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Let's Talk About Guns

Let's Talk About Guns

In the wake of the school shooting in Parkland, FL last week there has been a lot of discussion lately about gun control, the 2nd Amendment and the place of assault rifles in mainstream society. There have been too many mass shootings for this discussion not to take place. Too many innocent lives have been lost and there are simply too many guns just floating around for anybody to get their hands on. The so-called “left” is pushing for heavier gun control regulations which would inflict more stringent background checks on gun buyers, elimination of military style assault rifles and 100 round magazines from the public market. On the other hand, the so-called “right” is very adamant about defending our 2nd Amendment right to bear arms, and to cap it all off, The National Rifle Association is calling for armed police and guards in schools. I would like to weigh in on the debate for just a moment from three perspectives: political, social, and racial.

            From a political standpoint, I in no way believe that gun control regulations are in violation of the 2nd Amendment, and I wish the far right would understand this. No one is trying to take away your guns! They are trying to “control” who has access to guns and what kinds should be available! As was pointed out in another article I read, times were very different when the 2nd Amendment was written. First of all, it was written in post-revolutionary war America to ensure that Americans would have protection from any other Red Coats or militias that would try to impose themselves on us. Second, they used muskets that took almost 2 minutes to reload one round, not 100 round semi-automatic pistols or rifles. The context and the situation are completely different. That being said, perhaps the 2nd Amendment should be updated to reflect a 21st century world. The context that produced the 2nd Amendment in the 18th century is most definitely not the context of the 21st century.

There is the political element of the NRA that has many politicians in their pocket. I wonder, however, how history will see this political moment. Will they look back like we do now on Nazi Germany? We look back and sit in judgment of all the politicians that went along with Hitler’s program that did not speak out against the evil they saw being perpetuated. We look back in judgment of the soldiers that claim they were just “following orders” instead of doing the right thing. I wonder how history will look back on our time. I believe they will look back in judgment of our unwillingness to act in the face of unprecedented slaughter and disaster to protect our children and our nation. Even as I write this, those same children are speaking up and taking a stand for themselves as the adults and politicians quiver under the power of the NRA. I believe history will applaud these children for standing for common sense and being willing to act in the face of power and they will look down on us as being cowards that refused to act in the face of the demise of our society.

            From a social perspective, I am trying to understand what in the world is wrong with us?! Pundits that are blaming these mass shootings on access to guns and mass media refuse to acknowledge that other countries have just as many guns and just as much media exposure. In his documentary Bowling for Columbine, Michael Moore showed that countries like Canada, Japan, England and Germany have just as many guns per capita. They also view just as many violent movies, listen to just as much violent music and play just as many violent video games as we do in America, yet have nowhere near the amount of violent crimes that we do. Pundits will then argue that America’s violent past and history is the source of such violence. But as Moore’s film pointed out, are we saying that Nazi Germany’s history isn’t as violent as Americas? Or the British Empire? So violent history has nothing to do with it. What does? In my opinion, there is simply something wrong with us as Americans. If other countries have the same access to guns, violent media, and just as violent a history, why do they all have violent crimes in the hundreds or under while America’s yearly violent crimes totals over 50,000? There is something fundamentally wrong with us as Americans. The whole “frontier” and “manifest destiny” mentality has done a job on our collective psyches. There’s really no excuse for it. Americans are more violent than other developed countries, period. Perhaps we should go about discovering why.

Finally, there is the racial component. Can you imagine with me for one second, if all of these mass shootings were all committed by Muslims or anyone from the Middle East? Can you imagine if it were hundreds of black men armed with AR-15 rifles and kept shooting up white children what the reaction would be? No! You cannot imagine it! You cannot even fathom it! Because we all know well and good what the reaction would be! The response would be so swift and thorough that we wouldn’t know what hit us. The repression would be so great that it would tantamount to an occupation of Arab-American or African-American communities. AR-15’s would have been outlawed long ago, at least for those two communities. But because the majority of these shooters happen to be middle-class white people, “it’s not about the gun, it’s about mental health”. Need we remind ourselves the last time black people stood up to arm themselves in SELF-DEFENSE with the Black Panther Party—not in attack but in self-defense— they were visited with such a level of government repression that their offspring are still experiencing the effects.

In conclusion, if we do not act, we will not survive. I hope that someone in power will ally themselves with these brave young men and women that are activating now and begging for their parents and politicians to ACT. I will say plainly, the NRA has the blood of children on their hands. These politicians and pundits have blood on their hands. The blood of innocent children cries out to God as did the blood of Abel in Genesis and will not God hear the cry? Indeed he will, and this nation will be met with severe judgment. Jesus said Himself, “Whoever harms one of these little ones, it will be better for him if a millstone was tied around his neck and cast into the sea” (Matthew 18:6). We must repent, and we must act. Or God will act.

Black Mecca

Black Mecca

In his book, Between the World and Me, Tanehisi Coates describes his experience of being at Howard University. He described it as the black Mecca. Having attended an HBCU myself, I immediately resonated with the statement. HBCU’s are special special places. They are safe-havens for numerous black youth that have been under the assault of tokenism. For black youth that have grown up and gone to school in suburban areas they often find themselves as the only black kids in their classes, on their soccer teams and in their church youth groups. I was one of those youth. I was the only black male in my class for the first half of my high school career. I know the experience of constantly feeling like you have to “represent” for the race. Everything is under a microscope. I was around classmates that had not spent much time around black people and as a result perpetuated ignorant racism. This brand of racism is not a result of hatred, but a result of misinformation or lack of contact. It involves random grabbing of your hair and asking if it’s real or “how does it get into rows like that?” It’s the constant questions about who your favorite rap artist is or the incessant appropriated Ebonic greetings and gestures. It’s the questions of whether or not you’re going to try to hook up with the other black girls in the class.

Most of all, it is the burden of being the standard bearer for all of Black America. You are asked every “black” question on every “black” issue and expected to be an expert. If you are loud and rambunctious, then it is “that’s just how they are”. If you are well read and well-spoken then it is “you don’t talk black...” which is almost always a phrase intended to mean “you don’t sound ignorant”. It is burden of constantly being under the “white gaze”. I have written about this before. The white gaze is a force, a power that encumbers us from the moment we enter life in this country. It is having to be mindful of what you name your children so you do not curse them to be discriminated against on college and job applications. It is the fear experienced when you have a son of having to explain to him how he must behave in order to survive an encounter with the police. It is the awareness that to exit your residence with a hoodie is to invite suspicion and animus on one’s self. The white gaze is a burden that those descendants of the African diaspora that landed in the United States must uniquely bear.

Having traveled to Africa and many parts of the Caribbean it became evident to me that while the effects of colonialism and white supremacy were still manifest in these places, most of the people did not have a concept of racism as we know it here. It was confirmed by my African brothers at seminary as the African-Americans gathered to talk about the racism that was present and pervasive there that they did not know what we were talking about. They had largely led an existence outside of the “white gaze”. They did not yet feel its burden. Indeed, if they spend enough time in this country, they will.

I attended a faith-based HBCU that was a refuge from the tyranny of the “gaze”. It was, as Coates puts it, my “Mecca”. It was our space. We had built it, we had nurtured it, and we gave it life. There were multiple shades and hues. Light brown, tan and caramel complexions mixed with chocolate ranging from milk to dark. There was hair that stood in Afros or were laid down in braids. Dreadlocks, weaves, and the occasional bald heads crowned the heads of these kings and queens. There were people from Jamaica, Trinidad, Antigua, Kenya, Atlanta, New York, California, Tennessee, and Virginia. You name it, it was there. There were your stereotypical jocks, fashionistas, those into manga and anime, your Afrocentric crowd full of poets and artists, your skateboarders and your theologians. A few who identified as goth and emo even peppered the walls.

And yet with all these diverse places and diverse representations we were there united under the banner of our God and our blackness. Coming into this from an environment surrounded by the white gaze, it was a breath of fresh air. No, it was oxygen itself. Finally, I could breathe.

I made my friends among the theologians and the goths, but I found my family with the poetry club. We were all artists and “others” seeking to find our way in a world that had denied us expression. We were misfits in many ways, but it was the poetry that brought us together. The magic of the words formed a community that was unbreakable. This wasn’t just any poetry club; it was a black poetry club. It was performance and spoken word steeped in all the traditions of the black voice and black music. It was call and response, jazz improvisation, hip-hop and neo-soul. It was activism. For what good were our words if they did not awaken our brothers and sisters to the realities of the world they would soon face?

I was finishing up there just as Barak Obama was finishing up his first presidential run. There was much talk about post-racial societies, and the fulfillment of Dr. King’s “Dream”. There was even talk about whether HBCU’s were still relevant. We in the club new better. We were “woke” before it was a thing. We tried to warn them what would happen. We knew that racism was not just about racists but also about the racist systems and structures this country had set in motion, and until those systems and structures were dealt with, we would always need HBCU’s. We would always need our Mecca’s. We would always need our places of refuge where we could be free. Free from the white gaze, albeit just for four years. Free to just be.

Wakanda and the Western Portrayal of Africa

Wakanda and the Western Portrayal of Africa

I'm getting a little sick of seeing people telling black people to "calm down" about the Black Panther movie. "It's just a movie" they say. "It's a fictional world that doesn't mean anything to the real world they say". I disagree. I think this movie stands to have a profound impact on the real world and especially our perceptions about Africa and about blackness. Here's why.

In 2007 I made a trip that changed my life. It was my first trip to Africa. For about a month I was in Arusha, Tanzania working with a group that was helping to build a village of orphanages. Right from the beginning of the trip, from the flight, to the lodging, to working with the locals I was profoundly confronted with many misconceptions and internalizations I had about Africa.

Africa has always been presented as a place to be feared, or at least ignored. Perhaps this was due to the desire to strip the African slaves of any semblance of resonance with their homeland and so Africa was made to seem ugly, poor and undesirable. James Michira in his paper, “Images of Africa in the Western Media” stated that Africa is often portrayed as a homogenous entity comprising uncivilized and heathen peoples who are culturally, intellectually, politically, and technically backward or inferior. Images of jungle people in loin clothes prevailed, leaving many African-Americans to utter the phrase that I would hear around school or work colloquially, “Ain’t nothin I left in Africa I need to go find!”

The negative portrayal of Africa by Western and European powers dates all the way back to the ancient world. Greek historian Herodotus in his work The Histories portrays Africa as being inhabited by savage and non-human like creatures in comparison to the innate civilized natures of the Greeks and Caucasians (p 2).

Charles Darwin reaffirms this idea in his famous work, The Origin of the Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, saying that Africans were still evolving and therefore did not fall within the ‘favoured races’ category with the same status enjoyed by Europeans (p 11–13).

Historian and Professor John Wa’Njoga, states in his essay, “Representation of Africa in the Western Media” that the writings of 19th century authors such as Darwin prepared the ground for twentieth century Western journalists and academics to continue their negative portrayal of Africa during the colonial and post-colonial era. Ama Biney agreed, tracing the portrayal of Africa from the 1950s and ’60s as being “emergent Africa;” the 1970s portrayed a “dependent Africa,” while the 1980s and ’90s portrayed a “crisis and pitiable Africa” (p 1).

In 1966, Marvel comics released its first Black Panther comic book. The general premise revolved around the character, T’Challa who is the king of a futuristic, technologically advanced African country called Wakanda. Wakanda presents some interesting observations and possibilities about modern perceptions of Africa.

With the Black Panther film coming in February of 2018, with its all-black cast and it’s epic portrayal of African identity, it is bound to have an impact on the perceptions and possibilities of Africa. Could Ghana be Wakanda? Or Nigeria or Zimbabwe? What are the implications of seeing Wakanda on the big screen? We have an African king that is just and righteous and a warrior and a superhero; a far cry from the perceived corruption that plagues many governments on the continent. The imagery alone sends a powerful message to the country at large and to black people in particular.

What are the implications for a film portraying a positive image of Africa? Already the teasers, trailers and posters of the film have created an abundance of buzz from “black twitter” and pundits and bloggers across the internet. Powerful, positive black images on film have been so infrequent in the history of Hollywood that we are clamoring to it with reverent fervor. I submit that this is due in part to it being a positive portrayal of Africa and blackness in general.

I remember my dad telling me stories of him watching the 60s tv show Tarzan growing up. He would always say how it bothered him that he was rooting for Tarzan to beat up and destroy Africans and black people on tv, even though those Africans were being portrayed as savage villains. This is what Black Panther has the potential to do. It has has the potential to revolutionize what little black children think and imagine when they think about Africa. Maybe it will even inspire them to travel there one day as I did in 2007, and revolutionize their lives and perceptions forever.

There is something to be said for positive representation. The Opportunity Agenda in its seminal work in the Social Science Literature Review made the case that representation and media portrayal can literally have life or death ramifications for black boys across the country. Whether we are talking about the criminalized portrayal of black men in television and movies or the negative portrayal of Africa in Western media, it still goes back to the issue of identity and identification. If Africa and Africans are “hopeless savages” as Darwin put it then what does that imply about African-Americans? There is no doubt in my mind that seeing an overwhelmingly positive portrayal of Africa in the Black Panther will have a lasting effect on self-image.

The Black Panther gives us a positive image on blackness in a post-Obama world where our blackness, and not just our bodies, is again under visceral attack. It gives us the opportunity to feel powerful and in control of our own identities and existence. It gives us a heritage to hold onto and to represent. There will inevitably be Panther hats and T-shirt’s and all manner of paraphernalia worn on every block in every hood the same way that “X” hats and T-shirt’s were found on those same blocks and in those same hoods over 25 years ago when Spike Lee’s film came out. They both represent the same things: black pride, black autonomy, and black consciousness. Black people are genuinely proud to see an all-black cast in a movie that portrays them, and Africa in a positive and powerful light. We don’t have much to grab onto these days, but Black Panther has the potential to be a temporary escape from the real world; a world that seems to despise our blackness. I believe in it’s positive portrayal of Africa, the Black Panther also provides a positive portrayal of blackness in general, and we can always use more of that. 

Works Cited 
The Opportunity Agenda. “Media Representation and Impact on the Lives of Black Men and Boys”. The Social Science Literature Review, Oct 2011 [accessed online 12-29-17] http://www.racialequitytools.org/resourcefiles/Media-Impact-onLives-of-Black-Men-and-Boys-OppAgenda.pdf

Biney, Ama. “The Western Media and Africa: Issues of Information and Images”. Journal of International Affairs, vol. 1996/1997, no. 21, 1 – 21.

Darwin, Charles. The Origin of the Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, Sixth London Edition, 1882

Herodotus. The Histories, (ca. 442 B.C.)

Michira, James. “Images of Africa in the Western Media”, 2002. [accessed online 12-28-17] http://web.mnstate.edu/robertsb/313/images_of_africa_michira.pdf

Wa’Njogu, John. “Representation of Africa in the Western Media: Challenges and Opportunities” in Njogu, K and Middleton, J (2009) (eds.) Media and Identity in Africa. London: Oxford University Press 2009