Thursday, February 26, 2015

Speak Up for Those Unable (and sometimes those unwilling)

This childhood incident flipped me out.
Throughout my life people have inspired me in unexpected ways. Sometimes when it happens it just feels like an ordinary experience. Only later do I realize that what occurred changed the way I thought about life.

So it was in elementary school gym class. It involved a trampoline and included a boy named James Clark.

We were not best friends nor even close really. In fact, our only association was that we went to the same school and shared some of the same classes.

Still, what he did for me back then is something I think about to this very day. In fact, it was one of those kind of things that has guided my values and life choices.

Not sure what James Clark goes by today but back then we just referred to him simply as “Clark.” Why we called him that I’m not sure, except that maybe our gym teacher, Mr. Campbell, referred to us all by our last names.

Do schools even have gym class anymore?
Clark was one of the few kids outside of gym to whom we used just a last name. He was something of a preadolescent icon. That’s because he was the single most talented athlete in our grade, bar none. At least that’s how I remember it.

Clark was the strong, silent type. He could do anything and was good at everything. Never said much but he was always the first guy you picked in kickball, basketball, you name it. He was the fittest, fastest, most agile kid on the floor.

Me? I was scrawniest. Well, one of them anyway. Timid too. Still, I could hold my own in gym. A couple times I was next to the last kid left in dodge ball! Like most people, I’d have my moments. Every now and then at least. It’s just Clark was in a league of his own; he was always in the sports spotlight.

But there’s one moment I doubt Clark, Mr. Campbell or anyone else in gym class remembers. Except for me. In fact, it turned out to be a defining moment in my life. It was during trampoline week, my favorite time in gym, because I was so good at it.

A simple act helped shape my understanding of social justice.
“No flips!” Mr. Campbell barked as a reminder about our skill level. Then he walked to the other side of the gym where his desk was to grade papers or something and we began.

Clark was first up. He jumped high and sure, performing knee drops and seat drops to perfection. One by one everyone else took a turn on the tramp. There was no order to who went next – just whoever got up there first.

Me being me, I waited politely for my chance. Except it never came. Everyone had been up and folks had begun taking second, even third turns. Back then I wasn’t very good at speaking up and so I resigned myself to not getting a chance to participate.

We were nearing the end of gym class when somebody said, “Give Reynolds a turn.”

It was Clark. The way was clear.

On the tramp, I was high; in more ways than one. So much that I performed a forbidden flip. I didn’t stick the landing, but I didn’t care. Mr. Campbell did though. As punishment, he ordered me off the tramp and told me to give him 20 clappers (a form of pushups). I didn’t mind; I had gotten a chance on the tramp. Clark had spoken up for me. Clark did!

Why Clark did that I’ll never know. But it had an impact on me I’ll never forget. Maybe that’s where my passion for social justice comes from, and why I try to speak up for those unable to do so themselves. In any event, thanks James Clark.

Follow J.R. on Twitter @4humansbeing or contact him at

Friday, February 13, 2015

Black History Month: Look for What's Relevant and then Bring it Home

Sojourner Truth Monument tells the story
I have a problem with Black History Month. The issue is relevance. More specifically, it’s people not appreciating and understanding its relevance.

Each year when it rolls around, schools, corporations and media dust off familiar images, events, facts and figures. The “first African American” to do this or is a familiar refrain. In many ways that’s a good thing. Also shared are certain iconic moments, many of which were earthshaking.

Throughout history African Americans played roles that led to the United States emerging as arguably the world’s most important nation in the 20th Century. And not just as individuals; black folks also did it collectively, as a people.

Our physical labor, creative artistry, cultural innovation – it all added (and continues to add) tremendous value. The trouble is we tend to see, read and hear about the same triumphs and “firsts.” As a result, it feels more and more like Black History Month is being held in less and less regard.

What’s missing is the vitality of Black History Month and how it fits in with the contributions African Americans are making today. For example, take Bobby Holley. His work as a community activist brings attention to issues like homelessness, violence and bullying.
Bobby Holley: true American patriot

It’s important to note that the things he works on aren’t just “black issues”; they are matters that affect the entire community. Over the years, Holley has taken to the streets of Battle Creek (and sometimes beyond) to raise awareness of critical social concerns.

Just recently, Holley spent the night outside on the corner of North Avenue and Roosevelt Street. Weather conditions were dangerously cold. Yet Holley stayed out there as part of a homeless awareness campaign. The purpose was to encourage the community to think about those who are homeless.

A lot of people write a check as a form of “giving.” Holley’s currency is his body. Much of his activism involves personal physical discomfort and intentional sacrifice. It also admittedly consists of a measure of theatrics – no doubt employed in an often symbolic effort to garner attention from a world pressed with other important things, like work and family.

On the surface, Holley’s work as an activist seems to fall squarely under the general category of “Battle Creek history”, and on many levels it does. But it also relates to black history. Why the double dipping?

Harriet Tubman on Internalized Racial Oppression
Consider this: for generations there was virtually no representation of black people in history textbooks. It was as if we contributed to no institutions other than slavery, entertainment and sports. There are also was Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Battle Creek’s own Sojourner Truth and the like. But they were positioned in history as rare exceptions.

Black History Month is an attempt to remedy the systematic withholding of vital and relevant historic contributions of black people in this country. Too many people of all colors seek to minimize Bobby Holley. That is, render invisible the relevance of what he is doing and what he’s achieved.

By focusing too much on the manner and methods in which he conducts his social justice issues, so many of us miss the beautiful inner meaning of his way of being.

Holley needs to be remembered. Not because he’s an African American working to make our community better, but because he’s one of many African Americans working to make our community better.
Bobby Holley: NOT a caricature. An enigma.

And no, he’s not the first and only. That a person, black or otherwise, was the first to do or be a thing can be significant. But let’s not allow a personal milestone be the most important thing written on their tombstone. Rather, it is the meaning of that milestone that is important. How did it change us all for the better? That is where the relevance is.

Follow J.R. on Twitter @4humansbeing or contact him at

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Black History Month: Open Your Heart as Much as Your Mind

It’s February. That means Black History Month. It’s a time when schools, bookstores and media spend the month recounting interesting facts and wooden historic figures. But it seems to do little in the way of moving the needle with respect to what it means, and has meant, to be black in America. Here’s why.

There’s more to black history than slavery, the Civil Rights Movement and the scientist who worked with peanuts. There is an untapped spiritual depth not found in scholarly statistics and cliché events.

Brought Black History into the light
Spoiler alert for those who believe the urban legend that Black History Month is held in February because it’s the shortest month of the year. Contrary to conspiracy theorists, Black History Month in February stems from Negro History Week, thanks to author, educator and journalist Dr. Carter G. Woodson.

Woodson devoted much of his life to historical research. He believed African-American contributions were overlooked, ignored, and in many instances suppressed by many white historians of the day. This practice effectively rendered invisible the legitimate accomplishments and contributions of African Americans. So in 1926 he launched Negro History Week.

Why February? Woodson strategically positioned Negro History Week so that it would fall between the birthdays of noted abolitionist Frederick Douglass and President Abraham Lincoln.

Decades later, Negro History Week evolved into Black History Month in 1976. It is a recurrence that every American president has recognized ever since.

A lot of folks (white, black and other people of color) ask, in an age when we have a sitting president with African American blood coursing through his veins, why do we still need Black History Month. Isn’t every racial group’s history important?

How many do you know... beyond their names?
The short answer is yes/and. Yes, the histories of all race and ethnic groups are important. And since before the end of slavery in America, persons of African descent and African Americans have been making significant contributions to the United States. But until relatively recently, most wouldn’t know it. In fact, many of us still would be hard pressed to lift up the names of noted African American persons beyond certain sectors of society like, say sports and entertainment. That’s a problem.

When it comes to systems of oppression, everybody knows about slavery, or at least the fact that it happened. Fewer know about the Jim Crow era. Even fewer recognize their historic significance as it relates to what’s happening today. That includes the current school-to-prison pipeline phenomenon and how it’s fueling the heinous “mass incarceration” epidemic going on. Fewer still understand the societal relevance of it all.

For generations, black history was withheld from our education institutions. The result? For decades upon decades, African Americans were largely regarded as making no significant contributions to this nation.

That’s the more depressing aspect of Black History Month. There’s also an equally underreported side. And it’s as vast and enriching as any other cultural group. It’s a largely hidden history that consists of amazing triumphs of human spirit – of a kind that can be transformative in thought and being. It’s out there for the learning.

Pop quiz: who are they and what did they stand for?
In the end, some believe that providing historical truth will crush oppressive practices and prejudices beset upon African Americans (and other groups of people for that matter) whose accomplishments have been systematically muted for reasons of exploitation and greed.

However, I’m convinced it will take more. It will require something more impactful than mere exposure to facts. What’s required is a change of heart. In many respects, that’s what’s missing from Black History Month. Not from those who present it but those who receive it.

Follow J.R. on Twitter @4humansbeing or contact him at

White Supremacy Harms All People; Not Just Those of Color

Michigan has been front and center regarding two separate stories in the media lately, and neither is good news. One is about somber statistics concerning the murder rate of African Americans around the state. The other covers the aftermath of weekend vandalism at a pair of northern Michigan ski resorts that resulted in tens of thousands of dollars in damage. At each story’s core is senseless and disturbing levels of violence.

Let’s get one thing straight, murder can never equate to material carnage. It just can’t. That’s apples and oranges. The taking of human life is reprehensible and deplorable. Still, those who have followed the ski resort scandal and murder rate reports are shaking their heads and asking, why?

A very few others are wondering if, at some level, they might be connected.

So what does the state of Michigan’s homicide rate share in common with the trashing of two of its posh winter vacation spots? Most say nothing. Yet they bear more in common than one might want to believe. First some facts and statistics.

According to a report from the Violence Policy Center in Washington, D.C., in 2012, 90 percent of black persons killed in Michigan by handguns were men. This ranks Michigan third among states with the highest homicide rate in which the victims were black.

The other story: during recent stays at several northern Michigan resorts, students from six fraternities and sororities at a prestigious Michigan university, caused substantial damage to the properties where they were staying.

Something’s going on. Frankly, it’s been going on – white middle class college students conducting riotous, property-destroying rampages that masquerade as celebration. And black lower income men shooting each other. On the surface, these occurrences seem unrelated. But are they?

What happens when you step and start looking at the forest rather than the trees. A few things begin to emerge. Both groups are young. Both are engaged in destructive activities. Both, it would seem, move in social circles that apparently find it acceptable to participate in such action – at least in the moment.

How are the actions of young white college students getting so drunk they have no compunction about trashing vacation resorts connected to young black men who are so enraged (or fearful) that they try to assassinate each other?

What’s driving their state of mind?

There appear to be forces placed on seemingly reasonable college students that compel them to commit violence so unreasonably. Likewise there seem to be forces being applied to rational black men that coerce them to behave in irrational ways. Could they be connected? If so, what’s the missing link?

As mentioned, the destruction of life doesn’t compare to the destruction of property, yet something is leading both groups of young people to act out. Some deduce the pressures of school is a motivating force for such behavior in one case. Some assume the stresses of poverty in the other. Both are likely suspects but not the driving force.

There’s something else at play. Something tangible yet simultaneously illusive. It’s largely invisible and running in the background, woven into the very fabric of American culture. And, it somehow signifies to youth that violence as a means of expression is okay.

My take? It’s white privilege. It’s also internalized racial oppression. Both are two sides of the same coin and destructive result of the cultural driver known as white supremacy. Not to be confused with the more familiar white-hood-and-burning-cross euphemism.

White supremacy is a system (not an individualistic construct) that creates and perpetuates destruction based on the notion of racial hierarchy; in these cases, the laissez-faire destruction of property and the incomprehensible destruction of lives. They may be of a different scale and committed by people of different colors, but they are born of, and perpetuated, by the same system.

Follow J.R. on Twitter @4humansbeing or contact him at