Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Remembering Lynn; reflecting on one of my life's biggest regrets.

It’s amazing how we meet some people in our lives, move on (loosing contact), and never know how much their life’s journey has, or will impact our lives someday; and in turn, they’ll never know how much their lives have inspired ours.

". . . unbearably warm is what it was." One of those uncomfortable, Alabama summer mornings—the ones where sweat pours down your back while standing in the shade—the very first day, of many weeks, of that way too early PhysEd class for new Tuskegee University students. As I scoped out the crowd with my sidekick Chris P., my eyes landed on this attractive, dark-skinned sister with a short haircut wearing this sweat-suit with a scarf tied around her neck—which dressed it up a little. There was something about her: When you looked at her, your mind would go, Mmmm. When you spoke to her, you would think, okay, intelligent and classy. And when you got to know the real Lynn Chamberlain, you knew the girl was going places. She's going to make it big one day, I always told myself; but I also knew there was a hidden agenda, and we teased her about it: She was looking for a husband.

Fastforward several months. In the middle of the year, Chris had moved back to New York; and at the end of the school year, I had transferred out too; the three of us going our separate ways, losing contact.

Eight years later, my degree on the wall, I was living (well, more like happily struggling) in Atlanta, Georgia. On one particular night, I was flipping through the TV channels as I did little odds and ends around the apartment, and stumbled across the Essence Awards; Halle Berry and Sinbad were hosting. Not too soon afterwards, I heard a familiar name that matched a familiar face, “What?!!" I yelled out, smiling. "Well I be damn! I knew that girl was going places!” And dropped everything to hear what good things Lynn and her mother (Marilyn) had done to land them on the awards show. But what followed wasn't anywhere close to what I had in mind; as a matter of fact, it tore me the hell up instead. I’ll never forget it. The whole experience forever engrained in my memory as her mother, in this strong yet pain stricken voice, emphatically told the Essence audience, “I wanted to kill him.” Chills flooded my chest as my heart dropped; dropped  straight down to the pit of my stomach. “What?” I kept questioning; like the TV was going to answer me back. “Lynn? Pretty ass Lynn from Tuskegee? . . . HIV positive?"

I sat down on the arm of the sofa and just shook my head; my mind going back to those eighteen and nineteen year old Tuskegee kids who we were smiling, laughing and mapping out our lives—the last time we spoke, in the parlor of Tantum Hall, she wanted to pledge Delta Sigma Theta, and I was going to pledge Alpha Phi Alpha.

In complete and utter disbelief (mumbling "damn" over and over as I stared at the TV) I didn’t move until well after her mother’s tribute played out about her HIV/AIDS work and establishing Marilyn’s Manor, a house for HIV positive women on Lynn's behalf—I could see why Lynn admired this lady so much. And with the tribute mainly focused on her mother's philanthropy/social work, I really wanted to find out more about Lynn’s situation; how she was doing and coping. 

In the days that followed, I did my research and uncovered a journey I wouldn't have wished on my worst enemy, and felt the need to reach out (I'm sure others felt the same way as well). But how do you reach out to someone that you hadn’t spoken to in almost a decade? (Fear can be a terrible thing, you know.) And a day didn’t go by that I didn’t think about the situation, and reaching out to her. But with each day I procrastinated, the need to reach out grew fainter, and fainter, until the days turned into weeks, and weeks into months—my window of opportunity (in my opinion) closed. But knowing what I know now—the rough and incredible journey that she went through—not reaching out (however uncomfortable or uncertain the conversation would have been if I did) has become one of my biggest regrets.

Although many of the articles about Lynn (and her mother) appear to be gone, there are still some out there; here is one from the LA Times, "The Changing Face of AIDS: 'I Sat At Home For The Next Three Years Waiting to Die': Lynn Chamberlain, 25, Los Angeles", and one from Hello Beautiful, "Living With and Dying from HIV/AIDS (Chronic Diseases Series, Part 1)" published posthumously

I’m just glad, in the end, Lynn found that person to share her journey with; finding the husband we always jokingly said she went to Tuskegee to find.

Author, R.L. Byrd

Part of the Project H.U.S.H initiative. To find out more, visit www.richardleonbyrd.com/Project HUSH

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Never Forget Tulsa

Today, May 31st, marks the 94th anniversary of the destruction of Greenwood; the African-American suburb of Tulsa, Oklahoma reportedly destroyed by a mob of some 10,000. 

Living in Tulsa, and going to North Tulsa (the black side of town known as Greenwood) to church and to get my haircut, I couldn't fathom North Tulsa being anything but what it truly was: A desolate, lifeless area that sorely needed some sort of economic development in the worse kind of way—a far cry from the hustle, bustle, and wealth of South Tulsa. So imagine my surprise (and bewilderment) when I heard people talk about, and compare, Greenwood to the glitz and glamour of Beverly Hills, California. What? I kept asking myself as I looked around at the small, unassuming, delapitated houses and buildings. "Are you lying to me?" I asked, everyone, with a raised brow. Because never in a million years could I (or anyone else for that matter) imagine that this modern-day Greenwood could have EVER been anywhere, close, to the likes of any part of Beverly Hills. But in 1921, it truly was the African American version—Negro Wall Street as they called it because of its wealth and prosperity.

"In the North, whites don't care how high you climb as long as you don't get too close. In the South, whites don't care how close you get as long as you don't climb too high." — Unknown 

And that's exactly what Greenwood had done—climbed too high. It was the wealthiest black community in the United States, primarily as a result of the oil boom, and it was loathed and hated because of it. Accounts have it boasting:

15 Grocery Stores
  2 News Papers
  2 Public School Systems
  4 Drug Stores
  2 Movie Theaters
A Bus system
A Central Business District along the Greenwood corridor touting legal, medical and various professional offices, retail shops, and hotels.

which came to an abrupt end when a white female accused a 19-year old black male of rape. And on May 31, 1921, the jealousy, hostility, and Tulsa's racially charged atmosphere came to a boiling point when the deadliest race riot in the United States began; and Greenwood burned to the ground. Walter White's account "The Eruption of Tulsa": An NAACP official investigates the Tulsa Race Riot published in the Nation, on June 29, 1921, chronicles the history of what led up to the riot, the riot itself, and some of the atrocities committed against innocent black civilians. Reports have the destruction (real estate and property losses) estimated at $1,800,000; which today is estimated at close to 30 million. Of special note: None of the survivors, or their descendents, were compensated by insurance companies, the city of Tulsa, or the state of Oklahoma.

In the continual efforts to ensure we never forget Tulsa, Oprah Winfrey's network, OWN, as reported by the Tulsa World, is scheduled to produce a mini-series about the event, starring Octavia Spencer as journalist Mattie Clay (the race riots told from her perspective). 

For a visual narrative of the Tulsa Race Riots, take a look at the two-part Youtube series by reporter Tim Estiloz, told by survivors and descendents of the riots.

Part 1 - Tulsa Race Riots: Survivors and Descendents Recall

Part 2 - Tulsa Race Riots: Survivors and Descendents Recall

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." — George Santayana

And although we should never forget the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot, we should also not forget the many other racially charged riots, including:

Wilmington, NC Race Riot of 1898
Springfield, IL (1908)
East St. Louis, IL (1917)
Red Summer Race Riots of 1919, involving 26 cities, with hundreds of deaths and thousands left homeless and wounded.
Rosewood, FL (1923)
Detroit, MI (1943)

Author, R.L. Byrd

Part of the Project H.U.S.H initiative. To find out more, visit www.richardleonbyrd.com/Project HUSH

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Unspoken Truths

“Damn! So you’re saying that even if we do, do what’s right, we still have an uphill battle?”
“Sad but true, DK." Quentin threw his hand up. "And another thing: I didn’t know if you caught this, but there was a show—I forget the name—where they had a black male and a white male apply for the same position. Similar in credentials, but the white male had a long criminal history and the black male had no criminal record. Guess who got the job?”
“Damn, man. They would rather hire a criminal over a good brother.”
“Just some things we see in the business, man. I tell my clients, when they encounter this, to keep their chin up and move on. It probably wasn’t the place where they would want to work, or where they would have a chance of being successful anyway. . . .” — Black Coffee excerptChapter 21, The Plagues

Unspoken truths; dangerous ground for those that deny its existence; precarious circumstances for those that face its danger. 

Photo Credit: iStockPhoto/alex-mit

Are there two sets of hiring standards for men? 

The excerpt describes what many of us already knew or may have experienced at some point in our life or career: Stereotypes and Biases in the workplace; especially in hiring practices—one of many unspoken truths. That's why the Council of State Governments, Justice Center's article, "Researchers Examine Effects of a Criminal Record on Prospects for Employment," comes as no surprise. It just validates the truth that so many, especially men of color, face during their quest for gainful employment.

Outside of the fact that the report (based off of a 3-year University of Arizona study) focused, primarily, on the impact of having a criminal record when seeking employment; the reasearch found that individuals with criminal backgrounds were viewed by employers as having poor attendance, substance abuse issues, and relational problems with their employers. But the most noteworthy finding (one of three key findings) was that white men, with criminal backgrounds, received better employment responses than black men with no criminal background.

With this in mind, one must ask: If a white male, hired with a criminal background, is viewed as having substance abuse issues, employer/employee relational concerns, and poor punctuality and attendance problems; what are the biases, stereotypes, and logic that would "prevent" an employer from hiring a Hispanic or black male (with similar credentials) without a criminal background?

Author, R.L. Byrd

Part of the Project H.U.S.H initiative. To find out more, visit www.richardleonbyrd.com/Project HUSH

Friday, May 8, 2015

Affirmative Action vs. Conservative Principles

Affirmative Action and Ending Raced-Based College Admissions

What was the "Conservative Principle" that was the basis for former Governor Jeb Bush to end race-based college admissions in Florida’s colleges and universities? This is the question I had after reading Robert Samuels’, Washington Post article, “After Bush order, Florida universities cope with shrinking black enrollment.”

As the article states, Governor Bush’s executive order (similar, in part, to California’s Proposition 209 and Washington’s Initiative 200) would 1) uphold conservative principles; 2) end race-based admissions; and 3) help minorities as a result. Let’s review these three:

1: The Conservative Principle Concerning Affirmative Action
It’s been noted that most Conservatives oppose Affirmative Action policies. They believe giving special treatment to members of a certain group (race, sex, ethnic, etc.) is not needed in regards to education, employment, contracting, and other areas.

2: Ending race-based college/university admissions; or a plethora of reasons not to
Race is, and has always been, an integral part of our being. “The fabric of our lives” as the saying goes. A fabric interwoven into the red, white and blue that majestically flies over the landscape of this land; from the Atlantic, to the Great Lakes, to the Gulf of Mexico, to the Pacific and beyond. To reject and deny its existence denies the suffering, struggles and battles that so many have endured (and continue to endure), like:

Dred Scott’s fight to become a free man in Scott v. Sandford; a case where the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that because Scott was of African descent, people of African descent (whether free or slaves) could not be, nor were intended to be, citizens under the U.S. Constitution and held no legal rights—a ruling later discarded by the thirteenth amendment (abolition of slavery) and fourteenth amendment (birthright citizenship for all).

W.E.B Dubois (a founding member of the NAACP) and Booker T.Washington (founder of the Tuskegee Institute) championing for full civil rights when Southerners would only guarantee “basic” educational and economic opportunities (and protesting discrimination within the same “basic” educational and economic opportunities the Southerners guaranteed); as well as protesting, and championing the end to, lynchings and the Jim Crow Laws of the South.

Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and  Carol Denise McNair of the Birmingham Church Bombing; Emmett Till and George Stinney, two of many children who died for senseless reasons; and the thousands of others who lost their lives simply based on the color of their skin.

The thousands of men, women and children (Virginia Durr, Rosa Parks, Medgar Evers, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Hosea Williams, Fannie Lou Hamer, John Lewis, Malcolm X and a host of others too lengthy to name for this article) who contributed to the Civil Rights era of the 1950’s and 60’s to end discrimination and racial segregation; all of which lead to the Civil Rights act, Voting Rights Act, Fair Housing Bill and other cures to the disparities faced by blacks.

Understanding where African Americans have come from, the struggles and tumultuous journeys to get to where we are today, and how much further is needed to go is pivotal for any “true leader” involved in public policy making. Additionally, understanding the Conservative Principle, and its impact, is equally important. And, yes, I would concur with Conservative thinkers that everyone should stand on their own merits when it comes to education, employment, contracting and the like; but that’s only if the playing fields are level. But as a senior, business executive reminded me, “The playing fields are never level [especially for women and racial minorities].” Can one truly think that 50 years of progressive movement, since the 1960’s Civil Rights Act, can erase 200-plus years of denied freedoms and unfair treatment? Until one walks in another man’s (or woman’s) shoes, I can totally understand the Conservative’s basis of not being able to comprehend or understand the brevity of such an argument—if one chooses to try to understand it in the first place.

Conservative Leaders (well, all leaders for this matter) should embrace the Stockdale Paradox: Confronting the brutal facts about the current reality of one’s environment. Had Governor Bush confronted the brutal facts about the current reality of his environment—the existence of racism, sexism, bias-based injustices, and the disparities within the educational system —he may have had a different outlook (or vision) concerning his decision to end race-based college admissions by executive order; but I applaud his optimism.

3: The end of race-based admissions would help minorities
As with California’s Proposition 209 and Washington’s Initiative 200, both of which saw URM (underrepresented minorities) enrollment plummet at their flagship universities, Florida is now (as the article suggests) dealing with the same impact at its flagship universities—declining black enrollment. Now in a conundrum, the universities are trying to figure out how to increase URM enrollments; but how do you do this when you continue to guarantee spots to the top 20 percent of high school graduates from a warped and biased educational system? How does this “pool of graduates” help your cause, better yet, Florida minorities; especially when the state has such a poor minority graduation record? Mr. Samuel’s article (and data) appears to indicate that it has done exactly the opposite; negating and dismissing the state’s brutal fact about its current reality as noted in the Tampa Bay 2011 article, “Florida ranks at bottom for graduation rate of black men”.  

Perhaps the executive order would have been better served by not restricting opportunities for those where the playing fields are not level, but by establishing ways to improve and retain Florida’s graduation rates where the playing fields could be level.

The basis of the Conservative Principle and the relevancy of Affirmative Action today, have fueled many a great debates. However, one must be cognizant of the fact that Affirmative Action policies and practices were put in place for a reason; a reason accepted by individuals who understood the brutal facts about their environment.

Author, R.L. Byrd

Part of the Project H.U.S.H initiative. To find out more, visit www.richardleonbyrd.com/Project HUSH

Thursday, May 7, 2015

What I've learned from Baltimore

Far from Dr. King’s Beloved Community

The lesson has not been learned. History is Continually Repeating Itself.  

Photo Credit: iStock.com/jwilkinson
The Beloved Community, first coined by 20th Century philosopher-theologian Josiah Royce and popularized by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is a community guided by the principles of nonviolence; a community where brother and sisterhood (of all races) would replace racism and all forms of bigotry, discrimination and prejudice; a community where hunger, poverty and homelessness would not be tolerated. However, as I watched the burning, looting and demonstrations in Baltimore, I realized that we’re far (so, so far) from this Beloved Community.

But what was far more troubling (to me at least) were the comments from the media and public-at-large: “How could they do this?” “How could they burn their own neighborhood?” “How could they loot the stores and business establishments that serve them?” “They’re nothing more than thugs.” But lest not forget. A riot can either be a tool for hate, or a voice for the disenfranchised.

History reminds us that there were riots (unlike those in Ferguson and Baltimore) that destroyed many communities and thousands of lives; communities and lives destroyed not by the citizens within them, but from those outside.  And growing up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, I was constantly reminded about the RaceRiot of 1921 (and the many others). A race riot where men, women and children were burned and hunted down in the streets; where stores and businesses were burned and looted; where a once bustling, thriving community—known as Black Wall Street—was literally, fire bombed and demolished.

Some forty-seven years later (1967-1968), it wasn’t hate that ignited riots in over 100 American cities, but the voice of the disenfranchised during the Civil Rights era. Voices requesting social and economic justice, as in Rita Walker’s verypoignant letter to friend, Kathy Dahl held within the University of Southern Mississippi’s Library. Many of those riots ignited, and fueled, by the mistreatment of those disenfranchised voices by police.

Now, again, some forty-seven years later (2014-2015) history is again repeating itself. We’re revisiting the same old issues: Rioting by the voices of the disenfranchised requesting social and economic justice in the midst of high unemployment and other disparities, such as education, sparked by the apparent mistreatment by police—the deaths of Michael Brown (Ferguson Riot) and Freddie Gray (Baltimore Riot). Both of which are eerily reminiscent of the HarlemRiot (1964), WattsRiot (1965) and Detroit Riot (1967); all sparked by the alleged mistreatment of police in economically depressed, black neighborhoods. 

So to those who question the why, who and how’s, remember that history has two sides to rioting—both grim and very dark. And for those that call the rioters, thugs, I ask what do you call those that ravished and pilfered those communities, such as Tulsa, under the cloak of hate? But more importantly, I believe the questions that truly need to be addressed are: (1) How do we provide social and economic justice to disenfranchised communities; and (2) How do we heal from, and address and dismantle, a long history (dating back over a century) of police mistreatment and distrust?

Until we’re able to provide the same civil liberties, undeniable rights, and economic empowerment to all—embracing and building Dr. King’s Beloved Community—we’ll continue to hear the riotous voices of the disenfranchised; decade after decade, city after city, life struggle after life struggle, until we learn the lesson history keeps reminding and trying to teach us.  

Author, R.L. Byrd

Part of the Project H.U.S.H initiative. To find out more, visit www.richardleonbyrd.com/Project HUSH

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Who's Your Favorite Black Coffee Character?

Question: Which character in the book do you relate to the most? Who's your favorite character?

Answer: There's a part of me in every character in the book; so I don't have a specific character that I identify with the most. 

As for as my favorite character, I will say Brass; he's the character that had most of the challenges, but also the character who triumphed over so many of life's obstacles. And life can be funny at times, because some of the same issues the characters were dealing with in the book, were some of the same issues the Black Coffee Models were dealing with in real life.

Song Lyrics In Your Book

Question: Why did you include song lyrics in your book?

Answer: I can relate music or a particular song to every part of my life (good or bad); and in "Black Coffee" (which is centered around a radio station by the way), I related current songs and the songs we grew up with, in the same way for the characters. The pivotal songs defining the storyline and characters' lives are:
1. Cause I Love You, Lenny Williams
2. Life Begins With You, DeBarge
3. More Than I Can Bear, Kirk Franklin
4. Wake Up Everybody, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes
and many others. It just breathes more life into the characters' story and journey throughout the book.