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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The Need for a Renewed Black-Operated Freedmen’s Bureau

A Bureau agent stands between armed groups of Southern Whites and freedmen

By Jasmine E. Tucker

New York City is the home to the largest population of African-Americans in the country, however only 1 out of 10 students out of the five boroughs will graduate from college. There are 33,000 abandoned homes in the city of Detroit. Cleveland has the highest unemployment rate for African-Americans in the country. Los Angeles has the highest population of homeless African-Americans in the nation. Sadly in Washington, D.C., almost half of the African-American population is suffering from AIDs.

All of these barefaced statistics are statements that we as a people have been marred by everyday in this generation’s existence. With this epidemic of suffering that is affecting millions of African-Americans; one can only wonder what the future will hold for our race. Relying on one’s faith can only get us so far. Being in America to suffer because of our race has been an underlying theme since the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade.

I can only recall one circumstance where this nation’s government has created a reform program geared specifically towards African-Americans. The establishment of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands – more commonly called the Freedmen’s Bureau – is to this day the only reform system that was geared toward the well-being of African-Americans. Even though the Bureau’s goal was to also assist poor Caucasian refugees, their main goal was to give newly- freed slaves a clean slate after emancipation to work and learn.

A renewed Black-operated Freedmen’s Bureau in today’s society may be beneficial in correcting the social injustices plaguing the African-American community. The Bureau of Reconstruction was not able to completely renovate the African-American community; however it made many strides to improve the quality of life for African-Americans after the emancipation.

By the end of the Civil War, the South had been distraught. Many former slaves and White refugees faced starvation and lacked basic needs such as food, clothing, and shelter. It soon became obvious to the U.S. government that additional aid was required to end the anguish in the South and help Whites and Blacks to restructure their lives. In response to this need, Congress passed the Freedmen’s Bureau Act in 1865. The agency provided food, clothing, and shelter for hungry and homeless Whites and Blacks. The Bureau was also accountable for supporting former slaves in negotiating fair labor contracts with Whites and building schools to help educate their children and themselves.

General Oliver Otis Howard

One of the first Black colleges created during the Reconstruction era was Howard University, founded in 1867 by General Oliver Otis Howard, who was also the first head of the Freedmen’s Bureau. The Bureau established camps for the homeless, fed the hungry, and cared for orphans to the best of its ability. Additionally, the Bureau provided medical care to half a million freedmen and was responsible for implementing the Special Order #15, which we all know as “forty acres and a mule.” Despite all these accomplishments, the Bureau was also very flawed.

Congress never provided adequate funds or personnel to carry out the task of assisting the poor. The allocation of Bureau agents was scarce across the South, with usually one agent representing up to 20,000 people. There were few African-American agents, because only a small number of military officers were Black. Although the bureau’s primary concern was the welfare of former slaves, it actually served more poor Whites than Blacks.

Sharecropping was in fact introduced to the South on a sweeping basis by the Freemen’s Bureau. After emancipation and the abolition of the plantation system, the Freedmen’s Bureau assisted Blacks in negotiating contracts for pay or a share of what they produced for their former masters. Sadly, once President Andrew Johnson was sworn in as the new president, he began to pardon thousands of former Confederates and returned their land to them ending the Special Order #15.

40 acres and a mule

As stated previously, America needs a new Black-operated Freedmen’s Bureau. This bureau, which was a part of the Department of War, was created to not only assist poor White refugees, but mostly to assist the approximately four million newly freed slaves. Yet Congress and its White agents manipulated their power and misappropriated funds that could have helped the poor.

In today’s society, we are not physically enslaved like our ancestors were; however we are suffering from hunger, poverty, inadequate education, unemployment, and a lack of health coverage. Maybe a new federal program that is anchored specifically towards the African-American community will usher in improvements for the well being of our people and our children in the generations to come.

If the theory of the Dubois’ Talented Tenth can be applied, I’m sure the leaders in our community can create a movement of social change. We do not only owe it to ourselves, but we owe it to our children who are going to be in this world with skin that will forever hinder them. If it could be done in 1865, I believe our brothers and sisters can bring it into fruition now.

Jasmine Tucker is a senior sociology major and African-American studies minor at Howard University in Washington, D.C. She’s also currently an Educational Issues Intern at the American Federation of Teachers.