The Gateways Festival Orchestra: The Color of Concert Music

The event described below is part of a series of initiatives of the Anti-Racism Taskforce of the Northern Illinois Conference of the United Methodist Church.  See below for details.

The color of concert music is white. Its gender: male.  So goes the popular perception.  To start a conversation on the nature of exclusion, I would often ask my students if they could name a woman composer of “classical,” concert, or symphonic music.  Over decades of asking I only ever got one answer: Clara Schumann, Robert Schumann’s sister.  What could this mean? I asked—That women are simply incapable of writing concert music?  The same could be said of blacks in classical, symphonic, or concert music.  Are they, too, incapable or have they been kept out my multiple systems of exclusion?  The answer is the latter.  Against all odds, however, they’ve been involved in formal concert music for centuries.  The Video below combines two videos: first, a short explanation of the Gateways Music Festival; second an excerpt from Symphony #3 in C minor, by Florence Price, who is both a woman and black.

The Gateways Music Festival started in 1995 in St. Louis, with the goal of bringing together black, professional, classical musicians from around the country to form various ensembles, including a full orchestra, and to educate and transform public perceptions through the power of performance.  In mid-April of this year, we were at Chicago’s iconic Symphony Center, home of the Chicago Symphony, to hear the Gateways Festival Orchestra.  As Andrew Laing, principal clarinetist of the Phoenix Symphony says in the video below, “The Gateways Festival Orchestra opens a line of enquiry with the audience even before we’ve played a single note.” The orchestra is all black.  It may also be the finest orchestra I have ever heard, even including—though I border on heresy here—the Chicago Symphony itself.

That evening the Gateways Festival Orchestra played Worship: A Concert Overture by Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, named after one of the earliest black composers to gain considerable fame: Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (not to be confused with the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge).  The person who championed Coleridge-Taylor was Edward Elgar, the famous, white English composer, so Elgar’s Enigma Variations, was on the program, followed by Margaret Bonds’ Montgomery Variations.  To close out the concert, the great a cappella group Take 6 took the stage doing several numbers on their own and several backed by the full orchestra as well.

The orchestra’s current conductor, the seemingly ever-present Anthony Parnther, spoke of Chicago’s central place in black concert music.  In the video below you’ll see Michael Morgan conducting the Gateways Festival Orchestra, and it was his appointment, by Georg Solti, as assistant conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra that made Morgan the most visible black conductor in the United States. Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson also spent significant time in Chicago, perhaps most notably when he was appointed artistic director of the performance program at the Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College Chicago.  Florence Price composed her most significant pieces in Chicago after moving there from Little Rock and becoming an important figure in the Black Chicago Renaissance.  She lived for a while with her good friend Margaret Bonds, whose Montgomery Variations graced the program we saw at Symphony Center.  In 1932 the two Chicagoans, Price and Bonds, gained national recognition when they came in first and second in the Wannamaker Prize for Composition.  On June 15, 1933, the Chicago Symphony premiered Price’s  Symphony #1, making her the first black woman, and one of the first women regardless of race, to have a composition played by a major American orchestra.  One critic called the symphony, “a faultless work, a work that speaks its own message with restraint and yet with passion…worthy of a place in the regular symphonic repertoire.” “So…” said Anthony Parnther, “playing in Chicago tonight is a kind of homecoming.”

Towards the end of the first video I excerpted below, Paul Burgett, Chair of the Board of the Gateways Music Festival, and Vice President and senior advisor to the President of Rochester University, says, “I personally struggle, and always have, with a sense of hopelessness about race in America.  But when I see [the Gateways Festival Orchestra] on that stage, I think, Maybe…Just maybe.  It feels really good to see those people on stage and it eases my sense of hopelessness.”  The beauty we witnessed that night on the Symphony Center stage is both all we need to behold without further commentary, but also yet another testament to overcoming great odds with bold, shining excellence.

♦  This event is part of the Northern Illinois Conference Presents series, now in its third year.  For more details go to:  Art and Culture Series (2024), Film Series (2023), Speakers Series (2022).  For the first event of the Film Series I did an introductory talk at the Illinois Holocaust Museum on racism and images of blacks in films. Watch this Here or on the Film Series link above.  For the final event of the Speakers Series I interviewed Chabon Kernell, executive director of the Native American Comprehensive Plan of the United Methodist Church.  Watch this live-streamed interview at the Speakers Series link above.

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At the Band Festival

What a joy it was to be able to attend several performances during one day of the Orchestra and Band Festival of the Riverside Unified School District in California this late March 2024.  The 8-minute Video below shows two performances. First, the Gage Middleschool band, conducted by my son Aaron, playing Randall Standridge’s “Fields of Clover.”  Aaron has taught in the RUSD for over 20 years, creating a deep, lasting legacy—which brings us to the second performance in the video below: the Poly High School band, directed by Arwen Hernandez, playing Ralph Vaughn Williams’ “Rhosymedre.”  “We have to see this,” Aaron said, “because these are my Covid Kids.”  It’s a magnificent performance (as is “Fields of Clover”) showing how much you can grow through difficult times.  Ralph Ellison, author of the great novel Invisible Man, called the Blues a “technique of survival,” an idea that can be extended to most, if not all, of the arts.

It goes well beyond survival mode, however.  It elevates our humanity in profound ways. Elsewhere on this site, in “Beauty in the Time of Pandemic,” I write again about Aaron and another one of his groups that helped build community in the midst of our Covid crisis.  In “Art, Rhythm, Intuition, and Social Change” I write about how art helps produce some of the most fundamental characteristics of great leaders.  Here I just wanted to say how beautiful it all was, and how profoundly it must have affected all those students playing in the Gage and Poly bands to have created such beauty together.  I just wanted to say how meaningful if was for everyone there, both the teachers and the audience, to experience that beauty together with those students.

We’ve had a small place in Sedona, Arizona, for well over 20 years.  There are crystals everywhere, and salt baths, and studios for taking pictures of your aura.  Most of all there are vortexes, special places on the earth where the universe’s cosmic energies align in special ways.  The Great Pyramids is a vortex spot.  Machu Pichu is too. And Sedona supposedly has more of these than any place on earth.  I was once up on Bell Rock—a mountain our family calls Bryan’s Mountain—when an Italian man asked me, “Is this the vortex?”  Yes, I replied, and he burst into tears, sobbing, “I knew it. I knew it.”  I’ve gotten somewhat adjusted to Sedona’s New Age loopiness, and don’t necessarily disbelieve, but when people ask me about cosmic alignments, I usually say, Well all of this could also be explained by beauty.  Sedona is just beautiful.  The beauty both stuns you and gives you a sense of peace and oneness.  On his first visit, my brother Joe, who had suffered insomnia for years, woke up his first morning there at 9:00 a.m. profoundly rested. “What the hell just happened?” he said.  Could have been vortexes, but for sure it was beauty. In my over-40-year career in college teaching I often asked my students why they were there in the first place.  A great education gives you many things, I would say, but to access its real depth ask yourself two questions: Do I have a greater hunger for beauty? Do I have a greater passion to serve.  Beauty in the widest sense, and serving, too, because these are deeply interrelated.  So justice is beautiful, and serving to help turn injustice to justice is beautiful.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, the old saying goes, which doesn’t mean that the beautiful is totally relative just because it’s deeply personal.  For me the two pieces below were beautiful not just as music, but also because I got to see one of my sons conduct and got to see his legacy in the high school band later that afternoon.  He’s a beautiful conductor as well, fluid and graceful, and I especially liked when his left hand flashed fully open to coax a swelling, blossoming sound from his band.  More than that, his daughter Grace, our granddaughter, helped highlight their band’s performance when she played the opening clarinet duet in “Fields of Clover” with first clarinetist Desiree Vargas.  She’s just in 7th grade but is in advanced band already and loves it so much she wants, she says, to be a music teacher like her Dad.  What a beautiful moment when, at the end of “Fields of Clover,” he has both Desiree and Grace stand. He tries to get his French Horn player to stand, too, but that student, says Aaron, is usually off in his own world, and Aaron just smiles and takes a bow for everyone.

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The Neighbor Project Recieves $2 Million Grant

The VIDEO below shows around 15 minutes of a 34 minute news conference announcing another momentous event for The Neighbor Project (TNP): receiving a $2 million grant from Yield Giving, the organization of billionaire philanthropist MacKenzie Scott.  I urge you to watch a video of the entire press conference because what’s been left out may be as important as what’s been left in.

The story took up much of the front page of Tribune-owned Aurora Beacon and was widely covered in Chicagoland media. Go to the Yield Giving website for more coverage, as well as this group’s philosophy on giving and who to give to. Yield Giving was established by MacKenzie Scott.

TNP’s executive director Rick Guzman announces the award and details the selection process before turning things over to four staff members who read some of the criteria for the award and some comments from peer reviewers who graded TNP on how well they met those criteria. I fade out after David Blancas, Chief Equity and Operating Officer, opens his remarks on how peers graded TNP on equity.  During her portion of the news conference Cynthia Rica, Networked Savings Program Manager, read a review which said every community should have a program like TNP.  Miguel Rivera, Director of Property Management and Real Estate, read a review saying, “It was really a pleasure to read this application” because of the talent and deep knowledge of the staff.  So in the interest of time only Jerria Donelson’s remarks were fully included. Jerria has been with TNP for a long time, even during the years when it was just Emmanuel House. She read comments asking how well the community was represented in TNP organization, included those who had been in its programs.  Jerria was a graduate who has risen to a manager position, Homebuying Counselor Program Manager.  She’s brought other family members and friends into TNP’s programs. It was a moving tribute from a long-time friend.  “The Neighbor Project has brought generational wealth into my family,” she said.

Rick Guzman’s comments were marked by five words: “gratitude,” “responsibility,” “leverage,” “investment,” and “partnerships.”  “We can’t afford to lose a penny,” he says.  “We don’t just plan to double this money’s effects but to grow it exponentially.” He’ll do it partially by investing in the partners that helped get TNP where it is today, partners like The Community Fund, the City of Aurora, and The Dunham Foundation.  His gratitude to them glowed. “We literally would not exist without the Dunham Fund. It was the Dunham Fund that suggested Emmanuel House and The Joseph Corporation merge [to form The Neighbor Project], then gave us a grant that put us on a firm financial footing.” In giving thanks for partners and saying a substantial part of this $2 million was going to be invested in them, Guzman also talked about the programs it has started with those partners. For example, with the Community Fund there is now a Closing the Gap program, aimed at giving extra help to bridge people into home ownership, and in particular aimed at closing the immense racial wealth gap between whites and blacks.

Again, what’s been left out may be as important as what’s been left in, so you’re urged to watch the video of the entire news conference.  You may also look at TNP’s full, written press release on The Neighbor Project website, or Here on this site.

MacKenzie Scott

In his thank you’s Rick acknowledges his wife Desiree, who co-founded Bryan House with Rick nearly two decades ago as a living memorial to Rick’s youngest brother Bryan Emmanuel Guzman. He acknowledges his step-mom, Linda, my wife.  And me, too: “his greatest cheerleader.” In the toast ending the conference he thanks TNP’s newest donor, MacKenzie Scott.

This award is the third major award for the Emmanuel House / The Neighbor Project organization. In 2016 Emmanuel House was named one of the “Top 100 Most Innovative” Social Change Organizations” in the world.  In 2023, Rick Guzman received the “Emerging Leader Award” from the national Neighbor Works organization.  And now this.  The Neighbor Project is now consistently regarded as one of the finest organizations of its kind in the nation, but one of Guzman’s favorite lines is that it’s an organization that wants to “flip the script.”  For all its honors it’s the people it serves that are the real heroes, the real leaders helping to create real wealth and stability for the marginalized in our society.

  I also left out of the video below Rick Guzman’s “90-second elevator speech,” which was a requirement of the grant application.  It is essentially a shortened version of his 2023 TNP Gala talk which I posted on this site under the title “The Affordable Housing Crisis.” Watch it for an important take on what’s wrong with “affordable housing.”

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Li-Young Lee: Furious Versions

This article is part of two series: one on Chicago writers, the other on the many people I brough to North Central College during my time as director of its Cultural Events program.

Born in Jakarta, Indonesia, in 1957 to Chinese parents, Li-Young Lee eventually settled in the U.S. with his family, first in a small Pennsylvania town, then in Chicago.  The stormy and fascinating saga of these moves—having in large part to do with his father’s incarceration as a political prisoner in Sukarno’s jails—is recounted in Lee’s memoir The Winged Seed (1t995), which was recently adapted for the stage by David Mura.  Because of these early experiences with flight, Lee’s poetry, even as it seeks to find images strong enough to rest on, seems always to convey the feeling of continual searching, especially for the father, that extends into the past, permeates the present, and marks out uncertain roads into the future.  One of the featured poets in Bill Moyer’s beautiful Power of the Word series, and one of 34 poets celebrated in Moyer’s Power of the Word, Ll-Young has become one of the preeminent poets of his generation.  His first book, Rose (1986) won the 1987 Delmore Schwartz Memorial Poetry Award. His second book, The City in Which I Love You (1990) won the Lamont Prize from the Academy of American Poets, and his subsequent five other books (and counting) have also been richly honored.

David Starkey and I put Lee’s “Furious Versions” in our book Smokestacks and Skyscrapers: An Anthology of Chicago Writing, investing eleven full, and precious anthology pages to it.  It was more than worth it: beginning with the lines “These days I waken in the used light / of someone’s spent life, to discover / the birds have stripped my various names of meaning entire: / the soarriw by quarrel, / the dove by grievance….” and containing a remarkable meeting “in Chicago, Little Chinatown,” where “who should I see / on the corner of Argyle and Broadway / but Li Bai and Du Fu,” those ancient great writers he describes as “two poets of the wanderer’s heart.”

“Wandering” may be too light a word to describe “Furious Versions,” though that’s what it does, furiously, seamlessly, attempting to understand, perhaps reclaim, those names stripped of meaning.  I think often of Li-Young.  We were close for a while before wandering away from each other.  I had him speak at a national conference I held in Chicago at the Blackstone Hotel. The room he spoke in had elaborate filigreed cove moldings. “I kind of feel I’m on the inside of a wedding cake,” he began, “which is fine because frosting is my favorite food.” I brought him several times to North Central College, once to read, then to teach a series of workshops on poetry, where I heard him say once: “The more I try to write poems the less I know about how that’s done.” He called me up once, saying, “I’ve been asked to give a commencement speech. Richard, what exactly is that?”  It may have been at the University of Massachusetts, and after I talked about such speeches for a minute, he exclaimed, “God, to I have to give advice!”  I said that since they’d invited a poet to speak, I thought reading poems would be appropriate. “I can do that?” he replied.  And at his home in Chicago, a three-flat where his mother and his brother’s family also lived, I had dinner. I loved Donna, his wife, whose twin sister had married Li-Lin Lee, Li-Young’s brother.  At dinner we discussed their new enterprise. Li-Lim, a painter would paint and Li-Young would write words, a poem, over the painting.  “The paintings have been done a while,” Li-Lin said, and standing up and reaching over the table to knock on his brother’s forehead, he said, “Where are the words, Li-Young, the words?”

These always came hard for Li-Young, who—as the magazine cover and quotation to the left from a Poetry Foundation article suggest—were always tied up with some connection to God. Any person is many things at once. Any scene is many things at once. Once he was telling me about another thing feeding his insomnia.  “I was thinking, Richard,” he said. “who is Donna, really? What does she mean?”  What is the right word and context of words around it that can make it mean all the things it could mean all at once. Language is multi-vocal, and somehow this multifariousness, this richness of meaning relates to the richness of God, so that searching for the meanings stripped from his names by the birds is a search to restore richness, to speak and see the multiple ways God speaks and sees and is.  Me speaking about me is truly not enough.  The “I” that speaks with God and like God is after much bigger things…and smaller things, too.

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What Eli Heard: A Birthday Sermon

I had lots of trouble preparing the sermon below.  I struggled perhaps because I was trying to do so many things, chief among them being to speak about the scriptures of the day and emphasizing transitions during a landmark time in my life.  I was preaching on my birthday, my 75th birthday. In spots, my delivery is softer and slower than it’s ever been.

The year leading up to 75 was a tough one for me. I remember being as frustrated as I’ve ever been at times, and I often felt like I couldn’t keep up. On the other hand, the year had also been incredibly busy.  We took 10 major trips, worked a lot on race issues, and ended the year doing a kitchen remodel, where I carried in and out of the house 1000 pounds of tile, and laid a tile floor, all the while hearing my brother’s voice saying, “You’re almost 75! You have no business laying a tile floor!”  My wife was there helping all the way, but still I guess there was some excuse for feeling tired out, even old, something I’d rarely thought about before.

Three of the four main lectionary readings for this particular Sunday had to do with momentous transitions.  And I speak about each one, moving backwards through the Bible from the Epistle reading, to the Gospel reading, to the Pslam, and finally to the great 3rd chapter of I Samuel.  The Psalm (139: 1-6) gives us comfort.  In this case, it’s comfort even in the midst of great transitions, because God knows all your thoughts and hems you in, protecting you, from behind and out in front.  Speaking about transitions also made it hard to prepare and deliver this sermon.  I don’t plan to transition out entirely—though you never know, of course. I plan to be as much help as I can for as long as I can, but at 75 you have to be thinking about succession plans. Afterwards, a friend who had watched online texted me, saying, “We often talk about succession but don’t take action. We need to work on that soon because our congregation consists mostly of senior citizens.”  That’s a problem hardly unique to our church, though. (My friend added, “You were awesome.”)

I Samuel, chapter 3, begins stunningly, telling us that in those days the Word of the Lord was rare and there were no visions.  Time for a transition. Eli is the second to last Judge of Israel, and chapter 3 tells of the transition between him and his young charge Samuel, who becomes Israel’s last Judge and first prophet, the one who anoints Israel’s first two kings, Saul and David.  In chapter 3, God calls Samuel three times during the night, and Samuel, thinking it’s Eli that’s calling goes to him the first two times. Eli realizes that its God calling Samuel.  If he calls again, Eli tells Samuel, simply say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.

One of my favorite writers, James Baldwin, has written that one of the greatest things we can do for each other is to bar the way to spiritual ease.  We get comfortable, or busy, or otherwise distracted in life and forget the spirit, or just don’t hear higher callings very much anymore. The famous sentence “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening” suggests three questions we can ask each other.  In the short run they’re challenges. In the long run they’re a form of encouragement.  We can encourage each other by asking: Have you asked God to speak to you? Have you asked yourself who you serve? And are you listening to the God who may be speaking to you?  Maybe not speaking in actual words, or course, but reaching you deeply in any of the many ways God can.  And that question about who you serve is crucial, too.  Bob Dylan’s nutty song “Serve Somebody” says that no matter who you are, what you do, where you sleep, what you like to drink, everybody has to serve somebody.  The song’s chorus holds out two choices: “It may be the devil or it may be the lord / But you got to serve somebody.”  In between those two choices there’s a bewildering array of masters, which makes it hard to hear who’s calling you and for what.  Eli—old, tired, blind, and troubled—nonetheless could hear God calling Samuel. He could hear a momentous transition coming.

 Go HERE for a complete list of sermons, like “Pentecost Means No ‘Supremacies,’” “Sacred Doing,” and “Theology and Race.”

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The Affordable Housing Crisis

Of course we need more affordable housing in the U.S.  In recent studies of the homeless crisis, for example, lack of affordable housing was by far the largest factor driving homelessness—not, as many believe, mental health, poor choices, addictions, etc. But there’s a problem with affordable housing, too, especially when affordable housing becomes an end in itself.  When that happens people can become trapped in cycles of low income and poverty: a supposed cure becomes a mechanism for making it harder to move on. There’s an affordable housing crisis because there’s not enough affordable housing, but the deeper crisis is the way affordable housing is conceived of in the first place.

The VIDEO below shows Rick Guzman’s “visioin cast,” shown at this year’s Neighbor Project (TNP) gala.  Guzman is TNP’s executive director. The Neighbor Project uses affordable housing, but only as a tool to help people move on to eventual home ownership.  In doing this it attacks the root causes of our nation’s incredible and shameful wealth gap, not just its symptoms.

Many years ago a colleague of mine, the sociologist Doug Timmer, opened a conference on urban crises that I helped run by saying, “I’m just crazy enough to believe that the main difference between poor people and not-poor people is that poor people don’t have money.”  More accurately, they don’t have wealth, which is a deeper thing than money. In the U.S, owning a home is the surest way to build wealth and strong ommunities.

Many believe the concept and mechanics of affordable housing are broken. They’re inefficient, for one thing. For example, because TNP just uses affordable housing, one of its affordable housing units can serve five families per decade, while in the usual model of affordable housing one unit might serve just one family per decade, and sometimes just one family for many decades.  It doesn’t help families build wealth so they can move on.   Worse, the standard model of affordable housing builds wealth for the wrong people. Government tax credits finance well over 90% of affordable housing development today. This creates loads of wealth but only for those who already have wealth: namely, big developers and corporate tax credit investors.  Poor people remain at the subsistence level, getting along perhaps but not building assets that will help them move on.  Cycles perpetuate; they don’t get broken. That’s a primary reason poverty is a wheel that just keeps going round and round.

  Go to The Neighbor Project website. Read about and watch executive director Rick Guzman receive the Emerging Leader Award earlier this year.
  Read about our country’s incredible wealth gap, and the relationship between that wealth gap and the ability to own a home.

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Scott Turow’s Lifetime Achievement Award

This past October 5th the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame (CLHOF) held one of its biggest events when it presented novelist/lawyer Scott Turow with the Henry Black Fuller award for Lifetime Achievement.  Held in the Cindy Pritzker Auditorium of the Harold Washington Library, it drew a large and star-studed audience, including Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul and seven luminaries who took the stage to make “the case for Scott Turow.” I was privileged to emcee the beginning and end of the show, and especially delighted to bring my eldest son, Rick, up on stage to present the actual award statue to Scott, whom we have both know for many years.  Below is a 48-minute VIDEO I edited down from the full 96-minute video you can watch on the Hall of Fame’s website or HERE on YouTube.

You would be pressed to find a more articulate set of presenters anywhere, and Scott Turow’s acceptance speech was the most articulate of all—which was no surprise to anyone.  I had to exercise some editorial privilege to include all of my opening remarks, which sought to lay out the whole vision of the CLHOF, all of Christie Heffner’s talk, all of Rick’s presentation comments, and, of course, all of Scott’s speech, which I have watched many times, and will continue to revisit.

The other presentations I edited, but only for the sake of time. I first introduced one of Chicago’s legendary power couples, Donna LaPietra and husband Bill Kurtis. She produced Siskel & Ebert at the Movies, as well as what many believe is one of the greatest newscasts in American History, CBS2 News with Bill Kurtis and Walter Jacobson. She is also an extraordinary civic leader.  I have to return to the word “legendary” to describe Bill Kurtis’ career as a newsman. He continues a vast media presence with the important documentarues turned out by Kurtis Productions, as well as being the voice of NPR’s popular Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.  Jane Hamilton has won many literary awards and twice been an Oprah’s Book Club choice.  Aaron Freeman is a comedian, raconteur, interviewer and an enormous presence on the Chicago cultural scene, perhaps best remembered as the creator of the Star Wars parody “Council Wars,” recounting the Council turmoil following the election of Harold Washington, who appears as Luke Sky Talker.  Christie Heffner—named three times as Fortune‘s Top 100 Most Powerful Women—besides being a CEO contines to crusade for free speech, better government and civil liberties.  Cornelia Grumman won the Pulitzer Prize for her editorials about Illinois’ death penalty. They led to sweeping reform of the state’s prison system. Elizabeth Taylor has chaired five Pulitzer Prize committees and is one of the smartest people I know in the field of literature, Chicago and otherwise.

Which brings us to Scott Turow, who, in many ways needs little introduction. Author of 13 novels, from which three major Hollywood films and one TV series have been made.  Three non-fiction titles, including Ultimate Punishment, his reflections on dealing with the death penalty and being on the commission that led to a moratorium and, finally, abolishment of the practice.  Editor of a couple more volumes, including Guilty As Charged, short stories offering various perspectives on America’s criminal justice system.  Oh, yes, he’s also a famous lawyer.  Lots of pro bono work, including winning the release of a man who spent 11 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.  And there’s that Operation Greylord thing, a wide-ranging investigation and prosecution of judges who did commit crimes. Turow was lead council on that one.

In Ultimate Punishment, Scott surprised Rick Guzman with an acknowledgement, even though Rick, then a recent college grad, was “just” a staffer on the commission which led to the moratorium. Scott also wrote a letter of recommendation for Rick’s application to law school, a letter which, Scott said, would make Rick blush.  “The blood did rush to my head,” said Rick, when I opened a letter of acceptance that also contained a full tuition scholarship.”  As he handed Scott the Fuller Award statue, he said perhaps the most important thing to know about Scott Turow.  “Scott, I am deeply honored and privileged,” he said, “to offer this award to you not only for your extraordinary literary contributions, but also for your extraordinary contribution to humanity, to justice, and for just being one of the great human beings our community has to offer.”

Go to my article about the founding of the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame, which will soon be updated with links to articles I’ve written about the CLHOF inductees and Fuller Award winners.

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Take My People With Me: Juneteenth 2023

This post is part of a series on Juneteenth. Go to the series LEAD POST.

The video below shows a few minutes of Aurora, Illinois’ 2023 Juneteenth celebration at MLK Jr. Park.  It’s one of the oldest in the state (at 33 years Rockford’s owns the crown). “It’s been going 22 years,” said Congressman Bill Foster during his annual drop-in. “My smile muscles are almost broken.” “So are mine,” said our luminous emcee, whose name I again didn’t catch but am on a mission to find before next year’s celebration.  The last shot of the video is of him from behind, so you can read his t-shirt: “I’m steal healing b.u.”

Well, he literally was, as he wore a big brace on his left leg, a brace that didn’t stop him dancing all around during his energetic hosting.  The emphasis on healing, though, is symbolic of a larger emphasis growing in importance to the Black community.  One speaker you’ll see urged the crowd to become aware of themselves as a people again. “We’ve lost that,” he said, and in an inventive metaphor asked, “If the bear feeds the bear, does the bear hate the lion?” He was urging Blacks not only to love each other but spend with each other, support each other economically.  That’s what whites do, why not us?

His short talk blended perfectly with the next person on stage, a young lady who did a dramatic dance to Cynthia Erivo’s “Stand Up,” the theme song for Kasi Lemmons’ movie Harriet.  “Look at this,” said our emcee.  “She could have said I’m gonna do some Cardi B.  Instead she’s lifting up Harriet Tubman!”

A few acts later, up come three kids doing the latest dance, until the emcee asks, “Any body else can do this? Come up here!” Suddenly the stage is exploding with dancers.  I said to my daughter-in-law, Desiree, “Doesn’t it make your knees hurt just watching them?”  So this emphasis on supporting each other economically and celebrating the great figures of freedom like Harriet Tubman was, as usual, wrapped in fun, and food, and the market atmosphere of dozens of merchant’s tents, plus the cars and motorcycles that showed up for the parade that would end off the evening.

I’m writing this just as the big parades celebrating pride month are coming to an end, and I’ve been thinking a lot about the lessons the LGBTQ+ community can teach us about keeping the issue of race before the American public.  Though that community is suffering lots of backlash currently, and over 600 bills have been proposed in legislatures nation-wide to curb that community, the LGBTQ+ movement has seemed to turn a corner.  The general American public seems supportive—enthusiastically so in many cases—and ready to advocate for them.  In my church’s JEDI group (Justice-Equity-Diversity-Inclusion), there’s been so much progress on LGBTQ+ issues.  It’s much harder in matters of race.  For all the troubles LGBTQ+ people have suffered, and continue to suffer, it’s just easier for that movement.  There are many reasons for this, I believe. Here are just four: 1) people can inherently relate to sexuality more than race; 2) the bulk of that community—at least the out-front parts—are white; 3) Pride celebrations are just more fun, making the issue of inclusion easier to get behind; and 4) there’s more of a tradition of therapy in that population.  Only in the last 25 years or so has there been a growing, widespread acknowledgment of the mental health crisis—the trauma—caused by racism.*  And racism is woven so deeply into the fabric of American life that it’s hard to get to, and the tasks to change systems are often of gigantic proportions.

But at this year’s Juneteenth celebration in Aurora, I thought that maybe this holiday might be one of the things that helps more and more Americans embrace the fight against racism as much as the celebrations of Pride Month have helped that community.  I’m deep in thought about that, and maybe my hope might someday grow deeper as well.

* See my articles on Joy DeGruy and Resmaa Menakem for more on the rise of therapies to treat the trauma of racism.
Go to the lead post for the anti-racism workshop Becoming the Beloved Community and to the Diversity Training and Teaching main page.

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Healing Racial Trauma

Below is a 6:30 video showing a segment from Lenard McKelvey’s Comedy Central show Tha God’s Honest Truth.  He’s taken the performance name Charlamagne Tha God, which explains the name of his comedy show, which sometimes takes on topics not all that funny, as in the video below. He’s shown with three guests, but the clip I’ve edited down focuses on Resmaa Menakem, author most recently of My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies.  Earlier in the show McKelvey had interviewed two friends, Chico Bean and Ice Wave, about processing their racial trauma, and during the process had become triggered himself. “I thought I was past all that,” he says, and the video below begins just as Menakem says, “I saw it happen,” to which McKelvey just says, “Lord, have mercy.”  “That’s why when we came out I said to you, ‘We’re holding you, brother,’” Menakem says, and then we go on to watch Menakem lead everyone through a practice to help alleviate one aspect of racial trauma.

It’s been only 43 years since the American Psychiatric Association added, in 1980, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD, to its central diagnostic guide, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM for short. This was the third edition, DSM-III, and the addition was controversial.  Today PTSD is accepted virtually throughout society, though it’s also misused, as its central component, trauma, is often attributed—sometimes jokingly, but many times not—to incidents that aren’t really that severe, intense, or injurious physically or emotionally. But who can deny that soldiers in combat or victims of rape haven’t been truly traumatized?

The same goes for victims of racism, though we’re just beginning to admit this to ourselves as a society. It’s taken so long because…well, because our racism blocks our full realization of how traumatic racism has been and continues to be.  Just over a year ago I posted on this site a five-minute video distilling the main ideas behind a 2008 lecture by Joy DeGruy.  As with many things, you have to go back to W.E.B. Dubois for someone who started a discussion pertinent to race, and it’s the same with the recognition of the trauma of racism.  But Joy DeGruy has been a key figure in bringing a growing recognition of race trauma to us today.  She calls it Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome.  You see your children sold off, your sister raped, your husband lynched.  You endure the absolute traumas of this with no mental health intervention whatever.  This goes on for centuries.

“Trauma in a person can appear like personality over time.  Trauma in a family can appear like family traits over time. Trauma in a people can appear like culture over time.”  This is one of Menakem’s key insights, as is the idea of “bracing.”  We walk around waiting for the next shoe to drop.  We brace for it, and this continual “bracedness” turns up the adrenaline, turns up the cortisol, and our bodies suffer because of it.  Menakem’s focus is on the bodily damage racism causes—the body which houses our instincts, our fight-flee-or-freeze reactions.  Racism not only attacks our minds, our emotions, but the very fiber of the bodies we inhabit.  And we all suffer from it, even whites, who are also profoundly damaged by the white supremacy that damages and traumatizes Blacks and other people of color all the time.  The police suffer, too, and much of the brutality they commit—no matter what color they are—comes from the culture of racial trauma that surrounds them.  It surrounds all of us.

I was recently in San Francisco.  I grew up in Hayward, California, just across the Bay.  And because our Pandemic had renewed and intensified anti-Asian hate, had caused the number of violent incidents against Asian Americans to soar across the country, but particularly in California, and particularly in San Francisco, I walked around “braced” all the time.  I felt my mind, my emotions, my body continually “braced,” continually clenched, every moment I was outside.  I was guarding against the possible blow, continually turning to watch reflections in the windows of stores I walked past so I could check who was behind me.  In that hyper-vigilant mode I realized how much of my life I’d spent being braced, though the racial trauma of my life is just barely on the scales of the traumatic.

Go to the Diversity Training and Teaching page and to the LEAD POST for the anti-racism workshop Becoming the Beloved Community, where this article and video are also listed.

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