From 500 To 1: The Death Of The African-American Owned Hospital

The health of nations is more important than the wealth of nations. – Will Durant

The idea that someone else will care for you, your family, or your community better than you seems to be the purveying attitude of African America in almost every facet of our strategy today. This is of course assuming you believe we have an institutional strategy of our own to begin with. Instead of building and competing for power and control we seem content on waiting for others to share their spoils with us because it is the “right” thing to do only to be “shocked” when others idea of right and our idea of right do not acquiesce.

The history of African America and health has always been a precarious one. A people descended from the medical genius, Imhotep, known as the “father of medicine” who performed the earliest known surgery to the inspiring story of Dr. Ben Carson in present times. Healing sanctuaries and temples to the goddess Sekhmet are known to be the earliest “hospitals” to date. Fast forward a few thousand years to America and African Americans in Detroit alone owned and operated 18 hospitals of their own between 1917 to 1991. The confines within their own hospitals and medical ecosystem would seemingly be the only place where safety existed. From colonial times to present time, as noted in Medical Apartheid by Harriet Washington, when African Americans went outside of their own medical ecosystem we were and are subject to some of the most brutal medical experiments and abuses known in medical history. In an interview with Democracy Now, Ms. Washington is quoted giving examples of these abuses from past to present, “James Marion Sims was a very important surgeon from Alabama, and all of his medical experimentation took place with slaves. He took the skulls of young children, young black children — only black children — and he opened their heads and moved around the bones of the skull to see what would happen. He bought, or otherwise acquired, a group of black women who he housed in a laboratory, and over the period of five years and approximately forty surgeries on one slave alone, he sought to cure a devastating complication of childbirth called vesicovaginal fistula.” Ironically, as it were, Dr. Sims would go on to become president of the American Medical Association. Ms. Washington then goes on to present times stating “It’s black boys who have been singled out for these very dangerous experiments, such as a fenfluramine experiment that took place right here in New York City between 1992 and 1997. A lot of the abuse in African Americans has dissipated, but that kind of research is being conducted in Africa, where the people are in the same situation. They don’t have rights. They don’t have access to medical care otherwise, and Africa is being treated as a laboratory for the West by Western researchers.” Despite this obvious and consistent pattern of behavior we continue to seek to dismantle our own medical ecosystem.

It is no secret that the health of the African American community has always been in peril. Arguably today, more so than it has ever been in our history in this country. To some, the issues of medicine are a one size fits all prescription for any human anywhere. It is true we all have the same anatomy certainly but historical diet from our ancestry, environment, stress from the Middle Passage, slavery, and socioeconomic burdens that culminated after desegregation have taken its toll and many other factors create unique factors in the African American health dynamic. In fact, every group  based on their historical geography and diet has unique health features in their present health makeup. As such what is conducive to one group will not necessarily work for another. The variables at play do not provide for blanket medical solutions or care. Biological diversity exist in every species be it cats (lions, cheetahs, tigers) or humans. Yet, our desire to ignore these realities for the sake of creating a racial or ancestral Utopia has created a boom in our health risk with no seemingly end in sight. The numbers bear out a bleak picture of African American health today. African American life expectancy is 4.3 years less than the average American and 4.8 years less than European Americans. We currently have the highest age-adjusted death rate among all populations. The infant mortality rate in America for all is 6.8 per 1000 births yet for African America it is 13.2 per 1000 births. Approximately 20 percent of all African Americans are uninsured versus a national average of 15.9 percent. We are going extinct and do not even realize it.

Nathaniel Wesley Jr.’s book “Black Hospitals in America: History, Contributions and Demise” points out that at our apex there were 500 African American owned and controlled hospitals. Today, Howard University in Washington D.C. is the last one standing. In 1983 as Dillard University was selling its hospital Flint-Goodridge their president at the time, Dr. Samuel Dubois Cook stated that its demise was a result of “tragic mismanagement, social change that desegregated hospitals, financial irregularities, the fact that 90 percent of the patients were on Medicare or Medicaid and the loss of broad community support”. It would be hard not to assume that these were the underlying cause of the majority of most African American owned hospitals since as we know fervently believe that our proverbial ice could not possibly be as cold as the ice in other communities.

Rethinking the role of hospitals in general is needed given the rapid rise of healthcare cost but especially so in the African American community where the ability to afford private healthcare is almost impossible given our lack of wealth. While Asian and European America’s median net worth both approach $100,000 the African American median net worth is close to $2,000 and dropping according to the Economic Policy institute. Hospitals in our communities should be fashioned as health and wellness focused on preventive care, nutrition, and alternative medicines more unique to our biology. HBCUs themselves while not all needing to build hospitals should all be investing in community clinics that are connected regionally with an African American owned hospital. The pre-med and business programs should create more courses on the development of these facilities. Its impact on both wealth creation and health improvement would do wonders for African America as a whole.

It could be said that for all the benefits of the Affordable Healthcare Act proposed by President Obama, our longer term interest in building a medical ecosystem focused on the needs and issues that face the African American and African Diaspora community would go much farther in improving our health as a people. After all if health is wealth and wealth is created by ownership then we must once again build and own the ecosystem that is the DNA of our blood, sweat, and tears.

Mr. Foster is the Interim Executive Director of HBCU Endowment Foundation, Founder of the HBCU Chamber of Commerce, sits on the board of directors at the Center for HBCU Media Advocacy, & President of AK, Inc. A former banker & financial analyst who earned his bachelor’s degree in Economics & Finance from Virginia State University as well his master’s degree in Community Development & Urban Planning from Prairie View A&M University. Publishing research on the agriculture economics of food waste, full-time contributor at HBCU Money, and guest contributor for a number of African American media outlets.

African American History Month Has Become A Problem….

“Whoever controls the images, controls your self-esteem, self-respect, and self-development. Whoever controls the history, controls the vision.” – Dr. Leonard Jeffries

It seems that very few people remember how African American History Month even began. It has gotten so bad that many of us think we were “bamboozled” by being given the shortest month. Despite the fact it was we who chose the month and by “we” I mean Dr. Carter G. Woodson, who started it as Negro History Week in 1926. Woodson chose that week because at the time it encompassed the birthdays of two men whom he felt greatly impacted the African American population, Fredrick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.

At the school I attended as a child, of which had a 100% African Diaspora student body with 99% African American faculty and headed (and owned) by an African American principal, we celebrated Black History Month every day. My kindergarten teacher was a 6’3, 225-pound African American male member of Omega Psi Phi. I’ll let you wrap your mind around the rarity of that for a moment. From the moment you walked into the school there were pictures up around the room of great African Diaspora citizens and their stories, as we awaited our teacher to come receive us for the day. Your curiosity as a child would beckon you to see who these great people were on the wall. The books in the room were for all I can remember always with us as African American students in mind. To see that which looked like us. Amazingly, this was just the recreation room before the day’s lessons even started. Once in class every subject we learned had a culturally relevant historical component attached to it. If we were learning about math, we would also learn about Benjamin Banneker. If we were learning about science, we learned about Ron McNair. I’ll never forget that on January 28, 1986 we stopped our day to watch the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger because Astronaut McNair was going to be on that flight. They wanted to us to see someone that looked like us reach into the heavens. Despite the tragedy of that day the richness of that moment and its history was built into the curriculum with every subject we learned. It made all the difference in the world to us as children.

These are the benefits and things we gave up when we decided to desegregate without demanding that more than just our ability to go to school with European Americans but that our teachers, principals, administrators, and the right to dictate the curriculum be included as well. Instead we have seen the watering down of our history decade after decade with those who of us intensely guarded about it viewed as “militant” now instead of just proud and knowledgeable of whom we are.

In our own community African American history month has allowed almost a laziness thought to our history. Kids now assuming they know about being African American simply because they are African American. They are a glass with no water. I even asked one of my daughter’s friends one time why Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed and his reply “because he tried to run for president”. At the time they were in middle school and the young man’s reply broke my heart. His parents had failed him, his community had failed him, and his school had failed him. The sad thing for me once I left my initial elementary school was that I would then be attending majority (and by majority I mean 95% and up European American student bodies) European American schools where the most exposure to African American history I was going to get was Martin Luther King, Jr. and only during Black History Month and never would it be the militant Martin that talked about African American self-sufficiency. Over the years Martin was watered down and filtered to present the image they wanted me to have of who Martin Luther King, Jr. was. I have a dream speech became the beginning and end of who Martin was in a sad way. Last year my daughter and niece, both in high school, said their schools did absolutely nothing for African American history month. Thankfully, I had a mother growing up who worked at an HBCU campus, where my initial elementary was located, and came from a very active family who tirelessly exposed us our history and made us attend events on the HBCU campus because all of the events had us in them. Any event at a museum that was about our history they made sure we attended if they could. My father made me watch, much to my dismay, Mississippi Burning while I was still in elementary. However, most children today do not have parents who care this much about teaching their child their history. Most in fact would rather not even acknowledge that history. In some subconscious hope of that child knowing a color blind world to that child’s detriment. Either that or they are so benighted themselves to their own history that they can’t teach what they do not know nor know its value.

Our naivety at times also to believe that one day European Americans will be willing to share the spoils of America prosperity is both unfounded and dangerous. I have always said and continue to say that no group in power in the history of mankind has ever willingly conceded some of its power so that another group could rise – not even thirty centuries of African dynasties or Asian dynasties willingly ceded their power. This flies in the face against self-interest and group interest, the foundation of all animal behavior. Nor do I expect as brother Huey Newton once said “I do not expect white media to create positive black (male) images.” We have seen the history of European Americans and Europeans in Africa, the Caribbean, and Africa and their changing of that history as its presented to the people they conquer. There is some illogic and irrational thought in our mind that seeks to believe they would present our history in a “fair and balanced” manner instead of us being the one to do it.

Almost all African American, Africana, and African Diaspora studies are housed at Historically White Colleges & Universities (HWCUs) which means they are the vessels through which our stories are told, written, and passed along to generation after generation. No, just having African American professors at an HWCU does not change institutional ownership. That is simply labor to ownership in the way an African American athlete is to their European American owner who profits most from their skill and is only around so long as that labor is staying within the ownership protocol. Let me also be clear that this is not an African Diaspora vs. European Diaspora issue. The rise of the Asian Diaspora if they were in charge of our history would fair no different. It is the lion who must tell the lion’s story. Not the hunter, not the tiger, but the lion. Others can tell your story from their point of view but only the lion knows what the lion feels and went through as the hunter and hunted. Without a move to ownership of our history institutionally we will continue to see a watered down and irrelevance given to who we are as a people.Glasses empty of their water.

Mr. Foster is the Interim Executive Director of HBCU Endowment Foundation, sits on the board of directors at the Center for HBCU Media Advocacy, & President of AK Companies, Inc. A former banker & financial analyst who earned his bachelor’s degree in Economics & Finance from Virginia State University as well his master’s degree in Community Development & Urban Planning from Prairie View A&M University. Publishing research on the agriculture economics of food waste, full-time contributor at HBCU Money, and guest contributor for a number of African American media outlets.


USNS Medgar Evers

The U.S. Navy christened its newest supply ship, USNS Medgar Evers.  Named in honor of the African American civil rights leader from Mississippi, the USNS Medgar Evers is the 13th ship of a class of 14 dry cargo/ammunition ships designed and built by NASSCO.

More than 1,000 people attended the Saturday morning christening ceremony for the USNS Medgar Evers at NASSCO’s San Diego shipyard.  Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus was the ceremony’s principal speaker.  Myrlie Evers, the widow of the late Medgar Evers, served as the ship’s sponsor.  She christened the ship by breaking the traditional bottle of champagne against the hull of the 689-foot-long vessel.

As the first field secretary of the NAACP in Mississippi, Medgar Evers (July 2, 1925 – June 12, 1963) created and organized voter-registration efforts, peaceful demonstrations and economic boycotts to draw attention to the unjust practices of companies that practiced discrimination.  Evers became one of the most visible civil rights leaders in the state of Mississippi, working closely with church leaders and other civil rights advocates to promote understanding and equality.  His life’s work helped increase support for the legislation that would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

“Each ship in the T-AKE Class is named for a noted pioneer in our nation’s history.  Mr. Evers was an Army veteran of World War II and an important civil rights pioneer.  The NASSCO team is proud to add Medgar Evers’ name to this distinguished list,” said Fred Harris, president of NASSCO.

USNS Medgar Evers is the 13th ship of the Lewis and Clark (T-AKE) Class of dry cargo ammunition ships General Dynamics NASSCO is building for the U.S. Navy. NASSCO began constructing USNS Medgar Evers in April 2010.  Following its at-sea testing phase, the ship will be delivered to the Navy in the second quarter of 2012.  USNS Medgar Evers will mark the 13th T-AKE ship that NASSCO has delivered to the Navy since 2006.

NASSCO has reduced the labor hours required to build the USNS Medgar Evers by 67 percent, compared to the first ship of the class.  This dramatic reduction in cost has been gleaned from NASSCO’s culture of continuous improvement over the course of this stable, long-term shipbuilding program.  NASSCO has accomplished this efficient serial production by conducting more than 1.5 million hours of trades training since 2006, equipping each tradesperson with the knowledge and tools required to build T-AKE ships to   unparalleled quality standards.

When in active service, USNS Medgar Evers will join a tradition of NASSCO-built or modified ships directly supporting the United States Marine Corps. The primary mission of USNS Medgar Evers will be to deliver more than 10,000 tons of food, ammunition, fuel and other provisions at one time to combat ships on the move at sea.  T-AKE ships have also served in Navy humanitarian efforts around the globe.



The Rise of Herman Cain

Who is Herman Cain? I would wager that most people, maybe even most black people, did not know before a couple weeks ago. Heck, maybe most still don’t know. But for those who are paying attention he has quickly emerged as a fascinating figure on the political landscape and an increasingly significant one.Two and a half years after this nation swore in it’s first black president (an event thought nearly impossible by a majority of black-Americans just a year before)  it is just possible that it could happen again.

The successful former chairman and CEO of the Godfather’s Pizza chain, and a fairly popular political voice in conservative circles since the early nineties, Herman Cain has much more than that to boast of in terms of accomplishments. In fact, the life of the self-made Georgia millionaire (born in 1945) reveals a long list of impressive achievements: he graduated from Morehouse with a Bachelors in Mathematics in ’67, he graduated from Purdue with a Master’s in computer science in ’71 (while also working as a ballistics analyst for the Naval department at the same time). He then went to work for Coca Cola as a computer systems analyst, then found himself working for Pillsbury, whose President soon entrusted Cain with the responsibility of revitalizing 400 Burger King locations in the Philadelphia area, (the least profitable restaurants in Pillsbury’s recently acquired Burger King chain). Herman Cain turned them into the most profitable Burger King locations in only a few short years. As a result of his success, Cain was appointed President and CEO of another Pillsbury subsidiary: Godfather’s Pizza, which he also turned from a languishing company to an ultimately profitable chain. He resigned that position in 1996. He has also served as the deputy chairman and the chairman of the Federal Reserve bank of Kansas City in addition to being a  political columnist, talk radio show host and Baptist Minister. Perhaps most incredibly, Herman Cain is a survivor of stage four colon cancer. He and wife Gloria have two children and three grand-children.

That Herman Cain is smart and accomplished there is no question. That he is a relatively viable presidential candidate, while this was an idea easy to dismiss even several weeks ago, also cannot be doubted. For a peculiar combination of Herman Cain’s own talents and resourcefulness in addition to a unique set of political circumstances in the Republican party has allowed Mr. Cain (who has proven himself  a galvanizing speaker and an increasingly powerful debater) to emerge, at this stage in the race, as the definite number two candidate (and not too far behind number one contender Mitt Romney at that). The lack of an obvious champion among Republicans and the mistrust many Tea Party Republicans have of former Governor Romney in addition to the slow motion implosion of Texas Governor Rick Perry’s candidacy has left Cain as the most appealing alternative to Republican voters hungry to see some one with the right strengths and values confront not only President Obama, but to some degree the Republican party establishment itself. This is Herman Cain’s hour and it will be interesting to see what he does with it.

So the question that remains is what should black people think of him? Being a Republican myself (though not quite so conservative as Herman Cain) I have no problem with his running for the GOP nomination, in fact I think most black people would be proud of his success just as we were and continue to be proud of Barack Obama. But Herman Cain represents a strain of political thought that is well outside the mainstream of most black political philosophy. Not for Herman Cain are the wonders of the welfare state. Though he has offered few specifics in this regard, it seems clear that he is ready to drastically cut federal spending on public and entitlement programs while initiating his catchy and controversial “9-9-9” tax plan, drastically cutting income taxes for not just the rich but for all Americans, yet simultaneously significantly increasing consumption taxes which would have a disproportionately negative affect on poorer and middle income Americans, blacks especially. This stands in stark contrast to the policy preferences of President Barack Obama, who has made clear that he wants to raise taxes on the top income earners in this country in an effort to preserve as much in the way of public benefits as he can. Who is right? Public spending does a lot of good for black Americans who are traditionally disadvantaged in terms of educational and, consequently, economic opportunities in this country and thereby wind up needing some assistance from the government to get by.  But on the other hand, no amount of public welfare can replace the value of having a job, not just in terms of earning potential but in terms of self-esteem and real psychological value. President Obama’s policies have thus far not succeeded in dramatically reversing the downward spiral of American employment in general and black unemployment in particular. With the large sums of money that would be freed up for investment and consumption for most American’s by the 9-9-9 plan, it is just possible that a real surge in job creation might follow under Cain where it has thus far failed under Obama.

What Cain would and could do as president of course is mostly hypothetical. We do not yet know him as well as we will have to to understand just what type of leader he might prove to be when the pressure is on and in any event, it is still not likely that he will be able to overcome the advantages of big money and political experience that his chief rival Mitt Romney possesses. Even so, if we are honest with ourselves and each other, the example of Herman Cain should give us some reason to smile. He is another shining example of what our people are capable of when we believe in ourselves and our abilities. You do not have to agree with his politics to see that, in this respect, he is every bit as much a role model as Barack Obama. Whether he can win the Republican nomination, much less the presidency, much less still the support of a broad number of African-Americans is an open question. But the case is closed on the ability of the man. Love him or hate him, Herman Cain is a force with which to be reckoned.

PODCAST: African-American vs. Black

Listen in to another session of our Fall 2011 podcast season!  Join KC and the family as they discuss the labels “African-American” and “Black” and which term best suits our community. Podcast guests include John Wood, Mr. CEO, Je Lewis, Dino Black, and Darius Gray.

As always, we’ve given you more than just 15 minutes. Enjoy!

The Ascendancy of Black America (Part Four of Four)

I believe that the sun shines brightly on the African American future, just as I ultimately believe that this country’s best days are still ahead of it. I believe in the cliche that the future is what you make it. I believe in the power of belief itself, and that faith in a righteous cause is in time rewarded. Those black American’s who will accept it have before them a righteous cause in which to believe. It is the cause of black nationalism but it is also the cause of black patriotism. It is the reclamation of black culture from the hands of degenerate cultural influences and amoral corporate interests. It is the understanding that, whether we originally chose it or not we have 400 hundred years of blood and sweat invested in this country and are only now coming to understand that we have both the right and the ability to lead it. Barack Obama, whether he remains in office but another one and a half years or another five and a half years, will not be president forever. Let his ascendency not be the end of The Ascendancy of Black America. Let it be but another great step forward on the way to the promised land that King saw long before.

The dream of Martin Luther King, Jr. is the vision that has propelled black America to this fateful moment in time, just as it has guided America towards the fuller realization of the spirit of freedom and equality contained in her founding documents. King’s dream that one day “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers” calls us to remember that even as black Americans our ultimate allegiance in this world is to the human race as a whole, recognizing that in God we are one human family. This was the vision of Dr. King and this is the conclusion drawn by our founding ideals as illuminated in the simple words that “all men are created equal.” The election of President Obama was indeed striking proof of the power of these ideals as they have matured and developed throughout our collective American experience, culminating in in the compelling story of a single man who found himself poised to scale the heights of history in an election which justified the faith that her citizens and the world have placed in America as the single greatest beacon of freedom and opportunity on earth. It was therefore easy to think, for a brief moment, that we had come to the promised land that King prophesied from his mountain top. But we have a long way to go before we come to that place.  For King did not pursue a primarily political agenda; though he fought segregation, though he tried to see to it that all Americans, black and white, could have jobs if they were willing to work, and though he strove to turn America away from rash wars waged over seas, he had a higher cause than politics for which he struggled. Neither was his aim primarily social, for although he persevered in the effort to bridge the gaps between whites and blacks and more broadly all people everywhere, he had a higher calling than even this. Martin Luther King, Jr. waged a spiritual battle, against sin itself if you will. He wanted to remind people that there is only one truth, one power and one moral absolute at the end of the day and that is that of love. He wished to return love to the center of America’s consciousness, and to rally the righteous behind it’s banner. But as he said:

“In speaking of love at this point, we are not referring to some sentimental emotion. It would be nonsense to urge men to love their oppressors in an affectionate sense. “Love” in this connection means understanding good will…we speak of a love which is expressed in the Greek word agape. Agape means nothing sentimental or basically affectionate; it means understanding, redeeming good will for all men, an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. It is the love of God working in the lives of men. When we love on the agape level we love men not because we like them, not because their attitudes and ways appeal to us, but because God loves them. Here we rise to the position of loving the person who does the evil deed while hating the deed he does.”

Earlier in this series I briefly mentioned my white Grandfather, saying that he felt my father had committed a disgrace by marrying my mother. But I should clarify, it was not that he himself felt disgraced but rather that he felt, even in the mid-eighties, that the world would see it that way and that my father had committed a grave error by doing what he did. Nevertheless, and though my grandparents may have felt once upon a time that the reality of segregation was something that had to be accepted, I do know that that my Grandfather told my father once once with respect to black people that “they’re smarter than we are. They have to be to survive.” But though the cleverness of black people may derive in large measure from the direness of our historical circumstance, the wisdom of black people has been the hard understanding that in spite of all our wounds, and though they have been received at the hands of a people different from us, there is nevertheless reason to love our oppressors just as there is reason for us, in spite of our long tragedies, to love ourselves.

Now then is the time for us to call upon the instruments of our love, our spirit, our wisdom and our righteousness, to move the world forward. Love has overcome the divide between white and black, so too can understanding defeat the chasm between liberalism and conservatism that was truly the promise of the Obama candidacy. (Martin Luther King, Jr. loved George Wallace and Bull Connor, never disparaging them personally, so do you think we might somehow be righteous enough to do the same for Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin?) Love gave us music and literature and poetry to inspire Americans and people around he world for generations, so too can it inspire artistry and intellect in our own time to beat back the relentless waves of materialism, sexual gratuitousness, cynicism and moral relativism running rampant in our culture and our American society at large. Websites like Black Is are a part of the movement to reclaim our black nobility, our intellectual honesty, and to assert ourselves at the helm of American society. Every poem and every song that a child writes in the name of love and the honor of black women is a step in this direction, a declaration against the false Rap, Hip-Hop and BET culture that says we are better than what you are telling us we are. (Shout out to my girls Watoto from the Nile for really keeping it real. Google it if you don’t know.) Let us understand then that we do not need BET or big record labels to be the arbiters of our cultural expression. You can start a blog, a YouTube channel, a website and communicate a higher level of cultural consciousness to our people in whatever way you are gifted to do so. You can speak out in your church about our moral complacency and urge the people of your community to recognize that they do not have to accept Roc-A-Fella and Bad Boy records as the standard of black art and culture, not even in this time. If you have children, play for them your old Sam Cooke albums, your Motown records. Add some Miles Davis and some Duke Ellington if you have it, and you can always find some Ella Fitzgerald and some Billie Holiday if you look. And by all means, let them hear some Tupac too: let them hear “Mama’s Just a Little Girl,” “Changes,” I Ain’t Mad at You,” and and the many thoughtful and provocative RAP songs that have been and still are being made in some circles. Progress is about winning the future, not living in the past. But we cannot win the future without knowing our past. Soon black people who know their history and who understand their true importance and necessity in America will join hands and stand firm to change the cultural equation, in and beyond black America. We can only live with our ethnic hypocrisy for so long. Every time we look in the mirror, we see a man or a woman, a boy or a girl, who should be a priest of grace and righteousness, but the face we paint before the world is something less. But we are, we are meant to be, a holy tribe with a commission to do right. The opportunity to do so is coming and has come. Black America will take a stand before it has gone.


The Ascendancy of Black America (Part Three of Four)

What is the power of the African-American? What makes us special, unique, or able to contribute anything of great value in the context of America? Is it our artists, our singers, dancers, our authors, our  poets and painters that grant our people an invaluable square on the quilt of this country? Is it our athletes who have broken down walls of separation in every major sport by not only their talent but their tenacity, their toughness of character? Or is it the legacy of black intellectuals and civil rights leaders, of preachers and professors who have been bold enough to stand and to decry the evils of our persecution in the face of the mighty and the wrong? It is indeed Maya Angelou and Sam Cooke. It is Muhammad Ali and Jackie Robinson. It is W.E.B. DuBois and Martin Luther King, Jr.  It is all of these of course. Yet our power comes from more than any of these. The seat of our power lies seeded in a place deep within our moral memory and lights our path forward as we try to determine how it is that we as a people will win the future.

Black Americans are a proud people. And sure, we have accomplished much that gives us cause to be proud. And I know that pride may seem to be a virtue, but the truth is many people are proud. The Bible urges us, in the words of Zephaniah, “Seek righteousness, seek humility. It may be that you will be hidden in the day of the Lord’s anger.” (Zephaniah 2:3). Believer or non-believer, what the Bible here seeks to tell us is what we African-Americans should from our own experience already know: that it is not pride that is the face of righteousness but humility, and that in those inevitable days which history in its cycles always brings about wherein the deeds of men are placed squarely before the judgment seat of their own consciences, our best defense from the judgment of mankind and our very our own souls is simple innocence. In our own time, we can be innocent again.

Now as I say “we can be innocent again,” I speak as to be heard. But I know that man is never innocent. We must know even as we consider the tragedy of our tribal history that we came here as the children of evil men. We made war on our brothers like evil men, as did the Native Americans even after the nations of Europe established themselves on their shores. We fell into slavery at the hands of evil men. We were sold into slavery by the hands of evil men, into to the hands of men whose wickedness was driven not only by  vendetta-less greed, but a dark and subconscious fear of everything they did not understand. And as we know, fear bubbles over into hatred and covers the land when the spirit of scorn marries profitability. Still it remains true that our mothers and fathers reaped much evil in the grounds of Africa before her soils gave them up. Just as the fathers of God’s tribe sold their youngest brother into slavery, so our brothers in Africa once sold us as Joseph into Egypt. Yet like Joseph we through our misery have gained an understanding of the price of freedom that informs us both as to how it is obtained in a hostile land, as well as how it is cultivated with people vastly different from ourselves. The answer is that we like Joseph must love our enemies as Joseph loved the king of Egypt, transcending their spiteful fear. We must love one another, coming together in what is most excellent about us, our culture and our values. Only then can we rise up and speak to America in one mighty voice in declaration of what is wrong and what is right.

Today our country is paralyzed in the twin grips of a broken political system and a broadly degenerating culture. In the first instance, the people who dominate our media and our government are so invested in exploiting their own differences, whether for money or political gamesmanship, that they bring all progress this nation could make on the problems that it faces to a screeching halt. On the other, we find that the dysfunction in our politics is mirrored by the vast fragmentation of the American people themselves. In a nation where a vast and ever heterogeneous people section themselves off according to subcultures, to ever narrowing musical and cinematic tastes, to ever more particular forms of news media, and to ever drifting standards of moral conduct, the less we are able to come together as a people in times of crisis. This problem exists for black America as much as it does for the rest of the nation. But in our case we are better positioned to overcome these symptoms of disintegration.

First however we must recognize the peculiar nature of the cancers that lie within the black American community. Yes, we understand the daunting challenges represented in our high unemployment, our high imprisonment rate, our rate of births outside of wedlock. But these problems themselves could be more effectively challenged if black America herself came together on what values she stands for. We embrace a hip-hop culture, a reality t.v. culture and a culture of materialism that prevents us from uniting as a cohesive moral force in this country. It is not that I have any problem with Hip-Hop or reality t.v. in and of themselves. There are always some things that are good to be found, (if Hip Hop were more about real love and substance in the Common and Talib Kweli variety and less about gratuitousness, and if there were actual values to be discerned in shows like “Flavor of Love” or “Basketball Wives,” I would be all for them). But the fact is that there is little nourishing substance in the art of the black community today, a community which has long reaped from the most fertile soil of this country’s great artists. Our music, our shows and our films may still make money. But little enough do they edify the soul. We need to think about the implications of that fact.

Now you might think that I am wrong, or least simplistic in placing so much significance on the impact of certain types of figures in our culture. Pardon me if I sound a little like Bill Cosby, for I do largely sympathize with the no none-sense style criticism’s he himself fielded so much criticism for voicing against our contemporary black culture. But the only partially justified indignities of Professor Michael Eric Dyson and others on behalf of our contemporary black culture aside, the source of Mr. Cosby’s righteous, albeit sometimes condescending, anger and disappointment is that he well remembers a time in this country’s history when even though the chips were stacked against us we could largely unite around the positivity of our art and our culture. (That now somewhat iconic episode of Aaron McGruder’s controversial cartoon The Boondocks wherein he brings Martin Luther King Jr. out of a forty year coma to see what has become of black America, pointedly if stingingly throws in our faces the extent to which we have sunk into a cultural perversion that serves us neither politically or socially.)

There are people in our communities of course who do not want to hear such talk. Some people like Professor Dyson are quick to point out, and rightly so, that there is a myriad of structural obstacles that still vie against black America’s equal  acquisition of the American dream. Even still, can those who might call themselves advocates of our cultural status quo suggest with a straight face that our culture sustains us now in the face of adversity as it did for our enslaved ancestors? Does it nurture us in the way that the stirring, primal and majestic melodies of our “negro  spirituals” provided hope and solace for those enduring the the cruel malice of the slave master’s whip? Does our culture today provide for the moral center of gravity upon which a Dr. King as well as a Malcolm X could stand; two men who both rejected materialism, who were both intolerant towards profane speech, who upheld a standard of black manhood which itself could only abide within it a high standard of reverence for black womanhood? Is their legacy reflected in the music of Lil’ Wayne and of Jay Z, for the most part? Are the values we teach in our churches reflected in the values imparted by the lyrical sentiments of Rick Ross or Rihanna? Do we uphold the standard of respect and admiration we should have for our women in these songs and videos of these artists, particularly when Black Entertainment Television is willing to show us these images over and over again but does not cover the deaths of Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King at the time that they happen? I speak here of the vast trends of our culture. Surely I could think of a couple positive songs that Snoop Dogg has written, but I can’t think of a single song Marvin Gaye ever sang that was demeaning to women or disrespectful to anyone. The image we construct of ourselves in our culture, that we accept of ourselves, is wholly unbefitting a great people. But it’s so easy to accept it. That is why those among us who are willing to must band together on a higher plane of cultural observance. One which upholds the higher trends of our history and which cares not to appease the rest.

I am called to remember W.E.B. Du Bois’s belief that Afro-America could only uplift itself if “the advance guard of the race,” pursued a cultural awakening within the black community.  (W.E.B. Du Bois labeled those blacks who would take up this charge, perhaps a bit snobbishly, as the “talented tenth,”) It was this conviction on the part of W.E.B. Du Bois and other prominent black artists and intellectuals including the NAACP, which prompted the direct engineering of the Harlem Renaissance, which really did elevate both black and white America’s view of the negro people. So did black operatic performance, black drama, poetry, literature and Jazz find their first major platform from which to leap into the imagination of the country at large. From this conscientious attempt to change the nation through high art did we get Langston Hughes, Bill Robinson and even Duke Ellington and these artists and many others of the time largely paved the way for every great black actor, singer and author who would come after.  Art was the vehicle by which black America reached out across racial lines because in art and literature we were able to speak a language of the heart that was defiant of our differences. What language do we speak now with our artistry of materialism, sexual gratuity, disrespect and violence? Even if we do bring people together with these, what do we bring people together for?

Dr. King described the movement he led as a spiritual movement, one in which agape love and goodwill for mankind was recognized as the central element of their striving.  In this is the ultimate show of humility. In this is the long-suffering self-sacrifice that I know some determined African-Americans will embody as they set the moral compass for this country in the 21rst century. Yet we must be willing to sacrifice ourselves to enduring the bitterness of those black people, those white people, and all those cynical voices so automatically arrayed against those who would labor to lift our consciousness to a higher state of mind. In this we make the path straight for the ultimate liberation of black America, which is the ultimate liberation of America herself. Those who carry this burden are the sons and daughters of slave heroes and martyrs. We are the Day Breakers, in the words of Renaissance  poet Arna Bontemps. Non-violent resisters of a decadent social order. But even so:

“We are not come to wage a strife,

With swords upon this hill,

It is not wise to waste the life

Against a stubborn will.

Yet would we die as some have done.

Beating a way for the rising sun…”

The Ascendancy of Black America (Part Two of Four)

What does it mean to be an American? I suppose it would mean, or should mean at least, that one stands for liberty, for equal opportunity, and the right of all peoples to have a say in the governing system that oversees their existence. In this, we as black Americans are Americans like any other. But to be an African American does make one the heir of  a unique history and a powerful legacy that runs through the heart of the overall American experience. It is a history that gives us strength, but only in proportion to the degree to which we know it and embrace it. In my opinion therefore, it is important for us to claim this legacy knowing that ours is an American legacy. We, as much as the whites who brought us here, built this country. We, man for man, woman for woman, have helped to shape it by our endurance and our innovation as much as  European Americans. Our struggle has been different from theirs. Indeed, our struggle has been against them, to a significant degree. Yet our pains followed us here from Africa as well, sold into the hands of one group of slave owners by slave owners whose colors were our own. As such we were forced to start over, in a way that perhaps no people has ever had to before. Indeed, we are still starting over. In the last fifty years we have called ourselves negro, black, African-American, then Nigga with an “a” because, (I suppose), that makes a difference, and indeed some black people will take exception to any of these labels because as a whole people we have still not agreed upon who precisely we are. No, not after all this time. Part of the reason for this, I’ve decided, is because we are still uncertain as to whether or not we with our tormented history at the hands of the mighty in this country should really consider ourselves American at all. The answer to this question is that we should because we are, and that our Americanism is more than just a technicality. Our experience has colored the American experience, our culture lies at the heart of America’s culture, and our minds claim great shares in the authorship of America’s ideals as they’ve been further defined through the many generations succeeding the moment of this nations founding. But all of that is for not if we don’t see ourselves as Americans.

Though I was never ignorant of the struggles of African-Americans in this country, I was raised by both my white father and my black mother to think of myself as an American, and to be proud of that fact. That’s why, one day in the seventh grade, I was more than a little shocked when, after we we’re all asked to stand for the pledge of allegiance, one of the black girls in my class pointedly refused. Our teacher asked why she refused and she said, “why should I? This is the country that enslaved me, that wouldn’t let my people use the same bathroom or go to the same schools as white people. Why the hell should I pledge allegiance to that?” Though she wasn’t talking to me I vividly remember feeling hurt by her words. “We’re all in the same schools now,” I thought. Still, her anger struck me and I wondered, was I naive to love this country? Later in my life, and after having argued the case for black American patriotism many times, many ways, I heard another man artfully put in words what I had long understood and had long tried to explain to those black friends of mine who wanted still to hold tightly to their anger towards this country.

When Barack Obama’s presidential campaign was shaken by the uproar over the anti-American tirade of Pastor Jeremiah Wright of Trinity United Church in Chicago,(then Senator Obama’s longtime pastor), Barack Obama delivered a speech in Philadelphia to address the issue. In this speech he said a thing that sounded curious to many people, that didn’t satisfy many of his critics, but which I understood perfectly well. His words were as follows:

“I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can disown my white grandmother — a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed her by on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.

These people are a part of me. And they are part of America, this country that I love.”

Many critics of the president’s felt this to be not but an artful alibi for suffering the anti-American rhetoric of a radical religious figure, something that should have disqualified any candidate seeking the presidency from obtaining that office. But as a black and as a (if you will) mulatto myself, I recognized both sides of the coin which he described. For many of the people I love most in my life, black people of intelligence and integrity, have disparaged America in my presence in similar terms, something I have often cringed at. Yet how can I be angry at them for reacting to a pain that didn’t end with the passage of the Civil Rights Act? How can I judge them for expressing the bitterness that still trickles into our hearts as African-Americans from the time of slavery to now? I need inform no black person with the slightest bit of awareness of our circumstance of the statistics: we are the poorest people in the nation. We are the most undereducated people in the nation. We are the most imprisoned, the most murdered, and the latter by our own. We are self-hating so why would we not hate the country that left us this legacy of poverty, that actively sought to turn us against each other, destroying our hearts and minds and all that in the name of God? Yet hatred and distrust is not the only dynamic that exists between white and black in our society. For while we can bare witness to the prejudice of whites directed towards us throughout our history, we can also see that the power of love and God has also been present in the midst of our American confusion. How else could Barack Obama’s grandmother love him as she did in spite of the fear she may occasionally of felt towards black men? How could I myself have come to be so loved by my own white grandparents in spite of their segregationist tendencies, in spite of the fact that at the time my grandfather learned of my father’s marriage to my mother he angrily felt that my father had committed a disgrace? But love transcended these fading lines of color, both for Senator Obama and myself, and through the painful process of time for America herself to a great degree. So then did Barack Obama identify the mistaken cynicism of Jeremiah Wright and the many blacks who share his point of view regarding America, saying:

“The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress had been made; as if this country — a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black, Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old — is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past. But what we know — what we have seen — is that America can change. That is the true genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope — the audacity to hope — for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.”

Some countries never change. Throughout history, many nations have not emerged from their tribal conflicts but have burned to the ground in such fires. America however has changed. Not enough of course, but enough to where we whose faith is not so great as a warrior like Martin Luther King, Jr. can too say that we have glimpsed the mountain top of which he spoke. We must recognize the moment we’ve come to as black people, a moment that allows for us to take the lead in rescuing our country from itself, a moment when our nation and our children white and black need us most. For today our national peril is not so dissimilar from what we faced back in the 1960’s, except that today the roots of our divisions are not-primarily-racial, but rather we suffer from an ideological and a cultural divide that prevents us both from solving problems in our government and coming together as a people. With respect to these near insurmountable problems they cannot be solved unless the lessons of the African-American experience are applied and our special position on the societal spectrum utilized. How will we do this? By digging deep into the soil of our pain to raise the flower of our faith as a people, which once made us the moral leaders of a nation. We, the African-American people, have the power to move hearts and minds because of who we are and what we’ve been through, and in this potential lies our power to lift ourselves out of our own tragic circumstances in the process. We who have healed from the wounds of generations long persecution must now be the delivers of healing for an injured nation and our injured brothers and sisters who struggle to see the power that they have. In this is the Christian promise of triumph and reconciliation of which King wrote when he penned these words that are as relevant to our time and mission as they were to his: “Our goal is to create a beloved community and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our condition.”

Black America, we have a choice to make…

The Ascendancy of Black America (Part One of Four)

How far we’ve come from the days of our bondage. How far we’ve come from the days of our most brutal persecution. We were uprooted from our homeland only to watch our families torn asunder, beneath the lash of petty southern tyrants and more broadly speaking an economic system and a system of government which, however conflictingly, allowed for the institutionalized dehumanization of an entire race of people by which it’s preferred subjects were enriched and empowered. How far we’ve come from those days, and the days of Jim Crow and the century of only slightly less insidious persecution that followed. How far we’ve come. Yet it is worth asking where we have come to, and even more so, where we are going.

In the Old Testament the Lord through Moses, in revealing the ten commandments to the Israelites, commanded them to remember the blessing of their liberation, saying: “And remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm…” (Deuteronomy 15:15). For black Christians, we have an advantage (one for which we should really be thankful) in understanding and relating to the liberation of God’s people in the Bible because for us the memory of slavery in our blood and in our culture is sharper and more immediate than it can be for our European brothers and sisters. The humility that the Bible stresses that God’s spiritual children must have can only come through the purifying agony of degradation and pain. (What was Christ trying to show in his death on the cross?) All people suffer of course, but ours in America has been a culture of suffering and in as much as we have suffered patiently we have seen miracles, for God has delivered us by a mighty hand and that more than once. Whether you believe in God or not however, you must surely see how vast seas were parted in both the material and political circumstances leading up to the ending of slavery, and then the ending of segregation. Moreover, and more importantly, great waters were parted in the consciences of our oppressors as well as those many whites Americans who were just indifferent to our struggle in both the 1860’s and the 1960’s. Through all these times our people as a whole did not have power in this society. (In the four hundred and fifty plus years since the slave trade began to when we achieved real equality under the law with the Civil Rights Act we went from none to not much.) Because of this, our power in these times of powerlessness could only come from man’s true source of power and that lies in humility, righteousness, and the simple indomitable resolve that comes from knowing one’s cause is just.

This is our history as African-Americans. It is one that is moving and proud, inspiring to us and people of all colors in this country and around the globe. But a triumphal past does necessarily lead to a glorious future and this brings me to the point of these four articles of which this is the first. We, as African-Americans have reached a critical point in our history, one which demands that a collective decision be made in the hearts and minds of our people. In the age of Colin Powell, Kobe Bryant, Oprah Winfrey and, most tellingly, Barack Obama, we can no longer think that we, for all the myriad and considerable disadvantages we still labor under, have no power in this society. We are African-Americans, yes, but we the children of slaves are Americans every bit as much as the children of slave owners. As such we have as great a stake in the success of this nation as the white majority that has had the lion share of the governing power for all of its history. We have as much a claim on America as any of the descendants of Quakers and Pilgrims who once in a spirit of great faith and courage set out for the promise of a new world which fate would destine us to share. What we must understand, then, is that we also have an equal obligation as they to lead it. Marcus Garvey once said, “Look for me in the whirlwind or the storm.” That is precisely where we are today…

Black History: The African-American Firefighters Museum

The African-American Firefighters Museum in Los Angeles is the only museum that preserves the legacy of America’s pioneer black firefighters. These are men like Sam Haskins, the first black fireman in the Los Angeles Fire Department, who served for three years then died in a boiler accident in 1895. Also among the list of firefighters were many former Tuskegee Airmen.

The museum’s curator is Arnett “The Rookie” Hartsfield. He is 92 years old and was one of the first black firefighters in the LAFD. Hartsfield was among the group of forerunners called the Stentorians. Though he and others faced extreme discrimination, according to Hartsfield, no one quit their job.

The museum, which is Fire Station #30 on Central Avenue, holds the many stories of racism that firefighters endured.

When the fire houses were integrated in 1955, the African-American firefighters were forced to sleep in the same beds because the whites refused to sleep in the same location as blacks. The men were also forced out of the station kitchens when white firefighters entered and were required to bring their own cooking utensils, pots and pans. The sign posted read “Colored served in rear.” Many times, they weren’t allowed to speak to their fellow white fighters, and if they put their food in the refrigerator, it was destined to be contaminated. In one instance, white fighters took the pillowcase of a new black fireman named Ernie Roberts to the bathroom and used it as toilet paper, then returned it to his bed and turned out the lights.

The African-American Firefighters Museum opened its doors in 1997 and is now lead by black fireman Brent Burton. Inside the museum lies a memorial tribute to the firefighters that perished during the 9/11 attacks. The museum also honors female firefighters who continue to make their mark in history.

The stories of America’s black firefighters are told in a documentary film by Trevor Hansford called “Ashlands” and in a DVD series called “Engine Company X.”

For more information on the African American Firefighters Museum, please visit