LOS ANGELES, August 16, 2013 — We are only a few weeks away from the 50-year anniversary of the March on Washington. Blacks in America, along with the rest of the nation are appropriately reflecting on what that March meant for Civil Rights, how far (or not) we have come in meeting the goals set by our forbears, and how we can continue to honor that legacy.
As a black woman, I often feel the weight on my shoulders to not only live up to, but to capitalize on its endowments. Of great concern is whether any of my contemporaries, and the generation following also felt this way. We have a responsibility to not squander the freedom for which others paid. So it is rather appalling to see blacks that have a huge platform failing at this.
Oprah is an historical figure whose media empire is legendary. As one of the richest women on the planet, with earnings estimated at 77 million this year alone, she has bested the first black millionaire, Madame CJ Walker, and then some. The mere fact that Oprah is one of the most respected women in the business, has a huge platform, and can mount movies and press junkets without blinking an eyelash, is a testament to how far we have come. So attributing racism to a Zurich sales clerk’s reluctance to show her a $39,000 handbag is not only griping and petty, but reeks of opportunism; especially since her new movie, “The Butler”, releases today.
Russell Simmons, the rap mogul of Def Jam Records, Phat Farm, and All Def Digital is also an historical figure for his transformation of the music industry and popular culture. Yet, instead of living up to that weight, he chose to show rank disrespect for the powerful heritage of Harriet Tubman. Simmons allowed a video on his All Def Digital YouTube channel that depicted an actress portraying Tubman having sex with her “Massa” in order to allow her to run the Underground Railroad. The outcry was swift and appropriate, and the video was taken down. Simmons issued what he calls an apology on his Globalgrind.com site, and mentions his “buddies” at the NAACP asked for its removal. It is shameful that the video was even uploaded in the first place.
Are we even making efforts to live up to the standards laid out for us by our forbears? If Simmons and Oprah were the only examples, I would say we are not. However, two other individuals give renewed hope.
Danielle C. Belton and Don Lemon do not yet have the enormous media platforms of Oprah and Simmons, but they have platforms in their own right. Belton is an editor-at-large for Clutch, a magazine on black culture, politics, and style. Don Lemon is a CNN weekend anchor who launched himself in the crosshairs on July 27 with his “No Talking Points”, where Lemon dared to actually agree with Bill O’Reilly. On “The Factor” earlier that week, O’Reilly attributed the decay in the black community to the demise of the family structure, lack of emphasis on education, and too much street culture infecting young lives. Lemon responded, “Bill’s got a point. In fact, he’s got more than a point. In my estimation, he doesn’t go far enough.” Lemon dared to go further, outlining “Five ways to fix the black community”. His recommendations: Pull up your pants up; Stop lying about any positive use of the “N” word; Respect where you live; Finish school; and Stop having babies out of wedlock.
This culminated in attacks from the usual “race guardians” like Michael Eric Dyson, as well as outrage from some viewers; much the same as this writer experienced concerning a certain article written about Rachel Jeantel and literacy. Russell Simmons also penned an open letter to Don Lemon employing the hackneyed pejorative of “Uncle Tom” and calling him a slave. This from the man who has overseen the demoralization of Black women through rap music, videos, and most recently the green lighting of that offensive Harriet Tubman sex tape.
In a piece published on The Root, Danielle Belton explored the question, “Have I wasted the Civil Rights Legacy?” Belton writes, “Our parents, to the contrary of our perceived decadence and weakness, explained to us that love doesn’t work that way. That they and those before them had fought hard so their children could have what they and so many others had not had. A choice.”
I recently celebrated the benefits of choice at my 30-year high school reunion. Lane Tech College Prep is a school located on a side of Chicago that used to be primarily white, and began its history as all white and all male. This daughter of a mother who grew up in the Jim Crow South is a proud graduate of the institution, and part of the school’s legacy. I stood tall on the shoulders of my ancestors, and hope to offer shoulders to the successive generation to do better, and achieve more—not foolishly devolve back into a victim mentality.
Lemon and Belton are saying the same things: as Blacks we have choices that our predecessors only dreamed about, yet fought hard, and even died for us to realize. We must stop wallowing, stop crying racism and victimization where none exists, and start making better use of those choices. When taken for granted, what was acquired under blood, sweat, and pain of death can too easily be taken away.
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