How John Seigenthaler created space for people of color to soar

John Seigenthaler in 2005

John Seigenthaler in 2005

Since my last post about who is welcome in what spaces, I’ve been thinking about a particular place and person: The Tennessean newsroom and one of its most amazing inhabitants, John Seigenthaler.

Seigenthaler was, among many other things, the former editor of Nashville’s largest daily newspaper. He died July 11 at the age of 86.

From the spring of 1995 to the fall of 1999, his newsroom on 1100 Broadway was my home. Technically it was no longer his newsroom, but a reporter he’d nurtured was at the helm. But Seigenthaler’s imprint on the culture of the place and space was deep.

Here’s how The Tennessean described him:

Mr. Seigenthaler championed racial equality, both as a journalist and in his job in the Kennedy administration.

…[It] became one of the only Southern newspapers to aggressively cover the fight to end segregation. That was not always popular with hometown readers, particularly the old Southern guard.

The Tennessean covered the downtown lunch counter sit-ins and other stories, when other newspapers wouldn’t, as the civil rights movement swept through the South.

This history was a selling point, particularly as the conditions in the space I occupied in the early 1990s became more and more racially charged.

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Montreal and Bar Louie: Y’all come and y’all stay away

Old_Montreal_CA_in_eveninglightI’ve been thinking about how a community signals who is welcome in what spaces, prompted by a recent trip to Montreal and news reports that a Bar Louie franchise in Minneapolis posted a racist dress code similar to the one posted by Bar Louie here.

First, Montreal. I am smitten with this place. The main reason? Efficient mass transit. The Metro gets you close to most places I’d want to go and everyone is encouraged to walk the rest of the way. My Fitbit saw higher step counts last week than it has all year. When taking the train is faster/cheaper than a cab, you’re #winning.

The streets are clean, the sidewalks well maintained, the parks plentiful, the Jean Talon farmer’s market amazing and the public art everywhere. I stayed mainly in Old Montreal and the Plateau, but nowhere did I feel unsafe. There’s so much foot traffic that I never found myself on a street alone.

As a tourist, I was blissfully unaware of the social ills that I’m sure plague any urban environment, but the TV news had virtually no crime news. In fact, I don’t remember seeing a single “breaking news alert” for any violent incident. (Canada’s strict gun laws work.)

montreal metro mapWe encountered a few rude store clerks, but I attribute that to my complete lack of French vocabulary, aside from that phrase in “Lady Marmalade” that was not appropriate for any of the circumstances I found myself in.

The relative homogeneity of the city’s population (read: very few black and brown people) probably shapes the cultural dynamics there. But simply put, I didn’t feel unwelcome anywhere.

At home, in Memphis, where the city’s baggage is all too familiar, I don’t enjoy that feeling as often as I like.  Efficient mass transit is non-existent. The environment caters to cars and discourages pedestrians. The population is racially diverse but often divided.

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Don’t be sorry for enjoying “Orange Is the New Black”

ORANGEI heart Netflix’s “Orange Is The New Black.” I am rationing out the second season like squares of a pricey chocolate bar – one episode every so often because it deserves to be savored.

True, OITNB wouldn’t have gotten nearly as much attention if the protagonist wasn’t an attractive, blond white woman. The damage done by the private prison industrial complex and America’s vengeful, destructive approach to criminal justice existed long before a nude Piper Kerman squatted and coughed to show she didn’t have any contraband concealed in her lady crevices.

None of this escapes me. But unlike Allison Samuels, a writer whose work I respect, I enjoy the show with no hesitation or regret. (Her story from 2013 is popping up all over my FB feed today, thus this post – which is sort of relevant given the weekend rumor that the show has been canceled. It has not.)

Why doesn’t Samuels indulge in the delight that is OITNB? She explains here on The Daily Beast:

The answer is easy: I’m simply not entertained by shows that feature large numbers of black people exiting, entering, or already in prison….

Until the current criminal-justice system is reformed and states begin spending as much money on early education and inner-city schools as they do to build more and more prisons, I’ll find my entertainment elsewhere.

This brings to mind a favorite saying: When the student is ready, the teacher will come. Maybe for some viewers, OITNB is their teacher, their introduction into criminal justice reform. Continue reading

A judge not moment: Driving a luxury car and getting food stamps.

Stumbled across this piece in The Washington Post. It’s a thoughtful essay about how we look at the poor, written by someone new to being poor.

Darlena Cunha writes:

I grew up in a white, affluent suburb, where failure seemed harder than success.

But life happened to her, her husband and their infant twins and Cunha found herself driving to the food stamps office in her husband’s Mercedes. It’s judgement time.

She continues:

But it wasn’t a toy — it was paid off. My husband bought that car in full long before we met. Were we supposed to trade it in for a crappier car we’d have to make payments on? Only to have that less reliable car break down on us?

More:

The most embarrassing part was how I felt about myself. How I had so internalized the message of what poor people should or should not have that I felt ashamed to be there, with that car, getting food. As if I were not allowed the food because of the car. As if I were a bad person.

You never know what someone’s going through. You don’t. So instead of going to the judge-y place, engage in a creative thinking exercise: Under what circumstances does “whatever behavior that’s really none of your damn business but that you’re about to condemn someone else for doing” make sense?

People – all people – behave in what they believe to be their best interests at the time. It is the mature and empathetic thing to consider other possibilities to explain the scenario that befuddles you.

Or you could mind your own business.

For some interesting details about food stamps – who uses them, are they mostly buying junk food, etc., check out these infographics from The Christian Science Monitor.

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Because ex-offenders need to work too.

Sometimes what I write makes a real difference in someone’s life. Today’s example: A reader saw my column about Charles Hadley’s saga to get a driver license, and was so impressed by Charles’ tenacity that he offered the ex-offender a job. Shout out to Rick Roberson of Universal Glass, who’s hired a few ex-offenders.

Read more here. Continue reading