The Art of Interviewing Killer Cops and Other Whites on the Prowl

December 4, 2014

Dumb-assed George Stephanopoulos of ABC News interviewing Michael Brown murderer, former Officer Darren Wilson, November 25, 2014. (

Dumb-assed George Stephanopoulos of ABC News interviewing Michael Brown murderer, former Officer Darren Wilson, November 25, 2014. (

I think it would be interesting if I applied my qualitative research skills and did a sociohistorical study of the killer cops and White vigilantes who’ve gotten away or almost gotten away with murdering African Americans over the past few years. We know so much about Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Renisha McBride, Jordan Davis, Tamir Rice, John Crawford and Jonathan Ferrell, including their arrest records, their blood-alcohol levels, their drug use, even their family members’ criminal records, if any. The media always performs a pseudo-social science-y qualitative research study on Black and Latino victims and their families and friends, in search for the perfect victim, someone to justify the outrage and anguish over state-sanctioned, cold-blooded murder.

It’s time to flip the script. I’d conduct a group interview process, bringing in the cabal of murderers, alleged and convicted, for a two-hour-long sit down. I’d ask questions about their upbringing, about the influence of popular culture in their lives, about facing down dangerous criminals carrying cigarettes, Skittles and broken toy guns. Only, my overeducated Black ass wouldn’t make it to my first question. I’d get choke-held or shot the moment I’d reach in my book bag for my digital tape recorder, even if we were conducting the interview in a public place, like the Children’s Room at New York Public Library on West 41st and Fifth Avenue. So I’d have to find one of my privileged White colleagues to interview these men on my behalf.


Overseer Daniel Pantaleo, 2014. (

Overseer Daniel Pantaleo, 2014. (

Narrator: Today we have George Zimmerman, Daniel Pantaleo, Darren Wilson, Theodore Wafer, Michael Dunn, Tim Loehmann, David Darkow, Sean Williams and Randall Kerrick here to talk about what it takes to be a White man fighting hard to protect the world from unarmed African Americans.

Pantaleo: Shut da [expletive] up, dumb ass! Where’d ya earn that PhD, Harlem?

Dunn: Yeah, that’s telling him! I respect the law, too. Even if it has me in chains.

Narrator: Okay, everyone. We’re taping here, so wait for me to ask my questions, please.

Loehmann: I’ll give you two seconds to ask your questions. After that, I’m not promising you anything.

Narrator: My first question is about your backgrounds. Can any of you tell me how your background impacted your decision to become either a police officer or vigilante?

Wafer: I’m deeply offended by the idea that you’re calling me a vigilante. I was defending myself. I live in a bad neighborhood. I mean, who bangs on my [expletive] door at three in the morning? You come to my door that late at night, I put you in a body bag!

Zimmerman: Dude, I couldn’t agree with you more. But I wouldn’t wait. I’d hunt these assholes down first!

(Laughter rises up from group)

Darkow: I’m feeling you there, dude!

Wilson: You asked about our background. I grew up as part of a hunting and fishing family. My old man took us out to take down elk and deer every year. It made me a good shot. I could shoot a doe in the head from fifty yards away.

(Group breaks out in laughter again)

Narrator: So, Mr. Wilson, are you saying that when you shot at Michael Brown, you saw him the same way you see a young female deer?

Wilson: Uh, absolutely not. As I said in my report, the perp was like Donkey Kong, like Hulk Hogan, angry, unresponsive and dangerous, more like a giant bear than a doe.

Pantaleo: Man, it’s all right to say it, because I’m thinking it, too. These [expletive] n—-s are dangerous — they all need to be put down!

Narrator: Why’s that, Mr. Pantaleo? Would you say–

Williams: Will you listen to this egghead? Questioning how we do our jobs. Like that guy in Godfather said, n—-s are animals! We have to control them, so that they only destroy themselves!

(Dunn and Wafer raise their hands to show their handcuffs)

Zimmerman (to Dunn and Wafer): Y’all were just stupid enough to get caught snorting and drinking after you defended yourselves!

(Group breaks out in laughter again)

Narrator: Mr. Pantaleo, what about your background?

Pantaleo: The best training I had for the NYPD was from Tarzan and Wild Kingdom. I learned my hand-to-hand fighting skills from them. Also, WWE prepared me good, too.

Narrator: So, when you put Eric Garner in a choke-hold—

Pantaleo: It was like taking down a bull or buffalo! My heart was pumping so hard, I could feel the blood flowing inside my head! That fool should had just fallen to the ground so I could cuff his Black ass!

Wilson: And that’s what these suspects don’t get. When they see us coming, don’t walk, don’t run, don’t grab for anything, don’t hold your hands up. Lay down like you’re dead, and we won’t have to put you down.

Narrator: Mr. Kerrick, you haven’t joined the conversation yet. Do you have anything to add?

Kerrick: Just that my case is still pending. I can’t talk about it much.

Narrator: You shot and killed Jonathan Ferrell, correct?

Kerrick: I can’t talk about that. I–

Zimmerman: Dude, you got a raw deal!

Pantaleo: You should work for the NYPD. Police never get indicted for going hunting here!

(Group breaks out in laughter again)


Bryan Cranston as Walter White, Breaking Bad, Season 4, 2013, "I am the danger!" (not the only White as danger, either). (

Bryan Cranston as Walter White, Breaking Bad, Season 4, 2013, “I am the danger!” (not the only White as danger, either). (

On second thought, maybe we don’t need to apply social science thinking to these White men (in thought, if not entirely in genetics). We have a century’s worth of studies of White supremacy and systemic racism already, showing that vile men grow out of a vile system.

Caught Between Rage and a Working Faith

August 21, 2014

"Officer Go Fuck Yourself" aiming rifle at protestors and journalists, Ferguson, MO, August 19, 2014. (

“Officer Go Fuck Yourself” aiming rifle at protestors and journalists, Ferguson, MO, August 19, 2014. (

After the events of the past month — between Eric Garner and the NYPD, Michael Brown and the Ferguson, Missouri PD — I find myself of two minds. My primal mind says, “Fuck the fucking police!” Resist with rocks, with bricks, with bombs and grenades. Go buy a composite bow with composite arrows. Go buy a rifle with a scope, and take out as many of these motherfuckers as I can. Maybe they’ll think twice about putting someone like me in a choke-hold or shooting us with our hands up if they knew we could organize ourselves into vigilante groups, well armed and well adept at escape and stealth, ready to put the likes of Sunil Dutta out of their racist-ass misery!

Eric Garner in midst of dying from choke-hold via NYPD's finest, Daniel Pantaleo and (not pictured)  and Justin Damico, Staten Island, NY, July 17, 2014. (

Eric Garner in midst of dying from choke-hold via NYPD’s finest, Daniel Pantaleo and (not pictured) and Justin Damico, Staten Island, NY, July 17, 2014. (

The mind I live in and with every day, though, puts the kibosh on such evil yet well deserved plans of action. Because in light of so much police harassment, brutality and state-sanctioned murders, to say that this shouldn’t be a response belies everything all of us know about human nature. Yet my mind says, “No. This isn’t the way to fight. You’re a writer. You’re a teacher. You’re a believer. Use your tools!” So I pray, I always pray, for people to seek and find the light, to forgive and be forgiven, for peace.

But as the New Testament in James says, “Faith without works is dead” (look that one up, evangelical Christians committed to White privilege!). None of us can hope to change our own lives — much less something as intractable as structural and institutional racism — on prayer and faith in God, the federal government and/or science alone. We have to do, too. In my case, writing and teaching is what I do. Posting to my blog about the palpable rage that I know exists within me and many others who have faced brutality because of racism, misogyny, poverty, homophobia, Whiteness and fear. Teaching about “the physical and psychological wages of Whiteness” (thanks, W.E.B. Du Bois via Black Reconstruction [1935]). Being part of the social media crowd demanding humanity and justice for Michael Brown. This is who I am and what I do.

Me the Evil Blogger at home, Silver Spring, MD, August 1, 2010. (Donald Earl Collins).

Me the Evil Blogger at home, Silver Spring, MD, August 1, 2010. (Donald Earl Collins).

Is it enough to assuage my rage, my guilt for not being able to do more? Yes, most of the time. But I have to remind the perfectionist that remains within me, I can’t do much, but I can do something. And, that this isn’t about me, even with as much as I’ve experienced in racial profiling and abuse of power, at home and with police. It’s about all of us. So, if I do buy a composite bow with arrows, I will train to use it well. Just not on other humans, no matter how reprehensible.

Corporations, Dogs, and a Possible Civil Rights Future

July 2, 2014

Matt Wuerker, Corporate Money/Vote Here, January 2010. ( Qualifies as fair use -- low resolution, related to subject matter of this blog post.

Matt Wuerker, Corporate Money/Vote Here, January 2010. ( Qualifies as fair use — low resolution, related to subject matter of this blog post.

It finally happened. After twenty-two attempts between the 117th and the 118th Congress, and a short ratification process, the US Constitution finally has a Twenty-Eight Amendment. For the first time, more than two million corporations with headquarters within America’s borders have citizenship rights, including the right to vote. Despite widespread opposition from Democrats and independent progressives, thirty-eight states ratified the amendment in record time, 72 days. The Twenty-Sixth Amendment — the one lowering the national voting age from 21 to 18 — had held the previous record of 100 days, as three-fourths of the states had ratified it in 1971.

President Michael Bloomberg signed the bill this morning in a well-attended Rose Garden ceremony. With such luminaries as Mark Cuban, Bill Gates and David Koch present, the President said, “This is a great victory of American democracy, ensuring its preservation for future generations.” House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), also present at the ceremony, said, “The American people finally have a democracy that represents us all, one that will stabilize our government and our economic way of life.”

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, City Hall, January 27, 2005. (

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, City Hall, January 27, 2005. (

What President Bloomberg and Speaker Ryan didn’t say was that this was the most expensive constitutional amendment campaign in the nation’s history. The Walton family, the Koch Brothers and NBC Universal Comcast-Time-Warner alone spent almost $1 billion in saturating the Internet and airwaves with ads in support of the amendment between mid April and the end of June, according to the Toronto Star. Independent watchdog groups, including the United Nations Department of Political Affairs, put the total amount at $2.2 billion, with much of the money going directly to state legislatures and much-needed infrastructural projects.

“When governments can only operate at the behest of corporations, you no longer have a democracy, you have a plutocracy,”  UN spokesperson Malala Yousafzai said at a press conference in New York this afternoon. “Only twenty percent of the US electorate participated in the ratification process,” Yousafzai said, corresponding roughly to the demographics of America’s rich and middle classes.

That this came on the same day as the 60th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was not lost on America’s public intelligentsia. “This is a shame that the America republic will have to live with for years to come — if there’s an American republic in the future,” Melissa Harris-Perry said in an interview on CBC Radio in Toronto.

This expansion of American democracy comes on the heels of a landmark US Supreme Court decision. Last week, in a 5-4 ruling, the majority decided PETA v. US in favor of the plaintiff, saying that for the first time, “dogs have a constitutional standing on par with persons.” Justice Samuel Alito wrote the court’s majority opinion, and Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a concurring opinion. What made the PETA decision truly historic was that Justice Thomas explained the court’s decision. “We have found, with the help of significant scientific evidence, that dogs are sentient beings, and thus, deserving of the same civil rights that we have all enjoyed in this country for decades. Although dogs today have not been granted the power of the ballot box, they, like my generation of black men and women, have come a long way in their fight for civil rights,” Justice Thomas said.

Co-founder and President of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals Ingrid Newkirk, and David Shankbone's dog Little Man, New York City, November 1, 2007. (David Shankbone via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via CC BY-SA 3.0, GFDL.

Co-founder and President of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals Ingrid Newkirk, and David Shankbone’s dog Little Man, New York City, November 1, 2007. (David Shankbone via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via CC BY-SA 3.0, GFDL.

The PETA decision overturned a lower court ruling, throwing out the case on the grounds that dogs aren’t human beings. PETA fought the lower court’s ruling based on the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. (2014) decision, where the Supreme Court had ruled that a corporate, non-living entity had personhood status because it represented people’s interests and values. This earlier ruling provided an opportunity for PETA to bring in scientific evidence that could elevate the status of dogs as a living entity representing people’s interests and values.

“Dogs everywhere will celebrate this victory, along with their caregivers,” Ingrid Newkirk, founder and president of PETA said last week from her home outside Norfolk, Virginia. “It is our hope that these personhood rights will protect dogs from abuse and neglect for now and for the future, giving them the same rights as a living human being,” Newkirk added. It helped that the Leona Helmsley Charitable Trust covered the estimated $20 million in legal fees and scientific studies for the PETA claim.

Former US Solicitor General Kamala Harris, who had presented the government’s case to the Supreme Court last December, said after last week’s decision, “with this court making a dog a person, this court has made a mockery of American jurisprudence for all time. What about the rights of racial minorities to a fair trial, of women to reproductive choice, of ordinary Americans to a living wage?” Harris resigned on Friday, June 28, just hours after the PETA ruling. President Bloomberg declined comment on Harris’ resignation.

Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson expressed the feelings of many Americans in opposition when he said, “The Star-Spangled Banner should be rewritten. It should be, ‘O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave, with corporations’ roaming free, and dogs over descendants of slaves!'”

WWMLKD (What Would Martin Luther King Do) – and Say Now?

August 5, 2013

"Return of the King" screenshot, Aaron McGruder's The Boondocks, originally aired, January 15, 2006. (Wikipedia). Qualifies as fair use due to picture's low resolution and direct subject of this blog post.

“Return of the King” screenshot, Aaron McGruder’s The Boondocks, originally aired, January 15, 2006. (Wikipedia). Qualifies as fair use due to picture’s low resolution and direct subject of this blog post.

Perhaps the most famous episode of Aaron’s McGruder’s award-winning series The Boondocks was his “Return of the King,” which originally aired on the Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday in ’06. In it, King survived his ’68 assassination and came out of a coma into an early twenty-first century America and Black America in which his style of activism was no longer in vogue.

Instead, in McGruder’s vision, King came to realize how generations of younger Blacks have become lost in their overt materialism, as symbolized by ass-shaking, hip-hop and rap culture, the constant use of “nigga” in public, and the self-aggrandizement of Black televangelists and other purveyors of the cult of prosperity. In response, McGruder’s King said, “I’ve seen what’s around the corner, I’ve seen what’s over the horizon, and I promise you, you niggas have nothing to celebrate! And no, I won’t get there with you. I’m going to Canada!”

McGruder’s attempt to address the generational and socioeconomic divide between the Civil Rights generation and the post-civil rights generations that have followed is a limited one. It certainly represents well the views of a Black elite nurtured at the altar of the Civil Rights Movement. But despite the hilarity and the double-meanings, I don’t think that The Boondocks‘ “Return of the King” episode is even close to a decent representative of what King would’ve been like had he lived to see the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington and his “I Have A Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial.

Extrapolating from King’s last years:

The best and easiest guess in thinking about what King would’ve said or done in the years between that dreaded first Thursday in April ’68 and today would be to look at was King was doing in the last months of his life. Openly protesting the Vietnam War and the oppression of the poor and of color in the US and abroad. Breaking with other civil rights leaders on the Vietnam War and issue of addressing the collusion between institutional racism, income inequality and anti-union efforts in Memphis, in Chicago and in other places in the US.

Memphis sanitation workers' strike/march under "I Am A Man" picket signs, Memphis, TN, March 29, 1968. (Ernest C. Withers via

Memphis sanitation workers’ strike/march under “I Am A Man” picket signs, Memphis, TN, March 29, 1968. (Ernest C. Withers via

Alienating a president in Lyndon Baines Johnson — the most radical support of civil rights and anti-poverty efforts of any president ever — was what King did in expanding his words and deeds beyond “I Have A Dream” and “We Shall Overcome” mobilizations to end segregation and overt racial discrimination. Moving beyond the grassroots movement paradigm of respectable Negroes (i.e., traditional church-going, middle and some working-class Blacks) to include Black men and women who weren’t relatively well-educated and in good jobs — like the sanitation workers in Memphis — was where King had already moved himself.

This is the King that would’ve evolved over the previous forty-five or so years had he lived. Based on this actual King, it would be a bit mystifying to hear him give speeches on, grant interviews for or write op-eds in which his main theme would be to eviscerate the American poor, Blacks and Latinos for buying into a material capitalistic hip-hop culture. Or to spend all of his waning moments lamenting the perpetual stereotype of teenage welfare mothers looking for a handout instead of a hand up. Or to devote his remaining energies to blaming Black males for their inability to wear waist-fitting pants and then connecting hip-hop to a criminal culture, a drug culture and general thuggery (That’s Bill Cosby’s and Don Lemon’s jobs, apparently).

Don Lemon, CNN picture, August 5, 2013. (

Don Lemon, CNN picture, August 5, 2013. (

King would’ve probably withdrawn from public life by now, maybe even to Canada, as McGruder’s version suggests. But not before an additional two or three decades in which he would’ve boldly gone after the military-industrial complex, corporate welfare, government corruption, the War on Drugs and insufficient investment in America’s public school and infrastructure. King would’ve seen all of them as factors that would have a negative impact on the life chances of the poor, especially poor African Americans.

Assessing blame – or not:

No doubt that King would’ve also found aspects of how Blacks have expressed themselves in pop culture and in the public sphere over the past four and half decades problematic. Yet based on the last years of his life, I think that he would’ve saved much of his ire for the aging Civil Rights generation for resting on their laurels and standing in judgment of younger Blacks, poor Blacks, or anyone else who didn’t follow directly in their now elitist footsteps. As King evolved in the four years, seven months and one week between the March on Washington and his assassination, so had his views of civil rights leadership. Well-meaning but pretentious, with the assumption that fixing the South would clear the way for Blacks of every socioeconomic strip everywhere.

What’s most important to realize, though, is that King, had he lived, would’ve seen what most Americans regardless of race have seen in their own lives. Decline in wealth and income, a gulf of a wealth between them and the top one-percent of income earners, a significant decline of well-paying union jobs replaced by minimum-wage non-union ones, rising unemployment, and expensive housing and healthcare. These are among so many other things that 240 to 270 million of us face on various levels that didn’t exist at the end of King’s life, things that disproportionately affect the poor, especially the poor and of color.

King and the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement:

The movement never evolved to address such issues, King would’ve said. Individuals did. Jesse Jackson, at least in the 1970s and 1980s, did. But the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement as a whole didn’t. They assumed that eliminating all forms of deliberate and overt discrimination in public institutions would bring down barriers for all African Americans. King would’ve said they were incorrect, and knew as much by the time of the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike in February and March ’68.

Unlevel playing field (soccer in this case), August 5, 2013. (

Unlevel playing field (soccer in this case), August 5, 2013. (

Despite the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (both of which have obviously been weakened by the Reagan Years and this year’s Supreme Court Shelby County v. Holder decision), the life chances for any Black person born into poverty haven’t improve much at all. They remain in segregated communities, despite the movement toward mixed housing. They send their kids to underfunded and overcrowded schools, despite the paternalistic efforts of the so-called education reform movement. Jobs that pay a living wage are few, and conditions that promote neighborhood stability are better but still rare.

To assume that Blacks a half-century removed from the March on Washington and King’s “I Have A Dream” speech would be eternally grateful for the triumphs of the Civil Rights Movement in the wake of subtle yet pervasive discrimination on the basis of both race and socioeconomic status is ludicrous. It would smack of the elitism in which those who benefited most from the movement have displayed over the years. I think King would’ve realized the same, certainly well before the turn of the twenty-first century.

That anyone poor and of color in particular can overcome such barriers to, say, earn a doctorate or write a book is something akin to a miracle. Or to become a professional athlete or a music artist, a bit more common, if stereotypical, for that matter. King would’ve seen this and brought an analysis to the legacy of civil rights that didn’t put the movement and its leaders on a pedestal or proclaim victory where defeat was obvious.

What King would’ve (maybe) done:

King wouldn’t have given speeches in the years after the height of the movement to Black Gen Xers where he would’ve said, “I’ve got mine. Now it’s time to get yours,” or blamed hip-hop culture for Black-on-Black crime. Instead, King would’ve listened, learned, facilitated and spoken without accusing those most vulnerable to discrimination of being the only ones at fault, if he would’ve faulted them at all. In terms of what he would’ve done beyond the attempt to form multiracial coalitions to fight for better conditions, it’s unclear. It would’ve been better than chest-thumping and belly aching, though.

The Falsehoods of a Civil Rights Movement Legacy

January 15, 2013

Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial statue, National Parks Service, Washington, DC, August 2, 2012. (NPS via Wikipedia). Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws, as this is a 2D picture of a 3D sculpture.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial statue, National Parks Service, Washington, DC, August 2, 2012. (NPS via Wikipedia). Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws, as this is a 2D picture of a 3D sculpture.

Well, it’s not officially Martin Luther King Day yet, but since Dr. King was actually born on January 15, 1929, better for me to talk about him today than next week. Especially with President Obama’s second inaugural going on at the same time. But what a legacy! Yet his generation of civil rights activists and righteous protesters have done as much harm to his legacy as have conservatives invoking his “I Have a Dream” speech every time they’re called out on their bigotry.

Yeah, that’s right, I said it! One of the benefits — if you want to call it that — of being born in ’69 is that I’ve witnessed the devolution of the Civil Rights Movement and its leaders and followers into a gauntlet of gatekeepers who expect everyone from my generation to start every sentence paying homage to their sacrifices. I have no problems with that, at least in theory. But the reality is that most folks from the Civil Rights generation — at least the successful ones — made few if any sacrifices for “the cause.” They were in the right place at the right time with the right education and managed to find jobs, careers and positions of influence while the least fortunate of us all saw few material or psychological benefits from Dr. King’s ultimate sacrifice.

I’ve already talked at length about Estelle Abel, a former Mount Vernon High School Science Department chair (see my posts “My Last Day” from June ’11 and “In-Abel-ed” from June ’12 for much more). Her soliloquy about sacrifice and the Civil Rights Movement was supposed to make me feel bad about letting Black Mount Vernon, New York down because I only graduated fourteenth in my class out of over five hundred students. There are others, former and current teachers, professors, librarians, politicians, writers, producers, editors, pastors, politicians, bosses and charlatans who’ve made a point to discuss their elitist notions of the Civil Rights Movement and generation with me.

Hundreds of thousands descended on Washington, DC's Lincoln Memorial August 28, 1963. (Marines' Photo via Wikipedia). In public domain.

Hundreds of thousands descend on Lincoln Memorial August 28, 1963. (Marines’ Photo via Wikipedia). In public domain.

But most — if not all — of these folks are wrong about their glorified view of the Movement and its legacy four and a half decades later. For college educated, middle class African Americans, life has gotten better, even with bigotry, glass ceilings, DWB, a less stable economy, and the conservative backlash that has gone on unabated since the three years before Dr. King’s assassination. For Blacks not as fortunate, almost nothing has changed, at least not for the better.

Some of it, to be sure (and to cut Bill Cosby some slack), is because of individual choices and poor decision-making. Folks, however, can rarely make decisions outside of their own context and circumstances — think outside of the box, in other words — without a significant amount of help. Poverty in all of its forms is just as grinding now as it was a half-century ago. To expect people from the generations since Dr. King to suddenly forget their poverty, abuse, neglect and exploitation and give praise to a generation where many but far from most made sacrifices for the Movement is ludicrous.

I’m certain that had Dr. King lived over the past forty-five years, he wouldn’t have stood by to allow his generation to constantly criticize the under-forty-five as slackers and immature and unfocused, as folks more concerned with money than equality. King likely would’ve made the point that the post-Civil Rights Generations X and Y are merely a reflection of their upbringing, of their parents and teachers and mentors’ nurturing and training. He would’ve made the same point that others from his generation like the late law professor and scholar-activist Derrick Bell has made over the years. That fighting racism, educational neglect and economic exploitation requires more tools than the moral high-ground, protests, marches, a sympathetic media and obvious redneck tactics. The Movement is itself a shifting terrain that requires new tools and tactics to achieve small victories over a long period of time, longer than most folks from the era are willing to admit.

I actually don’t have a strong ax to grind against the Civil Rights generation. Without folks like Dr. King or Jesse Jackson, Medgar Evers or Ella Baker, I wouldn’t have found myself in a gifted-track program in middle school or high school in the ’80s. But let’s not act as if my life was a walk in the park. The legacy of the Civil Rights era never stopped a fist from being thrown into my face by my now ex-stepfather. It never kept us from going on welfare or kept two of my siblings from bring diagnosed as mentally retarded.

NYPD Stop and Frisk caption (actual details for photo unknown), August 2012. (

NYPD Stop and Frisk caption (actual details for photo unknown), August 2012. (

Nor did the Civil Rights Movement’s legacy stop teachers and professors from putting up barriers to my success as a student or employers from putting up a glass ceiling in an attempt to slow my career advance. It never stopped me from being followed and frisked by police or harassed by overzealous security guards. It’s never paid one of my bills, kept food on my plate or kept me from experiencing homelessness. It’s never even been a source of pride, because that would mean that the Civil Rights Movement and its legacy would belong to me as much as it does to the people who allegedly marched with Dr. King.

I can’t wait for those who cling almost in desperation to the idyllic legacy of Dr. King and the cause to retire and fade away, for the ’60s to truly be over. Maybe that’s when folks from the post-’60s generation — folks like me who care about economic and educational equity, social justice and spiritual transformation — will be able to make an impact on our nation’s sorry state of consciousness without pouring libations to folks who gave up on Dr. King’s work ages ago.

Faces At The Top Of The Well

October 8, 2011

Signed Copy of Faces at the Bottom of the Well, October 8, 2011. (Donald Earl Collins).

In a twenty-four hour span on Wednesday, three American giants died. The Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, the ultimate Civil Rights activist, had been reported dead first by mid-afternoon on the fifth. Then, in quick succession the media reported two other deaths. Apple co-founder, two-time CEO and 300+ patents Steve Jobs passed around 7 pm. While Civil Rights activist, law professor, critical race theorist and best-selling author Derrick Bell also passed that evening, very quietly.

The media — social, cable and otherwise — dutifully dedicated itself to rolling out every author and person connected to Jobs the Visionary, Jobs the Thomas Edison of the Information Age, Jobs the Innovative Entrepreneur. By 9:30 pm, even my ambivalence about Jobs the Capitalist (as tweeted @decollins1969)  would’ve been seen as heretical by the folks whom Jobs had fired over the years, or had their jobs outsourced to China in the past ten years.

No doubt that Steve Jobs, my he rest in peace, was a sort-of Wizard of Menlo Park, California (really, Silicon Valley, but taking poetic license here). But, as much as I love my MacBook, iPod, iTunes, iMovie and iPhoto, and other Apple products I’ve used since I wrote an AP English paper on an Apple IIe my senior year at Mount Vernon High School in ’87. I didn’t get this outpouring of love and sorrow two days ago.

Then it occurred to me that I was watching two stories. One story was of a generation that saw Jobs as the man who fused technological innovation with cultural relevancy, the folks who grew up while Jobs was in the midst of his second coming at Apple. As he remade the niche company into the largest corporation (more or less) in the world. The other story is the media story, the Baby Boomer story of a cultural rebel who made good as an Information Age capitalist while maintaining his Zen-ness, an ultimate cultural outsider-corporate insider.

Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth at Ohio Civil Rights Commission Hall of Fall Dinner, October 2009. In public domain.

As much as I think people should admire the late Steve Jobs — and there’s quite a bit to admire about his life — there’s so much more to admire about Shuttlesworth and Bell. Shuttlesworth survived multiple attempts on his life, was threatened too many times to count, co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957 (along with MLK and others) and helped lead the campaign to integrate Birmingham, Alabama in the early 1960s, among many accomplishments. Rev. Shuttlesworth literally gave his blood, sweat and tears for civil rights and equality, but I didn’t see anyone put a candle on an iPad for him Wednesday night.

Bell, well, I’m a bit more biased about Professor Bell. I met him two years before he published Faces at the Bottom of the Well. Bell gave a talk at the University of Pittsburgh Law School (his JD alma mater) in October ’90 on his essay “The Racial Preference Licensing Act,” one that would end up in the book. The idea that racist businesses could opt out of an integrated America by buying a license and paying a race tax in order to deliberately bar Blacks and others of color from their services and jobs, I thought that was truly radical. The slightly older Pitt Law students, Black and White, were up in arms. One went so far as to suggest that Bell was somehow now working for the other side, those who’d like to turn back the clock to the days of Jim Crow.

Through it all, Professor Bell just smiled and joked, and most of all, explained. His story about this Act was a way of getting ahead of the tide of politicians and judges that had been eroding Black gains since the mid-1970s, of moving beyond the crucible of the Civil Rights era — integration at any cost. Bell wasn’t suggesting self-segregation. He was hoping to provoke a larger discussion of the kind of equality Blacks and progressives should hope to achieve in a post-Civil Rights era. One in which all deny racism and racial inequality, but put it in practice in their words and actions every day.

Derrick Bell by David Shankbone, August 2007. Permission granted via GNU Free Documentation License.

Bell’s ambivalence about the achievements of his generation, about the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement, about desegregation, made him the target of traditional Civil Rights royalty — the “How dare you!” crowd. But it made me and many others from the generation that actually remembers the Steve Jobs as the guy that co-built the world’s first personal computer in his garage big fans of Professor Bell.

To turn your back on three decades’ worth of struggle and success because you foresaw the coming storm around race. To bridge the divide between Baby Boomers/ the Civil Rights generation and us post-Civil Rights folks by turning complex legal theories into allegorical stories. To take a stand that costs you your job at Harvard Law to ensure that the next Asian American female candidate would be given a real chance at a job. Bell’s my hero, and I don’t have a lot of people I’d call a hero.

The media might have put Bell and Shuttlesworth at the bottom of their news cycle well — no doubt, race and the media’s consistent attempt to ignore race was a factor here — but it’s up to all of us that they are winched out of that well to the top. And I think that Jobs would agree with that. May they all RIP.

Apple logo, Think Different, 1997. (Source/TBWA\Chiat\Day). In public domain

On Lena Horne

May 12, 2010

Maybe this isn’t the right time or place to be bringing this up. I’ll probably be vilified by my slightly older-than-me readers who’ll claim that since I didn’t grow up when Ms. Horne was in her prime, that I don’t know what I’m talking about. That, of course, hasn’t stopped me before, and won’t stop me now. But two things have to be said about the late Lena Horne that most reporters and commentators on her life have either overemphasized or glossed over completely. One, that there’s a huge difference between breaking down barriers and commenting on injustice and full-fledged civil rights activism. Two, that Horne represented the issue of double-consciousness in Hollywood and entertainment in ways that few want to discuss now that she’s no longer with us.

Yes, I have seen Horne on the silver and small screen, even in my limited years on the planet. Yes, I know what she did on behalf of Black soldiers during World War II, the ground she broke in film and music, the use of her position in entertainment to speak truth about discrimination, exclusion and harassment in Hollywood. That makes her a groundbreaking icon. It makes her a bit of a civil rights activist. But it doesn’t put her in the same sentence as Dorothy Height, Paul Robeson, or Ella Baker. Maybe that’s unfair and unrealistic, but the journalists and commentators have exaggerated Horne’s impact in this area.

I’ve always found the stories of the mesmerizing Ms. Horne interesting. Not that I didn’t understand, between the beauty and all of that talent, evident as late as her appearance on, of all things, The Cosby Show in ’89 or ’90. But a radio commentator recently suggested that the late Horne could’ve passed for White, but decided to be one of the rare ones to stand up for her race instead. Really? Really? Mostly light, bright and almost-White Blacks didn’t pass for White, even when it would’ve been convenient for them to do so. Although Horne was light, I don’t think it would’ve been easy for her to pass, for a whole variety of cultural, familial, and other reasons. She deserves credit for this, I suppose, but no more credit than the likes of Walter White, Nella Larsen or Mary Church Terrell.

Which brings up the one unspoken, complicated fact that has gone unmentioned, especially among Black pundits and writers. That Horne benefited from her looks — her light, bright and almost-Whiteness — as much as she had to fight discrimination because of them. Her beauty and her skin served as the embodiment of double-consciousness, in Hollywood and in mid-twentieth century African America. She was Black and yet not Black in the eyes of MGM and its execs. Yet she was also a Black icon who represented the ideal in terms of her lightness, at least as far as the times themselves dictated in African America. I’m not suggesting that the late Ms. Horne took full advantage of this reality — far from it. But I do believe that she gained advantages that didn’t fall so easily toward others, like Hattie McDaniel and Louise Beavers.

Was Lena Horne one of the great Black female  — heck, American — performers of the twentieth century? Of course! Did she entertain like few others could? Absolutely! Was her impact on race relations, African American civil rights, and our understanding of race and skin tone far more complicated that is being portrayed in commentaries and obituaries? You betcha!


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