The Global African-American influence

Prior to living in America, I had already visited the country a number of times. But that’s not how I am able to sing RnB songs, or how I’m able to rap full verses from artists like Common, Jay Z, Biggie and Tupac or even much older hip hop groups. It’s not how I understand African-American slang or can do certain dances in clubs. I know all of that because African-Amerian culture is broadcast into homes around the world. Despite growing up in the UK, I have been exposed to many aspects of African-American culture throughout my entire life, as have many other black people around the globe.

It can be hard for African-Americans to get a grasp of just how pervasive and global African-American culture is and has become. When I lived in Johannesburg in South Africa, for example, I was at times amused and at other times disturbed by the adoption of African-American language, fashion and music by young South Africans. I used to go a particular club that could have come from a Beyonce video. You would have thought you were in New York or Atlanta rather than Johannesburg.

People always ask me ‘how do you know these songs?’ and ‘how do you know about that, how do you know about this?’ and I tell them I know because I have been massively exposed to it all throughout my whole life. America, and by extension African-America, is constantly shown to the world on a huge scale.

Now, I wonder if African-Americans realized this, they would also feel more responsible about what they put out. I’m talking here about people like Nas and his new album, I’m talking about BET and the type of content they put out, I’m talking about all of those people who insist – through various media – in showing the worst aspects of African-American life. Not only is that stuff released to America, it is released to young impressionable black people around the world who look up to African-Americans as a beacon of success and progression.

I was reminded of this by a blog I came across in which the writer said he’d come across a shop in Malawi called ‘Nigger’ (see picture above) and how proud the owners were of their shop’s name, thinking that they were somehow in touch with African-Americans that they looked up to.

Nas is releasing his song Nigger not only to his homegrown community but to the global community. What will the effect be on the young kids in the townships of South Africa, for example, who don’t really understand the significance and nuances surrounding that word? What about the black kids in the inner cities in England who have only just, in the past 10 years or so, started calling each other ‘nigga’ – just because their favourite black hip hop artists have made the word seem cool – and who now believe that they are ‘niggas’?

The global influence of African-American culture is huge. It affects black people all over the world. This can of course be a great thing. It has unfortunately also been a negative thing. I just don’t think people get how far the reach of African America extends… If they did maybe people like Nas might really think hard about how they use that influence.

 

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Do You Wanna Be A Nigger?!

 Nas has sparked controversy with his new track “Be A Nigger too” . Personally I don’t really understand what he’s trying to say or why he feels the need to use the word – other than for publicity’s sake.

I don’t think he’s made any insightful, enlightening or political points in the song, or said anything particularly meaningful or profound either – so it really does seem that he’s used the word for no good reason.

Since I’ve been living in America, one thing that has shocked me is the amount of racial terminology and general derogatory language that people use. ‘Nigga’, ‘bitch’, ‘cracker’, ‘muthaf***a’ – I hear them all… and often.

Until I came here, I thought that the N word was used mainly in music, until I realized that it really is an every day term in the black community. Its usage in hip hop may have called attention to it and made the word more public, but the fact is was already being used in common speech. Some people use it more than others, but in general ALOT of people use it. It’s not even a class thing – middle class and educated black people use it too.

I’ve had a number of discussions about the word and my opinion now, based on my experience here, is that trying to get rid of it is pointless because it really is a word that is deeply ingrained (whether or not people want to admit it) in African-American culture.

Saying that though, I think it’s extremely sad that black people choose to use the word at all. To my knowledge, no other ethnic community has taken a word that has been used to subjugate them, started using it themselves and then made themselves believe that they have turned the word into a positive. No – they have just consigned the derogatory word to the past where it belongs and moved on.

If African-Americans (or any other black people) want to use a term for endearment or to describe ourselves, why not choose something else? Why don’t we make up our own word – a word about which we don’t have to have countless debates and discussions regarding whether or not it is positive or negative? 

The argument that the meaning of the N word has now been made positive is a false one. African Americans often use the term to denigrate other black people, so I don’t buy that argument. As a black person, I could still offend another black person if I used the word in a certain way. Furthermore, most black people would also still be very offended if a non-black person called them a nigger (even as a term of endearment), so I don’t really see how the word’s meaning has changed at all.

I personally can’t understand why people can’t find another word to use if they do want to use it as a term of endearment (‘darling’, ‘love’, ‘dear’, ‘sweetie’, ‘honey’ are all quite good!) but I’ve come to accept that nigger is a word that has been used for years, in fact for centuries, and for whatever reason black people still continue to use it today and will continue in the future.

Having not grown up around the word (it has only started being used in England by young black people recently, as a result of hip hop), it has very little meaning or significance for me. It’s certainly not a word I use to define myself or to define others.

My biggest issue with the word is that it is still so negatively powerful and so destructively rich in meaning. Acting as if it means nothing and that it is a harmless term and continuing to use it over and over again actually gives it MORE power rather than reduces it.

If it truly was a harmless word, we wouldn’t even be having this discussion right now and nobody would give too hoots about Nas’ latest song. 

The Sean Bell Tragedy – A response by Kevin Powell

The Sean Bell Tragedy
By Kevin Powell

April 25, 2008

I am sick to my stomach and I really do not know what to say right this second. My cell and office phones have been blowing up all day, and people have been emailing me nonstop, to let me know that Detectives Michael Oliver, Gescard Isnora, and Marc Cooper, the three New York City police officers accused of shooting 50 times and murdering Sean Bell, were found not guilty on all counts: Oliver, who fired 31 times and reloaded once, and Isnora, who fired 11 times, had been charged with manslaughter, felony assault and reckless endangerment. They faced up to 25 years in prison if convicted on all charges. Cooper, who fired four times, faced up to a year in jail if convicted of reckless endangerment.
And that’s it: Sean Bell, a mere 23 years of age, out partying the morning before the wedding to the mother of his two small children, dead, gone, forever. Sean Bell and his two friends, Trent Benefield and Joseph Guzman, all unarmed, ambushed by New York’s finest. His last day, November 25, 2006, is marked as another tragic one in New York City history. How many more? I once heard in a protest song. How many more?

But I knew this verdict was coming. I have lived in New York City for nearly two decades and, before that, worked as a news reporter for several publications throughout the city’s five boroughs, and I cannot begin to tell you how many cases of police brutality and police misconduct I covered or witnessed, more often than not a person of color on the receiving end: Eleanor Bumpurs. Michael Stewart…Amadou Diallo…Sean Bell.

This is not to suggest that all police officers are trigger-happy and inhumane, because I do not believe that. They have a difficult and important job, and many of them do that job well, and maintain outstanding relationships with our communities. I know officers like that. But what I am saying is that New York, America, this society as a whole, still views the lives of Black people, of Latino people, of people of color, of women, of poor or working-class people, as less than valuable. It does not matter that two of the three officers charged in the Sean Bell case were officers of color and one White. What matters is the mindset of racism that permeates the New York Police Department, and far too many police departments across America. Shooting in self-defense is one thing, but it is never okay to shoot first and ask questions later, not even if a police officer “feels” threatened, not even if the source of that “feeling” is a Black or Latino person.

That is a twisted logic deeply rooted in the America social fabric, dating back to the founding fathers and their crazy calculations about slaves being three-fifths of a human being. And in spite of Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Tiger Woods, and other successful Black individuals, by and large the masses of Black people, and Latino people, are perpetually viewed through this lens of not being quite human. William Kristol of the New York Times wrote what I felt was an incredibly ignorant and myopic March 24th column implying, strongly, that we should not have conversations about race in America, that such talk was dated. This piece was in response to Barack Obama’s now famous meditation on race. But Kristol, like many in denial, had this to say: “The last thing we need now is a heated national conversation about race… Racial progress has in fact continued in America. A new national conversation about race isn’t necessary to end what Obama calls the ‘racial stalemate we’ve been stuck in for years’— because we’re not stuck in such a stalemate… This is all for the best. With respect to having a national conversation on race, my recommendation is: Let’s not, and say we did.” Well, Mr. Kristol, what, precisely, do you think Black New Yorkers are feeling this very moment as we absorb the Sean Bell verdict? Or do our thoughts, our feelings, our wounds, not matter?

“Black male lives are meaningless in America,” a female friend just texted me, and what can I say to that? Who’s going to help Nicole Paultre Bell, Sean Bell’s grieving fiancé, explain to their two young daughters that the men who killed their daddy are not going to be punished?

I remember that November 2006 day so vividly, when word spread of the Sean Bell killing. And I remember the hastily assembled meetings by New York City’s de facto Black leadership—the ministers, the elected officials, the grassroots activists—at Local 1199 in midtown Manhattan where it was stated, with great earnestness and finality, that after all these years, we were going to put together a comprehensive response to police brutality and misconduct. There were to be three levels of response: governmentally (local, state, and federal bills were going to be proposed, and task forces recommended); systemically within the police department (comprehensive proposals were called for to challenge police practices or to enforce ones already in place); and via the United States Justice Department, since any form of police brutality or misconduct is a violation of basic American civil rights. We met for a few months after the Sean Bell murder, divided into committees, then the entire thing died—again. There was a lot of research done, many hearings that were transcribed, much talk of a united front, then nothing, not even an email to say the plan was no longer being planned.

Anyhow, in the interim I spent a great deal of time, more time than I’ve spent in my entire New York life, in Queens, mainly in Jamaica, Queens, getting to know Sean Bell’s family. I was particularly struck by Sean Bell’s mother, Valerie Bell, and his father, William Bell. Two very decent and well-intentioned working-class New Yorkers, who had raised their children the best they could, who were now, suddenly, activists thrust into a spotlight they had never sought. The parents are what we the Black community calls “God-fearing, church-going folk.” Indeed, what was so incredible was how much Mr. and Mrs. Bell believed in and referenced God. But that is our sojourn in America: when everything else fails us, we still have the Lord. And there they were, holding a 50-day vigil directly across from the 103rd precinct, on 168th Street, right off Jamaica Avenue and 91st Avenuein Jamaica, Queens, in the dead-cold winter air. They and their family members and close friends taking turns monitoring the makeshift altar of candles, cards, and photos. And I remember how we had to shame local leaders a few times into supporting Mr. and Mrs. Bell with donations of money, food, or other material needs. While much of the media and support flocked to Nicole Paultre Bell, Sean Bell’s fiancé, and the sexiness of her being represented by the Reverend Al Sharpton and his lawyer pals Sanford Rubenstein and Michael Hardy, the media did not pay much attention to Sean Bell’s parents and their kinfolk at all.

What was especially striking was the fact that Mrs. Bell got up every single morning, made her way to the vigil area, then to work in a local hospital all day, then to her church every single evening. She reminded me so much of my own mother, of any Black mother in America who has had to be the backbone of the family, often sacrificing her own health, her own wants and needs, her own hurt and pain, to be there for others in their time of need.

Mrs. Bell always told me that she truly believed justice would be done in this case. She really did. I never had the heart to tell her that it is rare for a police officer to be found guilty of murdering a civilian, no matter how glaring the evidence. Nor did I have the heart to tell Mrs. Bell that the media and the defense would seek to destroy her son’s image and reputation, that Sean Bell would be reduced to a thug, as an unsavory character, to somehow justify the police shooting. Nor did I have the heart to tell Mrs. Bell that this pain of losing her son would be with her the remainder of her life. I did not share my suspicion that the parade of Black leaders, Black protests, media hype—all of it—was all part of someone’s carefully concocted script, brushed off and brought to the parade every single time a case like this occurred. I have seen it before, and as long as we live in a city, a nation, that does not value all people as human, there will be more Sean Bells.

“I am Sean Bell,” many of us chanted in the days and weeks immediately following his death. Yet very few of us showed up to the hearings after, and even fewer had the courage to question the vision, or lack thereof, of our own Black leadership who accomplished, ultimately, little to nothing at all. And very few of us realized that the powers-that-be in New York City have come to anticipate our reactions to matters like the Sean Bell tragedy: we get upset and become very emotional; we scream “No Justice! No Peace!”; we march, rally, and protest; we call the police and mayor all kinds of names and demand their resignations; we vow that this killing will be the last; and we will wait until the next tragedy hits, then this whole horrible cycle begins anew.

Plain and simple, racism creates abusive relationships. It does not matter if the perpetrator is a White sister or brother, or a person of color, because the most vulnerable in our society feel the heat of it. Real talk: this tragedy would have never gone down on the Upper Eastside of Manhattan or in Brooklyn Heights. I am not just speaking about the judge’s decision, but the police officer’s actions. Those shots would have never been fired at unarmed White people sitting in a car. Until we understand that racism is not just about who pulled the trigger in a police misconduct case, but is also about the geography of racism, and the psychology of racism, we are forever stuck having the same endless dialogue with no solution in sight.

And until America recognizes the civil and human rights of all its citizens, systemic racism and police misconduct, joined at the hip, will never end. That is, until White sisters and brothers realize they, too, are Sean Bell, this will never end. Save for a few committed souls, most White folks sit on the sidelines (as many did when we marched down Fifth Avenue in protest of Sean Bell’s murder in December 2006), feel empathy, but fail to grasp that our struggle for justice is their struggle for justice. They, alas, are Sean Bell, and Amadou Diallo, and all those anonymous Black and Brown heads and bodies who’ve been victimized, whether they want to accept that reality or not. And the reality is that until police officers are forced to live in the communities they police, forced to learn the language, the culture, the mores of the communities they police, forced to change how they handle undercover assignments, this systemic racism, this police misconduct, will never end. And until Black and Latino people, the two communities most likely to suffer at the hands of police brutality and misconduct, refuse to accept the half-baked leadership we’ve been given for nearly forty years now, and start to question what is really going on behind the scenes with the handshakes, the eyewinks, the head nods, and the backroom deals at the expense of our lives, this systemic racism, this police misconduct, these kinds of miscarriages of justice, will never end.

Our current leadership needs us to believe all we can ever be are victims, doomed to one recurring tragedy or another. It keeps these leaders gainfully employed, and it keeps us feeling completely helpless and powerless. Well, I am not helpless nor powerless, and neither are you. To prevent Sean Bell’s memory from fading like dust into the air, the question is put to you, now: What are you going to do to change this picture once and for all? Mayor Bloomberg said this in a statement:

“There are no winners in a trial like this. An innocent man lost his life, a bride lost her groom, two daughters lost their father, and a mother and a father lost their son. No verdict could ever end the grief that those who knew and loved Sean Bell suffer.”

No, the grief will never end, not for Sean Bell’s parents and family, for his fiancé and children. But Mayor Bloomberg, you, me, we the people, can step up our games, make a commitment to real social justice in our city, in our nation, and, for once, penalize people, including police officers, who just randomly blow away lives. Sean Bell is never coming back, but we are here, and the biggest tragedy will be if we keep going about our lives, as if this never happened in the first place.

And a long as we have leadership, White leadership and Black leadership, mainstream leadership and grassroots leadership, that can do nothing more than exacerbate folks’ very natural emotions in a tragedy like this, we will never progress as a human race. Instead a true leader needs to harness those emotions and turn them into action, as Dr. King did, as Gandhi did. In the absence of such action, so many of us, especially us Black and Latino males, will continue to have a very nervous relationship with the police, even the police of color, for fear that any of one of us could be the next Sean Bell.

 


Kevin Powell is a Brooklyn, New York-based writer, community activist, and author of 8 books. He can be reached at kevin@kevinpowell.net.

WTF???!!! Sean Bell Injustice

News is in this morning that the 3 detectives in the Sean Bell case have all been acquitted on all charges pertaining to Sean Bell’s murder.

I’m shocked although sadly it’s not even that surprising.I had hoped though that justice might have been served. This is a travesty, a huge injustice and disrespectful of human life. What kind of a message does this verdict send out!? Police are still above the law it seems, able to kill innocent people willy nilly and not be held accountable. Lord help any of us who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Not only do we have to worry about being shot by criminals, but those who are supposed to protect us might kill us too.

Sean Bell was shot 50 times. 50. 5-0. I cannot for the life of me understand how or why officers who are highly trained in how to shoot accurately need to shoot one person 50 times. Could they not have disarmed (if they believe he was carrying a gun) or maimed him with a couple of shots? It’s likely that he probably would have died after the first few bullets anyway, so why the need for 50? That to me, does not sound like the actions of officers who were in control of a situation. Somehow the judge deemed otherwise.

What does this do for the relationship between the police and local communities? Let me be specific here – what does this do for the (already tense) relationship between the police and black people? We are supposed to trust the police, we are supposed to have faith in their ability to protect us when we can’t protect ourselves, they are supposed to be the ones who act as a barrier between us and those who might wish us harm. History has already shown many black people that they can’t and shouldn’t trust the police… and this ridiculous verdict further reinforces that point of view.

Is it ok for the police to kill innocent people just because they were ‘doing their job’? That’s what this verdict seems to suggest. Ah well, ya know, the cops were just doing their best, and too bad for Sean Bell who was caught up in it all. Never mind that he was innocent, that doesn’t matter…. Huh?? Even if the police were just doing their jobs, they made a fatal error which cost a young man his life. Their actions have fundamentally changed the lives of his family, his fiancee, his friends… Is there NO accountability for that whatsoever?!

Maybe the police were acting in the line of duty but they got it drastically wrong. Their actions did not protect. Their actions hurt and destroyed. They did not help a situation, they made it worse. If I work in a company and my actions – even if I believe them to be right at the time – end up in some huge financial loss or disaster for the company, you can bet I will be fired pretty promptly. The police’s actions in this case resulted in a huge mess: the loss of an innocent young life. The judge said that there was no evidence that the police officers acted criminally. Are you telling me that killing an innocent person is not criminal?! Once again, I ask – where’s the accountability??

In England, THANK GOD, the police do not carry guns (and guess what – crimes still get solved without them!)… A case like this proves even further that they should not be able to. Why? Cos they can’t get it right! The police cannot be trusted to carry lethal arms. Ok, once in a while, things go wrong – they are human after all. I get that, but when things go wrong, you have to be held responsible. And the cops in the Sean Bell murder case should have been held responsible. If they were a group of thugs carrying arms who accidentally killed a young man, they would have gone to prison. But no, clearly wearing a police badge puts them above the law.

It’s a sad, very very sad day for justice. What’s even worse is that judging by many of the comments I’ve read online, many people expected this verdict. I feel for the family and friends and anyone else who knows Sean Bell. I didn’t even know him and I’m outraged. The family must keep on fighting and get the necessary justice that is due to them and their son. America’s police and legal system needs to check themselves and ask some hard questions.

A new conversation about race begins…

So “Meeting David Wilson” aired on MSNBC on Friday. It was great… and the ensuing conversation was extremely interesting.

First of all, from the perspective of a Black Briton it was fascinating to see black and white people sitting on a stage, on national American television, talking about race in such a frank way. Tim Wise, Director of the Association for White Anti-Racist Education, was bold enough to ask questions such as (i paraphrase) ‘what’s wrong the pathology of people who subjugate and dominate others in the way that white America has done?’. I was like ‘WOW!! – did he really say that?!”

I have NEVER in my life heard such an open discussion take place in the mainstream arena in the UK. And to be honest, I don’t think such a conversation would take place…We are still in that ‘liberal’ mindset where we think that because someone has one black friend this means there is no racism in the UK. For all of England’s cries of being more open and less segregated than America, people do not discuss race in this way – even though they very much need to.

Some people think that the debate on race on Friday, however, was too academic and intellectualized. I don’t agree with that completely. I think the academics had a lot of important comments to add, but admist talk of the prison industrial complex, education and that sort of thing lots of them missed a glaringly obvious issue which is that of personal responsibility within the black community.

Black people have been oppressed. Black people still are oppressed to a degree – although arguably a lesser degree than in the past. However, outside oppression is not the only issue. Back in the day, in the days of slavery and even until recently, black people faced very overt systematic racism. However, in spite of that, they still educated themselves, taught themselves how to read by candelight and so on. So how come today, with less of those issues, people are still complaining and saying that they can’t raise themselves up? What about our own personal responsibility? What about what we can do INSPITE of the outside forces?

I’m just listening now to David Wilson talking on Al Sharpton’s radio show. Al Sharpton has just said: if I knock you down on Monday and you fall over, that’s my fault… but if I come back next week and you’re still lying there, that’s your issue! I agree with him – that’s where we are right now. Why are we as black people still lying down? If we want to get up, we have to make it happen ourselves.

Anyway I’m glad that Dave’s film has sparked this conversation – it’s a very important one for Americans to be having… I look forward to hearing and being involved in more discussions on this matter.

 

Iraq: The Republicans May Be Right…

In 2001, I was one of the many hundreds of thousands who took to the streets in London to protest against the invasion of Iraq. I couldn’t see the sense in it now and I can’t see the sense in it today. I long for the whole sorry mess to be over, but I don’t believe that the withdrawal of troops – considering the instability that has been created in Iraq – is the answer at this moment in time.

Iraq is in a state right now… and it’s up to America to stay in there and sort it out (since they started it!). The Republicans are making the most sense to me on this issue at the moment. Tensions are high in Iraq right now and General Petraeus’ reluctance to stick to a timetable for the withdrawal of troops as well as his call today for a 45 day halt on the withdrawal of troops seems to me to be the responsible – and right – thing to do. 

Hillary Clinton insists that “…it’s time to begin an orderly process of withdrawing our troops.” She wants a withdrawal of all troops within 60 days should she be elected as president. To me this is just wrong wrong wrong! If you (America) created the mess, it’s only right that you help clear it up! Undoubtedly there should be an exit strategy but strategies need to be adjusted and refined from time to time if they are to be effective.

I actually tend to agree with John McCain’s policy on this – troops must be kept in Iraq for as long as it takes to help re-build the country and make it stable again. There is actually no time scale on that. People can estimate and project, but as we’ve seen so far, those timescales have had little to do with reality.

Barack Obama’s position is some kind of middle ground, but I don’t think he can just say that he will withdraw 1 or 2 troops per month over 16 months without prior knowledge of what will be going on at the time. What if Iraq is in even greater crisis by then?

I don’t think General Petraeus wants to keep troops in Iraq, but he has to right now because of the present situation… and that is sensible and right.  I’m with the Republicans on this one.

Martin Luther King’s Dream 40 Years On

On April 4 1968, 40 years ago today, Martin Luther King was assassinated at the age of 39.

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As the world looks back on his life and his vision, here is a collection of some of the tributes to Martin Luther King that I have enjoyed today:

“Chasing The Dream”, a look at modern day examples of MLK’s dream ~ MSN.com: http://lifestyle.msn.com/specialguides/staticslideshow.aspx?cp-documentid=6652144

“A Bullet Can’t Kill A Dream” special, with photos, articles memoirs from MLK aides ~ Time.com: http://www.time.com/time/specials/2007/0,28757,1726656,00.html

“MLK Life & Times” ~ Seattle Times: http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/special/mlk/

“Echoes of 1968” ~ NPR: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=89372462