Friday, June 21, 2013


Summertime, and the living is easy Fish are jumping and the cotton is high Oh, your daddy's rich And your mamma's good looking So hush little baby, don't you cry One of these mornings You're going to rise up singing Then you'll spread your wings And you'll take to the sky But until that morning There's nothing can harm you With your daddy and mammy standing by Excerpt from “Summertime” first recorded by Billie Holiday in 1936
Summertime was sung as a lullaby in the popular African American opera “Porgy and Bess” which opened on Broadway in 1935. Summer officially begins on June 21st and is supposedly the day with the most hours of daylight in the northern hemisphere. Although there are several songs with the words “summertime” as part of their lyrics, this is the song that most frequently comes to mind when I think of summer. Of course I enjoy listening to Will Smith and Shaggy sing their versions of “Summertime” but my all time favourite is Billie Holiday’s version. The song Billie Holliday sings and the opera from which it was taken are recognized as the work of 3 White men Ira Gershwin, George Gershwin and Dubose Heyward. This is not surprising given the time in which the song and the opera were composed. After all this was during a time when any composition by African Americans would not have been given much respect (and definitely not recognized as classic) if it was not sanctioned by White people.
The opera was adapted from a novel written by a White man about the lives of African Americans after he had spent time “observing and thinking deeply” about their lives. The novel “Porgy” about the lives of African Americans, the descendants of enslaved Africans living in poverty in Charleston, South Carolina, written by a White man who was the descendant of slaveholders published in 1925 (10 years before it was adapted as an opera) was a bestseller. A reviewer for the “New York Times” described the novel as a “sympathetic and convincing interpretation of Negro life by a member of an ‘outside’ race,” while James Southall Wilson wrote in the “Virginia Quarterly Review” that “No more beautiful or authentic novel has been published in America for a decade.” Although “Porgy” was hailed as a novel of authentic “Negro” life and culture this was the time of the Harlem Renaissance when African American writers like Countee Cullen, W. E.B. Dubois, Claude McKay, Jean Toomer and Wallace Thurman were writing and publishing books. Yet none of the literary works of these African Americans were considered as fitting to be adapted to become what was and in some cases still considered a “classic” opera of African American life. Even the music, although borrowing heavily from African American styles, was written by the White men who had appropriated African American culture for their enrichment. African American jazz pianist, composer and bandleader Duke Ellington was not impressed with their music and criticized the production.
According to Ira Gershwin, his brother George Gershwin visited African American churches and several plantations in South Carolina where African Americans continued to labour as they had done during slavery: "George did a lot of research on 'Porgy and Bess.' DuBose and Dorothy Heyward, authors of the play, took him to various churches and plantations on the several occasions George visited Charleston to get the true flavor and character of the singing in that part of the South.” In his 2006 published book “George Gershwin - His Life and Work” Howard Pollack quotes the author of Porgy on his search for Gullah culture to include in the opera: “James Island with its large population of primitive Gullah Negroes lay adjacent, and it furnished us with a laboratory in which to test our theories, as well as an inexhaustible source of folk material.” The language used in the opera was what the writers thought was the Gullah language (gleaned from their visits to places like James Island) and of course was liberally peppered with the “N” word. White audiences loved this safe (while sitting in a theatre) glimpse into the “Negro” world. African Americans thought the characters were one dimensional caricatures. In spite of limited opportunities there were educated and hard working African Americans living in South Carolina at the time the novel Porgy was written (1925) and at the time the opera Porgy and Bess was composed (1935) ( as seen in the images captured by the camera of African American photographer Richard Samuel Roberts. Yet the writer of the novel and the composers of the opera choose as their characters criminals, drug addicts and people living in dire poverty, every stereotype of African Americans that dwelled in the minds of White Americans. This behaviour continues today with many of us buying into it because White supremacy works in a way that makes White privilege go unnoticed and just seems like normal behaviour.
The “Pittsburgh Courier” an African-American newspaper published in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania from 1910 until October 22, 1966 was not impressed and quoted in “George Gershwin - His Life and Work” by Pollack: “The Pittsburgh Courier… declaring the work a “raw, throbbing musical drama” that revealed “depraved members of the colored minority in America engaged in its stereotyped role…. It is a vehicle of shame, sorrow and disgust.” The opera had at least one production in “blackface” in Europe. In “George Gershwin - His Life and Work” Pollack writes: “The Danish Royal Opera launched the work’s European premiere - as Porgy og Bess - in a Danish translation by Holger Bech, Opening at the King’s Theater on March 27, 1943, in Nazi-occupied Copenhagen…[featuring an] all white cast (in dark makeup.)”
As the summer of 2013 approaches some of the images of African Americans on television and other popular media to which our children and those who are not part of our culture are exposed continue to misrepresent. Here in Canada we face a similar problem because we are inundated with American television and African Canadians are viewed by those who hold power (and can come crashing through our doors at anytime armed to the teeth) and even ordinary citizens in the same way as they view African Americans. The images are that powerful! The stereotypes that are in the media do untold harm and we need to counter them by educating ourselves and our children about who we really are. Caribana comes to mind as the city launches its cash cow festival created by Caribbean people and now owned by others where our culture provides millions each year for everyone except us while the culture is steadily being misrepresented!! However like the lyrics of the song “Summertime” we know that one of these mornings we will rise up singing and spread our wings to the sky because we have always overcome.

Sunday, June 16, 2013


This year Father’s Day falls on Sunday, June 16 and some people have already bought gifts for their father or father figure. Some people are planning to buy something special for the old guy, while others are planning a special celebration on June 16. Still others are planning to send Dad on a cruise or doing whatever they can afford to show their appreciation for that man who was there for them during the growing up years. Of course if Dad is a young father then most likely the children get help from Mom to plan something for that special man in their lives.
Leading up to Father’s Day many children make something during class time to present to Dad on his special day. However not all students will be engaged in the annual Father’s Day craft making for various reasons. There is one school in Dartmouth Nova Scotia which has come under fire recently for cancelling Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. Astral Drive Elementary School staff made the decision last year to cancel Mother’s Day and Father’s Day and replace the two days with a designated day in the middle of May which has been dubbed Family Day. On Family Day the students at Astral Drive Elementary School make crafts to honour/recognize a parental figure of their choice. The staff apparently made this decision “in an attempt to avoid isolating children whose families do not adhere to the traditional mother-father model.” A group of parents who apparently forgot to protest about the school’s cancellation of Mother’s Day seem to be determined that Father’s Day will be recognized. These parents have gone door to door in their neighbourhood with a petition to restore the school’s recognition of Father’s Day for 2013. The parents will not get their wish because the province’s Minister of Education said she: “defers to teachers’ and principals’ knowledge of their school communities” and the Halifax Regional School Board has no plans to overrule the decision made by school staff. This in spite of the fact that there have been allegations from staff that they have experienced threatening behaviour from some parents. Don’t mess with the Canadian culture!
Canadians are not the only people who are thinking about Father’s Day. It seems the issue of fathers and their importance in the lives of children were on American President Barack Obama’s mind when he gave his convocation speech at Morehouse College on May 19. Morehouse College is one of the existing 115 Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) which were founded to offer African Americans the opportunity to obtain post secondary education during the dark days of American segregation. Morehouse College is the most prestigious all male institution of higher learning which has been educating African American men for more than 145 years established in February 1867 just two years after the end of America’s Civil War. Morehouse boasts such prominent alumni as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., author Lerone Bennett Jr., actor Samuel L. Jackson and Robert E. Johnson founder of Ebony and Jet Magazines. There were some people who were a little puzzled by President Obama’s need to include African American absentee fathers while addressing the 2013 graduation class of the prestigious post secondary African American institution. Inquiring minds wanted to know if this was a usual topic in commencement addresses at White institutions of higher learning. After all these young African American men are considered the cream of the crop and encouragement to go forth and multiply responsibly seemed a little out of place. Encouragement and advice about seeking political office, furthering their education or seeking mentors and role models in captains of industry and successful entrepreneurs would seem more in keeping when addressing these bright young African American minds. However there must have been some reason why the leader of the free world felt that he needed to address the issue of fatherlessness with the 2013 graduating class of the prestigious Morehouse College. Maybe when the President Of The United States (POTUS) saw all that melanin facing him as he stood at the podium he was overwhelmed with memories of Barack Hussein Obama Snr., who abandoned the young Obama and his mother when he was only two years old. As the adult Obama wrote in his 1995 published book “Dreams From My Father: A Story Of Race And Inheritance” about the father he could only remember meeting when he was 10 years old: “At the time of his death, my father remained a myth to me, both more and less than a man. He had left Hawaii back in 1963, when I was only two years old, so that as a child I knew him only through the stories that my mother and grandparents told. They all had their favorites, each one seamless, burnished smooth from repeated use.” Since the republishing of the book in 2004 the world has heard and or read of the absent African father who left the future President of America to be raised by his mother and maternal grandparents. In his commencement address on May 19 at Morehouse College the President once again reminded us of that absent father: “I was raised by a heroic single mother and wonderful grandparents who made incredible sacrifices for me. But I still wish I had a father who was not only present, but involved. And so my whole life, I’ve tried to be for Michelle and my girls what my father wasn’t for my mother and me.” And the President has done a wonderful job in that role. If the senior Obama was around he would surely have had to hang his head in shame.
I am sure that if the President had more time to talk he would have mentioned that not every African American father who is absent from his children’s life chooses to do so. I am sure he would have pointed out that many absent African American fathers are not as fortunate as he is to have escaped the systemic racism that robs so many of them of the opportunity to access post-secondary education and a six figure income or even an income. He would surely have mentioned the resulting poverty and other social ills that haunt countless African American men who are over policed and under surveillance leading to what many have labelled the “school to prison pipeline.” I am sure he would have mentioned the high rate of arrests and incarceration of African American men making them absent from children’s lives. As the leader of the nation he must be privy to the statistics that are readily available to the ordinary person. According to a quote in an article ( written by John Tierney and published in the New York Times, February 13, 2013: ““Prison has become the new poverty trap,” said Bruce Western, a Harvard sociologist. “It has become a routine event for poor African-American men and their families, creating an enduring disadvantage at the very bottom of American society.” Among African-Americans who have grown up during the era of mass incarceration, one in four has had a parent locked up at some point during childhood. For black men in their 20s and early 30s without a high school diploma, the incarceration rate is so high — nearly 40 percent nationwide — that they’re more likely to be behind bars than to have a job.” This would surely have been brought to the President’s attention before he made his commencement speech. Also the President surely would have mentioned if he had the time that “Breathing while Black” has led to the murder of countless African American men by police and White civilians thus adding to fatherlessness in the community. Some like 17 year old Trayvon Martin will never even have the opportunity to become a father but I digress because the President was speaking about fatherlessness in the African American community. If he had the time he would surely have talked about the inter-generational and intra-generational trauma of being born an African American male. A trauma that has existed in the lives of African Americans since the first African was enslaved in America, a trauma that has never been addressed but just passed down from generation to generation with the hurt, shame and guilt that is never addressed but leads to the swagger to appear tough especially for those who live in low income and overpoliced neighbourhoods. However the President only had half an hour and it was raining so he probably only gave half of the speech he had planned.
Fathers like mothers are important in the lives of their children but for various reasons some fathers are absent from their children’s lives. Singling out and blaming an entire community of fathers for fatherlessness is counterproductive. Men who did not have role models sometimes need help when they themselves become fathers. The African proverb “It takes a village to raise a child” comes to mind in such situations. There are organizations in Toronto where young and not so young men get support in their parenting skills and encouragement to remain actively involved in their children’s lives. “Black Daddies Club” founded in 2007 and “Young and Potential Fathers” founded in 2011work with African Canadian men who are fathers or potential fathers. Support for these organizations rather than harping on fatherlessness is productive. On Father’s Day, June 16, we need to recognize and celebrate the fathers, father figures and those heroic women who are doing double duty as father and mother.


On Sunday, June 16, when many fathers will be spending quality time with their children there is at least one father who will be remembering his child by looking at photographs and videos. This father will be thinking about the son who was killed by a man who will be going on trial later this month on a charge of second degree murder. Getting to this point where hopefully justice will be served for the killing of his son has not been easy for bereaved father Tracy Martin.
On Sunday, February 26, 2012 an unarmed African American male child was shot and killed by a White man in Sanford, Florida. Trayvon Benjamin Martin (February 5, 1995-February 26, 2012) had celebrated his 17th birthday just 20 days before he was killed by George Zimmerman on that fateful Sunday night. The 17 year old Martin had gone to a store in the neighbourhood to buy a snack and was on his way back to the home where he was visiting with his father when he was accosted by the gun wielding Zimmerman. This African American male child according to Zimmerman “looked suspicious” because he was walking in the neighbourhood. Zimmerman was a volunteer with Neighbourhood Watch and was patrolling the neighbourhood in that capacity when he called police to report the “suspicious” African American male walking in the neighbourhood. The police dispatcher advised Zimmerman to remain in his vehicle and not follow the “suspicious” person he reported seeing. Zimmerman choose to leave his vehicle and stalk the 17 year old Martin through the neighbourhood eventually accosting and killing the child who was carrying a can of iced tea and some candy. Zimmerman fired the fatal shot and killed the unarmed 17 year old African American male child when he was just 70 yards (64 metres) away from the backdoor of the home he was visiting. Tracy Martin, Trayvon Martin’s father was visiting a friend in the gated community and was waiting for his child to return from buying a snack at a neighbourhood convenience store. Imagine the shock this father must have experienced when he had to view his child’s lifeless body instead.
The second degree murder trial of George Zimmerman is expected to begin sometime this month in Florida. On Monday, June 10 jury selection began with an expected 500 potential jurors to interview with the unenviable task of whittling that number down to select 6 jurors and 4 alternates. This jury selection is expected to be tense given the media attention that the killing of the unarmed teenager has garnered. Although it was shocking to hear and read that an unarmed person carrying a can of iced tea and some candy was shot and killed it was not surprising when it was revealed that the victim was African American. African American men are seen as dispensable by White Americans and there is hardly any concern expressed when they are killed especially if the killer is White. Just a few days before Martin was killed by Zimmerman, on February 2, 2012, Richard Haste a White New York City policeman chased 18 year old African American male Ramarley Graham into the bathroom of his home and shot him at close range killing him in the presence of his grandmother. The woman overcome with shock and grief at seeing her grandson blown away before her eyes was threatened with death by Haste.
The term “Breathing While Black” has been coined to explain ( this state of affairs. On February 26, 2012 the night that he killed the 17 year old Martin, Zimmerman claimed that he did so in self-defense and even invoked Florida’s infamous “Stand Your Ground” law as justification for ending the life of the unarmed African American teenager. Florida's 2005 “Stand Your Ground” law was reportedly written by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the National Rifle Association (NRA) two organizations that have worked together to introduce and promote the “Stand Your Ground” law in several state legislatures. Since the 2005 passage of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law similar statutes have been passed in several other states. The law states that: “A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force, if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.”
This law in essence gives people like Zimmerman the authority to stalk and kill any unarmed African American and claim that they thought the person intended to do them bodily harm simply because of the colour of their skin. This example of White skin privilege has been a part of American society since the first boatload of refugees arrived from Europe and claimed the land that was already occupied by people who had lived there for millennia. The practice continued unchecked when the refugees after claiming Native land decided to kidnap Africans from the African continent and transport them to the New World as enslaved people who were forced to provide unpaid labour and robbed of their human rights.
It seems Zimmerman thought he was back in the days of slavery when any enslaved African accosted by a White person was compelled to obey instructions to halt and await orders. After reportedly trailing the teenager he demanded that he explain why he was walking in the community. Zimmerman seemed to think that just being African American was reason to suspect Martin of being a criminal. Several witnesses have said that they heard Martin screaming for help as he was shot by Zimmerman. This vigilante throwback to the infamous patrollers of American slavery era was a neighbourhood watch volunteer in the community acting as if he was a storm trooper in the Nazi “Schutz-Staffel” (SS.) He certainly had an inflated sense of his position and “authority” in the community which he seemed to think gave him the right to shoot and kill an unarmed teenager.
The killing of Ramarley Graham and Trayvon Martin are not isolated incidents there is a history of White violence against African Americans. As in Canada it is a result of a White supremacist culture where African Americans and African Canadians are over policed and racially profiled routinely with excuses made by the authorities and even by ordinary citizens. Very recently there have been examples of this reported in the daily White Canadian newspapers. Dr. Clem Marshall an African Canadian educator won a Human Rights victory when his complaint of racial profiling by Toronto police was proven and he received a settlement from the Toronto Police Services Board. There was also the case of Raymond Costain an African Canadian man who was brutalized by police causing the judge who presided over the case to remark: “This was unlawful, extrajudicial punishment that will shock the public.” In spite of the evidence to the contrary there continues this denial of White supremacist practices in North America.
Even after Zimmerman was found standing over Martin’s body with the smoking gun police did not charge the man. It was only after a public outcry and several demonstrations calling for his arrest that police arrested the man and charged him. Now it is a waiting game to see if justice will be served. Whatever the outcome of this trial there is a father who will not be spending this Father’s Day or any other with his son. Instead he will have to sit through the trial of the man who killed his son and hope that the judge and jurors will deliver justice for his child’s untimely passing at the hands of a White man who obviously thought “Breathing While Black” is a crime.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013


On Sunday June 4, 1972 Angela Yvonne Davis a 28 year old (born January 26, 1944) African American woman was found not guilty of criminal conspiracy, kidnapping and murder after a 14-week trial. Davis a former professor of philosophy at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA,) had been charged with conspiracy for murder and kidnapping in the 1970 death of a judge in Marin County. She had been hounded by the American government through the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and its sinister offshoot Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) for months before she was captured on October 13, 1970.
Angela Davis first made national news in 1969 when then California Republican governor, Ronald Reagan (later US President) began his campaign to end her professorship at (UCLA.) At the time Reagan claimed that his antagonism and spite towards Davis was because she had identified herself as a communist. On June 19, 1970, Reagan issued this statement: "This memorandum is to inform everyone that, through extensive court cases and rebuttals, Angela Davis, Professor of Philosophy, will no longer be a part of the UCLA staff. As the head of the Board of Regents, I, nor the board, will not tolerate any Communist activities at any state institution. Communists are an endangerment to this wonderful system of government that we all share and are proud of." At that time Davis was also active in several African American organizations including the Black Panther Party which were targets of the American government and under constant surveillance and threats through the FBI. The FBI had harassed and targeted generations of African Americans before the 1970s including the Honourable Marcus Mosiah Garvey and his United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in the 1920s. It seems that the American government was determined to destroy any individual or organization which sought to lift African Americans out of the slave mentality to which they had been relegated (brainwashed) since the first African had been taken to America chained in a slave ship.
Davis became an international symbol of African American revolution in the 1970s. During the two months (August 16 – October 13, 1970) that Davis was being hunted as a fugitive she was also placed on the list of Ten Most Wanted Fugitives of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI.) She unlike many African American academics of the time was involved in organizations like the Black Panther Party which struggled and sacrificed to bring about economic, social, and political equity. All racialized people and even White people (whether or not they choose to recognize this) in the USA have benefited from the work and sacrifices of revolutionary African American organizations and individuals.
In early 1970, Davis helped organize the Soledad Brothers Defense Committee to free the "Soledad Brothers" from the Soledad Prison in California. Davis eventually became the leader of the movement to free the “Soledad Brothers.” The three African American men who became known as the "Soledad Brothers" (John Clutchette, Fleeta Drumgo and George Jackson) were accused of killing a Soledad Prison guard. It was widely held that Clutchette, Drumgo and Jackson were charged with murder not because there was any substantial evidence of their guilt but because they had been previously identified as African American militants by the prison authorities. Jackson was a member of the Black Panther Party. If convicted the three men would face a mandatory death penalty under the California penal code. The plight of the “Soledad Brothers” received international attention especially from Pan-Africanists including Guyanese historian Walter Rodney who wrote in November 1971 after George Jackson was killed by prison guards in San Quentin Prison (August 21, 1971): “To most readers in this continent, starved of authentic information by the imperialist news agencies, the name of George Jackson is either unfamiliar or just a name. George Jackson was jailed ostensibly for stealing 70 dollars. He was given a sentence of one year to life because he was black, and he was kept incarcerated for years under the most dehumanizing conditions because he discovered that blackness need not be a badge of servility but rather could be a banner for uncompromising revolutionary struggle. He was murdered because he was doing too much to pass this attitude on to fellow prisoners. George Jackson was a political prisoner and a black freedom fighter. He died at the hands of the enemy.” On August 7, 1970, George Jackson's 17 year-old brother Jonathan Jackson in a bid to secure the freedom of the "Soledad Brothers" freed three San Quentin prisoners and took hostage a Superior Court Judge, a Deputy District Attorney and three jurors in a courtroom at the Marin County Civic Center. During police intervention Jackson, the judge and two of the prisoners were killed. Davis was implicated when it was discovered that guns registered in her name were used by the 17 year old Jackson. Davis did not deny that she owned several guns but shared during her trial that it was a holdover from her childhood growing up on “Dynamite Hill, Birmingham” where as she explained: “My father had to keep guns because he was afraid that he would be the next target of racial violence.”
On March 27, 1972 Davis made her opening defense statement in the Santa Clara County Superior Courthouse, California. Superior court judge Richard E. Arnason presided and the prosecutor was Assistant Attorney General Albert W. Harris Jr. Harris had earlier outlined his case to the all White jury promising them evidence to prove that Davis was involved in a criminal conspiracy and that the weapons used in an alleged courthouse shoot out and attempted kidnapping in Marin County, California two years before (August 7, 1970) had been purchased by Davis. In her one hour and 20 minutes defense statement she argued that the case was based on "a network of false assumptions."
During the months of incarceration and eventual trial Davis became an international symbol of resistance. She was seen as a proud African American woman under political siege in the USA. With the image of Davis’ fist clenched defiantly, raised above her six inch Afro her story captured international attention. By the time she was acquitted of all charges on June 4th 1972 Davis had become a folk hero with the words “Free Angela Davis” a slogan in far flung places during a massive, worldwide movement formed to free Davis from jail.
In an article entitled “The Campaign to Free Angela Davis and Ruchell Magee” published in The New York Times on June 27, 1971, the writer Sol Stern wrote that there were “Free Angela” demonstrations internationally with reports that 2,500 women in Sri Lanka held a 3 day vigil in front of the American embassy. He also wrote that the committee formed to handle the campaign to free Angela Davis received: “A telegram demanding Angela's freedom signed by the entire cast and crew of the film "Z," including Yves Montand, Simone Signoret, director Costa Gavras and composer Mikis Theodorakis.” He quoted Rob Baker the publicity director of the campaign: "We have received 100,000 pieces of mail from East Germany alone. They're lying around in hundreds of mail bags unopened-- because we don't have a big enough staff to do the work."While watching the documentary “Free Angela Davis and All Political Prisoners” last year I have to admit that some people in the audience were not amused when I cheered loudly at the sight of a group of women in Guyana demonstrating while holding a “Free Angela Davis” banner.
Forty one years after her acquittal the documentary (“Free Angela Davis and All Political Prisoners” released 2012) about the work that catapulted Davis to international recognition was seen by many who had never heard of Angela Davis or just knew her as a symbol of Afro-wearing African American women. These were comments I heard from some seemingly “aware” African Canadians. However I do recognize that we are all at different places of being “aware” of our history, our heroes and sheroes. The important thing is that we remain open to learning by listening and reading. Davis continues to advocate on behalf of political prisoners and as recently as May 3, was speaking out against the American government’s ( $2 million bounty on the head of Assata Shakur.