Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Untouchables: Black America's Obsession and Idolization of the Black Exception


     First and foremost, I am a Hip Hop/Rap fan--have been since I memorized L.L. Cool J's "I'm Bad" from the "Bigger and Deffer" album.  Or maybe even before then when my cousin and I exhausted our Krush Groove VHS tape--literally memorizing every single line from every single character and every single song performed in the movie or used in the movie's soundtrack.  So, there is no way, particularly as an English Literature major, writer, and self-proclaimed rhetorician, can I deny the verbal flow and narrative skills of Jay Z/Jay Hova, the God M.C.  But, I often wonder why he, like so many other Black American exceptions, steer clear of certain sociopolitical or racial conflict and discourse that often arises in 21st Century popular culture.  Case in point--the Barney's of New York racial profiling incident that occurred a little more than a week ago. 

     Before I delve into why I believe that Shawn Carter, aka Jay Z, should take a stance in this particular incident, I must first disseminate my definition of a "Black American Exception".  As far as my thirty-something eyes can see, I believe a “Black” exception to be one who has been granted the privilege, via above-average intellect, talent, and skill, be it through the luck of the draw or particular circumstance, whether it being educated in the right schools, granted a specific scholarship, growing up in a certain neighborhood, or networking with the right Black or white people has achieved above average social, financial, educational, or occupational standing in American society, and therefore, maintains a broader scope of influence than the average ‘Black ‘bear, or Negro. 

     It has been reported by numerous national media outlets that there have been complaints of racial profiling by Barneys, and Macy’s, in New York City.  Now, hip hop lyricist, legend, royalty, and mogul Jay Z apparently has a deal with Barney’s to sell his fashion line in their stores and is even donating 25% of the proceeds to a scholarship fund to help under-privileged youth go to college---you know, have a chance at the ‘American Dream.’  Yet, after the allegations of profiling were revealed to the public, Jay Z was reticent in speaking on the incident and took several days to speak on the matter, and when he did, he only said, “I move and speak based on facts and not emotion...I haven't made any comments because I am waiting on facts and the outcome of a meeting between community leaders and Barneys. Why am I being demonised, denounced, and thrown on the cover of a newspaper for not speaking immediately?”  Well, sir, because you are in a fiscal partnership with this particular brand and that brand, maybe not directly, but indirectly, maintains employees that seem to deem Black, African-Americans unqualified to purchase items from the store in which they labor.  And you, being the mogul and voice of a Hip Hop generation and blackened Horatio Alger figure that you, are have a dog in this fight---and a very big dog at that.

     From his rhetorical abilities, lyrical prowess, and extreme proficiency in the construction of narrative tales of the social, economic, racial, and classist ills that have inundated the United States since its inception, and his knowledge of the aforementioned, lead me to believe that he, and other Black exceptions like himself seem to be removed from their civil responsibility to uplift and properly represent the other 90% that DuBois once said the talented tenth were, in essence, responsible for.  He and his wife, R&B megastar Beyonce, have a net worth of well over $650 Million and literally have nothing to lose in being an active voice in reconstructing the hierarchical structure of 21st century American racial and socioeconomic politics. 

                                                                                                                    -Gee Joyner



Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Murky Matrix of Contemporary Ministry: Piety, Privilege, and the Preachers of L.A.



        Earlier this week a pastor was being interviewed by a student who was intrigued by the pastor’s ministerial authenticity and perspective.  Throughout the interview the student expressed a disdain and disgust towards the traditional, dominant (mainstream) ministerial expressions/productions and was somewhat taken aback by the pastor’s affirmation of her disgust and disdain.  To add to the enchanting exchange, the student expressed a desire to visit the pastor’s house of worship, at least in part, because (although she didn’t currently attend worship regularly anywhere as a byproduct of her disgust and disdain) she wanted her “at risk” son to have an encounter and relationship with God.  “Ironic” would be a blasphemous understatement.  Strangely, this is the same relationship that she presumed was accessible through traditional methods (i.e. Sunday worship in a Christian context) but yet had not been persuaded to seek this same God out for herself through the same means (at least not in the last decade or so, to her recollection). 

The tenor of her inquiry was more so one of parental control and even pious conceit on behalf of one who took the liberty and privilege to abort the traditional access route to divine encounter but still affirmed it enough to use it as a means of advancing her own desires.  This theological transaction is consistent with what my mother would call, “trying to have your [Christological] cake and eat it too!”  And I want to suggest that this awkward and ironic moment is descriptive of the murky matrix of contemporary ministry.

In this age of post-modernity and religious reformation, we are now thrust into a system of both spiritual skepticism and religious refuge.  This inspirational irony is where a new “Theology of Convenience” has been injected in the veins of most people who would dare to still claim that there is a God somewhere that is in relationship with human beings.  Gone are the days of religious absolutism or doctrinal dogma as the dominant platforms of faith.  There has been far too many developments in theological study as well as political reality for the church to continue to do “business as usual.”  It’s sacred suicide to think that the people the Church is called to serve will forever be blind sheep and indefinitely ignore the critical questions people have about church ministry and church methodology.  The “emergent church”, as some have labeled it, or the new contemporary ministerial reality, is one of anything but..... (wait for it)..... CERTAINTY! 

I do not believe there is anything inherently wrong with a faith that exists in the midst of oscillation.  In fact, I would suggest, certainty is the enemy of faith and a hermeneutic of suspicion is a theologian’s (or person of faith’s) best friend.  Nevertheless, some of our skepticism, in-deed, is a byproduct of the bed we have been making ourselves to sleep in for the past few decades. 

We have longed for a religious reality TV faith that superstar like spiritual leaders have provided through books, radio and television programs.  We like microwave solutions to humanity’s crockpot problems.  These technological expressions of eternal enlightenment intrigue us to the point of consumption; even as we recognize what we are watching is a train wreck that has the black church and its constituents residing in the conductor’s caboose of the train as it is headed towards the collision. (PREACHERS OF L.A. ANYBODY?). 

I have heretofore refrained from commentating on this show because a) there are enough perspectives being offered in response to it and b) most of the responses are opportunistic and/or hypo-anti-critical so I said I would wait until the entire “buzz” died down (which sadly still has not).  Nevertheless, my fortuitous take on the show is the same as my take on the current condition of people who seek to honor and claim relationship with a loving and liberating God but yet feel that this relationship comes through a cross-less Christ and a death-less resurrection.  We have become both vicarious and voyeuristic!  Most of us have seen the presumed “progress and advancement” of the people that have acquired material prosperity through their “faith.”  It looks appealing. We want to be like and live vicariously through “them.” Even if this means to worship in a way that is inconsistent with our socio-political and religious reality (pun intended) we are willing to ignore our experience for social and spiritual affirmation.  On the other hand we are voyeuristically “getting off” on the craziness and calamity of it all.  We want to use other people’s seemingly unethical methods of personal “improvement” as justification for our disdain and distrust of the ministerial system that we support directly or indirectly. 

Therefore, 21st Century ministry is currently compiled of ecclesiastical entertainment, divine drama and dogma, traditional strongholds, the reality of human hope and despair, as well as a thirst for theological truth grounded in social justice...but very little personal responsibility!!!  In response, we are currently entertaining ourselves into irrelevance and death all the while creating and supporting conditions that make this entertainment detrimental and desirous at the same damn time! 

Part of what goes unchecked is that perspective and platform that the student interviewer lifted up while standing on in the interview.  The student presumed that she could critique the church for its lack of relevance and authoritative power to speak to her experience but also use it to forward her parental desire of childrearing, all the while not feeling compelled to change the culture and system of ministerial methodology.  This is classic apathy!  It takes a peculiar type of ministerial leader to provide a platform of oppression in the name of a liberating Lord and Savior. Yet, it also takes a particularly passive type of “person of faith” to support the religious and oppressive buffoonery in the name of “godliness.” 

We have legitimately critiqued our religious institutions.  But yet, at our core it seems we have not abandoned the faith.  As a public theologian I think that this is not only a good thing, but I also think it’s nearly impossible to abandon faith once one has had a divine encounter.   We have just created a condition that requires more ministerial and clergymatic creativity for a liberating and divine encounter to be more probable.  I have often said that creativity is the church’s defibrillator that is needed to bring ministry out of the coma of complacency, conformity and cowardice that has sacrificed our people on the offer of irrelevance for far too long. My prayer is that we can foster a climate that grounds our ministerial and theological expressions in ways that are consistent with our experience and communal needs for love and justice.  I believe a partnership between critical and analytical thinkers, artists, academics, activists and “everyday people” can redefine what it means to be “Church” today.  In doing so, we can corner the ministerial market and stop producing and promoting the things that are often times the most regressive and damning in our communities. 

But in the meantime, as we are watching what we watch, wearing what we wear and worshiping who and how we worship..... Be careful what you pray for...and who you prey on.  
                                                                                     Rev. Earle J. Fisher

Thursday, October 24, 2013

12 Years a Slave: Monkey Rope


After beating a white slave driver with his own whip in 12 Years a Slave, Solomon Upnorth, a kidnapped freeman from Saratoga, New York, is hung from a tree—not successfully though. As the slave driver and two other men attempt to get Solomon entirely off of his feet, the overseer comes and warns these men have no property right to kill this man. If the slave driver insisted on lynching Solomon, the overseer insisted on shooting the slave driver, and his friends. The slave driver and his friends retreat, leaving Solomon hanging. With his feet close enough to the ground, Solomon teeters between life and death on his tip toes. It wasn’t until later that evening, when the plantation owner had returned, that Solomon had been cut down from that tree.
            Darker than the possibility that other slaves would watch a man hang from a tree was the reality that these slaves had gone about their day as if there had not been a man hanging from a tree. The movie theater grumbled as the scene progressed with everyone asking the same question, “Oh my god, why isn’t anyone helping him?” As the grumbles stopped, people began to realize that nooses were monkey-ropes. Not only were they fastened around the necks of the men and women who hung from trees, they were anchored to the spirits of the people who had to endure what they saw. When necks broke, spirits did too. This is what asphyxiation looks like.
            We all see the asphyxia. Every time a fight breaks out we’re all gasping for “WorldStar!” That monkey-rope which connected people through suffering and beauty is severed. Now we see what monkeys do—and it’s funny, isn’t it?

                                                                                        -Yahdon Israel

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Mammy and the Mulatto: The Oddity of Oprah and Obama


     Aside from the dust up between the Dixie Chicks and George W. Bush and the former's disapproval of the U.S. war in Iraq, we have never seen a celebrity beef with the President of the United States that has been so personal as the rumored rift between media mogul, philanthropist, and part-time actress Oprah Winfrey and current Commander-in-Chief Barack Obama.  Because nearly every American resident, including beasts, has some form of access to information and the media (television, internet, newspapers, and word of mouth), I refuse to presume your ignorance by intricately detailing the alleged rift between the two public figures, but I will write an extremely brief synopsis. 

     It is reported that Winfrey declined an invitation to the White House that was to be a gathering of celebrities to promote and support the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare as it has been labeled by the media pundits (mainly Fox News).  Considering her global influence and likeability played a major role in helping Obama win the 2008 election, I can see how people may believe there to be dissension amongst the ranks of America's Black exceptions.

    What is odd about this alleged rift between the two internationally recognized figures of color is that both of them maintain positions of ethnic/racial exceptionalism in the United States, and for the most part, both of them have a soothing appeal towards white audiences while maintaining a revered, and often times tepid, relationship with the Black American populace.  One would assume that the two of them would be lifelong friends and allies. The irony is that both Obama and Oprah have been whitewashed to an extent by the media so that they are more palpable to a non-Black audience and are upheld as the embodiment of the American Dream; You too can be loved and admired by white America if you do like them--don't be too Black and don't be too Black.
     Both of them are bipartisan in their approach to bridging the racial gap in American society, yet it seems that maybe Ms. Winfrey felt her contributions to his campaign, via her constant television and media presence, were to be the precursor of her being privy to White House access, and the receipient of nepotism at its best. Maybe Oprah, for all her success, wealth, and notoriety, forgot that a celebrity endorsement is much different than corporate lobbying for a political campaign.  Donations and support are given in exchange for pushing a lobbyist's agenda.

      What was Winfrey's agenda?  Just to be seen in the White House and on the arm of Barack and Michelle Obama?  Was she trying to grow or seemingly exhausted and ungrowable leviathon of celebrity?  Until now, and I was a child when Oprah hit the national scene in the mid 1980s, I, and probably every other American, has never known Ms. Winfrey's sociopolitical views barring her position on child abuse.  She was building a brand and that brand may have been damaged when after becoming a billionaire and thriving for more than two decades in the entertainment business, she decided to throw herself into America's political arena. Some say backing Obama had affected the success, or lack thereof, of her OWN television network.   Maybe she thought her position in America's hierarchical structure was higher than it really is. She is a celebrity and philanthropist.  Plain and simple.  She is not a politician or one of the invisible hands that clandestinely governs the nation's government, people, and economy.  She is a Black, female billionaire who lent her voice in support of Obama's 2008 presidential campaign.  He won in 2008, was reelected in 2012, and no longer needs her stamp of approval.  And just maybe, America's favorite talk-show host is upset and thus, declined his latest invite. 

     The conundrum of being a Black "exception" is that one often believes their exceptionalism should be celebrated, if not deified, by all--even other Black exceptions.  American media posited Oprah as a rotund, congenial comforter of sorts for her viewing audience ala Mammy while the same media, and political, machine posited Obama as the congenial mullato that can literally appeal to the dichotomy of America's racial makeup--Black and white.  Each of them has achieved enormous success in their respective fields and serve as measuring sticks for their contemporaries and standards of success for their less fortunate, less wealthy, and less famous Negroidian brethren, but do not seem to realize that they have no need to be beefing if that's what it really is.  I mean, who really turns down an invite from the POTUS?  Oprah.  That's who? Oh, and former Chicago Bears defensive tackle and Hall of Famer Dan Hampton.

                                                                                                                   -Gee Joyner