Culture

Golden Gloves: HCSD’s First Black Superintendent On His Work And America’s Cultural Divide

BY JEANETTE LENOIR

 

The scenic drive to Hamilton Central School District can be deceiving, but then again so is most of picturesque upstate New York. It’s not a revelation that small town America has secrets; secrets that continue to silhouette a place still unwelcoming to many non-white citizens. Even so, HCSD hired its first black Superintendent in 2015. Some argue it was also a hiring move to be more inclusive and boost diversity.

Superintendent, Dr. Anael Alston, who is also Jewish, took up the challenge as the area’s educational leader two years ago, but not before inquiring about being received by the community at large because of his skin color. He says, “One of the factors I considered in accepting the position was the kind of community that it was. I was frank with the search consultant when I asked; is this community ready for an African American to be the educational leader?” He says the board that hired him thought the community was ready for the change and wanted the best candidate.

Alston says being the first African American in high profile roles is not new for him. “A lot of my career I have been the first in some of my communities but I was also well aware that being the first African American brings certain challenges with it, challenges that no one would necessarily speak of. And, I take that on because I just believe that I’m not going to be limited by other people’s lack of knowledge or world view, or world exposure.” Alston boosts an impressive resume that includes an Ed. D in Curriculum and Teaching from Columbia University, a B.A. in Sociology and spent 10 years as a principle in Long Island before accepting his latest challenge as HCS Superintendent. “The community in large part has been very welcoming, very accepting. There is certainly a faction that really struggles with some of the positive changes that are necessary in order for the organization to be effective and efficient in the long term.”

Some of the challenges, Alston points to concern the district’s spending, finding new revenue sources, updating their technology and taking a look at administrative and staffing efficiency. “Taking a critical look at what we do and how we do it. That has been a challenge to some people,” he says. Alston says the pushback he has received is not uncommon in public education, especially when it challenges the status quo and the district’s culture. He says 70 to 80 percent of the district’s budget deals with staffing. “So, ultimately how you use your staff dictates your budget,” he adds. When asked if the pushback had to do with being a black man at the helm, Alston pauses to consider his answer carefully and points to studies on the subject. “There’s a ton of research on African American and male leaders and how they are perceived by Caucasian cultures, and so you never really know the reason because no one will say it so I will just rely on the research.”

In the midst of this uncomfortable truth, can Dr. Alston still be an effective leader? He says yes. Adding, “I’m choosing to not judge circumstances. It just is and I’m aware of it. And, that I have to choose how I’m going to respond, or not respond. I am aware that in 2017 there are people who are just not open to the world that is changing in front of them. I think that I have to behave in a way that is true to who I am and my position as a global citizen. And quite frankly, for the ignorant people who still harbor bigotry and racism and anti-Semitism and homophobia in their spirit, I can only model what I believe to be the correct path and hopefully my behavior and interaction has a positive impact.”

 

 

Alston says he tries very hard to not let racism get in the way of his “Why’s”. “Which is to educate, empower and inspire people to live closer to their human potential and using my platform as a public educational leader to do so,” he says. His young daughter who also attends school in the district gets the same message but with an added reminder of her privilege and according to Alston, “Also that life isn’t fair. We are clear on the history of this country and the world and as it relates to politics and power.”

He says his daughter is thriving in her new home and despite some of the challenges of the job the superintendent points to the successes he’s ushered in thus far. “We’ve done well with grants. We’ve done over $200,000 in grant money over the last two years. We’ve been able to lobby with a not-for-profit who gave us about 50 reconditioned laptop computers. We were able to forge a stronger partnership with Colgate who gave us about 27 iMacs. We’ve been able to identify the need to seriously update our technology which was very old and outdated,” he says. Another significant initiative Alston is spearheading is the accreditation for dual enrollment that aims to help students and their parents pay less for college. “The cost of higher education is becoming very difficult for those who are working class poor and even middle class at this point. And, what we’ve done here is we’ve doubled the number of college credits that a student can take while they’re at Hamilton Central School District and walk out of here with up to 30 SUNY college credits.” He says that’s two semesters of college high school students can earn before entering the State University of New York institutions. “That’s something we have accomplished as a school district in the two years I’ve been here.” He calls it a “win-win situation” even though it means more work.

“The obstacle is the way” Alston explains as he delves into another program that may challenge the secularity of a small town like Hamilton, NY but also take on the district’s financial and declining enrollment problem. The International Student proposal, Alston argues, will not only boost funding for the district, it will increase diversity in CNY, “and, exposing students who would not be able to travel around the world and experience different cultures so I would argue better preparing them.”

The committee studying the proposal has already met with Homeland Security to ensure all legal issues concerning immigration are being followed and properly administered. “In order for us to do it we have to be able to issue I-20’s, which then the student participant can take to the U.S. Embassy and get their paperwork processed.” He says despite the “selective immigration” woes flaring across the country the process for HCSD International Student Proposal would be consistent with the laws and regulations concerning immigration to the U.S. He says there are some downsides to the program, including the political reality, housing and financial needs, the districts liability and the different cultures you bring in to a small town like Hamilton, NY. “And, that is something that people will have to struggle with.” Alston says when it comes to the community’s acceptance of international students it depends on who you ask. “I wouldn’t call it a resistance…I would call it a cautious apprehension. I also think because I’m an outsider there’s even more apprehension. And, I’ve been accused of being a resume builder…like, ‘what does he want to do here’…I understand that. I have strong credentials and some people feel that this is a resume builder for me.” When asked how that makes him feel, Alston says, “It doesn’t make me feel one way or the other; it just is because at the end of the day I’m back to my Why’s.”

What does the future look like for the first African American Superintendent in Hamilton, NY? “I don’t know what the future looks like. I know what today looks like. I plan for tomorrow but there are factors that I ultimately don’t control. But, what I do control is how I behave and how I respond to circumstances and conditions and what I do each day to add value to the organization.” Alston says the progress the district has made under his leadership is not because of him, “but it’s because of We.”

Dr. Alston’s contract is up for renewal in June 2018. And, although it is common practice to bring up the issue of contract renewal before a fast approaching deadline, the new school board has not presented the issue for debate or a vote. In other words, Dr. Alston has a new school board to convince to keep him on and thus far, no decision has been made about his future in the district. Alston says he did not expect to deal with as many issues—some political—so early in his superintendence but he says he strongly believes in his own worth and contributions to the district. “The district is making progress under my leadership,” he says.

Dr. Alston brings more than his Ivy League credentials to his position as Superintendent. He brings a world view to his community despite hailing from the same state. Alston grew up in Brooklyn, NY. “I’m a kid from the ghetto,” he says as he delves in to the cultural divide that’s evident in the two very different parts that make up the great State of New York. “I am representing the hopes and aspirations of a lot of people in multiple ways. I’m from the hood where this kind of success just was not part of the daily grind.” On the other hand, Alston says he also represents the hopes and aspirations of upper middle class families. “I believe God is using me because for a lot of the people I have interacted with, they only know African Americans through rap and some of the foolishness that’s on television. And, I recognize that in Central New York some people, in particularly Long Island, have never had an African American boss or an African American male boss and that kind of change is uncomfortable for some people. That is not their reality. And so I try to inspire people who are willing to show some kind of interest in the journey.”

Alston’s journey hasn’t been a cake walk despite being an overachiever coupled with a determination to live purposely. As if the stresses of our societal struggles with equality, discrimination and lack of access for blacks in America wasn’t a big enough battle to overcome along the way, Alston is also living with the pain of losing two brothers to violence. In 1990 his brother Raphael was murdered. He was only 21 years old. Nearly three years later, he lost another brother to violence. Ariel was 23 years old when he was murdered. Both crimes are still unsolved. “There were 2500 murders the year Raphael got killed,” he said. His brother’s memories are the cornerstones of the “Why’s” Alston relies upon as his life compass. “I am who I am and proud of it whether people get me or not. And my responsibility to give back to this land and this world goes beyond any box that someone would check for me, or that I’d be asked to check.”

Exposure to different cultures and people changes a person’s perception Alston says, adding “That is why I make it a point to engage with people different than me.” He goes on to say, if ones exposure is limited to people of color than they’re going to have whatever narrative they’ve been told or received from the media. Another narrative of Alston’s story is his boxing career that started during his college years as a way to fend off his Freshmen 15 and deal with some difficult times at home. He was trained by his uncle whom he says he desperately needed as a male role model at the time. “Some of the successes that I’ve had in my career are related to my exposure and training in the fight game,” he says. The former champion boxer who earned his golden gloves says on tough days it feels like he left one boxing ring for another. “You always have to do your homework before the lights come on. If you haven’t done your homework and the lights come on, you will be embarrassed. That’s true in this seat also.” Part of his learning he says came from watching the promoters behind the boxers and the business end of the sport. “That was very helpful because I wasn’t a typical boxer.” Nevertheless, similar to his boxing career, Alston says he has great mentors and trainers in education. “There are so many lessons that I’ve applied from being a champion in that ring into this arena. I would like to believe that I build on the parallels.”

 

 

“You have to be double good in order to be an African American,” is a phrase as common as a greeting Alston grew up hearing from his mother and grandmother. “I don’t know if that’s true or not but I can look and see my credentials verses other peoples credentials and accomplishments and worry about that but I don’t because at the end of the day it’s about human potential,” he says. Instead, he credits the educational thought leaders who have guided him throughout his career that in turn have helped him add value to his own work for the communities he has served in public education. “Quite frankly, it wouldn’t make me feel good if I find out what my grandmother use to always say. So I’m going to stay away from that and I’m going to focus on adding value and building myself and my team up.”

Part of reaching back for Alston comes in the form of speaking engagements. He says he enjoys sharing his wisdom with young people and inspiring them to consider career goals that aren’t as glamorous as being a movie star, entertainer, athlete or even a more hazardous route like taking up illegal activities. “I have some of the toys of success and sometimes I’ll let people know I have that stuff and I don’t rap, I’ve never sold drugs and I do travel. And, I can tell you how I did it. And I tell them how much more fun it is. I am not worried about the feds taking my assets. That’s a freedom that hustlers don’t have.” He says there’s a shift in terms of young people choosing to live a “hustle life” however; he wishes the shift would happen faster. “I let them know it’s doable. Once a person can see and touch success than it can become attainable.”

Despite the national noises that threaten to reverse some of the progress made in America, we’ve come a long way as a society. Even so, Alston adds, “To hire the first African American is progress. To hold them to the same standard that you did the people before them would be the next step.”  He goes on to give examples of the criticism former President Barrack Obama received and the benefit of technology that clearly and sadly showed the hypocrisy and blatant double standard he, along with other black people in America have had to endure, and that are culturally rooted in our identity, still. “Either there is one standard or there isn’t, or there’s a person of color standard and the other standard. And, is that equal and if not, why? And, what’s that really about? That’s a conversation that can be uncomfortable,” he says.

In spite of the political nature of the job and the obstacles he’s working to overcome, Dr. Alston, who can easily be described as upstate New York’s very own Cory Booker, wants people to know that he remains optimistic about his future as the educational leader in the district despite the uncertainty that comes with the rapid change in the school board since his arrival. He says, “While I report to a corporate body called the school board, I ultimately answer to a higher authority.” With regard to the recent protests, racial tensions and civil acts of disobedience, Alston says, “In order to be able to be the super power and a nation that is great, we have to really examine our thinking and beliefs. I’m hopeful that people are aware of that giving what is going on in the country now.” He says people have to think before choosing a political camp, “because the talking points are not serving us. The polarization’s are not serving us. We are marred in levels of foolishness as a result of us, as a country, not consciously deciding to be aware.”

Challenges can be opportunities. And, that’s the attitude Alston wears as a merit badge as he makes his way through the school building visiting class rooms, engaging teachers, students and staff alike. “This is not a job for me. It is my mission,” he says, adding that, “when I show up to work in my capacity as Superintendent, I am living my Why and I’m expressing it through my What.” He says part of his Why is to reach those not being served or adequately challenged in the classroom. And, it’s deeply personal as the tragic deaths of his two brothers. “There are people who are brilliant sitting in school who are not connected. My job as educational leader is to tap into their potential.” Alston explains that his work is the mechanism that allows him to live out his personal and professional goals…even if he has to use an “intellectual uppercut” to get the job done. “I believe in the goodness of people, be it the people of Hamilton, the people of NY, the people of this country and the people of this world. After all, it is people who have helped me get this far.”

 

AFROPUNK: A Weekend Of Live Music, Good Vibes And Black Culture

BY JEANETTE LENOIR

 

In its 12th year of bringing a myth busting music festival to people of all walks of life, Afropunk certainly didn’t disappoint this year. The music festival, which started in 2005 with less than 50 attendees according to those close to the festival, lured over 60,000 revelers to come out to Commodore Barry Park in Brooklyn, NY over the weekend to celebrate a healthy dose of African American musical culture. Organizers say the festival started as an attempt to debunk the myth surrounding African Americans and their involvement in the Punk/Rock scene and music genre. The festival was born following the documentary AFRO-PUNK; “AFROPUNK – ‘The Rock and Roll Nigger Experience’ was the original title for the movie before it was changed to what we know today as: AFROPUNK – The Documentary, a 66 minute documentary explores race identify within the punk scene.” Today, Afropunk has morphed into a money-making cultural phenomenon that celebrates a fantastic mix of musical talents from across the globe and musical genres. The festival has now expanded into an international celebration of black music and black culture, which is on full display during the weekend long event. And, one doesn’t have to be black to celebrate black culture as clearly evident from the participants.

Organizers say Afropunk celebrates being a person of color and music is a major part of black culture, not just in America but all over the world, making it fitting that the festival is being held in Johannesburg, South Africa in December later this year. According to officials, Afropunk is also working to bring the celebration to Brazil as it continues to challenge the perceptions surrounding black culture and black music. Other locations have been; Atlanta, Paris and London.

 

 

NABJ New Orleans: A Significant Moment In America’s Journey In A City Full Of Culture And Black History

 

BY JEANETTE LENOIR

 

New Orleans can easily be described as America’s secret gem. Despite the havoc caused by Hurricane Katrina and the negative portrayal of a city plagued by violence, New Orleans stands alone in all its glory, people, culture and revelry.

This year, the National Association of Black Journalists congregated in the historic city, part of the group’s annual convention and career fair. America’s racial turmoil, like the most recent incident in Charlottesville, VA, makes the destination for the gathering a unique one that highlights who we are, what we’re capable of and what we continue to stand for as Americans and NABJ members. The struggle for equality and a more just country isn’t over but neither is our resolve and determination to fight bigotry with education, success and the most powerful armor man has against hate; Love. And, New Orleans has plenty of love, history and black culture for the greater mission to improve our world and American culture as a whole.

The Big Easy, as the iconic and beautiful city is nicknamed, was the perfect complement to highlight NABJ’s work and the people that come out to support it. People like, Roland S. Martin, Charles Barkley, Harris Faulkner, Dr. Jeff Gardere, Nyja Greene with CNN in Atlanta, Tracey Rivers with Fox 26 News in Houston, and many other prominent black figures. And, even the presence of arguably the most unpopular black woman in the White House, Omarosa Manigault, couldn’t overshadow the power of the event in a city full of life, talent, charm and charisma. And, how fitting and telling of the group’s importance, growth and impact that even Facebook joined the convention this year to recruit talent for its own innovative work across the globe.

In our current state of aggressive and divisive nationalism, New Orleans was the perfect backdrop to mark black progress in America. Black folks, specifically those that call the Big Easy home, have come a long way as a people. In the repugnant face of racism and discrimination, to a natural disaster that changed the lives and demographics of the city; New Orleanians are overcoming everything that has plagued their journey with music, food, revelry, an organic entrepreneurial spirit and a potent dose of American culture. Nevertheless, it’s clear to see, especially thanks to an administration fueling anti-American values that the civil rights movement is far from over, making NABJ’s mission and work more important than ever.

Jazz or Jass as it was first spelled, was born in New Orleans, making dancing and singing in the streets to great local bands simply a cultural norm. From Bourbon Street to Frenchman Street, the city cradles its patrons like moths uncontrollably drawn to light, despite all the effects that comes with merrymaking, and an alcohol and drugs infused atmosphere. However, there’s more than the music and revelry to talk about. The local artists on the streets hawking their goods like, Alex Lee Calacuayo, add a certain essence to the bright beautiful colors that is New Orleans and its people. Food venders, like Mr. Joe’s Island Grill—unlike some other cities in America—take a great deal of pride in what they prepare and offer. It’s a constant party that hits you all over, from your dancing feet to your mouth full of the best food on the planet. And, none of it takes away from the cultural significance that is New Orleans.

A significant perspective of NABJ’s presence in the Big Easy is the story of Palmer Park, which according to, New Orleans Historical, was named after a staunch supporter of slavery and segregation; Benjamin Parker. The white’s only park was the scene where during the Jim Crow era, during a 1924 speech, “Shreveport Mayor Lee E. Thomas, challenging Senator Randsell for his seat, drew loud applause when he accused the senator of signing a letter supporting a black man for a federal job; the mayor’s allegation sought to condemn the senator’s egalitarian gesture. Similar racism could be seen in reaction to a 1934 incident. Residents nearby the park and civic organizations complained about an unlicensed shoe shine stand, “Sam’s Shine Parlor,” which appeared in the park. The stand, aimed at people waiting nearby for the bus to Kenner, was originally chained to a tree in the park. The black vendor’s chair was removed. White vendors, like the man who sold hot tamales, were allowed in the park.”

Despite a long and arduous journey plagued with racial prejudice black people in America are still standing, and still working towards their own prosperity as our collective American values instills in each and every one of us. And how fitting that after all these years and racial turmoil’s, NABJ is still working to bring organizations together that recognize the importance and value of diversity in the work place, especially in media. We represent the spirit of Sam’s Shine Parlor.

The country is changing. New Orleans is going through it too, especially following the mass public upheaval brought on by Katrina. Walking the streets of the city you can still hear folks talk about all they’ve lost during the August 2005 storm. The breaking of the levees didn’t just spill massive amounts of water covering the city and destroying lives. Some argue that it also washed away a great deal of its culture and fast-tracking gentrification. Even so, the city full of charm with one of the best American accents you’ll hear is still thriving. And a large reason for it lies at the feet of the local population that make a living in the streets, where a great deal of the city’s booming tourism industry can be seen and deeply felt. New Orleans is not just beautiful; the Big Easy is the epitome of what we recognize as the birth of American culture.

 

The Dynamics Of Tea In The Formation Of American Culture

By JEANETTE LENOIR

 

A 5,000 year old leaf drink is making an impact on a culture addicted to its rival; coffee. American culture, like life itself, is in a constant state of change, and tea has taken an important role in facilitating this culture shift that’s embracing tea. Facilitating this change is Miriam Novalle, an entrepreneur with a nose for fragrances and a genius mixologist fluent in all the notes of tea. “Tea as liquid communication,” is how Novalle describes this unique language she speaks. “I’m a painter, a perfumer that put both of them together in a cup of tea,” she said.

Twenty-five years ago, Novalle, with help from a couple of friends, including Peter M. Brant, opened her first tea salon, (T Salon) in the basement of the Guggenheim Museum in SoHo following her success from developing a fragrance called Listen with trumpet player and record company executive, Herb Alpert. “Peter Brant and dear friends helped open the first T Salon below the Guggenheim Established in 1992. Brant was the landlord with an idea, but it was really my funds and two other dear friends that helped build it,” she says.

Sitting with her grandchildren on their special summer days together at one of their favorite tea stops in New York City; The Hyatt, one of her major tea accounts. Novalle, a new age and hands-on American grandmother who has a mission to influence and shape the next generation of tea drinkers, starting with her own two grandchildren, explains her move as an idea that developed following afternoon tea in Liverpool, England. “Everything was fabulous except the tea was washboard. I said, I don’t get it, I thought the English were supposed to have a great cup of tea.” That disappointing cup of afternoon tea in a country known for drinking the ancient brew is what led Novalle to her new venture utilizing her God-given blending forte to create the perfect cup of tea in her own country. Following her success from her partnership with Alpert, Novalle relocated with her young daughter to Florence, Italy. She says her travels across the globe is what opened her to the tea drinking culture. “We realized the whole world was drinking tea except for Americans in the 90s.”

Despite not being the main morning beverage of choice for many American consumers in the country’s relatively short democracy, tea played a major role in the formation of an independent America. Nonetheless, tea was a hot commodity regularly imported to American colonies in the 18th century. However, heavy taxation from Britain led to the December 16, 1773 destruction of tea in America by way of The Boston Tea Party, a significant event in American history that ended our love affair with the leafy drink.

“So, I did a little research, did my due diligence and I was going to open this little tea shop with teas from all over the world.” She says it was that idea that led to the suggestion from Brant to open a tea room in the basement of the Guggenheim that was being built in SoHo at the time.  “So, I built a 5,000 square foot, 257 seat tea room. All of a sudden, out of nowhere in the City of New York—they had never seen such a thing…who comes and opens a 5,000 square foot tea room?!—180 teas that I started putting my nose into and started blending…black teas, green teas, white teas.” Novalle says she kept building her tea empire with a variety of flavors like beet root, ginger, oranges and raspberry leaves until her sister’s health scare inspired her to develop a tea wellness program. “Nine years ago she got ovarian cancer that’s when I realized it can’t just be tea anymore; it had to be a wellness program. It had to be tea that makes a difference in your life.

 

 

 

She says her tea blends and creations couldn’t just be for having afternoon tea anymore. “And, so I went to India and sat with an Ayurvedic Doctor and told him what was going on with my sister. I told him everything she had and I told him what the world was dealing with. And, not only cancer but women that were always fearing their weight, people that can’t sleep, people that are always going through these cleanses and not really taking care of themselves and so we sat and worked on my wellness tea line. I worked on it for two years.” She says. Novalle goes on to explain that she uses tea for people that need to find themselves in a quiet moment just like the story of the birth of tea itself, which according to her and historical accounts, started with a Buddhist monk who accidentally discovered the mighty leaf.

Novalle’s new creation called High Tea was born out of her sister having ovarian cancer. “Here’s a woman that goes to chemo at the end of every month, here’s a woman that comes back and her immune system is shot, she’s completely almost left lifeless after going through this,” she says as she explains when she learned about the CBD—an oil combination of the Hemp and Cannabis plant—her sister was taking to help her through her illness. She says, “CBD Hemp is legal if there is 3 percent less THC in the product.” Novelle says she soon traveled to Colorado and found organic growers of Hemp CBD that’s grown just for the health benefits. “I took it back home to New York and I started blending,” she says as she talks about the booming business of this new High Tea craze. “Now, everybody and their brother is coming at me,” she quipped, adding, “Every well-known chef, every grower in Colorado and Oregon calls me every day on the phone, I mean, it’s like insane… I didn’t realize what industry I was getting into. How big it was, (11-billion dollar industry) how helpful it can be for people with Leukemia. … People with Parkinson whose hands are shaking that drink this CBD and you can see, all of a sudden, their hands calming down.” Novalle goes onto share a story of her client in Minnesota that uses her CBD products for her dispensary that’s seeing a major boost in sales, especially among cancer patients that find the product helpful in their healing journey. “And today, she’s on the road repping my products because she believes it helped her with her cancer,” she says.

Research by the World Health Organization shows tea beating coffee when it comes to measurable benefits; however the temperature of the popular morning and afternoon beverage is what makes a difference in how the human body processes it. “On the basis of available data, the working group concluded that coffee is possibly carcinogenic to the human urinary bladder. Evidence further suggests that coffee may actually protect humans against cancer of the colon and rectum. The risk for breast cancer was shown, with remarkable consistency, to have no association with coffee drinking. The second monograph evaluates the carcinogenicity of black and green teas. Although available data were judged inadequate to classify tea according to its carcinogenic risk, the analysis uncovered evidence suggesting that the temperature at which tea is drunk may be a more important determinant of risk than the chemical composition of the beverage.”

Despite the health benefits and ever expanding flavor combination of tea, Novalle says tea is not a substitution for coffee. “We’re never going to substitute. That’s like substituting the love of your life. I don’t think you ever want to substitute the love of your life. You just want to enjoy it, open your mind to it, and realize it’s a healthier lifestyle. If you would like an open healthier lifestyle, a bodhisattva lifestyle and have God in your heart, and being open, it’s going to happen with anything, but a cup of tea helps.”

America may be a Johnny-come-lately to the world’s tea table, but thanks to innovators like Miriam Novalle, the country is quickly catching up and even paving new roads to access all the benefits of this ancient and holistic brew.

Defining American Culture And Identity

By JEANETTE LENOIR

 

America is one of the most diverse countries in the world, making defining American culture a difficult task to undertake. Considering the many traditions Americans from all walks of life adhere to, pass down, recognize and celebrate, one would be hard pressed to capture all that she encompasses and constitutes. Nevertheless, the University of Michigan took on the challenge and came up with 101 characteristics that define American culture.

The “Melting Pot” has been a fitting description for as long as the question of her identity has been pondered, but thanks to the break down, specifics have been added to our cultural description. Since her independence 241 years ago, America has steadily evolved into a more perfect union representative of the many facets of the world.  People from all walks of life can adequately represent what it means to be an American.

As the world turns, including our own democracy, we decided to post this question to various Americans in New York City and other parts of the state: How do you describe American culture? As you’ll see, the question wasn’t easily answered…

 

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Bill Ayers On Activism In The Age Of Trump

BY JEANETTE LENOIR

 

The Big Conversation with Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn was held at The Other Side in Utica, NY in May. Ayers gained some attention during the 2008 presidential election for an allege connection between him and former president Barack Obama. The social justice activist, author and teacher, is Founder and former member of the Weather Underground Organization, (WUO). Ayers and his wife Dohrn were in town to discuss his new book, Demand The Impossible, a Radical Manifesto.

In addition to touting the importance of activism, the two long-time activists touched on gun violence, police brutality, and the Black Lives Matter and Resistance Movement that have steadily gained momentum following the election of President Trump.

Here they are in their own words…

 

Using Art To Challenge Gun Violence In America

 

BY JEANETTE LENOIR

 

Sculpture Space is a unique organization responsible for bringing some of the most creative and artistic minds to the forefront of society. Those lucky enough to be selected as an Artist-In-Residence are given an opportunity to create their work, share it with the public and in some cases, have their work displayed in different locations across the country. Sculptures, and art in general, comparable to early man’s parietal art, speak a unique and colorful language all people can identify with.

Art is part of our collective humanity and Resident Artist Matthew Mosher, through his art, is in lockstep with man’s prehistoric activities to communicate creatively. Art, like music, is a powerful medium penetrating hearts and minds, and Mosher is using it to address gun violence in America with his new installation at Sculpture Space.

Mosher says his vision for the two pieces he’s constructing is to address gun violence in America and to honor the victims of the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando. “The first one that I’m making for the Pulse Memorial Show is a plaster cast 9mm cartridge for each person who was killed in 2016 by gun violence and homicides. And, it’s a total of 15,070 bullets.”

Mosher says he chose to honor the victims of the Pulse Nightclub shooting because it hit close to home. “I had recently moved to Orlando and shortly after I moved there the Pulse shooting happened and that got me thinking about gun violence. It’s a very interesting and unique problem to the United States compared to Canada, the U.K., Germany, France…the rate of gun violence in the United States is so high compared to other developed nations and the rate of gun ownership is so much higher than these other countries, but we also have very unique freedoms in the United States that these other countries don’t have. We have the Second Amendment and that’s very important.”

The topic of gun violence and the Second Amendment is a sensitive one dividing a nation of people on opposite ends of the issue. Mosher says his aim is to avoid the basic arguments typically centered on the right to bear arms. “You’re either really pro-gun or anti-gun so I wanted to make some work that would elicit dialogue about gun violence and gun ownership in the country without being really aggressive or in your face about it.”

To facilitate the dialogue intended for his pieces the Resident Artist and Professor of Digital Media at the University of Central Florida in Orlando says he was inspired by Tibetan Sand mandala, radial symmetrical and meditative forms unique to Buddhism to bring his work to life. “And, they’re cast in plaster, it’s like a white on white, white material on a white wall, so it’s almost calming in a sense. My hope is that it puts the issue more into the public eye to get people to talk about it in a level headed way instead of, ‘I’m right and you’re wrong’ argument.”

Mosher adds, “It affects so many different things. There’s strange statistics on gun violence…two correlated things are, where there’s higher rates of gun ownership, there’s high rates of murders of women because domestic violence is a primary outlet for gun violence. If you own a gun you are more likely to commit suicide than if you don’t.” Even so, Mosher strongly supports the Second Amendment. “It’s very tricky but I do because if you look at the wording of the Second Amendment it’s the right to bear arms as part of an organized militia, which is designed into the Constitution to help people resist the government ultimately, and I think that’s the important part of the Second Amendment, is that it provides a way for citizens to resist a government that they oppose and that’s important. That’s part of what America is and I don’t think we can lose that.” He says he is open to a stricter interpretation of the Second Amendment that only allows gun ownership for militia members. “There’s nothing about protecting your right to hunt in the Second Amendment.”

Gun violence in America can arguably be classified as an epidemic and the current trajectory we’re on as a nation seems to be creating a greater gap among those on opposite ends of the gun violence and gun ownership debate. Nevertheless, something significant must change for the situation to improve, and Mosher’s pieces may just be the artistic tools needed to facilitate dialogues aimed at reducing gun violence in America. In addition to the plaster casts of 9mm gun cartridges, Mosher’s other installation is a map of the U.S. showing the six states where mass murders have taken place recently. The six states—Minnesota, Texas, Florida, Alabama, Kansas and Mississippi—are outlined with white plaster 9mm guns.

There are two other Resident Artists at Sculpture Space also undertaking significant work to improve humanity. Brooklyn resident Vanessa Albury traveled all the way to the Arctic to take photos of glaciers to highlight climate change. Her piece titled, Arctic Future Relics is a stark reminder of the sacredness of the Arctic glaciers and its susceptibility. Albury developed her photos in a dark room on a sailboat in the Arctic. “The pictures are not just a window into the world but what holds the image is the vulnerability aspect involved. The pictures mirror the vulnerability of the glaciers. They represent relics of the future…they’ll be gone one day.”

Balam Bartolome of Mexico City is the other Resident Artist with an installation he calls, Ritual Objects. He says his aim is to honor the magic of the universe by connecting culture and art using ritualistic objects. “I’m trying to reconnect magic and culture through art. Art is an act of love and that’s magic, I think.”

The artists and their installations can be found at Sculpture Space.

 

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Freeman’s Barbershop Is Closing Its Doors And A Cultural Chapter Of American Lives

 

BY JEANETTE LENOIR

 

Black barber shops in the U.S. represent a unique and significant component of African American culture. It’s a place similar to a church where folks gather to share stories, strengthen community bonds all while getting their hair cut and styled as needed. The black barber shop is more than its namesake and Freeman’s Barber Shop in Utica is right in line with this cultural designation. Even so, times have changed drastically and the closing of Freeman’s Barber Shop is a sad reminder that the people have to. Freeman sufficiently captures this shifting cultural change when he says, “The people at that time, their words were their bond. What they said, they meant it. And, I didn’t have to worry about putting what they owe me in the book or anything because on Friday afternoon or Saturday morning, they was here, taking care of business…it’s a lot different from now.”

Henry Freeman was born in Alabama but has called Utica, NY home since 1960. And, after 57-years in business, he’s closing his long-standing barbershop. He says, “Everything is beginning to come to a close…I’m retiring this year. Age is telling me to retire.” Freeman moved to Utica because he had family in the area. He says he’s had many ups and downs  during his years in business and living in upstate, NY but attributes his longevity to his spirituality and faith in God. When he was held at gunpoint and robbed in his barber shop he remained resolute in his determination to continue his work, which he calls “a gift from God.” He said, “God was on my side. He put me here and he took care of me. I had ups and downs but I know having downs is part of life, it’s part of the learning process. That’s what I figured it was.”

Freeman didn’t set out to be a barber. He went to school to be a mechanic but due to an illness had to readjust his life’s path, which led him to becoming a barber, but not just any barber…Freeman became a fixture and pillar of strength and support in the lives of many black families in Utica. “Sometimes it gets hard for me to talk about because I get emotional,” he says. One of his loyal customers, George Gaston says, “He’s always been part of the community that we’ve all cling to. We come here and we have our conversations, we laugh, we talk, we have a good time. We look out for each other, we look after each other and that’s why he’s been a pillar of the community.”

Freeman says he worries about the future of black barber shops and the legacy attached to them and it being carried on by the next generation. “Each generation has a certain part they have to play…if they don’t play it, we’ll fall. So, I try to set an example for the younger people to come around because somebody’s got to take my place. They might not say they want to but each generation has to step in to take somebody else’s place because we’re not going to be here always…so, we got to have somebody else come along and carry on what we started. If they don’t, it’ll be lost.”

Freeman had hoped to pass along his shop to his own children but says the real fear of getting robbed again remains a deterrent. In the meantime, this chapter in the lives of three generations of Uticans is inching to a close. During this interview with him at his barber shop he shared many stories of his engagement with the community he has served for nearly sixty years. “Parents would drop off their children and come back to pick them up in a couple of hours or so and they expected them to behave while they waited their turn to sit in my chair and I never had any problems with unruly children.”

Freeman’s Barber Shop is one of the last remaining reminders of a long gone era. The Project’s that sat behind his building near the train tracks have all been torn down and the community dispersed. And, until now, Mr. Freeman has remained in his spot cutting hair for generations of people that have come through his doors. He says it’s with a heavy heart he’s closing his shop but the time to retire is upon him. His last day of service is May 27. The closing of his barber shop is a stark reminder of an ever changing American culture and that the only certainty in life is change. With any luck, the inevitability of change won’t negatively impact black barber shops that remain a culturally significant part of African American lives, especially in Utica, NY.

 

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LA’s Gay Men Of Color Are Tackling Discrimination Within The LGBTQ Community

BY JEANETTE LENOIR

 

Anthony Emeka is an accomplished gay man of color who’s had it with the stereotypes, the club scenes, the intolerance, and the preconceived notions of the gay community. And, he’s doing something about it. He says in addition to dealing with societal pressures and the tribulations affecting the gay community, there’s something else that persistently rears its ugly head within the LGBTQ world; bigotry. “There’s a lot of racism within the gay community and we have to create our own space outside of White gay men,” he explains.

The new space he’s referring to is called The Baldwin Gentlemen, a social organization exclusively for professional gay men of color, defined as Black, Latino, Asian, South Asian, Native American, Middle Eastern men and also those who racially or ethnically identify as being a man of color. “Essentially, any man who has been on the receiving end of racial discrimination or bigotry within the LGBTQ community,” and who identifies with the prolific author, civil rights icon and powerful orator James Baldwin. Emeka says the aim is not just to host social events but to raise awareness about what gay men of color experience specifically in LA, but also across America within the gay community. “I’m really hoping that not only are we able to educate people and tell them the specifics and anything in between of the professional gay men of color but also to let individuals know that we are far, far from solving the societal situation. We’re dealing with issues like homosexuality and race and we don’t have a handle on either of these issues so we hope to raise awareness while also simultaneously developing and educating people what this community of Baldwin will look like moving forward,” he says.

So, what’s it like being a professional Black gay man in LA, and perhaps all across America, within the LGBTQ community? Emeka compares it to being invisible.  “I’m clearly invisible. I’m not a White male. And that’s what Baldwin is here to address…often times we are not received in the community because we are gay and often times even within the LGBTQ community we aren’t received because we are of color. That’s what we want to address; the intersection of what it means to be a gay male and what it means to be a gay man of color.” He says it means seeing the world and experiencing the world in a unique way because often times it’s lonely, especially when he finds himself being the only Black male in a professional setting or role, but also the only gay Black man in that professional role or setting. “I feel a sense of loneliness; I feel a sense of indirectly being represented negatively of this community that is still so foreign to people. They’re like, ‘oh we know Black people, we don’t know gay Black people’ and so often times I did find myself feeling alone.”

He says there is a lot of emotional trauma that goes along with being gay, whether it’s coming out to your family, or living a life that isn’t necessarily easy to come out, or coming out and being rejected.  “Losing friends, losing family because of coming out.” He says even having to put on a facade when applying for a job, going to school, or simply being in a room full of people can be stressful. “It’s all about how am I going to present myself to not be scary, to not be foreign, to not be other.” Adding to the emotional trauma many Black gay men experience is the conservative stance within the Black community on the subject of homosexuality. “It’s not something we really talk about because it’s not very comfortable. I think as it relates to racial equality and racial equity, that’s something that Black people wanted, but anything outside of that specifically there’s a lot of contentious thinking within the Black community and it stems from the role of Christianity within our community,” he says.

The Baldwin Gentlemen is a member’s only club exclusively for gay men of color and Emeka says it’s specifically designated as such to combat the racism many of them experience within the LGBTQ community. He says, “We talk about gay rights but that doesn’t necessarily include me.” He says even with California’s leading status in the push for gay rights with groups like Log Cabin Republicans the concern was “about these White gay men in San Francisco. They weren’t concerned about Latinos, Asians or Blacks who were also going to benefit from that.” He says even gay women often times don’t feel welcomed in the spaces supposedly designated for the gay community because it’s all about the gay White men. “When we talk about LGBTQ, we’re not talking about anything other than the G.”

A June 2016 article by Queerty aptly titled, “Is This The Brutal Truth White Gay Men Refuse To Hear?” addresses this very issue. The article also highlights a report by Matthew Rodriguez, a gay Latino man who talks about the blatant racism he experiences on dating sites like Grindr. The messages shared on some of these dating sites explicitly express a disdain for mainly Black and Asian men. “Not Into Black or Asian” or “Let’s keep it White or Latin, Thanks,” are just a couple of examples on these dating sites of the blatant rejection Emeka is describing and hoping to combat by creating a space exclusively for those on the outside of the gay community that touts itself as accepting and inclusive of all gay people. It’s one thing to have a certain preference in lovers but it’s another thing all together when these preferences are hurled like Molotov cocktails at people already dealing with a cruel and intolerable world.

“We have to create our own space. We have to tell our own stories. We have to be able to come together as a collective, as a group of people who are outside of the LGBTQ community, which are typically White gay men. And, we have to do things for ourselves and this is what it’s about,” Emeka said. In addition to raising awareness about the plights of gay men of color within the LGBTQ community, the group says the club is also about developing organic relationship that are largely missing from the social media space, the bar and club space and the app hook-up culture. “We’re creating an alternative base for professional gay men of color to get together and be amongst people like themselves.”

There is an annual cost to join The Baldwin Gentlemen including a smaller cost to attend events. The official launch of The Baldwin Gentlemen is taking place on Thursday in LA. The View From Here: Experiences of Gay Men of Color in LA kicks off at 7:00 pm in Santa Monica with a panel discussion with the following prominent and accomplished speakers: Yolo Akili Robinson, Nijeul X. Porter, Dominick Bailey and Thornell Jones, Jr. “The event itself is really just to get the word out about Baldwin; who we are, what we stand for, and how we intent to develop our community,” Emeka says. The event is sponsored by Philosophie, Revry, and Alloy Wine Works. Additional Baldwin groups led by ambassadors will be opening up in Oakland, Montreal and Toronto.

Wrestlemania Represents A Symbolic Trait Of Many American Men

BY JEANETTE LENOIR

 

Tough, massive, strapping, powerful men, (and some women) ready to rip your head off…that’s essentially what Wrestlemania is in a nut shell. All of these characteristics are wrapped up in the WWE world despite it being a highly choreographed and strategic performance complete with moves like the Pile Driver, The Peoples Elbow, Leg Drops and Rock Bottoms. The wrestlers and the folks running the show already know the outcome before the frenzied fans do. Nonetheless, many people, particularly men, just about foam at the mouth trying to be a part of the action that is Wrestlemania.

American men, and perhaps men around the world who have come to love this unique part of American culture, identify with this symbol of strength and might. The image of the strapping man making his way towards the ring is the epitome of might and American men eat it up like candy because that’s what many of them see themselves as. Nothing else seems to matter except the display of strength and all that is perceived as manliness in the wrestling world. Wrestlemania fulfills the dreams of millions around the world but especially American men whose identity is wrapped up in that symbol of might.

Wrestlemania 33 took place at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Florida this year with record number crowds, and the wrestlers didn’t disappoint. Even John Cena decided to propose to his long-time girlfriend, one of the Bella twins also of the wrestling world, during the hyped event. Manhattan bar and restaurant Legends is known for hosting monthly viewings of wrestling shows and today’s crowd surpassed the 700 reservations they received. A group called, YEP! I Like Wrestling (YEPILW), are the organizers behind the monthly events. Sir Wilkins is a member of the organization and was in full Randy Savage costume corralling wrestling fans to their seats in the packed establishment. Justifying its significance as part of American culture, he says, “Wrestlemania is the Super Bowl of wrestling; it’s pop culture, it’s been around for over 20 years. It’s on ESPN, it’s on MTV, it’s on everything, even sneakers.”

The line outside the establishment was a long one full of cheering men and women ready for the showdown. They chanted and cheered whenever another reveler showed up in a costume or some other artifact of the thing they love the most; wrestling. To many, Wrestlemania is part of what it means to be a tough and strong American man, keeping its popularity high and steadily growing. It was certainly pandemonium across the country as folks ushered in one of America’s favorite pastime. Wrestlemania is here to stay.