Sunday, November 02, 2014

Dispatches From a "Post-Racial" America: The Truly Frightening Edition

By T.M. Bonner

Halloween may be over, but truly frightening incidents of racism never end in America.

While day-to-day racist incidents in the news are always pretty hair-raising, the following incidents, as reported in the media, are extra special scary, and give new meaning to the phrase "truth is stranger than fiction. " 

People should be particularly frightened given that the perpetrators were school teachers, U.S. military base occupants, their neighbors, and political representatives.

Enter at your own risk…

Cynthia Ramsey, a white math teacher at Camden County High School in North Carolina, reportedly told a white student that if she had only 10 days to live, she would "kill all black people," according to a news story originally reported on WAVY-TV. The statement was reportedly overheard by other students as well.

But I'm not sure what is more scary: that a teacher with such violent inclinations is in a public school, or that the school district allowed her to come back to teach after only a few-days suspension -- pending an investigation by the District Attorney. 

In the meantime, parents of black students at the school should probably think about investing in those bulletproof backpacks they are selling now - just in case this teacher gets bad news from her doctor. 

Read the story and see the TV news report here.

Ok. So an "unidentified" occupant of a home in a military base in Fort Campbell in the South put up a Halloween display depicting a black family - including a child - lynched and hanging from a tree.

The owner (after being forced to take it down by the military) denies it was racist - and had a very reputable defender in the right-wing Modern American Revolution group to back this denial up. 

Again, I'm not sure what was scarier: that the owner saw nothing wrong with the Halloween display, or that the person was allowed to just apologize and move on without disciplinary action. 

To the black neighbors of this person, I will use the words of Antoine Dodson of YouTube fame: "Hide your kids, hide your wife, and hide your husband," because your neighbor sees nothing wrong with lynching people.

See the sick Halloween display and read the story here.

Pol Danilov
Pol Danilov, 26, was arrested earlier this month after he repeatedly stabbed a 79-year-old African-American woman in a grocery store in Homewood, IL, a suburb of Chicago.

Police officials said Danilov has a history of hatred toward African-Americans and told police he stabbed the woman because she was "an easy target" because she was elderly and black.

The woman survived the injuries, and Danilov was charged with attempted murder. 

But there is nothing scarier than having to fear that your grandmother or mother can be randomly attacked simply because of her race and physical limitations. 

Read more about the attack here.

The quote above was from a story published in The New York Daily News earlier this month. It came from a video posted on Livestream from an incident that occurred after a protest of the Michael Brown shooting was staged at a St. Louis Cardinals game in St. Louis, Mo. 

As expected in America, the peaceful protest quickly escalated into a racist situation. 

The quoted, unnamed woman may have been somewhat inebriated, but like they say, "liquor don't lie." What is truly scary is that this woman - who lives in one of the most heavily African-American-populated areas of the United States - actually holds such an entitled, privileged, and racist viewpoint. 

It is also ironic that while many white Americans disassociate themselves from American slavery - saying they had nothing to do with it - this woman clearly shows that such a a disassociation is not always the case in reality. For as she stated, she (and others like her that had nothing do with slavery) gave black people the freedoms that they have. How is that possible if you had nothing to do with it and weren't there?

Anyway, say thank you, Black people.

Read the story and watch the original video here.

Republican South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham got caught earlier this month saying in a private meeting that "white men in male-only clubs are going do great in my presidency."

As always happens when racist people in power get caught saying racist things, Sen. Graham stated he was just "joking." Well, most comedians tell their awesome one-liners in public to an audience - not in a private meeting where they don't think anybody will ever hear it. What would be the point?

What is actually not so scary about his statements is that most African-Americans know that most politicians are not looking out for the best interests of ALL Americans. But they usually get called paranoid, or are accused of "playing the race card" when they point this out. 

Disclaimer: The Sen. Graham logic does not apply to President Barack Obama, America's first African-American President, who better not be perceived as looking out solely for the interests of African-Americans - or else.

Read the story of Sen. Graham getting busted by CNN here. 

I hope you enjoyed this truly scary edition of "Dispatches from a "Post-Racial" America." Knowing how pervasive racism is in America, I'll be seeing you again real soon.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Media, The American Public, and The Invisible Pain of African-Americans

Photo from the Facebook page
By T.M. Bonner

I didn’t think it was possible. But there it was: a photograph managed to capture completely how this nation responds to black pain.

The now famous photo – posted on’s Facebook page - showed a group of white tourists posing in front of the iconic LOVE sculpture in Philadelphia. On the surface, there was nothing unusual about that. Many people pose in front of it everyday.

Except at their feet in front of the sculpture was the uncovered body of a black man with multiple bullet holes in his body and blood spilling from it on the pavement. Of course, the man wasn’t really dead. It was a performance art piece by Keith Wallace, an MFA acting student. It was intended to evoke the emotions of the indignity in death suffered by Michael Brown, his family and his community as he too lay for hours uncovered on a street in Ferguson, Mo. after being shot dead by white officer Darren Wilson, and make a statement about the underlying racism that led to his death.

A picture may speak a thousand words, but this one spoke but one when it comes to black pain: “indifference.”

This, Wallace plainly pointed out in a quote published on “My body lay at their feet, and the statue was above all our heads. So you can still have your picture and choose to ignore the ugliness that was literally right at your feet.”

The key word here is “choose,” and it is no secret that America has consistently chosen to be indifferent to the ugliness that has been literally right at its feet when it comes to black pain and suffering from racism and oppression.

The mainstream media – as  the gatekeeper of the “Fourth Estate” that is supposed to be the eyes and ears for the people to wrongdoing, injustice and corruption -- has been complicit in this indifference through its negligence in reporting on the psychological impact of chronic racism and oppression on African-American people. Allowing the general public to be shielded from that pain has allowed that same public to deny its very existence – or,worse yet, couch its very mention in snide characterizations as “playing the race card,” “angry black woman,” “attitude problem,” or “militant.”

After hundreds of years of torture, beatings, rapes, maimings, lynchings, and psychological abuse, African-Americans were set free and expected to just move on, with no acknowledgement of the severe psychological damage they themselves had endured and that their also enslaved ancestors had passed down to them. Not only would that not be possible in any case, racism never moved on, either. It continued with oppressive Jim Crow laws that continued racial terrorism despite African people in America now being free – along with the indifference to the psychological pain and suffering as a result. For example, when six-year-old Ruby Bridges integrated an all-white school in 1960 under armed guard amidst violent racist protests, there was more indignation and concern over forced racial integration of public schools than the psychological damage that little girl may have suffered as a result of that traumatizing experience.

The psychological trauma has not ceased in more contemporary times. For example, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI) 2012 Hate Crime Statistics Report, 48.3 percent of all hate crimes were race-related, compared to 19.6 percent involving sexual orientation, and 19 percent involving religion. Additionally, 54.6 percent of the known offenders were white. And in a span of less than a month in Summer 2014, a black mother and father lost their sons, or children their fathers, starting with Eric Garner (unarmed) on July 17th in Staten Island, NY and ending with Ezell Ford (unarmed) in Los Angeles, CA on August 11th at the hands of white police officers, with John Crawford (August 4th) and Michael Brown (August 9th) in between.

These same black parents, no doubt, were part of the collective national grieving with the parents of children lost at Sandy Hook. With Sandy Hook, as with all news stories covering the senseless loss of white children’s and adult lives, the mainstream media thoroughly articulates for the rest of us the psychological impact of the event on survivors, witnesses and the victims’ families.

Then the black community that grieved with them waited.

We waited for someone in the mainstream media to articulate the pain and trauma of Michael Brown’s mother as she nearly faints at a press conference.

We waited for someone in the mainstream media to articulate the pain and trauma for the family of John Crawford, who had to watch him being shot and killed on sight by police on a Walmart store surveillance video for carrying a toy gun he intended to purchase for his son.

We waited for someone in the mainstream media to articulate the pain and trauma for the wife and children of Eric Garner (whose death was captured on a cellphone video) from an illegal chokehold by police as he begged for his life, saying repeatedly: “I can’t breath.”

We waited for discussions among psychological professionals in the media of post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, anger as the black bodies piled up this summer, and as Ferguson protestors were gassed, threatened with death and guns, and brutalized by the police nightly on national television.

What we got, instead, were headlines about looters and unruly protestors in Ferguson, Mo.  

What we got was more of a focus on the ‘militarization’ of the police than on the stress of the black people they were terrorizing.

What we got were people thoroughly convinced that the troubles of African-Americans in all of the Fergusons across America would be alleviated if they would just show up and vote during local and state elections.

Instead of stories on black pain, what we got was a story in The New York Times classifying Brown as “no angel,” and a Newsweek headline that read: “For St. Louis Gangs, Ferguson Has Become a Recruiting Tool.”

Dr. Lisa Whitten, Ph.D., Past President and current Board Member of the New York Association of Black Psychologists, Inc. said she cried when she watched the Eric Garner video on YouTube. She has not been surprised by the absence in the media of discussions of the psychological impact of police brutality and racism on Black people in the media. “I think we’re seen by many in the media as less emotionally complex. We are not seen as being as sophisticated psychologically, so there is no need to delve deeper – because there is nothing there,” she said.

This nonchalant attitude about black pain was evident when on August 18th, for example, actor Michael Ian Black, joked on Twitter to the delight of his amused fans that: “If the #ferguson cops would just douse everybody with ice water, it would stop the riots and raise awareness for ALS.” On the same day, CNN anchor Rosemary Church asked on air, “Why not, perhaps, use water cannons?” to stop the ‘riots.’ In both cases, the connection of those jokes or matter-of-face suggestions to the trauma experienced by real African-Americans – who, indeed, had actual water cannons used on them during the Civil Rights Movement – meant absolutely nothing to Black and Church.

Not even the treacherous Middle Passage (when African slaves were transported by boat by the millions to the Americas) was safe from the indifference. The Lancaster New Era in Pennsylvania ran a cartoon by Robert Ariail in September 2014 that actually joked about airplane seating by comparing it to a slave ship diagram showing shackled slaves crammed in next to one another. In response to a question on his website by a woman named “Sara” asking “what is this nonsense?” Ariail responded: “Sara, get a sense of humor, then come back and look at the cartoons.” Obviously, Mr. Ariail (who later apologized) missed the lesson on black pain that was being taught by Ferguson, Mo., at that very moment.

But Whitten contends that now is the time to confront the reality of what is referred to in Swahili as the “Maafa,” which she says has been translated as  “great disaster,” “terrible occurrence” or “unspeakable horror,” and “refers to the ongoing trauma that we’ve experienced since enslavement, and the long struggle that we have endured.”

The time is now because the negative impact of chronic racism and oppression of African-Americans is evident in America – even if it is not acknowledged or ignored. In other words, if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, it does, indeed, make a sound.

That sound is echoed in internalized racism that, for example, manifests itself among African-Americans as colorism, which is discrimination and bias based on skin color. In addition, “we end up sabotaging ourselves, or each other, because of self-hatred, “ Whitten said. “There are so many places where African-Americans are in power, but we are behaving as our enemy rather than our advocate.”

That sound is echoed in violence in African-American communities. “A lot of anger is manifested in the violence in our communities," Whitten said. Whitten suggests that the thinking goes something like this: "I can’t make it in the larger world, so I’m going to do what I need to do to get that power where I am,” Whitten said. “Some African Americans believe that violence is the only way they are going to have that kind of power.”

But Whitten acknowledges two crucial obstacles must be overcome in order for any significant inroads can be made in addressing the psychological impact of racism and oppression on African-Americans: white Americans must confront the fact that institutionalized racism and white privilege do exist, and the stigma surrounding mental health issues and seeking mental health counseling must be addressed in the black community.

But the obstacles to psychological healing for African-Americans are even more daunting than that, according to Entrepreneur Douglas Johnson, who grew up in St. Louis, MO. He owns an ice cream truck business that regularly runs a route through Ferguson – including the area where Michael Brown was killed. Douglas feels that in communities like Ferguson, the police brutality, killings, harassment and profiling are so common that – like any virus – the people of those communities develop a certain immunity to it and become disconnected from the awareness of the pain that it is causing them. So the job becomes trying to help them recognize that they are in pain.

“They become numb,” Johnson said. “To them, it is something normal. [The pain] is not even seen as something psychological.”

If Newsweek really wanted to understand how a Ferguson could become a recruiting tool for gangs, all
Douglas Johnson's Ice Cream Truck Rolls Through
Ferguson; Photo Courtesy of Douglas Johnson
it had to do was analyze the psychological impact of racism and oppression on that community.

“We’re human. If more and more violence happens in your world, you become numb,” Johnson said. “That’s how a killer becomes a killer. He can kill someone and not think anything about it. You are a product of your environment. What you know is all you know to do.”

The Association of Black Psychologists has sought to open dialogue about those wounds and promote healing by partnering with the Community Healing Network, Inc. to offer Emotional Emancipation Circles in various cities across the country. The goal is to create a safe space for people to talk about their pain and to heal.

“Often, we don’t talk among ourselves about our pain, anger and our intragroup issues. We just try to be strong and keep going,” Whitten said. “But it’s okay to talk about these feelings and to be vulnerable. If we can begin to understand both the internal and external sources of these issues, and address them together, we can begin to heal.”

Even as the African-American community struggles with its own pain, the Ferguson uprising signaled a pivotal shift, with the new generation’s unwillingness to suffer in stoic silence as the post-Civil Rights Movement generation has done.

While Johnson believes that causing pain and suffering is both a takeoff and destination point for racism and oppression, it is through unity that African-Americans can begin to break down the systems that foster such racism and oppression that lead to pain and suffering.

As an example, he pointed to a never reported video showing the people in the Canfield Apartments, near the place Michael Brown was killed. In the video that was posted on YouTube, swarms of police point military style weapons at people who had gathered and who were peacefully protesting in the street. But instead of cowering, the people – in a show of peaceful collective resistance to the oppressive behavior of the police – began chanting “hands up, don’t shoot.”  Johnson contends this is where that now famous Ferguson protest chant and method was born – though the people of the Canfield Apartments were never given any recognition for their courage in staring down the barrels of killing machines pointed directly at them and standing up for their right to exist.

“Part of systemic racism is to destroy unity,” Johnson said. “Unity destroys the system. The walls of Jericho fall down. So they try to keep you divided – by any means necessary.”

It is also the goal of the Emotional Emancipation Circles to foster unity and support for each other in African-Americans.

There have been some in the media and popular culture who clearly understand black pain and its ramifications and have attempted to educate others about it. Albeit, those examples have been few. There was Ta-Nehisi Coates’ extraordinary piece in The Atlantic that outlined the historical and contemporary racial injustices suffered by African-Americans in “The Case for Reparations.” And Singer Lauryn Hill dedicated a brilliant remake of “My Favorite Things” entitled “Black Rage” that was dedicated to Ferguson.

Before we can even get to a discussion (if we ever do) of what price should be paid for suffering, we have to acknowledge there was and continues to be a huge price paid psychologically for being black in America.

Watch the video from August 9, 2014 in the Canfield Apartments in Ferguson, Mo. here.

Listen to "Black Rage" by Lauryn Hill here.

T.M. Bonner is a writer, filmmaker, MBA, Social Justice Advocate, and is also a professional in Media and Social Policy/Social Service in New York City.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Dispatches From a "Post-Racial" America: Racism Top 20 Audio Countdown

By T.M. Bonner

As Summer has ended, and the days grow shorter and cooler, I take a look back at the Top 20 incidents of racism in what was Summer 2014. 

Join me for this special audio broadcast of a regular feature on this blog: "Dispatches From a "Post-Racial" America." (Disclaimer: As this is a broadcast about racism, some of the language may be offensive).

And as always, "Dispatches From a "Post-Racial" America will continue to regularly feature news from around the country demonstrating why racism is far from dead in America. 

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Michael Brown Shooting: Why the Requirement for ‘Perfect’ Injustice Victims is About Race

By T.M. Bonner

By the time Norma L. McCorvey was 21, she had abused drugs and was on her third child. While carrying that third child, her scheme to falsely claim she was raped in order to obtain a legal abortion put her in the path of attorneys seeking to challenge U.S. abortion laws. Those attorneys who would make her (as “Jane Roe”) the lead plaintiff in a landmark 1973 U.S. Supreme Court case that would make abortion within the first three months of pregnancy legal for all women in America and halt the deadly practice of amateur, underground abortions: Roe v. Wade. Subsequently, McCorvey, despite her background, became a national symbol of women’s rights and the fight against female oppression.
Was McCorvey an angel? No. Was McCorvey free from teenage and young adulthood missteps? No. Was her right as a woman to make decisions about her own body worthy of justice and defense –regardless of her sketchy background story? Yes.
Enter Michael Brown, 18, of Ferguson, MO (2014).
An unarmed Brown was shot and killed by police officer Darren Wilson on August 9, 2014 in Ferguson.  Community uproar and demand for accountability, justice and legal recourse for police brutality followed the shooting. Then on the day Ferguson police officials released Wilson’s name to the media, they also released a video allegedly showing Brown stealing cigarillos from a convenience store right before his shooting. Several days later, it was ‘leaked’ that an autopsy revealed Brown had marijuana in his system on the day he was killed.
The message being sent from the video and marijuana leak was clear: Brown wasn’t an angel. Therefore, because there were no wings found on his dead body, the legitimacy of the community and others fighting for his rights and seeking justice against police brutality should be questioned.
Those looking to understand why McCorvey’s backstory did not alter public and court perception about the need for justice in her case while the exact opposite plays out in the Brown case need only know this: McCorvey is white. Brown was African-American.
Sure, a situation in both the lives of McCorvey and Brown intersected with a long-standing discriminatory American policy/law, thus garnering demands for change. The difference is that in America, there is an expectation steeped in racism that African-American victims of injustice and/or those African-Americans fighting for justice should be beyond reproach, while white victims or justice fighters can be ‘flawed’ or ‘complex.’
Just look at the African-American symbols of injustice in some of the most significant U.S. Supreme Court cases and justice movements in history: James Meredith, who integrated the University of Mississippi; Rosa Parks, who brought national attention to Jim Crow laws on public transportation; little pigtailed Ruby Bridges, 6, who stoically endured racists and violence while integrating a white Southern school; and Mildred Loving, the other half of the couple in Loving v. Virginia that struck down laws against interracial marriage. These people were so squeaky clean that if they were a floor, you could eat off of them.
Meanwhile, America is quite comfortable with its white heroes, leaders, and activists being flawed. What does it matter that Thomas Jefferson had essentially a second family with his slave Sally Hemings while President of the United States? Why should politician David Dukes let a little fact that he was a former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan stop him from being voted in by the American people as a Louisiana State Representative? And who can forget the Oscar-winning performance by Julia Roberts of Real-life Environmental Activist Erin Brockovich. As the film portrays, Brockovich, a struggling single mother, was able to expose corporate environmental crime after being hired by a boss who, when first meeting her, was able to overlook her dressed with certain upper body parts hanging out to see her ‘passion’ and ‘potential.’
As the Brown case illustrates, even teenagers are not spared from this ridiculous double-standard. For teenagers doing teenager stuff resonates quite differently when that teen is African-American. I can speak from past professional experience working in a treatment center serving white, rich kids, that marijuana use is not exclusive to African-American teenagers. Many of those kids had lied and stolen to support their drug habits. Some have been violent right before my eyes toward their parents seeking help for them. But with these teens – as with the infamous “affluenza” teen, Ethan Crouch, who killed four people while driving drunk and was sentenced to not-so-hard time in a treatment center – we are supposed to understand that not being fully mature, teenagers need our support, understanding, and second chances because they have – “potential.”
By contrast, the news that Brown may have had marijuana in his system, whether true or not, has been used to illustrate his being unworthy, a “thug” (aka, N-word), not deserving of empathy, but very deserving of being shot at least six times (twice in the head) by Wilson. One need only read Twitter feeds, listen to commentators on television news programs, or read the comment section of virtually any newspaper covering the story to see examples of this thinking.
Then the video of the alleged cigarillo ‘robbery’ was released, and the judgment was swift and decisive. “HP” wrote in the New York Times comment section that the video has convinced her “that incident is no longer between a Gentle Giant and rogue cop. It is between a felon and a cop.” And then in the same comment section, “David” of Chicago reminds us that Brown could reasonably have been expected to act aggressively toward Office Wilson because “as any psychologist will tell you, past behavior predicts future behavior.”
So, Brown, whom authorities have verified did not have a criminal record, is now labeled permanently in death as a “felon.” But, of course, that’s a fair assessment because, as “David” points out, what was done in your past is always what you will do in the future.
            But, again, such reasoning only applies to African-American victims.
When then 20-year-old Caroline Giuliani, daughter of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, was arrested in 2010 for shoplifting at a Sephora in Manhattan, the worst she was called was “rebellious” (New York Post). The New York Daily News even went so far as to try to milk sympathy for her plight by calling her a “Poor Little Rich Girl,” while even interviewing a psychologist on what could motivate someone like her to steal. They even included a photo of her as a cute little girl to further drive home the point of her innate innocence to readers. Absent were the references to predictions of “future behavior” of the then Harvard student –– flawed, but worthy of a chance at a bright future. And unless my ears and eyes are failing me, I missed that psychological assessment in media accounts of Brown’s alleged cigarillo swipe.
The double-standard extends to those who are fighting against injustice, as well. Lest we forget, the Occupy Wall Street Movement took over – let me repeat – took over a park in downtown Manhattan for months, met police efforts to shut them down with righteous resistance. They disrupted as they raised awareness about economic inequality between the 99% and the One Percent. Yes, people were tear-gassed. Yes, people were arrested. Yes it was mayhem. Yes it was chaos. Yes it was an uprising watched worldwide. These people meant business. Now, there was some public and media resentment toward the movement, including Newt Gingrich famously telling the large hipster contingent of the movement to “go get a job right after you take a bath.” But unless my ears are failing me, I don’t recall these activists being referred to as “animals” deserving of being murdered by the police, despite whatever flaws critics thought Occupy protestors possessed. 
But “animal” has actually been mild compared to other things said about African-American protestors in Ferguson. Some Americans have consistently questioned the protestors’ right to speak out about injustice toward the black community by whites because of “black on black crime,” looting,” and other irrelevant topics. In other words, how can a race of people, whose issues and actions are ‘complex’ and not perfect like their grandmother’s sweet potato pie, think they have the right to demand justice against police killing unarmed black men and women? That’s like saying white Americans should just sit back and accept the murders of loved ones at the hands of serial killers because the vast majority of serial killers are white males.
But, then, again, one can’t really expect a logical assessment of Ferguson protestors from people who view them as racially inferior people whose lives are not worth much at all. “If looting and firebombing, destruction of property and violence is their reaction to everything, perhaps we haven’t shot enough?” asked “Kevin,” of Kansas, on a New York Times comment section, without any shame.
But not every white person in America is drinking that Kool-Aid. Some get the double standards in both word and deed. One poignant Ferguson protestor sign carried by a white male captured on Twitter read: “At 18 Yrs old in Festus, MO, I shot a cop with a BB Gun. Why am I still alive?”
People who are looking for perfection from fighters for justice are living in an alternate reality. For as history has shown, those who are willing to risk it all to right a wrong or correct injustice are not usually those who have the most to lose in the way of big and shiny things like cars, houses, boats, and the corner office. It is usually those with nothing left to lose, nowhere to go but up.  And life at the bottom ain’t no crystal stair. Therefore, the people at the bottom will not be perfect. They may look the brother in the now famous Ferguson protest photo, who slings a fiery object back at police with one hand while holding a bag of potato chips in the other. But they will be courageous.  
Author James Baldwin, himself a participant in the black Civil Rights’ Movement of the 60s, understood this formidable combination when he said: “the most dangerous creation in any society is the man who has nothing left to lose.”
But don’t’ be misled that this powerful fact is lost on those participating in the smear campaigns of Michael Brown, Eric Garner before him, Renisha McBride before him, Jordan Davis before her, and Trayvon Martin before him.
Their goal in focusing on the imperfections of victims and protestors is to silence minority concerns through de-legitimization. Their goal is to create a smoke screen to blind others to the obvious injustices. Their goal is to steer the discourse off-topic in hopes that it will remain there and never find its way back.
It’s an old tactic. It’s a pretty transparent tactic. But people still accept it in America.
The reason is as clear as black and white.


T.M. Bonner is a writer, filmmaker, MBA, Social Justice Advocate, and is also a professional in Social Policy/Social Service in New York City. 

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Maya Angelou and the Empowerment of the Oppressed and the Poor

By T.M. Bonner

Maya Angelou (April 4, 1928 - May 28, 2014)
   I usually don’t write about prominent figures when they pass away. But seldom has one person most personified an essential component in social change than Maya Angelou.

   The entire life of this brave, brilliant, and bold woman was a testament to the power of personal empowerment to change the world.

   And personal empowerment is no small matter.

   Though many don’t want to admit this, personal empowerment is covertly and quietly discouraged in the oppressed and the poor in America. It is done through the very systems that operate under the guise of ‘aiding,’ ‘assisting,’ and ‘strengthening,’ but, instead, subtly instill the message that the oppressed and the poor permanently belong outside the circle of power and prosperity.

   These same systems limit mobility options for the oppressed and the poor and close bridges to avenues of possible future prosperity via their narrow-minded rules and regulations, limited knowledge of the diversity of their clients’ pasts and lack of vision for their clients’ future potential. So, the ‘Affordable housing’ provided is neglected public or private housing trapped in poor neighborhoods with zero access to the resources that they will need to survive, as well as succeed. They will be given food stamps so they can eat, but the amount will be systematically so low that only the least nutritious of foods can be bought, resulting in a lack of control over one’s dietary choices and health. Republican-led states with absolutely nothing to lose monetarily block their access to now affordable healthcare, handing down future chronic health conditions, or even death sentences, to them. Their wages are low enough to ensure they only have enough to get them to the next inadequate check – if lucky. Schools will be available – sans the funding, support, and resources to actually properly prepare students for college or the workplace of the 21st Century and beyond.

   Empowerment is more than a cool-sounding concept. It is a necessity if any social change is to actually happen in this country. But it takes resources, energy, and support. And, yes, it also sometimes takes protection of the right to be empowered from high places. Anyone who has studied history, or who has been breathing for the last 15 years, knows what happens to people who discover their empowerment: they end up shot up by representatives of law enforcement or shut down by racist communities (think Black Wall Street in Oklahoma). Or, the government itself intervenes and shuts it down - lest such empowerment begins to spread (think the Occupy Wall Street Movement in New York City).

   So people like empowerment on paper. But in action, it is an entirely different story.  Sometimes it’s even the idea that systems, communities, people and governments can tolerate this type of empowerment over that type of empowerment because one makes them feel less threatened by only baby cradle-rocking the oppressive boat instead of rightfully kicking it over. Oftentimes, those most afraid of empowerment or who try to put conditions on how far it can go, stand in a position to benefit most by inequality and oppression.

   But Maya Angelou was lucky and clever. She was lucky in that she was blessed with the gifts of intellectual and writing brilliance that were tools for her own personal empowerment. And she was clever in that she didn’t waste those talents. Instead, she used them to give voice to not only her own oppression and subsequent empowerment, but also help generations of others find their own personal empowerment. 

   Angelou was giving voice to what it meant to be an American of African descent long before Rap and Hip-hop came on the scene. In her famous empowerment poem "Still I Rise," she wrote:

"You may write me down in history,
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt,
But still, like dust, I'll rise."
           (from Angelou’s famous poem “Still I Rise”)

   Angelou was more fierce and raw than any rapper speaking on systemic oppression in those lines. In the same poem, she even schools those who have issues when confronted with a confident, smart, goal-oriented, battered but hopeful African-American (a.k.a: “uppity negro”) in the following lines:

"Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
'Cause I walk like I've got oil wells
Pumping in my living room."

   Her brilliant words stung us for our backward thinking, but also awakened and empowered us all to our own innate strength, beauty, and capabilities – and there was nothing anybody could do about it. No police could kick in this poet’s door in the middle of the night and arrest or harass her. No government or community could demand a shutdown of her brain that produced such brilliance. So continue to empower she did.

   I had the fortune to go see Ms. Angelou perform at the Boston Symphony Orchestra several years back. This day was vivid because during her concert, the strangest thing happened:  a man collapsed in a medical emergency. In the chaos and panic that ensued, two African-American women ran over to the man to assist. As they were doing so, several nearby white audience members strongly advised the women to wait for medical personnel or a doctor to arrive. The two African-American women said in almost perfect unison: “we ARE doctors.” A knowing glint appeared in Ms. Angelou’s eyes. Some of what Ms. Angelou had been telling us moments before about her experiences as a black woman of being labeled, misunderstood and underestimated had been presented as a real-life lesson to us in that one unexpected moment.

   There was nothing else that needed to be said about that moment. Our job was to just let the lesson sink in and learn from it. So in true Maya Angelou fashion, she just calmed everyone until the man was taken away to be treated, and then continued with her wonderful performance.  

   In one part of her show, she began to tell us about various times when she experienced oppression or abuse. She wouldn’t conclude any of the scenarios with how she rose out or above it. Instead, after each story, she would merely sing the lines: “this little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine…” She was cleverly telling us that no matter what happens to you or against you, never let it defeat you or take away your brilliant, God-given light. Never let it distract you from your God-given purpose on this earth. You always have the power to be a one-person revolution. Always. You just have to realize this fact. And when you do, there is nothing anybody will be able to do shut down your own personal empowerment movement.

   And I'm sure that though Ms. Angelou was called home peacefully in her sleep on May 28, 2014, she would admonish us not to get lost in despair, sadness or pain. Because the gifts she has given us all  - the gift of learning to dare to love ourselves, to go for our dreams, to not let anyone define our limitations, and to always know why the caged bird sings - still shine within us. In fact, she is looking down on us now with a playful, knowing smile borne of a lifetime of hard-won wisdom, and telling us to just sing: "this little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine…"