A Social Commentary on Social Commentary

Harrison Bergeron

by Mr. Westbrooks

In conjunction with a reading unit my students recently completed, I assigned a research paper that was based on the same theme as the texts we just finished perusing the prior week. What was theme of the unit? Social commentary. In the reading unit, we focused on how writers use various forms of literature (short stories, poems, and open letters) to make comments on the issues that are happening in society. After reading Langston Hughes’ “Theme for English B,” Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron,” Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” and “DudleLetter from Birmingham Jaily Randall’s “Ballad of Birmingham,” I had the students research the contemporary issues in our society, explain what they are along with the major current events surrounding them, and lastly offer their own social commentary on those issues.

One day when I took the time out of my already short lunch period to reteach how to format and craft a formal outline to two students, one of them challenged me to write a paper on the topic of social commentary. I accepted the challenge with no qualms, and what you’re about to read is the result. This piece goes out to Elvin from period 3/4, the only high school student I know that listens to Pro Era and Logic. (Rappers are social commentators too, by the way.)

Everyone has an opinion, or at least they’re capable and have the freedom of expressing his or her opinions, especially when it concerns events that occur in society. That’s something that hasn’t changed since the beginning of time. What has changed is the ways in which those opinions are expressed. In the past, individuals were limited in who they could reach, and there were limitations on who could be considered a social commentator, but with the advent of new media, anyone can reach anyone anywhere at anytime, and anyone can call him or herself a social commentator. People’s ability to create their own platforms and disseminate social commentary to the masses instantaneously can work to both the benefit and detriment of themselves and to society as a whole.

Everyone Can Have a Voice

If you consider any nation in this world, an indicator of how free its people are is the extent to which they can express themselves. It’s not the only indicator, but it’s a major one. Freedom of expression is also something that Americans take for granted since it’s readily available and accessible. Historically, such platforms like the printing press, soap boxes, pulpits, recording studios, meeting halls, and radio waves have granted individuals and groups the opportunities to express their points of view on politics, race, sex, economics, religion, identity, etc.

While some of the above mentioned platforms were limited to individuals in positions of leadership and those with money, 21st century media platforms has made the world’s audience available to the masses. In addition to the outlets that were operating in the past and are still functioning today, anyone can Facebook Debateset up a Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or SnapChat account and voice his or her opinion on issues going on in society. Other Web-based platforms include sites such as WordPress (what I use), Blogspot, Blog Talk Radio, Blogger, Soundcloud, Weebly and Tumblr (“The Eleven Best Free Blog Sites”). Commentators’ choice of online platform is dependent upon their style, but the fact that basic usage of them is free for everybody, creates the prospect for anyone to give social commentary.

The downside to everyone being able to have a voice is that anyone can have a voice. While everyone is free to have an opinion, that doesn’t mean everyone should use a public platform to express it. There are too many social commentators that constantly spew out hatred, ignorance, and misinformation. While the producers of such content should be responsible for what they put out, the consumers should transform themselves into critics and analyze the information they’re taking in. While negative energy and just plain stupidity grind my gears, the widespread access to free and inexpensive media platforms used for the purpose of expressing social commentary should continue with the added caveat that public sharpen their third eyes and view the information critically.

Social Commentary Comes from Both the Producer and the Audience

In addition to everyone having the ability to establish platforms and disseminate information to the masses, contemporary social commentary allows the masses to respond to the commentators initiating exchanges and conversations between the producers and the consumers/critics. Historically, commentators responded to each other through newspaper editorials and pamphlets. In 2016, commentators and critics can respond instantaneously. If you read online articles, watch YouTube videos, or view posts on social media, you might notice that on many occasions, the comment section is more interesting than the feature piece. This also applies to the chat room format.

A variety of characters inject their thoughts into online open forums and call-in lines, and you never know what to expect. Constructive building, in which all participants engage with respect and the absence of emotionalism, sharpens everyone’s swords; however, debates can become toxic and unproductive when people begin to attack personal character rather than perspective and make comments strictly out of emotion instead of logic. Unfortunately, the elasticity of engagement between commentators is stretched wide, making the regulation of comments difficult to manage unlike that of a formal debate setting.

Despite the distractions that may arise in comment sections, chat rooms, and discussion boards, the chance for the public to directly respond to perspectives on the happenings of society is an advancement in social commentary. It’s not yet clear who’s able to define the specific criteria of social commentary, but one may argue that perspectives expressed in comment sections can be characterized as social commentary. This shows that in the 21st century, you don’t have to have a publication, radio show, organization, blog, or website to be a social commentator.

comments section

Final Thoughts

There are other points to be touched on and questions to be answered, but keeping in mind that this post was written for my students, I know that I’ve written well beyond their interest and attention span. The final analysis of social commentary in contemporary society is that people should take advantage of the platforms available to them. There are many spaces and opportunities for them to do so. For the youth, such as my students, who are now coming of age, it’s especially important for them to give their social commentary since they are our present and future. Think about how you can package your message in a way that supports your personal style and interests and a way that engages your peers, adults, and the youth coming after you. Be a responsible and productive social commentator by obtaining the knowledge, wisdom, and understanding before you release your message. In a society of ignorance inflicting the youth and the public at-large, the world needs it.

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Salim Adofo: Another Side of King

I received this message in an email earlier this week, and I thought it as a vital message to share considering that it presented a side of King that our schools, government and media (the 4th branch of the government) doesn’t teach us or tell us about. Check it out.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., lead organizer of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, is often quoted, referenced and honored, but was he ever understood? Many people remember Dr. King for his position on non-violence and his “I Have a Dream” speech. However, contradictions in White America’s treatment of African Americans, which were exposed by the Black Power Movement, fashioned another side of King, a side that accelerated Dr. Kings’ assassination.

In Dr. Kings’ book, “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community,” he wrote,

Black Power, in its broad and positive meaning, is a call to Black people to amass the political and economic strength to achieve their legitimate goals. No one can deny that the Negro is in dire need of this kind of legitimate power.

Dr. King also went on to write,

Black Power is also a call for the pooling of Black financial resources to achieve economic security. Through the pooling of such resources and the development of habits of thrift and techniques of wise investments, the Negro will be doing his share to grapple with his problem of economic deprivation. If Black Power means the development of this kind of strength within the Negro community, then it is a quest for basic, necessary, legitimate power.

It is important to note that these ideas that Dr. King had on Black politics and economics are the same positions that Malcolm X communicated in his definition of the political and economic aspects of Black Nationalism. The reason this is important, is because the FBI felt it would be necessary to eliminate Dr. King if he were to use Black Nationalist tactics. This can be seen through the Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) of the FBI.

COINTELPRO was a program designed to neutralize, disrupt and dismantle Black organizations. On March 4, 1968, the FBI released a classified document that stated:

Prevent the RISE OF A ‘MESSIAH’ who could unify, and electrify, the militant Black Nationalist movement. Malcolm X might have been such a ‘messiah;’ he is the martyr of the movement today. Martin Luther King, Stokely Carmichael, and [Nation of Islam leader] Elijah Muhammad all aspire to this position. Elijah Muhammad is less of a threat because of his age. King could be a real contender for this position should he abandon his supposed ‘obedience’ to ‘white, liberal doctrines’ (nonviolence) and embrace Black Nationalism.

On April 3, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave the speech that is now known as “I’ve Been to the Mountain Top.” In his speech he stated:

And our agenda calls for withdrawing economic support from [big corporations]. And so, as a result of this, we are asking you tonight to go out and tell your neighbors not to buy Coca-Cola in Memphis. Go by and tell them not to buy Sealtest milk. Tell them not to buy, what is the other bread? Wonder Bread. And what is the other bread company, Jesse? Tell them not to buy Hart’s bread. As Jesse Jackson has said, up to now, only the garbage men have been feeling pain; now we must kind of redistribute the pain. We are choosing these companies because they haven’t been fair in their hiring policies; and we are choosing them because they can begin the process of saying they are going to support the needs and the rights of these men who are on strike. And then they can move on downtown and tell Mayor Loeb to do what is right. But not only that, we’ve got to strengthen Black institutions.

Dr. King also stated,

I call upon you to take your money out of the banks downtown and deposit your money in Tri-State Bank. We want a ‘bank-in’ movement in Memphis. So go by the savings and loan association. I’m not asking you something we don’t do ourselves at SCLC. Judge Hooks and others will tell you that we have an account here in the savings and loan association from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. We’re just telling you to follow what we’re doing. Put your money there. You have six or seven Black insurance companies in Memphis. Take out your insurance there. We want to have an ‘insurance-in.’ Now  these are some practical things we can do. We begin the process of building a greater economic base. And at the same time, we are putting pressure where it really hurts. I ask you to follow through here.

This would become King’s last speech. The very next day, April 4, which was exactly one month to the day after the COINTELPRO memo was released, Dr. King became a victim of American terrorism.  Why? As one can see, according to Dr. King’s last speech and his writings, another side of Dr. King was developing. King began to embrace Black Nationalist tactics and strategies as a means to achieve freedom, justice and equality for Black people.

Salim Adofo is a multimedia journalist, DJ, freelance writer, video producer, social justice advocate, community organizer, educator and photographer. He’s also the national vice chairperson of training and organizing for the National Black United Front.

 

For the vast ma…

For the vast majority of White Americans, the past decade–the first phase–had been a struggle to treat the Negro with a degree of decency, not of equality. White America was ready to demand that the Negro should be spared the lash of brutality and coarse degradation, but it had never been truly committed to helping him out of poverty, exploitation, or all forms of discrimination. The outraged White citizen had been sincere when he snatched the whips from the Southern sheriffs and forbade them more cruelties. But when this was to a degree accomplished, the emotions that had momentarily inflamed him melted away. White Americans left the Negro on the ground and in devastating numbers walked off with the aggressor. It appeared that the White segregationist and the ordinary White citizen had more in common with one another than either had with the Negro. – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

By the Time I Get to Arizona: Public Enemy and MLK Day

pe_arizona

By Nick Westbrooks

As an admirer of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and a fan of Hip-Hop music, I reflect on the classic 1991 Public Enemy song “By the Time I Get to Arizona.” The song and video is a response, and to me a diss track, to former Arizona governor Evan Mecham’s opposition to observing Dr. King’s holiday.

Music website Song Facts provides the background:

“The song deals with former Arizona governor Evan Mecham, who faced harsh criticism during his time in office after he refused to recognize Martin Luther King’s birthday as a national holiday. John McCain was an Arizona senator at the time, and in 1983 he opposed creation of a federal holiday to honor King. He later admitted that this was a mistake, and in 1990 supported the holiday. The music video stirred some controversy, as it depicts the group assassinating the governor with a car bomb. The song and the video are Public Enemy at their most militant, implying that they will use force to advance their agenda.”

In addition to the assassination, the video depicts the racism common in the Jim Crow south along with the acts of resistance executed by African Americans in response. It’s a polarizing song/video. On one side, Gov. Mecham’s refusal to observe the holiday can be seen as racist, and Public Enemy may be applauded for speaking out. On the other hand, Dr. King’s philosophy emphasized nonviolence, and the depictions of PE’s militia, the S1W’s, performing target practice and placing an explosive under the governor’s limo may be perceived as hypocritical.

Chuck D raps:

“Wait I’m waitin’ for the date
For the man who demands respect
‘Cause he was great c’mon
I’m on the one mission
To get a politician
To honor or he’s a gonner
By the time I get to Arizona”

I also notice genealogical undertones in Chuck’s threats to the governor. The renderings of violence in the video are reminiscent of the 1968 riots in reaction to King’s assassination. Since, Arizona was merely one of two states refusing to observe King’s birthday as a holiday (New Hampshire was the other), I doubt that Public Enemy would incite national riots on a similar scale.

One may consider assassinating Gov. Mecham to be extreme, but as appreciators of Hip-Hop, we should commend PE for applying its musical genius and aesthetics to this social and political cause. The group should also be recognized for its conscious lyrics and its attention on matters important to Black people while appealing to the youth. Just like any issue affecting Blacks, we may agree that we’re there’s injustice, but we usually disagree about how to go about implementing solutions. Watch the video below.

(PHOTOS) MLK Holiday Peace and Freedom Walk 2013 — Washington, D.C.

Article and photos by Nick Westbrooks

TIMG_0628he 35th annual Martin Luther King Holiday Peace and Freedom Walk was held on Saturday, Jan. 19. Prior to the parade’s departure, marchers assembled at the United Black Fund at the intersection of Martin Luther King Avenue and Howard Road SE for a program of speakers and performances.

Several groups led by the Wong People paraded from the United Black Fund and traveled down Martin Luther King Avenue until they reached Shepard Park at Malcolm X and MLK Avenue SE. The groups included but weren’t limited to the Cass Technical High School Marching Band of Detroit, Total Sunshine, the A.N.S.W.E.R Coalition, Men in Motion and Empower DC.

Several speakers from around the District community engaged the crowd with reflections of Dr. King’s life, songs, poems as well as calls for action for issues affecting D.C. such as gun violence, statehood and the proposed public school closures.

Actor Nick Cannon addressed the marchers at the UBF. At Shepard Park, the community sang along with the DC Labor Chorus and heard words from DC Mayor Vincent Gray and Washington Informer publisher Denise Rolark Barnes amongst many others. Barnes’ parents, Calvin Rolark and Wilhelmina Rolark along with TV and radio personality Ralph Waldo Petey Greene, started the MLK holiday parade tradition in 1977. View the pictures from the holiday parade below.

Celebrating the Foundations of the Future: Florida Avenue Baptist Church’s 100-Year Anniversary

“Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.” –Isaiah 58:12

This week, the historic Florida Avenue Baptist Church of Washington, D.C. celebrates its centennial anniversary. During my summer stay in the District, I’ve had the privilege of visiting the church and being a part of the momentous occasion under the leadership of the Rev. Dr. Earl Trent, Jr. Many institutions observe anniversaries, but very few can say they’ve been around for 100 years, especially those established by the hands, heads and hearts of African Americans.

FABC was founded approximately four decades after Reconstruction, a time of illicit racism and segregation all over the United States. Already facing the problem of the “color line” in addition to scores of other challenges, the faith of the founders and members allowed the holy institution to thrive in the midst of those trials.

The 1919 Red Summer gruesomely afflicted Blacks across the country, including the nation’s capital. An exorbitant number of Blacks were violently attacked and killed at the heels of arguably America’s bloodiest race riots circa post-World War I. Despite the riots and the youth of the newly founded establishment, FABC survived the unrest.

In the late 1960s, FABC would also survive the riots following Martin Luther King’s assassination. Some of the church’s congregants would faithfully serve and bravely fight in each of America’s conflicts overseas. Through all of the major events–positive and negative—in America’s history, FABC is still standing strong.

It’s a blessing to see three and four generations of families congregating the pews and completing the Lord’s work at FABC. Members rearing their children and their children’s children in the church teaches them to love Jesus and live righteous lives, but it also maintains the church’s rich legacy.

As the Rev. Jeremiah Wright noted when he delivered the centennial Sunday service message on July 8, African Americans are the only group of people that doesn’t document its history or revolution, which is detrimental to our livelihood.

“Failure to write down your revolution means it will die when we die.”

One of the key points Wright had for the FABC family was that people have to teach their history to the youth, because they don’t know it. This isn’t necessarily the church’s history, but Black history in general. Unfortunately, Black children learn distorted and destroyed history from their oppressor; HIStory instead of OUR story. In turn, this disempowers Black children and negatively affects their perceptions of themselves.

With teaching the youth our story, both the good and the bad must be taught. Wright calls this repentance. Despite our achievements, there are many things that we are ashamed of as a people. On many occasions, we’ve turned our backs on our African past, but we have to tell all sides of our story.

Most importantly, the 100-year anniversary is a moment of celebration. It’s a time for the church to rejoice at its wealthy history and the faith that has brought it this far as it optimistically looks toward the future.  The centennial also serves as a reminder that much work remains to be done, and more laborers are needed now more than ever to spread the Gospel and tackle the many issues facing Washington, D.C.’s Black community.

Congratulations to Florida Avenue Baptist Church on achieving 100 years of stewardship, evangelism, missions, social justice and education. You’ve come this far by faith feeling no ways tired. And with that steadfast faith, there’s no limit to where you can go. I wish you 100 more years of continued blessings and success.