Archive | February, 2016

Black History Month 2016: Vanessa Williams

26 Feb

VanessaToday I would like to honor Vanessa Williams, one of the most versatile and gracious talents and a national treasure. I first fell in love with Williams when she was horribly wronged in 1984 and was pressured to relinquish her Miss America Crown. Williams received an official apology for the way she was treated in September 2015 from Miss America CEO Sam Haskell. Of course, Williams was exceedingly gracious and forgiving. I’m not wholly certain I would have been as generous, but I hope I would be.

Later I would fall in love with her again and bought her album The Comfort Zone because it has one of my favorite songs, Save the Best for Last on it. One of the very best Christmas albums ever is Williams’ Star Bright; I have given away many, many copies of this as a gift. Her version of Go Tell it on the Mountain is nothing less than phenomenal.

While she has a list of movie and television roles too long to list, one of my favorite roles — which she made into a gay icon — was the deliciously devilish diva known as Wilhelmina Slater on Ugly Betty. This was a hallmark moment in television, for it had a powerful, brilliant, pro gay black woman sharing the screen with an equally powerful, brilliant, pro gay, Latina woman (America Ferrera). Watching Ugly Betty with our Vanessa Williams made me hopeful that targeted communities would unite and throw off the oppressive shackles of the George W years. Who knew those years would look progressive in light of the current GOP discourse?

Feeling a bit bleak and depressed listening to the hate mongers known as the GOP presidential candidates, my husband and I have started to watch Ugly Betty from the beginning again, as a palliative. It is nice to fall in love with Vanessa Williams all over again. The only reason we ever watched the show Desperate Housewives was so that we could see Williams. We have just started watching a show called The Good Wife and I just learned that Williams is one of the stars in this final season of the show; we’re looking forward to enjoying her in a new role.

Vanessa Williams could have been a tiny footnote in Miss America history. Instead, she rose above the inflated non-scandal and proved what a strong, independent woman she is. Without a doubt the most successful and famous winner of the crown, she definitely had the last laugh. That resilience shines through in her activism: Williams is a vocal pro-choice advocate, a staunch ally of the LGBT community, and a supporter of programs for at-risk youth. She also funds cancer research, actively supports Dress for Success, and works with programs that combat homelessness.

A wonderful singer, talented actor, and beautiful human being! Let’s celebrate all of Vanessa Williams’ accomplishments today.

Black History Month 2016: Nina Simone

21 Feb

nina-simone2Today I would like to honor and pay tribute to one of my personal heroes, Nina Simone. Simone would have been 83 years old today.  I remember crying my eyes out on April 21, 2003 when I heard that Nina Simone died. I fell in love with her smoky jazz voice so many years ago.  Emeli Sandé credits Simone as one of her major influences

Eunice Kathleen Waymon was born in Tryon, NC, and aspired to be a classical pianist. Despite her prodigious talent, she was denied scholarships and admissions and pursued a career in clubs instead. Eventually signed to Colpix, she was boxed into a pop-jazz mode for a few years. She took the standards she was given and began subverting them with her unique style — she was described as being a piano player, singer, and performer, “separately and simultaneously.” Over the years her stage set became famous for her powerful interpretations and righteous original songs.

Simone’s response to the assassination of Medgar Evers and the bombing of the church in Birmingham that killed four children, was Mississippi GoddamIn Mississippi Goddam, we see Simone taking her place in the civil rights movement. Unlike Dr. King, Simone advocated violence if necessary in order to establish a separate state for African-Americans – who could blame her. You can only feel beaten down so much without building up a great amount of rage. I have such a great admiration for Dr. King for sublimating his rage into non-violent means. The song Backlash Blues was written by her friend Langston Hughes. Simone was also friends with Lorraine Hansberry and turned one of her plays, To Be Young, Gifted and Black into a civil rights song.  In 1972, Aretha Franklin did a cover of that song. The song Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood was written specifically for Simone. Her version works simultaneously as a love song and a protest song, showing her emotional depth and complexity.

Sadly, it is painfully clear how much we still need Nina Simone’s voice and activism. I suspect she still inspires many of us. Happy Birthday to the national treasure that is Nina Simone.

Black History Month 2016: Black Lives Matter

1 Feb

black-lives-matterThis is now the sixth year that Social Justice For All (SJFA) has celebrated Black History Month. Sadly, the past year has proven unequivocally why we still need Black History Month. I can only hope all of us in the United States are doing some reflection around our own racism and encouraging conversations around issues of racial disparities and systems of inequities and oppression. I also hope as we have these courageous conversations we have a better understanding of what racism is.

In the wake of Ferguson, Cleveland, New York, and all of the other cities where black voices are being silenced, we have an opportunity to engage in meaningful conversations around race and racism.  I hope all of us who identify as white have some discomfort as we look at how disproportionately black lives are subjected to police brutality or murder — how all of us should be mourning Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Artago Damon Howard, Jeremy Lett, Trayvon Martin, Roy Nelson, Miguel Espinal, Anthony Ashford, and all of the other unarmed black lives lost. It is with profound sadness that I note the statistic (most likely under-reported) that police killed at least 102 unarmed black people in 2015, more than any other race. I find it more than difficult to believe that systemic, institutional, and individual racism did not have a hand in these deaths.

While I identify as a queer white man, I would argue this horrific part of American History is most definitely a queer issue, it is a feminist issue, it is a black issue, it is a trans issue, for the intersectionality here makes it an issue for all people living in the United States.

Equity and Equality are still just a dream when 13% of the people in our country identify as African American (we know this percentage is not accurate because of the many barriers that prevent some African Americans from filling out the census) and far fewer than this are represented in most walks of life. Sadly, the places where African Americans are over-represented include poverty, dropout rates, and incarceration, further evidence that institutionalized oppression still plays a major role in how things work in America. In states like Alabama, African Americans that are or were incarcerated lose their right to vote for the rest of their lives – so much for the 14th Amendment.

I would love to see a point in history when we don’t need Black History, Women’s History, or LGBT History Months. I don’t see that happening until we have a level playing field, which would require eradicating racism, misogyny, and homophobia. This also requires that we see accurate representation in history books and the media of Blacks, Women, and LGBT folk. I can only hope that all of these targeted populations can find ways to build community and work together around issues of equity and equality.

Taking Action: Here we have an opportunity as white people to leverage our power and privilege for black lives. I hope all of us are engaging in conversations that address issues of access, power, and barriers. Can we look for spaces where white people can stand back and stand in solidarity with black people? Can we look for spaces to ensure more black voices are being heard? Please vote and think about the candidate you are voting for this year for President.

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