Sapphire: Life After

There are many writers who have been scribing for years before they suddenly write that one book that gains international notoriety, and the writer becomes an instant celebrity.  This is what happened to Ramona Lofton, or better known to the world as her pen name Sapphire.  The writer had been established in New York’s poetry scene long before publishing her groundbreaking book, Push, in 1996.  The story is about Claireece "Precious" Jones, an abused 16-year-old black teen living in 1980s Harlem.  The book arose from Sapphire’s own experience working with at-risk youth during that time.

The book was adapted into Lee Daniels’ 2009 Academy Award-winning film Precious.  However, with praise also came criticism about the portrayal of black women in the film version.  I talked to Sapphire at the Harlem Book Fair where she was doing a reading about the film’s backlash, what is great writing and what she is writing about these days.

 Many black critics highlighted at the time of the film’s release that it portrayed the black family as dysfunctional, especially the relationship between Precious and her mother.  Sapphire said that she knew ahead of the movie coming out that there would be critics – or “haters” as she calls them - of the storyline. 

“I knew people would be negative,” she said, “but I was more surprised by the movie which took a lighter approach than the book.”

The book was actually more graphic in many aspects than the film adaptation, but Sapphire said that this was possibly done to get a lower Motion Picture Association rating.  Furthermore, she said the film adaptation “didn’t need to go there.”

Sapphire was also surprised by the criticism of colorism in the film.  “I hated the comments about Precious being dark-skinned, and Blue Rain [Precious’ teacher] was light-skinned.  I just hated it when people made these comparisons.  They made no sense to me.”

Push has also been frequently included on many banned book lists.

Currently, she is promoting her latest book, The Kid, which is a sequel to Push.  The book follows Precious’ son, Abdul, as he goes through the foster care system, where he is both the victim and victimizer of sexual abuse and finding his calling as a dancer.

“I wanted to develop Abdul’s character in this book,” she said, “and I would like to write another book about Abdul in the future.  But for now I am writing another book on a totally different subject.”
On the subject of good writing, Sapphire said “anyone can learn to be a great writer,” regardless of their personality.  As a matter of fact, she said Emily Dickinson was one of the greatest writers, although she was a recluse who spent most of her life in her bedroom.

Whatever she is writing about, Sapphire said she wants to inspire her readers, no matter what other people might think.

“I became a writer because I really want to do something meaningful for others.”    

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Marjane Satrapi: Life After

Marjane Satrapi is one of the most inspiring storytellers of our time.  She is the embodiment of an artist who uses creativity to express her political views.  Satrapi is best known as the French-Iranian graphic novelist whose best-selling books, Persepolis and Persepolis 2, were turned into a film of the same name.  Persepolis is an autobiographic tale of Satrapi growing up in Tehran in a family with socialist beliefs just before the Iranian revolution.  She came to Boston recently to discuss her life after the Persepolis phenomenon and Muslim women and identity.

I discovered Satrapi’s work by accident while walking past a local bookstore ten years ago, where I saw Persepolis in the store’s main window.  I was captivated by the book cover of a young girl in a hijab.  I assumed immediately that it was just another book about how repressed women are treated in the Islamic world.  However, I went into the store anyway to see a few pages.  I quickly saw that it was a graphic novel – a format I was not used to reading.  Twenty minutes later, I had almost read half the book.  I learned quickly that this was not another repressed Muslim woman’s tale.  Satrapi’s Persepolis is a story of determination and hope that really captures a balance view of Iran from a child’s eye.

I was equally impressed with her follow up work, Embroideries, which delves into the sex lives of the colorful women in her family.  The lurid details in the book again go against the stereotype of women in Islamic countries.

“Women actually had more rights before the revolution than under the new regime,” Satrapi said.  “For example, in the 60s and 70s the miniskirts women wore in Iran were short short.  At the time in the West, the mini-skirt was a result of the women’s revolution.  In Iran women wore the mini-skirt, but had to remain a virgin.  But here is my problem with virginity.  If men have the right to make love, they had to make love to somebody.”

Satrapi’s work still creates controversies.  In March a Tunisian TV station was fined for undermining "proper morals" by screening the film version of Persepolis, which depicts Allah, an act considered blasphemous by many Sunni Muslims.

Satrapi, who was raised atheist, sees extremism in all belief systems.

“There is no clash between East and West, North and South, and Muslim and Christian.  There is a clash between fanatics and open-minded people, and fanatics are everywhere,” she said. “I see no difference between a hardcore Christian who kills a doctor because he made an abortion, or a crazy Muslim who burns something, or a crazy Buddhist who does another thing.  Fanatics are driven by emotion.”

Satrapi also commented on the recent controversial ban on veils in France.  She asked why the French government hypothetically why in 1970 no North African woman wore a veil, but they do now.  Maybe this was a larger discussion about still feeling like an “outsider” as a first or second generation Arab woman in France.  

“I don’t like the veil, but I will never tell someone else not to wear it,” she said.

Satrapi has such a sound view of the world; something that is much needed today.

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Support Your Independent Black Media

Today being Support Your Media Day, it made me think about the late Don Cornelius, who was a trend-setter in the independent black media movement. I wasn't old enough to appreciate the musical legacy of Soul Train during the height of it's popularity. However, after recently viewing a VH1 documentary about the dance show, I developed more respect for Cornelius' entrepreneurial spirit and sense of black unity.

One thing I learned was that Cornelius was a forefather in developing black-owned media, when he gained ownership of his TV show in the 1970s. Cornelius did this at a time when there was very limited black visibility, let alone ownership, on television. He also leveraged his success with the help of other black-owned businesses, most notably with Afro-Sheen.

From Huffington Post:
...Indeed, part of the genius of Cornelius was understanding the value of Soul Train as intellectual property -- a portal into the knowledge that was being produced by black culture and everyday black folk, not only in musical arenas, but in business, advertising, fine arts, and mass media. This understanding explains why Cornelius continued to hold on to his brand well into his late years; both a product of wanting to get the most value for it, as well as protecting its legacy...
The idea of independent black media is still as important today. More independent content producers are finding new homes on the Internet. Last night, I went to a screening of "The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl" with it's actors/creators Issa Rae and Tracy Oliver in attendance.

Since the sudden popularity of the web series, the pair have been courted by various Hollywood executives about turning it into a TV show. Rae said that "the goal for this show is to change Hollywood;" however, many of the executives she has met with so far want to change the theme and the characters so drastically to the point where the TV show wouldn't remotely resemble the original web show. For instance, Rae, who is a dark-skinned black woman, said one executive wanted her character to be possibly played by a light-skinned black actress like Lauren London in order to get mainstream appeal. These challenges represent a larger problem.

"The only representation of blacks in Hollywood right now come from Tyler Perry," said Oliver. "If people want to change Hollywood, we have to support films and TV shows you want to see to give Hollywood a message."

Oliver reminded me of a recent episode of the Tavis Smiley Show, where the host interviewed "The Help" stars Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer about the lack of decent films and TV programming about African-Americans. Much of this goes back to the lack of black-owned distribution companies and black financial support for "positive" black shows and movies.

Watch Actresses Viola Davis & Octavia Spencer on PBS. See more from Tavis Smiley.

My point here is maybe if the black community came together with its resources, just maybe there would be more positive programs like "Awkward Black Girl" and less films that only portray blacks as maids and criminals. As corporate media quickly takes over everything, now more than ever is it important for blacks to demand better representation of themselves in the media, like Cornelius did 40 years ago. Whether it is through Hollywood or the Internet, maybe we need to get back to the black-owned business values and pride Cornelius established with Soul Train in order to reinvigorate a "real" independent black media movement.

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E-Waste & the Green Economy

Lately, there has been a lot of talk about how to be “more green” in our everyday lives, and in particular how to improve the global economy. In the last year, I have looked at the ways my company Global Wire Associates and my freelance journalism work operate and how I can create a smaller carbon footprint.

As a new media consulting firm, Global Wire Associates is in the business of using technology. However, with the growing problem of e-waste, we felt that it was our responsibility to use electronics with more mindfulness. According to the United Nations Environmental Programme, it is estimated that 20-50 million tons of discarded electronics are dumped into landfills around the world, mostly in developing countries, every year. Electronics include old mobiles, televisions, microwaves, computers and more. However, most of the time it’s not because these gadgets are broken; they’re being dumped in favor of newer versions.

Landfills with e-waste create serious problems in the long run. Toxic chemicals in electronics can leach into the land over time or are released into the atmosphere, creating severe health and environmental hazards in nearby communities.

Even if you take your old electronics to recycling sites, there is no guarantee they will be recycled properly. This is partly because it is expensive and labor-intensive to properly recycle e-waste in many developed countries, as most environmental laws in these countries require e-recyclers to use environmentally friendly processes.

So, for the last year, my company decided that when it is time to purchase any new equipment – cameras, computers, mobiles - we made sure that old or broken equipment was repairable first. We also donate old electronics that are not deemed useful for our purposes to other needy individuals or organizations. Before we consider making new purchases, we try to buy older but usable models whenever possible. If the electronics are beyond repairable, we properly recycle them.

Not only are we doing our little part to save the health of the planet and its people, but it has also made us feel really good about ourselves and wanting to extend our enthusiasm with others. So this year we launched our Recharge E-Waste campaign to make others aware of the global tech waste problem. We not only plan to use our website to have discussions about proper recycling, donating and/or selling of used electronics, and turning electronics into art and design models, but we are also seriously thinking about launching an e-waste management initiative later this year.

Our green awareness has also extended to other areas in our operations, like doing more web conferencing with clients instead of traveling, cloud computing and using green office supplies. Of course, I also use recycled cameras for my freelance video journalistic gigs. Sometimes it’s the smallest things that can make a big difference in our world.

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Creating My Own Unique Journalism

I have been thinking a lot lately about the future of journalism, and specifically how it fits into the new digital age. For the last few years I have been attending journalism and technology conferences, where I am told constantly that I need to be doing this social media application or using that tech gadget for reporting the news. I am happy to say that I am "teched up" and ready to take on the cyber news frontier.

But I am also ready to take this to another level professionally.

I have always had an entrepreneurial personality, and had the belief that if you are not getting opportunities from others, you should create your own opportunities. This is one of the reasons why I founded Global Wire Associates. Through my firm, I wanted to help create opportunities for others to take advantage of technology for furthering their own social justice objectives. I am happy to report that we have not only consulted with hundreds of activists worldwide through trainings and on our website in the last six years, but we have also launched a new e-waste awareness campaign.

In our most recent article on the site, we discussed how multimedia content producers are using online video to combat racial discrimination and stereotyping.

Filmmaker Issa Rae also felt that she wasn’t represented as a black woman in mainstream media. After reading yet another article about the lack of African-Americans onscreen, she decided to be the media and do her own online webisodes about being “awkward,” and, thus, the name of her series “The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl.”

“This is the future, especially for minority content producers on the Internet,” she said in a recent CNN interview. “This is the way to go. There is no gatekeeper. You can release whatever content you want. I think this is the best route to take, honestly.”
This interview made me think more about how I can create more of my own unique journalism. In the last few months, there have been complaints by journalists of color about the lack of diverse anchors in prime-time TV news. While I support the idea of increasing racial diversity in mainstream media, maybe the conversation needs to move towards how media professionals of color can utilize technology for telling their own stories.

The Internet has created so many opportunities for anyone to create their own media empire. There are a growing number of journalists who are going off the beaten path by using social media. Reading a post by British videographer Adam Westbrook and accompanying comments by Filipina journalist Prime Sarmiento have only pushed me to take my own journalistic endeavors further.

I am currently looking to create a way to get more funding for the videos I produce on my YouTube Channel, either through private donations, grant funding or some other business model. In the last couple of years I have fallen in love with videography, I am very interested in doing more social justice storytelling through this medium, but I need money to do it. I also like traveling, meeting new people, learning about different cultures while creating videos and, most importantly, doing more video production training for myself, so I am seeking financial opportunities here too. I have found that although I have had much success in working in mainstream media, nowadays, it is hard for me sometimes to pitch stories that don't have something to do with pop culture or entertainment. And there is a serious lack of mainstream media coverage of hard news issues that affect marginalized communities. I am hoping to fill in the gap with my online video news venture with the right help.

I know this will be a lot of hard work, but I am up for the challenge. I am hopeful about my unique route!

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UK Race Relations: Yesterday & Today

Two white men were found guilty and received life sentences for the murder of Stephen Lawrence, the black teenager stabbed to death by five white youths at a London bus stop in 1993. Nearly two decades on, the verdict may have brought some closure to a case that put a spotlight on racism and criminal justice in the United Kingdom. I was a teenager myself at the time and remember hearing a little about this case, but it wasn't until I viewed the BBC film The Murder of Stephen Lawrence when I got the whole story of the case and how England is so not "postracial."

My mother emigrated from Jamaica to England during the 1960s and some of her relatives still live in London's Hackney area. They all say that, unlike America, where race is discussed ad nauseum on a regular basis, any discussion about race in England was pretty much muted before the Lawrence case. When race was discussed, it was seen as the "immigrant problem." In 1968, politician Enoch Powell gave his infamous "Rivers of Blood" speech, criticizing the growing number of immigrants moving to the UK from Commonwealth countries.

Following the initial investigation in 1999, the five suspects were not convicted. It was believed at the time that Lawrence's murder was not only racially motivated, but also the acquittal was due partially to institutional racism within the Metropolitan Police. Later that year the Macpherson Report confirmed these findings, stating that the case was "one of the most important moments in the modern history of criminal justice in Britain." Although the Race Relations Act of 1968 passed and has since been superseded by the Race and Religious Hatred Act of 2006, racial tensions provoked by Powell's speech continued to have a lasting impression for years to come. This could be seen through the many race riots over the years. The most recent London riots that spread nationwide are believed to have been racially provoked by the death of Mark Duggan at the hands of the police.

Just last week the family of Anuj Bidve, an Indian student who was shot in the head and killed while walking with his friends on Boxing Day, accused British authorities of racism due to delays in handling the investigation and return of his body to India.

[Bidve's family] have accused the police of failing to contact them to inform them of their son's death – they only found out when his friends started to contact them through Facebook – and of neglecting the case because it was the festive season.

The delay in getting Bidve's body home has infuriated family members, who say the British authorities were more concerned about Christmas and the new year festivities than in helping the family observe their traditions.

"It is unacceptable to us," said Rakesh Sonawane, Bidve's brother-in-law... "We still have a lot of faith in the UK authorities and the police, but they have to help us more. They have to help us to believe again that Britain is not a racist place."
As I have said here before, the more things seem to change, the more things remain the same.

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The Fight For/Against Palestinian Statehood

World leaders are gathering in New York this week for the United Nations General Assembly. This year the international community will consider a bid for Palestinian statehood. Although it is likely to fail, the bid refocuses attention on the 63-year-old land fight between the Israelis and Palestinians. Long before 9/11, riots in Tahrir Square and rambling audio messages from Muammar Gadhafi and Osama bin Laden, the original Middle East crisis began on a strip of land along the Mediterranean Sea.

I have always been a fan of history, current events and multicultural affairs. Particularly, I am fascinated by how different cultures interact with each other. Some divisive relationships I can understand better than others - Tutsis vs. Hutus, Turks vs. Armenians, Cuba vs. United States. But there is something about the Palestine/Israel question that continues to capture the world's attention - and I simply just don't understand.

My first real introduction into Middle Eastern politics began in university, where I minored in post-colonial studies. Tom Friedman's From Beirut to Jerusalem was a book I was required to read in a course on Arab-Israeli cinema. It was a good primer into the conflict, and since its first publication two decades ago, it is still considered a fair assessment of the major players. I also remember after graduation viewing a documentary on female hijacker Leila Khalid which gave me the Palestinian point of view. But the history of the conflict is just too confusing for me to understand.

As for the Palestinian bid, it seems like it is dead on arrival at the UN, although Israel Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has extended an invitation for a meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in New York.

Maybe something good could come out of the meeting... Probably not...

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