Reliving Bigger Thomas on the Streets in Baltimore

Seventy-five years ago, Richard Wright shocked the country when he created the character Bigger Thomas in his best selling novel, Native Son. In this novel, the author paints a picture of unbearable living condition that Blacks experienced in the inner city of Chicago. The protagonist, Bigger Thomas, personifies the end result of human beings forced to confront racism and poverty.  What was most revealing about Bigger was the degree of his anger and his alienation from the world in which he felt trapped. In order to reconcile his hate for a country that refuses to treat him as an equal, he turns to violence. Accidently killing the white girl serves as a catharsis for him and he then is able to kill again.

In his outstanding narrative history of African American writers and critics, Professor Lawrence P. Jackson writes that, “From start to finish, Wright pointed to the recognition of anger and its potential eruption in violence as primal antidote to racism.” (Lawrence P. Jackson, The Indignant Generation, Princeton University Press, 2011, pg. 115) As I watch the young and alienated Blacks in Baltimore burn and destroy property I think of Bigger. If there was no other escape for Wright’s character than to turn to violence, can we then assume there is no escape for all the young Blacks who are willing to defy logic and challenge a massive police system that they cannot defeat? Just as Bigger was caught, many of them will be captured and sent off to prison. The system may consider incarceration a punishment but they just might consider it freedom.

NativeSon

Many of my young Black brothers and sisters are born into a world filled with poverty, to include dilapidated housing often over run with rodents, roaches and all other vermin in the dwellings, streets and alleys where they live. Richard Wright introduces us to Bigger Thomas, as he is trapping and killing a rat in their apartment. Bigger’s experience is the same that many of our youth encounter today. He dropped out of school in the eighth grade because he found no relevance in education for a black boy. I imagine many of the young Blacks, torching the buildings in Baltimore dropped out of school also.  Bigger and his buddies set out to rob a local merchant in their neighborhood. No different than the young Blacks in Baltimore, who are seen on television stealing merchandise from the CVS Drugstore and the local liquor store. They even invaded a check cashing office, obviously looking for money.

Finally, the great Algerian theoretician and freedom fighter, Franz Fanon, argues in his essay, “The Fact of Blackness,” that Bigger had to do something to relieve all the tension that had built up in him over the years. Much of that tension had to do with the fear and disgrace he felt about being Black and poor in America. That same fear and disgrace transcends to a hatred Bigger harbors toward white people. At the end of the novel when his attorney asked him did he feel any sexual desires for Mary Dalton, the white girl he murders, Bigger responds, “Like her? I hated her! So help me God, I hated her.

Fanon goes on to describe Bigger as a symbol that represents all Black men. There is, however, some exaggeration in Fanon’s representation. But there is also much truth in his writings. I believe that we can honestly extrapolate what Fanon has said to fit the image of many of those young Blacks, who set out to make a statement by burning down their own neighborhoods in Baltimore. No doubt there are many commentators who will dismiss the actions of these young men as those of thugs, hooligans, troublemakers and rabble-rousers. That kind of terminology makes them insignificant and dispensable, and their actions warrant no consideration or credibility.

I am not condoning the violence but only suggesting that just as we have a tendency to criticize the young men and women who turned to acts of destruction, let us be willing to criticize the system that played some part in that kind of behavior. What we cannot overlook is that Richard Wright wrote Native Son in 1940, and many of the inequities in the system that Bigger Thomas confronted and fought, still confront our young. The question I would like to pose is will our youth confront those same conditions of poverty and racism seventy-five years from today and if so, how will they respond?

A Diaspora Connection

On Tuesday, April 21, 2015, San Antonio, Texas scored another first in its history when the city entered into a Friendship City Agreement with Windhoek, the capital of the Republic of Namibia. I not only felt honored but thrilled to be invited to witness this event in the plush Plaza Club on the top floor of the Frost Bank Building here in San Antonio.

San Antonio Mayor and Namibia Mayor Muesee Kazapua toasting

I looked on in admiration as Ambassador Martin Andjaba strolled into the room fresh off a plane from the embassy in Washington, D.C. A wide smile crossed my face when Windhoek Mayor Muesee Kazapua reached out and shook my hand. And I couldn’t have felt more proud as I watched my Mayor, Ivy Taylor, sit at a table and sign the friendship agreement. Watching this historic event triggered thoughts of the great Pan African advocate, Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois, when he wrote about the Diaspora. He described it as the movement of African people over the centuries by force to all parts of the world. He made it quite clear that our homeland would always be Africa even though we have adjusted to a second homeland out of necessity.

Namibia achieved independence from a South African administration in 1990 and has done quite well in building a strong and vibrant Republic. It borders Angola in the north, South Africa in the south, Botswana in the east and the South Atlantic Ocean in the west. It is obviously in this vicinity that many of our ancestors were forced to leave their homeland. My creative mind then took liberties to imagine that, centuries past, the two mayors’ families may have known each other, and just possibly my ancestors and those of the ambassador crossed paths. For that matter, all the African Americans at the event could feel some connection with the many Africans in the room also experiencing this momentous occasion.

Fred Williams and Ambassador Martin Andjaba of the Republic of NamibiaDr. Du Bois would have been pleased if he could have witnessed the dynamics; it was the Diaspora at work, just like the great thinker would have imagined it. There, at the table was an African mayor from the major city in the Republic of Namibia, sitting next to an African American mayor of the seventh largest city in the United States and the second largest in the State of Texas; both signing an agreement that their respective cities will promote trade and economic cooperation in areas that include renewable energy, health services, biotech, culture and tourism.

I was able to grab the two city leaders’ attention long enough to take a picture with them. I was also able to corral the Ambassador and get one with him. I have to admit I am not a big fan of taking pictures with cell phones, but at that particular time, I sure was glad to know that my wife was an expert at using the cell phone to record history.

Fred Williams with San Antonio Mayor Taylor andNamibia Mayor  Muesee Kazapua

I am immensely grateful to my Mayor for inviting me to this event and to the African delegation for coming all the way from Namibia. I am also grateful to the Ambassador for flying from Washington, D.C., to help make this happen and to my wife for providing me with proof whenever I look at the pictures that this indeed really did happen, and I was not just dreaming of a better world.

San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor: Epitome of Black Progress in America

In July 2014, the San Antonio City Council selected Councilwoman Ivy Taylor to fill the last year of Mayor Julian Castro’s term of office, when he accepted a political appointment to head up Housing and Urban Development in the President’s administration.  The significance of this selection is that Ivy Taylor becomes the first African American Mayor in this city’s long history of racial relations, which has always been more progressive than the rest of the south.

D2Taylor2011Mayor Taylor also becomes only the second African American woman to become leader of a major city since Shirley Clarke Franklin was mayor of Atlanta, Georgia. What is even more impressive is that the black population in San Antonio is less than 10%. That is the lowest black percentage of a city over 30,000 that has or had a Black woman as its mayor. The other city was Asheville, North Carolina in 2011, and its percentage was 17.6.

However, let’s not restrict these impressive statistics from an African American perspective only. The larger picture is just as important in terms of the progress that women have made in the political arena. As of January 2014, of the 1,351 mayors of United States cities with populations over 30,000, 249 or 18.4% were women. Given that women are the majority population in this country, these figures are encouraging but not nearly as high as they should be.

Andrea Dew Steele, founder of Emerge America, a non-profit devoted to training more women for elective office, rationalized the reason for such a low figure in an article in the Philadelphia Tribune back on December 22, 2011. She told Marc Morial President and CEO of the National Urban League that, “We don’t feel as qualified as men; we’re not recruited in the same number; we feel turned off by the mechanics; we have persistent family barriers, and we don’t have the same networks as men.”

If Steele had followed Ivy Taylor’s career, she would know her excuses are nonsense. Ms. Taylor has won two impressive victories for the council seat in the Second District of the city. She did not win twice by feeling inferior in her ability to compete on the same level as a man. Her family is quite supportive, and her daughter is often seen with her at events. Her husband is a strong partner, not intimidated by his wife’s success, which is often a problem for a progressive and successful Black woman in this country.

One of the residuals that accrue to the black community with her elevation to the highest office in the city is that it can serve as a source of inspiration for young black girls, who are too often exposed to negative images to admire. Her success is a symbol for what can be accomplished by all young people if they have the will to achieve. Mayor Taylor did it the right way; she earned it through hard work and dedication.

They Are Educated, Sophisticated and Independent Sisters of Today

With Woman’s History Month coming to a close the last day in March, I thought I might do one final story about my beautiful sisters. The first of March I featured the great Lena Horne under the heading, “A Woman of Dignity and Integrity,” a couple weeks later it was A’Lelia Walker, the daughter of millionaire businesswoman, Madam C. J. Walker, and the “Most Fascinating and Flamboyant Lady of the Harlem Renaissance.” Today, we have some very dynamic sisters following in the footsteps of not only Ms. Horne and Walker, but also Harriett Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells-Barnett and the list goes on. I call them the educated, sophisticated, independent sisters of today. They have taken different roads to success but share one classy attribute and that is a non-compromising love for their heritage and culture. I am pleased to share with you, these beautiful sisters who are, as Nina Simone described, “Young, Gifted and Black.”

TRACI 2Traci Harden is an Atlanta based creative artist who specializes in graphic design. She is owner of Onyx Creative Arts, a graphic and fine arts studio specializing in layout and design for books and periodicals, logo/collateral/typography layout and design. Traci also specializes in advertising layout and design, and original fine arts and illustrations. She launched her business in February 2007 after watching then Senator Barack Obama’s press conference when he announced he would run for president. “Watching a future president’s thoughtful leap into the abyss gave me the courage to do the same and open a business,” she said in a recent interview. A native of Atlanta, Traci has seventeen years of experience as a graphic designer and fine artist. She received her Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Arts from Spelman College and has done additional post graduate work at the Art Institute of Atlanta. Traci freely gives of her time to causes she believes in. Some of the groups for which she volunteers her time are: Adult and Children with ADD/ADHD Awareness and Advocacy, Straight for Equality (LGBT), Center for Visually Impaired-Atlanta, Recreational Reading, and Bridging the Tech Divide. Traci is a successfully independent Black businesswoman who loves her husband of 21 years and her two children. Traci is a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority.

RLawsonRhonda Lawson is the award-winning author of Cheatin’ in the Next Room, A Dead Rose, Putting It Back Together, Some Wounds Never Heal and Twylite. Besides being a prolific writer of an outstanding series of novels, Rhonda is also an Army journalist who has travelled the world and is now stationed in Belgium where she works as an American Forces Network station manager. Her work has appeared stateside in various Army and civilian publications, including Soldiers Magazine, The Seattle Times and The Army Times. Rhonda began writing at the age of 12. “I just love to write,” she says. “Today I still write purely for the love of it.” Unlike some authors who emphasize entertainment over content or profit over passion, she readily acknowledges that she has something to say and is doing so via her writing. “I want to touch people with my stories. All of my books have a message.” Rhonda holds a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Communication Studies from the University of Maryland, a Masters Degree in Human Relations from Oklahoma University and is currently working on her Doctorate in Business Administration with an emphasis in Organizational Leadership. Rhonda is a successfully independent Black woman with exceptional writing skills, who loves her daughter whom she appropriately named, “Beautiful.” Rhonda is a member of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority.

TMoffettToschia Moffett is undoubtedly one of the most gifted young Black women in America. She graduated from Duke University Summa Cum Laude with a double major in Political Science and English, and with a double minor in History and Musical Theater, and then graduated from Northwestern University Law School by the age of 23, with a Juris Doctorate and a Masters in Public Administration. She served as a prosecutor in Cook County, Illinois and then became a corporate attorney with Dell Corporation for the past fifteen years. She is also an independent military contract attorney. Not only is Toschia an accomplished attorney at law, but is also a polished writer. Her novel, You Wrong for That, has been well received by book clubs and within the literary world. Toschia’s artistic talent has no bounds. She is an outstanding singer, director of plays and an actress, having performed in a version of Dream Girls for the troops at Fort Hood, Texas and the Killeen community. She is also an organizer. Back in 2005 she recognized the need for authors to collaborate in doing book signings and established the Divine Literary Tour. Approximately 25 authors, belonging to Greek Organizations, traveled to various cities for book signings. The Tour eventually grew into presentations on the image of Blacks in literature, movies and television. In an interview on KROV 91.7 Community Radio in San Antonio, Texas Toschia exclaimed, “Enough is enough. The perception of Black women has been tainted and distorted for centuries and it is now time for us to step forward and take control of the images portrayed of us on television and in movies, and in books and magazines.” Toschia is a firm believer that we as Blacks must begin to tell our story our way and for that reason has teamed with Prosperity Publications to help move the company forward as a major player in the publishing world. Toschia is a successfully independent Black woman of many talents who is dedicated to her husband and two children. She is also a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority.

AWinsteadAntoinette Winstead is a brilliant young sister who received a Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree from New York University in Film/Television and a Masters of Fine Arts from Columbia University with a concentration in Film. She is currently a tenured full Professor at Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio, Texas. She teaches courses in film studies, television history, screenwriting, directing, acting, and digital film production at both the undergraduate and graduate level. Antoinette is a scholar with a strong emphasis for research in the area of horror film, television, and literature, specifically the portrayal of race, gender, and social class in horror and how this genre reflects cultural changes and societal anxieties. Her additional research interests include the use of heroic journey in science fiction and fantasy film, television and literature. Recently she has further expanded her interest in researching the politics of film production, specifically the production of genocide films. Antoinette is a committed sister who is willing to reach beyond the walls of the university and bring her knowledge and talent to the community. She has written several plays that have been performed at the San Pedro Playhouse, Jump Start Theater, and the Continental Café, all in San Antonio, Texas. She has directed over a dozen plays, most notably, Miss Evers’ Boys, Steel Magnolia, and A Raisin in the Sun. Professor Winstead is also an accomplished poet. Her poetry has been published in such journals as The Poet Magazine, ViAztlan, Inkwell Echoes and Cross Currents and in the anthology, A Garland of Poems: A Collection from Ten Female Poets. Antoinette is an independent Black scholar and teacher, dedicated to her family, her students and her culture.

The outstanding and talented sisters, featured in this article are only the tip of the iceberg of the number of Black women who believe that they can make a difference in this world, without compromising their principles or further endangering the image of the Black woman. They are representative of the positive image that Nina Simone had in mind when she sang “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.”