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Friday, December 30, 2011

A new purpose on this fifth day of Kwanzaa

As a child of the post-revolutionary era, “Nia” isn’t as unusual a name today as it was, say, 30 or 40 years ago. Then, the biggest proof of overcoming and “living the Dream” was doing almost everything in your power to prove you were just as plain Jane as your white counterparts. So those exotic names, hairstyles, and dress that would make them uncomfortable were frowned upon by blacks of “better breeding.” After all, why waste all that good education as a pariah when you could “advance the race” by blending in?

Those were the years when celebrating Kwanzaa was almost clandestine, conspiratorial. There were the clothes that most people didn’t have, explicit lessons on collective responsibility to neighbors and elders, discussion on world affairs and how to make a difference from your own corner of the globe. It was a time filled with a sense of importance and legacy, of fortifying your presentation to the ancestors and future generations. The circle was completed, with seniors, adults, and children, as equals in the dialogue.

As a kid, nothing was more appealing than the thought of being part of a grand conspiracy.

The stealthy Jamila Bond, 008, waving a red, black, and green liberation flag – serving her people!

Tomie Lee "Pop-Pop" Meeks and the author
That private fantasy conflicted mightily with the somewhat shy kid that actually was Nia Ngina Afi Meeks, the girl whose name held a sizable charge, as “server of her people whose purpose is divine.” Then, the least little thing would inspire mortification, burning caramel skin to candied apple complexion.

And the one thing that invariably would evoke such a feeling was the annual Kwanzaa gatherings.

Yes, the intellectual and cultural fires of the week-long observance were nothing short of exhilarating. But the singing of Kwanzaa songs planted a deep terror. People would gather around, in significant numbers, and extol the virtues of unity, self-determination, collective economics, work and responsibility, creativity and faith with musical accompaniment.

Of course, they’d also sing about purpose. About Nia. And they would point. And laugh. Especially my peers. The more they’d see me squirm, the louder they would sing.

Though it seems nearly inconsequential now, it was often too much, and I would cringe inside, despite trying to put on face of bravery, pretending to laugh and ignore what felt like a flood of attention.

In minutes, relief would come. The song would be over. Snacks would be served. Some years, however, surviving those minutes felt like enduring the green mile. For years, that defined Dec. 30. Until 2004.

That was the day the hospital called to say Pop-Pop suffered major cardiac arrest. That he was brain dead, subsisting on machines that helped push blood through his fractured heart and air through his limp lungs.

Getting to Hahnemann Hospital seemed like sleepwalking, as if everything moved in slow motion. I remember my mother beginning to crumble as we crossed the street. Her Daddy was gone, is what the doctors basically said. In my head, on that Dec. 30, I realized a new terror. I had to be the strong one.

The prostate cancer had worked its evil on his body, compromising many of its functions. It had been his secret for five years until we finally discovered what was driving him to imbibe, what was robbing his one-time sound memory, his sense of impeccable dress, his passion for political theater.

Walking to his bed to say that final good-bye, looking at that body on the table, shook me. That wasn’t Pop-Pop, who always teased about “eating like Sonny Boy,” hummed everywhere he walked, and had more hats than most women had shoes.

Growing up, there was no greater cheerleader. He thought that this browngirl could take over the world, and often begged her to at least take Paula Zahn’s chair. “She don’t know nothing! She ain’t nothing! YOU should be doing what she’s doing!” he would grouse, in between cussing out Lou Dobbs and President Bush on some policy. Every policy.

And if that was not fated, he insisted a political office was, that this browngirl was smart enough, cared enough, and was clever enough to make a system work for the people.

Pop-Pop seldom slowed down long enough from running the streets, jaw-jacking with his Mason brothers, or catching ling on his fishing excursions to attend any Kwanzaa gatherings. Thankfully, my mom and grandmom filled that void.

But what he shared with me helped reinforce those principles that we reviewed every year: building stronger communities through people of productive minds, undying pride, and unyielding determination. Pop-Pop didn’t require a kinara or a mat or fruit (he’d eat it all before the Karamu feast, anyway) or the other Kwanzaa trappings. He told me to live it. Without embarrassment.

And I did. And do. Particularly on Dec. 30, with full purpose.

The year that was: 2011, vol. 1

Another year has come and gone, and it’s been a doozy. Protest perfumed the air, from funky Occupy encampments to centre squares throughout the Middle East. From natural disasters to political ones, 2011 was fraught with moments that pumped and tugged at our heart. Here’s a recap of the year that was, in alphabetical order:

On the front lines for freedom.
Photo credit: Lionel Bonaventure/AFP
Arab Spring
Dictatorships across the Middle East began falling like retail prices after Christmas. What began in late 2010 snowballed into 2011 with force. Television screens were filled with images of young people leading protests and revolutions in Tunisia, Algeria, Jordan, Yemen, Bahrain, Egypt, and, finally, Libya. And one by one, entrenched strongmen realized they had clay feet. Some were smart and acceded to reforms, though grudgingly. In the case of Moammar “Man-with-too-many-variations-on-spelling-his-name” Gadhafi, that realization came far too late, and attached to a bullet. Armed with fliers, social media, and sheer determination, a new generation of Arabs declared themselves – and victory. Now the world awaits next steps as the conflicts prove far from over, with ongoing clashes in Egypt and outright battles in Syria. Freedom truly is not free, and bloodshed remains the going rate.

College kids crowd in front of the White House
to rejoice in taking out Public Enemy No. 1
Photo credit: Toledo Blade

Bin-Laden, Osama
It was the news dispatch heard ‘round the world – literally – as President Obama stepped to the mic and announced that Navy SEALs had dispatched and disposed of America’s No.1 boogeyman, once and for all. For the 9/11 generation, the collective sense of relief and retribution was palpable, from college campuses to high school locker rooms to a spontaneous gathering outside the White House and in New York. For many of them, the man they elected to office did what he promised he would: track down and kill the mastermind of the most heinous crimes ever committed on U.S. soil. The normally hawkish political right’s response ranged from muted to pouty-mouthed – with few giving props to the president. Surprise.

Cain, Herman
So much has been written about the former corporate executive who entered the Republican primary bent on selling his autobiography and wound up the accidental frontrunner. Up-from-the-country-black-man-by-his-bootstraps pizza magnate. Allegations of serial sexual harassment and affairs. Egoism that would make Freud blush. Let us let him go gently into that good night, a wilderness of post-primary hype known as the bargain books bin.

Whether it was the central excuse for an inane standoff in Washington or the crushing pressure on the Euro across the pond, the staggering amount governments owe their creditors (read: China) blared across headlines worldwide. Which would seem to push people to action. And it did. Just not action that would actually do anything. Congress has been limping along like formerly middle-class families, paycheck to paycheck, only in this case, it’s called “continuing resolutions.” Compromise was out of the question, according to the tea party crowd. Overseas, the outlook wasn’t much better, as everyone flocked to their NIMBY corners and wrangled for weeks to . . . agree to keep wrangling. Leadership. Ain’t it grand?

End of the World
At least that’s what Harold Camping preached. May 21, 2011 would be it. Kaput. A Pennsylvania outfit called eBible Fellowship even helped sell the campaign by posting creepy billboards everywhere. The Rapturous stood ready. The rest stood puzzled. And then partied. Media went cuckoo for Camping. The end was near. Except it wasn’t. He forgot to carry the “1”! It was supposed to be October 21, 2011! That’s it . . . er, oops. Oh, the end of our world? That’s not until 2012 – silly rabbit!

Families battered by earthquake and tsunami destruction
had to add potential nuclear poisoning to their list of fears. 

Photo credit:
Ever since seminal events like the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl meltdowns and 1983’s made-for-TV flick The Day After, nuclear destruction has taken on a visceral new meaning. For generations of Americans, it cemented what a nuclear attack would mean, would look like. For the Japanese, there was no need for such external horror shows; they lived the history. The meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant served as the third fatal blow to an area battered by both an earthquake and a tsunami. Almost a year later, blame is still being assessed. Meanwhile, parents fear sharing a painful future witnessed by Ukranian families just a generation before, or that of their own grandparents.

Giffords, Gabby
Christina-Taylor Green, the youngest
of Loughner's victims
Just when the political rhetoric emanating from D.C. couldn’t seem nastier, something even more disgusting took place in the midst of a constituent service day – a lone gunman hauled off and wounded 13 people and killed six others, including a federal judge and a Congressional aide. Jared Loughner was nearly successful in mortally wounding U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords. Early reports proclaimed that she had been assassinated, only to quickly offer a reversal and report a miracle – Giffords had survived the attempt on her life. President Obama traveled to Tuscon and spoke passionately to a packed house and the nation about tempering the rancor, which brought tears to the eyes of even the hardened. But even that paled in comparison to when Giffords returned to the House floor to cast her vote to end the gridlock on raising the debt ceiling.

The term “-gate” has been attached to every notable political scandal since Nixon orchestrated the Watergate Hotel break-in, but in this case, it’s deserved. The world witnessed enough deviousness, callousness and subterfuge within the Murdoch media empire to fuel a few John Grisham plots. (Refresh yourself here.) Lawyers are still sorting out what was sanctioned by whom, but before Parliament, Murdoch, the man who could make presidents and prime ministers whimper, looked frail and doty. His son and heir apparent, James, looked not much more competent than Arthur Carlson of WKRP in Cincinnati fame. And the latest testimony has crumbled any crust of courtesy credibility Parliament may have offered.

U.S. troops head for Kuwaiti border. 
Photo credit: AP
War ends, officially. Chaos continues, unofficially. Reams have been and will be written about America’s elective war. Honoring the pact President Bush made with Iraqi officials, U.S. troops finally headed home, as tanks rolled into Kuwait with embers of desert operations in their rearview. More than 4,500 U.S. fighters paid with their lives, and tens of thousands more remain wounded and scarred, physically and psychologically. In the macro, after the billions spent, most Americans wonder whether the cost of toppling one dictator in a region so far away was ever worth it. But in the micro, for many military families, it was one of the brightest holiday seasons in nearly a decade.

Jamal, Mumia Abu-
In the decades since the one-time radio journalist-cum-cabbie was accused of slaying Philadelphia Police Officer Daniel Faulkner, he’s been a visceral symbol for a shaky, if at times, corrupted, American judicial system. At least as it pertains to justice meted to black and brown defendants. After a nearly 30-year stay on Pennsylvania’s death row, court after court has reviewed, rescinded, remanded, and revoked. Finally, the case was sent back to Philadelphia District Attorney R. Seth Williams to either re-file for the death penalty or settle for life in prison. Surveying the surviving witnesses (after all, many have died), the cost of mounting a fresh case, and the feelings of Faulkner’s widow, Williams opted for life in prison. Mumia supporters vow to press on for his freedom. Still, with the death penalty off the table and the murky facts of the case, the “Free Mumia” clarion has dropped an octave on college campuses and the general populace. So have T-shirt sales.

King Memorial
For children today, it may seem incomprehensible that there had been so much backlash and hand-wringing about setting aside a day to honor the spirit and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. For those too young to recall the decades-long battles that led to the historic 1983 creation (and 1986 national recognition) of King Day, touring the towering sculpture on the National Mall will do. A labor of love led by King’s Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity brothers, the much-anticipated addition to the nation’s pantheon of heroes faced its own obstacles – from fundraising to weather. In the end, the three-hour dedication stirred souls, despite the dust-ups about the architect and inscription that flared.

Long, Bishop Eddie
The oh-so-tight tops had long been a joke among black people when it came to the Atlanta area megachurch leader. But the laughter subsided when reports of child molestation and abuse at his hands boiled over last year as victim after victim found his voice to speak his truth. What bubbled out the pot flowed into 2011, affirming those who had accused Long of homophobia. Lawsuits flew and were settled. Mrs. Long announced, retracted, then filed for divorce. Bishop Long went on “sabbatical.” And the fate of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church remains cloudy, with hints of Matthew 3:10 lingering.

Manned space flight, U.S.
In this 50th anniversary of man entering the stratosphere, there were fewer whistles and balloons of celebrations. That’s because the return voyage of the Space Shuttle Atlantis marked the end of a 30-year program of manned space flight forAmerica. The nation who was the first to put a man on the moon and lost and lauded intergalactic heroes for generations opted to mothball the program, citing a need to reexamine the goals of the program (read: budget axe). Locals in states like Florida and Alabama feared the future, equating a scrapped shuttle program to shoving scores of engineers and other related NASA support staff  into unemployment lines. Instead, they flocked to entrepreneurial whiteboards and private industry space ventures

North Korea
Shrouded in mystery and plunged into poverty by the eccentric excesses of its leadership, the Asian nation teeters on a precipice few even knew was about to reveal itself. So clandestine are the comings and goings in the country that not even superpower intelligence agents knew when the Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Il had died; they got the word like the rest of us, via an official dispatch. North Korea often has been depicted as a desperado nation – ill-tempered but dangerously armed. Its fickle policies keep its southern neighbors in fits and D.C. on the phone with Peninsula leaders. With the elevation of 20-something Kim Jong Un, its fuzzy as to whether a new brand of leadership will emerge or if he’ll be little more than a puppet of the established – and itchy-fingered – military regime. Game theorists will be up late on this one.

Photo credit: Marc Cooper
Occupy, multiple entries
It started out as a band of disgruntled citizens soured on the fact that the American Dream seemed to be a fantasy concocted by wealthy overlords who were content in pimping the democracy the rest of us toiled to support. A handful of folks plopped down in a public park in New York expressed the disgust, outrage, and frustration with power brokers on Wall Street and the D.C. politicians they roll. They were sentiments felt by millions aka the “99 percent.” Soon, the urban outbackers were joined by hundreds, and then thousands. The Occupy encampments spread from city to city, and a few college squares between. And then things just got weird. The Occupy crowd started turning off natural allies. A focused agenda was about non-existent. Splintering took place, as did criminal allegations that proved titillating to media. Occupiers mostly wound up being hosed down and chased away by the end, with some ugly incidents in the middle. The image of the campus officer pepper spraying a peaceful crowd harkened to the Bull Connor years of policing. If only there had been a cohesive (a) message or (b) agenda. Castigate the tea party at your peril; at least they recognized a need for organizing and parlaying civic discontent into political power.

Penn State
Forever, the only images “Penn State” conjured were a sea of chanting blue and white fans from Happy Valley, led by their NCAA football Moses, Joe “Joe Pa” Paterno. All of that turned on its head when allegations of child sexual abuse by a once-beloved assistant coach erupted. Worse, grand jury testimony charged that coach, Jerry Sandusky, had been caught in the act of abusing a boy in the shower by another assistant, but that assistant did nothing to save the boy being brutalized. And the waves of shame continue to shock Nittany Lion land and all its minions begging to return to life as normal. But for the nearly dozen alleged victims, life has been anything but since encountering Sandusky through a nonprofit to help economically challenged boys. The PSU president and Paterno both were tossed and the investigation continues. To their credit, PSU alum moved to do their part to aid the victims. Meanwhile, child sex abuse has received a new spotlight, and victims of all ages are having their say. Expectations are that 2012 will bring an explosive trial, and heads aren’t finished rolling.

Quake – the East Coast edition
Those on the Left Coast are always bracing for the Big One. But in New York? Philly? D.C.? Virginia? An earthquake is as rare as a snowstorm in Arizona. The August 5.8 quake rattled more than the china on the shelves as people reflective on Fukushima nervously eyed nuclear power plants along the Eastern Seaboard. Damage to the Washington Monument closed the tourist attraction and the National Park Service recently offered a repair assessment, providing Congress a new football to kick around. In all, it broke up the monotony of talking about the heat and all the flurry and fluster kept Californians in stitches.

Photo credit: Shannon Stapleton, Reuters
Republican debates
The greatest sideshow on Earth – all to posture, er, audition, for the most powerful job on                                                                            the planet: president of the United States of America. Yet, the cast of characters that came and went, rose and fell, would give any thinking person whiplash. Then again, the debates weren’t necessarily fashioned for thinking people. The flavor-of-the-month chronology went: Trump, Bachmann, Perry, Cain, Gingrich, and most recently flirtations with Ron Paul and Rick Santorum for the heart of the conservative base that just is not that into Romney. The former governor of Massachusetts must figure chances go around; he’s been steady – if not boring – at about 24 percent in polling for months. Maybe they’ll grow to love him.

It was a green power company that went under, and Republican operatives hoped it would take the Obama Administration with it. The recap: a firm that created solar power panels for commercial complexes sounded promising. Records show that not everyone on Obama’s team was sold, but forces within the White House were pushing for a win. Solyndra received a $528 million loan backed by the Obama Administration, as part of its efforts to create green-collar jobs and boost the economy. Solyndra’s leadership couldn’t keep it together, and the company fell apart. The name became a GOP rallying cry as Republicans in Congress howled about sweetheart deals for Obama supporters and defrauding the American people. Minions began conjuring fantasies of an Obama impeachment. Administration officials stuck to their story. The company is “reorganizing” and an auction is pending. The saga continues.

Tahrir Square
When most folks think of freedom and democracy and iconic spaces, their minds drift to Gettysburg, Faneuil Hall, Independence Mall and the like. This year, it was all about the vibrancy and glow that emanated from Cairo’s central town square. Men and women converged to protest the Hosni Mubarak regime. For months, they endured bullies and bullets and emerged as victors. Mubarak and his cronies were driven from power, new elections were set, and euphoria could be felt. But when the military seemed too slow to relinquish its custodial role, the protestors returned to Tahrir. Women continued to face abuse, but have been gaining ground, with many more miles to go.

When the stimulus was launched in 2009 – formally known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act – Obama prognosticators proclaimed that the jobless rate would jump. They were just wrong on the depth and direction. Hovering around 9 percent for most of 2011, the die for GOP ammunition was cast, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. The stimulus failed! Government waste! Obama – hapless hack! With history showing no incumbent president holding onto the White House with those kinds of numbers, you could hear the glee from RNC headquarters – and if the conspiracy theorists are correct, from the House leadership caucus that’s been thwarting the Obama Administration’s legislative remedies. As the dial clicked down toward 8.6 percent by the end of the year, Obama boosters grew reinvigorated, especially African-American ones who need change they could believe in. Black jobless rates have been steadier than prospects, a soaring 16 percent.

Voter ID bills
A signature piece of sinister legislation that has infected GOP-led statehouses is breaking out across the nation. After the electoral tsunami that pushed Republicans into majorities, an odd coincidence occurred. Suddenly, an outbreak of ghost voter fraud sent people into a panic. And by people, that referred to GOP legislators dying to flex their might (for a recap, click here), especially among those old folks and young people who dared to exercise their franchise. While more progressive-minded legislators -- usually in the minority -- have been fighting back, citizens aren't solely relying on those efforts, opting to craft their own solutions.
Democrats in unity:
Wisconsin union members and neighbors
stood and delivered
Who would have thought the state known for beer, cheese, Packers and Cheeseheads would be the political linchpin of the year? That's what happens when political intransigence and willful workers (and voters) collide. Gov. Scott Walker, crowned prince by homie and RNC Chair Reince Priebus, thought he could bully his way into stripping unions of their rights and powers. It’s been part of a national diffuse-the-Obama-vote strategy, and Scott may have gotten away with it if it hadn’t been for that meddling AFSCME. And teachers. And firefighters. And so on. A gubernatorial recall campaign ramped up quickly, encouraging grassroots activists that smell blood in the water.

Without a doubt, it's been an eventful year, and 2012, with the upcoming presidential contest, among others, will prove equally memorable. Did this jog your memory -- or dig up memories you were trying to forget? Learned anything new here? Was something missed? Drop a line and update the record.