Category: Popular Culture
My friend, the brilliant Dara Cooper, did something really terrific yesterday. After a conversation with some youth worker friends, she decided to crowdsource questions on Facebook for people who wanted to debrief Django Unchained particularly with black youth. I love this idea even though I think that the attention paid to the film is already completely disproportionate to its quality or value… But that’s unimportant. Many black people are packing theaters to see this movie and many in the audience are young people. I asked Dara if I could share the list on this blog for others who might find it useful. She agreed by saying: “It’s ours.” That’s pretty much typical of Dara…
I recently read that some new research confirms the fact that black children who are instilled with racial pride do better in school. I am sure that this does not come as a shock to anyone but it is always good to get some empirical evidence for what you suspect in your gut. One of the study authors, Ming-Te Wang, explains:
“Our findings challenge the notion that ‘race blindness’ is a universally ideal parenting approach, especially since previous research has shown that racially conscious parenting strategies at either extreme—either ‘race blindness’ or promoting mistrust of other races—are associated with negative outcomes for African American youth.
“When African American parents instill a proud, informed, and sober perspective of race in their sons and daughters, these children are more likely to experience increased academic success.”
Anyway, I contributed some of my own questions to Dara’s curated list. If you want to contribute your own, please leave them in the comment section and I will keep adding to the list. Below is the Facebook note from Dara:
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.
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.
Kevin Coval gets at this in the preface of his new chapbook More Shit Chief Keef Don’t Like:
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 has me thinking about Kim Jones (aka Lil Kim) again. A young woman I am working with e-mailed a photograph of her and I was left speechless. Kim is unrecognizable to me. I have always been fascinated by her and have written about her a couple of times on this blog here and here.
The legend of Lil’ Kim begins with her “discovery” by Christopher Wallace (a.k.a. the Notorious B.I.G) on the streets of Bed-Sty in Brooklyn. She released her debut album titled “Hardcore” in 1996. In interviews, she has said: “Lil’ Kim is what I use to get money, a character I use to sell my records.” Yet one wonders if this is truly the case. What is the distance between the character of Lil’ Kim and Kimberly Jones? One thing is certain: she is a complex person, full of contradictions. It is perhaps this, above all, that makes her so interesting & relevant to me.
I’ve written several times on this blog about the increase in the elderly who are in prison. This increase is related to longer sentences and a curbing of parole in several states. You can read some of my posts about this issue here, here, and here. Colorlines also created a terrific infographic that visually depicts the problem of an aging prison population.
Now comes an amazingly moving music video by Brandi Carlile for a song titled “That Wasn’t Me” featuring Kris Kristofferson (who I just love). In the video, Kristofferson plays an elderly man who is paroled from prison and cannot find a way to fit into society. Please take a moment to watch the video. You won’t be sorry.
What have I been listening to NON-STOP for two months now? Fiona Apple’s new CD, Schoolboy Q’s Habits and Contradictions, and the new CD by Killer Mike. All of these are terrific. Today I thought that I would share just one of my favorite tracks off Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music CD: it’s called “Reagan” and it’s excellent. Incidentally, I never recommend anything by Toure (it’s a long story) but he has written an interesting essay about the intersections between hip hop and the War on Drugs. It is worth reading particularly for his consideration of Reagan’s role in intensifying the War on Drugs and for his discussion of hip hop’s complicity in disseminating the “criminalblackman” myth.
I didn’t think that I would have occasion to write about Lauryn Hill on this blog. Yet I was sad to hear the news that Hill has been charged for not filing taxes on her income for three years. It is a true tragedy that she is likely to face a significant amount of time in prison in addition to having to pay a hefty fine. Behind bars, she would be part of the fastest growing group of prisoners in America: black women. I sincerely hope that it doesn’t come to that.
Over the past few years, when I have thought of Hill, a Carolyn Rogers poem has been the accompanying soundtrack. The poem is titled “Poem for Some Black Women (1981).”