Tag Archives: Richard Wright

Steven Stephens: A 20th Century Bigger Thomas? (Black America’s Native Son)

Experience has taught me to expect the inquiry regardless of the venue or situation. Whether while being interviewed or in the aftermath of an exhilarating lecture regarding the dilemmas facing African-American males, someone will ask “What is the greatest issue confronting the black male today?” To the chagrin of interviewers and audience members, my answer to this poignant query is never singular as the foremost problems facing African-American males revolves around mutually reinforcing issues of mental illness and their adoption, due to both socialization and their environs, of what can only be termed a toxic manhood that possesses the ability destroy all that they contact.

The wicked cocktail of mental illness and toxic manhood is the only explanation for the actions of Steven Stephens, the African-American male who not only murdered Robert Goodwin Sr. (74), a defenseless elderly black male on a Cleveland, Ohio, street, but also uploaded his heinous crime onto Facebook. Although Black America reacted with horror to Stephens’ diabolical actions, the truth of the matter is that the vast majority of us know several black males whose existence mirrors that of Steven Stephens; a personable individual, who on the surface fails to exhibit the wear-and-tear of being black in America publicly, yet is privately straining under the weight of being a have not in the land of plenty. The alluded to frustrations feeds directly into the dawning of a daunting query of “Is life worth living?” Such internal strife has reverberating repercussions for all around them. Unfortunately, it appears that the appropriate motto for disassembled black communities in every inner-city may very well be “A place where life is not worth living.”

Considering the mantra that “you cannot change what you do not acknowledge,” it is past time Black America shed their thread-bare lie of being shocked by regarding the actions and activities of the Steven Stephens found within their environs. If we were serious about improving our community, we would stop feigning ignorance and acknowledge that we have normalized public indecency and uncivilized behavior toward within the black community. It is not accidental that Steven Stephens murdered another black man as a means of expressing his frustrations at the two black women to whom he was closest, his mother and a former fiancé.

It is imperative that we not miss this opportunity to at least examine, if not address the cause of the development of angry, brash, illogical, directionless, socially inappropriate African-American males whose moral compass is a toxic manhood possessing more power to destroy themselves and their community than Hurricane Katrina. We must face facts that figures such as Steven Stephens are a reflection of who we have become as a community; cold, distant, foreign to one another, combustible, and dangerous to ourselves. When considered in this light, it is clear that today’s troubled African-American male is a modern-day Bigger Thomas, meaning Black America’s Native Son. Such individuals reflect the frustrations, contradictions, and sadness that has been comfortably situated in our hearts for so long that we no longer notice its presence. For better or for worse, it is who we have become to each other.

And for that reason, we should all weep.

Dr. James Thomas Jones III

© Manhood, Race, and Culture 2017.

What President Donald Trump’s Belief that Frederick Douglass is Still Alive Reveals About the American Educational System

There is a wise saying that says; it is “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt.” I am always amazed when people possessing enough power and resources to have a cadre of individuals around them make avoidable missteps in public. Unfortunately, I was not surprised when America’s Commander in Chief, Donald Trump, made an inexcusable intellectual stumble.
Just in case you missed it, this is what occurred during a recent Black History Month celebration. America’s ‘can’t get right’ President attempted to once again prove to Black America that he is on their side by delivering a Black History Month speech that included him reading a list of African-American heroes from a sheet of paper.
Now I am confident that you are wondering what could go wrong with the reading of a list of names from a prepared speech. Unfortunately for Donald Trump, he apparently became too comfortable and unwisely choose to insert impromptu comments regarding these esteemed individuals. During this rather awkward moment, President Trump began discussing Frederick Douglass, this nation’s greatest Abolitionist voice. Of course, there is nothing wrong with President Trump speaking about such an esteemed American historical figure. However, Trump’s remarks regarding Douglass were spoken in the present tense as if he believed that the famed Abolitionist was still in the land of the living. It was evident that the Commander in Chief had no clue whatsoever that Douglass died February 20, 1895. Hilariously, Trump made it seem as if Douglass would be leading the next Million Man March.
On the surface, this public misstep is little more than a representation that President Trump knows absolutely nothing about African-Americans or their protracted struggle for politico-economic liberation in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave. From a deeper view, Trump’s ignorance of African-American History, albeit we will remember this moment of ineptitude forever, places the spotlight on an American educational system filled with persons who know as little as Trump does about the African-American experience. Unfortunately, African-Americans from every walk of life, including educators, are included in the population mentioned above.
I previously used this space to tell a humorous story regarding a discussion among a group of African-Americans, each possessing a Ph.D., who wanted to bring in Richard Wright to deliver our keynote address for Black History Month in honor the 65th Anniversary of his epic tome, Black Boy. Although I was stunned that such ‘learned’ individuals had no idea that Richard Wright died fifty years prior, I did my best to hold in my laughter as these people pledged thousands of dollars to a pot with the intention of bringing the noted author to our campus. It was at this moment that I asked a member of the committee, who was also a Reverend, the following question.
“Do you speak to God on the regular?”
He responded, “Absolutely Brother Jones, is there a lamentation that you wish for me to deliver to the Lord?”
“Nah, I’m good on that front. However, there is one thing that you are going to have to do. Now he is still in the miracle business isn’t he?”
He nodded his head.
“Well, tonight when you talk to God, please tell him that he is going to have to reach into his old bag of tricks and breathe life back into Richard Wright as he did with Lazarus. And while he’s at, have him bring Malcolm and Martin back as well. Richard Wright has been dead since 1960. When was the last time you saw him on television? What was the last Richard Wright book that you read?”
Obviously, those ‘educated’ people around me had not only never read a Richard Wright book, but also had no idea of who he was or what he accomplished during his life.
Despite our hesitation to admit it, the truth of the matter is that the vast majority of our people emanate from the same educational system that produced our genius of a President. And without a serious infusion of “blackness” into our personal educational curriculum, we will be just as ignorant as our Commander in Chief regarding matters affecting our people.
I hope that we can agree that being ignorant is one thing, however, being “Trump dumb” is inexcusable, particularly when it comes to African-Americans. I hope that we each use this year’s Black History Month as an opportunity to not only raise our consciousness but also apply that knowledge toward the uplift of our community “By Any Means Necessary.”

Dr. James Thomas Jones III

© Manhood, Race, and Culture, 2017

What Does It Mean When A Room Full of African-American Collegians Have No Idea of Who Richard Wright Is? And What Should We Do About It?

There are moments when I am working with my African-American students that a sudden almost unending sadness overcomes my soul. The only thing that I can liken the feeling to is seeing the children of negligent, drug-addicted, physically abusive parents that from all indications regret the date that their child was born.

I recently experienced such a moment while speaking about the Great Depression, particularly the rise of Communists within America’s borders. I peppered the discussion regarding Herbert Hoover, FDR, and Communist Party USA with references to African-American issues and concerns. I have found this moment to be the perfect opportunity to discuss Richard Wright’s Native Son; a book that I would argue is the quintessential Great Depression era novel.

I was prepared to discuss the nuances’ of Bigger Thomas and draw what to me are innumerable corollaries between the Great Depression and contemporary society in regards to how larger forces often work to shutter opportunities for African-American males throughout the nation. To my shock and horror, not a single student had ever heard of Richard Wright or any of his classic tomes such as: Black Boy, Native Son, Uncle Tom’s Children, White Man, Listen! or Lawd Today.

It would be a gross understatement to say that I was absolutely floored that an entire room of African-American collegians had never heard of one of the greatest writers to put pen-to-paper and discuss the American racial experience.

As I am certain that you can imagine, after the class ended, I retreated to my office and pondered the following queries. What does the fact that every one of my African-American students were ignorant to who Richard Wright was really mean? How far does their collective ignorance extend? Who or what is responsible for what can only be termed comprehensive ignorance of African-American literature, history, politics, culture, etc.?

Quite possibly the most frightening aspect of all is that when one’s life is informed by multiple illiteracies, there is practically no escape from ignorance because the gross lack of understanding of history, extends into politics and of course the two aforementioned illiteracies lead directly to the development of a cultural appetite that voraciously consumes reality-television caricatures of Black life while simultaneously finding legitimate cultural expressions such as an August Wilson play or Terence Blanchard’s Over There unappealing to say the least.

The lack of knowledge of self dooms the vast majority of African-Americans in their pursuit of building what I term a “life worth living”.

So what does it mean that my students have no idea of who Richard Wright is? I am actually uncertain of what it means.

There is a part of me that sides with Malcolm X’s admonishment of ‘only a fool would allow his oppressor to educate his children’ and therefore the blame should be placed before our community as it has allowed our children to become mired in a public education system that has never even pretended to provide a culturally relevant education, while there is another part of me that feels the blame game will only delay our need to address the reality that educating our children is best left to the African-American community.

Ultimately, it matters little what it means and matters much how we address this matter as a community. It was this reality that led me to not only speak about Richard Wright and Native Son in one of my classes, but also assign it to them as an assignment. Such an action may not totally solve their problem of being informed by multiple interlocking illiteracies, however, it is at least a small step toward helping them recover their righteous minds.

Dr. James Thomas Jones III

What Anne Frank teaches us about Black Minds

During my nearly two decades of working as an African-American Studies Professor, I have learned myriad lessons regarding the educational process and its impact upon the minds, imagination, aspirations, and psyche of Black people; one of the most obvious and far-reaching lessons is found in the unfortunate reality that African-Americans are bereft of any understanding of their history. Although many outside of our community will protest this fact, the unfortunate reality is that the typical African-American is better versed in the history of other races than his own; engagement in the K-16 American educational institutions and its curriculum ensure the continuation of this reality.

It is this reality that forces me to brace myself for the first day of the semester; I already know that it will be a day that a new class of students will invariably reveal both their ignorance of and non-desire to engage African-American History. Considering that I am currently employed at a Historically Black University, one would expect my students to be excited at the prospect of reading Chinua Achebe’s, Things Fall Apart or Alex Haley’s classic monograph, The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Unfortunately, you would be disappointed as students express their resistance to both tomes via a groan of disapproval.

Students resistance to reading African-American literature often reaches absurd levels. For example, it is not unusual for a student to assume the persona of a modern-day Simon Cyrene, the figure who carried Jesus’ cross for him, who foolishly challenges my selection of The Autobiography of Malcolm X by relating that he refuses to read a book about a ‘Black Moslem’; a tactic that I guess he thinks will earn him a much needed crown when he reaches Heaven.

Considering that such antics are repeated every semester, I am prepared to address them via a simple question that illuminates the paucity of their prior educational experience, particularly as it deals with their exposure to African-American authors, history, and literature. The question I repeatedly pose is a relatively mundane one of, “How many of you have read The Diary of Anne Frank?” Invariably, every hand in the cavernous auditorium rises. I then ask the overwhelmingly Black audience; “Now which of these texts, The Diary of Anne Frank or The Autobiography of Malcolm X do you think is more applicable to your life? The story of a Jewish girl hiding in a closet or the one that follows the life of a Black man in America who to this day is revered by your people?” After such a flurry, nary a word of protest is uttered.

I take this momentary pause to re-engage the reincarnated Simon Cyrene, who invariably behaves as if my selection of The Autobiography of Malcolm X is part of a larger plan to proselytize and put my Christian audience on the highway to hell; I ask this idiot if he has read Anne Frank’s story. He always answers affirmatively. I then query, “So I am to take it that you are Jewish?” Driving home the absurdity of his protestation of why he would not engage Malcolm’s story, I then explain to the class that it is not Malcolm X’s religious background that he has a problem with, if it were, he would likewise have protested reading a text revolving around a Jewish girl; truthfully, the primary catalyst to my students resistance to read The Autobiography of Malcolm X is that they have learned to loathe African-Americans. Closely associated with feelings that can be best termed self-hatred is an often overlooked implicit question of ‘what have black people ever contributed to society?’ Although it is often not commented upon, it is possible for African-Americans to hate themselves with the zeal of a Ku Klux Klan member. In fact, the appearance of such bias is predictable considering that both populations have similar limited exposure to African-American historical contributions and contemporary worth.

I have learned that there are certain statements that must be forthrightly stated when discussing matters such as this, so I am publicly stating that I have no problem with students reading The Diary of Anne Frank, I personally consider her story to be significant enough to have visited the location where it was constructed. Hence, you will never find me refuting that Anne Frank’s story is an indispensable part of Human history; however, I am educated enough to recognize that such recognition is due to African-Americans stories, particularly The Autobiography of Malcolm X, as well.

The genesis to my being unsettled by this matter emanates from my understanding of education’s impact upon the human psyche. Considering that humans are social beings, meaning that we learn everything that we “know”, or at least think that we know, through either personal experience or the lessons of others, our entire reality is determined by what we are taught and what we experience. Hence, decisions regarding the type of curriculum we “educate” our children with should never be taken lightly. The alluded to curriculum informs our very existence.

Unfortunately, those who make decisions regarding K-12 curricular offerings are products of a school system that has historically marginalized the historical, cultural, and spiritual contributions of people of color; so it is not surprising that they continue this unfortunate tradition when crafting “educational guidelines” and “standardized tests”. If permitted, I would love to ask the decision makers that determine the worth of The Diary of Anne Frank and the worthlessness of The Autobiography of Malcolm X the following questions.

A.        What is your rationale for including The Diary of Anne Frank on the must read list and not The Autobiography of Malcolm X?

B.         Why do you think that Anne Frank’s story is more valuable than Malcolm X’s?

C.        What impact do you think that a K-16 educational experience that is devoid of any African- American books has upon the minds of students regardless of their racial identity or ethnic background?

D.        What does it mean for school children, regardless of race/ethnicity when districts fail to include any classic stories that center upon African-Americans or the African-American experience on their must read list?

The consequences of African-American children not being exposed to any form of their own history or culture in America’s educational institutions is well known, often omitted in such discussions is the reality that such grievous curricular omissions seriously damages the worldview of students of every race/ethnicity in the following ways.

A.        It allows for the development of woeful ignorance in regards to African- Americans and their historical experience.

B.         It gives the impression that persons of African descent have never contributed anything to society; thereby, allowing for racism and racist sentiments to gestate, if not spread like wildfire.

C.        It releases an “educated” populace into the world without even a limited understanding of the African-American experience, an occurrence that severely curtails any opportunity for a closing of the American racial divide.

Considering the repetitive nature of public proclamations that this nation is now in a “post-racial” period, it is extremely important that racial matters be re-examined; or we as a nation run the risk of burying a living and breathing entity that is still impacting us on a daily basis. If this nation is honestly seeking to address the seemingly never ending domestic racial animosity, the inclusion of classic African-American texts would go a long way toward healing the racial divide. Tomes such as the following should be read by every American, regardless of race, creed, gender, or sexual orientation: Things Fall Apart (Chinua Achebe) The Invisible Man (Ralph Ellison), Black Boy (Richard Wright), The Third Life of Grange Copeland (Alice Walker), The Autobiography of Malcolm X (Alex Haley), Some Soul to Keep (J. California Cooper), Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? (Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,) The Simple Stories (Langston Hughes), Up From Slavery (Booker T. Washington), The Souls of Black Folk (W.E.B. DuBois), Go Tell It On The Mountain or The Fire Next Time (James Baldwin).

It is imperative that school children of every hue be exposed to a wide array of historical texts and expressions of humanity. History dictates that an investment in education is one of the greatest investments any nation, including America, could ever make. So, if this nation is serious about addressing its well-documented pattern of racial animosity between groups it must significantly alter the intellectual diet that has been woefully deficient in regards to acknowledging racial issues. A significant step toward addressing the nation’s failure to deal with the ever-present Race issue would be to infuse the intellectual diet with texts from myriad races, groups, and perspectives. History dictates that the only weapon we have against ignorance is education. Considering such truth, it is long overdue for American children, including African-American children, to have access to classic African-American texts and authors, it is truly the only weapon that we have against racial animosity shadowing this nation through the new millennium.