The death penalty debate

1 Oct

At Troy Davis’ funeral today, activist Dick Gregory asked those in attendance to say a prayer or meditation every day at noon that capital punishment will cease.

“You can’t pick and choose when you’re dealing with God’s children,” Gregory said.

Gregory demonstrated that conviction on Sept. 21, when rather than protest outside of the Georgia prison where Davis was executed, he was in Texas, holding an anti-execution vigil outside of the prison where Lawrence Russell Brewer was put to death.

Davis, convicted in the murder of Mark MacPhail, an off-duty police officer, was executed by the State of Georgia for a murder in which there was no physical evidence tying him to the 1989 crime and in which seven of nine witnesses recanted all or portions of their testimonies.

Brewer was one of three white supremacists convicted in the gruesome 1998 lynching of James Byrd.  Brewer also was executed Sept. 21.

I have spent the past week trying to decide whether I could have stood beside Gregory in Texas.  I’m not sure.

What I am sure of is that no one should be executed in cases like Davis’ in which there remains lots of “reasonable doubt.”

My father, who spent a good part of his career covering court proceedings in Harlem, supported the death penalty. He was convinced it was a deterrent.

“Capital punishment for ruthless murderers should stand until something better supplants it . . . . I think somewhere in Genesis we read: Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed,”  Ebenezer Ray wrote in a column in 1934.

Whether my father changed his views later in life, I have no clue. But even he might agree that Troy Davis’ guilt had not been proved and therefore capital punishment was not appropriate in that case.

Based on his writings about Southern lynchings and the railroading of the Scottsboro Boys, I can assume Ebenezer would have been pleased to know that Brewer and his ilk were headed for the death chamber. But then again, it is likely that when my father was writing in the 1930s and 40s, no one would have even been arrested for Byrd’s heinous murder. No doubt, he would have had a lot to say about that.

I would like to think I am one of those who believe that all life is sacred and that as a civilized society we shouldn’t put anyone to death. But I wasn’t unhappy when Navy Seals blew Osama bin Laden’s brains out. But maybe the rules are different in times of war.

Back in September of 1934, my dad engaged in a fierce war of words over the death penalty with a reader, George Streator,  who accused Ebenezer of being a “muddled reactionary.”  I have to admit, Streator’s description was on point, and his views on the death penalty were more in line with mine.

“Capital punishment will not check murder in America, any more than lynching as a means of keeping Negroes in their places is effective except against the individual. Both the instances cited are instruments of the herd.  In the matter of capital punishment, the herd is sanctioned by the law. In the matter of lynching, the herd invokes its own law. Both are sadistic outbursts,”  Streator wrote.

Check out the debate between George Streator and Ebenezer Ray.

Dearest Ellen-Marie, Where did 10 years go?

25 Sep

Looking for a way to mark the 10-year anniversary of my eldest sister Ellen-Marie’s death, I looked to my father’s column’s for wisdom and inspiration.

On a couple of occasions in honoring the dead, his inspiration came from Thanatopsis, said to be the most famous work of  romantic poet William Cullen Bryant.   It must have hit home for my father;  he  included the poem’s final stanza in a column he wrote after his mother died in 1936. He used it again several years later when honoring the death of a colleague’s mother.

The New York Age, September 5, 1936

My reading of Thanatopsis is that Bryant’s point is that death and dying are part of  life’s natural cycle, to which all of us will succumb.  And when we do, we will join the company of  the wise and the good.  We should not fear death, but live life fully so that when our time comes we will enjoy our eternal rest.

This is not really much consolation when you are in the throes of grief.  When I got that 3 a.m. call on Sept. 25, 2001, that Ellen had died of a heart attack in her sleep, leaving two children and a whole host of other family members and friends, I spent the following days and months alternately wanting to die and fearing that I would.

A decade does give you some perspective. And if tragedy teaches you anything, it is that you must put one foot in front of the other and press on, celebrating life’s abundance every day.

In the last stanza of Thanatopsis, Bryant wrote:

“So live, that when thy summons comes to join
That innumerable caravan that moves
To that mysterious realm where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like a quarry-slave at night
Scourged to this dungeon; but sustain’d and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him. and lies down to pleasant dreams.”

Dearest, Ellen-Marie,

Not a day goes by that I don’t think of you.

Rest in paradise.

Happy Birthday, Sis

17 Sep

Today is my sister Malaya’s birthday. She is my parents’ second born, a dancer, storyteller, stage mother, earth mother – an artist in every sense of the word. It was preordained. Before she was Nana Malaya Rucker-Oparabea, the name she uses now, she was Marian, named for Marian Anderson.

Marian-Malaya Rucker-Oparabea

I always knew my mother revered the renowned contralto. My mother  admired Anderson’s quiet dignity in the face of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), who refused let Anderson sing before an integrated audience in Washington’s Constitution Hall.  To my mother,  Anderson’s victorious concert on Easter Sunday 1939, before  a crowd of 75,000 at the Lincoln Memorial was a milestone in black history.

But for my father the connection may have been more personal. Marian Anderson was  his contemporary. They were both born at the end of the 19th century.  I believe he was smitten.

“With scores of her elated and admiring auditors standing at the footlights literally drinking the melodious strains which flowed from the fountain of her golden voice, Marian Anderson, internationally acclaimed contralto, sang a farewell number on Sunday evening last, he wrote in a review that appeared on the front page of the New York Age on May 14, 1938. “This was Miss Anderson’s final appearance in America this season and was given at the Carnegie Hall.”

After that concert, my father wrote, well wishers “of both races then repaired to her dressing room to shake hands with her and tender their congratulations. She was presented with a beautiful bouquet of tea roses.”  I suppose he witnessed this firsthand. (Did he offer the roses?)

In a Nov. 13, 1943 review of a Pittsburgh concert, also written for the New York Age, Ebenezer called Anderson the “world’s greatest contralto.”

“Miss Anderson was in excellent voice and charmingly gowned,” he wrote. His only complaint was that the “motley” Pittsburgh audience was too subdued.  Yes, there were plenty of compliments from the audience as they left Pittsburgh’s Syria Mosque, where the performance was held.

“To this erstwhile New Yorker, however, two things were missing from this recital. There were no shouts of ‘Bravo’ from the ‘peanut gallery,’ which was only two tiers up, and there were no American Beauty roses, nor orchids. In brief, Miss Anderson received no flowers. But this is Pittsburgh!”

Ebenezer would come to love, or at least accept, Pittsburgh. He would fall in love with my mother and out of that love would come three daughters, the second of whom was born on this date.

Malaya is very different from her namesake. She leans more toward classical African and Caribbean beats than Scarlatti or Schubert. Of course, these two women came of age in different times. I can only imagine what Malaya would have told the DAR. She might have even taken over the stage.

I’ve often wondered why the only one of the three of us who was named after a historical figure would change her name. The answer is simple. Malaya always has been, and will forever be, her own person.

Happy Birthday, Malaya!

Questions for Rick Banks, author of ‘Is Marriage for White People?’

6 Sep

Friday would be my parents’ 63rd anniversary. They married Sept. 9, 1948, six months before the birth of my eldest sister, Ellen-Marie.

I don’t know if my parents had planned to get married anyway or if the pregnancy forced their hand. There also is the possibility that my mother’s father, John Henry Brown, a  piano mover who is said to have been around 6’4″ with a shoe size in the vicinity of a 13 EEE, might have offered a bit of “encouragement.” My dad was 5’4”.

My father was a printer by trade; and though he was quite erudite, I don’t think he had a college degree. My mother, a social worker and teacher, did.  Until my dad’s death, their 19-year marriage seemed sturdy and stable. For most of their life together, before my father took ill, they were able to live on his salary. My mother was a stay-at-home mom, an arrangement my father preferred.

Faced with the same set of circumstances today, would my parents’ marriage have survived?  Would they have even gotten married in the first place?

In his new book, Is Marriage for White People?, Stanford Law Professor Ralph Richard Banks talks about the changes that have taken place in African American households over the past 50 years.

These days “black women are about half as likely to be married as their 1950s counterparts,” he writes. “Marriage has also declined among black men, fewer than half of whom are husbands.”

In the book, which is subtitled, “How the African American Marriage Decline Affects Everyone,” Banks explores this decline and the socioeconomic forces that contribute to it:  One in 10 black men in America is incarcerated. The college graduation rate for black women is nearly twice that of black men.

In my parents’ day, marriages between blue-collar men and white-collar women thrived, largely due to the fact that blue-collar men still were the primary breadwinners and a working-class salary could support a household.

And unlike today, I’m not sure that the blue-collar/white-collar gap necessarily represented an education gap or intellectual divide.  Many of the black men in my Pittsburgh neighborhood had college degrees, but still worked in places like the Post Office or the steel mill because professional jobs were not available to them.

Banks acknowledges that today there remain a lot of strong black marriages across the blue-collar/white-collar line and that black men still earn more than black women overall. But black college-educated women are now in a better position to take advantage of the opportunities available in the new labor market, while opportunities for black men without a degree continue to disappear.  As a result, the gap between middle class black women and blue-collar men is widening, and intimate relationships between them are often so fraught with tension and power struggles that it is difficult to make them work.

And although Banks insists that his book is not an advice book, his final premise is causing the biggest stir: If black women want happy, intimate relationships, they should open themselves up to finding their intellectual and professional equals in other races rather than trying to make relationships work across black class lines.

Photo by Natalie Glatzel

Moreover, he argues that because black women are less likely than any other group to date outside of their race, black men know they can always find a good woman without having to make a commitment or put in much effort.  Banks suggests that if black women were to begin to look elsewhere, black men might step up their game.

I asked  Banks to elaborate on his book:

ER: You lay out a convincing argument for why black women should seek relationships outside of their race as a way to not only increase their opportunities for lasting intimate relationships, but also to induce black men to be less complacent/more committed in terms of their relationships.  Do you have advice for black men in terms of how they might change their behavior?

RB: In the book, I do not offer any “advice” or suggestions for black women, much less for black men.  My goal is to generate a conversation about the African American marriage decline that is more substantive than previous iterations.   I do highlight the conflict between black men and women, in order to clarify their differing goals. The book does suggest that black women’s allegiance to black men actually disserves women’s own interests, and doesn’t advance the race either.

ER: You offer a lot of damning statistics regarding the number of black men who are incarcerated (800,000 or 1 in 10) and the fact that nearly twice as many black women as black men finish college. You acknowledge that historical racism and the economic climate are major factors.  What government  policies would recommend to reverse these trends? 

RB: That’s a big question, which is in fact the subject of my next book.  The goal of this book is to trace the consequences for African Americans’  intimate relationships of the disadvantaged situation of black men.

ER: What kind of reactions have you gotten from black men to your book?

RB: The reactions range from very positive — Kirkus Reviews described the book as “Triumphant” — to very negative. I’ve been called a “racial pimp” who is trying to “profiteer” off black women’s difficulties with “sensationalized bullcrap”  In addition to my “reprehensible title” I have been told that the book “relies on haphazard, shabby research and unsubstantiated theories wrapped in hollow, sophisticated rhetoric to make you give it a good look.” Of course, these comments are all from people who I know for certain haven’t read the book. 
 Those people who have read the book are struck by its candor, insight, and writing. My favorite response is from a New York Times editor who told me it was “unputdownable.”  One of my aims with the book is to promote a national discussion about the obligations of black women to black men.  The issues are complicated and emotionally fraught, and are perhaps best captured in the question of one CNN viewer: Do black women deserve better than what black men have to offer?
Aside from Kirkus, I think the reviewers were black men. Others are supportive, even if they don’t like, as my brother-in-law put it, “giving the white man a hunting license to take the black man’s woman from him.” “Brothers done lost so much,” he said, “now the woman going to be taken away too!”

ER:  As the father of three boys, what kind of advice will you give your sons regarding their responsibilities as black men and as future partners and potential spouses? 

RB: I want them to be good people, to respect themselves and to respect others, and to treat everyone well.  One of my boys, though, says he doesn’t want to have children; I think he should have the freedom to be able to make that decision.  Nor would I pressure him to become a husband if he doesn’t want to be. Not everyone needs to have children or marry, and I would only want my boys to do so if that is what they want.

ER: How do you think your relationship with your own father formed or informed the way you have approached relationships? 

RB:  Difficult question.  My mother died when I was 9 years old, and that experience definitely enabled me to appreciate the benefits that (I imagine) would have come with having another parent. My dad did his best, and other family members helped as well.  But I can’t pretend that one parent is as good as two.

Here’s more of Banks in his own words:

The London riots and the fire next time

15 Aug

“As much as we regret the spirit of mob violence as manifested by hundreds of Harlemites on Tuesday evening, it is obvious that it was the direct result of a pent-up feud that has lain in the breasts of Negroes for months – and years.”

These words, published in a column my father wrote after a riot broke out in Harlem on March 19, 1935, have new resonance in the wake of the conflagration that spread from Tottenham to Birmingham, UK, last week.

I visited London several times last year, and three news stories made me wonder whether I’d ever left home.

  • Confrontations between students and police during protests against tuition hikes were a regular occurrence throughout the fall. Were it not for the scenes of Prince Charles and Camilla’s Royal Rolls Royce being kicked and jostled and pelted with paint bombs last December, I might have thought I was on a University of California or California State College campus.
  • British Prime Minister David Cameron called the low numbers of blacks at Oxford “disgraceful,” putting the university on the defensive and setting off a verbal firestorm with echoes of the American higher education/affirmative action debate.
  • Then there was the heartbreaking story of Agnes Sina-Inakoju, killed in 2010 when two reported gang members shot into an East London chicken and pizza place. In April of this year, the men, both in their early 20s, were sentenced to life in prison. Sina-Inakoju, 16 at the time of her murder, had dreamed of going to Oxford and by all accounts she was working hard to make that a reality. The tragic tale of a promising life cut short by random and stupid violence could have played out in any city USA.

I wasn’t there when the flames erupted in the UK last weekend, and I won’t presume to have a full understanding of British racial and class politics. But shocking as the murder and mayhem were, it was not surprising.

“The volcano is there and the surface is very thin; it merely needs a slight puncture, and out will flow the destructive elements that foment within,” Ebenezer wrote.

This time, as in many others, the “puncture” was a black man shot dead by police.

The confluence of dreams of the poor ignored, the aspirations of the middle class deferred and the prevalence of drugs and guns and criminality of all kinds, make for a toxic cocktail. Add to it an economic climate in which social services and law enforcement resources are cut and stretched thin on both sides of the Pond, and you can’t help but wonder where the next “volcano” will erupt.


Telling it like it is

8 Aug

At an outdoor concert featuring Aaron Neville in San Francisco’s Stern Grove yesterday, I was taken back to being 11 or 12 years old when  my sister Ellen-Marie asked me to pick up Neville’s first hit, “Tell it Like it Is,” from the neighborhood record store. My friend Rosalyn and I were headed there for our own 45s, probably something along the lines of the Marvelettes or the Supremes. (Rosalyn and I were part of our own junior girl group called the Trangualettes  – don’t ask – and we lip-synced a mean “Don’t Mess with Bill.”)
Rosalyn and I were barely out of  elementary school. Ellen was in high school.  And even though WAMO, the one black radio station in all of Pittsburgh, played everything from R&B to blues to jazz  —  the white radio stations didn’t play black music back then —  we didn’t really have our ears tuned to Aaron Neville . . . yet.

On Sunday, as I listened to Neville’s still silky rendition of that 1967 ballad, I searched my memory for all of Ellen’s teenage crushes and suitors. I wondered who she might have been thinking about as she played that record. It could have been that she simply knew then what we’d all come to know, Neville’s capacity to make us swoon.

Romance aside, I suspect that song spoke to Ellen-Marie because it got to the core of who she was — direct and honest. Aggravatingly so. Sometimes brutally so. And not only did she take truth-telling seriously, she did not understand why others were incapable of doing the same.

Our mother, who was often given to being coy and indirect, used to drive Ellen-Marie crazy. I’m sure I did too, as I have a tendency to bury my ledes. Editorial writing was good training for getting to the point.

Ebenezer, on the other hand, was not one to mince words. Here are some gems I’ve found so far. All are excerpts from his “Dottings of a Paragrapher” column in the New York Age.

Dec. 22, 1934:  “When the white man ‘lifts his foot off the neck’ of Negroes and when the Negro in turn lifts his own tiny foot off his own neck, when a Negro reporter, writer, cartoonist,  or etc. can go to the News office and apply for a job with the  assurance that he has the same chance as his white brother, his color regardless, then it will matter whether he is called colored, Negro,  or Aframerican.”

June 1, 1935: “Although time often permitted, I have never availed myself of the opportunity to attend the hearings of the  Mayor’s Commission on Conditions in Harlem, firstly because I could never clearly see why five white men should be appointed on such a committee when it is highly improbable that even one Negro would be appointed to any committee to inquire into conditions in any white community.”  [Note: The 14-member commission, appointed by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia following a 1935 race riot in Harlem, included several prominent blacks.]

May 30, 1936: “On a recent evening, what was scheduled to be an ‘all-star artist recital’ turned out to be just a parade of the ambitious, plus a little stardust.
How a promoter of this affair ever got together such a mixture is beyond imagination. It was little short of capital offense to associate the beautifully voiced Doris Trotman-Earle and Constance Berksteiner White with some of the other untutored apologies for singers. It was little short of a capital offense to place one sartorial blunder, in particular, on any program. He murdered ‘Then You’ll Remember Me’ — and all who had to listen to him certainly will.
Liberal applause followed all the efforts. It must have been admiration for their ‘nerve’ — or maybe the audience was made up mainly of relatives.”

Ouch! Ellen-Marie got it honest.

Black valedictorians: the sound of history repeating?

30 Jul

Kymberly Wimberly

Kymberly Wimberly, a 2011 graduate of McGehee Secondary School in Arkansas,  is suing  her school district and its officials, claiming they violated her constitutional right to equal treatment under the law.

According to the Associated Press, the lawsuit claims that a school counselor told Wimberly’s mother in May that the girl had the school’s highest grade point average in the graduating class, but later the mother, who works at the school,  overheard a conversation in which staff said there would be a “big mess” if a black girl stood alone as valedictorian. A white female student was selected to serve as “co-valedictorian,” and both gave speeches at their May 13 graduation.

(According to reports, the school, whose black population is about 46 percent, has had a black valedictorian before, but not since 1989.)

The district’s superintendent, who is black,  told an Arkansas television station that “the second girl took more classes and that a school rule prevents extra course work from penalizing students when calculating grade point averages.”  After they did the math, the superintendent said, the two students’ GPAs were the same.

Sounds like fuzzy math to me, but now it’s in the hands of the court.

Fannetta Nelson Gordon

This tale brings to mind the story of the late Fannetta Nelson Gordon, who in April of this year posthumously received the valedictory recognition she had been denied for 75 years.

Nelson Gordon, who happens to have been the aunt of my oldest friend, Rev. Melana Nelson-Amaker, attended Pittsburgh’s Westinghouse High School and in 1936 would have been the school’s second black valedictorian. Her sister, Sophia Phillips Nelson, now in her 90s, was the school’s first black valedictorian in 1934. According to a story in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, “the principal said the school would not have another black valedictorian. So, he pressured a music teacher to change her grades.”

Ebenezer Ray, The New York Age, Oct. 31, 1936

Both sisters were honored by the high school’s alumni association this spring, and the story made national news. We all felt good that even though Nelson Gordon did not live to receive the recognition, an injustice had been righted.

But now we have the Wimberly case. ColorofChange.org is encouraging those who find this case troubling to write to school district officials. It’s not just about Wimberly, they say:

“McGehee and other school districts around the country should be encouraging all prepared students to challenge themselves academically. Unfortunately, that’s often not the case. Last year, Black students made up 15 percent of graduating seniors, but accounted for just 9 percent of students taking AP exams. Black students trail far behind White, Asian and Latino students in terms of participation in AP classes, and educators have a responsibility to provide equal access to and preparation for college-level coursework. Kymberly is the rare example of the student whose family believed she could excel in high-level classes, despite what some adults at school told her and students who look like her.”

And however the lawsuit turns out, Wimberly has already won.

Not only did she take   — and ace  — Advanced Placement and honors courses, earning only one B in her entire high school career, according to reports, she had a baby during her junior year and still excelled. (Which, in addition to race, is likely the other elephant in McGehee’s living room.)

“My teachers thought I’d fall flat on my face, but I kept trying to succeed,” she said.

Congratulations, Kymberly, and as they say, “Keep gettin’ up.”

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