape case on Friday.Deposing before the court of additional sessions judge Yogesh Khanna, the woman made fervent pleas for justic […]
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India, May 9 -- A juvenile involved in a string of murders in Uttarakhand has joined the ranks of close to 24 persons to be apprehended for their alleged involvement in the sensational slaying of liquor baron-cum-real estate honcho Gurdeep alias 'Ponty' Chadha and his brother Hardeep last November.The accused juvenile hails from Rudrapur in Uttarak […]
Combatting violence against women in Iraq spawns higher education partnership between Vanguard University and University of Duhok. Visit to California includes training with 12th District Court Judge David O. Carter, OC Juvenile Justice Douglas Hatchimonji, OC Juvenile Services, OC Child Abuse Special Teams (CAST) and Westminster Police DepartmentCosta Mesa, […]