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On Ishmael Reed’s Inclusion and Van Jones’ Amazon Prime

Complain about the media representation of Oakland all you want. Last week, in the national media, Oakland was portrayed as a great place to live, work, and dine, with restaurants where people come up to your table and greet you like a long-lost neighbor. 

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Ishmael Reed/Photo by Emil Guillermo

Complain about the media representation of Oakland all you want. Last week, in the national media, Oakland was portrayed as a great place to live, work, and dine, with restaurants where people come up to your table and greet you like a long-lost neighbor.

That Oakland. You know it? It’s the backdrop of a profile in the New Yorker magazine on Ishmael Reed, novelist, playwright, poet, and resident of Oakland. Hills? Oh no, the flats. Reed is a jazz guy; He B-flat. 

Hopefully, the joker in Reed laughs at that pun. It’s because of Reed that I am a writer. But let me not forget Flossie Lewis, my high school English teacher, and current Oakland resident. Lewis set me up. Reed delivered the punch.  

I first met Reed in St. Louis, Mo., where he was the “artist in residence” for Washington University’s first Writer’s Program. Intended to become a better Iowa Writers Workshop, it had all white writers like William Gass and Stanley Elkin. Reed was the token-in-resident. I was the token minority grad student. When one writer told me to stop writing about my Filipino family, Reed was there to tell me to put them back in. 

That’s what Ishmael did for me. 

The New Yorker profile published on July 19 compelled me to pull out Reed’s work again. “Mumbo Jumbo” (1972) re-read during the pandemic jumps off the page and is funnier than ever. People coming down with a virus that makes people dance the boogie?  It was a finalist for the National Book Award and considered for the Pulitzer Prize. 

The New Yorker also details Reed’s life with his wife, the dancer/choreographer/director Carla Blank, and their daughter, the poet Tennessee Reed. And you’ll learn how the writing all started–as a jazz columnist in the Black press for the Buffalo Empire Star.

That’s the enduring value of the ethnic media, the Black press, and newspapers like the Oakland Post. It’s still a place where diverse voices can let it all out.  

Asked about his legacy, Reed was simple and humble. “I made American literature more democratic for writers from different backgrounds,” he said. “I was part of that movement to be heard.”

I heard that. 

Van Jones’ $100 Millon Speech

Ishmael Reed is one of the only MacArthur Genius grant winners I know.

But Van Jones is the first winner of the Courage and Civility Award, which he received on July 20. Yes, that Van Jones of the Ella Baker Center. Way before CNN. I hope he remembers how he was a guest on my old New California Media roundtable talk TV show on the ethnic media more than 20 years ago on KCSM-TV. 

Because the Courage and Civility Award is $100 million unattached–from Jeff Bezos.

I wasn’t crazy about Richard Branson’s flight, so you know I’m not out-of-this-world over Bezos’s 63-mile jaunt, which I call the Neo-Space Age’s white flight. You can go beyond the suburbs.
Bezos has been hammered over not paying his taxes, and how spending billions of dollars into space travel during a time of real humanitarian need on Earth is on its face one word–obscene.

To his credit, he did what all rich people of money do when they stretch the limits of tasteful behavior.

They use their money by giving it away. It’s how the Rockefellers, the Fords, the Sacklers, the Mellons, etc., etc., can live with themselves. Albeit, far away from everyone else. Hence, the Courage and Civility Award. 

Jones was gracious about the hun mill gift. 

“I haven’t always been courageous,” said Jones.  “But I know people who are. They get up every day on the frontlines of grassroots communities. They don’t have much. But they’re good people and they fight hard. And they don’t have enough support.”
All true. And then he delivered the penance for Bezos sins.

“Can you imagine,” said Jones. “Grassroots folks from Appalachia, from the Native American reservation, having enough money to be able to connect with the geniuses that disrupted the space industry, disrupted taxis, hotels, and bookstores. Let’s start disrupting poverty. Let’s start disrupting pollution. 

“Start disrupting the $90 billion prison industry together. You take people on the frontlines and their wisdom and their genius and creativity, and you give them a shot. They’re not gonna turn around neighborhoods, they’re gonna turnaround this nation. That’s what’s going to happen.”

Then Jones had this for Bezos. “I appreciate you lifting the ceiling off of people’s dreams,” Jones said, then turned back to us. “Don’t be mad about it when you see somebody reaching for the heavens, be glad to know there’s a lot more heaven to reach for. And we can do that together.”

Bezos’ $100 million doesn’t buy a lot in the space biz. But handing it to Jones? Let’s see the disruptive good it can do on Earth.

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First in a Series on Jobs in Oakland. City Government; Please Do No (More) Harm

Oakland city government declares war on the unemployed. An overstatement? Not really.

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High Quality stock aerial photos of downtown Oakland with Lake Merritt in the foreground.

Oakland city government declares war on the unemployed. An overstatement? Not really.

City administration professes concern for its residents who need help with access to jobs and training, while at the same time failing to issue contracts to the community organizations that stand ready to provide needed services.

The city council approved these contracts in June. As of late September, they have not been issued by the city administration.

Q: What does this mean? A: Non-profit organizations, operating on shoestring budgets in the best of times, have been required to advance their own funds in July, August, and September to serve the unemployed, with no reimbursement by the city because as the administration says, “Your contract has not been signed yet.”

Another impact: the workers who provide front line job services may not receive their paychecks on time…. creating unnecessary instability in their own households.

And who is responsible for issuing these contracts? Yup…it’s the city…. painfully tone deaf to the needs of the community, particularly those on the economic margins. Most of those served with job help are Black and Latinx residents who consistently suffer double digit unemployment. Many are returning home after incarceration.

And for this level of harmful disregard, the city receives  28 percent of scarce job training funds. Astonishing, since the city provides no direct services to job seekers.

As Oakland struggles with its horrific crime wave, it seems that attention would be paid to root causes, joblessness being paramount among them. Instead, the city administration seems intent on hobbling the very groups who stand ready to help. This happens year after year…. with no apparent consequences to an impenetrable bureaucracy.

Oakland, we can do  better than this.

We must.

The Oakland Post’s coverage of local news in Alameda County is supported by the Ethnic Media Sustainability Initiative, a program created by California Black Media and Ethnic Media Services to support community newspapers across California.

 

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Let’s Talk Black Education; Governor Newsom Should Close the Vaccination Loophole for School Employees

It leaves the rest of us — including the students — without a teacher, cafeteria worker, or janitorial staff. We have to throw on five or six hats in order to ensure that our students are educated.

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Let's Talk Black Education with Margaret Fortune

The honeymoon is over in communities where the Delta variant has taken hold.

Since back-to-school, I’ve spent weeks filling in for principals, supervising children, checking children’s temperatures and providing them masks, directing traffic in the parking lot, picking up garbage, wiping down cafeteria tables — all of which are required to run safe schools in these times.

I’ve talked to other heads of schools that can say the same thing or something similar since the start of this school year. The same culprit continues to affect us all — COVID-19. However, normally we have a village to manage these tasks. Now, we don’t.

Staffing shortages are severe and there are no substitutes to be had.

Further aggravating the situation, are public health rules that require paid school staff who test negative for COVID-19 but remain unvaccinated to stay home for 10 days at a time when they are exposed to someone who tests positive.

It leaves the rest of us — including the students — without a teacher, cafeteria worker, or janitorial staff. We have to throw on five or six hats in order to ensure that our students are educated.

Necessary? Yes. Sustainable? No.

Gov. Gavin Newsom took a good first step when he required school employees to be vaccinated, but he left a gaping loophole. He allowed school staff to ‘test out’ of being vaccinated by committing to take a COVID test twice a week.  Then he put the burden on schools to become COVID testing centers overnight for the employees who refuse to get vaccinated.

The result is that these staff who refuse vaccination have to be benched for two weeks every time they get exposed to someone who tests positive for COVID-19. Imagine, if you will, being a part of a 40-person team and every week there are 10 people who are forced to quarantine for two weeks, leaving 30 team members to do the work of 40 during that first week.

That’s one person doing their job and the additional work of three coworkers. These types of staffing outages are debilitating schools across the state. There are news reports of schools having to shut down classrooms for lack of staff.

Some major school systems with the political clout have taken matters into their own hands. Los Angeles Unified, for example, has closed the loophole and is requiring all school employees to be vaccinated.  The state of California should do the same.

California has over 6 million students who can’t afford for us to agree to anything less than 100% vaccination for school employees.

Yes, the policy could force out educators who refuse to get vaccinated but, they won’t be working anyway if they get exposed to a positive case.  Essentially, the unvaccinated have become hard to employ in a school setting.  They can go out at any time and take down our schools with them.

We can’t risk that.

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Pass the Freedom to Vote Act: Time Running Out to Protect Right to Vote in 2022 and Beyond

Ideally, voting rights should be a nonpartisan issue. Congress repeatedly passed extensions of the Voting Rights Act that were signed by Republican presidents. But right-wing politicians and judges have spent years trying to undermine the Voting Rights Act in the name of “states’ rights” or “state sovereignty.”

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US Bill of Rights and Flag with spot lighting

Republican-controlled state legislatures have imposed new voting restrictions. They are getting ready to create more safe congressional seats for Republicans through abusive partisan redistricting. They are undermining faith in elections with false claims about election fraud and demands for fake “audits.”

The good news is that there is new momentum in Congress and a new bill to protect our democracy. We need to get it passed.

The new Freedom to Vote Act would protect the right to vote, end unfair partisan gerrymandering, and shine a light on the flood of dark money that allows billionaires to buy our elections in secret. It includes key sections of the earlier For the People Act, which passed the U.S. House of Representatives but was blocked in the Senate by Republican filibusters.

The Freedom to Vote act also addresses one of the worst things about some of the new voter suppression laws: provisions that give state officials the power to override voters and overturn election results.

There are other good things in the bill. It would make Election Day a federal holiday. Every state would have automatic voter registration, early voting and drop box accessibility. These would be major advances in making voting more accessible to everyone.

Voting rights advocates are rallying support for the Freedom to Vote Act. One of the sponsors, Democratic Sen. Joe Machin of West Virginia, worked hard to come up with a bill that he could support. He still hopes to get some Republican senators to join him.

That is an uphill battle. Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has signaled that no Republican senators will support this compromise. And he will use the Senate’s filibuster rules to prevent the Senate from passing election protections that are supported by huge majorities of the American people—something he has already done with the For the People Act.

Ideally, voting rights should be a nonpartisan issue. Congress repeatedly passed extensions of the Voting Rights Act that were signed by Republican presidents. But right-wing politicians and judges have spent years trying to undermine the Voting Rights Act in the name of “states’ rights” or “state sovereignty.”

With help from right-wing justices on the Supreme Court, states have imposed all kinds of new voting restrictions in recent years.

The number of new restrictive voting laws jumped massively after former President Donald Trump was defeated in last year’s presidential election. Grassroots organizing helped drive strong turnout among Black voters in key states, and Republicans have decided to respond by making it harder for people to register and vote.

That makes it clear that the new voter suppression rules have nothing to do with “election integrity” and everything to do with maintaining power at all costs.

The Constitution very clearly gives the federal government the right to step in when states undermine democracy with restrictive and discriminatory voting rules. That’s what Congress did more than 50 years ago when it passed the Voting Rights Act.

President Joe Biden and Democratic leaders in the U.S. Senate must do whatever it takes to pass the Freedom to Vote Act. With democracy and voting rights at stake, we cannot let Jim Crow-era filibuster rules in the U.S. Senate have the final word.

Ben Jealous serves as president of People For the American Way.

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