Thursday, August 9, 2018

What "The Church" Produced: The Disappearing Bass

I have vivid memories of growing up at my childhood congregation that bring me an overwhelming amount of joy and an overwhelming amount of wistful nostalgia.

One of the most vivid memories is how the men in the congregation used to represent during the songs and praise.  The men whose voices were naturally in the lower register were trained well by our worship leaders to sing the bass section of the songs. But there were two brothers that knew more than what they were taught. One had a booming, melodic voice that resonated throughout the sanctuary. The other one was to me a bass savant - flowing with syncopated runs and "flatted fifths" that I have not heard from ANY man singing bass in worship service before OR SINCE.

Those two brothers were my master class in singing bass and my initial introduction into music theory. I received a master class in leading the music of worship from them as well, but I focus on the bass for a reason. I learned in my childhood that the bass voice in the assembly dynamically sets forth a sonic spiritual picture of strength, solidarity, godly manhood, and readiness for spiritual warfare.

Fast forward to today. When I sit in worship, I wonder where all the bass singers have gone. Even in a recent service at a sister congregation, one of the worship leaders during a particular song had to blurt out, "This is a battle song, brothers...where are you at?"

And that's where we are in 2018: having to sound out a call for brothers during a song to see who is ready to fight musically and (if at all possible) harmonically.

This is not an isolated issue, as the typical choir in Protestantism houses and highlights soprano, alto, and tenor voices...but rarely, if ever, bass ones. That's where the instruments kick in to fill in the dead time...or become highlighted themselves with guitar solos. Even as my voice changed to a much lower register when I was younger, I wrestled with self-acceptance through my self-proclamation of being "a tenor in a bass' body". The reality was that I wanted to do both tenor AND bass. That's not a bad thing. But my own experience helped me to understand more clearly the dominant presence of the song/worship/praise leader.

There is a cause-and-effect dilemma that I would like to introduce. This might not be universally true, but the latent truth of this statement is undeniable: as the song/worship/praise leader's influence tends to increase, the bass voice tends to decrease.

What some men who sing bass in worship sometimes feel like...
that is if they don't have a mic.
Most every brother has at some point secretly wished to be gifted/anointed vocally to lead a congregation in song, much like most every brother has at some point secretly wished to be gifted/anointed to preach a sermon that generated successive choruses of amens. It's the human side of us...it happens. For those who are the vocally gifted ones entrusted with the leading of worship music, there oftentimes is not enough wherewithal to nurture and train men in the lower register to understand the necessity of their voices in the congregation. Not only that, but these gifted ones are often oblivious to any potential to help their brothers appreciate how their voices can harmonically blend in with the others.

But this is only a microcosm of our musical quandary with song/worship/praise leaders. As YouTube is propagated each month with videos of brothers possessing sick runs and mesmerizing range, and as their names are bandied about to secure their services across the country in near celebrity-like fashion, the emphasis to elevate the musical abilities of the not-so-gifted somehow gets lessened. The natural byproduct of this is more brothers trying to hang with the song/worship/praise leader and parrot what he does, instead of (to borrow slightly from Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson) knowing their roles and opening their mouths. Or worse...the song/worship/praise leaders leaving segments of the congregation behind...like the bass.

Let me get down to brass tacks. Making a case for praise teams, bass mic(rophone)s, or multiple and individual song/worship/praise leaders is not what the issue is here. The issue is when praise teams, bass mics, multiple song/worship/praise leaders, or even individual song/worship/praise leaders believe their own hype (and yes, it DOES happen), get caught up in their own praise (and yes, it DOES happen), and make assumptions and draw conclusions about the quality and/or follow-ship of everyone else's praise...yet fail to directly assist in the musical participation of all in the assembly. Those who sing in the bass register are usually the first to get kicked to the curb and the first to get called on the carpet.

Kicked to the curb, you say? Indeed so. When the bass leader beat-boxes, improvises on the fly, or even hits ridiculously low notes that James Earl Jones would envy, how can the brother who has not even come close to mastering the original or colloquial arrangement of the song keep up? If he is not even remotely inclined in a musical fashion, he may end up lost, confused, fending for himself in off-key ways, or simply being a passive "participant" listening to everyone else...which is what praise teams, bass mics, multiple song/worship/praise leaders, or individual song/worship/praise leaders are supposed to be there to prevent.

The truth of the matter is that the average member runs the risk of getting caught up in the rapture of musical or vocal "excellence" to the point of valuing talent over corporate purpose. And what is the corporate purpose? To foster and facilitate a mutually shared, mutually invested, and mutually inspiring worship experience through song.

So how do we begin to resolve this quandary that could, like the Jedi in Star Wars, signal the return of the bass register in full force and, like The Force, bring balance to the musical reality of the Kingdom?

Have Bible teachers and preachers undergo an education on the theology of the music in worship...AND teach their members on it. For decades, specifically in the African-American "fellowship", there has been a void in importance of understanding why the music of worship should be taken with great care and in all seriousness. It can and should go much further than the age-old "war of the worlds" on whether to have or not to have instruments in worship, or the relatively new contention between traditional and contemporary. How about tackling the idea of waging spiritual warfare musically, just as David did with his psalms (Psalm 91)? Or celebrating deliverance through music, much like Moses and the nation of Israel after the Red Sea crossing (Exodus 16)? Or perhaps the indulgence of a joyful spirit, reflecting the words of James (James 5.13)?

Music is a powerful medium for all humans, and God designed it so that worship and music are virtually inseparable. Preachers and teachers must understand how dynamic music worship can bring about dynamic life-changing results long after the closing prayer. But more importantly, they must set this idea forth in the minds of their flock so they will not only appreciate this God-given emotional and intellectual vehicle, they will anticipate new spiritual heights before walking into the assembly on Sunday morning (and, if it still applies, Sunday evening).

Stress the need for vocally gifted song/worship/praise leaders to be educated in (a) music appreciation, (b) music theory, (c) vocal training...well, all of the above and MORE. The parade of ill-equipped, unprepared brothers having to put the brakes on a hymn halfway through a refrain, for example, has run its course for way too long. But what has been unforgiveable in my humble opinion is the enabling by church leaders, offering misguided statements such as, "He's doing the best with what God gave him"...or the more reprehensible defense, "We covered that in training class." If church leaders are not musically equipped (yet under the delusion that they have some rudimentary technical background) or fail to position a brother to improve on what his current personal best might be, then the larger message to the brothers in the congregation - and the entire congregation for that matter - is that inspiring worship is not a priority at all.

But for the vocally gifted, riding on ability alone is just as subpar. With the wealth of music resources available within secular and spiritual circles at the virtual tap of a finger, not having basic music principles or fundamentals is simply inexcusable. Church leaders should strongly encourage men who function in this worship capacity, be they gifted or not, to seek instruction on pitch, tempo, musical terminology, time signatures, vocal dynamics, vocal care, and public speaking, just to name a few.

Better yet, church leaders should commit a certain portion of the church budget for this purpose and...wait for it...send these men to a worship seminar or music workshop where they can acquire, implement, and sharpen their skills. In real time. With honest criticism and expert feedback. I can honestly tell you that the women of the congregation will thank you later for the focused financial investment into your song/worship/praise leader(s) today.

The late Melvin "Blue" Franklin of The Temptations...a true subterranean bass.
Avoid the temptation to self-promote or self-anoint to the point of forgetting your corporate purpose. I saw a flyer from a congregation announcing a revival in which they had invited had two guest "psalmists" to lead the worship music. The last time I checked, a psalmist is one who composes or writes psalms. Forgive me for being blunt here: I would estimate that 95% of the song/worship/praise leaders in the Kingdom do not qualify (and I'm being conservative with that percentage).

A psalmist can definitely be a song/worship/praise leader, but a song/worship/praise leader is not, by definition or function, a psalmist. Holding a hymnal/reading a projector screen and starting a song is the surface being polished. Freestyling vocally just because you can doesn't get you any closer. And carrying a manufactured air about you in either position when a label is misapplied only makes the atmosphere around you stifling and unbearable.

In certain communities (specifically the Black community), those who sing well in churches are given what I'd like to call "church cred". They may get prestigious invitations throughout the brotherhood, be welcomed as a guest vocalist on recordings by singing ensembles, or even become a sought-after commodity to "teach" congregational singing to churches. If a brother in this situation is not humble or grounded, it will lead to him expecting a higher level of "church cred" - often exposing itself in manufactured swag, grandstanding, and presumed Black Card-level entitlement or handling. I've run into those individuals many times. YouTube only further inflates his head to the point that psi measurements become pointless.

Don't misunderstand the point. What I'm not suggesting is that it is inappropriate to post YouTube clips of your music leadership during worship services. That is a wonderfully helpful way to use technology to inspire or encourage people on a global scale to worship (or enhance their worship) outside of the sanctuary. Nor am I suggesting that you should turn down invitations to be a guest song/worship/praise leader. What I am suggesting is to keep your well-meaning or not-so-well meaning spiritual siblings from putting you on a pedestal so high that you can't climb down, especially if a congregation that is "less than the least" seeks out your ministry to aid them in some musical way.

In other words, check your  "church cred" at the door...and lose the claim ticket.

The bass singer's "secret sauce": the mixing board with an equalizer.
Stress the importance of congregational "four-part" harmony without becoming a church music legalist. Four-part harmony is nice to have but takes work to get...and it's worth it. The overwhelming problem is churches don't work hard enough to achieve and maintain it. Learning music takes time, but it also requires an effective approach. And the most successful approach to learning songs is repetition. From the studio to the car stereo to the front row to the front pew, this is a universal truth. But here's the rub: once you learn a song wrongly and repeat it to the extreme, it becomes a laborious challenge to undo the damage.

So there needs to be the patient yet strategic approach to help a congregation learn songs in their natural vocal range. What Keith Lancaster has done with the Praise & Harmony Workshops is proof positive that those with no vocal or musical background can know what to sing and how to sing it if shown what to do and how to do it. With this and other effective methods, we can better outfit men to sing in the powerful bass register instead of having 50 men creating an echo chamber by mimicking or copying what the song/worship/praise leader does, note by note.

As an aside to this point, I stumbled across one of our brethren offering his Siskel-and-Ebert-styled critique on church hymnals. He stated in one of his songbook "reviews" that a particular one was too heavy on "one-stanza numbers having a set of seven, often touchy-feely, words sung eleven times to a new age melody"...songs which, in his opinion, are "useless for congregational worship". With this rationale, I wonder if Paul and Silas were able to remember every "stanza" in the songs they were singing at midnight, and whether their time was useless. Oh wait, that wasn't "worship service"...and they didn't have hymnals...so what...were...they...singing...?

Surprisingly, many churches and leaders don't even know what this piece of equipment is. (Spoiler alert: it's an amplifier...)
But does it matter? The point is for the assembly to sing...not to sing with superfluous conditions attached to the activity, conditions that are based on a dominant (or predominant) ethnocentric influence or perspective. In other words, no one segment of the church population has the authority, and should not have the audacity, to prescribe something "useless "when it actually has more impact and relevance than some songs written in near antiquity. That includes the ultra-conservatives among us. This is not to say that older songs lack meaning; in fact, some have more relevant significance than some newer ones. But it's not about the age of the song; it's about whether that song has the ability to inspire the assembly to worship, draw near to God with their entire being, and serve the Lord authentically - starting with the closing prayer.

So for those who want to legislate on the "usefulness" of a song in a hymnal or on a screen - especially when questioning its scriptural basis - take heed lest you become so rigidly self-justified in your stance to where you forget or distort the purpose of the assembly coming together. And if you want to offer reviews, at least use an acceptable and divinely-guided standard that is not biased by some subjective, carnally-driven preconception.

Say what you want about Zagat...at least they have that one nailed down...minus the divinely-guided" part.

Realize that worship innovations improvements upgrades are not (and should not be seen as) the end-all and be-all of corporate praise. Let me be clear: I believe there is a place for praise teams in the church. The concept is over 40 years old, but is just now making inroads to certain congregational environments. However, regardless of how new or fresh a particular approach is or appears to be, that doesn't make that approach the hands-down best thing since "moving pictures" with sound.

I recall the first time I witnessed a praise team in person. The leader of the team made it crystal clear that their purpose as a team was to teach new songs in each person's voice more effectively. I appreciated that statement because one of the most challenging things to do in ANY church is to introduce new worship songs. So praise teams have their place. And to be even clearer, the place where the praise team can effectively be used is to teach new songs outside of Sunday worship so that they can be sung in Sunday worship and other gathering times. "Teaching" songs during Sunday worship will open up the Bermuda Triangle for more brothers to vanish...and that's just for starters.

Although I believe there is a place for the praise team in the capacity of music training for Sunday worship, there is still another hurdle. There isn't enough lasting repetition in a praise team "session" for people to overcome delayed memory recall for the next time the team chooses to sing that particular tune. So if the praise team is there to allegedly teach songs in corporate worship, yet the songs can be more effectively taught outside of worship with strategic repetition (read: compact disc, mp3), and the success rate for melody retention (I just came up with that) is at an arguably higher percentage using strategic repetition than the sporadic occurrence of the same song by the praise team, then what purpose does the praise team serve inside of the worship service? Or better queried, what is there left to teach or lead? I'm just asking questions here...

The crux of the issue is this: it isn't necessarily about a song being too "contemporary" or "traditional", or whether you do or don't have a praise team, but about having the proper method to teach the songs to the members so that the full import can be embraced by as many members as possible.

Now that I have your attention, relax...it's not that kind of blog.
By "full import", I mean embracing it vocally and meaningfully. Spirit and understanding is how the Apostle Paul put it (1Corinthians 14.15). That can be communicated effectively through a praise team, a brother on a bass mic, multiple song/worship/praise leaders, or one song/worship/praise leader. It's not all about the method necessarily; it's about the purpose, preparedness, and spiritual impact.

Some may be reading this and feel that I'm targeting praise teams. That's far from the truth. I'm targeting future "sacred cows". If we haven't learned anything from the advent of the song leader - or any methodology that can possibly be perceived as "traditionalistic" - we should have learned that the ends don't always justify the means. We also should have learned that methods change with time and should be modified within reason, expediency, and adherence to theological principles.

Anyone becoming elitist or imperialistic about advancing the new worship developments should be warned lest they become the millennial or Gen-Y version of their early 20th Century predecessors who struggled with installing Radio Shack-quality mics on their pulpits. For these people, the advent of worship upgrades in this current worship season can become an idol, a crutch, or a thing to which people can be irrationally and/or emotionally attached. Just like the one-man "praise team" (read: song leader).

We're all striving to offer more perfect praise. So no one has arrived yet. Nobody has crafted the perfect worship environment. And no one should try to look at others who are not on their page of the worship mail-to-order catalog as backwoods, red-headed stepchildren.


And while I'm at it, here is something for free...for all of us...

Stop stealing. Another one of my vivid memories of growing up at my childhood congregation was the song pages pasted to the inside covers of the hymnals. Even at a young age, I remember seeing the © symbol (that means the song is copyrighted) with the phrase, "All rights reserved", at the bottom of every "sacred selection". Unfortunately, these songs were never sacred enough to scare church leaders and members alike away from the Xerox machine (or mimeograph, depending on which era you grew up in).

Church music piracy takes on many forms - illegally copying sheet music, illegally singing these works in public worship service, illegally creating projection slides, and yes...illegally recording the services with those songs being sung on an audio source or uploading them to YouTube. Whenever this is done, the composers, publishers, and artists receive less money from their creative work. Being a survivor of church music theft myself, it is a very distressing experience to have your intellectual property hard work lifted without your permission.

Yes, even YouTube draws the line at some point...
The argument from some people becomes, "Well it all should be for the Lord, and you should not be trying to make money off of churches for wanting to praise God with the music He blessed you to come up with. It's selfish and greedy to not share your songs for free." I'd like for those same people to tell that same fairy tale to Stanley Steemer when they want the sanctuary carpets cleaned, Guitar Center when they need updated sound equipment, and Costco when they need fresh rotisserie chickens for their potlucks. And some of the people providing these products and services are literally in the body of Christ.

That dog simply won't hunt. In a world where Max Lucado has earned millions for his written publications on Biblical topics, I'm quite sure no one has taken him to task for not shipping his books for free to every congregation that wants to read them. And those who claim that getting rich off of royalties is the issue behind the cries against ecclesiastical bootlegging are missing the issue and, dare I say it, turning a tone-deaf ear to the Word of God (1Cor. 9.7-14; 1Timothy 5.18). Pun intended.

Of course this narrative runs deeper, since many pious churchgoers have more than a few cassettes and CDs with the words Maxell, TDK, and Memorex emblazoned across, holding dubbed versions of albums by their favorite Christian artists. Making personal mixtapes for your own use is permitted when you bought the music outright; becoming your own pro bono music distribution company for friends, family, and the congregation takes money out of the pockets of those who created and produced the music. And it's illegal.

So what should every church do to keep from becoming "thieves in the temple"?

I introduce to you four letters: CCLI.

In other words, get a copyright license to make sheet music copies, sing songs in public worship without watching your back for the Library of Congress, and upgrade your EasyWorship repertoire. And CCLI is just the tip of the iceberg. That's the starter kit. There's much more to this than meets the eye. And if the eye can be trained to read shaped notes on top of this, an elevated musical hope has the chance to spring eternal...or at least a little closer to everlasting.

We as a whole just need to insure that, in the words of hip hop legend Rodney O, all of the bass voices in the congregation can have a similar everlasting effect...one that we "can't get enough of".

Sources:
http://www.lavistachurchofchrist.org/LVarticles/Reviewof%20SacredSongsOfTheChurch.html

Stand*


 
 
Where baseball may be America's national pastime, football is America's national obsession. Except that the borderline addiction to the entertainment schedule offered by its professional version may have many people creating NFL Anonymous groups.

Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner, recently decided - after what seemed like 5 years when it is actually just over 2 years - on the issue of their players kneeling during the national anthem. The Shield mandated decided among other things, that all league personnel and players to stand during the anthem. Those who choose not to must do so...in the locker room (or some other equivalent off-the-field location). Those who violate this will cause the team to be fined by the commissioner , and the individual disciplined by the Commish and/or the team. This decision has disastrous ramifications to Black NFL players, the ones who largely protested during the song to raise awareness to the struggles and challenges to those full-fledged, patriotic American citizens who just happen to be of African descent.

Never mind that a Black NFL player should have every right to kneel in public protest to draw attention to the countless atrocities carried out every day in America on the African-American community. The fact that his First Amendment rights are being violated by the NFL in this move smacks as something more serious than an insult. Yes, I know that "Congress shall make no law" against the right to "assemble peaceably", but that doesn't excuse or prohibit from making their own law those individuals who are clearly ignorant (or unsympathetic, apathetic, or vehemently opposed) to the plight of the Black NFL player, past and present.

Never mind that the issue was ramping down and not much of a driving sentiment. Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid - former teammates on the San Francisco 49ers and the Batman-and-Robin-like duo who spearheaded the push to protest during each pre-game anthem - made it known that they will stand for the anthem if a team happens to be willing to utilize their above-average talents...which still has not occurred. The NFL in their decision has re-awakened the beast with several players, who had no designs to protest during the upcoming season, seriously considering some method of peaceful assembly.


This creates a conundrum for the players who feel so strongly about what is still happening in communities they were raised or represent with their teams. And with the increase of frivolous phone calls by Caucasian citizens to the police on phantom or nonexistent infractions by African-Americans, this is becoming even more tenuous of a situation for all involved...more importantly for the ones hurt the most: African-Americans.

And since no Black person is safe, including professional athletes such as Sterling Brown of the Milwaukee Bucks, someone needs to jump behind the wheel and continue driving home this caravan of an issue. Except we don't know where "home" for this issue is and what it looks like if/when we get there.

Meanwhile, the conundrum is further exacerbated by this "stay in the locker room" rule. It's far worse than "Shut up and play". Matter of fact, it's the worst of Catch-22s one can devise for athletes of color. Stand on the field to "respect" the flag, and the issue is easily forgotten by everyone not even indirectly impacted, and the conscience of Black NFL players is unbelievably troubled. Stay in the locker room, and the questions will arise: Is he in the bathroom? Is he at the snack bar? Or is he "disrespecting" the flag, veterans, police, and anyone or anything else that can be considered fair game?

It's a no-win situation for Black (and, in a similar vein, Latino) NFL players. It can't be fun to take a stand against a wave of inherent entitlement and selective patriotism by Caucasian fans, NFL owners, coaches, and sports commentators, suggesting that systematic subjugation and forced patriotism - stand on the field or else - is some productive or successful way of working through the issue. It surely makes those wrap-around hugs that Goodell pines for at the NFL draft appear a little less ingenuous. I mean, if you can hug somebody, why would you honestly cause them to feel less deserving of one? Or is the hug simply the formal welcome to yet another form of societal control? We pay your multi-million dollar salary, so...stand on the field, or else...

Those watching the games in person or on the preferred cable package also face a choice that could affect the trajectory of their autumn Sundays. The choice: watch games filled with conflicted, socially at-risk Black NFL players or not watch at all and fill time with car washes, shopping with the wife/girlfriend, or transferring "church" membership from one with PSLs (personal seat licenses) to one with B-I-B-L-Es.

Here is the reality we face with this new decision. However, I would like to offer a potential reality that makes more sense than the one we see now. This reality can potentially shift the balance of power from the conglomerate to the common-sense consensus. This new reality can be summed up in this one not-intended-to-be-catchy phrase:

Money talks and activism walks.

What the American public at large must accept is the fact that the NFL is a business...a corporation no different than United Airlines, Denny's, and Abercrombie & Fitch. (These were chosen for an obvious reason.) No wonder the 32 teams that make up the NFL are referred to as "franchises".  When I hear that word, my mind gravitates to McDonald's, the franchise-making titan. Very little differentiation between the outposts in what they offer, independent only in the internal makeup of the staff, and usually mostly holding to the corporate company line...no matter how nonsensical, illogical, or on-the-wrong-side-of-history the line may be.

What we do know about corporations is that it only takes the worst of scandals to shake it to its core, similar to Enron, Bernie Madoff, and, more recently, Uber. And the NFL is flirting dangerously with a similar fate...if it realizes how the new "stay-in-the-locker-room-then-shut-up-and-play" rule is going to possibly blow up in their faces like opening a Pepsi can agitated in a Maytag washer. 

If domestic violence (Ray Rice), CTE and player safety (Will Smith in Concussion), and ethnically offensive team names (Washington Redskins) were not enough to force sensible action, squashing players' 1st Amendment rights to protest police brutality against African-Americans should qualify as a constitutional crisis - and I'm speaking about the NFL Constitution - that would be bad for business. And whenever race impacts business to the point of swaying public opinion and standing legislation, race usually gets the upper hand. Just ask Sambo's.

So what gets a corporation's attention in these situations? The O'Jays don't call it The Almighty Dollar for nothing. And that is where the players have an opportunity to impact that bottom line to help the Commissioner and the 32 team owners (his bosses) to rue the day that they unofficially-yet-officially decided to sidestep a more effective approach to the matter, be unduly influenced by the U.S. President, and leave the players out of the process altogether yet leave them chafing under it.

And what is the opportunity for the players? To do one thing, and one thing only when the flag is being held by servicemen at midfield, and the soloist prepares to sound the first note in the first stanza of Francis Scott Key's ode to America:

The players should stand* for the anthem. (Note the asterisk.)

My suggestion is more symbolic and hopefully disarming to all who choose to stand on the negative side of the issue, transmogrify the narrative, and redefine the intent of the protest in the social stratosphere from police brutality to disrespecting law enforcement and the military.

My recommendation is to stand* for the anthem...with the right hand over the heart, the left hand held high in a fist, a blindfold inside of the fist, and a silent prayer on the lips.
  • The right hand symbolizes love of country and respect for those men and women who sacrificed their lives for the rights - as well as the security - we enjoy as American citizens.
  • The left hand in a fist symbolizes power and value not yet fully realized, being the proverbial "awkward" or "weaker" hand.
  • The blindfold inside of the fist represents the ideals of justice and equal protection under the law (per the 14th Amendment) to which people of color desperate cling and hold fast. If justice is blind, then it is that justice being sought.
  • The lips - similar to Hannah, the mother of the great Biblical prophet and judge, Samuel -  are in motion, verbalizing an inaudible prayer for not only the soul of the country, or the integrity and the heart of the NFL, but for the safety of every athlete of color on a professional football field that week.
The reality of the matter is that, for the athletes of color, it could very well be their last game -  not due to what will happen on the gridiron that afternoon, but on account of what might happen on the streets that evening. There is no guarantee that they won't be the next victim of blatant and discriminate roguery by an alleged "peace" officer. Celebrity status, affluence, or game-saving catch matters nothing. Standing* matters...

So this stand* will serve as a referendum on the true meaning of patriotism. When folks who stood in line to buy a $10 beer during the "rocket's red glare" walk back to the seat only to hear about a Pro Bowl player who didn't walk through the line of cheerleaders and tunnel of smoke, the question is not who is the bigger patriot, but whose stand is going to qualitatively help our country from Pennsylvania Avenue to Crenshaw Avenue in the long run.

So all athletes should stand* proudly for the country, their communities, and everybody in between. And what can someone say in protest to this stand*? That they disrespected the flag? Their hands were over their hearts honoring it. That they picked the wrong time to protest? They picked that time to pray sincerely for a peaceful resolution to this issue...just as their protest was peaceful. That they were race-baiting? They simply appealed to the law of the land in their quest for justice. In effect, this stand addresses and nullifies any argument against it. Just as the flag is a lasting symbol of what our country represents, this stand* is a rising symbol of what these athletes' communities need.

As apropros as this can get, I'll end with some choice lyrics written and sung by Sly Stone and his Family Stone back in 1969...from the title track of the album, Stand!, a record that directly addressed racial tensions in our country almost 50 years ago:

Stand
For the things you know are right
It’s the truth that the truth makes them so uptight
Stand
You've been sitting much too long

There's a permanent crease in your right and wrong
Stand

There's a midget standing tall
And the giant beside him about to fall


And 49 years later, the need to stand still exists, even in every NFL stadium. But the stand just needs to be punctuated on the field, in the stands, and across our land...with countless asterisks.


I'm sure Tommie Smith and John Carlos would approve.


Monday, January 15, 2018

Tarana's Box and Tawana's Curse: Sexual Harassment's Reverse Tsunami

There is a line from a well-known hip-hop artist from one of his songs in the '80s that popped in my head as I began writing this: "One after another/Another to the next..."

Celebrities of the masculine gender seem to be, like dominoes lined up in an intricate pattern, falling with every passing day due to the societal issue du jour:

Sexual harassment, abuse, and other improprieties.

The recent rash of men being accused of one or more of the following is spreading with the speed and effect of a coast-to-coast pandemic with no apparent panacea in sight. This is a hot button topic unlike any other. It has a seemingly eternal shelf life and shows no end in sight.

This issue is not news. This has been a challenge for our American experience. From human trafficking of young girls to white collar back-room trysts, the misadventures of sex have been an unshakeable bugaboo. But we need to be clear about what motivates the perpetrators of these personal-space violations. When you break it all down...

It's not a gender thing...although gender is a major factor these days. I would say that it's easy to paint women as the only victims of sexual harassment. But before you try to rake me over the coals, how do you explain Terry Crews and his experience of being sexually harassed? Although men are typically accused of sexually harassing women - and clearly more often than women - it would be unwise and ill-advised to suggest that the door doesn't swing both ways. Women are subject to being accused as the victimizer as well as men. The former doesn't get as much press as the latter - and there are gender-based reasons behind that - but nonetheless there is still press. Here is proof. So neither gender has a unilateral claim of victimhood.

It's not a political thing...although the hallowed halls of Capitol Hill and previous residents of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC have unsolved mysteries and untold (or yet-to-be-told) accounts of unwelcome sexual advances or transgressions carried out by political figures that were unwelcome or uninvited by their victims. The list stretches back to the early days of our democracy/republic. Some people may still remember the name Robert Packwood, who resigned after 29 (yes, 29) women came forward to accuse him of sexual harassment and assault. He denied it until he was later busted out because he was keeping diaries of his exploits. Even during the last decade with such names as Herman Cain, Anthony Weiner, Al Franken, and John Conyers, this issue has traveled in almost true tennis-match style from one side of the aisle in Capitol Hill to the other. But to state that politics is responsible - even with the current President, Donald Trump, being the ostensible poster child of these escapades - would be, well, irresponsible.

Hollywood's public enemy #1...
It's not a race thing...although race is and always will play a major role. The slavery experience of African Americans in this country taught us very well that, no matter how some try to downplay or dismiss it, African Americans have been victimized in sexual ways for the better part of 400 years. The ripple effects of that victim experience are still being felt, the result of a trickle-down process that has manifested intra-racially. In other words, these behaviors practiced and modeled by some of Caucasian descent have likely rubbed off on some of African descent. (For reference, see Thomas, Clarence.) And before you jump on the bandwagon to suggest that this is only the domain of rich and successful white men, I submit to you Bill Cosby, Russell Simmons, and Tavis Smiley.

It's not an economic thing...although this unwanted behavior has made a veritable living out of making women feel as though they were escaping the Matrix for the first time. Inappropriately requested favors or tasks, inappropriate opportunities for advancement, and inappropriate paraphernalia are just a snippet of the work environment women have to endure for upwards of 40 hours a week. The concept of quid pro quoin the arena of workplace sexual harassment didn't just pop up out of nowhere.

It's not even a religious thing...although the scandal involving Catholic priests accused of molesting young boys leaves an unfortunate smear across all religions. Interestingly, the term scapegoat has its origin in a religious context, yet it's convenient to point the finger at the deity they are targeting. But it's much larger than that, so leave Jesus out of it. Or Buddha. Or Allah. Heck, add the Dalai Lama for that matter.

In a world where sex intersects with everything - politics, entertainment, sports, journalism, religion, etc. - there is sure to be some level of sexual impropriety that surreptitiously travels and lingers in the dark for decades. But we need to be clear about the string that runs through the beads. There is one common denominator and it shouldn't be hard to miss. When it comes to sexual harassment and abuse...

It's a power thing.

And power is often juxtaposed with morality. Very few have been able to demonstrate power and exhibit morality simultaneously and honorably. Usually what we have is this dynamic: power increases as morality decreases, and vice versa...and I'm speaking purely from a humanistic standpoint. And power implies influence.

And for those journalists (Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose) who have interviewed - and in some cases grilled - those who were accused of sexual harassment, the situation becomes even more awkward. Seeing that this subject matter has crossover appeal into sports (NFL Network's Marshall Faulk, Ike Taylor, Donovan McNabb et al), entertainment (Harvey Weinstein), the halls of justice (Alex Kosinski), cuisine (Marco Batali), the arts (James Levine), the allegations and the subsequent fallout needs a program to keep track. I just happen to have one here...

"Say it isn't so, Tavis"...and it sounds like he is...
There is still a slippery slope embedded in this whole narrative. It's one that many fear to tread because they don't want to come off as insensitive, viewed as blaming the victim, or just being on the wrong side of history. But this is a slope that exists nonetheless. The victim is not always a victim. And that is truly a matter of perspective because the more connected the victim is to the ones who typically have power, the less victimized they tend to be.

That last sentence may seem rather oxymoronic or maybe even paradoxical. It most certainly should not be generalized or applied with a broad stroke to minimize any abused person's harrowing experience. So to illustrate this, let me submit two names, names of Black women who preceded this apparent tsunami of sexual harassment, but serve as touch points to possibly bring this national narrative to its reluctant knees. One coined a term that loomed prescient in a regretful moment of lost opportunity. The other remains a cautionary, proverbial tale to those now celebrating this necessary yet groundbreaking chapter in history. One is getting a relative sliver of publicity; the other dwells in an inglorious infamy.

And even though women in our country are finding a voice where they often and unfortunately had none, there are still victims. And the ones to whom I refer are not powerful, rich, white men. And I also am not highlighting those who may still suffer from some form of sexual misconduct, generally speaking. There are victims that routinely get lost in the shuffle of women's rights and feminist activism, victims of an unforgiving caste system that has sung a "what-about-us" refrain for centuries, and these two women are microcosms of the whole issue.

Tarana Burke and Tawana Brawley.

If you are not familiar with these names, here are the Cliff Notes versions:

Tarana is a social activist who was solely responsible for the brainchild of the #MeToo movement. As the story goes, she had been working with sexual harassment survivors for years until she listened to one young girl sharing her painful account of being abused by her mother's boyfriend. Tarana recounted that she could not bring herself to whisper "me too", being a survivor herself. 10 years later after she began the movement that gained little to no traction, Alyssa Milano, the actress, set off a tidal wave of social activity by hijacking importing Tarana's #MeToo slogan as a hashtag on social media.

The resultant Internet and non-Internet traffic led to a crescendo initiated by Time magazine's Person of the Year edition for 2017, lauding the women (mostly rich, white and famous) who were considered the "silence breakers". All the while, Tarana was basically reduced to a footnote in the story, buried some 2000 words into the article. The original "silence breaker" trudged along with a worthwhile grass-roots movement that did not see the light of day until powerful, rich, or famous White females celebrities came from the shadows and spoke out.

Alyssa, if you're going to throw up the fist, it would help to have Tarana next to you...
Tawana was only 15 at the time she was found in a plastic bag on a New York street with her body covered with racial slurs and dog excrement. As the story goes, she was raped by four white men (one with a badge) who left her violated and disheveled. The Black community came out in droves to speak out against this heinous hate crime...to the point that Tawana was a prominent figure in the Public Enemy video, "Fight The Power", which was directed by Spike Lee...to the point that Al Sharpton turned himself into a national figure in the fight for civil rights after deciding to support and represent her.

Once the dust settled, a grand jury chalked up her story as an elaborate hoax and the prosecutor successfully sued her for defamation. Now in her 40s, Tawana operates in obscurity, no longer in New York, working as a licensed nurse under an alias, and living now as a pariah of sorts. All the while, she refuses to speak about the circumstances behind what occurred that fateful night or her unfortunate coal-raking experience by the judicial system who concluded she made it all up. Last time she spoke up was 10 years ago - ironically the birth year of the original "Me Too" movement - and at that time she still maintained her story was true.

But let's look at the obvious similarities...besides the fact that their names share the same spelling, save one letter, and their initials are TB. Both are Black. Both are women. And in a society that tends to find ways to devalue women on general principle, arguably Black women have it the worst. Yes, women are as a whole are potential targets of sexual violence or harassment. Black women, sadly, seem to be sporting a larger bulls-eye than other women. That is simply because Black women have always had a larger mountain to climb. Sexual harassment is just one cliff for Black women to scale on the way to Abraham Lincoln's chin on Mount Rushmore.

Gabrielle Union, the well-known actress who just so happens to be Black, summed it up better than I ever could:
I think the floodgates have opened up for white women. I don't think it's a coincidence whose pain had been taken seriously. Whose pain we have showed historically and continued to show. Whose pain is tolerable and whose pain is intolerable. And whose pain needs to be addressed now.
Power and pain go hand in hand in a cause-and-effect manner. And when Black women are the subject of systemic powerlessness, marginalization, and subjugation, power becomes a team sport. It's not just White men, but a number of White women who sign as free agents on the squad that has the most pull and experienced the least pain...or find another, more disadvantaged victim onto whom to transfer their pain.

Tawana Brawley circa 1988
As I said before, the victim is not always a victim. The more connected the victim is to the powerful, the less victimized they tend to be. To borrow from Cris Carter, former football pro, you need to have a fall guy. And it may be the perception that, since Black women don't have far to fall anyway, they are better positioned to shoulder the pain.

Gabrielle didn't stop there. She added this nugget of reality:
If those people (famous white women) hadn't been Hollywood royalty. If they hadn't been approachable. If they hadn't been people who have had access to parts and roles and true inclusion in Hollywood, would we have believed?
Which is the crux of the matter. When it comes to sexual harassment, abuse, and improprieties, credibility is always relative. American slavery taught us that. The Emmett Tills and "strange fruit" of our country's historical past are deceased adjunct professors in this field. And the burden of credibility exclusively fell upon the victim. Until now. At least for rich and famous White women, of course.

For Black women, the struggle to be taken seriously and believable continues. I mean, it took 10 years for someone to take Tarana's "me too" and Me Too advocacy seriously. What if someone powerful heard her cry when she was the actual victim? Or perhaps when she uttered that slogan for the first time? What if she was a rich, famous White woman instead...would Hollywood have rallied around it even quicker than they did?

Or what about Tawana's purported ruse? What if this was a 16-year-old White girl who alleged the same things at the hands of a bunch of Black men? Would she have been taken more seriously and suspects been manufactured out of thin air? Or is it even the least disturbing that an underage minor who happened to be a Black girl was mercilessly put through law enforcement and judicial machinations that ultimately dismissed her rape allegations as not credible? What if what she alleged was actually true?

It could just be me, but I think Gabrielle is only getting started.
This is the box that has been opened and the curse we now bear as a country. There is no going backwards now...except that the White and powerful could (and most likely will try to) potentially leave Black women behind once again, deeming them the exception and not part of the class action suit brought into the national consciousness by the "silence breakers". It would not be wise for them to try to reverse a tsunami by isolating a segment of the population that is hurting exceedingly worse than those who are now finding voice to their pain.

Not to mention the notion that the professed "silence breakers" are likely complicit in keeping the plight of their sexually harassed "sistas" silent...just like the traditional feminist power structure has historically done and continues to do. Just because you are a victim today doesn't mean you stay a victim an hour later. It just depends upon where you fall on the sexual harassment spectrum. And Black women are offstage right, prepared to make their entrance into the spotlight, primed to show their pain in ways never before witnessed by this country.

The Taranas of our world struggle to fight against having their voices shuttled back to the sidelines, when it was their lone voice in the wilderness that cried out like John the Baptist in an unpopular atmosphere. The Tawanas continue to either suffer in silence or have their voices muted either by circumstance, fear, apathy, misfortune, or numbness from historical or systemic forces. And the Gabrielles are learning to be the contemporary prophets and truth-tellers for Black women (and all women for that matter) at the risk of sacrificing their careers, connections, and, dare I say, Blackness at whichever altar this country finds sacred this month.

Jim Rome, the sports talk radio icon, frequently says that sex is undefeated in the history of the world. I beg to differ. Sex has never been undefeated and is even further under .500 now. Sex is now losing more than it can count to infinity. And sex is losing big time in the court of public opinion...and stands to lose even more soon for at least one good reason. It is simply because of hurt, angry, overlooked, abused, harassed, played, and dismissed Black women...who were once a somewhat untapped resource, yet now becoming a proven indomitable and indefatigable American force to be reckoned with.

Just ask Roy Moore.