Somebody Has To Say It…

September 28, 2008

A Dream Destroyed (A moment of self-evaluation)

This post is not about politics, although it involves an issue of which our politicians are certainly aware, and with which they should be concerned.

This post is not about race, although the young man of whom I am writing is in a situation that is tragically and disproportionately prevalent among young Black men in these United States of America.

This post is not about strange haircuts, clueless governors, idealistic constituents, or any other sometimes interesting things I like to write about.

This post is about life, decisions, and the question each of us should ask at some point in our lives– “Could I have done more?”

Three years and two months ago, a young man walked into my classroom. What became clear to me over the next few days was that very little had ever been expected of him academically, and as would be expected, he had come to accept that sentiment. He was in the 12th grade, not quite 18 years of age, and quite frankly, not really expecting to graduate. He lived with his mother and stepfather, and his biological father (and namesake) was also close by, yet this young Black man had never been able to connect with a male role model in any substantial way until he met me. I don’t profess to having done anything extraordinary except what I’ve always done, which is to not prejudge anyone, especially if they fall under my authority. I also wouldn’t accept lack of effort, especially from young Black men who already faced a shaky future, and this young man was not going to be an exception.

As the year went on, he confided in me more and more. I learned about his family life, the personal struggles he had with other students, his belief that his temper “could not be controlled,” and his rationale for “not dating my own kind.” He often told me that he couldn’t date a Black girl because they didn’t know how to shut up, and given his aforementioned temper, such relationships would never work. I must note that he also admitted that he’d never dated a Black girl, nor had he even asked one out, but he was adamant that his reasoning was sound.

One of our graduation requirements was an extended research and career-interest project, and a major reason that this young man had gravitated to me was that he found out that I was a musician, and he loved to sing. In fact, I heard him one day and realized he was truly talented– no formal training of any kind, but a remarkable ear and passionate style. He had asked the Minister of Music at his church to be his mentor for the project (a requirement), but even after saying “yes,” that Black man refused to make himself available, and ultimately, had my student in danger of not completing the project. So he turned to me, literally in tears (it was not the first time this young Black man had cried on campus, and would not be the last) for help, and although as a teacher I normally would not be a student’s mentor, the proximity to the deadline justified my decision to assist. For the next two weeks we worked diligently, and for what he said was the first time in his academic career, he received an “A” on his final presentation.

We have a baccalaureate service at our school, and the Senior Class President (the first and only Black student to hold that position at our school) asked me to help with the program, as he really wanted it to be more diverse than previous ones. I had two other Black students (both female) whom I knew had beautiful singing voices. Like the young man, they had never sang publicly for the school, and I saw this as an opportunity to show the school that there was other talent around, not just the students in chorus and drama. So I wrote a song, possibly the most beautiful lyrics I’ve ever written, entitled “Because God Said I Can.” I brought the three of them together, and when they performed that song during the baccalaureate service, it was as emotional as I’d imagined it would be. The young man sang the bridge, including a powerful modulation, and I could see the amazement in his classmates’ eyes as they watched him, his eyes closed as he sang in the utmost sincerity.

The next night was graduation, and I was so proud to see him cross the stage. Afterwards, his mother and grandmother came up to me (I’ve never met his stepfather or father) and thanked me again (they had hugged me the night before) for believing in him, working with him, and being there when he needed someone.

And then the school year was over.

I’ve seen him twice since then, both times a chance meeting in a store. He’d had some ups and some downs, but seemed to be finding his way like so many young Black men do. Each time I told him that I would keep up with him, and to call if he ever needed me, but as we tend to do, I moved on to the next group of students, and the next.

Last week, another student told me that the young man had been sentenced. I didn’t even know that he’d been in trouble. He received an 8-year prison sentence (with credit for about 10 months served). I won’t detail what he did, but it was a shock to my system. Yesterday, I decided to do some research, and I quickly found his picture, sentencing information, and crime on the Department of Corrections website. I was devastated to learn that the date of his crime was early May of 2005– when he was still my student. I sat for nearly an hour with his image on my computer screen. I thought about the conversations we’d had, the advice I’d given, my constant admonitions to never give up and to never sell himself short, and how wonderfully proud he, his mother, and grandmother looked on those two nights, as he sang his heart out, and when he stood proudly clutching his diploma. I thought about the two times I had seen him since, and how I’d seen in his eyes the almost desperate look so many young Black men have as they fight that uphill battle to make it in these United States of America.

He lost the battle, maybe and prayerfully not permanently, but for now, he lost the battle. I taught him about literature, I taught him about life. As all teachers know, eventually it was time to move to the next year’s class, and the next young Black man looking desperately for answers. I feel good, I believe justifiably, about the work I do, and the influence I have with my students, and I realize that I could not and realistically would not be expected to hold a grown man’s hand. We teach, we nurture, we console, we listen, and we empathize and sympathize in ways that most people will never know.  But eventually, I and the students must move on. I realize that, I understand that, and as much as I care, I must accept that.

But as I sit here typing, I keep asking myself “Could I have done more?”


August 8, 2008

Change We’d Better Believe In

Mayor Corey Booker (Newark), Rep. Artur Davis (D-AL), Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick (Detroit), Senator Barack Obama (The Man Who Would Be POTUS)

From top left (clockwise): Mayor Corey Booker (Newark), Rep. Artur Davis (D-AL), Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick (Detroit), Senator Barack Obama (The Man Who Would Be POTUS)


One of these things is not like the others,
One of these things just doesn’t belong,
Can you tell which thing is not like the others,
By the time I finish my song?

Ah, the sweet, innocent days of childhood, when we would run and play and not be concerned with grown folks’ problems. Every now and then – and I know I’m not the only one– I long to return to the time when my mistakes resulted in a loving butt whoopin’, and not the lead story on CNN. Of course, I know I can’t go back to those days, and even though I’m not really, really high profile, like, say, mayor of the 11th largest city in the United States of America, I realized long ago that to whom much is given, much is required. Wait– let’s put that a different way: “If you don’t want me to go there, don’t take me there.”

Kwame, Kwame, Kwame…what in the deepest corner of Hades is wrong with you? Eight  Nine Jeez, 10 felony counts! Your Wiki entry reads like something from a Death Row Records wannabe, but then, maybe that’s part of the problem. You come from distinguished political genes, and from all I’ve seen and read, have had the potential for an extraordinary career in public service. Given your pedigree and parents’ connections, “Senator Kwame Kilpatrick (D-MI)” was well within the realm of possibility. But, and maybe I’m being superficial here, when I look at your pictures, something is amiss. I know, clothes don’t make the man, but let’s deal with reality here– in this American game, especially the variation they call politics, image is everything. If you want to be the next CEO of DefJam, then slap on the cream-colored double-breasted zoot suit with the white Fedora and have at it. But if you want to be the next force within American politics, you should look like you’re about business, and not like a four letter word that rhymes with limp. 

When you know better, you do better, and I refuse to believe that you don’t know better. Now at least one person is going to say “Why should he have to change his ways just to play their game?” Well, there’s your answer– it’s not our game, and if we want to have any chance at winning, we’d better learn how to play it better than them, but with a whole lot less margin for error.  Your substance may be there, but perspective is at least 110% of reality– You may love your twists, you may not want to cut your twists, but trust me on this– when you don’t get that job you know you’re qualified for, bro’, it’s because of the twists. I wrote a line in a song a couple of weeks ago that said “I know you think this life ain’t fair, but cryin’ never made nobody care.” Catch my drift? Good…Now go cut your hair and start acting like a grown man.

Kwame, when all is said and done, I sincerely hope you can prove your innocence. But no matter what, it would behoove the rest of us to pay close attention to this lesson, and remember: The most powerful revolutions happen from inside the organization.

August 4, 2008

They say a picture is worth a thousand words…

and I’m glad, ’cause there ain’t nearly enough words in our language to describe this:

What tha???!!!

What tha???!!!

That just looks freaky.

That just looks freaky.

Proof positive that we can trivialize anything.

August 12, 2007

Influence vs. Power

I was on another board,, and someone asked if Condaleeza Rice deserves a “pass” from Black people.  You know, we are amazingly quick to demand that other Black people look out for our interests and our interests only, no matter the position. Strangely, people like Condi Rice and Clarence Thomas are singled out as “sell outs” and “Uncle Toms” if their agenda doesn’t overtly jibe with whatever Black Americans are currently screaming for.

We are quick to compare them with Oprah, Bill, and Cornel, but that’s comparing apples and oranges, or in this case, influence and power. Oprah has influence, and a whole lot of it. If Oprah likes your book or your music, instantly millions of devotees run out to buy your book or music. Oprah runs a vast multimedia empire, and has enough money to do just about what she wants to. However, Oprah’s power is limited. A handshake from Oprah doesn’t signal an armistice; Oprah’s signature doesn’t indicate the United State’s agreement to lift trade sanctions; Oprah’s mere presence doesn’t indicate the U.S’s tacit approval of a regime.  No, that’s power.

Bill Cosby also has lots of money, and as “America’s Dad” he wields tremendous influence both in and out of Hollywood. Bill is traveling around the country, visiting and speaking to Black people and advocating that we take responsibility for ourselves. Russell Simmons has a similar message. But Bill and Russell don’t make decisions that can radically define or alter the Constitutional framework of this country. Their opinions are just that–their opinions, not legal dissertations that may fundamentally change the very rights of millions of people.

Many people, especially in the Black community, automatically associate money with power (throw in respect and you’ve got yourself a song), but the reality is that money can lead to influence (if you have it, we want to know how you got it, and maybe we’ll listen to anything you say just so we can figure out how to get it too), but power is entrusted to a very few, and getting in that club is a lot more difficult than we are willing to admit. The two often overlap, but let’s be clear, they are separate and distinct measures.

Colin Powell had (emphasis, HAD) power, realized that it had been usurped for the Bush Aministration’s agenda, and he traded it in for influence. His presence no longer means what it did as Chairman of the JCS or Secretary of State, but it does mean something.  Barack Obama has limited power (he’s only 1 of 100 Senators), but rapidly increasing influence; however, his clear and unmistakable goal is to trade up for power. And yet, both of these men, accomplished as they might be, have their “Blackness” challenged on a daily basis.

To suggest that Condi needs a “pass” is a slap in the face to every Black person who has chosen education and hard work over pointless rhetoric and  free handouts, . Whether or not I agree with their political stances, I can, without reservation, point my children in their direction and say “Yes, it is possible.”  Funny, we don’t challenge Bob Johnson’s “Blackness,” even though he may have done more to destroy Black America than any other Black person alive. We don’t question Jesse Jackson’s “Blackness,” even though his agenda is, at best, questionable. We certainly don’t question the neighborhood drug dealer’s “Blackness,” and wow, I wonder what he’s doing to uplift our people?

The reality is that influence tends to be much longer lasting in our eyes than power, since it is less subject to political ramifications. But it is power, so rarely attained by Black people that most of us don’t truly understand its ramifications or requirements, that changes the world.

August 9, 2007

This is your brain…this is your brain after BET

Filed under: BET,Education,My thoughts — rricejr @ 9:42 pm

Last night, for the first time in at least 2 years, I watched BET for more than 10 minutes. In particular, I watched Hell Date, S.O.B, and that hallmark of shows, We Got To Do Better AKA Hot Ghetto Mess.

Everyone take a moment to sigh deeply, then we shall continue…

Hell Date really is funny, although the two midgets in devil costumes are downright moronic. Still, I found myself laughing as the actors continued to ratchet up their performances from slightly strange, to kind of weird, and finally to downright public insanity. In the end, everyone is let in on the joke and no harm is done.

S.O.B., like it’s host D.L. Hughley, has some pretty outrageous performances, but his commentary is so heavy handed and preachy that the show loses all appeal. Here’s the deal: if you want to make statements about our wavering morality, especially when money is involved, you need to do so without cliched comedy sketches.

Now, that brings us to the heavily and widely panned We Got To Do Better. No matter what criticism you’ve heard of this show and no matter how strongly the wave of public opinion against it–it’s still not enough. That’s right, the English language probably does not contain enough words of condemnation to accurately describe this crap. Apparently, in their infinite bottom feeding wisdom, BET felt that simply changing the name (even though the imbecilic Charlie Murphy still calls it Hot Ghetto Mess in his commentary) and removing that incredibly insulting blackface would be enough to make this show palatable for those of us intelligent enough to know the difference. However, I’m guessing that someone in the Massa’s House (otherwise known as Viacom) called in that collection of Sambos who came up with this mess, then advised that they needed to tone down the comedic atmosphere (Charlie Murphy’s supposed to be a comedian, isn’t he?) lest they further offend the land. The result is insanely ignorant behavior, both intentional (viral videos) and unintentional (man on the street interviews), surrounded on both sides by Murphy waxing philosophically about our need to “read and study.”

Believe me, the irony is not lost. As Richard Prince points out (,
one reason why so many of our Black people can’t answer the most basic Black history questions is because they’re busy watching BET, which has never met a news show it wasn’t willing to cancel. Bob Johnson even justified cancelling those shows by emphasizing that the “E” stands for “entertainment” and “no one was watching.” Here’s a thought, if you really are concerned about the same things Bill Cosby is concerned about, try showing something other than booty shaking and fourth rate comedians.In slightly more than a week, I’ll get my next batch of students. Of the 460 or so that we expect in this year’s class, about 12 percent will be Black. Most of them will not be from disadvantaged homes. In fact, most will have two parents, unlimited internet access at home, access to books and museums, and no viable excuse for failure. Strangely enough, that won’t stop several of them from trying to give me one when they don’t score any higher on our state’s exam than kids in the lowest performing schools over in the hood.  But let’s make one thing crystal clear–until we all begin to make education a priority, and not just something to do in between texting and downloading, our kids will continue to do poorly in reading and math while excitedly rattling off this week’s top ten on 106th and Park.

You know, BET did get one thing right–We’ve certainly got to do better, and we can start by turning their hood rich butts off.

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