Wednesday, March 26, 2008

TONIGHT ON THE TERRORDOME: Lester K Spence on the Obama-Wright Moment

6 PM Mountain Time

The recent controversy surrounding Barack Obama and Reverend Jeremiah Wright has opened up innumerable discussions outside and inside the American Afrikan community regarding who has a right to say what, and who has a right to consort with whom.

So far, US corporate press has done nothing but scale their already lofty positions on the mountain of hypocrisy. While Democratic contender Obama is held up to scrutiny and shaming for his Reverend’s comments—which when taken in context sound entirely logical—the comments of some supporters of Republican nominee John McCain are outrageous.

According to Mother Jones magazine: “Senator John McCain hailed as a spiritual adviser … Ohio megachurch pastor [Televangelist Rod Parsley] who has called upon Christians to wage a ‘war’ against the ‘false religion’ of Islam with the aim of destroying it.

(Thanks to Swamp Politics for the link on media hypocrisy.)

Of course, in a society that once claimed legal ownership over an entire segment of the human population, it shouldn’t be surprising that some descendents of the owning class still believe they have affinity rights over the descendents of the group that was once in the owned class.

Prominent Afrikan politicians and candidates in America are regularly asked to denounce fellow Afrikans; the corresponding law isn’t enforced against Euro-Americans. Whether such a law is appropriate for anyone is a separate debate—after all, the company we keep does speak to our values and may speak to our intentions—but unless such a rule is required of all, it is, by definition, discriminatory.

The man just off-centre of the controversy is Rev. Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr., who since 1972 has preached at Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ. He’s been a Marine, a cardiopulmonary technician, and an academic, having received his doctorate in Theology from the United Theological Seminary. He has also been the recipient of eight honorary doctorates.

The phrase ‘Unashamedly Black and Unapologetically Christian’ was coined by Rev. Wright’s predecessor, and shortly after Wright’s ministry began, the phrase became the church’s motto. Under Wright’s stewardship, the church has grown from 87 members to over 6,000, and has included Oprah Winfrey among its parishioners. Wright has lectured at universities and seminaries across the United States and internationally, and is the author of four books.

Much of the furor around Reverend Wright’s comments is focused on two phrases: “the chickens are coming home to roost,” and “God damn America.” Hear and watch those comments in their original context:

Reverend Jeremiah Wright – video clip posted on AlterNet by Erikka

Commenting on this crisis—or opportunity—for Obama is Lester Kenyatta Spence, a 39-year old Detroit native who’s now an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University. His focus is American Politics, Afrikan-American Politics, Urban Politics, Public Opinion, Political Behavior, and American Political Thought.

Spence's work has appeared widely, including in The Washington Post, The Saint Louis Post-Dispatch, Black Voices, The American Journal of Political Science, Political Analysis, The WEB Dubois Review, The National Political Science Review, and Political Research Quarterly. He’s been a guest on C-Span, PBS, and talk-radio across the United States, and is a regular commentator on the US network National Public Radio.

An increasingly prominent public intellectual, Professor Spence brings far-ranging consciousness and academic vigour to wide-ranging topics such as Black Nationalism, pop culture and Black bourgeois attempts to co-opt hip hop culture and activism. Check out his blog Bloodied but Unbowed (which is now in the Top Links section at the left).

Obama’s response to his pastor’s commentary—and the various reactions to it across the US racial and political spectrum—reveal and obscure the complex associations of race and power in America.

Professor Spence spoke with me via telephone from his home in Baltimore on Sunday, March 23. Along the way, we discuss Martin Luther King, former King lieutenant Andrew Young, and corporate press’s demand that Obama denounce the unsolicited endorsement of Nation of Islam leader Minister Louis Farrakhan.


And now it’s time for another installment of our semi-regular feature on The Terrordome called The Pan-Afrikanist’s Library, in which I ask people from here and people from afar, jus’ folks and famous folks, about their favourite books by writers from any nation of the Afrikan Planet.

Today’s entry in the library is courtesy of Nene Khalema of South Africa. Khalema is completing his doctorate in Education, and he’s worked in Edmonton’s Afrikan communities for years, particularly as an advocate for educational reform. Currently he works with students of diverse immigrant backgrounds who face difficulties from lack of acculturation to post-traumatic stress disorder. Today, Nene Khalema speaks on Fools and Other Stories, a short fiction collection by South African writer Njabulo Ndebele.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

TONIGHT ON THE TERRORDOME: Afrikan-Canadian Youth Activists; Rev. Jeremiah Wright in his own words

6 PM Mountain Time

All youth face difficulties in the transition from childhood to adulthood, but those difficulties are typically greater for youth who immigrate. In Edmonton, the increasingly large population of new Canadians from the Afrikan continent, especially from the Horn of Afrika, is finding that Canada contains within it much opportunity—for success, as well as for suffering.

On Monday, I spoke with two youth activists who are attempting to steer their peers towards productive, happy lives. Yannick Dako from Ivory Coast is 21 years old and is currently in an internship program with the YMCA. He’s also worked for Canadian Heritage and has been volunteering with Youth and Family Alliance of Alberta and Family First.

Amal Issa is a 19 year old Political Science student at the University of Alberta. Of Somali heritage, she currently volunteers at Edmonton’s new Africa Centre located ine former Wellington school, where she helps tutor young people in the African-Canadian community. She’s considering international development for her future.

Under the guidance of community worker Chantal Hitayezu of Rwanda, both youth are helping to organise a concert in June to raise money for scholarships and academic assistance for Afrikan students in Edmonton. We began by discussing obstacles facing Afrikan immigrant youth.

Reverend Jeremiah Wright

The striving of US Senator Barack Obama for his party’s presidential nomination seemed nearly unstoppable, until the recent controversy surrounding the remarks of Obama’s pastor, the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright.

Obama’s handling of the matter, as seen through the lens of corporate press, has seemed to be a calculated distancing from his pastor. Obama’s own words about his pastor and his church, published March 18th in the New York Times, tell a somewhat different story, and read in part as follows:

“Like other predominantly black churches across the country, Trinity embodies the black community in its entirety – the doctor and the welfare mom, the model student and the former gang-banger. Like other black churches, Trinity’s services are full of raucous laughter and sometimes bawdy humor. They are full of dancing, clapping, screaming and shouting that may seem jarring to the untrained ear. The church contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love and yes, the bitterness and bias that make up the black experience in America.

“And this helps explain, perhaps, my relationship with Reverend Wright. As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me. He strengthened my faith, officiated my wedding, and baptized my children. Not once in my conversations with him have I heard him talk about any ethnic group in derogatory terms, or treat whites with whom he interacted with anything but courtesy and respect. He contains within him the contradictions – the good and the bad – of the community that he has served diligently for so many years.

“I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can 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 by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.”

Listen to the speech here.

Who is the man who has been employed as the latest weapon against the Obama candidacy?

Since 1972, Rev. Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr. has preached at Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ. He’s been a Marine, a cardiopulmonary technician, and an academic, having received his doctorate in Theology from the United Theological Seminary. He has also been the recipient of eight honorary doctorates.

The phrase ‘Unashamedly Black and Unapologetically Christian’ was coined by Rev. Wright’s predecessor, and shortly after Wright’s ministry began, the phrase became the church’s motto. Under Wright’s stewardship, the church has grown from 87 members to over 6,000, and has included Oprah Winfrey among its parishioners. Wright has lectured at universities and seminaries across the United States and internationally, and is the author of four books.

Let’s now hear a sermon by Rev. Wright delivered in 1990. The Reverend delivers an exegesis, or explanation of scripture, as mixed with comments about the modern world. Many thanks to UNDERCOVER BLACKMAN for the following three links:

AUDIO: The Audacity to Hope
By Rev.

Black clergy try to put Wright's comments in context
Supporters say he is part of a historical role in the black church

Obama’s Pastor Speaks Out against the NYT last year

Media Hold McCain, Obama to Different Standards

"...[McCain supporter] John Hagee, who has called Roman Catholicism a 'false cult system,' an 'apostate church' and a 'Great Whore.' Hagee has also stated (NPR Fresh Air, 9/18/06) that the Quran mandates Muslims to kill Christians and Jews, and has blamed Hurricane Katrina on a New Orleans gay pride parade. So far this year, U.S. media have found Farrakhan's Obama endorsement much more interesting than Hagee's McCain endorsement: The Nexis file had 478 stories on Obama and Farrakhan, 123 on McCain and Hagee."


Let’s now open the gates to The Pan-Afrikanist’s Library, a semi-regular feature on The Terrordome in which I ask people from here and people from afar, jus’ folks and famous folks, about their favourite books by writers from any nation of the Afrikan Planet.

Tonight we’ll hear from Seith Mann, a television director who’s worked on such shows as The Wire, Shark, Friday Night Lights, Jericho, and Grey’s Anatomy. Seith Mann speaks of the fantasy-horror novel My Soul to Keep by Afrikan-American author Tananarive Due.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

TONIGHT ON THE TERRORDOME: Amiri Baraka on Barack Obama


6 PM Mountain Time

I have never seen a movement in the United States gather as much excitement and momentum as the campaign to deliver the nomination of the US Democratic Party to Barack Obama.

It’s easy to get excited by it, and I get it. I never expected to see, in my own lifetime, any African-American achieve the presidency, and its looks as of this broadcast—recorded on Tuesday night before the results of the March 4th primaries are in—as if Obama will get the nomination and win the White House.

But my own excitement, based in part on seeing a man from my own so-called race get this far—indeed, like me, Obama is half-Kenyan—doesn’t overpower my determination to see justice advanced, not just image.

From what I can see, the primary appeal of the Obama campaign is what it wants to symbolise: that the United States has overcome racial discrimination, that the US need not be a warlike society driven by an economic and cultural imperative to dominate and destroy, that youthful, eloquent, non-insiders can rise to the highest offices by merit of their ideas and their appeal to regular folks.

However much American citizens believe in this symbolism—and I’ve been asking several, highly accomplished Americans in a recent slew of interviews on other topics—there is little evidence that there is substance.

On the level of policy, there seems to be little reason to believe that an Obama presidency would be better than that of a Clinton or a McCain.

Ralph Nader’s election website points out that Obama and his rivals promise equal inaction on preventing and punishing corporate crime, on a living wage, on the repeal of the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act, on NAFTA and the WTO, on Canadian-style health care, on sustainable ecological and economic development, on military reduction, on media monopoly, on corporate power, on electoral reform, on the $50B annual cost of the so-called War on Drugs, on “three strikes” laws, on the prison-industrial complex, on Afghanistan, on Israel-Palestine, on Cuba or on Iraq.

Indeed, Obama has already announced that he would bomb Pakistan, a US ally; Obama has abandoned his years’ long advocacy of the Palestinian plight in favour of an aggressively pro-Israel stance; he has engaged in saber-rattling on Iran; he has described Cuba’s revolution as a “dark time,” saying nothing of the American-imposed status of “bordello of the Caribbean” on that island-nation prior to 1959.

And Obama has said nothing in defense of Somalia, an Afrikan country the US has just bombed—an act of war.

Unfortunately, in the US, criticism of Obama often seems to come from only one source—the pro-Clinton camp.

And for every flaw of Obama’s, there are dozens more in the Clinton clan, a group which expanded the racialised drug-sentencing laws of the US and saw the US become one of the world’s leading jailors; a group which bombed Sudan and destroyed half its pharmaceutical production, leading to the deaths of unknown thousands; a group which oversaw years of US-led sanctions which killed one and a half million people in Iraq, a group which successfully prevented the Security Council from employing the word “genocide” and thus allowing the actual genocide of nearly a million people to unfold in Rwanda.

One man who’s concerned about uneven critiques of Barack Obama is Amiri Baraka, the acclaimed Afrikan-American playwright, poet and essayist who was a leading force in the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 70s, when he was known as Leroi Jones. Amiri Baraka has lectured across the world on music and culture. He is the author of over 40 books of essays, poems, drama, and music history and criticism.

His most famous works are the analysis of AA music Blues People and the play Dutchman, both from 1963. His most recent work is The Essence of Reparations, a collection of essays addressing “racism, national oppression, colonialism, neo-colonialism, self-determination and national and human liberation.” Baraka has taught at Yale, Columbia, and the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

His awards and honors include an Obie, the American Academy of Arts & Letters award, the James Weldon Johnson Medal for contributions to the arts, Rockefeller Foundation and National Endowment for the Arts grants, Professor Emeritus at the State university of New York at Stony Brook, and the Poet Laureate of New Jersey.

Amiri Baraka remains politically active, and on the Obama candidacy, he warns that unbalanced criticism directed at Obama alone is often pro-Clintonism in disguise, a Clintonism based on grossly misplaced Afrikan-American loyalty.

Baraka also warns that, while it’s useful to get Obama elected, the man will do nothing on behalf of progressive causes and the needs of America’s poor, its people of colour, its environment and its need for justice, without an aggressive, progressive movement that refuses to go away at the sight of a
dazzling smile and the sound of catchy slogans.

Fear of a Black-Planned Ed

This is a longer version of an article published inVue Weekly in the week of 2008 February 28 for a series of articles commissioned for Afrikan History Month.

One of the most obvious indicators of injustice is the use of double-standards. We learn early in life that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. If geese are eating gravel and ganders and getting grain—and worse, the gander lobby is raising hell about geese wanting to get some—you know that someone is having the down pulled over his eyes. And that’s usually a prelude to getting roasted.

The last several months in Toronto have been a furious battle over the just-approved proposal to create an Africentric public school as one means to address the disproportionate failure and drop-out rate of African-Canadian students in that district.

But to hear Paula Todd on CTV Newsnet’s The Verdictjust one of a wailing chorus of opposition—such a school would be a return to American-style racial segregation and a betrayal of the very students it’s supposed to be helping. Todd’s producers even helpfully ran the word “segregation” as a subtitle on the screen throughout a lengthy debate they hosted, a word that immediately shaped the impressions of viewers who might be channel-surfing or even channel-squatting.

Segregation? Huh?

It might be segregation, if, for instance, when you leave work or school to return to your own home instead of someone else’s, you’d call that segregation. Or, for that matter, when you go to your own workplace instead of someone’s, that were segregation.

Why is there such terror among some elements of our society about Africentric education? What assumptions are behind the terror? When scores of other groups have their educational needs met in publicly-funded schools—officials call it “school choice,” but African-Canadians are denied such choice, it’s clearly a double-standard. If Todd and her types are so concerned that “segregated” education will “roll back the clock” and ill-prepare students for “integrated” communities and workplaces, why are they silent about Edmonton?

In Edmonton alone, we have two First Nations schools (Amiskwaciy Academy, Awasis), a Hebrew bilingual school (Talmud Torah), three Arabic bilingual schools (Glengarry, Malmo and Killarney), three Spanish bilingual (Mill Creek, Sweet Grass, McKernan), four Christian schools, four Ukrainian bilingual schools, five German bilingual schools, twelve schools with Mandarin bilingual programme, and seventeen schools offering French immersion.

We also have a girls school (Nellie McClung), a “child study centre” (Garneau), a dance school (Vimy Ridge), a science school (Elmwood), a “traditional” school (James Gibbons), two hockey schools (Donnan and Vimy Ridge), four arts schools, four “sports alternative” schools, four “academic” schools, eight “pre-advanced placement” junior highs, and eight schools offering a foreign curriculum (International Baccalaureate).

And I haven’t even mentioned a single Catholic school. Forget about Catholic specialty schools. Their entire national, tax-funded system is all “special interest,” and by Todd’s standard “segregated.” But then again, with the exception of Aboriginal Canadians (who are the “subject” of an entire federal department), few of these groups are the target of racial profiling by police, courts or employers.

Some claim that failure among African-Canadian and African-American students is a defect in “Black” culture, that the kids equate academic success with racial betrayal or “acting White.”

That notion was popularised by Nigerian-American academic John Ogbu in Black American Students in an Affluent Suburb, among others, and thoroughly debunked by African-American sociologist Algernon Austin in Getting It Wrong: How Black Public Intellectuals are Failing Black America.

The original “acting White” claims were never made by or even put to students; the phrase was a post-study quip used by the researchers and picked up by media. Austin’s study reveals that, in the US, African-American students self-report a high value on education, even while attending under-funded schools with often poorly-trained or –equipped staff. Indeed, as Austin points out, by the metaphor of fearing “acting White,” the leading fearful group is actually White prep school students. Such claims also ignore the continued popularity of the HBCUs, or Historically Black Colleges and Universities such as Howard, Tuskegee and Morehouse.

Jenny Kelly
, author of Under the Gaze: Learning to Be Black in a White Society and an Education professor at the U of A, notes that some various communities in majority-White countries have advocated Africentric schools as means for student success, including in her native England where she was raised by Jamaican parents. Such aims “come from a recognition by community activists, parents and teachers that Black kids are not doing as well in the traditional educational system.”

In Canada’s case, in cities where the African-Canadian population is small, such calls are rare. But in Toronto, where the community is large, calls have been made for years, and in Edmonton where the population is growing, calls are increasing. “[Africentric schools are] seen by some as slightly abhorrent: ‘back to apartheid.’”

Kelly herself is not an advocate of such schools, having argued extensively that moving towards such institutions lowers pressure on school boards and governments to improve all public schools, including through the pan-disciplinary infusion of global African content into the curriculum. Nor is she executing a double standard, since “all kids should be educated in one school [system, even] in terms of religious groups including Catholics or whomever else. There’s a publicly funded space and kids should be educated in that space.”

“We live in a society that is not a level playing field. Issues of race, class and gender exist within that space. When we look at the research, at anecdotes, race is an issue in kids’ lives—in terms of low expectations [from authorities], and in terms of dropping out.” Kelly points to the significant research on drop-out and “push-outs” by George Dei, Chair of the U of T’s Sociology and Equity Studies department at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. “It’s often the conditions within the school that somehow enable and encourage kids to drop out. So what do you do? These kids are dropping out, they don’t seem to be able to survive in the traditional system. The system isn’t changing fast enough to take them up—what do you do?”

And that, she says, is a major part of the rationale for Africentric schools. “It’s an alternative within a larger system. If it provides a space that some students would find effective in which to learn, then I say, go with it.” She’s clear she wouldn’t want such schools to have mandatory attendance or exclusion by race, but she acknowledges that no one is advocating such requirements.

When and if such schools go forward, Kelly’s main concern is operational: “Who is going to fund this? What’s the role of the province? Will Black parents have to fund-raise? If they’re going to be operating in the long term, and not just the short term, funding is important. The kids need to get a really good education, not just a second-hand ‘We meet every so often.’” She’s clear on the absolute must-haves: “Good teachers, good resources and a good curriculum.”