9 Murders, 2 Distortions and 1 Issue: Why We Should All Care About Charleston, SC


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There’s a media personality I enjoy listening to who, in discussing the horrific killings in Charleston, South Carolina, said one of the gutsiest remarks I have heard so far. As she exhorted listeners to pray for the church, the victims and their families, she admitted, “I really am having a hard time with this. I really don’t want to talk about this or think about it because it is so horrible.”

She’s White. I’m not. But I applaud her for saying out loud what too many people in this country who are not African American are thinking, feeling and acting upon.

I even tested this in my personal sphere. When I met recently with a small group of buddies—four white and one Latina—and my manner was subdued, one of them asked why I seemed…quieter. I said my air conditioner was out and my heart was broken over the events in Charleston, S.C. Guess which “issue” they wanted to discuss.

So while I am armed with all kinds of advice and concern about how to cope with a broken air conditioner, I am left with a profound sadness about the crippling effects of silences upon the things that should matter to us—how we build and sustain community. Even in fiction, Harry Potter learned that “he who must not be named” had to be called out

From the trailer for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows-Part 1. Source: Wikipedia

From the trailer for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows-Part 1. Source: Wikipedia

as Tom Riddle/Voldemort before he could be vanquished.

Let’s speak, then, of the unspeakable. Let’s call out, by its true name, what this mass murder was about. Let’s talk about racism.

There are two sure things that are NOT true about this tragedy. One is that, although the murders took place in the Emanuel AME Church, it is not symptomatic of a broad attack against Christians and Christianity. Certainly, we can take an existential view and see this tragedy as an element in the cosmic battle between good and evil. It is a construct that is common to many faiths, philosophies and secular laws.

But because these horrors took place in a church, Christians do have a unique opportunity to empathize, without appropriating sacrifices that are not broadly shared. So, for example, I can think about my own sorrows and losses and use those painful experiences to emotionally connect with brothers and sisters in Charleston. Through this empathy and understanding, I may be led to take meaningful actions—such as special prayers, donations, or messages—on behalf of this grieving community.

However, if I wanted to appropriate this experience as my own, I would begin talking about how much I am at risk in my church as they were–without the evidence, history or experience to support this notion. I would falsely build myself up as a potential martyr with such words, rendering the real suffering of real people as merely backdrop to my own erroneous and grandiose notions. To do such a thing is not only silly, but dishonest.   Members of this prayer group were targeted because of their skins, not their bibles.

A second thing that is not true about this racist attack is the notion that members of this church, especially its courageous pastor, Rev. Clementa Pinckney, brought this upon themselves by being so active in community and social issues.

Just last May, Pinckney—who also served as a state senator in the South Carolina legislature—made this stirring speech, calling his state to ethical action after the shooting of an unarmed black man, Walter Scott, by a white policeman.  Ah, if only they had stuck to praying and sermonizing, all might be well.

This may a tempting view, but it is patently untrue. Violence and social action may be correlated but they are not necessarily cause-and-effect. And it is so much a part of the African American Christian experience for one reason only – race. It would be healthier for the church as a whole to recognize that the struggle against, and the support of, racial and cultural prejudices are part of the Christian story, writ large, over time and history.

So, I am no theologian. I am a member of a wonderful church with profound sermons, study sessions, and personal interactions that challenge me constantly in my own understanding and faith. But, a couple of things from recent lessons have struck me in the midst of sorting out my feelings about this tragedy.

One is that the Jesus I read about prayed for others but also called out hypocrisy. Churches like Emanuel AME are trying to locate themselves squarely within this “Christ-like” tradition, not outside of it. Two, his ace disciple, Peter, denied knowing him three times before finding his way to becoming the “rock” of the fledgling church, including reaching outside of his community to others of different faiths, nationalities and what we would call “races.”

The interesting thing about the frightened Peter is that all that time he was saying he didn’t know Jesus, he was hanging out where his leader was taken prisoner, watching and listening to the latest street “news.”

Too many of us, thanks to the hyper-mediated world we live in, are like Peter. We are silent voyeurs in the midst of the tragedies unfolding around us, all the while claiming to know nothing about what’s going on.

So, let’s talk about race in meaningful exchanges and timely conversations. Like the radio host I quoted earlier, and like the biblical Peter, you just may not want to face this issue, or get tangled up in something that is complex, fearful and heart-rending.

Let’s face it—not every church has the history of social justice, nor everyone the spirit of advocacy, as does the Emanuel AME and its true martyr, Clementa Pinckney. I am both haunted and amazed by the thought of Rev. Pinckney worshipping for nearly an hour with a young man who would then turn around and kill him in cold blood

The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart gave as perceptive a riff as anyone I’ve followed about Charleston, race and what it means to all of us as a nation. We know that the news and commentary will continue to unfold about this horrible tragedy in the time ahead.

We can prepare for the onslaught. Let’s not bury our heads in denial, nor get distracted by false discussions about Christian martyrdom. Let’s be immune to any attempts by the killer and his allies to justify his deeds. If we talk about gun violence, mental health, or social activism as part of this puzzle, we have to talk about race, too. Finally, we need to reject hateful, stereotypical statements and counter them. Maybe had enough people who look like Dylann Roof objected to his racist rants, he and his victims might have had a different outcome.

And here’s a thought. Look within your own community and connections. If you ask people what’s on their minds, and they mention this tragedy, listen with an open and courageous heart. The air conditioner can wait.

Celebrating That Which Is Difficult


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When classes began January 12th at my university, I was not there. I am on what is called a sabbatical, which is usually defined as a period of rest. And while I occasionally sleep in a little later than before, and certainly read a lot less email, I have not been idle.

For me, this brief period has become about embracing complexity and struggle. My research projects are pushing me to read widely and think deeply. I have writing deadlines, some self-imposed, that are demanding that I plan my time carefully and strategically. And I have signed up for classes where I can learn new things.

In one of these new classes, I am without a doubt the worst student in the class. No really—I am that bad. Later, I will write more about this experience because I am sticking with it and I am determined to improve. But what I am already taking away from this new challenge are things that will surely help me when I go back to my own classroom. This includes that feeling of not quite catching on to something as quickly as you feel others are mastering something. It also includes the powerful effect of having a teacher not give up on you, of someone sharing encouragement when you most need it, as my marvelous instructor has done. I think that everyone who teaches something should take a turn at learning something in unfamiliar terrain.

All of this is on the heels of a challenging job I just finished as director of the graduate program at the Gaylord College at OU. In my four-year tenure, 76 students from our combined Masters of Arts, Master of Professional Writing and Ph.D. programs completed their degrees. Five students I assigned in instructional support roles received top teaching awards from the university. On an annual basis, I oversaw the academic progress of anywhere from 73 to 92 students who could enroll in most of our programs on a rolling basis throughout the calendar year.  I also wrote about 274 petitions on behalf of my students, requesting a range of allowances for them, including anything from a missed paperwork deadline to the more serious issues involving personal struggles or death of family members.

One of my biggest challenges was finding out during my first semester on the job that the five-year probationary period the state granted us for our new Ph.D. degree was expiring, but we had not made our project enrollment and graduation goals. I took the lead on crafting a memo requesting an extension, and when it was granted in 2011, I got to work.

The biggest task was to get students in the program and out in a timely manner and with sufficient numbers to keep going. My efforts wound up helping all of our graduate students, including the creation of our first course rotation, an expanded roster of graduate faculty who could serve on committees, the launch our first online graduate class, an increase of our weekend/evening 1-credit class offerings, and the addition of graduate classes to our summer schedule.

This was definitely NOT sexy stuff. But by May 2014, we had confirmation that our program was off probation and tracking well. And when I passed the baton in December 2014, it was after co-chairing a small task force of faculty and staff members to help chart out future directions for our program. I left a short report of our ideas for new certificates, a combination undergraduate/graduate degree and new professional degrees that our amazing faculty had proposed. I am looking forward to seeing what exciting futures are in store for the graduate program.

For the past few days, I have once again been reminded to celebrate difficult things, as I watch OU President David Boren move swiftly and with conviction to counter the racism a viral video exposed. Students in a class I created, JMC 4853: Race, Gender and the Media were actively involved in supporting the student-led rallies but covering these events as fledgling journalists. My doctoral advisee, Amanda Kehrberg is teaching the class this semester and is doing a masterful job in fulfilling one of the goals of the class: to “provide a safe place” for students to grapple with current issues of social justice and make practical applications of that knowledge.

Doing what is right in public must be hard, because we seem to see so few people doing it, particularly under the glare of media attention. Kudos to President Boren for showing by example how it can be done. Cheers to the students of @OU_Unheard for organizing such a powerful call-to-action. And, a big salute must go to the students who had the courage to expose the video in the first place, in the hope that things would change for the better.

Imagine what could happen if we all took on something difficult. I’ve told you about some of my choices. What are yours?

George Zimmerman’s Verdict: Living Within A Shadow of a Doubt


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      Eighteen months after teenager Trayvon Martin died alone one rainy night in Sanford, Florida, his killer, George Zimmerman, endured the scrutiny of a highly mediated investigation and criminal trial.  Yesterday, we learned that a jury of his peers found him to be not guilty.  The jury declined to charge him with either second-degree manslaughter or even of the lesser charge, murder.

     Over the 18 months, I tuned into the rolling fortunes of this case.  For instance, I wrote an earlier post here, trying to contemplate the unimaginable pain, Sybrina Fulton, might have endured during her first Mother’s Day without her son, Trayvon.

      But earlier, during one of my Spring 2012 class in Race, Gender (Class) and the Media, some of my students were so passionate about the tragedy of Trayvon’s death, they helped organize campus rallies and marches requesting that Zimmerman be charged and tried.  When it became apparent that the main rally and march would occur during our class time, I invited one student to speak to the class of around 50 about why they were involved, and why they believed we all should go to these activities instead of class.  She was so convincing that all agreed to attend, and the shared experience gave us many fruitful conversations in later class sessions.

One of my students speaks at an OU Rally in March 2012 about Trayvon Martin's death. Photo Credit: MGCarstarphen.

One of my students speaks at an OU Rally in March 2012 about Trayvon Martin’s death. Photo Credit: MGCarstarphen.

 Incredibly, it was a battle, waged with strategic events and high-profile media coverage,  that helped put Trayvon Martin’s death in the spotlight.  And if we review the case’s timeline, it is striking that although Martin died February 26, 2012, it wasn’t until April 11, 2012 that George Zimmerman was charged and a criminal trial became a reality.

Some of my students participated in the Trayvon Martin march after the earlier rally, and after the time for our class had officialy lapsed. Photo credit: MGCarstarphen.

Some of my students participated in the Trayvon Martin march after the earlier rally, and after the time for our class had officially lapsed. Photo credit: MGCarstarphen.

      It took a highly successful public relations campaign to make this trial possible.  Now, in the aftermath of its verdict, it will take more than a poorly conceived public service announcement to resolve the deep issues this trial reflected.

     As the jury began its deliberations, it took a conversation with someone whose opinion I value greatly to show me how perilous the path to a finding “without a reasonable doubt” could be.  To me, and for many others who believed that this encounter between an unarmed teenager and an adult man with a gun was inherently unfair, a guilty verdict seemed inevitable.

     But unfairness is not necessarily a legal standard, and this trial really put notions of self-defense, danger, and individual rights to stringent tests.  Zimmerman’s defense turned on his evoking his rights to defend himself in the face of “imminent danger” as part of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” laws.  In principle, this may seem like a logical extension of a citizen’s right to protect him or herself.  But, in practice?  As this Salon article describes, race proves to be a powerful indicator of who needs protecting, and who can be perceived as a threat.

     At the end of the trial, the jury received lengthy guidelines to follow as it considered its verdict.  In order to render a finding of murder, the members of the jury had to be convinced that George Zimmerman acted with “an intent to cause death” beyond a reasonable doubt.

      Beyond a reasonable doubt?  As I listened to my trusted friend’s insights—hours before the verdict became public—it dawned on me, with new, stunning clarity what many others, including the jurors, might contemplate.  And, I began to see how what seemed inevitable to me could dissolve into doubt:

            Did George Zimmerman really mean to murder Trayvon Martin?  How could he have an intent to murder him?….he didn’t even know him.  How could a man like George Zimmerman, with no criminal record, a loving family and a community of loyal friends, decide to murder a stranger in cold blood?  It doesn’t make sense, unless something happened….unless he was provoked to it….unless he was truly afraid.

            These are the words of “reasonable doubt” because it is hard for any of us to believe that a sane person would murder someone unprovoked.  But the residual, enduring effects of racism warps the logic of what is reasonable, and makes sanity look insane. I believe George Zimmerman was afraid, but unless you factor in race, we won’t truly understand why.

            Imagine if Martians arrived to the United States, unknown to us, during the weekend and watched local news coverage. No matter the city or town they were in, they would notice a parade of “crime” news, featuring the menacing faces of usually dark-skinned, male perpetrators at the center of tense encounters with police. How long would it take them, even without knowing our language, to recognize who represent the most fearful threats to our society?  It is not that criminals of color don’t exist—they do.  But crime is a pretty multifaceted set of offenses, and criminals come in all colors.  Ask Bob McDonnell and Virginia constituents about the news trending in their state.  But scholars such as Robert Entman, Travis Dixon and others have documented in multiple studies that the incessant display of criminality in local news featuring men of color as assailants creates irrational fears in white viewers about the nature of crime in their communities.

            Here is the striking thing: these patterns exist in local news operations everywhere.  Is there one master producer who is controlling all of these newscasts? Nope.  But there is a master narrative at work and few of us are immune.

      George Zimmerman certainly wasn’t.  Look at his comments during his infamous 9-1-1 call to police, referring to Trayvon as one of those “f-ing punks” and “assholes” who always get away.  Look at Zimmerman’s decision to follow Martin, despite being told not to.  Look at Zimmerman’s dispassionate demeanor, according to the police reports and their own eyewitness testimony, as he watched an unarmed 17-year-old boy he did not know die as a result of his choices.

     I believe George Zimmerman met and killed a stereotype he greatly feared that night, writ large through the persuasive power of a racial profile that was at the heart of this case.  The real tragedy is that he didn’t even see Trayvon as the person he was—a teenager, unarmed, in the rain, trying to get to a place he had every right to be.  Home.

     This trial may be over, but the conversation must continue.  What do you think?

A “native” Holiday, From a Native Point of View


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It’s the kind of question that we throw out frequently around this time of year.  It seems harmless enough, and more often than not, we know what the answers will be.

Question: “What are you doing for Thanksgiving?”

Possible Answers:  “I’m having dinner at my place for [pick a number] people.”  “I’m going to [pick a family member]’s house for dinner.”  “My friends and I are going out to eat at [pick a restaurant].  Throw in a little football or a newly released movie, and you would describe the ritual for a lot of us.

Now, it seems, we have a new option: shopping.  As major retailers [you know who they are] announce that they will open they overstuffed doors on Thanksgiving Day instead of the day after, media commentators debate the significance of this shift.  For instance, Katrina Trinko argues that we have gone too far, while her USA Today colleague, Matthew Shay, counters that we are only getting what we asked for.

Lost in the fog of food and bargain-shopping is the designation of November as Native American Heritage Month.  On November 1, 2012, President Obama signed a proclamation that officially recognized this month.  In the call-to-action, the proclamation does not whitewash the difficult histories of Native peoples in the Americas.  Instead, it says that ,“In paying tribute to Native American achievements, we must also acknowledge the parts of our shared history that have been marred by violence and tragic mistreatment. “

My friend and colleague, John Sanchez, brought this home to me one year when I asked him about his Thanksgiving Day plans.  Although he is based in Pennsylvania and I in Oklahoma, we worked together for three years to produce a book, American Indians and the Mass Media.

My book, published this year by the University of Oklahoma (OU) Press

Our book breaks ground with a singular focus on the involvement of Native/American Indians in all aspects of the media, from newspapers to online media; from stereotypical marketing portrayals to independent film images; from strategic public relations efforts to media law challenges.  After a particularly intense work session on one phase of this project, I longed for the upcoming holiday breaks.  I asked John “the question.”  After a pause, he said he didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving and explained the many reasons way.  Ironically, I already knew intellectually the reasons why he wouldn’t want to celebrate Thanksgiving in the national tradition, but this knowledge was disconnected from the human, and often emotional, impact of our Thanksgiving myths.

We all know the iconic stories about noble Indians joining weary Puritans for a grand meal in 1621 to celebrate new friendships and partnerships.  Along the way, Indians are said to have taught these English settlers key farming and food techniques that saved the newcomers’ lives and communities.  To celebrate these ideas, we have decorations, plays and art, such as this famous painting by artist Jean Leon Jerome Ferris, named The First Thanksgiving.

Myth becomes art in this iconic painting, The First Thanksgiving.

This romanticized 20th century painting, according to the book, History of the Portrait Collection, Independence National Historical Park, has factual errors that nevertheless have become fixed in American cultural memory because of the powerful influence of this art,

But as this renowned Native writer and scholar explains in this blog post, the Thanksgiving observances heap injury upon insult upon the true and complicated stories of Indians in the Americas.  And our public schools can be the worst offenders, creating plays and pageantry encouraging children to embrace stereotypes and false information.

Photograph by Robert C. Lautman

Thankfully, places like the National Museum of the American Indian exist, as stewards of honest interpretations of native history, culture and contemporary life.  And while Thanksgiving festivities may not be part of all American Indian family traditions, there is Native support for this month, and one day especially, designed to call attention to Native American heritage.  In a poignant coincidence, the winner of the National Book Award, announced this month, was Indian author Louise Erdrich, for her latest novel, The Round House.  Harvard Scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. does a fascinating interview with Erdrich about her background that I often use in training workshops and classes about the multiple dimensions of race and identity.

It seems to me that there can be plenty of good reasons to set aside a time during the year to be thankful for the blessings in our lives.  Thanksgiving is as good a time as any.  But we can make it all the more meaningful by pausing to learn something that is true, inspiring, and factual about American Indians, and there are plenty of resources to do so.  If we must shop, it might not hurt to observe the small business shopping day initiative by seeking out Indian-owned businesses, too.

Be blessed, and Happy Native American heritage month to you!

Getting into the spirit of things


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Recently, we were all immersed in the sights, sounds and tastes of Halloween.  It’s a rite of passage that really signals the presence of fall, and kicks off the inevitable start of the holiday [spending] season. I ran out of time and creativity to come up with a costume this year, but I have a terrific idea for one next year.

But right on the heels of this festive, mostly child- oriented activity, another observance seems to be gaining momentum in the United States. El Día de la Muertos or the Day of the Dead is usually celebrated on November 1, although observances continue through November 2, or even later.

On our campus, for instance, the Hispanic American Student Association sponsored the first such festival on campus and, according to our student newspaper, it seemed to be a success.

What exactly is the Day of the Dead about?  Well, the Smithsonian Institution’s Latino Center has an excellent site explaining the origins of this holiday—including instructional resources for teachers.  A Latin American tradition, this celebration involves the entire family in paying tribute to loved ones who have died.  These tributes include photos of departed family members, special foods, music and masks.

Now, what is fascinating is how these type of festivals are spreading across the United States, according to reports on network television,  a leading business magazine, and local newspapers in such cities as Baltimore and Detroit.

This trend reflects more than, simply, new evidence of the growing presence of Latino communities in the United States.  The fact that such celebrations are spreading outside of the hidden pockets of  Hispanic homes means that cultural transformation is happening.

Some might criticize these celebrations as some form of ancestor worship, or worse.  I look at it as way to turn grief into something that affirms the continuity of life and love.  If you have lost a loved one, you know that Death rarely comes pretty, or conveniently.  I rather like the idea of participating in a celebration of life, instead of staying captive to the circumstances of someone’s death.

So, next year watch out for my really cool Halloween costume.  And if you hang around, you just might see me getting into the spirit of something new.

Ambassador Christopher Stevens: What Courage Looks Like (Part 2)


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Right after the death of Ambassador Stevens was confirmed, media tributes lauding his service emerged.  Even before Chris Stevens became an ambassador, he was known for his willingness to engage with Libyans in the most remote areas of this North African country in order to help bring them into the larger conversation he envisioned about citizenship, political structures and social futures of their country.  After he was promoted, he continued with his distinctive brand of outreach.

The Chinook Observer made one of the first reports about Stevens’ death, doing so with sadness and dignity.  Chris Stevens was a member of the Chinook Nation, whose ancestral home is in the Pacific Northwest.  Part of the Chinook history and heritage involves a long tradition of survival against harsh physical conditions, and then later, colonial domination by white settlers.   The famed Lewis & Clark expedition team led the first colonial contact with the Chinook, who were historically a federation of tribal groups.  As a resourceful, accomplished people, the Chinook at first welcomed the Lewis & Clark team.  But historical accounts indicate that eventually the Chinook waged guerrilla attacks against the team when the colonial explorers exhausted their welcome, prompting the team members to leave for fear of their lives.  Imagine, then, from the settlers’ point of view, that while they experienced a sense of normalcy during their daytime encounters with the Chinook, at night, they suffered the unsettling discomfort of hidden, unpredictable attacks.

What does our standard historical record say about how the Chinook felt?  Precious little.  Here, however, is where I truly believe that Ambassador Stevens’ racial identity was essential to his character and his professional expertise.  Stevens probably brought to his job a deep understanding of what it meant to be part of an indigenous people trying to assert an identity, trying to preserve tradition while adjusting to new pressures.  This would not have been an idle proposition to him.  Currently, in his own United States, the Chinook Nation of his heritage continues to struggle for federal recognition as an “official” sovereign nation –a legislative effort that was supported by the Clinton administration but was subsequently blocked under the Bush presidency.  It remains in congressional limbo under the Obama administration.

Stevens no doubt recognized Libya as a nation caught in-between an accomplished past and an uncertain future, despite the tumultuous social unrest since Muammar Gaddafi‘s violent overthrow.

In those long hours and days immediately after the assault in Benghazi, while the rest of us waited for details about the people who were killed, the Chinook Nation learned about the loss of one of their most distinguished and beloved family members.  Stevens was not only an accomplished State Department employee, he was a Chinook role model and favorite son.  Quietly, and with dignity and compassion, President Obama reached out to Ambassador Stevens’ mother, as well as leaders of the Chinook Nation, to express private condolences away from the spotlight of the national media.  This happened under the radar of majority media, but the Chinook Observer reported this, once again not only showing the importance of ethnic media, but of the special role of American Indian media as my latest book documents.

Christopher Stevens’ life as a diplomat, and the work of countless others like him, remains nearly invisible to those of us outside the profession.  In 2010, I got a glimpse of this life when I stayed with a friend whose husband was part of the diplomatic staff in a West African country. Their family lived in an attractive house with many amenities.  Some of the perks, however, were silent reminders of unspoken dangers, like the 24-hour local security guards who routinely changed shifts in the garage of their gated residence.

Diplomatic housing in West Africa, fortified by a wall and guards. Photo by M.G. Carstarphen.

I witnessed a bit of the special dance involved in the life of our foreign diplomats.  They choose to live in a foreign community, to forge relationships broadly and build alliances, while mindful of the steps they need to take to negotiate their own personal safety.

I have also had the opportunity to serve in much shorter assignments as part of small faculty teams to help train women journalists in Bangladesh and Nepal.   During our waking hours, we spent as much time as possible connecting with the people we were sent to serve.  At night, we returned to secure—even fortified—places to sleep, chosen because of their locations and track record with keeping Western visitors safe.

Everything in his background, training and experience made Ambassador Stevens a singular statesman, but his work on the margins of social dysfunction had risks. In 2010, those became painfully on display…although we did not know it then.

It was during this time that the “biggest leak of classified materials” to WikiLeaks, became public, a crime for which Oklahoma native and Army private Bradley Manning currently faces charges.  At the time of the release of these sensitive military and diplomatic documents, our government’s outrage was swift and sharp. One of the accusations made then and now as Manning prepares for trial, is the charge that his actions gave “aid to the enemy”.  It’s a broad and vague offense until you read this specific telegram message, meant to be confidential, from Libya.  It gives detailed descriptions of Libyan communities, people and social conditions which the writer observes as he moves from village to village.  Read the name, and then shiver.  The author was Chris Stevens, then working as a field officer for the State Department.

Investigations point to Stevens’ death as the result of a planned, terrorist attack.  Why were Libyan insiders so quick to identify this as a planned attack from the start?  Maybe it was because everyone knew, probably even Stevens, that this leaked document might have been one of his diplomatic tasks that put a target on his back.   Maybe Stevens hoped that he had accumulated enough good will to overcome the resentments of those he would never win over.  Maybe the State Department hoped to replace him with someone less known but who had the skills, empathy and heart to take over such a difficult assignment.

And if President Obama seemed slow to confirm our worst fears about this tragedy, it might not have been because he was “at odds” with the State Department, but because the story was more complicated and sensitive than we could have imagined.  In a poignant interview about her son, Ambassador Stevens’ mother noted that the political exploitation of his death certainly complicated her grief.

Now, as I remember my cousin Frank, the whole narrative about his death becomes less sure.  Family lore has it that he was a victim of circumstance—in the wrong place at the wrong time.  But what if he was a target?  He could have unknowingly slighted one gang over another, or offended one leader without intention.  And during the chaos of a spontaneous street fight, someone Frank offended could have taken that opportunity to eliminate a perceived enemy.  I will never know.

Stevens’ observations about Libya show that he saw a country and a people with much potential, but with troubling problems.   He described, among other things, a lack of economic stability, a growing social disruption, and restive youth populations.  In 1996, the U.S. established the National Gang Center to study the causes of our youth gang problems and has since then generated many reports and statistics.  Would it be surprising to you to see that some of its concerns mirror what Stevens observed in Libya?  Much like those who try to intervene in the gang wars of my home city, foreign diplomats depend upon their understanding turf rules while trying gingerly not to violate them.

Gangs are designed to terrorize, and whether they are in North Philly or Benghazi, and they cannot be ignored or dismissed.  Civilian soldiers, like Ambassador Stevens, choose to walk purposely onto “turfs” where they do not belong.  They do so consciously, hoping to provide a bridge that could turn a neighborhood, community and even a nation away from the turmoil of despair, and into the fragile peace of stability and hope.

We cannot afford to reduce the remarkable and heroic life Stevens led into provocative headlines and spoken innuendos.  We cannot make the tragic circumstances of his death erase the remarkable accomplishments of his life.

Ambassador Stevens’ story is not about politics.   It is about what courage truly looks like.

Ambassador Christopher Stevens: What Courage Looks Like (Part 1)


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Who knew that Benghazi, Libya, in North Africa, would become one of the most reported about places on the planet?  Tragedy and politics make strange bedfellows.

Ambassador Chris Stevens

Last month, when I read a listserv announcement about the late Ambassador Christopher Stevens, I felt I understood a lot more about this widely acclaimed man, someone who became celebrated as a diplomat with a special calling and a singular set of talents.

That his tragic death seems to be caught up in current political posturing is disheartening.  The circumstances made me want to talk about a childhood experience and a much more recent trip to Africa, and the connections to what may have happened a world away.

But first, I have to tell you a family story.  Bear with me.

Aunt Lorraine and Uncle Moses had a son.  I’ll call him Frank. He was one of a big brood, growing up in one of the toughest neighborhoods in Philadelphia.  Our parents had lived in similar environs, but they were able to move our family away.  So, my brothers and I grew up in other parts of this vast city, but we would make visits to see our cousins in North Philly.

Today, my memories of Frank are a mix of tinted impressions, idealized feelings and half-distinct facts.  I was young, on the edge of pre-teen-hood, and as I remember cousin Frank, he was all charisma, kindness, big muscles and an even bigger smile.  He invited me go with him and his girlfriend to an afternoon matinee at the famed Uptown Theater – an entertainment hotspot where live musical acts and boisterous reactions from the audience were its hallmarks.  And it was right on the fringes of one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the city, known for its gang activity.

Street gangs.  Youth gangs.  Juvenile-delinquents-who-work-in-teams.  However you think of them, the images can be frightening.  Sure, the American musical, West Side Story, stylized gang conflict.

Rival gang members posture artistically in the movie, West Side Story (Photo from Collider.com).

And watch a clip of the iconic actor, Marlon Brando, as he makes the job of a gang leader look dangerously sexy.  Fast- forward nearly four decades into the 21st century, and there is Leonardo DiCaprio, looking heroically violent, in the Gangs of New York, and you just want to hug him.

These images were not the reality of Philadelphia’s youth gangs.   Their combined reputation in the 1970s was legendary, and as a child removed from the day-to-day harshness of life on the streets, I could not come close to understanding the anxieties my parents must have felt about raising a family in the city.

Years later, in 1990, Will Smith debuted his hit television show, the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and I was an instant fan.  Visuals of sprawling and colorful graffiti—gang signatures—and the unpredictable threat of youth gangs who patrolled and controlled neighborhood turfs really resonated.  I got it.  I laughed—hard—at each episode and sang along with the opening credits, as millions of us did.

But there was a really gritty reality behind the light comedy.  Recently, I discovered a documentary on a site called Dangerous Minds that apparently was quite controversial in its time.  In 1967, three teenagers living in the vortex of gang life, wrote, produced and acted in a documentary about their lives.  Even the title—The Jungle: Philadelphia’s Mean Streets—is menacing. The images are much more disturbing.  Young narrators speak over grainy black-and-white images, telling stories of violence and retribution that gauge the volatility of the streets where they live,  as calmly as if they were giving the local weather report.

My mother had to be convinced to let me travel to this North Philadelphia of the documentary.  The Uptown Theater may have been an icon, but even in the daylight, that part of the “City of Brotherly Love” had an aura of danger and threat.  But cousin Frank was persuasive.  He was a college-educated man, and although he could have left his poverty-ridden North Philly neighborhood in the dust of a rapid escape, he stayed.  He found work with the city in social services and honed a specialty in youth gang intervention programs.

Mom relented. After the afternoon matinee, my cousin brought me back to my Aunt and Uncle’s cramped family home in North Philly where my parents were waiting for me, I can only imagine now through the lens of a parent that my mother must have exhaled audibly when she saw me.  But true to his word, Frank kept me safe. Oblivious to the potential danger, I had a fantastic time hanging out with grownups who weren’t my parents.

That was the last time I saw Frank alive.  Shortly after that, we learned that he died in a senseless tragedy, caught in the crossfire of a gang conflict that everyone said he was trying to prevent.   Our family went to his funeral, the first family death services I had ever experienced.  We sat in a section reserved for relatives, close to an open casket showing Frank in a state of orchestrated repose.  I remember emotional weeping and the frequent testimonies about my cousin’s sterling character and genuine kindness, all of which made the heaviness of the occasion seem weightier.

Then, the services took a dramatic and unrehearsed turn of events.  In single file and in rhythmic progression, several youth marched down the narrow aisle of the church leading to the casket.  They belonged to two groups, separated by differently colored bandanas around there foreheads.  As they shuffled past the open casket, each one leaned over Frank’s body.  Some kissed him.  And some gave a kind of salute.  Each one pounded a clenched fist over his own beating heart, just as he passed by Frank’s death-frozen heart.  Turns out they were representatives of the very gangs that had been at war that fatal night.

Sometimes, conflict overshadows good intentions.  I remembered this surreal funeral scene as I read some of the sympathetic comments from Libyans who, too, mourned Chris Stevens’ death.  While there is genuine sympathy in their comments, one can also read frustration among people living on the edge of survival.

The late ambassador was a dedicated professional who gave his life in service to his country.  But what I also learned from that listserv, which focuses on American Indian news and issues, was that he was also an Indian.  And I believe that his Native American roots inform his personal and professional story more than any one thing we can know about him.  Ambassador Chris Stevens was a member of the Chinook Nation, indigenous peoples whose ancestral ties connect to the Pacific Northwest, or present-day states of Washington and Oregon.   As I thought about this more, I began to believe that, as is often the case, identity is everything….

I’ll explain more in my next post.

2012 Olympics and Aprés Post-Colonialism


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I don’t know about you but I love the Olympics, especially the summer games.  Thanks to technological advances, my family and I have choices about how to keep up with this mega-event, including recording the whole thing so we can pick and choose how to watch what we want from it.  So, when the night was quiet, I gazed at the much-anticipated opening ceremonies for the 2012 competitions—every minute of it.  I even watched most of the commercials, which collectively broke records in the amounts of money being spent.  I noted the ad for The Dark Knight Rises movie, and was relieved at the short, tasteful version I saw in the wake of the recent tragedy in Aurora, CO.

Over the hours of the broadcast as I was captivated by the opening pageantry, I was duly impressed by the colors, lights, activity, music, comedy and drama of it all.  The character of “James Bond,” played by Daniel Craig and a body double for the Queen jumping out of a plane?  The comic antics of “Mr. Bean,” played by Rowan Atkinson, against the musical background of a classic masterpiece?  And, then there was the recurring and moving inclusion of young people of all ages, through choirs, dancing numbers, including a particularly captivating segment paying homage to literature and fantasy.  All of it and more presented a visual feast for viewers, and some of these pictures from the London-based Daily Mail newspaper can attest:

However, after a while, I began to think of the writings of Franz Fanon.  Fanon (1925-1961), a brilliant psychologist and scholar who was born in Algeria and educated in France, wrote incisively about the colonial European and Anglo legacies that brought both prosperity to their nations but turmoil to those they conquered.  England, the core of the once ubiquitous British Empire, showcased part of that history in its multiethnic performances throughout the night.

Even the parade of nations, that traditional processional of participating nations, highlighted this past as former colonies—Canada, Australia, Ghana, India, Nigeria, the United States and countless more English-speaking countries—participated as sovereign nations in their own right.

So, it was interesting to see how the “narrative” of England’s historical past played out in 2012.  The arc of the story moved from showing English roots in an agrarian society, progressing through an Industrial revolution and arriving at a very 21st –century peak of technological achievement.  In this story, Sir Timothy Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, reigned like a rock star (encouragement for nerds everywhere).

But omitted was the legacy of African slavery and the military-driven occupation of nations literally across the globe that fueled the prosperity contributing to the Industrial Revolution, upon which so much of the good fortunes of Western civilizations depend.  Fanon wrote searingly about this legacy and for the first time, gave voice to psychological and social scars left upon the colonized through this experience.  A foundation in his honor has established a Fanon Foundation website, and one page in English gives good insight into the complexity of his life and work, although some parts of this site are under construction still.

Should the Olympics have put a spotlight on these complex issues? Absolutely not!  Should we ourselves know and remember these issues even during a highly entertaining event?  Absolutely!

But in this “after” post-colonial era, we need to know that the multiculturalism we benefit from, and sometimes celebrate, did not happen accidentally, but through the pain and sacrifice of our often contentious ancestors.  We need to resist the temptation to paint our shared history with a happy tableau of diversity without being attuned to how our varied selves have come together. 

And, we need to look at current events, such as the Syrian rebellion and other “Arab Spring” movements partly through the lens of post-colonialism, because we will not understand anything completely without this measuring stick.  To do this, we all have to support education at every level in our schools that venture to bring difficult truths to our students.  We have to allow this without castigating such discussions as unpatriotic, communistic, or erroneous.

In the meantime, I will continue to follow the Olympics through the comprehensive coverage NBC and others will offer.  I will celebrate, as we all should, this exceptional time and space the Olympics provides when we can both root for country, yet celebrate the achievements of our global neighbors.  I think the symbolism of the torch’s lighting before the parade of nations showed it best.  Seven athletes with individual torches ignited seven more, which artfully spread through an array of over 50 more combustible lamps on the floor.  Then, on some invisible cue, they all rose in the air, and together formed one flaming ball.

We all come from different places, but together, we are one world. One planet. One destiny.

Fathers and Walls


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It was the middle of December 2010, but sweaty hot in Lagos, Ghana.  My friend and university colleague, Loretta Bass, and I were trying to navigate dust and sidewalk in a compact industrial and residential area looking for one man.

He was the sole contact for a Ghana-based site connected to the Opportunities Industrialization Center,or O.I.C.  This innovative job training program has a long and illustrious story, but I only wanted to know about one topic at that moment—my Dad, John J. Carstarphen Sr.

Dad during one of his work trips in Ghana for O.I.C.

I left that short visit to go on to finish the university business that had sent me to Africa without finding anything that I thought I needed to know about Dad.  So, I was stunned to open my email a short time later to find that this tenuous meet-and-greet with a man I didn’t know produced something precious to me about a man I did know.  There was attached a picture of a group of people, including my Dad, who went to Africa four decades ago to help expand the O.I.C. success to Africa.

If you look at this picture on the back row, on the right, you will see a man in a white shirt mostly hidden and almost absorbed into the background.  That was Dad.  There wasn’t a lot of fanfare about him and he wasn’t famous.  He worked hard and tried to make a difference for people in his sphere of influence.

As kids growing up, my brothers and I knew, vaguely, that Dad traveled sometimes for work and would be gone for a long time.  This picture put an important layer of reality to his job, and life for me.

Today we honor fathers and the meaning of “fathering,” and indeed we should.  Yet, I bet for many of us, we honor mysteries and hidden lives.  We grow up seeing the outer shape of a man doing what we expect dads to do, but often we have no real idea of what they experience as men, trying to find their places in this world.

Dad and I enjoying a tour of the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta.

Two literary geniuses of our modern times tried to reveal this world to us.  One was the playwright Arthur Miller.   He wrote Death of A Salesman and is frequently remembered as one of actor Marilyn Monroe’s husbands.  But in this play, Miller wrote one of the most piercing insights into the life of an ordinary working man and a father to be written.  On June 10, this drama one a 2012 Tony Award for the “Best Revival” with performances that apparently impressed judges and critics, as have previous versions starring actors Lee J. Cobb and Dustin Hoffman.  As we see the main character, Willie Loman, pummeled by life and in conflict with his sons, we hear him cling to the vision of himself where he is someone special.  I am not a dime a dozen, he says.  I am Willie Loman.

Another dramatic masterpiece of equal power is August Wilson’s Fences.  Recognized as one of our country’s greatest playwrights, August Wilson wrote from the context of the African American experience.  In Fences, the main protagonist is Troy Maxson, who gives insight into his complex worldview after a contentious exchange with his son.  Explaining why he doesn’t have to “like” his son to provide for him, Troy finishes a punishing exchange by giving his son a life lesson: Don’t worry if someone likes you; just make sure they do right by you.

These plays feature two ordinary mean, with two different worldviews but a shared emotional core.  Both believe that they are more valuable than what the world has known of them.  One strives vainly for this recognition, while another burns slowly under the weight of knowing that he will never achieve it.  Yet, as Miller wrote in his play, “attention must be paid” to men like Willie, to men like Troy, and all of the vast numbers of men who are not named.  Have you wondered—is your dad a Willie or a Troy?

Today, and throughout the year, let’s pay attention.  We should attend to the men who are fathers not just because they have biological bragging rights, but because they go to work every day and come home.  They may be the step-parents, grand-parents, god-parents or “spiritual” dads to children of all ages.  They may be the husbands of some father’s daughter.  Whoever they are, they are the foundations of what we know and what we think we know, because they showed up, and kept showing up when they didn’t have to.

My dad was a mystery in many ways to us kids.  He went to Africa and other places for work, but he always came back.   Now, my brother is working on an ambitious film project that will help shed light on what he was coming back to, and what so many other men of his generation had to face.  This documentary is called The Wall, and it is stunning so far.  John is still a way from completing it as he works on acquiring more investments [hint, hint] for this amazing project.

Let me know what you think.

Sybrina Fulton and Trayvon Martin: About Raising Children On the Cusp of Fear and Hope


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The first time I got an inkling that Mother’s Day could be something other than joyful was when I watched my mother grieve the loss of her own mom,  my grandmother Patsy.  I remember how we were in the wood-paneled basement of our three-story Philadelphia home when she got the call.  I can still her cradling the beige telephone handset on her chest with closed eyes after the sad news came from Louisiana.  Decades later, I struggled with my own grief (and still do) when Mother’s Day rolls around.  Although I was in the room with my mom and held her hand as she breathed her last, I have to fight to turn my thoughts from grief and longing, to gratitude and joyful memory for having had her in my life.

So, I think of these things today as I write this tribute in honor of Sybrina Fulton whose video message to all mothers is something everyone should view.  If this name is familiar, it should be.  Sybrina Fulton is the poised, but grieving mother of slain teenage Trayvon Martin, whose tragic death in Florida has sparked news coverage nationally and beyond.  Today, on her Twitter account, Sybrina sent a post that begins:

“As I send you this message, my heart hurts and my eyes are full of tears for my beloved son Trayvon.”

There is no way that anyone can attempt to interpret her grief and I certainly won’t try to here.  I do know that today is only one of the many bumps in the road she will face on the road to closure and peace about her son’s loss.  She has courageously transferred her grief into action, with the formation of the Justice for Trayvon Martin Foundation designed to address what she believes were underlying issues contributing to her son’s untimely death.  The second-degree murder trial of her son’s self-confessed killer, George Zimmerman is likely not to occur until October 2013 or later, prolonging her anxiety.  Still, Sybrina must be heartened by the generous donations of leave time by her co-workers in the Miami-Dade County, where she has worked for 23 years.  Their gifts will allow her to take eight months off and retain a salary while she waits, watches and prays.

Raising a child in any day and age is a challenge.  As parents, we want to protect our children from harm and yet propel them to navigate their own way through a future we cannot know.  African American mothers often struggle with raising their children through a contradictory message of fear and hope.  Our children, like all children, must know how to walk boldly in this world in order to claim all that it has to offer.  Yet as parents and elders we know that there are unseen terrors, unspoken threats and invisible enemies lurking.  How do we voice these without shutting down our children’s desire to go confidently into their unseen futures?

I call this mindset constructive paranoia.  To explain it, consider the definition of paranoia.  It is when you think people are out to get you.  But…. what if there are some people who really are out to get you?  Then, you learn to be guarded around people who might be threats in broad ways in order to be protected against the narrow chances when that caution might be justified.  In the wake of Tayvon Martin’s murder, some commentators have referred to this as “the talk” and explicated how some of the elements of this bittersweet conversation between parents and their children.

Look around.  If you can, observe children from different ethnic backgrounds in the presence of their parents, and watch the African American kids.  Do they seem more restrained on the playground?  Are they less vocal in public gatherings? Are they far less likely to, for instance, wander up and down the aisles of a supermarket unattended without some adult sternly pulling them back into view?  Or, when some children boldly verbally challenge adults, or break into the front of a line without apology, watch whose parents are nonchalant and whose are agitated.  Because one child’s “cute” behavior is another child’s accidental slip into danger.

Sybrina Fulton’s grief is no doubt compounded by this familiar dilemma.  She tried to raise her son for freedom, describing him as a typical teen in many a media account.  Trayvon got to play video games, travel to New York City, and imagine a career in aviation. And yet he died after being shot on a visit to his father just yards away from the townhome where he slept.  Does she wonder, in the irrational way that grieving hearts can do, if there was something else she could have warned her son about that could have saved his life.

Raising children on the cusp of fear and hope is an all too-familiar place for many parents with African American children.  It is a space created by the social condition of racial stereotyping and distrust, and it is something we all must battle.  Because when a Trayvon Martin dies, and a George Zimmerman kills him, we all lose, and the hearts of two mothers break in unfixable ways.