The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord's doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. Psalm 118:22-23 NRSV

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Trick or Trauma

Because I have been reading Renita Weems's blog, I knew that today was a day for wearing red in solidarity with those who are drawing attention to the violence against women. For me, that means that it is also a day to stand against anyone who seems to condone such violence simply because the victim of the violence does not fit the mold of propriety or morality or whatever else.

Here in Philadelphia, a (female) judge last week reduced a rape charge to armed robbery and "theft of services" when a woman who had agreed to have protected sex with two men for a fee was forced to have unprotected sex with four men at gunpoint. Judge Teresa Carr Deni's problem with the case clearly relates to her disapproval of the original agreement, but it is frightening that a judge could miss the basic point when it comes to legal definitions of rape- namely, that when someone forces a sex act upon you, it is rape. The victim in the case was trying to turn a trick and got a trauma. The gunpoint part should have been a clue to Judge Deni.

This points to why we need days like today to draw attention to the wrong of violence. We need to remind the world and even judges that no on deserves the beating and that no one asks for being raped. We need to raise awareness so that the community and the courts do not traumatize abused women simply because we do not approve of them.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

McClurkin's Testimony

I thought the story was going to blow over, but apparently not. It seems that gay rights advocates are disappointed with Barack Obama for not "disinviting" Donnie McClurkin who was a headliner at Obama's South Carolina gospel concert. The problem? Donnie McClurkin's testimony that God "delivered" him from homosexuality.

Now let me say at the outset that I am not writing this blog to take on the question of the authenticity of McClurkin's testimony. Rather, I want to weigh in and simply remind people that testimony is what it was. It represented McClurkin's right to frame and define his own identity. And McClurkin has generally been apolitical about this particular aspect of his testimony.

It's not that I am missing the point that gay rights advocates make, namely, that the kind of testimony McClurkin gives may be used to undermine their claims in framing and defining their identity. They reason that if people take McClurkin's word for being delivered, then those same people will refuse to accept the word of gay people who say that their sexual orientation is not a choice.

I said in a blog a few weeks ago that testimony is judged by the performance of the one giving the testimony and by other facts that are known to the hearer. Do you believe McClurkin? Do you believe his opponents? Either? Neither? At the moment, that's not even really the question. The question at hand has to do with whether you believe Obama.

However all of this turns out, putting Obama in the middle is not sensible. If he's going to win the Democratic nomination or the Presidency (and this goes for whoever wins), he is going to have to be attractive to people who are not attractive to each other. The "values" question cannot be "Do I agree with Obama about everything?" but "Can I support the candidate given the reasoning behind the positions with which I disagree?"

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Wilson Freed

As most of you who have followed the story probably already know, Genarlow Wilson, the student-athlete who was sentenced to 10 years in prison after his conviction for having oral sex with a 15 year old when he was 17, has been freed. The protests and legal arguments have finally succeeded in undoing a gross miscarriage of justice that followed from the mandatory sentencing. But even though Wilson is freed, the problems that led to his tragic case remain, namely, under-aged drinking and random sexual activity.

When asked on Friday where his welcome home party was being held, Wilson wisely responded that he was staying away from parties for a while. This is because the initial scene of the crime for which he was convicted was a hotel party where alcohol and drugs were consumed by Wilson and his friends. We have to face the facts that across the nation, adults are providing alcohol to teenagers who are far too young and inexperienced to drink legally or responsibly. Studies show that alcohol consumption at early ages predisposes one to alcoholism in adulthood. And high school students across social, economic, racial, and regional lines are being injured physically and emotionally by drinking and by the irresponsible adults who are providing the drinks.

That brings me to the next point. After months of hearing about the Genarlow Wilson case, it was the website What about Our Daughters that brought the full story to my attention. The full story is not a case of a boy and his girlfriend having oral sex and the boy being arrested. The full story involves several boys, at least two girls, and an orgy of sexual activity caught on video. The sexually graphic video captured images of the guys taking turns having intercourse with a 17-year-old girl who was drunk. Although Wilson was acquitted of raping the 17-year-old, his buddies pleaded guilty to sexual battery in connection with their non-consensual contact with her. There is a lesson that we must teach our sons and daughters. We have to protect our children by warning them about the dangers of drug and alcohol impairment. We have to tell them that you can get so drunk that you wake up the next morning not knowing whether you had sex or with whom. And we have to tell our children that they are too valuable to be having sex with someone who doesn't know who they are or what they are doing. Moreover, we have a responsibility to teach them what "consent" means, legally and morally.

Black people especially cannot leave it to the courts or the criminal justice system to sort out our children. We are going to have to get off the dime and begin to have the hard, honest, even graphic conversations that may prevent the kind of hard fall that Genarlow Wilson, his friends, and the two young women all took.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Common Sense?

I had really decided that I wasn't going to write anymore about Juanita Bynum after my earlier posts. Then my cousin sent me a link to Bynum's website and her new "mentorship" classes. My cousin wanted me to hear Prophetess Bynum's poor taste in humor in the form of a disparaging reference to "short bus people."

I left the site playing long enough to be stunned by Bynum's first advice to her mentees. Buy a name-brand pen, but not a Bic. A Bic, she reasoned, is common and you are too important, your name is too important to be written with a common pen. She continued by bragging that she has paid as much as $5000 for a pen that she uses only for special occasions, such as signing multi-million dollar deals.

This, I thought, is what really endangers Black Christianity. Too many of us actually believe that investing in a pen, or in the offering plate of a prophet(ess), or in playing the lottery number drawn from the pastor's sermon text is the key to unlocking our destiny and purpose. We risk our soul(s), sell our soul(s) for so little because our internal accounting systems are out of kilter. We have no idea what real value is.

In this way, there is very little difference between the "prosperity" propounded by media preachers and the bling-mentality of the underbelly of hip-hop. Both exploit the desperation and depression of their constituencies with promises that are addictive and elusive at the same time. Buy my CDs and videos and you can surmount the obstacles of your everyday living. And even if you can't move out of public housing, you can live vicariously through me. My bling is your bling.

It is true that we don't know what our lives are worth, but it's not because we are using a "common" Bic pen.We don't know what we're worth because we listen to people who think in dollars but no sense.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Come On People

Pundits and bloggers have been weighing in on the latest offering from Bill Cosby and Alvin Poussaint, generally by focusing on their appearances on Oprah and Meet the Press last week. I have held off in voicing my opinion because I wanted to read the actual book before commenting.

Now that I've both read the book and watched MTP on the web, I have to express my commendation and my concern. I want to commend Cosby and Poussaint for their role in restoring the conversation about the relative importance of personal behavior and systemic adversity in determining the future of Black people. I appreciate the passion, candor, and caring for Black people that I saw in the book and heard in the interview. I agree wholeheartedly that self-defeating attitudes and irresponsible behavior are crippling some Black people, especially youth. And God knows that as a single,educated Black woman who wants to be married to a Black man, I am heartbroken because of the lost and wasted talent, energy, intelligence of Black men who populate prison or who wander aimlessly.

The book is easy to read, divided into short sections that offer practical instruction about subjects from crime to childrearing, health care to financial management. All of these subjects are intended to speak holistically to the African American condition and respond to the need for guidance that Cosby and Poussaint perceive. Unfortunately, the most nuanced discussions are found at the end of the book, by which time the faint of heart might have already given up on being inspired and instructed rather than simply patronized and insulted.

The tone of the book gives me pause, especially its disdainful dismissal of every countercultural or subcultural aspect of Black life, especially hip hop music and Black English. Although Cosby's life as an entertainer has given him the notoriety that makes his opinions publishable, the rhetorical conventions and the tendency to exaggerate that characterize comedy may be counterproductive to advancing his message.

It is one thing to acknowledge the need for developing skill in standard English, especially when interacting with the dominant culture. It is another to repeat that "You can't land a plane in Rome saying, 'Whassup?'" (7) At such moments, and there are a few in the book, an ugly air of condescension calls the expressions of compassion and concern into question.

I too dislike the fashion statement of jeans so baggy that the underwear is exposed. But the solution is not to heckle the wearer, but rather to demonstrate that modesty is sensible and that different occasions call for different uniforms. It's not true that you can't get a job or can't work a job dressed in urban fashions. The question has to be what kind of job do you want, and are you really willing to do what it takes to grow into a position that will allow you the freedom of artistic expression in your dress.

Ultimately, as I watched Cosby and Poussaint I realized how much this debate exposes a significant generation gap. Oprah's website dubbed Cosby "America's Favorite Dad." But for what generation? The Cosby Show, though in syndication, was for another generation. Cosby's Fatherhood was published in 1987. I wonder whether Cosby and Poussaint have the relationship with their target group that will allow the best parts of their message to take root. Generations past heeded the voice of the elders because they had reason to trust them, not simply because the norms of the community demanded that elders be respected.

There is no doubt that the time of reckoning has come for our community. If we do not address some of the issues that Come On People raises, we will not survive. Despite some weaknesses, Cosby and Poussaint have written a book that is driving that conversation.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Don't Make Your Business Bad

I grew up in a family in which my mother prided herself on being able to manage her money, however little or much of it there was. (And my dad had the sense to put the finances in her hands.) She faithfully brought her tithes and offerings to the church. She gave what she could when she knew that someone was in need. She saved for the things she wanted, including our annual "vacation", also known as the church convention, and for a "rainy day." She paid cash for almost everything. And when she used credit, she always paid off the bill ahead of time. In fact, she had been so diligent when she was well that we noticed the onset of her dementia because she was no longer sharp when it came to finances. At her best, she handled her business.

I am not knowledgeable enough to say whether our national economy as a whole is healthy or what its prospects are. I do read about record highs in the price of oil, record lows in the value of the dollar, and immeasurable instability in financial markets because of the subprime lending crisis. We have no idea what the long-term financial implications of the Iraq war will be, nor do we know whether and how Social Security will survive the Baby Boomers' retirement and increased longevity. What we do know is that, to paraphrase an old adage, if America gets a cold then Black people will have pneumonia.

Meanwhile, there are too few communal conversations among Black people about money and wealth. And I have a particular concern about the (lack of) treatment of this issue within the church. We have to have conversations about money beyond "Will a man rob God?" during stewardship month. We need to talk about credit. We need to talk about budgets. We need to talk about money in relationships. We need to talk practically about how to buy a house you can pay for, and not just walk around your "dream house" quoting scripture about the promises of God. We need to talk about how not to buy a new car as soon as you pay the old one off. We need to talk about investments, and not just in the ministries of prominent preachers.

"Why in the church?" you may rightly ask. First, because Christians learn about all kinds values in the church. Second, because in the church there are a lot of problematic, erroneous messages about "seeds" and "financial blessings" that need to be debunked theologically and practically. Third, because financial stewardship of our forbears founded and sustained the Black church in the past, and our investment will determine its future. Fourth, because the church is our institution and we can and should make it a center for the empowerment of our people.

I began this post by talking about my mom because she taught me that money is something that you have to handle and manage. When I am tempted to overspend I still hear her caution "Don't make your business bad." I am heeding her advice (mostly). But I recognize that I and others need the tools and information to make our business good and prosperous.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Turn It Off

Anyone who spends a lot of time online, as I do, will probably have read about the controversy that has arisen over ongoing protests of BET programming. For anyone who missed it, Enough is Enough, a group convened by Rev. Delman Coates,Ph.D. has been picketing the home of BET Executive Debra Lee for the past several weeks to call attention to the degrading and demeaning representations of black people in the media. Not everyone is cheering. Michael Eric Dyson wrote an Op-Ed in the Atlanta Journal Constitution sympathizing with the message but objecting to the methods of the group in targeting Lee's home.

Let me say from the outset, that I am generally in support of Coates's aims. The Black community has consistently suffered because of the negative images portrayed in the dominant culture and because of the propensity of some in our community to live down to those images. While I could never understand the desire to become a caricature, some Black people, young and old, work very hard at it. Thus, the question of which came first, the image or the pathology, is a lot harder to answer than either side admits.

But I want to approach this issue from a different vantage point and declare that we watch too much television in the first place. African Americans generally and African American children particularly are known for being television's largest and most faithful audience. Forty percent of African American children reported watching more than 4 hours of television per day. Although the adage that TV watching burns fewer calories than sleeping has been debunked, it is certainly true that TV watching correlates to childhood obesity. And when we are looking for reasons that our children are underperforming in school, then we have to look at TV as a contributing factor.

Anyone who reads this blog knows that I am no right-wing "personal responsibility" guru. But the crisis in the Black community in education, poverty, and crime is so significant that we are forced to look in every direction for solutions - inward and outward. If we want our children to be successful (and if we as adults want our brains not to turn to mush), then we are going to have to turn the television off. Read a book, do your homework, go for a walk, talk to your family, clean your house, go to bed. Whatever. Just do it without the television for a change. And that means video games too.

Friday, October 12, 2007

When Your Number Comes Up

I am among the minority of Americans who are against capital punishment. Along with other opponents of the death penalty, I am convinced of the racial bias in prosecutions, concerned about judicial and police error in convictions, and unconvinced of capital punishment's efficacy as a deterrent to heinous criminality. But my deepest objection to the death penalty has to do with the what happens when our government and, by extension, we as citizens become executioners. While I understand the logic of "an eye for an eye, a life for a life" that rationalizes our impulse to exact revenge, I view government and the rule of law as a balance to our individual and collective emotionality, not as the executor of it. At the same time, because my position is a minority one, I live with an awareness that executions take place regularly in this nation, especially in the state of Texas, and I try not to lose sleep over that fact.

But this week in the New York Times, I read an article by Adam Liptak Going to Court, but Not in Time to Live that jarred me and reconfirmed my suspicion that the state as executioner actually feeds the worst impulses in our society and undermines the justice in the justice system. Liptak describes the case of Luther J. Williams who died by lethal injection after the Supreme Court had agreed to hear his case, but before they actually heard it. Apparently, it takes 4 members of the High Court to agree to review a case, but 5 members to stay an execution. Thus, the living and dying of a human being came down to what Liptak calls the "arithmetic of death." Can you stay alive long enough for your final appeal?

In truth, death penalty cases often come down to numbers. How old is the defendant? What is the defendant's IQ? What is the right proportion of chemicals and anesthetics to make an injection lethal without being cruel and unusual punishment? Not to mention the date on the calendar when the sentence of death will be carried out or the number of innocent people who have already been executed.

All of these considerations only intensify my discomfort with state-sponsored death. I don't trust the government, the police, or the courts with that kind of power. The longer I live, the more I sympathize with many victims' families who long for a closure that comes only with the perpetrator's death. At the same, I am increasingly suspicious of the numbers game that brings that finality. And I am profoundly aware that the condemned have families, too.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Being Grateful

From time to time, I give consideration to the subject of happiness, my own and others'. This kind of reflection is generally prompted by a biblical text that forces me in sermon form to delve into the meaning and elusiveness of joy. Today I am thinking about a sermon I heard last evening that reminded me how prone I am to making myself unhappy by focusing on the negative and a Newsweek article on Deborah Norville's new book about gratitude that made the same point in a more secular context. Bottom line: A key ingredient to happiness is gratitude.

To be sure, there is much that is wrong in and with the world today. Unending conflict in Iraq, escalation of rhetoric as a prelude to war in Iran, genocide in Darfur, oppression in Myanmar, worldwide violence against women, expansion of the prison industrial complex, poverty, not to mention racism, sexism, classism in the society and in the church. But even with all that is bad, with all that needs to be addressed, there is still much good in the world and in my life.

Every day that God sends, there are many reasons for me to give thanks and to know contentment, though not complacency. While there are perhaps a few people who hate me or dislike me intensely, there are far more who love me, affirm my personhood and my gifts, and wish me well. While I have had my share of disappointments, there have been far more moments when I have been pleasantly surprised by extravagant blessings. My life has not turned out to be exactly what I ordered, but mostly that's a good thing. And the truth is that, as a good friend once declared, "happiness is a choice" for me.

As for the evil and wrong in the world, there is still good news in that there remain some activists, thinkers, clergy, grass roots organizers, and even a few politicians who have not yet become callous to the needs of those who suffer. Some courageous people reject racism, sexism, and classism in themselves, in the church, and the community. There are still some people who believe in the possibility of a better life and better world. A world in which everyone would have the luxury I have overused of being unhappy because of the little things.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Why do we tolerate this?

Growing up in West Virginia with a dad who was glued to our television from season to season and sport to sport, I developed an early loathing for televised athletics. (We only had one TV at that time, back in the dark ages.) What might now be called my interest, maybe bordering on mania, for professional sports derived from being a resident of two very big sports towns during years when the city teams were in playoff contention. I became a Yankees fan during the early years of Derek Jeter, when the Yankees were not only the best team but the best looking team in MLB. (Remember Bernie Williams?) Although they're not as flashy, the nice guys of the Philadelphia Phillies have slowly won my heart and in their worst days caused me to lose sleep.

But I'm not really blogging today to lament a disappointing NLDS for the Phillies. I am simply posing a question for all reasonable people of good will - Why do we continue to support teams with names like "Indians," "Braves," and "Redskins"? Why especially do black people, many of whom still do not eat watermelon in public because of the caricature of our people, tolerate the Sambo-like logo of the Cleveland Indians?

I am rooting against the Indians tonight since they are on the verge of eliminating the Yankees. But I always root against them because of the racist image that dons their uniforms, even after years of protest from Native Americans and their allies. And by the way, I'm not celebrating Columbus Day either.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Clarence Thomas Testifies

Watching Clarence Thomas’s interview on 60 Minutes (Thank God for YouTube) reminded me again how powerful and misleading testimony can be. There is nothing like hearing someone tell her or his own story, nothing like observing the construction and performance of a person's version of the truth.

Thomas constructed a mythic African American tale, complete with an absent father, a disempowered mother, an infallible grandmother, and, most important of all, a grandfather who dispensed tough love and the will to succeed. As reporter Kroft lobbed questions, much in the way of a defense attorney with his client, Justice Thomas spun a tapestry of adolescent Catholicism, 60s radicalism (loved the picture with the big Afro), early adult disillusionment (the fault of affirmative action), and mature strict-constructionist constitutionality. Despite some missteps along the way, he became a son his grandfather could be proud of, a success story. Horatio Alger lives.

The Clarence Thomas of the 60 Minutes interview is compelling and tragic, having overcome obstacles and defied racists only to end up misunderstood and mistreated, not just by white people but by his own. He has a 15-cent law degree from one of the finest law schools in the country and a not-sure-it’s-worth-it seat on the highest court of the land. That is powerful stuff.

But it is also misleading. If we are to believe his explanation, liberals and Black people dislike him because he thinks for himself and refuses to walk in lockstep. I can only speak for myself, but that’s not why I don’t like Clarence Thomas. I dislike anyone who espouses the kind of judicial conservatism whose colorblindness refuses remedy to people of color, after centuries of systemic racial oppression. I don’t like anyone whose rulings consistently interpret the law to affirm big corporations against little people. I dislike anyone whose judicial philosophy is to the right of Antonin Scalia. And I especially dislike people who benefited from affirmative action to the nth degree and then offer themselves as poster children for the ridiculous position that affirmative action actually hurts black folks. White or black, male or female, I would not like Clarence Thomas the Supreme Court Justice. I don’t proclaim to know the man.

Testimony, in court and in church, is judged on the basis of the speakers’ performance and on facts known by the audience. While Thomas’s 60 Minutes performance gets an A, the testimony of his rulings tells another story.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Suffer the Children

In an effort to explain his veto of the bill reauthorizing SCHIP (article), the State Children's Health Insurance Program, The Decider repeated his objection that the $35 billion expansion was both too costly and could potentially add children whose parents can afford private insurance to state rolls or, worse yet, that some adults might even be covered. In a statement so ironic that it would be comic if the stakes were not so high, The Decider intoned, "Poor kids first." But Bush's actual commitment, certainly more fervently held than his concern for the poor ,was expressed in his follow-up comment, "Secondly, I believe in private medicine, not the federal government running the health care system."

As a person of strong core beliefs and convictions, I can hardly object to the presence of such staunchness in another person, right? I have to respect and even admire that the President recognizes that the buck stops with him, whatever the polls say, right? Wrong!

I am weary of Bush's upside-down convictions. In his warped imagination, stem cell research using soon-to-be-discarded embryos is indefensible. Torture of suspects who have not yet been convicted of anything is a necessary evil. $190 billion for the war effort in 2008, funded God knows how for God knows how long, is advisable. $35 billion dollars over 5 years for children's health insurance, funded by additional cigarette taxation is too expensive.

When asked during the 2000 election presidential primary season what political philosopher he admired most, Bush cited Jesus Christ because "he changed my heart." I guess this is the same heart that believes in private medicine. It doesn't take much heart for a man who has always had access to health care to believe in the system that provides it for him. Real heart, as in the kind that produces compassion, induces a person to examine systems on the basis of who is left out. Perhaps Bush got confused by the King James Version's antiquated language and thought that when Jesus said "Suffer the little children" he meant "make the children suffer."

Whatever has caused this misguided presidential veto, I pray to the Jesus who loves all of the children that the Congress will override it.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Thomas and Hill Redux

By eerie coincidence Isiah Thomas and the Knicks were found guilty of sexually harassing Anucha Browne Sanders on the same day that Anita Hill published her response to Clarence Thomas's recently released memoir, titled My Grandfather's Son. In the memoir, Justice Thomas seeks simultaneously to vindicate himself and his image and to implicate the liberal establishment in what he claims were Hill's false accusations during his 1991 Supreme Court confirmation hearings.

In 1991, I was an undergraduate and already much too familiar with the tensions that can plague the relationships between professional Black women and men. I remember vividly the countless conversations in the dining halls of Harvard College that ensued after Anita Hill accused the nominee to the Supreme Court of sexual harassment. I am proud to say that I believed Hill from the beginning, although I admit that I disliked Thomas even before Hill surfaced. More interesting is the fact that most Black people I talked with, male and female, also believed Hill. What we argued about was whether it was ultimately helpful or damaging to the Race (meaning for African American progress) for Hill to have come forward.

I argued then that the Race is only degraded when we cover up Black men's misdeeds, especially when those crimes damage Black women. Black women are not responsible to imperil their physical, spiritual, or professional lives in order to preserve the fiction of a united Black community. And in fact, it is a form of internalized racism to have such a low opinion of Black manhood that we think Clarence Thomas and his ilk are the best we can do when we look for representatives of, in, and for our community.

In 2007, I am struck by how much has changed and how much remains unchanged. Recent events, including the civil trial of Isiah Thomas, the conviction of Michael Vick, and (another) indictment of O.J. Simpson demonstrate that the Black community still struggles with how to respond when famous Black men are accused of wrongdoing. But the ruling holding Isaiah Thomas liable for sexual harassment demonstrates that some things have changed. As Anita Hill herself put it: "Fortunately, we have made progress since 1991. Today, when employees complain of abuse in the workplace, investigators and judges are more likely to examine all the evidence and less likely to simply accept as true the word of those in power."

The Anita Hill who emerges in the New York Times Op-Ed piece is worthy of celebration. Whereas during the hearings she seemed muted and victimized, today her voice resounds like the clarion call of a trumpet. Unlike Thomas, she seeks no vindication, since as she notes, independent authors have already demonstrated that the claims Thomas seeks to resurrect were false. But she does offer a caution, that this unprecedented and obviously bitter outburst by a sitting Supreme Court Justice may portend legal regression if the nation drops its guard.

I (still) hear you, Professor Hill.