Vera J. Katz & Liz Lerman in Conversation (October 24) at The Potter’s House

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E. Ethelbert Miller likes to “conversate” with people who have ideas not just jobs. He’s pulled together two women who’ve never shared ideas in the same room before: Vera J. Katz and Liz Lerman. Many people may not know them up front and personal, but have experienced their work and its results. Just tune into network television/feature film, Broadway (Katz), see intergenerational arts, communities growing in motion, science (Lerman).

Read more below.

Saturday, October 24 at 3:30 PM Vera J. Katz and Liz Lerman come together for the first time in conversation about method, techniques, and journeys as master teachers, artists, and mentors in their disciplines – theater and dance. The conversation will be moderated by E. Ethelbert Miller writer and literary activist. The public conversation takes place at The Potter’s House (1658 Columbia Road, NW, Washington, DC). The event is hosted by E. Ethelbert Miller presented in partnership with Mosaic Theater Company of DC, and Michon Boston Group LTD engagement strategists. There is no admission fee. RSVP Requested.

Both Vera J. Katz and Liz Lerman have their unique approaches to philosophies about the theater and dance mediums. They have empowered students and artists who often come from communities outside their own culture and experiences. Their work with artists explore the depths of identity, culture, and social justice.

“Katz and Lerman continue to touch lives and shape history. There is much to learn from these women. They are teachers whose contributions extend beyond the classroom, workshop and stage. An afternoon of reflections and memories might just be the beginning of a new cultural blueprint,” says Miller who is also board chair at the Institute for Policy Studies.

Shortly after the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the riots that followed in 1968, Katz arrived on the Howard University campus to teach drama. It was a turbulent time of public grief, outrage, and protest on and off campus; not the time when Howard’s theater students could eagerly embrace a Jewish American woman professor.

Nearly 10 years later Lerman was completing her Master of Arts degree at George Washington University. She was also putting together a unique modern dance company and named it Dance Exchange. For Lerman, the MA degree was a way to get a stipend. The company was, in her words, “holding commitment to concert and community.”

pics_vkstudentsToday Katz is professor emeritus of Howard, gives private coaching, and teaches drama part time at the Ellington School of the Arts to a new generation of thespians. Katz has been called by former students Debbie Allen and Phylicia Rashad for dramaturgy and creative counsel. She is also putting the finishing touches on her memoir to include her unique techniques that have brought success to many African American actors appearing on stage, television, and film today: Taraji P. Henson (“Empire”), Anthony Anderson (“Blackish”), Chadwick Boseman (“42,” “Get On Up”), Wendy Raquel Robinson (“Steve Harvey Show”), just to name a few.

Lerman_ArchivesLerman’s vision broadened the reach of dance beyond the studio and stage. Her dancers toured nationally and internationally. They were multi-generational tapestry engaging the public in shipyards, synagogues, playgrounds, street corners in motion with geneticists and physicists, as well as health care workers and patients.

Washington, DC is no longer the city Vera J. Katz found in 1968 or the DC of 1976 when Liz Lerman launched her dance company. In 2002 Lerman received a genius award from the MacArthur Foundation, and published a collection of essays, Hiking the Horizontal: Field Notes from a Choreographer in 2011. Harvard University invited her to be an artist in residence, initiating new projects including the National Civil War Project, and the Healing Wars. Both projects explore the impact of war on humanity through arts and science. After 34 years Dance Exchange has been turned over to a new generation and Lerman has moved her life to Baltimore, Maryland.

The conversation is a time for Katz and Lerman to assess the changes in art, culture, identity, and the city of Washington, DC. It is a master class in the meaning of art in life and the life theater and dance has brought to so many.

Respect the Rules of the Game: A Father’s Memoir in BLACK AND WHITE

Richard Williams. AP/Mic  Smith

Richard Williams. AP/Mic Smith

Richard Williams is one of those men I would never call by his first name. He is “Mr. Williams”. He’s earned my respect that way.

serena-williams-new-york-magazine-cover-inlineBut I may be one of the few. To my surprise, I discovered the father of the top women tennis players in the world – Serena and Venus Williams – is the author of a memoir: BLACK AND WHITE: THE WAY I SEE IT written with Bart Davis.

The memoir was published in 2014 by Atria, a division of the major publishing house Simon and Schuster. Was this book on any African American book club reading lists? How many reviews did it receive? I was recently tipped off to BLACK AND WHITE by the New York magazine’s Fall Fashion cover story on Serena Williams. That author did the research. Apparently most of us didn’t. Or maybe I’m the one who’s late to the party.

In the early years of Venus and Serena Williams‘s tennis careers, Richard Williams was an ever-present figure. He was profiled and hammered by the press as a loose canon control freak father. No humility. No shame. No style. No front teeth. “Crazy like a fox” some people would say with admiration. “Just plain crazy,” others would say dismissively watching him nervously pace back and forth, or exiting the stands for a smoke while his daughters competed on clay or grass.

Mr. Williams’s battle hasn’t only been with the traditions and rituals of the near exclusively white tennis establishment, but with the familiar narrative that Black fathers are incapable of raising worldwide tennis champions. It goes like this: Black men are absent from their homes, strangers to their children, and if they are present and their daughters succeed, it was through an abusive regiment. Think Joseph Jackson, father of Michael Joseph Jackson.

We’ve also been programmed into falling in love with the romantic Black “ghetto” narrative pumped up by the rise of hip hop culture. FADE UP: public courts/drug markets of Compton. See Venus and Serena avoid broken glass, dodge bullets while hitting balls across the net. (You mean there was a net?)

In BLACK AND WHITE, Mr. Williams slams all that:

“…when my daughters burst on the scene, people thought of us as the poor black family from the ghetto rising up against the white tide of tennis and America. The truth was I had created a company before they were born called Richard Williams Tennis Associates, which I still own, and had saved $810,000 which was all in the bank. I paid my own kids’ way through tennis. I didn’t want anyone to help me. I could have gotten sponsors, but Venus and Serena were my children, so it was my responsibility to pay for them. I never had to take one penny from anyone.”

Nothing or no one White or Black was going to stop Mr. Williams. That included the gangs who kicked out Mr. Williams’s teeth (the first time was in the deep South) when he fought for control of their open air drug market located on the Compton tennis courts.

Fighting it out in Compton was part of the plan. Mr. Williams moved his family from Long Beach to Compton where Venus and Serena would have to be courageous, tough under pressure, all under the protection and guidance of their parents and Mr. Williams directly. If Venus and Serena want to be champions also had to demonstrate commitment to tennis, to school, personal improvement, to family. A lack of commitment was a deal breaker.

Nothing can be realized without a plan. That’s Rule #1 in Richard Williams’s “Top Ten Rules for Success”: Failing to plan is planning to fail.

Initially Mr. Williams had no real interest in tennis, but after watching a tennis player on television receive a $40,000 cash prize for winning a match, his interest in tennis ballooned. Mr. Williams’ plan would start with himself. He found a teacher by chance named Mr. Oliver (who answered to “Old Whiskey” because he started the morning with a drink and didn’t stop until the end of the day). Mr. Oliver was sober enough to teach tennis to Compton youth and Mr. Williams. This was also a man who had worked with Arthur Ashe and Jimmy Connors. Ever defiant, even as a beginner, Mr. Williams challenged the age old tennis rule that you serve with the closed stance. He aimed to prove that theory wrong. That became Rule #7: Create theories and test them out.

Mr. Williams was committed to giving his dream team daughters something few young tennis pros had: a childhood. He observes other young tennis players full of potential and talent pushed beyond their commitment to succeed by anxious affluent parents. He notices these young athletes burning out early in their careers because they were told to compete with players beyond their levels. He pointed out to Venus and Serena examples of superstars who were broke because parents or handlers mismanaged their finances. (Venus Williams would eventually fight for and win equal prize money for women in competitive tennis.) And then there were the ones who adopted self-destructive behaviors to rebel, resist, or escape. Mr. Williams observes and shares the lessons with his daughters. Rule #5: When you fail, you fail alone. Rule #6: You learn by looking, seeing, and listening.

Mr. Williams anticipates the cruel world his daughters would inhabit as Black women committed to excellence. “Cruel” may be too gentle a word to describe the life of poverty, racial terror and violence Mr. Williams experienced growing up in Shreveport, Louisiana in the 1950s. These chapters make up the first half of the memoir and making the most traumatic part of his story.

Mr. Williams’s father better fits the narrative he’s fought against his entire life. R. D. Williams was a smooth talker when it came to the women. “R.D. was Mama’s greatest weakness, the invisible man who impregnated her by night and disappeared from our lives by day.” R.D. Williams didn’t have it in him to be a husband or a father. Mr. Williams abandons the notion of having any relationship or connection with his father when he sees R.D. run from the scene as his son is being beaten by a gang of white men.

Mr. Williams lifts up the women in his life like the answer to a prayer. He dedicates the book to his mother Julia Metcalf Williams who is still his “greatest hero”. Though she would never share the grand dreams of her son, she made him a believer in the power of faith and demonstrated it by practically praying the near dead back to life. He calls her a “prayer warrior.” Rule #4: Faith is essential to confidence. It pairs well with Rule #3: Confidence is essential to success.

Flip the order either way.

Confidence is something few people can fake successfully. When it’s real, it’s powerful. I’m sure Mr. Williams’s confidence is interpreted as arrogance by a lot of people he comes into contact with. But without confidence, he would have perished long ago.

Mr. Williams believes education is a game changer. But that couldn’t be achieved in Shreveport, not for a Black man or woman. Raced-based rules limited rights for Shreveport’s Black residents to own land, work for living wages, vote, and learn. The wood-framed tin-roofed school Mr. Williams attended as a boy was called “Little Hope” – “The name was absolutely correct. Negroes had little hope”. There was no flagpole according to Williams. The stars and stripes was nailed to a long stick “bolted on the tin roof.” The single outhouse had maggots. The teacher was dedicated to the forty children in the one room structure, but too fragile and elderly to turn things around. The principal was a “stumbling drunk.” Mr. Williams had spirit or grit, courage, and anger.

In the memoir Mr. Williams describes how one of his best friends was killed by the Klan for stealing a pig. Lil’ Man was found hanging from a tree; his hands cut off and stuck on a fence. But it’s not just the Klan. Another childhood friend is struck by a car driven by a white woman who doesn’t stop. The boy is left to die like fresh road kill. A third is found hands tied, naked floating facedown in the water.

If anyone thinks these horrors happened a long time ago, talk to a living witness.

After the death of his friends Richard Williams turns up the heat on his childhood fascination with stealing.

“I grew from a heated boy into an angry young man, filled with rage. When I couldn’t get the white man’s respect, I dishonored him by stealing from him. I had no sense of guilt or remorse. I was the injured party. I “confiscated” because it made me feel powerful and in control.”

He even substitutes the word “stealing” with “confiscating.” There is no passive resistance in his being. Mr. Williams justifies the badassedness of his youth in the deep South as a way of evening up the score in a brutally racist world.

His escapades go so far as to disguise himself in a KKK hood and robe stolen via the daughter of its original owner. Mr. Williams puts white flesh colored makeup on his arms and hands, jumps on his bike and launches a private war on Shreveport’s white citizens and fellow KKK members. There’s one incident during this hooded rampage that the young Mr. Williams finds himself holding the gun at a lynching. Quentin Tarantino or Dave Chappelle couldn’t make this up.

And yet, Mr. Williams still believed he could achieve the American dream. Fate was in his hands, and a plan to leave Shreveport.

Follow the north star. That’s the place to go for a young Black man who rode the rails in search of a place to breath, to feel free. Destination Chicago turned out not to be that place.

“Black-on-black crime in the inner city was on a rampage. Murders, stabbings, rapes, robberies, muggings, and beatings were an everyday occurrence. Like new enemies in an old war, blacks turned on each other with a vengeance…We were a hopeless people divided not only by racism, but by the contempt we had for each other.”

In BLACK AND WHITE everyone is on notice as Mr. Williams sees it from his experience. In his thirst for knowledge and finding it, Mr. Williams also acquires maturity. His anger and hatred are transformed into committed determination to succeed on his own terms.

As Mr. Williams fights the gang members in Compton over the tennis courts, one wonders why this battle didn’t end fatally for him. Why didn’t the gang members just pop the old man right there, leaving Mr. Williams and his plan to die on the spot where all his dreams began. It didn’t happen because I believe even these young men felt some respect for him based on the unwritten rules of the street. Who couldn’t respect a man willing to fight one or more (usually more) young men half his age for his daughters and for his dreams.

[Unfortunately that tragedy would come to the family later in 2003 — after the championships, money and fame and a move to Florida—the oldest daughter Yetunde Price, who chose to stay in Compton, was shot in the head by a member of the Crips gang who was gunning for her boyfriend driving the car.]

BLACK AND WHITE cuts straight to the chase on what the author/subject has designated as the teaching moments in his life. This is not a book for the reader looking for repentance from the author. There’s only room for gratitude.

In some ways you wonder if the journey has been more important to Mr. Williams’s understanding of the world than the destination. Personally, I’ve always been a strong believer in Rule #8: Always have a Plan B. There was a time Serena Williams wanted to be a veterinarian. Her father would’ve said, “Why not? Go for it.” Both Serena and Venus are designers for interiors, ready-to-wear, tennis fashion. Plan B, C, and probably the whole alphabet plan are in play.

blackandwhite_williamsThe first pages of BLACK AND WHITE open on the green grass of Wimbeldon – tennis nirvana. The grass descends into the place where fathers and mothers never want to be. When your child is ill and there’s nothing you can do. This opening chapter is what kept me turning the pages. Nothing can describe a parent’s pain when he/she feels helpless. It’s a struggle to apply Rule #2: Always be positive.

For me, this chapter expresses Mr. Williams’ love for his daughters more than any page in the book. And most, if not all, parents can relate. As harsh as the world may be, The Rules have kept Venus and especially Serena on their “A game” despite the smacks and jibes from the forces around them.

The Williams are masters and champions of the 10th and final Rule: Let no one define you but you.

Reading Code in SHOW ME A HERO

The impact of a 1987 federal court order to build 200 units of public housing spread out in Easter Yonkers’ predominately white, middle class neighborhoods in Yonkers, NY is the impetus for the drama that unfolds in SHOW ME A HERO, a new HBO mini-series based on the 1999 nonfiction book of the same title by Lisa Belkin.

Apparently David Simon, writer and an executive producer for the 6-hour dramatic retelling took a serious interest in Belkin’s book and the Yonkers housing battle while working on television series: “Homicide: Life on the Street” (NBC) and HBO’s “The Wire”, “Generation Kill,” and “Treme”. Thirteen years later, SHOW ME A HERO will have its broadcast premiere Sunday, August 16 (The miniseries will also be available on HBO NOW and HBO GO). In addition to Simon, the creative team includes his long-time collaborator William Zorzi, and beautifully directed by Paul Haggis (“Crash”).

SHOW ME A HERO opens in a graveyard, a nod to the last part of the famous F. Scott Fitzgerald “Show me a hero…” quote. From the fade up the story begins to write its tragedy. A beeping pager is the bell toll. More like a ticking time bomb.

If you weren’t reading newspapers at that time or looking through the archives now — the NAACP scored a victory (of sorts). They argued successfully in court that the city of Yonkers used federal funds to intentionally segregate its public housing into a cluster of high risers on the least desirable west side of the city. The package came with inferior resources blocking Black and Latino residents from opportunities, and locking them into a perpetual cycle of poverty and crime. The 1987 court order was the culmination of a case filed 7 years earlier — The United States of America and the Yonkers Branch of the NAACP, et. al. AGAINST The Yonkers Board of Education, the City of Yonkers, and the Yonkers Board of Education, the City of Yonkers , and the Yonkers Community Development Agency. Or simply put U.S. vs. Yonkers.

After U.S. District Judge Leonard Sand (Bob Balaban) lowers his gavel, the battle-worn NAACP president Benjamin Hooks, played by Clayton LeBouef (a veteran actor of Simon’s “Homicide: Life On the Street,” “The Wire,” “The Corner” and a native of Yonkers) is reluctant to spike the ball. This is just the next round. NAACP’s legal counsel, Michael Sussman (Jon Bernthal), is happy for the win. He’s satisfied with more high rise structures as long as they’re in East Yonkers and populated with black and brown bodies. In 1987, Yonkers was 85% white. Apparently Hooks, has seen communities and bodies broken in the moves for “urban renewal” and “integration” before. Perhaps he has a better handle on what the sequel to Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin In the Sun” will look like. And frankly, these reruns are making him tired.

Neither east or west Yonkers residents have much say in the matter making City Hall ground zero for white protestors before any ground breaking takes place. For all their fury, the protesters’ efforts are futile. Their city council and mayor are only minor players in this power struggle. They hold out on the court order, lose an appeal in the Supreme Court, meanwhile the court fines continue to pile up.

What you don’t see in SHOW ME A HERO reveals as much about the white residents’ battle against the court order, as what you do see. You don’t’ see anyone who resembles the people from the public housing communities at the hearings, on the city council, on the police force, at a front desk in city hall. Show me an all-white city hall and I’ll show you a race-based power structure. Oh, there is one white woman on the counsel Vinni Restiano, played by Wynona Ryder. And Nay, a city employee, who would become the future first lady of Yonkers is Hispanic American (Carla Quevedo).

We see the people who reside in the high-rise public housing in their homes, with families, with lovers. Their individual apartments are clean, bright. They care about safety for their children and relatives. Some have jobs. Others don’t. Their public areas are tagged with graffiti, broken glass. It is the turf for drug markets and also home-cooked dinners, and celebrations with family and friends.

LaTanya Richardson-Jackson

LaTanya Richardson-Jackson

SHOW ME A HERO can be told again from the point of view of each of these west side residents who are featured in the miniseries. Alma Febles (Ilfenesh Hadera) says “poverty isn’t a crime” back home in the Dominican Republic, but it also doesn’t feed the kids anywhere. Her chances are better in Yonkers. Norma O’Neill (LaTanya Richardson-Jackson), a home care worker is losing her eye sight. When her best friend tells her about the lottery for houses in East Yonkers Norma’s response is “Do you want to live where people are angry at you?”

There’s plenty to be angry about beyond Yonkers.

There are few if any men, Black or brown, in the community room where the lottery for the 200 homes takes place. The room is populated with women. The second or possibly third generation of single mothers of the 1965 Moynihan report. More than likely no man’s name will appear on the lease for the lucky ones.

Then there’s the unspoken (seen, but not heard) moments: the hand offs of drugs at the housing projects from white hands to Black hands to young Black hands. The “flag wars.” Irish and Italian flags hang next to the stars and stripes on porches. Signaling is intentional and the beauty of SHOW ME A HERO.

show-me-a-hero_oathThe 27-year-old Polish American Nick Wasicsko is the principal and moving target in SHOW ME A HERO played with precision and affable charm by Oscar Isaac. Nick definitely has the moves in that dorky single-focus cocky way that gets what he wants. This would bring a smile on a woman’s face especially Nay, whom Nick has already id’d as the future Mrs. Nick Wasicsko. He scores.

Nick’s also putting his bets on the East Yonkers white rage. “Don’t Get Mad. Get a New Mayor” is the bumper sticker slogan to oust a six-term Republican incumbent Angelo Martinelli (Jim Belushi). A man who exemplifies the boss politics of small and big towns. Martinelli owns a printing company. This is the guy who doesn’t have to be the mayor for life, but probably gets a rush from being a benevolent ruler. By the way, do we see Nick actively campaigning among residents on the west side?

Politics feeds on voter anger. Nick easily beats Martinelli. But Mayor Wasicsko is neither the chief architect nor can he control the outcome of this housing battle. As the court fines pile up, public services and lay-offs are necessary. Nick decides he can’t give “the voters” what they want without sinking the city ito bankruptcy. He and others have to swallow the court order whole adjust his sights on being on the right side of history and keep the city solvent. Wishful thinking is he comes out clean in the end.

Oscar Newman (Peter Riegert), creator of the defensible space theory is the architect of the housing plan and the maker of 20th and 21st century U.S. public housing history. Newman’s theory was to bring down the high-rise housing to single family two story homes and spread them out in middle class neighborhoods with the expectation that residents would adopt middle class values, enroll children in better schools, and maintain and defend their turf as home owners would. The defensible space wording obviously has a military reference to serve its purpose – a war on crime. The goal being to reduce crime among poor people in public housing by design. Whereas Nick’s very existence depended on being recognized by others. Oscar Newman would have his handprint on the city for generations. So what exactly are the advantages of being the youngest Mayor in the U.S.?

Urban planners, consultants, resemble the God of Genesis – they create a world, they will people it, and the tree of life, the choice of good or evil, is there for the taking. Needless to say in the rules of public housing, the choice of evil results in banishment from these low income gardens of Eden.

Today’s developers of glass and steel urban luxury units see themselves as curators even when it comes to the urban landscape’s “grit.” I’ve actually heard them use that term. They want to keep enough of the “grit” to give the adult children and grand children of the white flight generation of the 1950s and 1960 (white, middle class of any ethnicity) a genuine urban experience limiting the risks of directly encountering and engaging with persons who survived the worst years. It’s a different kind of defensible space. Dog parks signal victory.

Mayor Wasicsko’s seat is challenged by councilmember Henry J. Spallone (Alfred Molina), the white rage’s choice. Spallone brings out a show and tell of what East Yonkers will look like when 200 units moves forward. Spallone and his team play a game of selective editing – finding the true grit of the west side coming to a neighborhood near you in East Yonkers. Spallone and his colleagues drive slowly around the public housing towers taking photos of potential new neighbors – the drug dealers, the “thugs.” No not the lady with the brief case. No, not the kids laughing and playing in the playground, only the ones fighting, giving us the finger. You get the picture.

This is the kind of dog whistling the Yonkers’ Poodle Lady will be able to hear. She knows the code. Or as Nick Wakowski says in SHOW ME A HERO, politicians don’t need to say “nigger” or “coon.” They just say “property value.”

After reading and watching SHOW ME A HERO, I can’t help but look at the history of grand plans in the past 75 years for public housing and urban planning in my own back yard.

Urban Renewal (or Removal depending on who you ask) turned out to be a casebook lesson in what not to do in urban planning. DC still retains the social and political DNA of legal segregation pre 1954. When segregation was sealed in place by law, schools, restaurants, housing, communities had to devise a system as well to function. Anyone still around from the “Old Southwest” as they call it will tell you, they have never felt a sense of community since the urban renewal project. Residents were scattered to the eastern parts of the cities. More resourced residents went to parts of Northwest. Few returned to the new Southwest (another “Waterfront” project is going forward today).

An entire community was razed for the reason that flies in the outhouses of the slums and alley dwellings potentially reached the soup bowls in the Congress’ cafeteria. That may be an urban myth, but it was repeated to me by one of the chief architects of that urban renewal plan. The plan also meant giving the alley dwellers a better life by moving them to “better” situation. Mrs. Roosevelt approved after her visit.

From the Eleanor Roosevelt (ER) Papers

As honorary president of the Washington Committee on Housing, ER promoted its activities and used her press conferences, “My Day” columns, and public lectures to hammer away at the unacceptable housing situation of African American Washingtonians. ER not only addressed the existing situation but envisioned and worked for better alternatives. Finally, on June 12, 1934 the District of Columbia Alley Dwelling Act was passed, establishing the Washington Housing Authority as an independent agency. The WHA focused on eliminating slum housing in alleys near the Capitol and promoted quality, affordable housing. The WHA was redesignated the National Capital Housing Authority in 1943.

The courts agreed in the Supreme Court case of Berman v. Parker using the 5th amendment as the bases for giving the federal government the power of eminent domain. Studies showed former residents were unable to make the same kind of relationships with their new neighbors as they did in the old neighborhood.

From SHOW ME A HERO I learned mayors and council members don’t control these housing decisions especially in cases of eminent domain and court orders. The people who will live in re-designed neighborhoods and homes often don’t have a say. Langston Terrace in Northeast Washington, DC was an exception. It was designed in conjunction with the residents who would eventually live in the government housing community.

Langston Terrace opened in 1938 and was a project of the PWA (Public Works Administration) under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The first federally funded complex of its kind in the District of Columbia. Langston Terrace was African American designed (Hilyard Robinson) and built and is now on the National Register of Historic Places. Read Kelly Ann Quinn’s 2007 dissertation.

Kelly’s research was funded by the Humanities Council of Washington, DC where I first learned about the Langston Terrace community history. Since then the Humanities Council has supported an oral history about the community. This 2013 video and others are on YouTube.

Not long after Yonkers was wrapping up the 200 units battle, media mogul and “Best Life” talk show Host Oprah Winfrey launched an experiment called Families for a Better Life in Chicago with disappointing results. Winfrey’s confidence that private industry could do a better job than government assistance was a well-intentioned experiment, transferring 100 families from public housing to better lives with trainings, support and new homes. The program was in partnership with and run by Jane Addams Hull House Association. [The Hull House Association closed in 2012.]

“Fish-out-of-water” scenarios seem to work better in film than in life. The back story has to be seriously factored in. This was also during the time of President Bill Clinton’s welfare reform program. Welfare reform didn’t address the back story or the roots of poverty but solidified the Reagan era’s coded language about “entitlements” putting the onus on the very people they were trying to “help.” The hand down not the hand shake. Lots of grant money went to contractors who saw an opportunity, not a mission. As one woman shouted at a public housing meeting in SHOW ME A HERO, “We are not projects!”

The problem with a grand plan is it requires more than brick and mortar, throwing money around, and ribbon cutting. Nick said he was on the right side of history. But was he willing to “welcome your hate” for the greater good and not just the political survival of Nick Wasicsko. In these matters there are no absolute victors. There are no elected or self-appointed heroes. And maybe most of all there are few if any “thank you’s.”

MDormanSMAHWhat emerges are unsung heroes who are seen in SHOW ME HERO. They are women like long-time East Yonkers resident Mary Dorman (Catherine Keener), initially vocally and visibly opposed to the housing, but once a fact, steps up to be the good neighbor– to build community. Doreen Henderson (Natalie Paul), who emerges from her personal roller coaster with drug addiction as a community leader for the west side residents moving to the east side. You may have never heard of Robert Mayhawk (Clarke Peters), but you should. He was part of the grand plan. But his consulting role was to give people the tools to build community. Mayhawk is also a playwright and self-published a book on spirituality.

Missing from this scenario are the Toms and Daisys of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Actually they were the people who, in the early part of the 20th century, established Yonkers as a suburban get-away from the “grit” of New York City. The grit would eventually find them. That grit included your tired, poor, and huddled Italian, Polish, Irish, European immigrants, the grandchildren of the protestors you see in SHOW ME A HERO.

Tom and Daisy will never be touched by these battles. Yet, “they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together and let other people clean up the mess they had made” Fitzgerald wrote.

I was told as much about their mess by my mother’s co-worker at age 17. After hearing I was accepted and leaving home to attend an elite private liberal arts college, he took me aside and gave me a brief lecture to leave the drugs alone, because my family didn’t have money for me to retreat back to and pay for rehab. Simply put, or code for “You’re a young Black woman who can’t afford to f*ck up.”

This is why SHOW ME A HERO is that rare television moment that must be seen. We still feel Daisy and Tom’s power. We resent and admire them all at once. If you don’t see them in person, you see them on television, online, social media, and magazine racks at grocery check outs for our entertainment pleasure reminding us that they are who we should aspire to be. That too is part of our tragedy.

Note: This post has been updated to replace the trailer for SHOW ME A HERO and correct a few typos.

David Simon’s “Show Me a Hero” premieres on HBO August 16

From David Simon (HBO’s “Treme” and “The Wire”) and Paul Haggis (“Crash”), the HBO Miniseries presentation SHOW ME A HERO debuts its first two parts back-to-back SUNDAY, AUG. 16 (8:00-10:00 p.m. ET/PT), followed by two parts on both of the subsequent Sundays – Aug. 23 and 30 – at the same time. In addition to Simon and Haggis (who directs all six parts), the miniseries is executive produced by Nina K. Noble, Gail Mutrux and William F. Zorzi.

Based on the nonfiction book of the same name by Lisa Belkin, the miniseries explores notions of home, race and community through the lives of elected officials, bureaucrats, activists and ordinary citizens in Yonkers, NY.

That’s the HBO blurb. Look out for my next post on HBO granted me a preview of the miniseries. Lisa Belkin’s book has been rereleased in paperback by Hacchette Book Group with the miniseries tie in that includes actor Oscar Isaac as Nick Wasicko (youngest Mayor in the U.S.) on the bookcover.

How was your day?

Everything can be taken from a man but . . .
the last of the human freedoms–to choose
one’s attitude in any given set of circum-
stances, to choose one’s own way.

Man’s Search for Meaning

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I wonder what kind of day Texas State Trooper Brian Encinio was having before he spotted Sandra Bland’s Hyundai and pulled her over for not signaling a lane change. Did he wake up angry that morning after an argument the night before? Did someone leave a note, or send a text that rattled his nerves? Or just “ghosted” him? Was this Encino’s first arrest of the day? Or was it a rough ride all the way up to this point? Is he being hounded by creditors for student loans? Is someone he cares about sick? It was after 3 PM July 10. What was the temperature in Houston (93 degrees) Did he eat a good breakfast and/or lunch that day? Does he hate cigarette smoke?

I stopped the video right after he opened the car door.

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