In today’s episode I’ll be doing something a little different by discussing some of the major news stories and notable deaths from 2019. I’m toying with the idea of this being something that I do every so often in 2020. As always I’d love to hear your opinion on the topics I discuss and let me know if you think I overlooked a major story.
Gucci Blackface Sweater
It seems like every so often some company is in the news for a questionable or racist ad or product. Over the last few years, fashion brands have been the most frequent or at least the most public offenders. Companies such as Moncler, Prada, Dolce & Gabbana, etc. have pulled products following backlash from customers and the general public.
Earlier this year the Italian luxury brand Gucci had its moment in the unenviable spotlight of public scorn. The company released a black sweater with a balaclava featuring oversized red lips that could be pulled up over the face. Supposedly there was also a matching hat to complete the ridiculous look. The story exploded on social media and resulted in a call to boycott the brand. Several black celebrities got on board with the boycotts and spoke out against the racist imagery. In response, Gucci issued an apology and pulled the product from shelves.
Legendary Harlem designer Dapper Dan who had a previously contentious relationship with Gucci has been a partner of the brand in more recent years. He spoke out against the insensitivity of the sweater and call on the company to do more than just apologize. Within a few days, Dan and other members of the fashion community sat down with Gucci to discuss the company’s plans for moving forward.
Dan posted to his Instagram account that attendees of the meeting called on Gucci to make internal changes to avoid having the situation re-occur. The feeling was that the flub was a result of not having a culturally diverse staff that would have been better able to identify culturally offensive and racist ideas before they were put into production. It remains to be seen if the fashion brand will indeed diversify by having a wider range of employees and interns.
In October Gucci announced that Gucci Mane will be the face of their 2020 campaign. I don’t follow Gucci Mane or Gucci but it seems mighty convenient that the partnership would occur now after years of Gucci Mane repping the brand via his moniker. It seems like a well-timed and executed PR move to get back in the good graces of public opinion.
How the buying power of the Black and specifically hip-hop demographics will affect Gucci, I really can’t say. But the furor has died down and attention has shifted to the campaign being a win for Gucci Mane. Articles in Black and hip-hop outlets excitedly celebrated the partnership with little to no mention of the brand’s controversy.
When situations like this occur and the backlash is great enough and the brand has enough rep, the company will often get a quasi-spokesperson from the affected group to make the case for why the company isn’t racist, sexist, or whatever type of -ist. Gucci worked overtime calling on both Dapper Dan and Gucci Mane.
Black people aren’t a monolith but it’s unfortunate that in situations where we come together as a group, some are just out for self. My cynical side says that this is just a self-serving payday for both men. But my objective side says there might be some benefit to the action plan discussed by Dapper Dan for bringing more people of color into the fashion house and thus the fashion world.
When They See Us
If you have Netflix and were around other people in May or June of this year then odds are that you probably watched or at least heard about When They See Us. The incredible miniseries created by Ava DuVernay told the story of the Central Park Five and featured powerful performances from its young cast, especially Jharell Jerome who played Corey Wise. The series was the talk of the summer with people sharing how the story touched and made them emotional. There was renewed interest in the case and a public outcry which led to two of the prosecutors resigning from teaching positions and the boards of various organizations. The film had not only a creative and emotional impact but also a social impact as well.
It came as no surprise that When They See Us received 16 Emmy nominations, ultimately winning two. But the interwebs and social media were upset when the Hollywood Foreign Press Association slept on the series by not giving it any nominations. Ava DuVernay took the lack of nominations in stride and chose to focus on the overwhelmingly positive reception of the film. But several media outlets pointed out that overall, the HFPA failed to recognize the projects and performances of non-white creatives especially women of color.
I understand the hurt feelings but are we still surprised at this? It’s become a cycle where Black people lament the lack of inclusion in major award nominations. People complain and the next year the awarding body might pander by throwing out a few more nominations and maybe an actual win every so often. Meanwhile, major Black stars sometimes do not even bother to attend predominantly Black award shows (whether for music, movies, or television) as though they’re not good enough.
There’s a constant cycle of Black people seeking the approval of people who don’t value them. Not to mention a lot of these shows are based on industry politics rather than true talent or creativity. Sometimes who’s nominated is based on who the governing body would like to have in attendance at the award ceremony. I agree with Ava DuVernay that awards should be viewed as a nice to have rather than the end-all-be-all validation. The audience’s reception of projects is far more meaningful and the creativity or quality of acting within a project is not necessarily represented by its nominations or wins.
Surviving R Kelly
Another huge miniseries this year was Surviving R. Kelly but unlike When They See Us the show also had legal ramifications. The series is a documentary about the career and accusations of pedophilia and predatory behavior that have been lobbied against Kelly. With When They See Us the Black public seemed to mostly take the side of the young men while some took Kelly’s side in the court of public opinion. I remember the last time something like this bubbled up about R Kelly and an underage girl on a video. For various reasons, it wasn’t taken nearly as seriously and I distinctly remember the DVD being sold in the open and people buying it.
It’s telling that the community rallied around young men who were being taken advantage of but then a few years ago used the appearance of the underage girl to justify her abuse. Some joked about, if not defended R.Kelly against the pedophilia allegations. We get up in arms about young Black men being stereotyped based on their appearance (ex: Trayvon Martin) but then turn around and use the appearance of young black women to justify crimes being committed against them.
I’m not a journalist so I won’t pretend to be objective. I believe R Kelly is guilty and deserves to go to jail. But I also think more needs to be done to also arrest and prosecute the adults who help to facilitate these arrangements for these predators.
R. Kelly’s aides who assisted him in marrying Aaliyah and setting up rendezvous with underage girls should be sitting in jail with him. As should the parents who knew the rumors about this man and still were determined to put their daughters in his way. I feel like the only reason some of the parents are upset is that Kelly began to work around them. He isolated their daughters and cut them off from the lifestyle they were willing to pimp their children for. That idiot who called herself Kelly’s girlfriend and claimed to not know she was having a threesome with an underage girl should go to jail as well.
Holding these pedophiles accountable rather than excusing their interest in young girls as being natural is a start. But we as a society should also hold their enablers responsible. It might discourage more people from looking the other way for a payday.
A Good Year for Morehouse University
In news that probably went mostly unnoticed (or at least I didn’t notice), billionaire Robert F. Smith kicked off 2019 with a $1.5 million donation to Morehouse for scholarships and a park. Later while giving what graduates will likely remember as the greatest commencement speech they’d ever heard, Smith pledged a $34 million donation to cover the student loans taken out by the graduating class of 2019 and their parents.
Smith’s donation was part of the funding for the new Morehouse College Student Success Program. The initiative is intended to raise donations from a variety of sources to help cover the costs of students’ tuition. Morehouse hopes that by reducing the amount that students are required to pay towards tuition, they will be more likely to graduate with little to no loans. The school also plans to track the long-term effect of students graduating without the financial burden of student loans.
In October, Oprah Winfrey donated $12 million to Morehouse reclaiming her spot as the school’s top donor with a total of $25 million. Oprah’s relationship with Morehouse began with a $13 million donation in 1989 which funded the Oprah Winfrey Scholars Program. Over the years, Oprah’s endowment has paid for 600 Black men to attend college.
The donations are a good look for both Smith and Winfrey. I’m interested in seeing the data that Morehouse collects over the years about the impact of its students graduating debt-free. Without student loan balances finances might be less of a determining factor for grads when selecting careers after college. More grads might go into high social impact fields or pursue post-grad degrees. With less financial burdens students and grads may also have more free time to better concentrate on their studies and become involved in their communities. These young men can serve as a great example to younger Black men and be especially impactful given the under-representation of Black men in college.
Byron Allen v. Comcast
The case of Byron Allen versus Comcast has been an ongoing court battle for at least the last four years but the case garnered a lot of media attention in 2019 as it moved closer to being heard before the Supreme Court. The gist of the case is that in 2010 when Comcast was working on a deal to acquire NBC Universal the company sought out various Black leaders and organizations as a means of sidestepping fears that the enlarged company would result in decreased diversity. As part of the deal, Comcast agreed to add new Black-owned channels over eight years.
Allen alleges that since then Comcast has not truly upheld its end of the bargain and the Black organizations that participated in negotiating the deal sold out due to financially profiting from becoming spokespeople for Comcast. But, with the proper optics in place, Comcast has been able to avoid criticisms of lacking diversity by pointing to its relationships with and addition of television channels owned by prominent Black figures.
When Allen attempted to broker distribution deals with Comcast for some of his channels he was given various excuses as to why the channels would not be carried by the cable provider. One such reason was that Comcast did not have the necessary bandwidth to carry Allen’s proposed channels. Yet, the organization went on to carry 80 channels controlled by White owners. During an interview on The Breakfast Club, Allen explained that a point of contention in the case is Comcast’s refusal to come to the table and have a good-faith negotiation about his channels being carried.
On the flip side, Comcast describes the lawsuit as being frivolous and nothing more than an attempt by Allen to get his way. Comcast has described Allen’s content as being unoriginal, uninteresting, and not in line with the interests of its audiences. Playing devil’s advocate while other similar channels have been picked up they probably balked at Allen’s price tag. The cable provider stated that it has a record of being diverse and unbiased, casting Allen’s allegations as unfounded.
The decision in this suit can have ramifications that affect businesses and civil rights cases beyond those involved in this particular suit. In response to Allen’s allegations, Comcast has sought to narrowly define the requirements for having discrimination cases heard in court. At stake is the protections granted by the Civil Rights Act of 1866 which granted equal rights with regards to contracts for Black and White people as well as the right to sue. Comcast is arguing that the law is to be interpreted as a suit should only be allowed to move forward in cases where discrimination based on race is the sole factor. While Allen and the opposition argue that the law has been violated if discrimination based on race is even just a contributing factor.
There’s likely a bit of truth in both sides’ explanation of the events leading up to the court case. It does seem as though to some degree Comcast has indeed carried Black-owned and operated channels. But in doing so the company has not provided these channels with the same support, distribution, and financial opportunities as their White-owned counterparts. Allen on the other hand likely has trash channels that did not warrant the price tag he was seeking. Yet there are many garbage White-owned channels with similar content as that of Allen’s channels and Comcast has no problem carrying them. The case had originally been dismissed by lower courts before working its way to the Supreme Court where a decision will likely be handed down in the spring of 2020.
Rodney Reed is a Black man who was born in Ventura County, California and raised in Texas. In November 2019, he received a stay of execution when the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals decided there was enough cause for his trial and possible innocence to be re-examined. At the time, Reed was a week away from receiving the death penalty as punishment for the 1996 kidnapping, sexual assault, and murder of Stacey Stites.
In 1996, Stites was living with Jimmy Fennell, a Bastrop police officer to whom she was engaged. A co-worker contacted the police when Stites failed to show up at work for a shift. Her body was later found and showed signs of strangulation and rape. Early in the investigation, Fennell was considered the prime suspect and provided conflicting accounts of his whereabouts at the time of the murder.
Reed became a suspect when the DNA on Stites’ body returned a match for DNA that was on file from another alleged rape. With that evidence, attention shifted from Fennell to Reed and he was convicted of the crimes in 1998.
Reed maintained that while his DNA was found on Stites, it was the result of a secret consensual relationship. Reed offered the explanation that at the time of her death he was having an affair with Stites. But, during the trial, the existence of an intimate relationship between Reed and Stites was not corroborated by any other individuals. Since then, Stites’ cousin and a co-worker have come forward to confirm Reed’s relationship with Stites.
Also, a witness has come forward testifying that Fennell provided different versions of his alibi. Others have also stated that he either expressed plans to kill Stites or commented on having killed Stites. It’s believed that Fennell found out about Stites cheating on him with Reed and he murdered her in retaliation. In a later unrelated case, Fennell was convicted of raping a woman while holding her in custody and accepted a plea deal for which he served 10 years in prison.
To be quite clear Reed also has a history of not just one but several accusations of sexual assault. Thus, I am not entirely convinced of his innocence in this crime. You have to take into account that Fennell has also been accused of rape, the new testimony offered by witnesses, having an all-White jury in the first case, and admission that the original timeline for the murder might be flawed. There is reasonable doubt.
For six women to accuse you of rape, you might be innocent and just an incredibly unlucky individual. But I think it’s more likely that you are a rapist. Yet, despite Reed being a truly reprehensible character, under the law he should not be executed and likely should not have been convicted. We as a Nation cannot execute a person for one crime based on other crimes they might have committed.
This case though flawed shows why the death penalty should not be an option no matter how heinous the crime. One case of someone being wrongfully convicted and executed is one case too many.
Regardless of which man was the true killer, it’s unfortunate that Stites had the misfortune of having these two reprehensible individuals in her life.
Atatiana Jefferson & Botham Jean
On October 12th, 28-year-old Atatiana Jefferson was shot and killed in her mother’s Fort Worth, Texas home by a police officer. Jefferson had spent the night with her 8-year-old nephew playing video games while her mother and sister recovered in hospitals from illnesses. Hearing what she thought was a prowler in the backyard, Jefferson left her nephew and according to some sources retrieved a firearm before investigating the noise. Jefferson was shot upon approaching a window to look out into the yard.
A bit earlier, a concerned neighbor had called the police after noticing that a door to the house was open. A police officer later identified as Aaron Dean arrived at the home around 2:30 AM with his partner. Bodycam footage showed Dean walking around the side of the house into the backyard to investigate. Seeing movement through a window when he approached the rear door, Dean shouted at the person inside to put their hands up but then opened fire. Dean immediately faced criticism from the public as well as the police chief and mayor of Fort Worth. Shortly after the shooting he resigned from the police force, declined to provide a statement or answer questions at that time, and was charged with murder.
A lawyer retained by Jefferson’s family accused the police department of attempting to defend Dean’s actions by noting she pointed a firearm out the window. This was despite the gun being legally owned and neither officer knocking on the front door of the house or identifying themselves. Also, the police department inexplicably released a photo of a gun that was found in the home without any details to provide context.
As is to be expected, Jefferson’s murder was shocking to the public but devastating to her family. Jefferson’s nephew who was with her at the time witnessed the shooting, saw her body fall, and later broke the news to his mother. Her father, Marquise, then died a month later due to what’s believed to be stress-induced cardiac arrest.
Atatiana Jefferson’s murder occurred a little over one year after the officer-involved shooting of an unarmed 26-year-old Black man. Botham Jean was relaxing at home watching television while eating a bowl of ice cream when Dallas police officer Amber Guyger burst into his apartment and opened fire. Guyger lived in the apartment below Jean but upon arriving at her building she entered his apartment and fatally shot him believing he was an intruder in her apartment.
A key issue was that Guyger’s electronic key fob allowed her to open an apartment door that was not hers. But she’s not without blame as she entered the apartment and immediately began shooting when she saw someone. This was without seeing a weapon or Jean being aggressive towards her. And being in his home, Jean would have been justified if either were true. To complicate matters, it was later uncovered that Guyger joked about having racist views but also relished the power that her position offered to use deadly force and end lives.
In October Guyger was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison. It seems like it was a mistake but the fact remains that she took an innocent person’s life and despite being off-duty at the time she’s supposedly trained to deal with stressful and potentially dangerous situations. What does it say that her first impulse was to use deadly force? And that of Aaron Dean, Peter Liang, Timothy Loehmann, Michael Slager, Jeronimo Yanez, and many others? Granted some of these officers were rookies but some had also been on the force for several years.
These issues are not limited to one location where we can point to a specific training issue within a particular department. Rather it’s a problem that has cropped up across the country and points to a larger problem of officers being tasked with policing citizens of whom they hold prejudiced views. Some of these officers use the tired excuse of being scared for their lives even in instances where there is no weapon, the individual is not being aggressive, and in some cases is retreating. Where these officers should be keepers of the peace but they end up violently and tragically escalating the situation.
Police officers, in general, are not the issue but police departments and officers become a part of the problem when they excuse or defend the actions of offending officers. There needs to be research into understanding why these situations occur. And an action plan needs to be developed for identifying traits in recruits that might make them potentially problematic officers. I would say that officers need to be properly trained in dealing with stressful situations. Which one would think is already the norm but seems not to be the case. But some of these officers have also shown that they respond inappropriately even in non-threatening situations.
Something that annoys me is when these situations occur and the media fixates on the family members of Black victims forgiving the perpetrator of crimes. Granted some of this comes from family members stating to the media that they forgive the person that has harmed or killed their loved one. But it seems like the media has a morbid fascination with or takes pleasure in this occurring. It feels as though when crimes are committed against a Black person there is pressure put on the people surrounding the situation to respond in a socially acceptable manner and to quickly decide whether or not they could forgive the person that committed the crime.
I’ve been fortunate to not experience the murder of a loved one so I don’t have first-hand knowledge of what a victim’s family might be feeling. I can’t speak to the thought process for dealing with their loss or grief. But I was put off by the stories of Botham Jean’s family members and the judge presiding over Guyger’s case going out of their way to comfort and offer words of encouragement to her. The story became less about the violent and unnecessary end of this young man’s life and more about Guyger.
Guyger was sentenced to 10 years in prison and while that is a sizable amount of time out of anyone’s life, she’ll still be young enough to most likely enjoy many more years. But Botham Jean’s life ended the night that she shot him and he will still be dead at the end of those 10 years. There’s a feeling of, sadly, Jean’s life ended but just think of how upsetting it must be to be the person that accidentally killed him and is now facing a prison term. The two simply do not compare as Guyger still has her life.
Entertainment and media seem to relish telling stories about Black people killing other Black people despite this being in line with most crimes being intra-racial. But there is a lot of respectability politics at play when Black people are the victims of crimes at the hands of non-Black people. There’s a lot of commentary about the proper way to be angry, the proper way to protest, the proper way to seek justice, and the proper way to forgive.
Yet, it’s completely justifiable and understandable when a crime is committed against a non-Black person and their family is openly heartbroken and outraged. There are no lectures on how to respond or immediate discussions about forgiveness. For example, the families of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman have led a decades-long crusade against OJ Simpson whom they believed to have been responsible for the deaths of their loved ones.
Conviction or not, I completely understand continuing to be upset and holding a grudge against the person that you believe murdered your family member. I just take issue with understanding and compassion not applying to or being readily available by the general public when these crimes are committed against Black people and their families are grieving.
I usually stay away from discussing sports and music but in this case, I will mention this year’s Anthony Joshua vs. Andy Ruiz fights. I haven’t cared about boxing in years but realized this summer that Anthony Joshua is a cutie patootie and was glad he won the rematch in early December. These fights were not at all significant in Black history or to the Black experience. I just wanted to point out that the man is fine. You know you care.
2019 saw quite a few notable deaths and in keeping with this news wrap-up, I just wanted to take a moment to acknowledge them. I’m pretty sure that this is not a complete list and I’ve likely forgotten to include some people so I do apologize in advance.
August 15, 1985 – March 31, 2019
Ermias Asghedom better known as Nipsey Hussle was a rapper from Los Angeles who owned several companies and promoted entrepreneurship within his music and community. A member of the Rolling Sixty Crips, Hussle became involved with community activism and planned an anti-gang violence meeting with the LAPD. On the day of the meeting, Hussle was murdered near a clothing store he owned by a man with whom he’d exchanged words earlier in the day.
January 6, 1968 – April 28, 2019
John Singleton was a screenwriter and director who was involved with the creation of several classic Black films. Most notably, at the age of 24, Singleton became the youngest and the first Black person to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director for the film Boyz N The Hood.
1944 – July 12, 2019
Sadie Roberts-Joseph was the founder of the Baton Rouge African-American Museum. In addition, she organized annual and Juneteenth and Veterans Day celebrations. Roberts-Joseph was an active member in her community working tirelessly to decrease violence and drug use while also providing those in need with food and clothing. Unfortunately, Roberts-Joseph was murdered in July and police believe the suspect to be a tenant who was behind on his rent.
February 18, 1931 – August 5, 2019
Chloe Wofford Morrison professionally known as Toni Morrison was a writer who primarily focused on the Black experience and identity in America. Morrison attended Howard University where she returned to teach English and later worked as an editor at Random House. During the 1970’s Morrison released a string of critically acclaimed books which included The Bluest Eye, Sula, and Song of Solomon. In 1988 Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for 1987’s Beloved and later received the Nobel Prize in Literature.
December 1, 1931 – September 12, 2019
Juanita Abernathy was the widow of the civil rights activist Rev. Ralph Abernathy but also an activist in her own right. Abernathy contributed to various civil rights initiatives in the 1950s and 1960s and is credited with writing the business plan for the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
July 17, 1935 – October 4, 2019
Carol Diann Johnson was born in the Bronx, New York and raised in Harlem. Carroll went on to become an actress, appearing in early classic Black films such as Carmen Jones (1954) and Porgy and Bess (1959). She made history in 1968, on the sitcom Julia as the first Black woman to star in a primetime network series in a non-stereotypical role such as a maid. In a huge departure, a few years later Carroll portrayed a single mother raising six children in Harlem in the film Claudine. During the 1980s she the diva Dominique Deveraux on Dynasty as well as Whitley Gilbert’s momma on A Different World.
January 18, 1951 – October 17, 2019
Elijah Cummings was a Democrat who represented Maryland’s 7th Congressional District which included sections of both Baltimore City and Baltimore County. At the age of 11, Cummings worked with friends to help integrate a local swimming pool in Baltimore. Later as a congressman, he supported local needle exchanges to reduce HIV transmission rates and initiatives to increase funding for public education and the Head Start program.
May 16, 1929 – October 27, 2019
John Conyers was a Democrat who represented Detroit in Congress for 50 years. During his tenure as the longest-serving African-American congressman, he co-founded the Congressional Black Caucus and contributed to the push for honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with a federal holiday. Conyers was forced to resign from Congress in 2017 after multiple accusations of sexual harassment.
January 27, 1942 – October 29, 2019
John Witherspoon was an actor and comedian who is best known for appearing in several popular Black sitcoms and movies. Witherspoon played the father or father-figure in the Friday series, The Wayans Brothers, Boomerang, The Boondocks, etc.
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