Black Conservatives: Beyond the Plantation

Black Conservatives: Beyond the Plantation

FREE AT LAST?: In ‘Runaway Slave,’ pastor and activist C.L. Bryant and other African American conservatives reject liberal politics and ask whether big government entitlements are a new form of slavery.

The title of the new film Runaway Slave might lead some to dismiss it as just another dramatization of a commonly rehearsed chapter of black history in America. But when one discovers that the film is actually a documentary about a politically liberal African American pastor’s conversion into the conservative political movement, the title suddenly takes on a much more provocative tone. On one level, Reverend C.L. Bryant’s Runaway Slave is a coming-of-age narrative about his shift from being a pastor and NAACP Chapter President to being a prominent defender of small government, free markets, and personal responsibility. On another level, however, it is a clear rebuke of what the filmmakers perceive as the black community’s enslavement to the Democratic Party and progressive politics. Bryant wants us to understand that the black community is not a political monolith, and that our moral and economic concerns might be better addressed by the Republican Party’s conservative platform.

A press release for the movie leaves no doubt about the film’s point of view. After announcing that the movie comes to us “from the creators of Tea Party: The Documentary Film,” it goes on to describe the film’s general premise:

Rev. Bryant takes viewers on an historic journey across America that traces the footsteps of runaway slaves who escaped to freedom along routes that became known as the Underground Railroad. But in the film, he also travels a “new underground railroad” upon which Black Conservatives are speaking out against big government policies which have established a “new plantation” where “overseers” like the NAACP and so-called “civil rights” leaders keep the Black community 95 percent beholden to one political party.

And interviews from such noted conservative figures as Glenn Beck, Herman Cain, Star Parker, and the late Andrew Breitbart help the film draw clear ideological lines in the sand. Fans of 2016: Obama’s America, another controversial conservative documentary released this year, will find much here to “amen” to as well.

The great achievement of Runaway Slave is its geographically and ideologically diverse portrait of black conservatism. Bryant talks with financial conservatives like Marvin Rodgers, a Rock Hill, South Carolina, an aspiring politician who emphasizes the “pocketbook politics” of supporting small businesses and encouraging entrepreneurship. He speaks with academics like the economist Thomas Sowell, conservative school-reform advocates, right-to-life activists, and small business owners. Interestingly, everyone but the Wall Street and country club conservatives are present. Their omission is noteworthy — precious few black conservatives are a part of the proverbial 1 percent. Nevertheless, by interviewing grassroots activists and organizations in nearly every region of the country, Bryant convincingly demonstrates that black conservatism is a national thread within the African American political tradition.

The film sets forth a conventionally conservative view of government: lower taxes; less government regulation; strong defense of property rights. Additionally, participants construe the government as a presumptuous behemoth that presents itself as the “Daddy,” “Slave Master,” and “God” of American citizens. In this framework, reducing the size of the public sector becomes an article of faith, not simply a political position.

Two dynamics merit mentioning here. First, deep appreciation for our nation’s originating documents — the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, etc. — sits alongside profound disappointment with the current state of government. If our origins are laudable and our contemporary moment is lamentable, as the movie claims, then we must conclude that we lost our national footing somewhere along the way. The documentary avoids conceptual clarity about how this moment of decline happened, when it happened, and who is responsible for it. Progressives and Socialists — two distinct traditions which are conflated in the film — are blamed for leading America astray, but the accusation is too vague to persuade anyone who is not already a true believer.

Secondly, the attacks on government are general — there is no exploration of the merits and demerits of Social Security, Medicare, and the GI Bill, for instance, programs that are popular across the political spectrum. Instead, the viewer encounters Government as a monstrosity that overtaxes, overregulates, and overreaches at every turn.

Runaway Slave is also noteworthy for its conservative form of American civil religion. Many Americans are familiar with more progressive forms of civil religion — Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial or Abraham Lincoln’s second Inaugural Address, for example. But there is another side to American exceptionalism. U.S. congressman Allen West of Florida alludes to this tradition when citing Matthew 5 to position America as “a city set on a hill.” America, in this view, is the country where you reap what you sow. A land where hard work, education, and the hand of Providence guides families upward on the ladder of social mobility. It’s not difficult to see how many of these cultural values have become inseparable from the American brand of Christianity.

After watching the documentary, the viewer is left to wonder: what distinguishes conservative visions of government from the liberal visions? Reverend Bryant is not endorsing a libertarian or anarchist view of society. Despite his impassioned pleas about escaping from the plantation, there is no sign that he wants to destroy the master’s house. That is to say, Runaway Slave does not explicitly or implicitly advocate dismantling our social insurance system, ending subsidies to large agribusiness corporations, or stopping the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps).

Generally speaking, political realities temper the policy visions of liberals and conservatives. Bryant documents a deep commitment to liberty within the American political tradition. Rightly so. But there is little — if any — mention of our political tradition of equality, a complementary thread in our tapestry. The argument of the film would be strengthened if it directly addressed, for instance, the policy trade-offs that Presidents Nixon (expanding food stamps, starting the Environmental Protection Agency) and Bush (Medicare prescription drug program, comprehensive immigration reform proposal) made between liberty and equality. That oversight notwithstanding, Runaway Slave is one of the most expansive treatments of black conservatism currently available, and is therefore worth watching and discussing.

View the theatrical trailer below, and visit the Runaway Slave website for information on where to see the film in your area.

Whitney’s Final ‘Sparkle’

Whitney’s Final ‘Sparkle’

SHINING STARS: Whitney Houston and Jordin Sparks star as a mother and daughter in ‘Sparkle,’ the remake of the 1976 classic about the highs and lows of a family singing group during the Motown era.

Sparkle hits movie theaters this weekend with a star-studded cast of black actors and entertainers. Based on the 1976 classic, this remake is a cautionary tale that chronicles the story of three sisters in their rise to fame as they navigate the twists and turns of the music industry.

American Idol-winner Jordin Sparks, in her film debut, plays the lead role of Sparkle, while pop star Cee Lo Green, actors Derrick Luke and Carmen Ejogo, and comedian Mike Epps appear in supporting roles. But there’s no doubt that throughout the film, all eyes will be on the late Whitney Houston, who plays the mother of the aspiring girl group.

In the film, the three sisters (Sparks, Ejogo, and Teka Sumpter) move up the record charts as they sing and dance in high fashion. In their search for fame, the girls are swept away by mesmerizing men, challenged by the demands of life, and overcome by the dreams that almost tear their family apart.

It’s quite ironic, then, that this is the last project Whitney Houston completed before her untimely death on February 11, the night before the Grammy Awards. At 48 years old, Whitney accidentally drowned in her hotel bathtub. The coroner’s report later revealed that cocaine was a contributing factor in her death.

After her tragic passing, the world reflected on Whitney’s life and how we watched her grow up to fulfill her dreams. Much like the girls in the movie, she was beautiful, rich, and famous. She had it all, and yet there was immense sorrow which ultimately led to her demise. Until her final days, she continued to smile, pursue her dreams, and to profess her love for Christ. And she continued to sing!

Singing, of course, will be a highlight in Sparkle, which features songs from the original film written by the great Curtis Mayfield as well as new compositions by R. Kelly. The movie was preceded by a soundtrack release which includes Whitney’s final musical recordings. In what is sure to be a highlight of the film, she sweetly sings “His Eye is on a Sparrow,” a song that encourages us to sing even in the midst of suffering and sorrow. And even in her absence, Whitney’s performance emanates with hope.

Yet I wonder, what is a proper response when singing and dream chasing is the catalyst for sadness? The painful reality is there are almost too many parallels between Whitney’s life and the lives of the girls in the movie. I wonder what kind of responses that will elicit in the theaters this weekend. As we sit and watch, I wonder if we will “Celebrate” as she and Jordin encourage us to do in their recently released single from the soundtrack. I wonder if we will shed a tear at the new images of Whitney, her gentle grace, or the sound of her voice as she lifts her hands to worship God during the church scene. Will we pause and reflect?

You see Sparkle causes us to consider important questions. What happens when we get exactly what we want? Will we hold on to our family, faith, and friendships? Will we hold fast to our dreams at all costs? And what happens to us — our identity — when those dreams are lost or deferred? How will we respond when our dreams are fulfilled? Will we sparkle? Will we shine like a light, or will our lights flicker and go out like an ember in the darkness?

Whatever the case may be, Sparkle opens tomorrow, August 17, in theaters everywhere. So grab your girlfriends, get a date, and head to a cineplex near you. And then let us know what you think.

Praying for the People of Aurora

Praying for the People of Aurora

CRIME SCENE: Police cars and emergency vehicles gather around the Century 16 Theatre in Aurora, Colorado, where early this morning a gunman opened fire on moviegoers during a midnight showing of “The Dark Knight Rises.” (Photo: Jonathan Castner/Newscom)

“A lone gunman dressed in riot gear burst into a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., at a midnight showing of the Batman film ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ and methodically began shooting patrons, killing at least 12 people and injuring at least 50,” ABC News reported this morning.

The outpouring of prayer has been swift. President Obama, speaking from a campaign event in Fort Meyers, Florida, asked for a moment of silence and prayed that the Lord bring would bring the people of Aurora “comfort and healing in hard days to come.” He also promised to “stand by our neighbors in Colorado during this extraordinarily difficult time” and expressed heartbreak on behalf of “the entire American family.” The president didn’t hesitate to call the shooter’s violent rampage “evil.” But he also said the tragedy provides us with an opportunity to reflect on “what makes life worth living.”

“If there’s anything to take away from this tragedy it’s the reminder that life is very fragile.  Our time here is limited and it is precious.  And what matters at the end of the day is not the small things, it’s not the trivial things, which so often consume us and our daily lives.  Ultimately, it’s how we choose to treat one another and how we love one another,” said President Obama.

Both Religion News Service and The Huffington Post published round-ups of tweets from faith leaders regarding the tragedy. Charisma magazine followed with condolences from politicians, including House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who said, “Confronted with incomprehensible evil, Americans pull together and embrace our national family more tightly. I join President Obama, and every American, in sending my thoughts and prayers to the victims of this awful tragedy. We will all stand with them, as one nation, in the days ahead.”

At The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf referred to a 2000 Atlantic article about how police in Colorado and elsewhere have changed their training and protocol for mass shootings in public places. Before Columbine, first responders “never rushed in,” but now, “they are being taught to enter a building if they are the first to arrive at the scene, to chase the gunman, and to kill or disable him as quickly as possible.” Sadly, in Aurora, they were too late for 62 people or more.

“It is time we acknowledge US has a domestic terrorism problem with carnage multiplied by easy access to firearms,” tweeted Mercer University ethicist David Gushee.

The city of Aurora is holding a “dark night prayer vigil” at the Aurora municipal building tonight at 7:00 pm, said Colorado Community Church pastor Robert Gelinas on his Facebook page.

Let’s join all these voices in praying for the Aurora community, the families of those who’ve died, the survivors whose lives are forever changed, and for an end to domestic terrorism.

A Cut Above: Honoring the Tuskegee Airmen

A Cut Above: Honoring the Tuskegee Airmen

HIGHER GROUND: Pilots of a Tuskegee Airmen unit, circa May 1943, likely in Southern Italy or North Africa. The Airmen were the first African American military aviators in the United States armed forces. (Photo: Wikipedia)

This week’s observance of Memorial Day, along with the recent release of the film Red Tails (now available on DVD and Blu-ray), brought back memories of a highlight from my life and career. Two years ago, I had the honor of interviewing four extraordinary men for a local paper in San Antonio: Buck Sergeant Warren H. Eusan, Mr. John “Mule” Miles, Lt. Colonel Gene Derricotte, and Lt. Colonel Granville Coggs. I was noticeably nervous going in, knowing that I’d be interviewing a part of history — a remnant of the illustrious Tuskegee Airmen.

The men, all well into their eighth decade, looked distinguished and refined. I was captivated by their profound stories. With every question I asked, the reality of just how special they were began to unfold. As the first African American aviators in the U.S. armed forces, their courage and success during World War II helped open doors to military service that were once off limits to certain minority groups. Their experiences spoke of a confidence born of great achievement against enormous odds. Indeed, after they took flight, the whole world watched, with everyone, for the most part, believing they would fail.

Although at times life as an airman seemed insurmountably difficult, 90-year-old Eusan, who later became a public school teacher, recalled: “It made us stick together, and there was a pride in all of us that said we had to make it.”

LIVING LEGENDS: Surviving Tuskegee Airmen (from left) Warren Eusan, Gene Derricotte, Granville Coggs and John Miles continue to meet as the San Antonio, Texas, chapter of Tuskegee Airmen Inc. (Photo: Wanda Thomas Littles)

I was transported by their remembrances to the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol in 2007, when they and more than 300 other Tuskegee Airmen or their surviving family members stood to witness the ultimate words that they had longed to hear — their names called as collective recipients of the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor some 65 years after all the victory celebrations, parades, and ticker tape joyfully lavished on other soldiers had faded away. It was an honor way overdue.

Lt. Colonel Coggs, now retired from the army said, “The honor and recognition we are now receiving is unimaginable … I just wish that those who died without seeing it could be here.”

As we moved on, my questions to them referenced the unabashed racism they faced as young airmen near Tuskegee, Alabama, and I could sense an agreement in spirit that said they had survived and had overcome the harsh reality of an America that was unwilling to regard them as intelligent and capable human beings.

However, these men didn’t allow the mistreatment and disrespect to outweigh the greater mission, for which the fate of the whole of Black America hinged. Although all of them at times thought about it, and probably came close to laying out more than a few white antagonists who taunted them with racist epithets, they did not.

FLY BALL: John 'Mule' Miles played baseball in the Negro League following WW2.

Eighty-eight year old Miles said, “The key to not retaliating was my faith in God; because if it had not been for the Lord on my side, where would I be?” Miles would go on to play ball for The American Negro Baseball League in Chicago after the war.

The Tuskegee Airmen fine-tuned the art of restraint through another type of courage called self-control. And through this restraint, through remaining strong under unthinkable pressure, they proved the whole world wrong about their capabilities.

The most outstanding part of being a Tuskegee Airman was the position they took that said, “No matter how hard they make it, we can take it. There is no room for failure. We must succeed.”

And succeed they did.

Being totally on one accord at every level, from ground to air, this unity of purpose was truly their greatest contribution in destroying the myth that African American men did not have what it took to hold positions of responsibility.

The Tuskegee Airmen, who actually saw battle as fighter pilots, flew 15,553 combat sorties and completed 1,578 missions, providing fighter escorts to strategic targets in Europe. These were men who served with distinction over North Africa, Italy, and Germany. White bomber crews ultimately called them “Red Tailed Angels” because of the red paint on their tail assemblies; but most importantly because they protected the white pilots on their missions. Under the leadership of then-Colonel Benjamin O. Davis, who trained the first black pilots at Tuskegee Institute in a unit called the 99th Squadron, the Tuskegee Airmen showed the world what a people who had been written off as intellectually and mentally deficient were capable of.

After nearly 30 years in the shadow of obscurity and lies, the truth was finally told. With the founding of Tuskegee Airmen Inc. in 1972 in Detroit, Michigan, 50 chapters sprung up all over the U.S. and the record was set straight. Now the organization’s collective aim is to help further the education of young men and women of all races in math, science, and aviation through scholarships and a variety of programs to honor of the Tuskegee Airmen.

OFFICER & GENTLEMAN: Lt. Colonel Gene Derricotte.

Lt. Colonel Derricotte, the youngest of the group at age 84, who served in both the Army and Air Force before becoming a dentist, explained, “Essentially no one knew there was such a thing as the Tuskegee Airmen. Now when I speak at schools, and in the community, people tell me how sorry they are for the way we were treated and tell me how proud they are of me — of us.”

The Tuskegee project, according to the men, began when a law passed by Congress allowing African Americans to train in civilian life as pilots was passed. After this bill took effect, an experimental Negro branch of pilots in the Army Air Corps was formed. To date there are roughly 278 Tuskegee Airmen living, with about 90 having been pilots; however, no one knows for certain how many of the estimated 19,000 “Tuskegee Experience” participants are still alive today. What we do know is that they all played an important role in the war. While men like Lee Archer, one of just three Tuskegee pilots with four “kills,” and Roscoe C. Brown, who flew over 79 missions in his career, were making remarkable history in the thick of battle, the men and women back home were building a legacy by following the precedent established to maintain superior support of the men abroad, outstanding deportment, and high achievements in flight should they have to deploy.

PROUD SOLDIER: Buck Sergeant Warren H. Eusan.

The NAACP, the black press, and even then-First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who flew with a black pilot at Tuskegee, worked hard to get the Tuskegee project off the ground and to support its development. These men and women were the cream of the crop from black colleges and universities across the land. They were men and women who’d studied to be doctors, lawyers, educators, even aviators, who jumped at the opportunity to serve our nation. They were salutatorians, valedictorians, and men and women who were in the upper tenth of their class. They were men and women who were simply the best.

Miles said, “We worked hard all day and went to school at night.”

Even now, the bond forged between them is strong. The men joked, bantered, and reflected on their past lives and Buck Sergeant Eusan asked, “Did you know Derricotte was a student of mine that I trained to master the instrumentation on our planes?” When asked by Derricotte what kind of grade he got, Eusan said, “You’re here right now, aren’t you? You must have gotten an A.”

SKY'S THE LIMIT: Lt. Colonel Granville Coggs.

They laughed — a beautiful thing to hear, which speaks of the resilience of men who turned disrespect, bigotry, and injustice into an occasion for something positive.

Lt. Colonel Coggs reflected, “The only way you could describe the Tuskegee Airmen is that we were a cut above.” And they were, because President Harry S. Truman signed an executive order ending segregation in the military after seeing just how far above the racist labels and stereotypes they were.

It’s interesting to note that all but two of the San Antonio chapter members thought that George Lucas’s Red Tails was the best, most accurate film to date on the Tuskegee Airmen; and they’ve seen them all. The two dissenting Airmen felt the film underplayed the intense racial struggles that they faced in favor of a more glamorized “Hollywood” tale. Nonetheless, earlier this year the seven San Antonio Airmen celebrated the film made in their honor by signing autographs and sharing memories with the local press at San Antonio’s Rialto Theater. Inside the theater, after being introduced as members of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, they received a standing ovation from moviegoers and staff.

Vintage photos courtesy of the San Antonio Chapter of Tuskegee Airmen, Inc.

Think Like Someone Who Enjoys Good Romantic Comedies

Think Like Someone Who Enjoys Good Romantic Comedies

I have a confession to make. You might want to sit down for this: I am a young Black woman and I enjoyed the film Think Like A Man.

Whew. Feels good to get it off my chest.

I’ll be honest, when I first heard that there was a film slated for 2012 based on the book, I did the obligatory eye roll and didn’t expect much. The past few times I made the grudging trek to the theatre to see movies with predominately Black cast — primarily so that I could keep my membership in the Black community — I was mildly disappointed. I say mildly because I have sadly grown to expect very little from Black movies. In real life, I find my community to include a wealth of comedic talent, natural artistic abilities, an eye for concepts that are abstract and often complex, and yet … on screen it seems that we often fall flat.

Nevertheless, Think Like a Man (TLAM) was everything you wanted a romantic comedy to be. It was witty, keen, and resonated for me as a young unmarried woman in her late 20s. I kept whispering to my best friend, “This is hilarious … This is so on point … This is so true!” He agreed.

But of course, EVERYONE doesn’t agree. Rahiel Tesfamariam, the founder and editor of Urban Cusp (a website I deeply respect), posited that TLAM served up “patriarchy with a smile.” Rahiel writes:

… Harvey, Tyler Perry, T.D. Jakes and countless others are making millions branding themselves as cultural gurus who understand the plight of black women.

Only a patriarchal mind set would constantly paint women with stereotypical, pathological brushstrokes and serve it up as digestible truth. As if real-world paternalism wasn’t enough, we can also have it to look forward to in black cinema.

She goes on to outline the four stereotypes of Black women found in the movie: the single mother, the promiscuous Jezebel, the never-satisfied control freak, and the emasculating powerful executive.

The problem here, though, is the article forgets the purpose of a romantic comedy. Have you ever seen a good rom-com where the women and men in the movie don’t have some serious flaw? That’s the whole point! Let’s break down these alleged stereotypes:

1. Single Mother – I’m not sure if “single mother” is a stereotype or if it’s a reality for many women, of all races. I’d be more inclined to believe that Regina Hall’s character was a stereotype if she were irresponsible, unable to care for her child, and dependent on welfare. But she wasn’t. She was the mother of one child who balanced healthy friendships, relationships, and a career. She was a single mother you’d be proud of!

2. Promiscuous Jezebel – Meagan Good’s character, Maya, just doesn’t fit this stereotype. She’s only shown sleeping with one man prior to her onscreen counterpart, Zeke. If anybody was seen as promiscuous, it was the man she was sleeping with who failed to remember her name and left the morning after. Was she more trusting than she should have been? Possibly. Promiscuous. Not sure on that one.

3. Never Satisfied Control Freak – I’m having trouble with the premise that Gabrielle Union’s character fell into this stereotype. She wanted the man she was dating to improve his career and commit to her…. Where’s the control freak part? Furthermore, when attempting to remodel their apartment, she asked for his input prior to making any decisions and only proceeded after he passed the reins over to her. Yeah, calling her a control freak is quite a stretch here.

4. Emasculating Powerful Executive – Here is where I can concede that there was a possibility that Taraji Henson’s character, Lauren fell into a stereotype, just not the one that Rahiel pointed out. What stuck out for me wasn’t Taraji’s power role, it was her ridiculous expectations for a man. She expected him to have a certain kind of career, pedigree, and power. The sad part is, while this is a stereotype, it’s one that I see in real life, much too often.

I’d be more inclined to believe that men are stereotyped in the film more than the women. You have:

1. The Reckless Rebounder – Kevin Hart’s character, Cedric, is the recently separated man who leaves a good woman he loves and embarks on a tour to get back on the dating scene and do nonsense in strip clubs.

2. The Playa – Romano Malco’s character, Zeke, is the ultimate player who wines and dines women, sleeps with them, then disappears.

3. The Mama’s Boy – Terrence J’s character, Michael, plays the ultimate cliché, the adult male who can’t quite let go of his dependence on mama.

4. The Normal White Guy – Gary Owen’s character, Bennett, is the White friend who has it all together and is in a happy marriage.

Unfortunately, though, calling out TLAM’s stereotypes of men doesn’t appear to fit in Rahiel’s overall theme that Steve Harvey and the film’s producers are serving up patriarchal ideals.

One other criticism lobbed at TLAM, not only by Rahiel but by others, is the lack of a spiritual message or any discussion of faith. In her commentary at The Washington Post, Rahiel says:

Matters of faith have historically been so deeply embedded into the black American psyche that’s its practically dishonest to reflect black women navigating concerns about love, family and careers without any substantive “God talk”…. Maintaining centrality in the character’s lives by providentially coaching them through life’s most important decisions, Harvey symbolically played the role of God.

Wow. Considering Steve Harvey’s frequent and often Tebow-like references to God in his comedy and on his radio show, I’m sure he’d be offended by the statement. As a Christian, though, I understand why matters of faith may have been strategically left out of the movie. A good portion of the movie centers around the “90-Day Rule,” in which Harvey posits that women should not have sex with a man until after 90 days of dating, because a good man who respects you will stick around for that long to “get the cookie.” The Christian perspective as outlined by the Bible, however, is in direct conflict with this advice. Sex outside of marriage is simply not an option for committed Christian couples. Steve Harvey knows this. And there clearly are contradictions inherent in his “God talk” and “relationship guru” personas. I cannot defend him on that. But this film is a separate matter, and I think viewers should judge TLAM for what it is, not what we want it to be.

How exactly could a movie with such a heavy focus on Steve Harvey’s 90 Day Rule also expect its characters to rely heavily on spiritual themes or guidance? If the characters did that, then they’d toss the book and its advice in the trash, and we would never have had a premise for this hilarious film that gives us something relevant to talk about with our friends.

In short, expecting a movie that does not purport to represent Christian values and themes to include references to “matters of faith” is a bit odd.

Think Like A Man is a keen, entertaining film with characters that I recognize from my daily life, but I believe many people expected it to suck — and probably for good reason. Unfortunately, when you start with low expectations, there is opportunity for self-fulfilling prophecy to take hold. You assume the movie is going to have you up in arms, so you find a way for the movie to, well, have you up in arms.

Give it a chance, if only for the lively discussions afterward.