Jan 20, 2013

A Heart Full of Grace

On the eve of President Barack Obama's second inauguration and the commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr.'s life and work, I am re-posting an article that was published in The Root a year ago. To view on the Washington Post web site, open link at bottom of article.

The Root DC Live!
Posted at 09:44 AM ET, 01/13/2012

Jack Johnson, MLK, Barack Obama: owning our citizenship in 2012

As we settle in and start to get comfortable with 2012, I find myself trying to temper a still-simmering anxiety over several 2011 events that got under my skin, leaving this nagging question pounding inside my head: What is going on with my people?

Jack Johnson (C), former Prince George's County Executive, walks to the U.S. District Courthouse before sentencing in Greenbelt, MD on December 6, 2011. (Sarah L. Voisin - THE WASHINGTON POST)
First, there was the criminal conviction of Jack B. Johnson, the two-term executive in Prince George’s County. Putting aside Johnson’s thievery and his blow-off of the public’s trust, I submit the reaction of the many Prince Georgians who defended Johnson with sanctimonious clichés about forgiveness and redemption, even while Johnson continued to present a non-repentant and deceptive public posture.
Then there was the happy-hour sage who suggested to my brother that criminal corruption by elected leaders was a fair trade for the political power African Americans have enjoyed. Without full support, the sage advised, “we” could lose the county executive’s office, and “we can’t have them telling us what to do!”
It’s hard to know where to begin picking apart that warped thinking. At the very least, this individualistic rhetoric ignores the legacy of family and community that gave black Prince Georgians a strong sense of culture and connectedness long before Jack Johnson resided within our boundaries – and which could move us beyond the money-worshipping, status-seeking limbo we now symbolize. The legacy of the Jack Johnson administration is not to be treasured or honorably memorialized.
Which leads me to Martin Luther King Jr. and President Barack Obama. On October 16, the National Park Service dedicated the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. On two visits to the monument, I watched the proud and respectfully subdued reactions of visitors as they posed for pictures, reverently circled the stone image and read King’s words inscribed on the statue and surrounding wall.
“What is it grandmommy? came an inevitable question. I thought about how we as a people will answer that question in the years ahead, and of what this monument will become to African Americans. With King preaching to us from this hallowed plaza, I got excited at the thought that he might again spur us into action.
Only a few weeks earlier, Troy Anthony Davis had been unjustly executed in Georgia. Occupy Wall Street protests were blasting the nation’s shameful economic disparities, even while being dismissed by some blacks as irrelevant. A number of states were advancing legislation to undo hard-won voting rights.
Now, with King’s powerful presence on the National Mall, would we at last be shaken out of our civil rights movement reverie, out of our false sense of having arrived, and spurred into action to push further for peace and social justice? Or would King’s monument become just another stop on the black history tour?
During the dedication, as one of the speakers addressed the crowd from the podium, the jumbo screen showed a live shot of the Obamas taking a private tour of the monument, which was out of view of the crowd. Reacting to the image on the screen, a few in the crowd began to chant: “Four more years, four more years!”drowning out the speaker, who had been invited to the ceremony to honor King.
Granted, the Obama presidency has brought to fruition the hopes, dreams, and perseverance of King and probably every single person of African descent who ever called America home. Yet, as the chants waned, another question surfaced: Are we so enraptured with President Obama that we are making this presidency itself a monument? Among black folks, sensitivity to criticism of the president’s positions and policies is constant and increasing. A frequently expressed fear is that black criticism of the president will cost him re-election.
However, those of us who cried, hugged, and fell on our knees the night of the Obama election should not let this demonstration of our electoral power be the complete victory. This could be the era not only of the first African-American president but also of unprecedented engagement in democracy among African Americans, a time when we fully take hold of our democratic privileges to speak up, engage, and dissent. Electing a black president and placing the full weight of progress on his shoulders robs him of the benefit of an aware and engaged citizenry. Our history in America notwithstanding, it is time to own our citizenship, not just in symbolic ways but in the tangible, change-making things we do to keep humanity moving forward.
I am worried and hear myself lamenting, What is going on with my people? So, a few weeks ago when radio station WPFW asked its morning listeners to call and share their thoughts on the question, “What‘s on your social justice agenda for 2012?” I thought, You should say something. This is where I start.
Avis Matthews Davis is a high school history and government teacher in suburban Maryland. She has been a public relations director in local government and was an editor at the former Journal Newspapers.


Jan 18, 2013

‘Pullman Porter Blues’ reveals America’s racially-charged past and present

My opinion piece was published by the Washington Post on The RootDC Tuesday, January 15, 2013.

The Root DC Live!
Posted at 01:03 PM ET, 01/15/2013
‘Pullman Porter Blues’ reveals America’s racially-charged past and present

Larry Marshall as Monroe, Cleavant Derricks as Sylvester, and Warner Miller as Cephas in "Pullman Porter Blues" at Seattle Repertory Theatre, which recently ended its run at the Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. (Chris Bennion - Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater)
“I feel like I owe you an apology,” said the 70-something white woman who sat next to me in the theater for two-and-a-half hours. We'd chatted a little about the expense of metered parking in Southwest Washington. Now the show was over.
“Apologize? Why?” I asked. She hesitated.
Sensing her angst, I thought, Oh, no.
Oh, yes.
Sweetly and with visible embarrassment, she said: “I want to apologize for being white.”
It was playwright Cheryl L. West's “Pullman Porter Blues,” playing its final weekend at Arena Stage, that prompted this conversation. Through three generations of Sykes men — grandfather, father and son — audiences come to know what life might have been like for the African-American railroad stewards working on the Pullman sleeping cars in the 1930s.
The meticulously uniformed and ever-solicitous porters served first-class passengers round the clock. “While the work was grueling, the salary meager, and the hours nearly endless, most porters valued the job and many passed it down to sons and grandsons,” Seattle dramaturge Christine Sumption noted in the program book. “Pullman” premiered in Seattle, where West, an African American, launched her theater career and lives.
Washington Post critic Peter Marks called West’s script “heavy-handed” and the narrative “mean-spirited.” In his Dec. 5 review, he said the characters did not need to keep driving home the point of “how ungrateful the unseen white passengers are.”
I agree that the story could have been more nuanced. We are not surprised by the elder Sykes’ change in posture and over-the-top cheerfulness every time the white conductor approaches. Nor are we surprised when Sister Juba, the voluptuous, bluesy female lead becomes a protective mother figure for the young white female stowaway, even after the girl has hurled “Nigger wench!” at her. These depictions definitely could make you think “This again?” Yet, in a time when people have irrationally bought into the notion of a post-racial society, a nuanced depiction of America’s hard history might fly over the heads of the post-racial believers.
In a post-racial America, the murder of Trayvon Martin would not have compelled President Obama, who will soon be inaugurated for a second term, to make so sorrowful, sympathetic and personal a public statement as he did last March: “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.” Obama could not dismiss the possibility of race as a motive in that deadly confrontation. We don’t live in that America.
If we did, there would not have been a rash of 2012 election-related posts on Facebook loaded with racist comments, including one widely publicized Obama death wish.
Perhaps a playwright’s heavy hand is necessary to bring our race history into focus with directness and clarity, lest we leap ahead recklessly, leaving the lessons behind.
Marks acknowledges that “sidestepping the clichés … is no easy task."
Neither is sitting among a racially mixed audience taking in a play such as this. We see Sylvester, a union organizer, display sheer mental fatigue when having to respond in the middle of the night to repeated pages from a neglected rich brat. We see the porters having to wipe the floor clean of tobacco spit that white passengers had not bothered directing toward a proper receptacle.
Now, with the house lights on, the seat bottoms up and the exit doors open, I am caught off guard by this woman’s guilty purging: “I want to apologize for being white.”
“Oh, stop that,” I said to her, now a little embarrassed myself.
My parents were born during the Great Depression. They had attended the show with me and were moving toward the exit. I looked at them and then directly at this woman, and said with sincerity, “That's sensitive of you.”
She seemed grateful for my having said so but still kind of sad and bothered. Of course, she was no more sorry to be white than I am to be black. What was really bothering her, agitating her sense of humanity, were the inhumanity and injustices she had seen dramatized. It was all the race stuff.
Just when America thinks it has miraculously passed through some post-racial portal, here comes the often-told and never-before-told stories being acted out for audiences with possible denial tendencies. Last February, the Pew Research Center released a study that showed 83 percent of Americans now say it’s “all right for blacks and whites to date each other,” a kind of social progress. My sister recalls a white co-worker expressing exasperated relief that Obama’s 2008 election would let us “finally stop talking about all this race stuff.” In some way, though, she did not know it, this woman was apologizing for the graduate school classmate who told me that emotion was out of place in an academic discourse on U.S. slavery and its grimy residue. Social progress and race fatigue feed denial and revisionism.
Legislation will address discrimination, but only humanity will enable people to face themselves and the past honestly, even those histories that are far removed from them but at the same time directly linked to them. This woman had already shown she was pleasant and easy to talk with, and now it was clear that she had been affected. An uncomfortable “I'm sorry” seemed a decent and humane thing to say.
Avis Matthews Davis is a writer, teacher, and student of history in Prince George’s County. She was special projects editor at the former Journal Newspapers.

Jan 12, 2013

Hush Puppy Love

Knowing that he's dying and needing to know that his girl will stand strong after he's gone, Hush Puppy's daddy (Dwight Henry) reminds her that she is tough enough. 
"Who da man?!" he asks his daughter. 
"I'm the man!"Hush Puppy yells back, like a prize fighter.
 She's just a child, and not a man at all. But we're not mad about that, are we? 
This week, Quvenzhane Wallis became the youngest Oscar nominee ever, for her heart-stealing role as Hush Puppy in "Beasts of the Southern Wild." She was 6 years old during the filming. 
I was weak for Quvenzhane the moment I saw her on the screen, scrounging around in her underwear and white rain boots, the cutest and smartest and strongest of all the wild things living on this sinking bayou island called The Bathtub. A face that a grandmother would want to wash, and then kiss all over, and a head of hair an aunt would want to put a comb to. Hush Puppy, a little girl sensing first and then seeing the only world she knows suddenly falling down. Her small world, the larger world, everything: shifting, drowning, drifting, failing, accelerating. Her small known world becomes suddenly big and intimidating, and not just out of her control but out of her Daddy's, too.
In the end, Hush Puppy stands down the big, beastly world, knowing that it may have its way, that things will come to pass, but that her mark on the universe is indestructible: "In a million years, when kids go to school, they're gonna know that once there was a Hushpuppy and she lived with her daddy in The Bathtub."     - ADM

Jan 1, 2013

What We're Worth

We live in America, a country where production and power reign supreme. If we don't achieve what seems to be the norm, we feel less than. That's not a mistake. That's what America is about. It's also wrong. The true value of a human is not what he or she can make, it's what he or she stands for. We (you and me and a lot of people) need to learn to value who we are, not just what we do. Part of our worth is our compassion, our desire to help, to make other people feel at ease, feel whole. Since when did my bank account speak for me? 
-- An out.of.my.head Contributor