You go, we go

A dreaded sunny day, so I’ll meet you at the cemetery gates. Keats and Yates are on your side. While Wilde is on my side. So we go inside and we gravely read the stones. All those people, all those lives, WHERE ARE THEY NOW? With loves and hates and passions just like mine. They born and then they lived and then they died. Seems so unfair, I want to cry.

These words are from a singer I’ve had a bromance over for years. Decades, really. He wrote them in a fit of angst and moroseness. But I’ll forgive him that because the intent was pure. He was drawn to the alluring and yet repulsiveness of the cemetery. It’s unerring aim to draw all men into its bosom. No matter the graves condition or lonely appearance it will one day have us all.

So the way to go is to embrace it. To feel what our preceding force of the deceased have no way to feel; curiosity. He bemoaned the fact that at some point, no matter the prowess or prestige. The meekness or malaise. One day we all will taste death and swallow it bitter or sweet. His observations of common emotion and feeling is oddly comforting and yet saddening. We share loves, hates, passions, and yet the finality of the grave claims us all. So sad. Or is it?

I’ve traveled in many places and one thing I’ve always found in them is a cemetery. Some are beautiful and well tended. Others are historical and well guarded. Still others are old and decrepit missing a sexton of any worth. But it is the oldest and least crept through cemeteries that I love.

But how, you may ask, can a cemetery possibly be someplace in which the living would find any appeal of draw?

I’ve always seen these rolling hills, sparsely treed aisles, iron gated places of peaceful rest to be grand and wonderful. There’s no better place I know to see how a town cared for its own and the history of a people and the importance or lack of reverence to the dearly loved and now departed.

I see stories of folk who had children that died far too young. Perhaps even before a proper name was given. How the gentleman was a warrior who fell due to a well aimed bullet or an ill timed heart attack. Or how the children of a beloved mother and patriarch in the family saw themselves as owing due fealty to them even in their own passing. How much it mattered that even in death they remain together as family. How family was still tight knit and would indeed spend eternity together.

Then. I see plots that reveal the far flung nature of family today. Husband and wife but no children near. Perhaps buried in another row? Or another town? Another state? Another time zone? Country? Solitary. These cemeteries tell me that this one was wealthy and chose to spend his or her money on a monument that belied their living importance. But today, I don’t know who they are. Or what they did to warrant such large obelisks of marble or granite or some other stone of long lived character. I only know they thought hilly of themselves. Or some altruistic donor felt that way and gave until it hurt to see to it that their pain was large enough to approve such an edifice.

Or the pauper who had little more than a sandstone marker, worn with rain, air, time, teenagers, or historians seeking a chalk rubbing… Unreadable. All those lovers all those lives. Where are they now?


Seek and Ye shall find

A hundred years ago, or thereabouts, I was a young boy of only 15. I had my bicycle and a piece of a job earning $3.15 an hour. And that was good money for a boy in the mid eighties in the midwest.

I recall the days that I spent rolling my 34 pound Raleigh Capri ten speed, which I still own, all over the city of my youth. The streets were mine to see. I was fully aware that because I rode while others drove, I saw things most missed. In a very real sense, I did stop to smell the roses.

I also knew the joy of pop music and good tunes in my ears. Granted the headphones of the time were foam and huge or the size of a Susan B Anthony and delicate, but the sounds of the season I wanted were easily heard. My 7-Up clear plastic, portable, cassette tape player had the latest Phil Collins or Roachford song singing about cuddly toys or how I should take a look at him now. I used to sit anxiously by my radio, fingers hovering above the play/record toggles waiting for Rick Deez to shut up so I could make my latest mix tape of the hot summer jam. And when I couldn’t wait any longer, or just had to own it, I’d hop my bike and race to the local Peaches Records for a cassette single or Lp to slap on my turntable. It was that way I learned how to ride a bike with one hand. Not a good idea, but it’s what I did.

The record stores were palaces of sound. Rock. Pop. Rhythm and Blues. Soul. Hip hop. Jazz. Classics. Southern rock. A newcomer; acid jazz. Spoken word albums. All available on cassette, Lp, 45, and sometimes in the clearance section an 8-track or two. I still have a Pink Floyd 8-track today. Nothing to okay it on, but I have it!

The smell of those record stores was something you don’t have today. The smell of new vinyl mixed with magnetic tape all wrapped in the flimsy plastic and packaged with care by some far away press where a studio producer was sweating his job and some singer was praying for a miracle. The sounds of piped in music echoed in every corner. There were music performer posters and promotional discs everywhere. Kids and adults stalking the aisles one are the other hoping for a misprinted price label so the recording could be had for less than full retail.

It is this hunt that I lived for. Finding hidden gems I’d never seen or heard of before. When did Prince make this? Who is Patti Smith? What’s a Mandrill? Didn’t that bay have a few other records in it last week? I saw some cover with a guy or men surrounded by flowers but I can’t recall who the group was. Hmmm. It is a first world problem to try and tap into my primal hunter gatherer instinct. My weapon was my fuzzy memory and my wallet. My quarry a new music release. My senses were heightened as I prowled the aisles and dark corners of the store seeking a deal. A rare pressing. A limited issue picture Lp. An out of print cassingle. Yes that’s what the audio cassette singles were called then; cassingles.

Soon the quarry got wise to me and my fellow hunters. We sought the new earwig. The compact disc. But is wasn’t as hard to find at first. The industry knew they were a hot item. So they put them in HUGE boxes both for visibility and as a theft deterrent. Almost taller than a 33 1/3 Lp and half as wide, these odd creatures peeked up and out over repurposed cassette and Lp cases hoping to be seen by a would be hunter. It never ceased to amaze me that the case was so big while the actual case and cd were so small. As if it was trying to be something it wasn’t. To pretend to be more than it really was. The sights. The smells. The sounds. Nothing like it.

Todya the hunt continues, but it’s not as much fun.

Today, the record store is a niche market and not as ubiquitous. Tower Record Stores are gone from my hometown. I once had Peaches. Then it became Coconuts. Now, I have no idea what it’s called. The hunt for records by and large has become victim to the instant gratification culture. The only real surprise now is finding a new song by an old artist on iTunes only because I was perusing websites their discography link.

The precious tactile sensation of holding a physical album that you physically put in some time and effort in seeking and ultimate satisfaction is not so common now. Today, you just look for an Amazon or iTunes link, click buy and its quickly downloaded to your computer or portable device that has few, if any, internal moving parts. The HD art image of the content is a pale and ultimately unsatisfying approximation of the huge double sided inner fold out of the old Lp’s. Who can forget the inside pictures of any Ohio Players album?

Records are still being made. Both consumer and professionals use them. DJ’s for mixing and parties. Consumers for collectors items. Something to keep the masses interested. I recently saw a Sleigh Bells Lp that had a full sized school notebook in it with a dozen pages filled with “handwritten” lyrics. So very necessary because the songs are virtually impossible to decipher without it. Or a lyric search on Google.

Maybe something has been lost. Maybe more has been gained. I’m now able to get a recording of a favorite Hikaru Utada or Hideaki Tokunaga or Claudia Acuña or even a Los Budos Band recording without having to travel to Japan, South America or California to get it. But then again, isn’t that part of the joy? The point isn’t just the getting there, but the work put in to getting there in the first place?

Not My Problem

Recently I had a short conversation with my son.

He is a six foot 1and half inch tall black male aged 15. He’s within months of earning his Eagle Scout merit badge and is athletic and he is intelligent. That isn’t anecdotal his grades prove it.

We were listening to a podcast discussing the recent police shootings of unarmed black and brown people. I asked him if he is talking about these issues in his current events or social studies class. Let’s be clear here for just a moment. His school has a highly insular community. It’s mostly homogeneous and has less than ten black people. Fewer than twenty Asians including eastern and western Asians. The rest of this relatively small school are garden variety white. So I was curious to know how his school was addressing the shooting and choking of American citizens. His response was interesting. He replied that “… They aren’t talking about it.” I asked why and he said, “… Um, I don’t know, but I think they want to avoid it.” I was impressed with his insight.

I told him what I will tell you. It’s not unexpected that people avoid things that are uncomfortable. And it’s very easy to avoid subjects when you think it’s not talking about you. Our pastor told us about a poem of sorts. The poets subject was of a man who ignored the carting away of fellow citizens who were communists, blacks, Asians, gays, and Jews. Claiming that each of these groups did not look like him, he didn’t identify with them, he was part of their group, so he didn’t intervene. But when “they” came for him, he looked around and realized there was “…no one left to protect me…” Inaction. Not my problem. I recall an MTV animated video that showed various environmental atrocities that a well dressed man ignored as they occurred behind him. Pollution. Nuclear waste. Environmental terrorism. At each new atrocity the man proudly said, “not my problem!” Then finally the man drank the tainted water and he quickly disintegrated into a green and bubbling mass as he again attempted to say through ruined vocal chords, “not my prob—.”


If the fellow citizens of America had been named Buffy or Eric or Michelle or Jake and lived in rural communities or had been people who live in this community I doubt the classrooms my son attends would be void of the conversation. It’s only when it gets close to home that we get involved. It’s only when our truth becomes inconvenient that we take notice. It’s only when it’s not them but me that we get involved. It’s sad. But it’s true. How many of us sat around the television and did little more than cluck their tongues when the tanks rolled into Los Angeles in response to the Rodney King riots? How many of us sat back and said, “Oh, ain’t it awful?” When princess Diana was killed attempting to escape the paparazzi? We aren’t in the hood. We aren’t royalty. So why worry about THEM? What do I care?

It’s Maya Angelou who once again comes to the rescue here. She said, and I’m probably going to mess up this quote a little, “because I am human, there is nothing that happens in other humans that is alien to me”. In other words, she embraced the fact that if one human is affected regardless of distance or situation, she too was affected. For no other reason than being a human too, she was wounded too. Prick me do we not bleed? We…

We are not islands. We are humans. If and when one of our fellow humans are abased or shunted or killed, we have a responsibility to not ignore it. Not because they share our political view, skin color, ethnic background, social experience, educational benefit. No. But because we are all humans.

To protect and to serve

A video was posted recently of community policing in action. And it was absolutely hilarious. I laughed until I cried and then shared it with my family and my online buddies. They too laughed hard and said so.

But when it was all over but the shouting I looked back at the video and thought a little more about what the video really showed. Let me illustrate the video.

A white police officer on traffic watch (of a dirt road in the country, but whatever) had his dash camera on and witnessed a white male roll by on his riding lawnmower. The officer pulls from his spot, hits the lamps and sounds his siren ordering the man to stop. He complies. The man identified by the officer first as “man” then soon “Steve” was admonished for drinking and driving his mower. Steve replied he was on his way to the oyster shack. The officer said to cut off the engine, extinguish his cigarette, and empty his liquor bottle. Both of which Steve did before stumbling back onto the mower. The policemen repeatedly demanded Steve shut the engine back off. He ignored him and continued rolling. The policemen said, “You fittin’ ta git lit up, Steve” and then he tasered Steve who cried loudly shouting he thinks he crapped his pants. At which point Steve was taken into custody.

As I said, it was hilarious and I still laugh and think it’s funny as Hell. Honestly if it was a black man on the mower I’d laugh too. Yes, I am black. It’s the incident that’s funny to me and how poor Steve acted under the influence. Yes, the taser was justified because he himself could’ve been injured by reaching over a potentially spinning mower blade to forcibly shut off the engine so a non-lethal submission was justified. But there’s a lesson here.

I saw community policing in action and I liked it. I loved it. I want some of it. This policemen clearly knew personally Steve. He called him man. He addressed Steve by name and without needing to view his identification. He was confident enough in his relationship with the community he SERVES AND PROTECTS to use simple methods of submission rather than lethal force at first sight. The officer was not afraid of the community. He was part of the community. This, my friends, is what community policing is and should be.

Know your community. Serve your community. Don’t abuse authority in your community. Protect your community even from itself. This is the goal, or should be, of every law enforcement officer in America today.

So when I see community policing dismantled because the police have become eunuchs and afraid of their community I am devastated. I see police states in urban cities. I see Michael Browns and Tamir Rice and Edward Garners (shot for running away) so many others over and over and over again. These policemen are trained to be afraid. Not authorities. Taught to escalate before the suspect can. Rather than defuse the situation before the suspect goes ballistic. These policemen are asked to patrol not on foot or in squad cars, but in tanks and military style machinery. These officers are asked to enforce laws that are designed to create a fear of the law rather than respect for the law.

I’ve said before that decisions and choices made from a mentality of fear are guaranteed to net strange results.

I haven’t changed my mind. And I miss community policing.


It’s once again the holiday season which means that all the films that insist we get into the holiday spirit will be trotted out on network television. These films are usually well known, comfort food for the eyes and familiar themes that are common to the holidays. Peace. Goodwill. Consumerism. Giving. Retail therapy.

So I had on my television and what comes on but Spencer Tracy in “Boys Town”. I’ve never seen it, so I thought that I’d do a lot worse to not watch it. I’ve always heard it was good anyway. So like a normal American I promptly turned on the DVR and left for my appointment.

Later, I returned to the television and opened up the film. The first surprise was the fact that it opened with a disclaimer. That it was a true story insofar as the lead character, one priest named Father Flanagan. I’ll ask your forgiveness here, because I’ve not memorized the exact order of the scenes.

Ok. So my interest is piqued. What’s next? A gang of boys in a street fight. Ok. Not my cup of tea, but I’ll allow this. Then the scene that set my mind to spinning and my heart to swell.

There was a man on death row. He had a parade of people coming in and out of his prison cell. Head cupped in hands and pacing with an agitated gait, the condemned man soon promised he would confess to the priest, yet on his way. The guards, warden, and all the usual cast of characters who are requisite in a prison scene make their hasty entrances and exits. I’m becoming dizzy with the blurred movements. But the hyperactivity in the cell keeps me engaged.

So the priest at last arrives and a sudden calm fills the room. You can see it happen. I smile. The priest is asked by the condemned, what will he see on the other side? And if he can’t know what’s there, how can he be so unafraid of what’s there? Chalk it up to faith is essentially his answer. The condemned accepts it. Then the prison warden asks the condemned if he is ready to pay his debt to society. The condemned mans face flashes in surprise and righteous anger. He stands toe to toe with the man and demands of him, “… Debt? What debt! The debt I’m owed when society turned its back on a 12 year old kid? When I had nothing and had to scrap to survive, where was that debt then? Huh?!”

He carried on so much more, but I was literally stunned by his performance and his truth. What debt DOES the condemned owe to a society when that society turned its back on him when he was such a small child and had no support? No help? No love? No recourse?

I don’t think that the condemned among us seek an explanation as this man did. But they do seek understanding. Understanding that sometimes, the faults we cause are not of our own making. That sometimes we truly are the product of our surroundings.

Consider this. Someone once said that our capacity for empathy, understanding, acceptance of diversity, the ability to navigate uncertain situations is boiled down to the limits of our language. In other words. If there is a word to describe what we feel, see, experience, we are ok. It’s familiar and not alien to us. But where our language fails us, and we must make assumptions, sometimes to our failing.

I submit that in this mans case it’s possible that society lacked the empathy and understanding he needed. He said that if only one. Just one, had reached out to him as a youth, he likely wouldn’t be in that cell. That if anyone had cared about him in this society that now demands his debt be paid, he likely would not be walking his green mile. It seems to me that most of us could really do well if each of us worked to expand our vocabulary. Stretched our known words to include others so that no one has to feel like our inability to accept the word that describes the “other” will shut them out.

Words like homeless. Poor. Native. Minority. Under-educated. Alone. Neglected. Maybe the adding of these words to our regular vocabulary will allow us to see beyond our own experience and see into theirs.

The lazy racist

How does one define racism?

I believe the difference lies between being proud of your race and the impression that your race is better than another. Frankly I am of the opinion that whatever your individual racial label placed upon you either by your own hand or the recognition by others, you should be proud of your race. Similarly the ethnicity you claim within that race is yet another reason to be proud.

Sadly lacking in many folk is self pride. Is that a problem? I think so, because so many folk spend so much of their time attempting to impress upon others in various ways that they are proud of their race. The act of expressing that pride sometimes gets pushed out of the arena of self pride and into the arena of prejudice. And this is where racism comes into play. I feel like every race and ethnicity has reason to be proud of their heritage. The race of a people who are outwardly recognized as white is a woefully inadequate way to recognize the rich and powerful history of that race. There are Scott’s, Irish, Russians, Canadians, and more. But that s only the nationality. Looking within there are individual breakdowns with each of those. Blacks are not simply black. They are born of nations all around the world including those from the continent of Africa, also island nations such as Cuba, Trinidad, Haitian, and many more.

Race is simply too general a way to fully appreciate the beauty in another. I feel that the simple truth is that we as humans are basically lazy. Too lazy to enter into a true relationship with others. We tend to desire the easy road. The easy way to get through, by or around a subject. Look at labor saving devices. Telephones. We have for centuries communicated with others in various mediums. But to do so before telephones called for one to either get up, walk out of the home, go down the road, and enter into dialogue with that person face to face. Over long distances that trip may have involved boats, horses, dogsled, or anything else technologically available to hasten the passage of the miles between individuals. later someone said that if you write me, I will respond. So thoughts and words were placed on solid surfaces and transported by one means or another to the intended recipient. But then we got lazy. Or perhaps impatient is a better word. We chose to hasten the transmission of the written word by desiring to hear the voice regardless of distance. So in due time the telephone was created. It allows folk to converse whole thoughts, dialogue back and forth in real time without delayed gratification.

I do not mean to say the phone is a bad or socially degrading instrument. I am simply saying that it is an example of how we treat personal contact when it’s not quick enough to answer a given situation. The letter requires time to write, read, digest the intent of the words, then responded to. The phone eliminates the need for written clarifications after then thought is conveyed.

So what has laziness and impatience have to do with racism?

I feel that one possible factor in prejudice is the impatience we have for others who are not like us. I’d like to believe that we weren’t always so impatient. At the very least not with those of our own ethnicities. Within that group, it’s very likely that we offered a certain amount of latitude for miscommunication and unintended transfers of emotionally charged opinions. But once the confines of that ethnicity are explored I believe that folk didn’t have the intimacy of regular contact. The shared history and background to draw upon.

Think on this. If you ask a black person in America today to comment on the third king of a particular tribe within The Gambia, and his importance to the formation of his people, that black American would be somewhere north of puzzled. Ask the same question of a Gambian and his response would likely be filled with emotion and heartfelt conveyance of what that king meant. Intimacy. But the ethnicity though different would still not likely cause friction because there is at least common racial background. When the racial gulf is greater, the friction is palpable.

Ask a black American his opinion on the current president of the United States and you are likely to hear a very different opinion of him than you are of another race. Not necessarily a negatively different one, but the perspective would skew from the black Americans perspective. And after all, isn’t perspective one of the driving forces behind how we view one another?

I am not a gun

The reality is most American citizens and immigrants who are black will not face the end of a gun held by a nervous or improperly trained police officer. Most black Americans will never know the fear that engulfs any sane person who is facing a life threatening situation such as Michael Brown did this past summer. I will not debate nor entertain who precipitated the untimely death of a life cut down too soon. I will not concern myself with the lawfulness or lack of it because I am not a lawyer and do not play one on television. What I will talk about is the feeling I have, in my own heart, in the aftermath of the Ferguson shooting. It is the same reaction I had after the murder of Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice of Cleveland.

Numb realization that there are situations in our lives that are sometimes spun out of control. And in those situations, it’s usually going to end badly for the involved. It may not always be race or prejudice. It may not always be wrong place wrong time. It may not always be bad decision making. It may not be potentially dangerous laws like Stand Your Ground. It may not be born of misunderstanding. But no matter the reason for the loss of livelihood, status, or life, all involved are affected… Sometimes permanently.

And here I am, left to stand by, wondering why. Why has it happened again? Why has yet another situation spun out of control? Why has the law failed to protect the legacy of the dead? Why is there ambivalent feelings surrounding the survivors? Why must I, as a father of a black teenage boy, once again have to enter into conversation about why a fellow black boy has died and he is never going to have the chance to meet him? Why must I lose sleep at night and spend my days praying for my sons safe return at night? Why must I constantly seek comfort in biblical passage and in my Lords words to counteract the pain I feel?

Why am I left with more unanswered than answered questions?

I am tired of being afraid. I am worn from being bombarded with issues of race from the media. Do not get me wrong. I do not fault the media. It’s their job to report the day’s events in a responsible manner. What bothers me is just how OFTEN they must do it because the events just keep happening.

I’m starting to think that this is why Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Dr. Cornell West, and others throughout American history have taken up the torch to take an active role in the eradication of poverty and Institutionalized racism. Because sitting on the sidelines is maddening. It makes one feel impotent. It makes one numb… As I feel.

Long ago, I realized that when I take an active role in the creation or furthering or completion of anything, I do not feel this way. When I started working with my church, my family, and my various places of employment over my short life, I now realize (with the benefit of hindsight) that when I became involved and an active participant I no longer felt affected but instead I felt effective.

So what to do?

I act in my own small way. I’m not brave enough to carry the very heavy torches that Dr. King Jr. carried. The hefty weight of responsibility that Malcolm X bore. What I can do, is be a help to those I am blessed to meet in the several stations of my life. I can usher someone who knows no better through a problem they have so they need not face the business end of a metaphorical gun. The metaphorical gun being an unfair opinion rendered by an angry official. Or the metaphorical gun of a disrespectful policeman who has misjudged me and my station, how I react to diffuse the situation. The metaphorical gun of being a stumbling block to someone who wishes to have just a closer walk with thee. The metaphorical gun of foolish commentary when wise absorption of news events will empower me to instead speak intelligently about it.

I refuse to allow myself to be a metaphorical gun to someone else. I wish to be the kind of person I want to see. I’m just foolish enough to hold onto the belief that if I live my life uprightly enough someone may see my example and choose a different path. A path that they may previously have not considered possible or attainable.

It’s very possible that the decisions made that horrific day in Ferguson Missouri this past summer and more recently would have happened anyway. That the fate of that flawed officer and that doomed boy were sure to occur no matter what I or anyone did or could do. But it is also very possible none of it would’ve happened if those two ill fated humans had had different life experiences. If they had been witness to such an amazing series of people making wise decisions for themselves and with others that the officer and boy might’ve chosen not to do whatever it is they did.

Maybe. Just maybe.

For them I will never know. But for tomorrow and tomorrows tomorrow, I will continue to be active in my own way. To be the kind of man I want to be. And I will continue to hope and pray and teach and live in such a way that other folks decisions might alter for the better because they witnessed something or someone doing better.