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To Go Down Dilapidated: A Case For Removing Confederate Monuments

By Mark Anthony Neal

As protests go, the pulling down of Confederate monuments is low-hanging fruit. They are largely symbolic acts directed at symbols that, by and large, have long been relegated to unread history books and museums. But low-hanging fruit can also be poisonous.

State laws passed to protect these monuments—to weaponize them—are now being used to undermine the work of social justice activists and quell resistance. The “Historic Artifact Management and Patriotism Act,” was passed by the North Carolina state legislature in July 2015, roughly a month after activist Bree Newsome brought down the Confederate flag at the State Capitol in South Carolina in response to the shooting deaths of nine Black parishioners in Charleston, S.C. by Dylann Roof.

Newsome’s act became a social media moment that inspired many other acts of resistance— including Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling protest.

The 2015 law is also the subtext of the recent arrest of Takiyah Thompson, a 22-year-old North Carolina Central University (NCCU) student, who was among a group of activists and protesters who helped bring down a Confederate monument in the city of Durham earlier this week. Additional protesters have subsequently turned themselves into authorities.

A day after footage of Thompson scaling the structure to place the rope that was used to pull it to the ground went viral, she was arrested by Durham County sheriff’s deputies. Thompson was charged with four counts, including two felony charges for participation in a riot with property damage in excess of $1,500 and inciting others to riot where there is property damage in excess of $1,500. That the sheriff’s deputies patiently waited for Thompson to finish speaking at a press conference arranged on NCCU’s campus, speaks less to their recognition of her first amendment rights as it was public show of the sanctity of state laws.

Yet what these Durham activists understand is the fact not all laws are just. Indeed, the very states that have enacted laws to protect Confederate totems from removal by local municipalities and individuals, also understand that not all laws are just.

Durham’s Black city manager dubbed the protest “unlawful and inappropriate” and there were many, who, while affirming the goals of the takedown, were less supportive and even critical of the means in which the monument was taken down. Yet, if the Civil Rights era activists would have been able to use Twitter or Instagram 60 years ago, they likely would have used hashtags like #unlawful and #inappropriate, which would have been entirely appropriate in the context of struggles against laws that were unjust and absurd.

Rosa Parks broke an unjust law to challenge the treatment of Black people on public transportation in the South. When four students from North Carolina A&T sat at a “Whites only” lunch counter in Greensboro, they were pushing back against an unjust law—also a reminder of the role that HBCUs play in cultivating political consciousness among young Black people. Every enslaved African that chose to leave a plantation, under the cover of the night and live their lives as fugitives, knowingly broke, what they correctly deemed unjust laws. Indeed, there have been few examples of successful social justice movements that did not include the breaking of unjust laws, from the challenging of unlawful assemblies to illegal work stoppages. Generations ago, we quaintly named such activities as “Civil Disobedience” and can be traced to the writings of Henry David Thoreau in the 1840s.

The tearing down of the symbols and trinkets of the confederacy might seem like low-hanging fruit, but when we are more concerned as a society about the treatment of formed pewter than about the treatment of people forced to live under the policies and tactics shaped by those symbols, then it is indeed time to take a stand. After a successful fundraising campaign Thompson was freed on bail hours after her arrest. It was a reminder there are some willing to stand on the side of justice.

Mark Anthony Neal is chair of the Department of African and African American Studies at Duke University. Follow him on Twitter at @NewBlackMan.

Originally published in Cassius Life, Aug. 17, 2017.

Talib Kweli: The Beautiful Struggle Continues

Last week, Talib Kweli, a Grammy Award-winning, politically outspoken rapper, and self-proclaimed “Twitter troll killer,” brought his talent and political insights to a week-long residency sponsored by Duke Performances.

Kweli, a Brooklyn-based hip hop legend, who got his start in the underground rap scene and is often labeled a “conscious rapper” for his socially relevant lyrics, participated in two free, public talks, visited two African American Studies classes, and capped off the week with two sold-out performances at Motorco Music Club with opening act Actual Proof.

The events were presented as part of Duke Performances’ Hip-Hop Initiative, made possible, in part, with support from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Mary Duke Biddle Foundation.

The residency began with producer/DJ and Duke professor 9th Wonder interviewing Kweli in front of a standing-room only audience at a lunchtime event, held at the Forum for Scholars & Publics Thursday on Duke’s West Campus.

Later, Kweli visited “The Culture and Politics of Respectability,” a course taught jointly at Duke and Smith College. He also visited “The History of Hip Hop,” a class that is open to the public and co-taught by 9th Wonder and Mark Anthony Neal, co-director of the Duke Council on Race and Ethnicity. Nearly 200 members of the Duke and Durham community attended.

On Friday, “The Beautiful Struggle: Hip-Hop’s Role in the Trump Era,” held at Beyu Caffe in downtown Durham, featured Neal interviewing Kweli about the current political climate and attracted an equally large crowd. The restaurant closed for 90 minutes to accommodate the free community event.

During the talks, Kweli, who has released more than a dozen albums over 20 years, shared his insights on the art of music, the evolution of hip hop, his musical family tree (which includes luminaries such as his partner in rhyme Mos Def, aka Yasiin Bey, Puff Daddy, 9th Wonder, and Q-Tip) and “The Seven,” his joint project with fellow rapper, Styles P of The Lox. He also discussed his approach to taking on anonymous critics and haters on Twitter, where he maintains an actively political presence.

“I thoroughly enjoy it,” said Kweli of the mental sparring. “One hundred and forty characters is like two bars. On Twitter you have to be clever and figure out how to make it fit… It trains my brain. It’s like exercise for me.”

Before an interview on WUNC’s “The State of Things,” Kweli spoke about the artistic process and life as a working-class rapper.

On the evolution of his career starting in New York in the ‘90s:

I can’t overemphasize the influence that New York City has had on my career. Because me and my friends, we’d make demo tapes. We’d see the addresses on the back of the albums and see the addresses of the record labels, like, ‘oh that’s on 5th Avenue’ and we would go there.  We’d sit in the lobby and meet interns and runners and assistants of assistants. I spent my teenage years doing that. It was a natural process of being a rapper in New York City. I didn’t really appreciate how good we had it to be able to do that until I started traveling more.

There was a lot of rejection but it never was a deterrent.

I would put on Timberlands at 7 or 8 in the morning, go to school, spend all day in school, then go to the park and be in the park until 3 in the morning. And let me wear a pair of Timberlands right now for a half hour and I have to take these shits off.

On his writing process:

My love for hip hop comes out of peer pressure, it comes out of wanting to be accepted by my peers.

It’s really the challenge that drives me. I was challenged by Mos Def and [producer] Hi Tek, now I’m challenged by Styles P and 9th Wonder. As a professional writer of bars, it’s not even comparable how much more efficient I am now.

This album with Styles P, we did it in a month. Wrote and recorded in a month. Sometimes I hear a beat and I’ll write 16 bars or two verses within five or 10 minutes. That’s not every song. Sometimes songs take 6 months to a year or 2 years to finish.

On being a “conscious rapper:”

More often than not, it’s used in a condescending way. I do conscious hip hop proudly. I do it well. So it’s no coincidence that people associate me with conscious hip hop. The only issue I have is when that’s all that they see me as. Because the people who choose to put music into those types of boxes, that’s how they identify it most of the time.

I put entertainer first. I put the song first. And that’s no disrespect or value judgement on what they do. It’s just a choice. A strategy. A tactic. For me, it’s important that I put the song first. Because if the song is not right, no one really cares. My job is to entertain people. I don’t get paid because of my message. I get paid in cultural currency which is in many ways more wealth. Any my career exists because of my cultural currency. When I step on that stage with that contractual agreement I made at that venue, with that promoter, they’re not paying me to say ‘fuck Donald Trump,’ they’re paying me to entertain people, regardless of how I do it.

The way that I do it has been entertaining, but it’s because I put the song first.

I never sacrifice the musicality. And I don’t shirk from my responsibility as an entertainer.

For more information on upcoming Duke Performances events, visit https://dukeperformances.duke.edu.

Black Food Matters: Vegan eco-chef Bryant Terry shares his recipe for food justice

Kale, mustard greens, dandelion greens, black eyed peas, broccoli rabe.

These are foods many of our grandparents ate and grew in their gardens decades ago that are now enjoying a resurgence as people begin to embrace healthy, farm fresh meals.

Fast food alters the taste buds, said Bryant Terry, an award-winning chef, educator, author and TV personality. Terry is the author of several books including Afro-Vegan: Farm-Fresh African, Caribbean, and Southern Flavors Remixed. He is currently the Chef-in-Residence at the Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD) in San Francisco.

More than two dozen people attended Terry’s talk Monday evening at Duke’s John Hope Franklin Center, organized by Left of Black host Mark Anthony Neal. Neal is also the director of the Center for Arts, Digital Culture and Entrepreneurship.

During his talk, Terry encouraged the audience be more attentive to food issues, to grow their own food and to connect with the food justice movement in their own communities.

“I want people to think about these issues in the context of their personal lives and community. It’s about structural issues, not just individual transformation,” said Terry who began his career as a grassroots activist railing against the industrialization of pre-packaged and processed food.

“I’m pretty sure I’m the only guest on the Martha Stewart Show who talked about food justice,” Terry said.

His philosophy on introducing people to the food justice movement is to “start with the visceral to ignite the cerebral and end with the political.”

“Heady intellectual ideas don’t resonate with everyone. For some, it’s a farm fresh meal, memories of cooking with grandparents, could be a conversation with a fast food worker,” he said.

He became politicized around food as a high school student listening to KRS-One’s “Beef,” a rap song about factory farming. And he also read The Jungle by Upton Sinclair on the horrors of the meat-packing industry.

As a college student attending NYU, Terry saw young children drinking soda and energy drinks in the morning before school. “This was their breakfast” he said, noting the link between academic performance, behavior and nutrition.

“The larger social justice movement would be remiss not to talk about the connection between healthcare issues and nutrition. Food justice and social justice are inextricably linked,” he said.

Neal raised the issue that some complain that fast food is much cheaper than healthy foods. Terry pointed to multinational corporations subsidized by the government.

“If the government supported young farmers and subsidized them, healthy food would also be cheap,” he said.

“Major companies market to kids as young as 2-years old,” he said. “They are spending more on marketing than on the product. It’s a form of psychic violence.”

When he started his ‘Be Heathy’ program, his young students didn’t even know where carrots came from.

“I wanted to raise their food I.Q. and to get them to think more critically about food. And I learned that when they prepared things, they ate it,” he said, realizing the connection between food, health and self-empowerment.

Making a meal from scratch, having a garden or a farm — these are things people in the community already know how to do, he said.

His web series, Urban Organic, explores the connections between food, health and technology. The first episode featured a tour of an Oakland, Calif. aquaponics farm. “You can do a lot with a little land,” he said.

“We need a holistic understanding around these issues and a sea change. We should be owning our own land, providing healthy, fresh food, employing people and beautifying the community.”

For more information about Terry, visit www.bryant-terry.com.