(BALTIMORE – January 2. 2019) – I’ve been writing these end-of-year columns for a number of years and it gets increasingly difficult to narrow the list. So, let me start with the simple disclaimer: You may agree or disagree with the stories I selected. Please feel free to go ahead and create your own list.
2018 had number of twists and turns. A lot of the year was summed up by the loss of innocence and those who were sound tracks to our lives, like Aretha Franklin. There was way too much focus on the domestic issues and not enough on external issues which have an indirect affect, i.e. Mexico/Europe/Middle East/Africa.
As a journalist, I can tell you that a number of my colleagues died at the hands of people who would like to silence our work. The Committee to Protect Journalists said 53 journalists around the world died in 2018. The attack on the Capital Gazette Newspaper staff (5 people) in Annapolis (where I work for four months of the year) makes me think.
Nevertheless, my cynicism is checked by a continued optimism.
(#10) Trap Music – You’ve heard it and probably didn’t understand it if you’re over thirty. I’ll try to explain but there will be music critics who will take exception to my personal explanation. It’s the natural progression of music coming from the “Dirty South,” including Atlanta. As with most new musical genres in the current environment, it draws heavily on a particular beat, subtle keyboards and a steady thumpin’ bassline. The raps aren’t as form fitting as much as they play off of sounds like “skirrrr, skrettt, yo, dot-dot etc…” For a while it was confined to Strip Clubs, but it has gone mainstream (Mountain Dew ad contains the song – Can’t Do Drip-Drip). Current artists using this art form include the Migo’s, 2-Chainz, Cardi B, Young Thug and Quavo (and others). Some of the reigning kings of Hip-Hop, Drake and Lil Wayne, have laced their tracks with the sound. The creator is a young white guy from Canada who goes by the name of Murda-Beatz. Like Rick Rubin of Def Jam, the “white dude” would seem out of place, but knows how to make music. The man has an ear for music of this generation which he apparently can drop quicker than most producers.
(#9) Ebony Owes – Full disclosure: I worked for Ebony/Jet during the Freddie Gray Trials. A number of my friends also penned pieces for the magazine/online site. During my short tenure, the revered magazine was brought by a pair of venture capitalists. While most welcomed the stability and the magazine’s attempt to exploit the online era, I was disappointed when scheduled payments were not received in a timely fashion (I did get paid). This affected a number of people in literally life-threatening ways. It took a lawsuit to get the company to pay up and they still missed several payments. My late friend, Rashod Ollison, who could have used the payment got his check but it came after they buried him.
(#8) Science/History and Black People – This year, I heard (and you likely heard) some of the stupidest things from people you like and had to say, “Aw Naw.” Where do I begin? Kyrie Irving of the Boston Celtics, trying to clean-up his conspiracy theory suggestion, “The world is flat because you can’t see beyond the horizon.” Seriously. Kayne West telling TMZ, “Slavery was a choice,” and the ultimate follow-up in the Oval Office with the President, “The ‘Make America Great Again’ hat gives me power…we need to get rid of the Thirteenth Amendment.” Lastly, Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors suggesting “The moon landing was staged.” Each of these individuals recanted, but can you “please, stay in your lane.”
(#7) Ethiopia/Eretria – The long-simmering feud between these two countries came to end in 2018 with the election of a new Ethiopian Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed. Ethiopia and Eretria had been locked in a cross-border war for 30 years. Eretria declared its independence in 1993. The enmity was palatable. Hundreds fled the war-torn region for the United States (Washington, DC, Los Angeles and Atlanta have large expatriate communities). Old wounds die hard on the African continent. Prime Minister Ahmed, who was much younger, through off the shackles of the past and agreed to meet with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki in the capital, Asamara. Unthinkable. The ending of this war bodes well for other conflicts in Sudan and Somali.
(#6) Losing to Win – As a Black political reporter, I have seen the way elections have shaped this unique landscape going back to Representative Shirley Chisolm’s run for President and laying of the foundation for hundreds of Black politicians in the seventies. Jesse Jackson’s run for President in the eighties paved the way for hundreds of politicians in small towns, large cities, and states to run for office. The election of Barack Obama as President showed people a road to winning. This year, several gubernatorial candidates’ attempts to win governorships were generally close (Stacey Abrahams, Andrew Gillum, Ben Jealous, and Mike Espy). While their loss stings, it will set in motion an unprecedented wave of politicians to seek office across the country and the world.
(#5) Arts/Literature – Since the Obama’s are no longer in the “white hot” space of oval office, they have settled into a Georgetown home in Washington, DC only to appear at official functions, lectures and other duties they deem worthy of their time. The unveiling of their official portraits in 2018 was stunning because of the artist renditions of their likeness. Kehinde Wiley painted the President’s portrait and Amy Sherald (she’s a Baltimore artist) used her talents to capture the former First Lady. Each of these painters broke the mold on who they envision this power couple to be. You’ll want to watch what they do in the future. Adding to this was Michelle Obama’s book, Becoming, and the accompanied sold-out book tour. “You’ve got the Midas touch, everything I touch turns to Gold,” from Midnight Star. Honorable mention in the book category was Zora Neal Hurston’s book, Barrcoon: The Story of the Last Black Cargo, a riveting tale which was shelved and brought back to life by Black scholars who felt now was the time.
(#4) Meek Mill – Hip-hop seemed to find its common purpose in rallying behind rapper Meek Mill. Mill, from Philadelphia, was on probation from a 2009 gun charge and drug possession. In the case, a Common Pleas Judge said Mill had violated his probation when he failed a drug test and two other arrests (which were dropped). The judge ordered him re-jailed in November 2017. After several Hip-Hop stars (Jay-Z, T.I and others) rallied to his support, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed to let him out on bond until his case is heard. Mill, who is a 76ers fan, was flown by helicopter to the game and sat courtside with Owner Michael Rubin and Comedian Kevin Hart. Mill knows he’s been given a second chance: ”To the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office, I’m grateful for your commitment to justice — not only for my case, but for others that have been wrongfully jailed due to police misconduct.”
(#3) Covering POTUS – From his often heard refrain of “fake news,” his public put downs of reporters, and of course his banning of a CNN Reporter at the White House (which was overturned), it’s been a year like no other. Then at a White House press briefing and a press scrum before departing on Marine One, POTUS targeted three African-American female reporters on November 10th and 11th for their questions: American Urban Radio’s April Ryan, PBS’s Yamiche Alcindor, and CNN’s Abby Phillip. Let’s put some facts on the table first. There aren’t enough people of color asking the POTUS questions. These three ladies are seasoned veterans. The fact he went specifically after them says a lot. Lastly, I am alarmed by the number of reporters, news organizations and networks who’ve been targeted by mentally unstable individuals (and yes I think the President feeds their thinking). This year, I looked over my shoulder a little more often and watched who was following me online. I will continue this practice going into 2019.
(#2) Voter Suppression – It is real, it’s sophisticated, and cunning. After the amazing voter turnout of the Black electorate during the Obama years, a number of GOP operatives began to devise ways to suppress and counter “get out the vote” activities. It starts with limiting the number of early voting days, especially Sunday voting. This was known as “Souls to the Polls.” The next were nefarious attempts to bring photo identification to polls and make it more difficult to get the proper identification. The inability of formerly incarcerated people to get their franchise back (Florida passed a constitutional voter referendum which will give thousands the right to vote). The last tactic was voter purges (those who hadn’t voted for a year(s) before an election were wiped from rolls). We now know it was much more sophisticated. Sources indicate that “Russian Troll Farms” used social media to sow distrust in the voting system specifically targeting African-Americans to depress vote totals. This year, we learned a North Carolina man (and others) collected absentee ballots from a number of Democrats (mostly Black) and changed their selections to a Republican or destroyed ballots. The GOP, for all of its get tough on “voting fraud” rhetoric, is deftly silent. Where is the outcry and why isn’t someone in jail for voter fraud?
(#1) Black Life is Complicated – If you’re Black, you already know this. If you aren’t, the explanations I lay out will seem like contradictions. For multiple generations, African-American parents and those with children who are conceived from mixed race couples have had to draw fine lines. We welcome you into the world with hundreds of possibilities and unlimited potential, then you have to go outside. “The talk” is so familiar that you know it goes with the territory. This year, there were not so subtle reminders from various white women calling police on Black people; the targeting of Black people by racists with guns in Kentucky; and the most recent incident of a young man having his dreadlocks cut in order to compete in a wrestling tournament (which he won). The racism and white superiority conversation are real, and can’t be covered up by “just get over it.” Conversely, we saw the largest grossing film with a nearly an all-Black cast, Black Panther, set a new standard (with more to come). The impresarios of style and culture maybe the Hip-Hop couple Beyonce and Jay-Z. Still, there are hundreds of young men dying in this country at the hands of people who look like them over trivial matters because essentially “life is cheap.” I continue to believe the glass is half-empty and “we need more water.”
“Person of the Year”: James Shaw, Jr.
Shaw, from Nashville, like so many of his age (29-years-old) had finished a night of hanging out with friends at a nightclub. They decided to get breakfast. At 3:15 am, he was not alone when he entered a Waffle House in Antioch, Tennessee. It was filled with conversations over the order taking, the grill sizzle, and the clanking of dishes. Outside was Travis Reinking (a white man) who was sitting in his pickup truck with a AR-15 rifle. His intention was to kill as many people as possible in the restaurant (4 died in the shooting). When he started shooting, Shaw ducked behind a swinging door leading to the restroom. He had been grazed but saw his opportunity when the shooting stopped. “I kind of made up my mind, because there was no way to lock that door, that if it was going to come down to it, he was going to have to work to kill me.” He rushed the shooter, taking the rifle, tossing it over the counter. The shooter would flee. After being treated at an area hospital, a woman who also was at the Waffle House, told him, “You saved my life,” according to a newspaper report. Walt Ehmer, the president and chief executive of Waffle House said, “You don’t get to meet many heroes in life, Mr. Shaw, but you are a hero. You are my hero.”
Yes, Shaw prevented others from being killed. He’s been honored by the State of Tennessee, the City of Nashville, his alma mater (Tennessee State), his fraternity (Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc., of which I’m a member), and others. He has taken his celebrity and created a foundation to help others. This act has changed a young man’s trajectory for good. In the year 2018, James Shaw is my “Person of the Year”.