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AfroComicCon offers a platform for diversity in pop culture

NNPA NEWSWIRE — One relatively unsung product of Oakland’s liberal sway is the founder of the annual AfroComicCon, Michael James. Now in its third iteration, AfroComicCon is a three-day event showcasing comic books and pop culture related to (but assuredly not limited to) the African Diaspora.

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“(Convention-goers can) come away with a sense of ownership and collaboration.” —AfroComicCon founder Michael James. (Photo: Afro ComicCon)

By Gregg Reese, Our Weekly Contributor, with additional reporting by Stacy M. Brown, NNPA Newswire Senior Correspondent

The Bay Area is the most progressive bastion of the historically liberal state of California (although the sweep towards gentrification may soon turn the political tide in the opposite direction) and none of the cities and towns within it upholds the standard of progressiveness higher than the East Bay municipality of Berkeley.

One relatively unsung product of its liberal sway is the founder of the annual AfroComicCon, Oakland’s Michael James. Now in its third iteration, AfroComicCon is a three-day event showcasing comic books and pop culture related to (but assuredly not limited to) the African Diaspora.

The event is held in the cities of Oakland and neighboring Emeryville, California and aims to be an inclusive entity as opposed to other, similar conventions geared towards special groups and demographics. It is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization affiliated with the Oakland Technology and Education Center.

Comic book conventions showcase comic books and related areas of entertainment, and feature exhibits, panels, and features of interest.

Initially, low-brow affairs concentrating solely on comics and special interest groups (the first San Diego Comic-Con was held in a hotel basement with perhaps 300 people in 1970), these “cons” have mushroomed to multi-genre affairs drawing tens of thousands of participants and showcasing gaming, sci-fi, horror, and other facets of pop culture.

Film and television companies use these venues to showcase their wares and gauge public response to shows prior to general release.

Monetarily, they are a financial windfall, generating millions in revenue and contributing significantly to the surrounding community’s economy. A major component of these events is the practice of cosplay, in which fans dress up as their favorite superheroes and animated characters.

Growing Pains

The story behind AfroComicCon can be traced back to the roots of its founder. James came up under the sway of Oakland’s Allen Temple Baptist Church and its progressive pastor, the Rev. J. Alfred Smith, Sr. Among the luminaries passing through its portals were former Congressman and Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums, and civil rights activists the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton.

The seeds of social liberalism firmly planted, young James graduated from UC Davis, with a bachelor’s in Environmental Planning to begin his tenure in corporate America, a period he found stifling and restrictive.

The millennium era found him politicized through work with various non-profit concerns and travels overseas where he participated in the 2007 release of South African dissident Nelson Mandela. These events were intertwined by his work to promote computer literacy among the Bay Area’s disadvantaged during a period where he became disenchanted with the educational system’s methodology in distributing state and federal funding to the community. During this time, he had been involved in a successful literacy program under the umbrella of UC Berkeley.

The experience soured him, however, as he saw how the non-profit apparatus worked. He did quite well with the $850,000 allotted to his program until he found out it was just part of the $7 million the university was receiving over a seven-year period.

A series of discussions he had with like-minded people, and a chance visit to the San Diego Comi-con (the benchmark for all such gatherings), spawned the nucleus of what would become the AfroComicCon, a platform in which to promote reading through graphic novels, comic books, and other paraphernalia.

Supporting him and co-founding AfroComicCon with him since the beginning has been a kindred spirit and fellow Berkeley High School alum, Hally Bellah-Guther.

A career professional dancer in the United States and in Europe, Bellah-Guther, who has taught ballet and fitness locally for 20 years, was a passionate volunteer and board member of D.U.S.T.Y. (Oakland Technology & Education Center) and had been Michael’s partner working on literacy and arts programs since 2012. She caught the bug and became completely devoted to the project. She has been overseeing every aspect of AfroComicCon since prepping for the first year because it combined two passions of hers: the arts and the fight against injustice and inequity.

By 2017, they’d secured enough funding to compile a shoestring budget, and they were ready to mount the first tentative steps towards realizing the vision.

The Chance for Inclusion

They had no intention of replicating the success of the decades-old Comic-con (convention-goers this past summer for that event reached in excess of 130,000), but in their inaugural staging, they attracted some 400 to 500 attendees, a more than respectable gathering, considering their resources and financial limitations.

Among the notables on hand to greet visitors were special effects wizard Christa Burton (“Iron Man,” “The Lone Ranger,” and “Transformers”); movie producer and Vice President of Programming at BOUNCE TV Ri-Karlo Handy; Sifu Kisu martial arts choreographer for Avatar: The Last Air Bender; Power Rangers, and other major motion pictures; and television writer Ty Scott (“CSI: Miami” and “Saints and Sinners”).

“Everyone has a story and we can all be superheroes in our own right,” says James, as an explanation for the interest in this new and novel venue for popular culture.

Attendance for the next calendar year 2018 increased to 1000 plus. Among those appearing for the 2019 AfroComicCon were writer/producer Rodney Barnes (“American Gods,” “The Boondocks,” “Everybody Hates Chris, “ and the upcoming “Wu-Tang: An American Saga”); spoken word poet, street lit author and UC Berkeley professor Aya de Leon; and actress Onika Day (“Orange is the New Black,” “Wu-Tang: An American Saga”).

In keeping with AfroComicCon’s pledge of inclusion, guests consisted of Lebanese director of photography Jean-Claude Kalache of Pixar, and Vietnamese American filmmaker and theater director Khai Thu Nguyen (who helped judge the film competition).

As in past years, the convention sought to provide a wide variety of educational and interactive experiences meant to engage the whole family. These included a fashion show mounted by Jasline Berry (fashionista and Afro-renaissance woman) and James Head (costume designer for rapper M.C. Hammer), promotion by and about the gaming industry, and other venues to prompt event-goers to, in James’ words, “move away from commercialism that doesn’t support us.”

FLASH- Fit Like A Super Hero- which was spearheaded by Bellah-Guther since 2018, includes multi-disciplines to encourage the public to engage in healthier lifestyles through physical activity and healthy diets. A notable component in this is a demonstration of Brazilian martial arts, Malandro Mandingo: The Body Magic of Capoeira. There has also been Hip Hop and Turf Dance, Worldbeat/Salsa and Kung fu demos and classes and performances.

An attendee who has transitioned from volunteer to active participation, comic book creator and graphic artist “Sketch” Smith now serves as AfroComicCon’s art director, web designer, and all-around gadfly.

“I try to help out in any capacity that I can,” she says.

An attendee of similar events prior to joining AfroComicCon, she notes that they were generally slanted towards a heterosexual White male demographic, to the exclusion of minorities and women.

A Bay Area transplant who is opening up her own brick and mortar book store (“Hella Novella” at 2301 Mission Street in San Francisco), Smith sees this undertaking as a sanctuary for “geeks” like herself who have never fit in at any of the other conventions she’s attended as the “odd person out.” It is a relief from the overwhelming xenophobia she’s experienced as a Black woman, and she cherishes the shared cultural experience that AfroComicCon offers (for more on Sketch, visit http://www.sketchsmith.com/).

Inclusion for Everyone

“(Convention-goers can) come away with a sense of ownership and collaboration.”
—AfroComicCon founder Michael James.

While AfroComicCon takes place within the confines of the Bay Area and is primarily meant, in the words on its Facebook page, “…to empower artists who have been denied access to equal opportunity,” everyone cordially received an invite.

For more information, visit the website at www.afrocomiccon.org or call (510) 333-9653.

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Black Woman to Lead United States Park Police

 Chief Smith’s experience serving in leadership roles in every U.S. Park Police field office has provided her with an unmatched foundation to lead the diverse agency,” said Flynn, who oversees law enforcement programs at USPP.

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Pamela A. Smith

Pamela A. Smith, a 23-year veteran of the United States Park Police, will lead the nation’s oldest federal law enforcement agency.

Smith, who became the first African American woman to lead the 230-year-old agency, immediately remarked that she would establish a body-worn camera program for USPP within 90 days.

The program will initially begin in San Francisco and be implemented across the country by the end of the year, Smith said.

“Body-worn cameras are good for the public and good for our officers, which is why I am prioritizing implementing a body-worn camera program within my first 90 days,” Smith offered in a statement.

 “This is one of the many steps we must take to continue to build trust and credibility with the public we have been entrusted to serve.”

Smith earned a bachelor’s degree in Education from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and graduated from the FBI National Academy. She is a member of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives and the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

During her law enforcement career, the proud Zeta Phi Beta Sorority sister has served as a patrol officer, field training officer, canine handler, and academy instructor at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center.

 According to a news release, Smith also served as executive lieutenant to the chief of police, assistant commander of the San Francisco Field Office, commander of the New York Field Office, acting deputy chief of the Homeland Security Division, and deputy chief for the Field Operations Division.

Smith was the first woman to lead the New York Field Office as its Major.

At the USPP, she will lead a 560-member workforce that protects the public, parks, and the nation’s most iconic landmarks in Wash., D.C., New York City, and San Francisco metropolitan areas.

“Chief Smith’s commitment to policing as public service and her willingness to listen and collaborate make her the right person to lead the U.S. Park Police at this pivotal moment in our country,” Shawn Benge, deputy director exercising the delegated authority of the NPS director, noted in a statement.

 “Over the coming months, the leadership of the National Park Service will explore opportunities with Chief Smith designed to strengthen our organization’s commitment to transparency. Her personal and professional experience make her acutely aware of and ready to meet the challenges and responsibilities that face U.S. Park Police and law enforcement agencies across the nation.”

 Jennifer Flynn, the associate director for Visitor Resource Protection at the National Park Service added that she’s looking forward to Smith’s leadership.

“Chief Smith’s experience serving in leadership roles in every U.S. Park Police field office has provided her with an unmatched foundation to lead the diverse agency,” said Flynn, who oversees law enforcement programs at USPP.

 “As federal law enforcement officers, the U.S. Park Police officers have a new opportunity each day to give their best to the American people. Chief Smith exemplifies that approach as a colleague and mentor, and she will be instrumental in refining and shaping the future of the organization,” Flynn said.

Smith declared that she would lead by example and expects all officers to display integrity.

 “I have dedicated my career to the professionalism of law enforcement, and it is my highest honor and privilege to serve as chief of police,” Chief Smith declared. “Today’s officers face many challenges, and I firmly believe challenges present opportunities. I look forward to leading this exemplary team as we carry out our mission with honesty and integrity.”  

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Children’s Defense Fund: State of America’s Children Reveals that 71 Percent of Children of Color Live in Poverty

“While we reported on the 73 million children in the U.S. in 2019, which is 22 percent of the nation’s population, we also note that 2020 was the first year in American history that a majority of children are projected to be children of color,” said the Rev. Dr. Starsky Wilson, the president and CEO of the Children’s Defense Fund.

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Dr. Wilson did note that the Children’s Defense Fund is pleased about President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan, which, among other things, makes it easier for parents to keep their jobs and provides a lifeline for disadvantaged children. (Photo: iStockphoto / NNPA)
Dr. Wilson did note that the Children’s Defense Fund is pleased about President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan, which, among other things, makes it easier for parents to keep their jobs and provides a lifeline for disadvantaged children. (Photo: iStockphoto / NNPA)

Part One of an ongoing series on this impactful and informative report.

By Stacy M. Brown, NNPA Newswire Senior National Correspondent
@StacyBrownMedia

The child population in America is the most diverse in history, but children remain the poorest age group in the country with youth of color suffering the highest poverty rates.

“While we reported on the 73 million children in the U.S. in 2019, which is 22 percent of the nation’s population, we also note that 2020 was the first year in American history that a majority of children are projected to be children of color,” said the Rev. Dr. Starsky Wilson, the president and CEO of the Children’s Defense Fund.

Dr. Wilson’s remarks come as the Marian Wright Edelman founded nonprofit released “The State of America’s Children 2021.”

The comprehensive report is eye-opening.

It highlights how children remain the poorest age group in America, with children of color and young children suffering the highest poverty rates. For instance, of the more than 10.5 million poverty-stricken children in America in 2019, approximately 71 percent were those of color.

The stunning exposé revealed that income and wealth inequality are growing and harming children in low-income, Black and Brown families.

While the share of all wealth held by the top one percent of Americans grew from 30 percent to 37 percent, the share held by the bottom 90 percent fell from 33 percent to 23 percent between 1989 and 2019.

Today, a member of the top 10 percent of income earners makes about 39 times as much as the average earner in the bottom 90 percent.

The median family income of White households with children ($95,700) was more than double that of Black ($43,900), and Hispanic households with children ($52,300).

Further, the report noted that the lack of affordable housing and federal rental assistance leaves millions of children homeless or at risk of homelessness.

More than 1.5 million children enrolled in public schools experienced homelessness during the 2017-2018 school year, and 74 percent of unhoused students during the 2017-2018 school year were living temporarily with family or friends.

Millions of children live in food-insecure households, lacking reliable access to safe, sufficient, and nutritious food, and more than 1 in 7 children – 10.7 million – were food insecure, meaning they lived in households where not everyone had enough to eat.

Black and Hispanic children were twice as likely to live in food-insecure households as White children.

The report further found that America’s schools have continued to slip backwards into patterns of deep racial and socioeconomic segregation, perpetuating achievement gaps.

For instance, during the 2017-2018 public school year, 19 percent of Black, 21 percent of Hispanic, and more than 26 percent of American Indian/Alaska Native school students did not graduate on time compared with only 11 percent of White students.

More than 77 percent of Hispanic and more than 79 percent of Black fourth and eighth grade public school students were not proficient in reading or math in 2019, compared with less than 60 percent of White students.

“We find that in the course of the last year, we’ve come to the point where our conversations about child well-being and our dialogue and reckoning around racial justice has really met a point of intersection, and so we must consider child well-being in every conversation about racial justice and quite frankly you can only sustainably speak of racial justice if we’re talking about the state of our children,” Dr. Wilson observed.

Some more of the startling statistics found in the report include:

  • A White public school student is suspended every six seconds, while students of color and non-White students are suspended every two seconds.
  • Conditions leading to a person dropping out of high school occur with white students every 19 seconds, while it occurs every nine seconds for non-White and students of color.
  • A White child is arrested every 1 minute and 12 seconds, while students of color and non-whites are arrested every 45 seconds.
  • A White student in public school is corporally punished every two minutes, while students of color and non-Whites face such action every 49 seconds.

Dr. Wilson asserted that federal spending “reflects the nation’s skewed priorities.”

In the report, he notes that children are not receiving the investment they need to thrive, and despite making up such a large portion of the population, less than 7.5 percent of federal spending went towards children in fiscal year 2020.

Despite Congress raising statutory caps on discretionary spending in fiscal years 2018 to 2020, children did not receive their fair share of those increases and children’s share of total federal spending has continued to decline.

“Children continue to be the poorest segment of the population,” Dr. Wilson demanded. “We are headed into a dark place as it relates to poverty and inequity on the American landscape because our children become the canary in the coal mine.”

Dr. Wilson did note that the Children’s Defense Fund is pleased about President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan, which, among other things, makes it easier for parents to keep their jobs and provides a lifeline for disadvantaged children.

The $1.9 trillion plan not only contained $1,400 checks for individuals, it includes monthly allowances and other elements to help reduce child poverty.

The President’s plan expands home visitation programs that help at-risk parents from pregnancy through early childhood and is presents universal access to top-notch pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds.

“The American Rescue Plan carried significant and powerful anti-poverty messages that will have remarkable benefits on the lives of children in America over the course of the next two years,” Dr. Wilson declared.

“The Children’s Defense Fund was quick to applaud the efforts of the President. We have worked with partners, including leading a child poverty coalition, to advance the ideas of that investment,” he continued.

“Most notably, the expansion of the child tax credit which has the impact of reducing poverty, lifting more than 50 percent of African American children out of poverty, 81 percent of Indigenous children, 45 percent of Hispanic children. It’s not only good policy, but it’s specifically good policy for Black and Brown children.”

Click here to view the full report.

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She Bought Freedom for Herself and Other Slaves Today a Park is Named in Her Honor

Alethia Browning Tanner saved enough money to purchase her freedom in 1810. “The total amount, thought to have been paid in installments, was $1,400. In 1810, $1,400 was a significant amount; about the equivalent of three years’ earnings for an average skilled tradesperson,” attucksadams.com researchers surmised. 

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Alethia Browning Tanner worked to purchase the freedom of more than 20 of her relatives and neighbors, mostly the family of her older sister Laurana including Laurana herself, her children, and her grandchildren.

In her early years, Alethia Browning Tanner sold vegetables in a produce stall near President’s Square – now known as Lafayette Square – in what is now Northwest Washington, D.C.

According to the D.C. Genealogy Research, Resources, and Records, Tanner bought her freedom in 1810 and later purchased several relatives’ release.

She was the first woman on the Roll of Members of the Union Bethel AME Church (now Metropolitan AME Church on M Street), and Turner owned land and a store at 14th and H Streets, which she left to her nephews – one of whom later sold the property for $100,000.

Named in her honor, the Alethia Tanner Park is located at 227 Harry Thomas Way in Northeast DC.

The park sits near the corner of Harry Thomas Way and Q Street and is accessible by foot or bike via the Metropolitan Branch Trail, just north of the Florida Ave entrances.

“The first Council legislative meeting of Black History Month, the Council took a second and final vote on naming the new park for Alethia Tanner, an amazing woman who is more than worthy of this long-delayed recognition,” Ward 5 Councilman Kenyan McDuffie said in 2020 ahead of the park’s naming ceremony.

“[Her upbringing] itself would be a remarkable legacy, but Ms. Tanner was also active in founding and supporting many educational, religious, and civic institutions,” McDuffie remarked.

“She contributed funds to start the first school for free Black children in Washington, the Bell School. Feeling unwelcome at her predominately segregated church, she & other church members founded the Israel Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. When the church fell on hard times and was sold at auction by creditors, she and her family stepped in and repurchased the church.”

Born in 1781 on a plantation owned by Tobias and Mary Belt in Prince George’s County, Maryland, historians noted that Tanner had two sisters, Sophia Bell and Laurena Cook.

“Upon the death of Mary Pratt (Tobias had predeceased his wife) in 1795, the plantation, known as Chelsea Plantation, was inherited by their daughter Rachel Belt Pratt,” historians wrote.

“Mary Belt’s will stipulated that Laurena be sent to live with a sibling of Rachel Pratt’s while Sophia and Alethia were to stay at the Chelsea Plantation.”

Tanner sold vegetables at the well-known market just north of the White House in Presidents Park. It is possible – and probable – she met Thomas Jefferson there as he was known to frequent the vegetable markets there along with other prominent early Washingtonians, according to historians at attacksadams.com. 

“There are also White House records suggesting she worked for Thomas Jefferson in some capacity, likely doing various housework tasks,” the researchers determined.

Tanner saved enough money to purchase her freedom in 1810. “The total amount, thought to have been paid in installments, was $1,400. In 1810, $1,400 was a significant amount; about the equivalent of three years’ earnings for an average skilled tradesperson,” attucksadams.com researchers surmised.

“Self-emancipation was not an option for all enslaved peoples, but both Alethia and her sister Sophia were able to accomplish this, almost entirely through selling vegetables at the market,” the researchers continued.

“Alethia Tanner moved to D.C. and became one of a significant and growing number of free Black people in the District. In 1800, 793 free Black people were living in D.C.

By 1810, there were 2,549, and by 1860, 11,131 free Black people lived in D.C., more than the number of enslaved peoples.”

Historians wrote that beginning at about 15 years after securing her manumission, Alethia Tanner worked to purchase the freedom of more than 20 of her relatives and neighbors, mostly the family of her older sister Laurana including Laurana herself, her children, and her grandchildren.

All in all, Tanner would have paid the Pratt family well over $5,000. All accomplished with proceeds from her own vegetable market business, they concluded.

“Alethia Tanner, it’s an amazing story of resilience, hard work, and perseverance,” D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation Director Delano Hunter said at the park’s dedication.

“I just learned about this history through this, so it shows how when you name a park, you really educate people on the historical significance.”

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