Who killed Abraham Lincoln? John Wilkes Booth.
Who killed John Kennedy? Lee Harvey Oswald.
Who killed Trayvon Martin? George Michael Zimmerman.
Why am I mad about George Zimmerman gaining celebrity status? I mean, don’t we celebrate murderers– all the time?
As my portion of the world turned to face the sun this morning, I read the news and felt as if I had been slapped in the face: DMX vs. George Zimmerman in a celebrity boxing match.
“Celebrity”: That’s what the twitter accounts of News Breaker, The Griot (NBC’s effort to appease African-Americans), and CNN (supposedly the standard setting news company… supposedly) called the forthcoming fight.
I got mad: Mad at the media, mad at social media, mad at America.
Like, this shit is cool? A guy shoots a kid, gets away with it– and now he’s a celebrity. I mean, come on… It’s Black History Month: we’re supposed to be celebrating our ancestors and forefathers. I don’t celebrate murderers!
Well… Actually, I do. And I’d argue that the majority of Americans do too.
From famed Wild-West gun slingers to renown rappers who claimed Westside– murderers are celebrated in America’s popular culture.
“Yeah, I’ve killed somebody,” said a friend, during a casual conversation not too long ago.
The living room got dead silent. There were only a handful of us in the room– but mannnn, you could hear our collective interest growing. We wanted to know that story. My friend, a former Marine, told a bit of his tale of traveling the world, and spreading Democracy with bullets; the American way.
We didn’t “celebrate” the fact that my friend killed someone (and neither did he). But for that brief moment, while we indulged in his story, he was the coolest dude in the room. Hands down.
“Murder was the case that they gave me,” once said a young Snoop Dogg. And when Calvin “Snoop Dogg” Broadus beat that murder case, his popularity grew. And continued to grow. Is Snoop Dogg a murderer? Well, he beat the case. I mean– I don’t know if he actually killed anyone. I wasn’t there.
The fact is: a “gang member” (as the LA Times Article initially identified him), a man by the name of Philip Woldemariam is dead… and Snoop Dogg/Lion/Zilla is still making music. And he’s still a celebrity.
Speaking of celebrity rappers getting out of jail after beating a murder charge: Lil Boosie is set to come home soon! He’s currently serving an 8-year bid on a drug case. But while in the pen, Lil Boosie was facing a 1st degree murder charge. Torrence “Lil Boosie” Hatchet was accused of ordering Michael “Marlo Mike” Louding to be his hired triggerman. Well, Marlo Mike is now sentenced to life in prison without parole. Lil Boosie’s name is gaining a greater celebrity status as I write this … and Terry Boyd, a young Black man, is dead. But, #FreeBoosie tho.
I’m not saying Boosie or Snoop shouldn’t be stars for their talents– I just think it’s ILL that killing someone can earn you respect.
On the other side of the “famous because I killed” coin, are people like this guy named Watani Stiner.
I think Stiner has an awesome story. It’s a tale of the struggle for freedom, a shooting on UCLA’s campus and a father’s sacrifice for his family. I’ve interviewed Stiner before; I was only allowed to bring in paper and pencil. I’d love to interview Stiner on film/ audio/ oh hell, if I had a nice photo of him it’d be worth a thousand words. I think the world would love to hear about how he is serving a life sentence for the murder of two former Black Panther leaders, how he escaped prison, and then turned himself back in– for his family. But, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation prohibits the media from conducting interviews with specific inmates, out of fear that the interview will cast that incarcerated individual into a world of stardom.
First name: Eye. Last name: Ronic. (Ironic).
The amount of money the prisons are making off of Black men is astounding– but that’s a totally different story.
The crux of this story: “Tell me what’s a Black life worth?”- Tupac.
Look man, even if World Star Hip Hop gets exclusive broadcast rights, TMZ photographers catch first-row photos of the carnage, and they attach a GoPro to DMX’s forehead– so we can see a 1st person perspective of what some people might call justice. I wouldn’t watch it. I just don’t want to see that shit.
On the other hand, I don’t want to see a petition signed to end this fight– I’d rather see people valuing life.
That’s what we’re fighting against. As young Black men, we’re fighting to show the world that our lives are valuable.
… But first we have to value our own lives.
Side note: … I wouldn’t mind seeing George Zimmerman fight Johannes-Mehserle.
Oh, and here is a top ten list of celebrities who’ve killed someone. (Don King is on there, who knew?)
I attached a GoPro to the front of my Schwinn; and then I went in.
Athenian, my old high school, published an article on me and my OG Told Me project!!
New Guard Meets Old Guard, Pendarvis Harshaw ’05
An elderly man leans on a rail at a track meet, left hand on his hip, gazing at the sky. His expression says he has experience and he knows what’s up. He is Tommie Smith who gave a black-leathered glove fisted salute from the winner’s circle at the 1968 Olympics. “If you keep living, you have to keep changing with times, ” he says.
Another Man, in graying dreadlocks, smiles as he looks down at a photograph from the 60s. He points to a young, lanky kid in the photo and says, that’s me.” He is Ronald Freeman and was once a member of the Black Panther Party. “Just look around,” he says. “Figure out how to impact the situation and make it better.”
Two men sit on a sidewalk and crack jokes over a game of chess. Their bare, muscled arms are poised over the game pieces as they concentrate on their next move. They are “David Ruffin” and “Philly Fred”, fixtures on the street in Washington, DC’s Uptown. David says, “Follow your heart. Stay close to your mother.”
all of these remarkable photos and words of wisdom are featured on a photo-journalistic website called OG Told Me ( ogtoldme.com ), created by Pendarvis Harshaw ’05. “It’s an ode to the elder men in the community who gave me tidbits of wisdom as I moved through society as a child,” he says. “They taught me what to do and what not to do. Sometimes It’d be a neighborhood big shot standing in front of his car. Sometimes it’d be a homeless person at a bus stop.”
The OG project is a replica of what Pendarvis did growing up, now told with a camera and a blog site instead of a pen and notebook. ( OG is a term for elders and means original gangster, but now has multiple meanings: old guy, old guard, original griot (storyteller). He travels around Oakland, asking elders the question: given your life experience, if you had the chance to talk to (young*) people, what would you say? “In a world where so many die young, you have to be doing something right in order to live that long,” he explains.
Pendarvis is currently a gradate student at UC Berkeley studying documentary filmmaking, and is also a free-lance journalist. “I’m drawn to journalism and the art of storytelling because poetry is the basis for all good writing,” he remarks. ” I
choose to focus on the overlap of education and violence/ justice because that’s where I think I can make an immediate impact.”
When asked what Athenian experience has influenced his life the most, he says,” Mannnnnn … that trip to Death Valley! I think about that so often! Greatest lesson ever learned has to be the lesson of the Hero’s Journey. Experience it through hiking across the hottest place in the Western Hemisphere, only to return home– a complete Hero’s journey.”
And his words of wisdom to others? “Pack light,” he says. “That’s all I tell myself.”
It’s about finding a hole, and going through it.
I realized that when I was on the freeway. Standing on Interstate 880. With about 200 other people.
I promise I didn’t plan on being there.
I just wanted to finish my article, eat the burrito I had purchased at noon and then go watch the Home Run Derby.
I knew Cespedes would show out on the baseball field that night. I just knew it. The plan was to make a beeline to a TV. It was 6pm. I had a couple of minutes before the Derby started.
I had just finished recording a story on Trayvon Martin for a local NPR affiliate, a radio station named KQED. On top of that, other news outlets filmed me recording. San Francisco’s CBS outlet and NBC Bay Area were there. They initially came to do a story on how Youth Radio’s facility on the corner of 17th and Broadway had been damaged during the protests the night before, but both outlets did stories with slightly different angles.
After I did the interviews with both crews, I made my move.
I walked on to Broadway, and saw a bunch of people marching toward the police station. My journalistic instincts took over. Within seconds I was marching along, camera in hand, choosing which angle would give me the best photo.
I followed the march down to the police station. They stopped and rallied at the station for all of five minutes– enough time to backup traffic coming off of the freeway. And when the protesters stopped the traffic, they took advantage: they walked on to the freeway. And I followed. ( I’m a journalist, what do you expect?)
It was a successful protest. It disrupted the flow of the post work traffic. It made people take notice. It made the helicopters reroute to get a good shot.
But I was there first.
On the freeway! Burrito in my backpack. Missing the home run derby. Taking photos.
The excitement of being on the freeway was crazy. All I tweeted was “this shit is crazy.”
In the midst of my color commentary on the situation, “this shit is crazy” summed it all up.
And then the cops came…
I was reporting. I had been reporting all day. But when the cops came, I knew there would be no way to separate myself from any of the other people on that freeway.
So, I looked to evacuate. Expeditiously .
Everyone moved. It was an exodus!
I ran towards the next exit, just as everyone else did. From Broadway toward Jackson St. And then we realized we were trapped. There were cop cars coming up the Jackson St. ramp, and cops on feet blocking the Broadway exit.
There was a small gap between the off ramp off and the freeway. The dirt hill with the steep grade was a risk to slide down, but I went for it. And people followed.
After jumping the gap, we slid down the hill.
And that’s all it’s about.
Finding a hole. And going through it.
So others can follow your lead.
After I took a couple more photos, got away from the crowd.
I found a place where I could sit down, enjoy my burrito while the Home Run Derby was on. At a local bar, you know– a hole in the wall.
She spat in my face.
It was a mist. It caught everything from my left ear to the left side of my lip.
Random white woman spit.
I left the store, and hopped on my bike with a 6-pack of beer and a plan. I did upwards of 20mph in the bike lane on Grand Ave in Oakland’s Adams Point Neighborhood; 6-pack in my right hand. Focused on getting to the house party and not dropping the beer.
A college classmate, D’Auria Henry was waiting on me about a block away from the house party we were set to attend. When I got to D’Auria’s car she hopped out and noticed I had on my Howard University sweatshirt. She said she doesn’t travel without hers, reached into the car and grabbed her garment. After grabbing the threads from her car, she reached in again to grab a dish of banana a pudding that she had prepared for the potluck/ party we were set to attend.
As she reached in the car, a white lady– 5’6 with matted black hair and a backpack, came walking past. The lady said, “I’ll throw a flower at you!” As she announced her action, she stayed true to her word. She tossed a flower in D’Auria’s direction. I saw it all happen. Didn’t flinch. I laughed– or better yet: I silently chucked and smirked.
The lady continued toward me.
I stood on the street-side of the sidewalk, straddling my bike. The lady walked on the building side of the sidewalk.
There was enough room on the concrete for her, or any normal person to walk by. A sizable amount of space didn’t prove to be enough. As she crossed my path, she waited until she was completely adjacent to me. Left side. Further than my arm’s reach, but close enough for the stretch of saliva.
She spat on me.
I don’t remember the obscenity she said as she did it. I’ll never forget the shock hitting my stomach, nor the spit hitting my face. I was frozen. She took another step. She was now on my blindside, almost completely behind me.
I turned away from her. Toward the street. Still straddling my bike and holding my beer in my right hand.
I turned 180º. Not thinking. Reacting. I reeled around and launched my 6-pack of beer like a discus towards her. She was now about two or three steps past me.
My backwards frisbee toss of a 6-pack of beer connected. It hit her left side–gently. And then the entire case crashed to the concrete. Shards of glass and beer suds scattered.
That wasn’t sufficient. I dropped my bike.
I started after her. Taking took two or three steps in her direction “You spat in my fucking face!!!” I was yelling. I don’t yell often. When I do: I YELL!
She looked back at me, as her body gained momentum in the opposing direction.
Going from a walk, to a light jog and then a full run– she looked back at me and said: “You’re a fucking racist!”
I stopped. Right then and there: I was guilty.
I was guilty of being a racist. Assault with a deadly weapon. Armed robbery. Attempted homicide, kidnap, rape… whatever she wanted to throw at me.
If an officer had rolled around that corner at that very moment, it is very likely that I would have been arrested. If not shot.
She spat in my face. It hit my ear, my cheek … my lip.
I didn’t see it coming . Didn’t provoke it.
I was just straddling my bike. Headed to a party on a Saturday night:
In pursuit of my happiness.
… And then she spat on me.
But I was racist.
I went back, grabbed my bike, used my undershirt to wipe my face; but I couldn’t wipe away the thoughts.
In many ways, African American culture is a reaction to being spit on. Many aspects of Black culture, both good and bad, are a direct reaction to the predicament we have been placed in as a people.
That Howard sweatshirt. That soul food dish. They are symbolic of African Americans getting disrespected, and then reacting in a way that is beneficial to us (and the larger society).
My violent reaction and vulgar language were an example of what it means to be disrespected, and then reacting in a way that is detrimental to myself (and the larger society, maybe).
(Maybe it benefits the larger society if I choose the detrimental route… hmmmm…)
This combined with the stories I’ve been reading and writing about all summer: Oscar Grant and Trayvon Martin. Alameda County Probation and San Quentin Prison. Homicides of old ladies and little babies. It’s like turning on the TV or looking at a movie screen and getting spit on. And then walking outside and getting spit on.
We have to choose how to react.
Racism is only a belief. Racism is only a belief.
Racism is only a belief… until it manifests in the streets.
D’Auria lightheartedly said, “that crazy white lady wasn’t that crazy: she was smart enough to run!”
We laughed it off, purchased some replacement beer from Whole Foods and started toward the party. Passing back over the scene of the crime, I stopped to kick the shattered glass off the sidewalk and into the street. A Caucasian couple walked past. The lady of the duo thanked me for cleaning up the neighborhood. I laughed silently,told the couple to have a good evening, and then took off to my destination.
Just before D’Auria and I entered the house party, she looked down on the pavement: she found $60 folded on the ground. We split it.
My beer money was restored, and so was my understanding of racism.
God bless America.
The subject matter: An African American woman whose cells have influenced the world over, and are the basis for most modern medicines; yet few know her story.
The subjectivity: a writer who is unashamed to identify herself, her background, and her stance on the subject at hand.
The substance: a story that brings together modern medicine, racism, sexism and gives more evidence to just how deeply these forms of discrimination are rooted in our society.
Rebecca Skloot received court records, she dug up health records… and she even got family records– which traced the lineage of one African American family back to its enslaved ancestors. There are laws that impede a journalist from obtaining health records; it’s not unheard of for those barriers to be crossed. But getting records on the family of enslaved individuals almost defies the laws of physics. It’s hard enough for African Americans to contact relatives and develop a comprehensive picture of their family tree; I’m amazed that a white woman from Oregon would be able to do so, so vividly.
Skloot is a journalist with a knack for science; a woman who heard about Henrietta Lacks cells as a youth, and has been chasing that unicorn ever since.
The unicorn, as my classmates at UC Berkeley’s Journalism school have defined it, is the perfect story.
In chasing down the unicorn, she succeeded. She left voicemails and went on wild goose chases that left her stranded in random parts of Baltimore, and she overcame. In not having access to the family, medical records, and little help from the snide doctors who were elderly and succumbing to diseases many of them worked to cure, she respectfully persevered.
She came out with a great story; she captured the unicorn.
The unicorn is the perfect story: the drama, the universal appeal, the characters and the resources to actually tell the story.
Although, in some senses, the unicorn had already been captured. Science articles, a Rolling Stone Piece, and a BBC documentary are just three of the many outlets that covered the HeLa story; so what makes Skloot’s tale any different?
Maybe it was the fact that it wasn’t the HeLa story, as much as it was the Henrietta Lacks story. The story of a woman who birthed five children, maintained pristine red toenail paint, and had few photos aside from the iconic one of her standing with her hands on her hips. Henrietta Lacks, an African American woman who fell victim to medical malpractice, and in turn rose to post-mortem medical infamy.
It’s an ethical look at one of the most unethical stories the world should have heard of, but still I question some of the ethics of the reporter.
I’d be gullible if I didn’t question her quotes and her details. The verbatim dialog, back and forth between her and her interview subjects, the type of sandwich the laboratory assistant ate on the day the cells first came into the lab. As a practicing journalist, I question how she could manage to remember all of these details from the first encounter with people—or was she rolling up to the scene with the audio recorder rolling and journalist notepad in hand? Was she walking into old Southern Black folks’ houses with a machine in their face, documenting their every last breath?
Her details are immaculate. They add the color need to carry a science story into the hearts of those concerned with the human story. But as a journalist, the first rule is to question everything—susceptibility is for suckers.
In the end, I have to appreciate a book this well researched. I’d love to see (not look through nor fact check, merely see the presentation/ organization of) her notes. I’d like to hear her talk about her relentless approach in contacting the family. I’d like to interview Skloot about the financial cliff she walked out on to fund the traveling, lodging and the entire book project by way of her student loans and credit cards.
I’d like to know what she’s working on next.
To think, the story of Henrietta Lacks brought together the plight of Baltimore, the cure for Polio, health insurance, the movie Jurassic Park, A famed Rolling Stone writer who lost his house in the firestorm in the Oakland Hills, The Nazi experiments, the Tuskegee experiments, and a lot of the issues that are currently debated during discussions about Medicicare/ Medicaid in Washington DC.
She did it subjectively. Never leaving out the fact that she was a woman, a white woman, a white woman who was out to advocate for the story of Henrietta Lacks, and her family. And although this is Henrietta Lacks’ story, it is told by Rebecca Skloot, and this is her (well researched) perspective on Henrietta’s life.