Sunday, January 15, 2012

King Day sales hijack, taint legacy

At first I thought I heard it wrong. So I looked up from my computer to pay attention and really listen. No, I wasn’t wrong. The Kmart commercial boasted of steep savings during its Martin Luther King Jr. sale.

Eeww. Really? A Martin Luther King Jr. sale? Something about it made me shudder, kind of made me feel icky.

But it’s a feeling I’ve felt before when I’ve seen tasteless party fliers with half-naked black women’s shiny breasts, thighs and backsides exposed next to a bottle of luxury liquor advertising Martin Luther King Jr. “unity” parties at nightclubs.

The commodification of the King holiday feels disrespectful and wrong, especially because he advocated for economic equality and financial empowerment.

In the midst of high black unemployment, a flat economy and a global movement to distribute wealth it is time to revisit King’s advocacy for economic justice including a living wage and affordable housing – needs that remain elusive for many Americans today.

On today, what would have been his 83rd birthday, the sight of Martin Luther King Jr. Day sales and party fliers make me sad and even a little angry that his image has been hijacked this way.

This is America where capitalism and profit reign supreme. So I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. However, the reduction of King’s legacy to a weekend sale is too much.

At the King Memorial dedication last October many of the speakers at the National Mall connected King’s concern for the poor to today’s Occupy Wall Street movement and his Poor People’s Campaign which called for Congress to help people of all ethnic backgrounds climb out of poverty.

I don’t know how King would feel about a Martin Luther King Jr. sale. But I know I don’t like it or the shake-what-ya-mama-gave-ya nightclub posters bearing his image and name.

So I won’t be sipping on Martin martinis at a bar or catching any King holiday deals at department stores this year or any King Day in the future.

I respect him and his legacy too much for that.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Civil-rights icon Shuttlesworth's death sadly eclipsed by Jobs'

A great man died yesterday.

His work improved the lives of generations of Americans in ways they could never imagine.

His fearlessness motivated others. His actions made this country better. He was a revolutionary thinker whose ideas were ahead of their time.

I’m not talking about Steve Jobs, the Apple founder and technology genius who lost his battle with cancer at age 56.

I’m talking about the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth the civil-rights icon who worked alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.Shuttlesworth died in Birmingham, Ala. He was 89.

Shuttlesworth’s courage to fight state-sanctioned racial terrorism and his willingness to challenge a system that brutally annihilated those who dared to confront it deserves some attention too.

This is not an attempt to diminish Jobs’ brilliance and contributions. There is no doubt he ushered America, and the world, into a new era of technological sophistication.

But civil-rights heroes such Shuttlesworth merit our gratitude and at the very least some of our attention because so many of them are dying.

Shuttlesworth’s death particularly resonates with me because I had the honor of interviewing Shuttlesworth in his home in Cincinnati in 2005. I travel streets bearing the name of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Columbus, Cleveland and Cincinnati, Ohio with my former colleague photographer Lisa Miller for a story we were working on for the King holiday.

I called Mr. Shuttlesworth, told him about my story and requested an interview. He consented. He was a sweet, polite and humble host. I was in awe. I could not believe this man I read about, whose picture I’d seen in books was just very nice.

We stayed in his home for more than two hours, well beyond the interview. He spoke off topic and went on tangents about his experiences in Southern jails, at brutal demonstrations and strategic meetings. I waded in his words, soaked up his stories and marinated in his wisdom.

My story didn’t turn out the way I wanted. A lot of Mr. Shuttlesworth comments were edited out of the final piece.

But that afternoon with Mr. Shuttlesworth in his home remains with me. He told me he fought so hard for me, a black woman, to be able to pursue a career as a journalist and for my white colleague and I to be able to work and travel together without risk.

I was hurt when I woke up this morning and flipped between national and cable news channels and see extensive coverage of Jobs’ death and not a single story about Fred Shuttlesworth’s death. Maybe I just missed the Shuttlesworth stories. I hope that’s the case. I doubt it though.

Because of Jobs I have a MacBook laptop computer, iPod Touch and iPhone.

But I have freedom and opportunities because of Fred Shuttlesworth.

Jobs helped make my life easier.

Shuttlesworth helped make my life have possibilities.

Both men leave a significant mark on America and the world.

I just wish Fred Shuttlesworth would get some more attention for what he did for this country.

He deserves it.

Originally published 10/6/11

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks, a black woman tobacco farmer, traveled to space, contributed to the polio vaccine and helped pioneer fertility methods.

Or at least parts of her did.

Cells were extracted from Lacks’ body without her consent and used to help develop countless medical advancements including cancer drugs and Parkinson’s medication. Some of her cells were even shuttled into space to see how they would react in that environment.

Lacks’ cells never died. They were multiplied several times over and are still alive today helping major medical and pharmaceutical companies develop health treatments and make millions of dollars off them.

But Lacks died penniless in 1951 at age 31 of cervical cancer. Her descendants have struggled financially. For years they never knew about the millions of dollars earned off their ancestor’s body.

Journalist Rebecca Skloot wrote about Lacks’ life in last year’s New York Times best-seller The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Skloot traced the journey of Lacks’ cells across the globe. She also tracked down Lacks’ descendants and helped them learn how Lacks’ cells were used in scientific and medical research.

Skloot founded the Henrietta Lacks Foundation to help Henrietta Lacks’ family and others. Some proceeds from the book have already helped Lacks’ relatives with dental work, a hearing aid and college tuition and books.

Lacks’ cells were the basis of major medical developments yet some of her descendants, with their lack of access to health care, have not been unable to fully benefit from what she contributed to medicine.

Lacks’ story, which is being developed into a film by Oprah Winfrey, is a reminder of this country’s shameful history of medical ethics, especially among African-Americans. Lacks’ legacy also shows that the pain of inequality is not in the distant past. The sting of injustice still pinches the relatives of the swindled while the pillagers’ descendants still profit.

Originally published 3/3/11

Yuri Kochiyama: A True Revolutionary

Yuri Kochiyama is a revolutionary in every sense of the word.

For the past six decades the human rights activist, who was comrade of Malcolm X and embraced him after he was shot in 1965 at the Audubon Ballroom, has been at the forefront of the movement to gain equality for people across the globe.

Kochiyama, a Japanese American, was first exposed to injustice during WWII. Her father was arrested after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and her family became part of the 110,000 Japanese Americans to be forced by the U.S. government to live in internment camps.

Kochiyama and her husband moved to Harlem in the early 1960s. It was there that she nurtured her six children and her passion to fight injustice. Kochiyama worked with black parents to improve schools.

After meeting Malcolm X at a political event in the 1960s Kochiyama became acquainted with him and they wrote one another during Malcolm X’s life-changing hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. As Malcolm X prepared to make what would have been his final speech he was shot and Kochiyama rushed to the stage and held his held during the final moments of his life.

Kochiyama, who has said her commitment to human rights is connected to the black liberation movement, still continues her activism today. The release of Mumia Abu Jamal is among the issues she advocates.

Her work is chronicled in her biography Heartbeat of a Struggle: The Revolutionary Life of Yuri Kochiyama. An incredible documentary Mountains That Take Wing: Angela Davis & Yuri Kochiyama - A Conversation on Life, Struggles & Liberation also gives insight into what motivated her activism.

That film shows Kochiyama in recent years at rallies speaking intensely through a bullhorn, leaning on her walker and fighting stronger than ever for human rights.

Originally published 3/2/11

Anna Arnold Hedgeman: The woman behind the 1963 March on Washington

The iconic image of the Rev. Martin Luther King standing at a podium at the National Mall in Washington delivering his historic “I Have a Dream” speech is a momentous moment in American history.

But little is known about the people who helped organized the 1963 March on Washington, especially the women.

In fact there was only one woman, Anna Arnold Hedgeman, who was on the national committee that planned one of the most pivotal moments in the civil rights movement and American history.

One single black woman’s voice was at the table when major strategy that shaped the course of the country was crafted.

When Hedgeman learned of the lack of women’s participation in the planning of the event and the absence of women speakers she brought it to the attention of other leaders. Hedgeman wrote about her unique position as a black woman civil rights activist in her 1964 autobiography Trumpet Sounds.

Hedgeman is like countless other unrecognized people who played a significant role in the civil rights movement and the planning of the March on Washington. Bayard Rustin, an openly gay black civil-rights activist and principal organizer of the march, was pushed into the background of the movement and the margins of history because of homophobia.

But being overlooked didn’t stop Hedgeman’s passion for justice.
She continued to fight for civil and women’s rights. Hedgeman was one of the original founders of the National Organization for Women.

Hedgeman, who was an aide to New York Mayor Robert F. Wagner, Jr. in the 1950s, died in 1990 at age 90.

She didn’t leave surviving kin when she died. But she left us a legacy of courage and activism that deserves to be known.

Originally published 3/1/11

Eviction as a rite of passage for poor black women

The photo is heartbreaking.

An evicted mother single mother standing on a snow-covered sidewalk in front of a refrigerator, microwave, mattress, chairs and boxes. With her life stacked out on the street, Shantana Smith of Milwaukee stood with her hand covering her mouth after she was put out of her home.

Such a scene of poor, black mothers being evicted is a familiar one, according to a recent New York Times story. In Milwaukee black women are 14 percent of the Midwestern city's population and 40 percent of those evicted there, according to the NYT story.

"Just as incarceration has become typical in the lives of poor black men, eviction has become typical in the lives of poor black women," sociologist and researcher Matthew Desmond told the NYT.


Eviction as a rite of passage for poor black women is a cycle I'm not ready for us to accept.

But it looks like the trend is well underway and rough economic factors may cause things to become worse.

With black women having a more than 13 percent unemployment rate, higher than the national average of almost 10 percent, and unemployment checks set to stop for many this week, more evictions of poor black women will be no surprise.

Low-income jobs and lack of responsibility were a couple of reasons the NYT story cited for the high eviction rate among black women.

While I believe poor decisions may have led some black mothers into homelessness, poor polices and urban planning play a role too and have caused families to suffer.

A displaced family is a disconnected family.

No one knows that better than New Orleans native Triege Kerry Cotton. She was forced to leave her home five years ago when Hurricane Katrina battered the Gulf Coast.

Cotton finally moved back into her New Orleans home earlier this month at the Harmony Oaks development.

Cotton grew up on the same space when it was called the C.J. Peete Public Housing Complex. Developers are working to make it a different place. A new school is part of the development. The new development also aims to attract middle-income residents to the homes.

"I am thrilled to be home again," said Triege Kerry Cotton. "But it's not just about moving back, it's about moving up."

A sound urban plan can help other poor women of all ethnic groups move up too and not continue a cycle of moving out into homelessness and hopelessness.

A safe place to live and a good school are among the basics any mother wants for her children. A solid job will help with that too.

Congress is working on a jobs bill.

When they get that accomplished perhaps federal lawmakers can revisit the urban agenda and strategies that will stabilize neighborhoods.

Originally published 2/27/10

Suffering in silence: Black women, suicide and depression

Jacqueline Scott seemed to have every reason to live. She was beautiful, brilliant, young and among the brightest graduate students at Ohio State University. She taught an undergraduate class. One of her students said she "was definitely a happy lady."

But something was wrong.

Scott, 24, went to a shooting range and shot herself in the chest last month after learning how to use a handgun at a shooting range in suburban Columbus, Ohio.

One of her colleagues in graduate school said she was "despondent" in the days before her suicide and seemed to be disinterested in her graduate studies classes. Only Scott knows what troubled her and led her to take her own life.

But Scott's death cleary underscores the need for more awareness and discussion of depression and mental health issues among black women and less shame and silence.

Suicide is a top leading cause of death for young black women age 14 to 19 and among the Top 10 causes of death for black women ages 20 to 24 and also for the 25 to 34 age group, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The stereotype of the strong, dependable, do-it-all-alone, hold-the-family-together, nerves-of-steel black woman needs to disappear.

It is time for black women to shed the Superwoman facade, cape, tights and the "S" on their chests and ask for help and receive it.

But that is hard because black women occupy so many roles in their personal and professional lives. The burden of carrying so many responsibilities and people can cause a woman's back to crack. The stress of working jobs they desperately need where their humanity is assaulted by people who devalue and disrespect them slowly erodes their confidence.

Terrie Williams, a veteran celebrity public relations specialist, said it best in the title of her book about her own battle with depression, Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We're Not Hurting.

Taking the time to address mental health and troublesome feelings is critical, especially now as we strive to survive the economic crisis.
We lose too much when we don't. There is the lost time, opportunities and relationships. And the illnesses that escalate and create even more problems.
Most importantly, we lose phenomenal and talented women like Scott and my musical and artistic idol singer and actress Phyllis Hyman who killed herself in 1995.

Talking to friends, family, clergy and counselors is a must to battle the blues and the fallout that comes with it.
Therapy is not a "white folks thing" and asking for help isn't a sign of weakness.
Just as black women visit doctors for physical health there is no shame in seeing specialists to attend to mental health.

It's time for suffering in silence to end. Destigmatizing mental health and creating a culture of support is needed to save lives.
We can't afford to have black women to continue to bury their feelings or have more families bury the troubled and beloved women in their lives.

If you need to talk to someone about your feelings call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK.

Originally published 2/27/10

Still marching for our own, even on King Day

Many of our images of Martin Luther King Jr. are those of him walking, arms locked with others in solidarity, toward equality with hundreds of people behind him.
Such a scene was repeated again today as the nation celebrated the holiday honoring King. Supporters of historically black colleges marched in the streets of Jackson, Miss. hoping to take steps to stop Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour's plan to consolidate state-supported black colleges and university, as reported by the Jackson Free Press.
Barbour's plan to consolidate the state's historically black colleges including Jackson State, Alcorn State and Mississippi Valley State universities is
among many measures to trim the state's budget by $411 million.
But many fear that merging the schools will erase the history and identity of institutions founded to educate emancipated slaves and their descendants.

The consolidation of Mississippi's black colleges and universities is a ove that some fear could usher in the extinction of those institutions.
African-Americans have already seen the strong tradition of black boarding schools, which were feeder schools to black colleges, fade away.
The preservation of each and every black college is critical to both the intellectual survival of black people and the nation.
Black colleges and universities have given many of us a chance at higher education when others would barely glance at our college applications.
Average students are given a chance to experience college and thrive at black schools.
At black colleges ordinary students may enter but extraordinary people graduate from those schools.
But don't get me wrong.
Historically black colleges are not breeding grounds for underachievers.
The academic intensity is as strong as any other school.
I know. I've attended both a historically black university and a mainstream one.
The standards at black universities are high because the faculty and staff there know that the stakes are high for black students.
Being black and undereducated today is not a choice.
Instructors at historically black colleges push students to succeed in a way that is profound.
Whether it is the distinguished professors with doctorate degrees who challenge black students in the classroom or the custodians and kitchen staff who nourish and encourage students outside the class, the black college campus is a special place where students bloom.

It is fitting that supporters of historically black colleges took to the streets on the King holiday.
King himself was a product of a historically black institution, Morehouse College in Atlanta.
Sadly, this is a fight that isn't new and neither are marches to save them.
As a student organizer at Jackson State University in 1994 I worked with others to organize a massive rally to protest the consolidation of historically black schools. The Ayers desegregation case ignited the fire in us to move to the streets. Then- NAACP head Benjamin Chavis marched with us and current NAACP President Benjamin Jealous was among the student organizers.
At a recent alumni meeting in Columbus, Ohio my classmate and friend Alesha Russey and I looked back on those days with pride.
We thought our fight to preserve our schools was over until Haley Barbour revived it.
But the battle to preserve Mississippi's historically black colleges and universities is ongoing.
King advocated for equality in all areas in American life including education.
Unfortunately, more than 40 years after his death we are still marching to maintain the institutions that have educated when no one else would.
But this is a fight that we shall also overcome some day.

Originally published 1/18/10

Black singles: Make love, not war

So it has come around again.
The recycled story about professional black women being disproportionately unmarried and terminally single.

During the holidays Nightline aired a story about successful black women who seemed to be perfect in every way, except for not having a man.
I missed the story during my holiday travels but heard a lot about it.
I got a few text messages about it and received several emails about the story.
There was a lot of buzz about it on theNational Association of Black Journalists list serve.
I finally caught the segment on YouTube.

Sigh...Deep breath.Exhale slowly. Very, long, sigh...
The story is another one that framed professional black women as the loneliest women on earth who cannot find anyone to love them.
I hate to criticize another reporter's work. I know the hard work that goes into producing these pieces. And I know how hard it is to get stories about people of color some ink and air time in mainstream media.
It isn't that I don't think this is a worthy story.
As an unmarried black woman who is friends with scores of other single black women, I know this is a newsworthy story.
I live it.
But this story seemed to be incomplete.
The voice of single black men was absent.
Brothers were reduced to a collection of somber statistics and each one was like a punch to my gut.
Black men are undereducated, unemployed and disproportionately imprisoned, the reporter said.
Those statistics are true. But lining them up against successful black women with no black man to speak on the issue painted all black men as shiftless and unworthy of professional black women's attention.
The good brothers who are single and available were invisible.
There were no examples of professional black women who eventually got married, no input on how they achieved healthy relationships. And single black women framed as the modern-day poster girls for today's spinsters didn't sit well with me either.
However, there was input from instant relationships expert Steve Harvey, author of Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man.
He suggested that professional black women should consider dating older men. That's not a bad idea.

What I don't like about this recurring story most is the analysis and blame that comes afterward.
In neighborhoods, kitchens, barber shops and beauty salons the attacks on professional black women soon come.
There are claims that educated black women are single because we are siditty, picky and even too uppity for black men.
And accomplished sisters need to get off their high horse, lower their standards and be submissive.
Then women talk about their individual negative relationships with black men and assign all of those bad characteristics to all black men.
Each side hurls generalizations and stereotypes at one another like live grenades.
Then the war of words begins.
But the conversation about single professional black women seems to always blame the ladies and cast black women as undesirable and unlovable.
That hurts.
Because black women are holding families and communities close to their hearts and showering them with the same love black women wish they had when they are alone at night.

Having real and honest conversations about values, partnerships and compromising is what black singles need.
The blame game is a distraction and only deepens the disconnection between black women and men.
We need to be making memories, making love, making babies and making families.
We don't need to make enemies of one another.
If we continue to do so black women and men will continue to be unhappy and alone.

Originally published 1/15/10

Hate for Haiti during tragedy

The earthquake in Haiti is heartbreaking.
It is painful to see the tear-stained and dusty faces of survivors working to pull wounded and bloody injured relatives and neighbors from the rubble.

The thousands of deaths caused by this natural disaster are devastating Haiti. The country's already fragile infrastructure has collapsed.
These are sad sights that weigh on my heart the same way scenes from Hurricane Katrina and the Asian tsunami did.
As communication is established more distressing news from the Caribbean island will come through our television and computer screens.

But some of the earliest awful stories about the Haitian earthquake haven't come from the island.
They've come from this country in the form of repugnant charity fraud schemes and nasty comments from right-winged commentators Pat Robertson and Rush Limbaugh.

Robertson, a Christian commentator of The 700 Club television show on the Christian Broadcasting Network, suggested that Haitians made a deal with the devil to gain independence from the French in the 1800s. Evidence of that deal, Robertson said, is clear because Haiti has suffered a string of tragedies while the neighboring Dominican Republic is prosperous. In the same breath Robertson pleads for his viewers to help Haitians during the earthquake while blasting the nine million residents there.
Limbaugh also jumped into the fray saying President Obama's prompt response to the Haitian earthquake was a political move the White House will use to "burnish their, shall we say, 'credibility' with the black community -- in the both light-skinned and dark-skinned black community in this country. It's made-to-order for them. That's why he couldn't wait to get out there, could not wait to get out there."

Their comments are among the saddest news I have heard associated with the earthquake. Such rhetoric is unthinkable at a time when the poorest country is the Western hemisphere is experiencing the worst natural disaster in its history.
But sadly such comments during a tragedy aren't new.
During Hurricane Katrina stories circulated about New Orleans' losses being the city's punishment for being a place where some residents practice voodoo and tourists indulge themselves.
Then there were the comments that the crime-ridden, mostly black city wasn't worth rebuilding.
The conservative commentators' comments have the same ugly tone.
Haitians beat Napoleon Bonaparte's army in 1804 and gained independence from France making it the world's oldest black independent nation.
Robertson's fable is out of line.
Limbaugh's suggestion that President Obama's rush to help Haiti is repulsive. Connecting aid to this devastated country to racial politics is beyond inappropriate.
Haiti needs the world's help not crackpot comments that defy history and decency.

Sadly, some relief intended to reach the country may not get there. Charity fraud scams are also surfacing less than two days after the earthquake.
The FBI released a warning to Americans looking to contribute cash to Haiti to aid the nation. Just like during Hurricane Katrina, opportunists will no doubt emerge and swipe dollars meant for Haiti's survivors.
It is disappointing that while some experience historic loss others use tragedy to gain.
Reputable charities such as CARE, the American Red Cross and Yele Haiti are using the efficiency of technology including text messaging to quickly accept donations. Haitian-born Wyclef Jean jumped to help his homeland and is back in the country with his Yele Haiti foundation to provide relief the same way he did in 2008 during the flood.
The FBI is warning people to be wise about their donations and check out charities before contributing.
Too bad Robertson and Limbaugh didn't take more time to wisely choose their words before speaking about Haiti's earthquake.

Originally published 1/13/10

I am a light-skinned African-American and I use Negro dialect

I am a light-skinned African-American and I use "Negro dialect."
So what does that mean?
What does this say about me?
At least one of those things is a liability, according to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Reid is facing criticism for calling President Barack Obama a talented candidate who was a light-skinned African-American "with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one" during the 2008 election as reported in the new book Game Change.
Are Reid's words shocking?
Of course not.
As many times as I have been told that I am articulate by white people who seemed to be both impressed and disappointed to hear me speak as well as if not better than them, Reid's words are no bombshell.
They are just another indication that America still needs to confront race in a real way and reconsider how we use language to evaluate people.

All of us alter our language to fit our atmosphere. When I'm around high school classmates I slip back into 1980s slang. With colleagues I use professional jargon that others wouldn't understand. I speak a little Spanish and often find myself saying "dios mio" when I gasp at something surprising or outrageous.
Some relatives laugh at me because "yall" and "maine" are still a part of my vocabulary after living in Mississippi for 10 years.
I love black people and I don't apologize for it.
Communicating with other black people I know well in a familiar and comfortable way using relaxed language is like talking to family.
Does that mean I am ignorant and unintelligent?
I am an accomplished public speaker who has spoken before large crowds since I was 15 years old.

The use of "Negro dialect" has its place in the lexicon of language and American culture. The use of such language in Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God or J. California Cooper's books Family and In Search of Satisfaction illuminated the black experience in an authentic way that only the language of the people could.
Is it always appropriate to use "Negro dialect?"
Probably not.
But if people choose to communicate with others in a way that is comfortable for them that is their choice.
There may also be consequences. We use language as a barometer to determine competency and worthiness. Sometimes we are right to do that.
However, we can also sometimes make mistakes using language to establish intelligence.
Many of us have come across people who speak eloquently but their words were empty because they couldn't back up what they said.
As a reporter I have come across many immigrants who spoke broken English.
Does their inability to use the English language in a way that others may deem inappropriate make them stupid?
Some of those new Americans were multilingual and spoke several languages but English just happened to be the language in which they had the least proficiency.

As the country becomes more brown and black we need to re-evaluate what it means to speak "Negro dialect," Spanglish and other variations of the English language within communities.
We can use this moment as a way to start talking about race and the issues around it in a meaningful way.
Why do fair-skinned African-Americans (and all Americans of a lighter hue) still have an advantage in this country and seem less threatening than darker brothers and sisters?
Why is the language people of color use still judged so much?
Why are old white men still calling black folks Negroes?
Why did Bill Clinton think it was OK to privately say to Ted Kennedy that Obama "would have been getting us coffee" a few years ago?
And why does Clinton's comment from the book receive less analysis than Reid's?
Addressing these questions are essential because some other notable politician or public figure is going to say something similar sometime soon.
This country needs more than a beer summit to patch up this latest racial gaffe.
We need a real conversation about race and we need to have it soon.

Originally published 1/11/10

All hair is good hair but please don't touch mine

Can I touch your hair?

It's a question I've been asked often as people looked in amazement at the puffy, black cloud of kinky curls that sit on top of my head.

The question, and the look of awe that came with it, always surprised me.
I wondered why people were so fascinated by my nappiness.
Then the request to touch my hair started to become annoying.

Questions from both black and white people asking "How do you get it like that?" and "Where do you go to get it to look that way?" started to get on my nerves.
My hair grows out of my head this way. There is no miracle ritual I go through to get it to look like this.

But I realized people were just curious and wanted to know how I achieved this look. Some of them may have never seen a black woman with her hair in its natural state untouched by chemicals and not hiding under a wig or a weave.

But when my hair long, straightened by chemicals and rested on my shoulders the questions were different: "Where is your family from?" or "Are you from the islands?" inferences that the texture of my hair must indicate a multicultural background and not an African-American one.

Comedian Chris Rock explores the complex world of black women's hair and the political and personal decisions that go into how we wear our hair in the new film Good Hair.

Rock devoted months to examining the world of weaves, wigs, perms, braids, afros, twists and locks in the film because his young daughter asked him why she doesn't have "good hair."

That's a painful start to a film about a painful and personal relationship black women have with their hair.
Every woman wants to be beautiful.
But America's standard for beautiful hair (long, straight and blond) drastically conflicts with the hair most black women are born with: black, short and curly.

Understanding this dilemma among black women, it’s no wonder the black hair care business is multi-billion dollar industry.
Some black women pay the equivalent of a house note to obtain this nation's standard of good hair.

The industry doesn't get much of my money though. I stopped putting chemicals in my hair 11 years ago.
For me wearing my hair natural is not so much a strong political statement.
It's more of a personal declaration that I am OK as I am, without being drastically altered by chemicals or stereotypes or someone else’s standard of beauty.

And I also know that black women who chose to wear weaves, wigs and perms or no hair at all are expressing styles that reflect who they are as individuals.
Sometimes a hairstyle is a fashion statement and not a political one.

The range of styles black women we wear makes us unique.
Whether it's bone straight, store-bought, curly or kinky - all hair is good hair.
I hope other little black girls like Chris Rock's daughter learn that lesson early on in life.

Originally published 10/31/09

Viruses get attention but violence is a serious health threat for children

Derrion Albert’s walk home after school to his Chicago home was his final and fatal act. The dangerous path for Derrion, a 16-year-old honor student, was lined with brutal assassins whose fists and fury snatched his life.

For Sherdavia Jenkins, 9, playtime resembled wartime. While playing with dolls on a summer day outside of her Miami home, a shootout erupted, a bullet from an AK-47 tore through her neck and killed her in 2006, weeks before she was to start the fourth grade.

Earlier this month national leaders joined Derrion’s family at his funeral as Americans shared outrage over the boy’s videotaped beating death by a vicious mob. Days later, Sherdavia’s family was quietly comforted by the conviction of her killer.

These disturbing losses of children spark anger and debate for a while. But later their deaths fade from the nation’s memory.

As the nation’s attention turns to more exotic health threats such as the swine flu, the old problem of urban violence is being eclipsed again.

Homicides of children, especially black youth such as Derrion and Sherdavia, is a serious health issue.

Homicide is the No. 1 cause of death for black males ages 15 to 24, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

If this health crisis affected any other group there would be a strategy to prevent these deaths.

Some neighborhoods across the country are like shooting galleries where children rush home in fear hoping to cheat death another day.

Yet, killings of black children continue with no urgency for a real plan of action.

Where is the hysteria over these homicides? We know that violence is wiping out children faster than any virus.

Bullets, bats and bullies are serious, tangible, visible, immediate health threats to children. Yet the mysterious illnesses hold our attention.

Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s recent anti-violence meeting in Chicago is a hopeful sign.

But their gesture feels familiar. A child dies brutally, leaders and politicians visit the neighborhood and their promises of protection rarely follow.

Something has to be done.

Anjanette Albert, Derrion’s mother, cried through a television interview and said, “I can’t believe somebody did this to my son…”

I can’t believe that the killing of her son and others have become so common that we seem to accept them as a normal part of American life.

Originally published 10/30/09

1 million babies die early annually, black babies premature birth rates are higher

At least one million babies die across the globe every year because they’re born prematurely, according to a March of Dimes report released this month.

Nearly 13 million babies are born early across the globe. Their early births put them at risk to face a host of health challenges, including learning disabilities and respiratory illnesses, which frequently continue throughout their lives.

In the past 25 years the number of babies born early in the United States increased by 36 percent, according to the report. An increase in births by mothers age 35 and older, Cesarean sections and births assisted by reproductive methods contributed to the higher numbers.

Preterm birth rates for black babies in the United States are 1.5 times higher than white babies. And 85 percent of all preterm births happen in Africa and Asia.

These numbers come at a time when the nation’s bleak economy is smacking families of color backward and lack of health care is pushing them back even further.

A city clinic for indigent women closed in Columbus, Ohio earlier this month because of the city’s budget cuts. Another clinic for poor women in Ohio’s capital city shut its doors in February because the city was short on cash. The closures come at a time when the county’s birth rates are increasing. Women’s clinics in Oakland and Chicago also closed this year due to budget cuts.

The March of Dimes report calls for more resources to stunt the growth of preterm births. “Basic public health measures” need to be put in place to prevent babies’ early deaths and births, according to the report. But dwindling dollars for community women’s reproductive health programs have already cut access to prenatal care for women who need it the most.

Investing in the health of babies is critical. As the nation debates health care, addressing the well being of the country's babies is important now. If we don't those babies won't be here to reap the benefits of a revamped health care system.

Originally posted 10/26/09

Unemployment hits women of color hard

Reports of a rebounding economy have buzzed among experts but new unemployment figures reflect what many families headed by women of color feel, continued financial struggles and prolonged unemployment.

Numbers released by the U.S. Department of Labor last week show the national unemployment rate has increased to 9.8 percent. But unemployment rates in communities of color hover above the national average. African-Americans' unemployment rate is 15.4 percent and 12.7 percent for Latinos. However, Asians' jobless rate is 7.4 percent. Whites have an unemployment rate of 9 percent.

African-Americans lead the unemployment rates among women at 12.5 percent. Latinas have a 10.7 percent unemployment rate compared with the 7 percent unemployment rate for white women.

Overall women have an unemployment rate lower than men, with all women having a 7.8 percent jobless rate and all men standing at 10.3 percent. But the disproportionate unemployment numbers among African-American women and Latinas are troubling considering the high number of female-headed households in some communities of color.

The new Department of Labor numbers show that the amount of people out of work for 27 weeks or more is now 5.4 million. More than 15 million jobs have been lost since December 2007.

Prolonged unemployment combined with high child poverty rates in communities of color are creating an economic emergency in families that were already leaning toward financial fallout.

More than 34 percent of African-American children are living in poverty compared with 32 percent of Native American children who are poor and 27 percent of Latino children in poverty, according to the Children's Defense Fund. Asians' child poverty rate is 12 percent compared with 13 percent for whites.

All Americans hope for a swift financial rebound. Women of color and their families directly affected by the recession await economic recovery with urgency.

Originally published 10/5/09