He was serious and demanding in that way that American Idol contestants would have seen as bullying. There was a saying about his studio: “You don’t just sweat. You are sweat.” But you knew if you 1/2 stepped with the drum, with your movement, you were not giving the ancestors or the culture the respect, honor, and gratitude they deserved.
Reflecting on where my head was in January 2021. It’s now September. I’ve been in that changed world that I said I was ready for but am still navigating (the good and the challenging). What I wrote earlier this year still resonates with me.
In March 2020, as the COVID pandemic was about to take hold and the patchwork of protocols were put in place, I was anticipating a giant shift. “I don’t want to go back to the way it was” became a mantra. It’s been like that. On the morning of January 20, 2021 when Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were inaugurated as POTUS and VPOTUS I took a breath and wrote this FB post:
“I don’t want to go back to the way things were because they were messed up even before 2016. I don’t want to go back to the cliquishness that comes with a change in administrations. Limited access and the unheard still not being heard because you’re not on that invitation list to the right parties, have less than 10,000 followers on social media, or live someplace that doesn’t have a Starbucks.
COVID revealed it all for those who chose not to acknowledge. This is who we’ve been but we don’t need or have to be. I want the nation to move from exceptionalism, fear and scarcity mentality. Time to throw out the old garbage thinking. Clean up the mess. It’s a new century. The old one has shown us its back.
It had been two weeks since the insurrectionist attack on the U.S. Capitol by supporters of now former President Donald Trump to overturn the election while the U.S. Congress was certifying the votes on January 6 per the laws of the U.S. Constitution. We are still in a pandemic. As I am writing this post I had to stop to answer a phone call from a relative about another death in the family. More people are being infected and dying of COVID in the U.S. due to the negligence of the previous administration and the lies that have not only turned against itself but may damage our ability to discern the truth especially when someone doesn’t get the result they want. The former President set the Big Lie stage throughout his political career.
It’s become a dangerous Big Lie since November 3, 2020.
But truth prevailed. Democracy hung in there once more. The electoral votes were certified. We inaugurated a new President. I was an enthusiastic supporter of then Vice Presidential candidate Joseph Biden and Presidential candidate Barack Obama in 2008. It was the first political campaign I committed every inch of my being to, going way outside my comfort zones and all the way to the DNC convention in Denver, CO, my first party convention.
Over the past four years we found out that Presidents have effective power when they are enabled by others. I held my breath inauguration day until the plane carrying a soon-to-be former President Donald J. Trump left my DC airspace from Andrews.
I exhaled, not out of relief but out of “what now?” My DC was covered in National Guard camouflage, more troops than in Afghanistan and Iraq combined. I drew some comfort in seeing the tradition, ceremony, symbolism of inaugurating a President despite all the agony we’re enduring. There is a place for continuity but now is not the time to rely so strongly on what has always been. Now more than ever we can’t go back.
The 2020 Pulitzer Prize winners were announced May 4th. This year the committee awarded a special citation to the journalist, anti-lynching, suffrage, and civil rights activist Ida B. Wells. This is not an annual occurrence. The regular Pullitzer Prize winning work goes through an application process with a handling fee before consideration by the jury and board. The special citation is selected solely by the Pulitzer Prize board to journalists and/or artistic/cultural figures living or deceased.
The Pulitzer special citation was bestowed in recognization of Ida B. Wells’ “outstanding and courageous reporting on the horrific and vicious violence against African Americans during the era of lynching” with a bequest of at least $50,000 “in support of her mission.”
The eldest of 8 children, Ida B. Wells was born in Holly Springs, Mississippi in July 1862, just months before the Emancipation Proclamation became law. This made Ida part of the first generation of free African Americans eager to build their path to new possibilities. She was educated by her parents including her politically-active Lincoln Republican father who worked to elect African Americans in both the state house and the U.S. Congress during Reconstruction. The yellow fever epidemic in 1878 claimed the lives of both Ida’s parents and a younger sibling. With the support of relatives, Ida took charge of her surviving siblings to prevent the family from being separated. She eventually settled in Memphis, part of the “new south”, and taught school while writing part-time until she was invited to join the “Free Speech” newspaper as a full-time newspaper journalist. Eventually she would be the co-owner of the newspaper.
The same week of the Pulitzer announcement, Gregory McMichael and his son Travis McMichael (both white men) were arrested and charged for the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed African Amercan man who was shot three times in February while jogging in a predominantly white suburban neighborhood outside Brunswick, Georgia. Father and son identified Arbery as a suspect in a rash of break-ins in the neighborhood. No break-ins were reported before Arbery was killed.
William Bryan (also white) recorded the shooting death, and a defense attorney leaked the video with the intention of helping the McMichaels prove their case but instead sparked an unintended national outcry for justice. Bryan too has been arrested and charged with felony murder and criminal attempt to commit false imprisonment.
An African American man and birder — taking a Memorial Day weekend break from COVID-19 distancing to enjoy bird watching in a section of Central Park reserved for this passion —encounters a white woman who becomes outraged by his request that she follow the park rules and place her dog on its leash. Her attempt to use whiteness as a weapon while practically strangling the dog by the collar was recorded by Christian Cooper, the “African American man” she describes as “threatening my life” on a 911 call to police. She goes podcast crime drama on the call.
An African American man in Minneapolis, George Floyd, dies a day after a police officer restrains Floyd (who’s handcuffed) by placing his knee on the man’s neck while a bystander records as Floyd says “I can’t breathe.” Floyd was accused of passing a forged $20 bill. Floyd had a security job in the same club where the police officer, Derek Chauvin, moonlighted. Protests for George Floyd in the midst of COVID-19 deaths of 100K, an economic spiral from job losses, profound uncertainty for young adults, happening in Minneapolis and nationwide. (Update: protests in Toronto, London, Berlin)
These stories popped up in my newsfeed within 24 hours of each other. Christian Cooper is lucky to be alive to hear the birds sing another day. The white woman, Amy Cooper (no relation) is fired from her investment banking job, her adopted pet repo’ed, and her credibility crushed. She issues an apology after but it rings hollow. It doesn’t acknowledge her racism when she chose to play her “white woman card” (Ida would’ve called her out) to annihilate a black man who dared to remind her that the rules apply to her too (though unevenly). Derek Chauvin was arrested for 3rd degree murder. There will be a federal civil rights probe as well.
Related to this is a story from Louisville, Kentucky that happened in March, a little over a week before Kentucky’s COVID-19 stay-at-home directive went into effect. Twenty-six-year-old Breonna Taylor, a Louisville ER technician, was killed by plain clothes police officers who broke down the door to her apartment on a drug investigation. Taylor’s home was the wrong apartment. Her boyfriend thought the intruders were armed robbers and fired his gun in self defense. They returned fire striking Taylor at least eight times according to news reports.
Every few days there’s a new video, a real-time unedited digital extended edition of Ida B. Wells’ Red Record. She produced and published the pamphlet in 1895 from Chicago documenting in detail lynchings of men and women in the United States with an analysis. In chapter one she writes:
“In slave times the Negro was kept subservient and submissive by the frequency and severity of the scourging, but, with freedom, a new system of intimidation came into vogue; the Negro was not only whipped and scourged; he was killed.”
I wrote a full-length play “Iola’s Letter,” named for Ida B. Wells’s syndicated column, and based on her story of the anti-lynching crusade she launched in 1892 from her Free Speech newspaper in Memphis, Tennessee. At that time Ida B. Wells was a single 29-year-old former school teacher and journalist. The lynching of Ida’s close friend Thomas Moss, the city’s first black civil service worker (USPS) and his business partners (all three black men) who co-owned the People’s Grocery, a cooperative in a mixed-race neighborhood outside Memphis is the catalyst for Ida’s activism and the launch of a national movement. Ida B. Wells calls for a boycott of Memphis’s downtown businesses and streetcar patronage (built by African Americans), and a mass exodus of black Memphians to the west including the Oklahoma territory. The protest strategy cripples the city’s economy.
As I was preparing “Iola’s Letter” for its first staged reading at Howard University (HBCU) in Washington, DC news of the 1998 beating and dragging death of James Byrd, Jr. in Jasper, Texas by white supremicists was playing in the background. “I never intended for “Iola’s Letter” to be a biography of Ida B. Wells, but to use her life to explore the ideas and issues of her times, finding strong parallels between then and today.” Those were the words I wrote that were printed in the program for the staged reading. I took some creative liberties by populating “Iola’s Letter” with timelines and additional characters who were composites of Ida’s encounters, experiences, perspectives, and writings. These characters fleshed out the conflicts within the Memphis community around race, class, religion, economics, [especially] power and how Ida’s moral and political resolve evolved from the lynching in Memphis that struck at the heart of the matter about the false accusations and mob violence…in her own words:
…an excuse to get rid of Negroes acquiring wealth and property — to keep the race terrorized and keep the “n*gger” down.
The adage “the pen is mightier than the sword” would be a polite refrain to describe Ida’s impact on civil rights using the press. In those times the pen could be the sword that caused the deaths in the first place.
When Ida began her investigations into lynching, she committed to truth-telling and debunking the stories published in Southern white newspapers. She sought and published interviews with actual witnesses, families and friends of the victims, even getting the real story from the accusers. In Memphis Edward W. Carmack, a lawyer, and editor at the Memphis Commercial [now the Commercial Appeal] was one of Ida’s chief nemesis in the profession. He is also a character in “Iola’s Letter” based on the real-life person. Carmack was not the Southern tobacco-spitting “red neck” caricature. He attended an elite boarding school whose mission was to turn out “accurate scholars who know the finer points of morals and practice them in their daily living.”
Carmack took pride in being a provocateur and never hesitated to use his editorial prowess to attack his enemies. His newspaper characterized the People’s Grocery and its owners as a gathering place of criminals and undesirables. This was standard practice to set the stage for a lynching or “justifiable murder” by creating a mythological black male menace. The narrative would support the white owner of the grocery across from its new competitor to incite an incident or provocation that would remove People’s Grocery owners and the business. Carmack would go on to represent Tennessee in the U.S. Senate. He continued to attack Ida, the “adventuress” (a derogatory term for a woman in those times) while she was abroad, and his political enemies. His pen would eventually sign his own fate.
Many newspapers, like the Commercial Appeal, have made efforts to turn a corner in their reporting on matters of race. In 2018,when the Equal Justice Institute (EJI) opened the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Alabama, the Montgomery Advertiserpublished the names of 300 victims of lynching with an editorial starting with the sentence “We were wrong” laying bare the newspaper’s role in being complicit and “careless in how it covered mob violence and the terror foisted upon African-Americans from Reconstruction through the 1950s.”
Today social media provides fast and raw evidence, leaving it open for public consumption and interpretation followed by outrage. The unfiltered reactions are delivered at the same fast pace. The rawness is now coming from the very top of the country’s chain of command, doubling down on the racialized system that has been stacked against African Americans for centuries. The current commander-in-chief (lower-case intentional) uses the tools of new media to discredit and attack political enemies and critics. Donald Trump’s tweets and verbal attacks on journalists especially black women and other women of color should be of grave concern beyond their provocative sound bytes. Newsfeeds are showing journalists being arrested and attacked by police, press credentials fully visible. This week one can say an American journalist is just as likely to be attacked doing their jobs at home as they would in a war zone or authoritarian nation abroad.
Ida and her Free Speech newspaper were also targets. The newspaper was burned to the ground by a white mob. Lynching Ida was part of their plan but she escaped that fate. As a result no copies of her newspaper exist today. Because Ida wrote for other newspapers and was invited to speak before allies black and white in the U.S. and the U.K. she was not silenced though she could never return to the south.
125 years later the digital Red Record prompts the same questions, demands for investigations, and a cry for justice. No arrests were made for the Memphis or other lynchings Ida B. Wells brought to light. Most remain unsolved to this day leaving generational wounds on the victims’ descendants, and an unspeakable blighted legacy inherited by the descendants of the men and women who carried out the heinous deeds.
Ida B. Wells and the Ida in “Iola’s Letter” believed in American democracy. Justice was her birthright. Before losing her newspaper she armed herself for protection exercising her 2nd amendment rights when it was against the law for African Americans in Memphis to own guns. She sued the Chesapeake, Ohio, and Southwestern Railroad Company for forcing her to ride in the “smoking car” when she held a ticket for a seat in the “ladies” train car. There was no law on the books about segregated transportation for that railroad. When the conductor grabbed and tried to forcibly remove Ida from the ladies car, the 21 year-old bit his hand. Ida won her case in court, but later had to return her cash reward when the railroad companies appealed. She still believed our systems would work if not for the racism baked into it.
How the Pulitzer’s $50,000 will be spent or what aspect of Ida’s mission will benefit yet to be revealed. It couldn’t re-open local newspapers silenced by economic factors including advertisement-dependent business models and acquisition/liquidation by private equity firms. Perhaps the money can be applied to kick starting journalists to do a deeper dive and investigate the larger global factors at play around white nationalism and the rise of neo-Nazi factions with the intent to drive divisions in multi-racial alliances. The FBI identified their presence in U.S. law enforcement over 10 years ago according to a 2016 PBS NewsHour report. Over the past several days of the protests, residents of Minneapolis have noticed and texted about it.
Ida saw the patterns and kept her sights on the bigger picture and the prize. After a historic long pause I’m glad to see Ida B. Wells finally getting her due, however symbolically simplistic the recognition may be. Even in the case of the women’s suffrage centennial and the passage of the 19th amendment, Ida’s appearance is acknowledgement of the racism within that movement through the erasure of black women’s presence in its history, voice in their gatherings, and acceptance by white women leaders to deny the vote to black women for its own political expediency. Ida and other African American women refused to be silent on that too.
The era of lynching has evolved and found new life in the digital age. The evidence makes clear Ida B. Wells’ mission is not finished.
She’s more important than her music—if they must be separated—
and they should be separated when she has to pass out before
anyone recognizes she needs
a rest and I say I need
Aretha is now at her eternal rest. The death of Aretha Franklin in Detroit August 16, 2018 at 76, merits, in this opinion, a peach cobbler variation on Don McLean’s “American Pie” and “The day the music died.”
As long as I live in the mortal world I need Aretha’s music.
Nikki Giovanni recorded “Poem for Aretha” on a 1971 breakthrough record, “Truth Is On Its Way” featuring the New York Community Choir. (Aretha Franklin would release her live “Amazing Grace” gospel album with the Los Angeles Community Choir in 1972). The track under “Poem for Aretha” is “Nobody Knows the Troubles I’ve Seen.” Gospel records were hot in the 1970s.
In many ways “Poem for Aretha” is a poem for all giants who endure the road shows, the okey doke contracts, the hangers on with nefarious intentions, the fear of losing fans, family, and friends by putting self-care above caretaking. “Poem for Aretha” was written before the age of social media. Today she would unplug before she has to pass out. But somehow Aretha survived the blow backs and managed to make a way even demanding a 50% cash payment upfront before she would perform. Now we know why Aretha plopped her purse on the piano before performing in the “Kennedy Center Honors.” Only she could. The moment was pure magic.
Carole King needed Aretha Franklin’s music.
My first favorite single was by Aretha Franklin. How many times did I ask an able bodied sibling or adult to play, replay the 45 of “Chain of Fools” to the point that like a child’s favorite toy, the audible crackles and pops from the multiple needle drops on the vinyl fused with the soulfulness of the vocals and the rhythm & blues guitar. I needed Aretha’s music.
Aretha Franklin was more important than her music because there would be no music without Aretha, but at the same time there was no Aretha without music. It’s a magic moment when music can make you FEEL and sparks a surprise emotion. Words matter and they had a life of their own with Aretha. Nothing like the monotony and repetition in the bump and grind beat tracks of today. Even as the music changed, Aretha knew she could find her way through it and on her terms. You can’t be separated from your music and be Aretha Franklin. Aretha needed Aretha’s music.
Since the millennium I’ve grown so very weary of being told to recognize the “greatness” of “singers” (quotes intended) who prize volume over interpretation. Spectacle over enunciation. Predictability and sale-ability over –dare I say– R-E-S-P-E-C-T-ability. Growing up with Aretha set a high standard and expectation that very few and perhaps only she could reach. Aretha was also an accomplished instrumentalist, and arranger. That’s all the spectacle she needed.
Listening to Aretha’s playlist over the week has been like having my life flash before my eyes. She was my grounding and groundbreaker. There was no conflict or battle between secular and sacred music and spaces. In her music and musicality they were one and the same. And like church with a majority Black membership and culture, Aretha made you place your troubles and the BS at the foot of the altar she built.
We need Aretha’s music now more than ever.
Aretha was the riot was the leader if she had said “come
let’s do it” it would have been done
temptations say why don’t we think about it
why don’t we think about it
why don’t we think about it
Hear “Poem for Aretha” read by Nikki Giovanni on “Truth Is On Its Way”
This month I revisited 1968, one of the most earth-shattering years in our city’s (and nation’s) 20th century history. What I discovered was 1968 wasn’t a year unto itself. There were strong lead-ins and the events added urgency to important initiatives for communities and individuals.
I didn’t want to tell this story from my perspective alone. I didn’t want to tell it only from the perspectives of “movement people.” We’ve heard and will always hear their stories. I invited 11 other voices and perspectives. The people who had to show up for work or go to school the day after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis. The result is “Riot. Rebellion. Resurrection.” or #RRR1968 the cover story for the April 5, 2018 edition of Washington City Paper (WCP) . It’s an oral history with some wonderful original photos by WCP photographer Darrow Montgomery.
Historian Marya McQuirter and I had a conversation in 2017 about how to approach 1968. We were both planning projects. She decided to produce an online daily calendar (dc1968project.com) of events from that year. I wanted to focus on H Street in my 50 year “retro-perspective” but wasn’t sure about theming it solely on the “riots” which some would correct me by saying “rebellion” or “uprising.” My politics obviously haven’t lean in any specific direction about it.
I decided to take on the “R” in all its humanity, personally adopting the old-school civic term “civil unrest”. However it’s characterized, these events didn’t happen on a whim, in a vacuum and without an incident to ignite the tinderbox of infractions on civil rights, racial injustice, and economic disparities. The violent murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. April 5, 1968 and the days “riot, rebellion” that followed should not have caught anyone by surprise. Yet it did in DC. Even the cover story photo taken in 1968 near 14th & Park Road took some by surprise. “No that didn’t happen this week. It’s a 50-year-old photo.” Those reactions said something to me about what may lie beneath our city’s transparent steel and glass facades.
My Hard Revolutionplaylist was pumping out of the speakers in The LINE hotel lobbies. WCP added it to its website. Hard Revolution is a crime novel by George Pelecanos (HBO “The Deuce”). The playlist was one of my early ideas for looking back at DC in 1968. I plugged into the SoundCloud website and played it while writing my article.
“Riot. Rebellion. Resurrection.” became the #RRR1968 live event at The LINE Hotel in DC the day of publication. The live event became a podcast. You can listen to it here.
#RRR1968 became a trans media project for me and Washington City Paper. Poet and literary activist E. Ethelbert Miller (If God Invented Baseball), one of the subjects in the article hosts “The Scholars” television show on UDC TV (University of the District of Columbia). Though I’ve been on the radio with Ethelbert, I knew it was going to take something extra special to sit at the table with him in the television studio. It would take 50 years to get here.