February 24, 2013

Dear Mr. Spielberg:

There is a lot about your movie that I found entertaining. However, there is something about the movie that I just cannot get beyond. This is the fact that the Black people in your movie, with the exception of S. Epatha Merkerson, seem cognitively limited; well, retarded. Unfortunately we only see Merkerson for a few minutes on the screen.

It was startling as well that you did not feature any of the Black intellectuals of the day, such as Frederick Douglass, who had actually developed a close relationship with Lincoln at that time. Seriously? Are you trying to convince us that all the Black people of the time were docile and their freedom was about the rebelliousness of one guy. It’s unfortunately the same story that was told for decades in history books and perpetuates the same ideas, no matter how unlikely and absurd. The ideas are that African Americans for the most part are limited and unable to advocate for themselves or do anything for themselves. These ideas derived from some history books hypnotized generations into thinking this was/is the case. Were you hypnotized?

For me, Lincoln was this season’s opposite of Beasts of the Southern Wild, where if you add a few Caucasians to the movie maybe nobody will complain about African Americans living like savages in a modern world. With Lincoln. maybe if you add a few African Americans then maybe nobody will complain about the fact that they most seem to be quite slow, and had very little to do with accomplishing their own freedom. They were simply not capable. Unfortunately, in terms of their portrayals of African Americans, we come out losing in both these movies.

For my money, Lincoln, The Vampire Slayer, was a better movie (and I don’t even like Vampire movies for the most part). But the screenplay was was smart and creative and the Black characters seemed to have more depth and intelligence.




The Snowy Day

February 20, 2012

African American History, in my opinion, should be celebrated.  No doubt.  There should be a time where this rich history is highlighted.  February?  Fine with me, as long as it is done.  Too many unsung heroes.  Let’s focus on them. Lets clarify the contributions so there are no mistakes about them.

However, the reality is that African American history cannot be divorced from American history.  Just the idea sounds a little insane.  In America there has been a sharing of ideas and experiences among and between groups whether some groups liked it or not.

This brings me to The Snowy Day.   Since my childhood, I assumed Ezra Jack Keats was African American.  After all, he wrote children’s books with Black children as the prinicpal protagonists. Who else  but a Black person would write Whistle for Willie?

Okay, we do suffer in the shadow of the ugly reinterpretations of Little Black Sambo (it wasn’t originally as offensive as it became over time). However, Keats’ books, by contrast were so inoffensive.  In fact, they were beautiful, simple stories about a child’s experience.

I recently took in an exhibit of Keats’ work at The Jewish Museum in New York City.  I went because my son now has an appreciation for Keats’ books, but also for myself because I thought the books were so beautifully drawn and I wanted to see more of this man’s art.

Up until a few days before the visit to the museum I was still thinking that Keats was Black.  However. a visit to the museum’s website to get a little more background history clarified all of this.  Keats was in fact a Jewish man who was born in 1916 and lived in East New York, Brooklyn.

Many of his books were autobiographical in the sense that they were reminiscent of experiences he had as a child, even if the character himself was not Jewish.

I thought this was quite profound;  that Keats was able to focus enough on the universal experiences of children such that race was not an issue.  The Snowy Day was written in 1962, at the height of the civil rights movement in this country.  It was brave and forward thinking.  The book was a hit among all groups, but Keats did get slack through the few decades following for his main character not confronting his Blackness in the story.

Keats was so much smarter than this.  Children are children.  They don’t go around confronting their ethnicity all the time.  They just want to be children. The experience of children in their curiostiy and exploration of their world is universal.  I later discovered that his book was endorsed by people like Langston Hughes.  Wow.

So, The Snowy Day is well-known for being the first full-color children’s book to feature an African American protagonist. So, the book was not written by an African American, and it wasn’t even necessarily written for African Americans. Nonetheless, it’s publishing was an powerful moment in American history.

Now when I read the book to my son, I think of the power behind it, and I have more hope for humankind.

Some people can live outside their societal boxes and celebrate the fact that at the end of the day we are all just people.

Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.  MLK, Jr.


Who is MLK Jr. ?  I never thought I would get blank stares when I asked this question to anyone.  However, many young people I talk with are really not sure.  I would say that about 8 out of 10 African American 18 to 24 year-olds I interviewed in a large urban area, either are not sure or they believe he was the president at some point. 

While I am happy that some the younger members of our communities have the self-esteem to believe that a Black man could have been president in the past, I am frightened that they do not really know their history, even the basics.  Some of them have high school diplomas.  I thought to myself, “What the heck did you do at school all day?”.  

The bottom line is we are not teaching our youngsters history.  The cost is outlined above in King”s quote.  We are doomed to repeat the past if we don’t know the history.  We are not understanding our true value in history.  Some of the people I interviewed were living in very dangerous communities where the value of their own life and others’ lives were extremely minimized.  The cycles of violence in many communities have endured for some time.

So, do we need Black History Month?  Yes.  Some people argue that Black History is American History, and I wholeheartedly agree.   Some of the same people further argue that it should be integrated into any American history curriculum. Of course.  But we still need Black History Month.  It’s like Valentines’s Day.  It doesn’t mean we don’t love the people we love the rest of the year.  It’s just a day to do something special.

We need this month to do something special.  Take a youngster aside and make certain they have access to their history.  We are responsible for what happens next.