Co-opting the Dream

On August 28, 1963, over 250,000 marched on Washington, D.C., for Jobs and Freedom, a monumental event planned by A. Phillip Randolph, with main organizer Bayard Rustin, and highlighted by Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech.  This year on August 26th 75,000 were expected to gather to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the March.  One of the speakers this year was Yolanda Renee King.  “If I could speak to my grandfather today, I would say, ‘I’m sorry we still have to be here to rededicate ourselves to finishing your work, and ultimately realizing your hidden dream.’” Indeed, many believe King’s dream has never been in greater jeopardy than today as white supremacists seem more emboldened than ever and regressive policies in education, affirmative action, and voting rights—to name just a few areas—are rising.

A few people who were actually at the 1963 March couldn’t help but notice the downsizing of the crowd, and though it’s difficult to find a final count—most reports saying just “thousands” or “tens of thousands—the numbers are still significant.  Much smaller commemoration events happened across the country, like the one shown in the brief VIDEO below.  On August 27th about 140 people gathered for a commemorative service at Chicago’s United Methodist “Temple,” then processed across the street to Daley Plaza, the giant front yard of Chicago’s City Hall.  We were dwarfed by the Plaza, but I’ve seen many much smaller rallies there.  Anyway, a friend, Tom Butler, who’s on an anti-racism  committee I chair, has said that when it comes to fighting racism we need to think of “remnants,” not huge crowds.  I have said many, many times that Americans would rather talk about anything—anything—but race, and even fewer, only remnants, will be dedicated to fighting it over the long, long haul it will take to make a significant change.  In 2020, just before the Pandemic shut everything down, I spoke at a convocation, saying that IF we worked really hard, maybe in 40 to 100 years we’d see a less racist, more just and equitable United States.  I still stand by that timeframe, though one of the other speakers at that convocation said that while he respected me, he thought I was being way too optimistic.

This co-opting of “Black Lives Matter” is a famous contemporary example of avoiding issues of race. The same thing happened with MLK Jr.’s “I have a dream” and “The content of their character” phrases.

Just one impediment to progress is society’s attempt to dodge real talk and work on race by co-opting major ideas that fight racism and turning them into slogans to actually avert our attention from race. One of the most spectacular and well-known examples is the way “Black Lives Matter” was co-opted and changed to “All Lives Matter.”*  And MLK Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech has also been similarly co-opted.

By now, many people have noted that “I Have A Dream” was easily made into the warm and fuzzy speech of the Civil Rights Movement.  Everyone can relate to having a dream, so it was easy to cuddle up to that phrase and forget that MLK Jr. was trying to tie that phrase specifically to matters of race, not just having any old dream.  But the phrase that perhaps has been co-opted to do the most damage to the fight against racism comes from this sentence in his speech: “”I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”  “The content of their character.” The black intellectual Shelby Steel used it as the title to one of his books, a fairly naieve one I think.  It has been co-opted to justify policies that have gone against many of the major programs, like affirmative action, that have fought racism and discrimination in dozens of areas of American life.  It justifies just skipping over color entirely, as if the color of one’s skin didn’t pose an enormous barrier to actually seeing through to any person’s character.  Ironically, more and more whites seem to see the idea of white privilege as something which blinds people to their true character, again as if whiteness doesn’t matter as much as character.  Surely, color shouldn’t matter as much, but it does. It is a roadblock that must be dealt with before we can cuddle up to the idea of character.

* I deal with the damaging effects of saying “All Live Matter” in my sermon “Three Things to Stop Saying.”
More and more many people see King’s “Riverside Sermon” as his most courageous speech. My son Daniel and I set samples of this speech to music, listen HERE. Links in this post will lead to an article on the speech itself.  In it he spoke of the giant triplets of racism, militarism, and economic exploitation.
Go to the Lead Post in the anti-racism workshop Becoming the Beloved Community, and to the Diversity Training and Teaching page on this site.

Posted in Music & Media Podcasts, Social Change | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

The 2023 Printers Row Literary Festival

Come join us for the 38th Annual Printers Row Literary Festival in downtown Chicago this September 9th and 10th from 10 in the morning till 6 in the evening.  Click the link just above for all the details, including a full list of the speakers, the events, the venues, the directions and more.  (You can also access the complete schedule on this site Here.)  It’s the largest, free literary festival in the Midwest. The events range from programs for children to readings and conversations with authors of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction, headlined by Toluse Olorunnipa and Robert Samuels, authors of His Name Is George Floyd: One Man’s Life and the Struggle for Racial Justice, winner of the 2023 Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction.

On Saturday, the 9th, at 11:15 a.m. on the Feinberg Foundation Stage, the official Welcomes begin from Commissioner Erin Harkey, Dept. of Cultural Affairs & Special Events, Chicago Public Library Commissioner Chris Brown, Illinois Secretary of State Alexi Giannoulias, and Janice Feinberg of the Joseph & Bessie Feinberg Foundation.  After that Toluse Olorunnipa and Robert Samuels take the stage for a conversation with WBEZ’s Natalie Moore about their Pulitzer Prize winning book.  But the festival actually begins more than an hour earlier when, at 10 a.m. on Center Stage, Miss Chinatown 2023 Amy Xie will do a program for children, telling the story of “Chang’E and Houyi Goddess of the Moon.”

I’ll be there, too.  On Sunday, the 10th, at 1:00 p.m. on the Feinberg Foundation stage I’ll be privileged to moderate a conversation between two literary greats, Ana Castillo and Reginald Gibbons.  They’ll read from their latest work, Ana from her story collection Doña Cleanwell Leaves Home, and Reginald from his latest, Sweetbitter, his first novel. And afterwards we’ll talk about what’s kept them going through their long, illustrious literary careers.  The program’s called “Going the Distance,” and I didn’t need to read very far into Ana Castillo’s latest book to find a possible place to start.  The Prologue to Doña Cleanwell begins: “It starts with the journey; as ever, whether Quixote or Kerouac, you are in search of the Divine. In search of Light, we may find ourselves in a dark room, an abandoned building, on a long thorny road with no end.”

After hosting my session, Linda and I will take charge of the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame table from 4 to 6 p.m.  Table?  Yes, along with over 210 speakers and presenters, and some 75 events, there will be dozens and dozens of exhibitors lining both sides of Dearborn St. for a couple of blocks. Book sellers, literary organizations, shops, and some food vendors, too.  It will be something to behold and remember for a long while.

In addition to the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame website link above, check out many of the articles I’ve written for this site, starting with “The Chicago Literary Hall of Fame.”  This article will soon be updated with links to all the articles I’ve written about the CLHOF and its various events.  My friend Amy Danzer, current president of the Hall’s Board of Directors, is also the Director of Programming for the Printers Row Literary Festival.

Posted in Arts, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

What’s Easier?

The 10th and 11th chapters of the Gospel of Matthew are tough going. They’re full of violence and, for those that choose to follow Jesus, intimations of violence.  Perhaps most famously there’s Matthew 10:34-36: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household.”  You’re to “take up your cross.” If you love your father more than Jesus, you’re not worthy. Continuing on to chapter 11, Jesus says that at the judgment it will be worse for Capernaum, his home area, than it was for Sodom. Yet chapter 11 ends with one of Jesus’ most famous utterances. It’s about rest and lightness when he invites people to come to him because his yoke is easy and his burden light.

It’s a head-turning surprise if you’ve been following with any closeness at all.  In what sense is following Jesus easy?  The VIDEO below is of a sermon where I try to grapple with this idea.

I had wanted to start by playing one of the toughest rock songs of all time, John Lennon’s “Cold Turkey,” especially the song’s end, where he conveys with frightening groans and screams what it’s like to try to kick heroine addiction “cold turkey.” The congregation was spared from the gut-wrenching experience when our tech person extraordinaire, Daniel Chavez, informed me that since we were live-streaming the service, we didn’t have the rights to use that song.

But to the question what’s easier, going through the intense pain of cold-turkey withdrawal or continuing to take drugs, I thought a significant number of people—perhaps most?—might just continue to take drugs.  A less painful choice in the short run, perhaps, but not in the long run? Perhaps that’s the simple concept: short vs. long runs.

I explore two areas in which Jesus asks us to do some hard things, but things which make our lives incalculably richer in the long run, sparing us and others the pain of choosing a seemingly easier path.  The first is facing yourself: who you are, what you’ve done, and what’s been done to you, and the second is staying in the present.

Resmaa Menachem, in his book My Grandmother’s Hands, writes about choosing clean pain over dirty pain.  I think Jesus urges us to chose clean pain over dirty pain—that is, to truly face who we are, rather than choose the path of dirty pain where we avoid the realities of ourselves, deny the pain we have both suffered and caused, and instead blame others for what we do and become.  He also urges us to do something that may sound simpler but is not: to stay in the present.  I think these two things must be deeply related, though I’m still thinking through the how’s and why’s of this so didn’t go into it in my sermon.  In any case, because both are difficult, I end by turning briefly to the Epistle passage associated with this Gospel passage in the lectionary readings for the Sunday I preached this sermon. It’s the famous passage in Romans 7:15-25, where Paul says the things he would like to do he can’t, but the things he does not want to do, those things he does. Jesus’ grace delivers us from this perplexing paradox, not necessarily by taking away the conflict, but by understanding its deep roots in human life and offering us grace as we struggle through it. We truly want to face ourselves, I believe, but often end up doing the opposite. We want to be lighter in life by staying in the present, but often weigh ourselves down by borrowing trouble from tomorrow and next week and next year.  I recently saw a t-shirt with these words on the front: “The future is where anxiety lives.” Amen to that.

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

Posted in Faith, Music & Media Podcasts | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Remembering Sinead O’Connor (1966-2023)

I saw it live myself, that 1992 SNL show where Sinead O’Connor ripped up a picture of Pope John Paul and declared, “Fight the real enemy!”  Like millions of others my first reaction was, Did I see what I just saw? Yes. And while it was probably the most notorious thing Sinead O’Connor did in her short life, it wasn’t by far the only notorious thing, nor the bravest either. Immensely talented, and immensely angry at the nonsense of the world, she led a very troubled life. She reacted poorly to fame, to what Joni Mitchell called “the star-making machinery behind the popular song,” refusing to attend the Grammy’s during some of her greatest triumphs because of the industry’s overwhelming materialism.  Her religious travails, her stormy relationships, the death by suicide of her son Shane—these are all widely documented and easily accessible.

Her fierce activism over a wide swath of causes often overshadowed her music, though much of that music is so wonderful it will forever stand strong among the legacies of her life.  From her debut album The Lion and the Cobra (with its hit single “Mandinka”), through perhaps her biggest hit, a cover of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” her was voice was always described as beautiful, forceful and, especially, haunting. For me that haunting reached its height in her almost impossibly beautiful cover of the Elton John / Bernie Taupin song “Sacrifice.”  It plays in my head a lot, and always when I think of her, as do thoughts on the relationship of pain and art.

James Baldwin said of the artist “that the things which hurt him and the things which helped him could not be divorced from one another.” Indeed, many of our greatest artists are in reality the walking wounded among us, feeling things most of us are too afraid or our common sense steers us away from feeling. Of course, lots of their troubles they bring on themselves—and others—but that should not turn us away from the wonder we feel as they turn their pain and turmoil into a beauty that does make us feel more deeply.  That’s another way of saying, Just listen to “Sacrifice.”

Or to the song in the VIDEO below.  Besides “Sacrifice,” it’s the one I think of when I think of Sinead O’Connor.  In 1995, two years after her Pope-picture-tearing episode, she appeared with Van Morrison and the Chieftans—in a gathering of some of Ireland’s greatest—to sing “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You” on Late Night with David Letterman.  It’s one of my favorite pieces of TV, which I just happened to be recording on an ancient dvd recorder. I like to remember Sinead O’Connor this way because it’s such a contrast to the torturous aspects of her life.

“Have I Told You Lately” is very beautiful on one level, but on another it’s also kind of corny and cliché, and I believe Van Morrison knew that.  His version of the song has muscle, and distance, and a kind of knowingness absent from Rod Stewart’s cloying hit version of the song.  His performance here shows he didn’t take the song half as seriously as many others did, including Sinead O’Connor, who starts out singing with such utter seriousness, until she gives in to Van’s goofiness. Also, though Morrison gave us some of the greatest grooves in Rock history, he was often stiff and clumsy as a performer.  Here, among other things, he loses control of his mic as he’s singing blah blah blah into it, then bangs into her mic stand as he approaches her at song’s end. She can barely contain a giggle, and her smiles are luminous. I like remembering her like that just as much—maybe even more—than when she’s singing “Sacrifice” and we’re remembering the travails of her life.

Go to Reviews on this site.

Posted in Music & Meaning, Music & Media Podcasts | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Music & Media Podcasts, Social Change | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Five Years and a National Award

In late March 2023 Rick Guzman, executive director of The Neighbor Project, received the Emerging Leader Award from the National NeighborWorks Association in a ceremony in Washington D.C.  The 6:30 video below shows the announcing of this award, Rick’s acceptance, and Brian Schrader’s nomination video.  Schrader is The Neighbor Project’s board chair.

It’s been five years since The Neighbor Project was formed on April 1, 2018 through the merger of Joseph Corporation and Emmanuel House (read the founding story here). In that timespan, it’s gone from 7 employees to 20, partnered with the City of Aurora to co-launch Illinois’ first Financial Empowerment Center, and is equipping record numbers of neighbors to achieve financial well-being, build wealth, and become the primary drivers of growth in their neighborhoods.

On top of that NeighborWorks America* has issued two successive “Exemplary” ratings to The Neighbor Project—making the organization one of the few to ever move from the lowest national rating (its pre-merger rating was “Vulnerable”) to the highest possible rating in just over three years.

In his acceptance speech Guzman thanked his board of directors at The Neighbor Project, his family, and his “amazing, talented, diverse” staff. “No one person moves an organization from ‘vulnerable’ to ‘exemplary,’” he said.  In the nomination video that followed his speech, board chair Bryan Schrader noted that Rick would be the first to give credit to his staff, but it’s his great leadership and guidance that also deserves praise.  Schrader noted Rick’s leadership in creating the Financial Empowerment Center and his commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.  In the beginning the board was super-majority white male. Now it’s nearly 50/50, the staff is 80% minority, 60% bilingual, and 50% female.  The Neighbor Project now also has a chief equity officer at the COO level to which all programs report.

Rick ended his acceptance speech by returning to the ideas he first articulated at the 2021 Neighbor Project gala.  There he urged us to “Flip the Hero Script,” positioning the people The Neighbor Project helps as the real heroes and the real drivers of community regeneration.

* The Neighbor Project (TNP) is a chartered member of NeighborWorks America, which is a Congressionally chartered Intermediary that provides critical training, funding AND organizational audits/assessments for TNP and nearly 250 similar organizations in all 50 states, plus D.C. and Puerto Rico.  Go Here for news and history of The Neighbor Project and its relationship to Emmanuel House and Bryan House. The latter is where it all began: a living memorial to Bryan Emmanuel Guzman started by Rick and Desiree Guzman.

Posted in Music & Media Podcasts, Social Change | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Diversity & Multiculturalism, Music & Media Podcasts, Social Change | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment