Friday, July 25, 2008

An Appeal for Action (Thoughts on CNN’s Black in America Series)

Read this post on the Jamestown Project's Blog, the Democracy Spot.

I have received several emails and phone calls from friends and family who have been moved to tears of sadness (laced with hope) by what they saw on CNN last night. The program made me reflect on an exchange I had with a colleague a few years ago when my son was less than two years old. My colleague was an older White man for whom I had unyielding affection and respect. Despite his political leanings, which were opposite from mine, we actually shared common values and principles including a love of justice and fairness and a commitment to education and hard work. I called him friend.

On this particular day, we were discussing my career choices and the impact on my young family. I remarked about the challenges that confronted me raising a Black boy in today’s society. To my surprise, he was taken aback, shocked that I would be so pessimistic to have even voiced such a concern. While I know that there is a gulf in this country between the Black experience and that of the average White American, I was surprised perhaps because I’d never judged this particular colleague to be “average.” In addition to his personal challenge of living with a disability, through countless conversations over the years, he’d consistently demonstrated a keen thoughtfulness on and compassionate understanding of the social ills that plagued our society.

So when my friend and colleague expressed his gall at my remark, when he interpreted it as a sign of weakness or pessimism, my spirit shrank, but I tried to explain. I tried to explain that I was committed to nothing less than a mother’s hope, faith and optimism for the life of my son. But that my reality, growing up Black in America, taught me that sometimes these commitments were not enough. I told him that my family was full of folks who had the same opportunities but ended up oceans apart due to life’s circumstances. I tried to explain that when I turned on the evening news to the constant bombardment of crime-ridden African-American images, my reality was that the star of the show could be my childhood friend, neighbor, cousin, uncle, brother, or even my son. I tried to explain that I was not pessimistic, I was realistic, that this was a war for the souls of my son and daughter, and that I was simply an activist mother that knew I had to put on my armor and do anything and everything possible to fight the battles and win the war. I wonder if he heard me or if the gulf that divided our realities was simply too vast, despite our common values and principles.

The CNN focus on Dr. Michael Eric Dyson and his brother Everett highlighted this reality for America. Two brothers, same parents, same opportunities, two very different outcomes. When I saw these two beautiful brothers sharing their story, I wanted to scream to my colleague and to so many others and say, “See, this is what I’ve been trying to tell you.” Though I am a hawk on the issue of personal responsibility in our community, it simply doesn’t go far enough to explain our collective condition. Everett Dyson explained his situation by highlighting the poor choices he’d made in his life. But the consequences of his “poor choices” and the consequences of those of the average American are vastly different. For a Black man, the unforgiving nature of our society is stinging.

But it is what it is. So this brings me back around to my role as the activist mother suiting herself and her children with armor. My experiences have taught me that for my children, there is little room for error. No pardons for pitiful choices they may make in their futures. So what is a mother to do? What is our community to do? What is America to do?

Last year, through The Jamestown Project I worked tirelessly on a campaign for the American family that largely fell on deaf ears. Perhaps because it was not highlighted on CNN. Perhaps because it had no champions like Soledad O’Brien, Bill Cosby, or D.L. Hughley to lift it up.

It started with a document entitled An Appeal to the American Imagination calling for the need for a radical change in direction – for the Black community and for all of America. It called Black America to a renewed commitment to 1) self-love, 2) family, and 3) education. It challenged all of America to renew its commitment to racial and economic justice, with a focus on strengthening the Black family, and to take steps to strengthen all families and to reform its poisonous media culture. Now that CNN has called the conversation, I encourage you to take the time. Read it. And sign the Appeal petition.

In addition to simply watching the CNN special (we all should) and signing onto the above-referenced Appeal (we all should), you can do more. The Jamestown Project designed three simple Checklists for Action for individuals, community organizations and churches and religious institutions. Read these Checklists. Incorporate some of the suggestions into your life, your church, and your community organizations. Urge your family, friends and networks to do the same.

The time has come for a fresh nationwide commitment to healing, renewal, and transformation. The CNN special, the historic candidacy of Barack Obama and the fact that you are reading these words right now all speak volumes. You are the leader that you have been looking for. You can take steps right now to help reset the moral compass of Black America and all of America. You can help to bridge the gulfs that divide us, setting the stage for our common principles and values to shine. None of us can do it alone. It starts today. And it begins with you.

Charisse Carney-Nunes, attorney and social entrepreneur, is Senior Vice-President of The Jamestown Project and the author of two children’s books, Nappy and I Dream for You a World.