Category Archives: Advocacy

Coded Bias: Must-See TV

Paul Laurence Dunbar was the nation’s first celebrated Black poet.

Dunbar’s poems include “We Wear the Mask.”

Computer scientist Joy Buolamwini, founder of Algorithmic Justice League, had to wear a white mask to have her face detected by a facial recognition program. Buolamwini’s groundbreaking research is showcased in the documentary Coded Bias.

Coded Bias premieres nationwide on PBS on Monday, March 22, 2021. The documentary will be available on PBS, PBS.org and PBS Video App. Check your local listing here.

Pass the CROWN Act

March is Women’s History Month. The Bible says a woman’s hair is her crown and glory. But for Black women, their natural hair is vilified. The current debate over natural hair has its roots in slavery. First enacted in 1786, Tignon laws forced free and enslaved Black women to cover their hair.

Fast forward to today, Black hair is still policed. Black people face discrimination and micro-aggressions because of the hair that grows naturally from their head and how they choose to style it.

One of the earliest challenges to modern Tignon customs happened in 1987.  Cheryl Tatum was a cashier at Hyatt Regency Crystal City in Virginia. The personnel director, Betty McDermott, told Tatum to unbraid her hair because company policy banned “extreme and unusual hair styles.” McDermott said:

I can’t understand why you would want to wear your hair like that anyway. What would the guests think if we allowed you all to wear your hair like that?

Afros are protected under the Civil Rights Act. But if a Black woman wore a regal updo, she could face hair discrimination in all but eight states.

Viewed through the white gaze, natural hair is considered “unkempt” and “unprofessional.” But it’s not just Black women. Black men and Black children also face hair discrimination. A Black teenager was told to cut his dreadlocks or forfeit a wrestling match.

Beyoncé won 2021 Grammy for Best R&B Performance for “Black Parade.” A Black woman or girl could face hair discrimination for wearing the natural hair styles depicted in the music video.

Black voters delivered the White House and the Senate majority to Democrats. They should deliver for Black people and end hair discrimination by passing the CROWN Act, Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair.

For more information, visit The Crown Act.

The Black Church in America

I am not a church-goer but I fight to save historic churches from demolition (here and here). Regardless of the denomination, the Black Church served as “the foundation for [our] freedom struggle.” Built with the blood, sweat and tears of the ancestors, these buildings hold stories of faith, resistance and triumph.

Most Sunday mornings, I listen to spirituals and old school gospel music.

In his remarks at the 22nd Annual Nancy Hanks Lecture on Arts & Public Policy, Managing and Artistic Director of Jazz at Lincoln Center Wynton Marsalis said:

Those spirituals were the first body of identifiable purely American music art. … Slaves reaching across time to connect the Old Testament and the New, and Moses and freedom, and Jesus and freedom and made it all be right now. They couldn’t even read. But they knew. And I’m telling you these songs brought people together because singing gives a community purpose. And they put everything in those songs. And that music made us believe and it called us home.

On Tuesdays, February 16-23, 9:00 p.m. ET, I will be called home to the church as PBS premieres the two-part series, The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song, which retraces 400 years of the Black Church in America.

The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song will be available on PBS, PBS.org and PBS Video App. Check your local listing here.

Tulsa Race Riot@100

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. For two days (May 31-June 1) white vigilantes massacred Black residents, looted and burned to the ground “Black Wall Street.”

The riot took place in the Greenwood District, the heart of which was bounded by Greenwood Avenue, and Archer and Pine streets. Tulsa natives, brothers Charlie, Ronnie and Robert Wilson, named their group The GAP Band in tribute to one of the worst race riots in U.S. history.

Goin’ Back to T-Town tells the story of the Greenwood District, the most prosperous Black community in the United States in the 1920s. Narrated by Ossie Davis, the film was first broadcast in 1993.

There will be an encore broadcast on AMERICAN EXPERIENCE on Monday, February 8, 2021 at 9/8c. The film will be available on PBS, PBS.org and PBS Video App. Check your local listing here.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day

From the cries of the enslaved to George Floyd’s anguished cry for his mother, Black people have sung “sorrow songs” of suffering and oppression.

For African Americans freedom is a constant struggle. From slave songs to freedom songs music is the glue that binds African Americans together in the struggles for emancipation, civil rights and racial justice. In an interview, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said:

A Negro song anthology would include sorrow songs, shouts for joy, battle hymns, anthems. Since slavery, the Negro has sung throughout his struggle in America. “Steal Away” and “Go Down, Moses” were the songs of faith and inspiration which were sung on the plantations. For the same reasons the slaves sang, Negroes today sing freedom songs, for we, too, are in bondage.

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2021, TV One will premiere UNSUNG PRESENTS: MUSIC & THE MOVEMENT, a two-part documentary of 400 years of “auditory dissent.” The film features interviews with artists, archival footage from memorable speeches, and live vocal performances.

Cathy Hughes, Chairwoman of Urban One Inc., said in a statement:

Music is the heart and soul of Black culture – giving life to our experiences, voice to our stories and growing power out of our pain. Every melody, lyric and rhythm artfully depicts the layers of Black diversity, scope of Black creativity, and depths of the complexity of our people. TV One’s Music & the Movement special pays homage to the music and music makers whose talents created a soundtrack of Black music during moments of political and social unrest throughout our history.

Robyn Greene Arrington, Vice President of Programming and Production, added:

Throughout history, Black music has been a clarion call to amplify the voice of our community and important social and political movements like the Civil Rights and Black Lives Matter movements. After an unprecedented year of social, economic, and political turmoil, we felt MLK Day was a great time to chronicle the ongoing struggles of Black Americans along with those who tirelessly lend their voices to protesting injustice and instigating positive changes for our community and social justice movements.

UNSUNG PRESENTS: MUSIC & THE MOVEMENT will air on TV One on Monday, January 18, 2021, at 8 p.m. ET.

American Masters: How It Feels To Be Free

In a 1969 interview, Nina Simone said, “An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times. I think that is true of painters, sculptors, poets, musicians.”

The upcoming PBS documentary How It Feels To Be Free tells the story of six Black artists who reflected the times – Abbey Lincoln, Nina Simone, Pam Grier, Diahann Carroll, Lena Horne and Cicely Tyson.

Michael Kantor, American Masters series executive producer, said:

These revolutionary Black women embody stories of courage, resilience and heroism. They fought for representation and economic, social and political equality through their artistry and activism. We are proud to share the stories of how each left an indelible mark on our culture and inspired a new generation.

Executive producer Alicia Keys added:

I am proud to be a part of such a meaningful, important project. Art is the most powerful medium on the planet, and I continue to be inspired by and learn from these powerful, brave and stereotype-shattering women who leveraged their success as artists to fearlessly stand up against racism, sexism, exclusion and harassment. I honor their courage by celebrating their stories and continuing the work they started.

How It Feels To Be Free premieres Monday, January 18, 2021 at 9 p.m. on PBS. Check your local listing here.

Help Preserve Historic Eden Cemetery

George Bernard Shaw famously said, “Youth is wasted on the young.” In my youth, I took the long way to my high school rather than the short-cut through the nearby cemetery. Fast forward to today, when I pass a burial ground, I often think of Johnny Taylor who sang “people in the cemetery, they’re not all alone.”

Eden Cemetery is a 53-acre historic district listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is a site on the National Park Service’s Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, and a member of the Pennsylvania Hallowed Grounds Project. A stroll through Eden is “like walking through a book of Black history.” The lives of those interred span from 1721 to the present.

Under the CARES Act, taxpayers who don’t itemize their deductions are allowed to deduct an additional $300 for cash contributions to public charities this year. You can help protect Eden’s legacy and preserve African American memory by making an end-of-year donation here.

Your tax-deductible donation will ensure the graves of Father of the Underground Railroad William Still, Letitia Still, Henry Minton, Octavius V. Catto, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Marian Anderson, among others, will be kept clean.

New Billie Holiday Documentary Now Showing

Billie Holiday is an international icon. She also holds a special place in my heart. During a particularly rough patch, I started every day listening to “Good Morning Heartache.”

You can imagine my dismay when I moved to Philadelphia and noticed she didn’t have a plaque on the Walk of Fame. So I did what I do.

Months later, I was all smiles when Lady Day’s plaque was installed on Avenue of the Arts.

I recently watched the powerful new documentary Billie via an exclusive screening by the 92nd Street Y.

Billie breathes life into nearly 50-year-old audiotapes of the interviews journalist Linda Lipnack Kuehl conducted with Holiday’s contemporaries including Count Basie, Carmen McRae, Tony Bennett, singer Sylvia Syms and drummer Jo Jones. Archival materials and first-hand accounts shed light on systemic racism, racial segregation and the undertold story of her commitment to racial justice.

The civil rights pioneer said “Strange Fruit” was her personal protest. She performed the song at the end of every performance for 20 years despite FBI and police harassment. Bassist Charles Mingus said, “She was fighting equality before Martin Luther King. … That might be why the cops were against her too, not just junk.”

The special screening was followed by a Q&A with director James Erskine and executive producer Michele Smith, manager of the Billie Holiday Estate.

Billie is now showing in theaters and on virtual cinema. For updates, go here.

Election 2020: Counting on Democracy

I am a longtime voting rights advocate. Under the auspices of the National Endowment for Democracy, I monitored elections in Ethiopia and Nigeria, and led voter education workshops in Angola and Kazakhstan. The American democracy is the gold standard for free and fair elections. As votes are counted in the 2020 presidential election, it feels like déjà vu.

When the polls closed in the 2000 presidential election, the race between Al Gore and George W. Bush was too close to call. The winner would be determined by Florida’s electoral votes. For 36 days, the streets were filled with protesters chanting “Count Every Vote” and “Stop the Count.” At the same time in the suites, partisans on both sides were filing lawsuits. Gore asked for hand recounts in Democratic-leaning counties only. Bush took his case all the way to the United States Supreme Court. In a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court stopped the recounts on the grounds they violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. With that decision, Bush won Florida by a margin of 537 votes out of six million cast.

Punch card voting machines have since been replaced by electronic voting machines. But then as now, the perceived loser is cherry-picking election results. President Donald Trump is challenging the vote count in selected states. Then as now Roger Stone is engaged in dirty tricks. Also then as now, partisans are spreading conspiracy theories. As in 2000, the absence of evidence of a conspiracy to “steal the election” is evidence of the conspiracy.

Trump’s baseless claims of “vote tabulation irregularities” undermine confidence in the integrity of the election. The machinery of our democracy has changed over the years. For instance, in 2000 I cast my vote on an 800-pound lever voting machine in Brooklyn. Now living in Philadelphia, I voted by mail and tracked my ballot status online. What remains unchanged is that public trust in the electoral process separates the American republic from, say, a banana republic.

Since 1989, The Carter Center, founded by former president Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn Carter, has monitored more than 110 elections in Africa, Latin America and Asia. For the first time, the Carter Center will monitor a U.S. election. CEO Paige Alexander said in a statement:

What we’re monitoring is what many people have been calling the hand recount. Because the margin in the presidential race is so close, this sort of audit essentially requires review of every ballot by hand. This is unusual, but it provides an opportunity to build trust in the electoral system prior to the state’s certification of results.

Voter trust is the bedrock of our democracy. The 2020 presidential election is yet another reminder that the right to vote and to have that vote counted cannot be taken for granted. As Pennsylvania and other states certify the election results, the whole world will be watching.