Sunday, November 30, 2008

Passin' It On

Thanks to being off work for several days in a row (what a luvlee thing!), I managed to get around to a few of blogs I love to visit when I can. The result, of course, is that I simply MUST steer you in the direction of a few posts.

First, being that most of us are still eating leftovers from Thursday, duck on over to Stuff White People Do and read the Robert Jensen take on Thanksgiving Day.

Then, check out the post Carmen put up at All About Race on Bob Jones' University "apologizing" for racist practices (NO!! Who would have imagined that?!).

Next, thanks to Kevin at Slant Truth, we got tipped to the new Jay Smooth production on YouTube, wherein Jay talks about what we need to do now that the Presidential election is over.

And finally, Sokari at Black Looks turned me onto Arundhati Roy saying this:

Friday, November 28, 2008

What Would Malcolm Say?

“The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born.” -- Antonio Gramschi

Back in the early 1960’s, when nobody was doubting whether or not the socially-constructed, political notion of “race” “mattered,” a young African-American sociologist named Calvin Hernton, who had not yet written Sex and Racism in America, the landmark polemic that put him on the international map, took a job as a social worker in New York City to pay his rent. Entering the apartment of a woman whose 12-year-old son had been arrested, he found on the wall a painting by the boy. Using heavy oils – bright reds, greens, and blues, with large splotches of black – the youth had obviously been communicating his frustration and his rage in no uncertain terms.

The painting depicted fat grinning White men with money sticking out of their pockets, and even White police officers in blue uniforms with huge distorted silver badges, beating African-American men who lay on the ground, bleeding, with what looked like blood on the tips of stick-like plaited hair.

Circles with arrows pointed at the White men’s mouths read, “You niggers love us, don’ you?”

Turning to the boy’s mother, Hernton asked about the blood on the tips of the Black men’s plaits.

“That’s not hair with blood on it,” the woman replied without emotion. “That’s dynamite growing out of their skulls.”

Hernton went home, gave this some thought, and cranked out an essay about how, if we did not change the way things were being done in this country, we were ultimately going to produce an entire generation of young African-Americans suffering from a condition he called “the psychology of the damned”:

“As the collective mind, supraorganic, pitting itself against the mythologized odds of an unsurmountable monster, this demon will rise, for only demons can destroy demons and thereby become human again. The sense of fear will be wiped from their consciousness, reason will disappear, emotions will evaporate, fear of death will be meaningless, for they have been dead all their lives. Nor will they care about winning, not in any understandable sense of the word, for in and through the act of destroying and killing and dying, they shall be winning, a sense of life will be born anew within them…Their madness will no longer be attached to any identifiable norm, value or nonvalue – neither money, hate, freedom, or revenge. For, having been purged of faith in all human values, in all normal behavior, their madness will be the only god in whom they can put their fidelity without being deceived and betrayed. No doubt, according to the way America will look at them, they will appear as raving Blacks on a rampage of ruin and riot – nothing new, for America has always looked at them this way…[E]verything you might offer them will be irrelevent, for how do you give a people back their manhood, their souls?”*

Forty years after Hernton issued his warning, we stand uncorrected, having done as a society almost nothing to address the real issues at hand for people of color in the United States, let alone take responsibility for the damage done every U.S. citizen as a result of having our culture formed by, under, and within a 400-year system of unapologetic White supremacy. African-American men are nearly four times more likely to be unemployed than European-American men – at every educational level – with unemployment for young Black males pushing 50%. One out of every two African-American children is still growing up in abject poverty (while the Federal Poverty Guideline is considerably lower than what it really costs to live in this country). And at current rates, one of every three Black boys born in 2001 is headed for prison (thanks to a criminal “justice” system that marks them early and slams them ever so much more quickly and for substantially lesser “crimes” than their White counterparts).

In the meantime, the European-American middle class is disappearing more rapidly by the month as workers struggle to hold onto jobs that don’t pay enough any more to support even an individual, let alone a family. And with inflation going straight through the dwindling ozone layer, average White folks aren’t likely to be in the mood to share with or even be empathetic toward their Black fellow citizens – at least any time soon.

Highly respected European-Americans belly up to the psycho-social bar in the attempt to describe in painful detail the fixated brutality of their own and others’ infection with the virus of White supremacy, not to be confused with White superiority, which doesn’t exist. Yet even as Joe Feagin releases Racist America, Tim Wise pens White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son, and Paula Rothenberg authors Invisible Privilege: A Memoir About Race, Class, and Gender, we still manage to find scholarly people of color such as Orlando Patterson appearing in The New York Times, holding forth that Black people’s problems are ultimately just caused by themselves. And, according to Columbia University professor Ronald Mincey’s “Black Males Left Behind” study that came out last year, even young Black men “admit” that they simply don’t “try hard enough,” ignoring (thanks to the Pattersons and the Minceys of this world) how they have been systematically turned into people who won't try hard enough. And indeed, even when they do try hard enough, damn few are allowed to succeed or to succeed at the level they would were “race” not in the equation.

What is to be made of this schizoid U.S. culture? Is Feagin just selling books? Is Patterson’s perspective just a function of going straight from the Caribbean to Harvard? They can’t both be right. Can they? People with lesser credentials decide routinely to hold the perspective with which they have been socialized and to embrace whichever “expert” espouses their particular and sometimes peculiar belief. So a White youth sitting in a university classroom next to a Black youth wearing the same type of clothing, getting the same grades, even participating in class projects together, will nevertheless describe Black people in general as "lazy, violent, welfare frauds who want something for nothing," in spite of all the immediately visible evidence to the contrary.

This mindset has been demonstrated most recently and in a most graphic manner both before and even after the latest Presidential election. There’s no confusion among those who bother to review such matters at all that, despite a new President-elect of color, the political system in this country is still made up almost entirely of European-American men and that those women and people of color who finesse their way into legislative halls seldom get anywhere near the inner circle without selling their souls, at the very least. There is most assuredly a racial “party line” dictated by those who have always had the power to define in this nation. And even the most perfunctory review of the political arena demonstrates who those folks are.

Further, if one listens to politicians who are either women or people of color (or both), one will have no problem identifying which ones have any real power at all (the ones pushing the “party line” even against people who look like themselves) and those who are hard put to accomplish much when the rubber meets the road (those who truly attempt to represent or at least include the ranks of the politically powerless – of any skin tone). The political career of Cynthia McKinney serves as a classic example.

Even Barack Obama’s campaign was marked, many have noted, by almost no addressal of the blatant fact of racial privilege in the U.S. And with a national commitment to denial about the reality of what the Kerner Commission called “two Americas – one Black and one White” forty years ago, Obama’s choice to backburner such a crucial reality was seen as expedient rather than short-sighted or odd. The public kept waiting - and even expecting - to hear Obama declare how he was going to even the racial playing field because he is Black, yet considered it "smart politics" when he did not. The fact that it seemingly doesn't occur to us that the well-documented racial divide in this country belongs on any politician's list of issues to address is further proof of White Supremacy's insidious hold on our culture.

In this political context, unequal access to the market place is a no-brainer. Even college-educated African-American men who are allowed to be employed full-time still make only about 76% of a White man’s income, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In fact, a full-time Black male worker in 2003 made less in real dollar terms than a similar White man earned in 1967. And Black homebuyers with incomes above $100,000 per year are charged high interest rates on their mortgage loans more often than Whites with incomes below $40,000, regardless of credit history. The result? White families’ average net worth stands currently at eleven times that of Black families, with the gap remaining substantial even when comparing families of like size, composition, education, and income status. No wonder African-Americans can so often be heard to intone, “It’s always been this way and it’s always gonna be this way,” even though we didn't construct racial categories until a few hundred years ago.

Another masterminded aspect of the system of racial disparity in this country has been the development of an almost direct connection between one’s economic well-being and one’s level of academic achievement. Because of this, Jonathan Kozol has made a life's work out of producing book after book examining how the educational system in this country has utterly failed children of color to the point that while 80% of African-Americans over fourteen could read in 1930, one study estimated that this figure was reduced to 56% by 1990. Another source suggested that the latter figure was closer to 63%, but even that would substantially lower the much earlier figure. Are we to assume then, that African-Americans became less intelligent, less capable, and less motivated all by themselves over that sixty year period? Or would we want to consider the possibility that once Brown vs the Board of Education demanded that all children in the U.S. be equally prepared in this country to fulfill their potential as economically and socially successful citizens, a new sidestep was put in place?

Could it be that African-American teachers in front of their charges during segregation were actually teaching their students to value and respect themselves in ways that later lighter teachers might not always attempt or be able to do in the face of generalized anti-Black socialization? And reading levels aside, this might also help to explain the disparity between White high school graduation rates (at 78%) and Black high school graduation rates (at 56%), as reported by Jay Greene of the Manhattan Institute. Further, this same dynamic would also ensure the lack of resources committed to reduce the level of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome and depression that has been identified as rife among poverty-stricken inner city youth, as demonstrated by the fact that suicide is now the number three cause of death among young Black American men.

As if all this wasn't enough, the Southern Poverty Law Center reports that nearly 900 organized hate groups, most of them anti-Black, are currently operating in the United States, representing a substantial and continual rise over the past five years. Nevertheless, federal prosecutors declined to pursue federal civil rights charges in 98.7% of race-related matters referred to them from 1986 to 2003, while pursuing charges in about 40% of tax evasion cases and 51% of those related to sexual exploitation of minors. So it would appear that the government, charged with the responsibility to protect U.S. citizens from each other is simply abdicating that responsibility when it comes to people of color, even though a study in 2002 found that 75% of U.S. citizens polled did not believe everyone in the U.S. is treated equally.

James Baldwin once said, “You can learn everything you need to know about race in this country by asking a White person would they like to be Black.” This was true in 1960 and it’s true now. The question is: will it still be true in 2060? We seem to be counting on Calvin Hernton’s prediction to be wrong. But what if it isn’t? Would it matter? We act as if locking up vast numbers of young - and not so young - Black males for ridiculous periods of time is going to save this society from itself. But no people ever allowed themselves to be oppressed forever. And wherever you find oppression in history, you will find social conflict.

African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, and Asian-Americans want nothing more than what European-Americans want: safety, opportunity, respect. Acting as if they don’t understand this makes White people look stupid, mean-spirited, and even, perhaps, dangerous to an ever increasing percentage of the U.S. population. Some White people – whether they’re willing to admit it or not – fear that “sharing” the basic rights of full citizenship with people of color will result in Whites losing privilege and economic benefits. I would argue that not doing so will ultimately cost us both and maybe much, much more.

Though a cadre of disgruntled racists have reared their ugly heads in response to the election of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States, many in this country – Black and White – have touted the election as a symbol of change, as proof positive that, at least in very important ways, race no longer matters here. I would argue, however, that this perspective is not only badly mistaken, but will be used to further entrench and intensify institutionalized oppression against ordinary people of color in the U.S., and most particularly African-Americans. Wholesale denial of the real problems I have discussed in this post will now be masked by a ready appropriation of this one man’s remarkable achievement to mean that, if a Black man can be elected President, then there are no differences between us. Thus racism will morph into yet another incarnation of neo-racism so that, even with a Black President in the White House, we can continue to face the world as a nation marked by its refusal to honor the Constitutionally-guaranteed rights of millions of its citizens.

Can the European-American power structure maintain its strangle-hold over the entire population of the United States, many of whom it has never appropriately served or even considered? Can we continue to pretend that all is well because those with the power to define keep saying it is? Do we really believe that a nation divided against itself can long endure just because we have somehow survived thus far? And if not, what practical and comprehensive social changes are we prepared to implement immediately in the best interests of our nation, our children, and ourselves? Until we sit down together and draft that list, the socially-constructed, political notion of “race” will continue to matter to all of us in further reaching ways than we can possibly know or dare to risk.
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*Quote from "Dynamite Growing Out of Their Skulls," pp. 78-104, Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro American Writing, Leroi Jones and Larry Neal, eds.,1968, NY: William Morrow.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Imagining

This afternoon, out of nowhere, I experienced an extraordinary moment in time. One of those everybody's-here-who's-s'posed-to-be-here moments; one of those this-is-what-it-feels-like-to-be-safe moments; one of those wow-what-if-life-could-just-be-like-this moments. Students and teachers; activists and revolutionaries; young and old; men and women; all talking straight out without holding anything back, in agreement, in peace.

Imagine.

Am I Not Human?

Last month, I agreed to be a part of a movement to focus on human rights violations on the 27th of each month. Since today is the 27th and also, as it happens, the day most people in the United States call "Thanksgiving Day," I have decided to feature a listing from the Peace Buttons "This Week in Peace and Social Justice" newsletter. On November 29th, 1864:

"A U.S. Army cavalry regiment under Col. J. M. Chivington (a Methodist missionary and candidate for Congress), acting on orders from Colorado's Governor, John Evans, and ignoring a white surrender flag flying just below a U.S. flag, attacked sleeping Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians, killing nearly 500, in what became known as the Sand Creek Massacre. Captain Silas Soule, however, not only refused to follow Chivington's lead at Sand Creek, but ordered his troops not to participate in the attack.

"The Indians, led by Black Kettle, had been ordered away from Fort Lyon four days before, with the promise that they would be safe. Virtually all of the victims, mostly women and children, were tortured and scalped; many women, including the pregnant, were mutilated. Nine of 900 cavalrymen were killed. A local newspaper called this 'a brilliant feat of arms,' and stated the soldiers had 'covered themselves with glory.'

"At first, Chivington was widely praised for his 'victory' at the 'Battle' of Sand Creek, and he and his troops were honored with a parade in Denver. However, rumors of drunken soldiers butchering unarmed women and children began to circulate and Congress ordered a formal investigation of the massacre. Chivington was eventually threatened with court martial by the U.S. Army, but as he had already left his military post, no criminal charges were ever filed against him."

You can read the Congressional testimony of an eye-witness here.

This should give us all something to think about and talk about as we pass the stuffing...

Monday, November 24, 2008

Happy birthday, Arundhati Roy!



Arundhati Roy is forty-seven years old today. An author who won the prestigious Booker Prize in English literature, Roy is also an activist extraordinaire whose acumen as a speaker and writer feeds the soul like manna from Heaven.

Celebrate Roy's birthday by first reading this classic article she wrote in 2004 about turkeys and Thanksgiving, New Racism and the World Social Forum. Then think up something you can do right this minute to make the world a better place.

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The poster featured above is available from Northland Poster Collective.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

I Don't Know How African-Americans Do It

I’m exhausted. Really. I am what my mother used to call “sick unto death” of White folks’ thinly veiled commitment to their position of racial privilege and their smarmy, sniveling need to feel put upon by all those Black folks wanting “something for nothing.”

“I never got anything I didn’t work my butt off for,” White people declare defensively, causing me to have to try to remind them for the umpteenth time that people of color work their butts off, too, but all too often without the pay-off Whitey expects and can usually count on.

“I never owned any slaves and besides, that was a hundred years ago.” Whitey continues, “Why can’t Black people just move on and get over it?”

“Well, let’s see…” I counter, “Could it possibly be that they’re not thinking about what happened a hundred years ago, but rather about the way African-American men are still four times more likely to be unemployed than European-American men at every educational level? Could it be that they’re thinking about how law enforcement and the criminal justice system is continually demonstrated to function in a deliberately discriminatory manner toward people of color – and doesn’t change those practices despite being nailed for them repeatedly? Could it be that they’re checking out how even the President of the United States cannot expect to be shown common respect by many White people if the tone of his skin is such that he would be labeled ‘Black’? Ya think?”

“All I know,” Whitey huffs, “is that my grandfather came to this country with nothing but the clothes on his back and he pulled himself up by his own bootstraps…”

“Uh-huh,” I agree. “But he came with boots on. Most African-Americans came shoeless and naked and were stripped even of their names. They worked not only brutally hard, but for no pay at all for hundreds of years. It’s real hard to put together a nest egg when you get no pay at all; when your wife can be raped in front of you and you can be killed for even thinking about trying to protect her; when you, as an African-American, have (as the courts said decades after slavery ended) NO rights any White person has to honor."

"Then, like that wasn’t enough," I rant on, "African-Americans went from not being allowed to go to school at all to being relegated to schools so much worse in every way that even today, White people break their personal banks sending their kids any place else than public school, if they can pull it off at all. And all along, right up to the present, every kind of socialization process in this nation not only tells White people (no matter how stupid, how poorly educated, how mean-spirited, and/or how clueless in every way they may be) that they’re ‘better than’ people of color, but tells people of color (no matter how intelligent, how well educated, how gracious, and how reasonable they may be) that they’re ‘inferior to’ White people.” Good. grief.

And my favorite line of all is, “Okay...but everybody gets oppressed in one way or the other…”

I try to imagine what that oppression against White people looks like – really I do. But I can’t. And that’s when I get tired. Tired of listening. Tired of explaining it. Tired of thinking about it. Tired of watching the parade of broken-hearted children of color who've learned not to think it will ever change. Tired of watching White folks preen and priss their hour upon the stage of life as if they earned their moment in the sun.

Sometimes, I think they deserve what they’re gonna get. But the trouble is I’m White, too. Or at least I look White. And that’s good enough. Good enough to get me the privileges and benefits I don’t ask for. Good enough to keep me out of the line of fire directed at people of color for no other reason than the fact that it’s a norm in this society. And good enough to require me to do something about the situation. I can't help being part of the problem, but I can be part of the solution, if I so choose.

I didn’t ask to be me. But on my darkest day, at least I'm White-looking. So I can be tired, if I want to be. But since I can’t abdicate the goodies, I can’t skate on the responsibility of at least attempting to address the situation either. I wrote something similar a week or so ago. And just before the election, Abby Ferber did a good job of describing the mindset of Whiteness -- and what to do about it.

And in the meantime, this poem by Pat Parker reminds us that White folks can't begin to know what "tired" feels like.

For the White Person Who
Wants to Know How to Be My Friend

The first thing you do is to forget that i'm Black.
Second, you must never forget that i'm Black.

You should be able to dig Aretha,
but don't play her every time i come over.
And if you decide to play Beethoven--don't tell
me his life story. They made us take music
appreciation too.

Eat soul food if you like it, but don't expect me
to locate your restaurants
or cook it for you.

And if some Black person insults you,
mugs you, rapes your sister, rapes you,
rips your house, or is just being an ass--
please, do not apologize to me
for wanting to do them bodily harm.
It makes me wonder if you're foolish.

And even if you really believe Blacks are better
lovers than whites--don't tell me. I start thinking
of charging stud fees.

In other words, if you really want to be my
friend--don't make a labor of it. I'm lazy.
Remember.
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Thanks to Macon D. for tipping me to this poem and to the Angry Black-White Girl's blog.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Big 5-0 (thousand, that is)

Some time early this morning, my little blog crossed the line marked "50,000 views." Now, I realize this doesn't mean 50,000 different viewers. And I'm sure there have been those who dropped by once and never returned, not to mention those who dropped by, expressed their disgust in no uncertain terms and then never returned. Nevertheless, it's 50,000 views. I came, I saw, and I conquered, as it were. I wheeled my funny-looking little intellectual junker onto the freeway of the blogosphere and managed through it all to keep up with the traffic most of the time at an age I suspect is significantly older than most who blog.

I've been watching this moment coming for a few weeks and it feels to me like some kind of rite of passage. And now that it's here, it's causing me to think back on what has happened in the world and in my personal life during the process.

There was actually a false start in the fall of 2005, when I was just writing about whatever was going on for me personally, but when I actually posted about my battle to keep a squirrel from eating all the bird seed I had put out on my window sill, I quit. Nobody, I decided, would go out of their way to read that stuff. It even bored me. But it was an appetizer. My little effort had a name, I had an online identity and the blogosphere was calling.

As the season passed, some of the students in my Race and Ethnicity course started pressing me to meet with them outside of class so they could learn more about that thorny topic. We made time somehow, but the meetings had to be at night to accomodate schedules and often went late as I hung out in the parking lot with one or another of them wrestling with racial issues. Plus it was only reaching a handful considering the effort expended. So it was maybe a no-brainer that, as the new year approached, it should suddenly occur to me that the answer was to blog about race.

I approached the task with trepidation. My opening post had me stepping out onto a stage (exactly how I felt) and bowing expectantly before my unseen audience. But soon I was hastening home from campus to blog or driving across town thinking about a post or stopping in the middle of a sentence to jot down something someone had just said that would spur me to respond but to an international audience of imaginary readers as soon as I could get to a keyboard.

And here I am just short of three years later, watching the figures move into the second 50,000. I know that others get 10,000 hits per day and pay their rent by writing posts. I know they get to go on television and get invited to hold forth at blogger conferences I can’t even afford to attend. Nevertheless, I am most assuredly a part of the blogosphere and play my little role with great seriousness and great pride.

Since I started, I have watched and been a part of a number of blogging efforts that increased the credibility of new media in general and blogging in particular as an important addition to the on-going evolution of communication among humans on this planet. I played some small part in the development of a huge blogospheric response to the backlash against Latino immigration, more specific campaigns having to do with such situations as the boycott against Chiquita bananas because of United Fruit’s admission that they paid millions over time to kill union organizers in Latin American countries, and – oh, my, yes! – the gearing up for the mind-blowing march on Jena.

I was featured in an American Sociological Association publication article on sociologists as bloggers (the writer of which found me on the internet). I had a blog post published in a social problems reader on welfare (after the editor found the post by surfing the web). If you google my online identity, I come up for days. And I even did a piece of research on bloggers as social change agents, an effort that is just now having its finishing touches applied before submission to a scientific journal.

But while all that was going on, I also left my day job to write a book on race (which I’m finally considering publishing myself); had my gall bladder removed in a veeeeery dramatic moment without health insurance; managed to sell a house after it was trashed by a former husband; somehow skirted paying the IRS $7000 I didn’t owe them, but which they were committed to collecting; discovered I could move full time into the academic arena and did so; moved from one Southern state to another even deeper one; and was diagnosed with diabetes, a permanent life-change of the first order. Yet I always ultimately found time to post, returned to posting after brief hiatuses and posted more in the past year than in either of the first two. Apparently, I’m a blogger. And linked to others like myself around the world, some of whom have become dear friends, though few I have gotten to see face to face.

On other fronts, as I think back over the past three years, I'm reminded that Sami Al-Arian is now finally out of prison (at least for the present and I pray God daily that he stays that way); Aafia Siddiqui has been removed from her hell-hole in Afghanistan, Genarlow Wilson is free and the Georgia law that he “broke” has been struck down; the Angola Three are no longer in solitary confinement; word has it that Guantanamo Bay is on its way to being dismantled; and the President-elect is a hyper-intelligent African-American who ran on the platform that we can change our country and our world.

Have there been less triumphant outcomes to other stories? Yes. But my question just for this one day is not whether anything bad has happened, but rather whether anything good has. And it has. We – you and I – helped to make good things happen. By reading and writing and clicking on and linking to, by thinking about and passing along and meeting up and working to change -- ourselves and our respective societies, we have demonstrated our commitment to life as it can be, even in the face of what has sometimes seemed to be insurmountable odds.

It’s been a good three years. Thanks for dropping by. I’m looking forward to what comes next.
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The graphic featured above is a Ricardo Levins Morales poster available from Northland Poster Collective.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Homecoming

Life is an endless evolution of developments. Mine. Yours. Jeff Rivera’s. And Dio Rodriguez’. Who are these last two? I’m glad you asked. I’m getting ready to tell you.

Jeff Rivera is an author. Young. African-American. Model-gorgeous. Driven. And talented. I learned about him because he sent me an email introducing himself and introducing me to his concept of “guerilla marketing” (more about that later). He told me that Warner Books/Grand Central Publishing’s Hachette imprint was bringing out a new edition of his book Forever My Lady and that he was available for interviews. I, of course, wrote him back and asked if the email was really from him or from some PR person at Grand Central. He laughed. And it was on.

Rivera’s story is almost a novel in itself. He spent most of his childhood dirt poor and asthmatic in a predominantly White neighborhood outside of Portland, Oregon, before moving with his mother to Las Vegas. The marriage between his mother and his step-father was turbulent, at best, and Rivera felt the pangs of watching the people he loved in long-standing and debilitating anguish. Those pangs of pain and abuse burrowed deep in his soul where they became the words that even as a child poured onto paper.

At six, Rivera was already known for his “stories.”

“Watch out!” his schoolmates would warn each other, “He’s gonna write a story about you!”

But the budding writer was helpless to resist his urge to capture life and turn it into pages. “Even early on,” Rivera remembers, “I knew I wanted to write stories that would make people feel.”

Asked why that was – and remains – so important to him, Rivera is quick to answer. “If people read my words and feel something, then maybe they’ll get me and I won’t feel so different.”

The feeling of difference, needless to say, manifested itself in the longing he had for peace in his life and in the embarrassment and fatigue Rivera felt as a youth from having to get up in the middle of the night to clean offices with his mother to help the struggling family survive.

By the time he was a sophomore in high school, he was journaling about the things that were going on in his world, often in French for privacy, and his reputation as a nerd made him an easy target among his classmates. Then the die was really cast when a kid he knew taunted him with the statement, “Go ahead and write a book! I’ll walk the street naked when you make your first million!” The challenge haunts him still and he fully expects to collect on that debt one day.

But it has been far from an easy process. For starters, after his mother's marriage finally fell apart, Rivera and she wound up at one point living out of their car for a while and if he felt “different” before, his humiliation was now truly complete. While his younger brother stayed with a friend and his older sister was successfully established in a marriage of her own, Rivera and his mother were so reduced in spirit, they couldn’t bring themselves to tell anyone about their plight – not even family. And he spent his days escaping to the library when he wasn’t working at the skating rink within view of the car that had become the symbol of his family’s financial failure.

It was only after his mother reached her emotional and psychological breaking point that social services stepped in to provide a roof over the two brother’s heads. Then, while working in one of the many jobs he has had to take to meet his basic needs, Rivera met a young Latino former gang member who told him – in broken English – stories about his life. Rivera was captivated and ultimately used the stories as the basis for a screenplay, which eventually morphed into the novel Forever My Lady, an “urban romance” in the “street lit” genre.

Hollywood didn’t see the possibilities in the original screenplay at the time Rivera first submitted it, though they are sniffing around the project now. And a decade went by before the novel about a young man named Dio Rodriguez was a fait accompli. Lacking confidence that a mainstream publisher would opt to put the book into print, Rivera decided in 2005 while working a day job at a fancy hotel in Miami to publish the first 25 copies himself.

Every penny he earned from the sale of the books went back into more copies and this was when “guerrilla marketing” was born. He shamelessly peddled the book, joining message boards, linking to websites, allowing it to be downloaded for free online, and emailing thousands of publishers and agents, until about 8000 people had read it.

In the following year, Forever My Lady was voted Best Urban Fiction by the Mahogany Book Club Media Review, who also named Rivera Best New Author of 2006. Mi Gente Magazine made Rivera their Author of the Year that year, as well, and made Forever their Book of the Year. Why? Because Forever My Lady is a story of first love and obstacles, of hopes and dreams, of abandonment and letting go in the classic tradition of all such tales of heartbreak. In other words, it’s a coming of age story and even the preface is so tense in its immediacy that the reader is sucked into it at once.

Needless to say, once the awards joined the voices of thousands of readers, it didn’t take long for folks in important places to smell the money. And when Rivera finally connected with an agent, the sale of Forever My Lady to Warner Books took only seven days. Does this make Rivera’s life a rags-to-riches story? Absolutely. Is he an example of one man’s triumph over adversity to fulfill his own potential? No question. But it took a lifetime of honing his craft, more than a decade of unflagging commitment, and a LOT of work (while working his day jobs) to find the pot at the end of the rainbow. Still, find it he has.

Jeff Rivera, at 32, is now awash in speaking opportunities and consultancy gigs with a passel of literary projects in process. He is being pressed for a sequel, which will be forthcoming, though Rivera is in no rush any more. He can exhale now. No more living in cars with a goldfish in a cup for him. No more crappy day jobs or taunting schoolmates or self-doubt for him. The publishing world and his fans have embraced the wanderer. Jeff Rivera is home.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Serve Yourself

"Service is the rent we pay for the privilege of living on this earth. It is the very purpose of life, and not something you do in your spare time." ~ Shirley Chisholm

Shirley Chisholm, earned a degree in elementary education and ran a day care for some years before becoming the first African-American woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. In 1972, she ran for the Presidency "in spite of hopeless odds," as she put it, "to demonstrate the sheer will and refusal to accept the status quo." In other words, she didn't just talk about service, she put her money and her energy and her reputation and her commitment where her mouth was. There is much we could learn from her example.

As you know from my frequent whining, I spend a lot of my time overburdened and overwhelmed. I keep it like that. And while there have been times in my life when I was dodging reality by doing this, and while there have been other times in my life when I think I was just doing this from sheer habit, it's different now. I'm serving. And aware of it. But, of course, I still whine. Or brag. What's the difference?

Anyway, the point is, I've been thinking of late about the benefits I enjoy by the accident of nature or design that put me in the U.S. born to my college-educated parents in this skin with this brain at this point in history. I'm not high-rolling by a long shot, but I eat pretty much what I want or at least I don't go without food. I have four rooms all my own plus a bathroom with a flush toilet that works all the time. I have drinkable water coming out of three different faucets and take a hot shower whenever I like. I can flick a switch and get adequate light or heat or air conditioning at will.

I have a job paying a living wage. I have a car that runs pretty well almost all the time (even if it looks a little funky). I can buy clothes when I need them and boots just because I want to. I can get what I need to manage my diabetes without worrying about it. I belong to a gym and I already have my plane ticket to go see my daughter in New York City for Christmas where I will spend fifty dollars just getting from the airport to her apartment in Manhattan. I buy books -- albeit used -- on a regular basis. I can occasionally spend forty bucks on dinner without more than a pause (and have been known to spend more on very special days). I bought new flannel pajamas when the old ones got too big. I have a few pieces of art just because. I can afford to send money to feed street kids in Haiti or regularly help sustain the work of my local NAACP chapter or pick up the tab for a student's dinner. And I have ready access to two computers (just for me), the internet, services beyond any rational limit, and a ridiculous variety of almost any product you can imagine.

In addition, I can expect that, under most circumstances, I will not be stopped or arrested by the police for no reason, I will get a more or less fair shake in court, and I will not be followed around a store to make sure I don't shoplift. I don't have to be concerned that I might be snatched up by mistake and deported. My skin tone won't keep me out of a job, should I need one. And most of the time, I will be treated with respect I may, quite frankly, not have earned.

I mean, life is good. For those like me.

But I am incredibly aware that it's not like this for everybody. Increasingly, it's not like this for many, many people. Even right around the corner from me.

My point? Well, according to Shirley Chisholm, I owe for this. There's a bill. Just as surely as the one I pay with my debit card -- and without thinking -- at the restaurant table or the cash register or the toll booth or on the internet. Only you can't pay it with a debit card (though money, too, can be useful in a wide range of positive ways).

But when push comes to shove, I owe with my body. With my brain. And with my time.

This whining I do, this feeling overburdened and overwhelmed, needs to go. I am rolling in wealth, comparatively speaking. I am surrounded by beauty and joy. I am awash in the best of so much of what life offers that I really must just say thank you and ante up in every way I can and look for more opportunities. THIS is what is meant by you reap what you sow. THIS is what is meant by the more you give, the more you receive. THIS is what is meant by whatever measure you use to give will be used in measuring what you get back. It's NOT cash money the way the evangelists (hungry for their cut) suggest. It's our lives we owe. And absolutely worth it.

It's a great thing, in my opinion, that Barack Obama was elected to the U.S. Presidency, but that doesn't get anybody off the hook. If we expect one human being to fix this mess (which every one of us has helped to create either by what we do or what we haven't done), if we imagine that one human being can somehow magically turn this ship around, we are still living in la-la land. Let's make it happen. Let's change the world. Yes, we can. Yes, I can. Yes, I will.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Hail to the Chief!

I hate to have to write this post, but there isn’t any choice, I guess. Apparently, there are some people in this country who are so sick, so racist, so anti-American and so stupid they think it’s okay to threaten people of color because the President of the United States is African-American.

I was veeeeery busy this week, so I tried my damnedest not to pay attention to the stories. But when one of your closest friends is the President of the local chapter of the NAACP and she insists on sending you blow-by-blow emails about whatever insanity is currently being perpetrated, it’s hard to stay out of the loop.

This week, since the election, some local teachers have been saying things to Black students like, “Nobody that looks like you could be a real President because you’re all too stupid.” Then, there was the case of a White child who was walking around his school the day after the election so upset by it that he was saying, “I’m gonna kill the first nigger I see.” (We don't have to wonder what HE hears at home, do we?)

Then children started being suspended from school for mentioning the name of President-elect Barack Obama at all. Needless to say, we’re talking African-American children here, which would seem to presume that no self-respecting White child would mention our new President.

The excuse for sending these “bad” children home is that there are rules intended to keep “politics” out of public classrooms, but the principals who are participating in this madness are pretending they don’t realize this means “political campaigning.” By the standard these sicko’s are using, the children will ostensibly not be allowed to talk about George Washington either or Abraham Lincoln or any government (U.S. or otherwise) or any legal system or any branch thereof or…whatEVER!

And to make the whole thing worse, it’s not just happening in Louisiana. I got an email from another blogger informing me that it's happening in Mississippi, too, though at least there's been some discipline meted out by administrators over there. And in Texas, the election of the President was greeted by epithets, but not by newspaper articles. Good grief! What are these people thinking?

The landslide election of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States is being celebrated all over the world. The United States has never elected a man with more capability and intelligence and we need his kind of leadership right now worse than we ever have. That a**holes are intimidating and punishing children for being excited about that is exactly the type of thing that makes people in other cultures think we as a nation deserve to go to our knees in front of God and everybody.

On Tuesday, I was prouder of my fellow United Statians than I have been in many a moon. Since I heard all this, I'm wondering if maybe some of us would rather go somewhere else. It would be okay with me if they did.

Friday, November 07, 2008

The Struggle Is Not New News

On this day in 1837, a drunken mob attacked a warehouse where a printing press sat waiting to produce the Alton (Illinois) Observor, an unapologetically anti-slavery newspaper published by Elijah Lovejoy, an abolitionist minister. He had already been run out of St Louis, just across the river in Missouri. And similar mobs had already destroyed two printing presses and threatened Lovejoy's life. But his response was simple and straightforward:

"You may hang me...you may burn me at the stake, tar and feather me, or throw me into the Mississippi, but you cannot disgrace me. I and I alone can disgrace myself; and the deepest of all disgrace would be, at a time like this to deny my Master by forsaking his cause."

When the mob charged, Lovejoy tried using a torch to hold it back, but two doctors, hiding behind a woodpile shot him a total of five times and he died, two days before his thirty-fifth birthday. One of the doctors was seen to dance a jig as Lovejoy's bloody body was carried home to his pregnant wife.

Until this occurance, many "White" northerners labored under the delusion that the controversy around the abolition of slavery was just a clash of opposing ideas, but this event demonstrated otherwise as an early predictor of the Civil War which came twenty-five years later. Read the whole story here.