Three Lessons I’ve Learned as an Activist Journalist

Written by admin   // October 27, 2011   // Comments Off

It’s not easy being an activist journalist. In my case, its doubly hard given that I’ve been appearing on Sunday Insight for over 15 years, and write what some consider an incendiary column.

Adding fuel to the fire is my philosophical decision to always put Black folks and truth ahead of political party, status quo or the Negrocracy, and it’s no wonder why I’m constantly asked how I maintain my cool—and temper, responding to criticism and attacks from the right and left with frequently no more than a devilish smirk on my face.

To be honest, it’s easier today than it was 10 years ago. Back in the day I would spend many sleepless nights, thinking about revenge, or how to sabotage someone or something.

On one occasion I was so incensed by the comments (and unfounded) criticism from a Black ‘minister’, I actually mapped out his butt kicking in my mind…down to the last wink I would give him as I stepped over his battered body.

Back in the day I would take criticism and attacks personally. Words hurt. Criticism was stinging. My bulletproof vest was heavy from spent lead, and it gave me migraines when I knew an assassin was targeting me to uphold the status quo, or to gain favor with a special interest.

But I’ve mellowed over the years. I’ve learned I can’t please everyone, and no matter which side I take somebody’s always going to get mad. I’ve also adopted the theory that ‘while life isn’t fair, would you really want it to be?’

One of the secrets to my cool, calm and collected demeanor amidst the challenges of life as an activist journalist is rooted in three life lessons I’ve learned the hard way over the years. They are pretty much grounded in Reinhold Niebuhr’s serenity prayer, but a little more situational.

Lesson one: Human nature prods each of us to seek power, or to feel better than the next person. Whether you’re a crossing guard, or a church usher, your position grants you a level of power—control over others—that can often lead to abuse.

There’s the police officer who orders you around, or comes across as abrasive for no reason other than to exert his ‘power’ over you. (Black men can really attest to this fact of life.)

There’s the parent who shouts out orders to, or verbally abuses his/her child, simply because they can, or are mad at the world.

Or, the bully who dominates and controls a smaller kid.

Sometimes the power wielder doesn’t even know they are fueling their power tank even when it’s obvious to everyone else around them.

There are a lot of power plays in marriage, too. If you look deeply enough, you’ll always see one partner jockeying for position, making demands or otherwise asserting themselves.

It’s generally about power, control, dominance. It’s also about human nature, or sometimes it’s about how external factors exert control.

Many Black men turn on their wives because they have been disparaged by society.

They feel powerless as a result of societal prejudice and racism and decide to take out their frustrations on their wives. I’m not justifying, I’m simply educating.

Conversely, I have this theory about brothers who date Black women who have established themselves as the head of the household. Particularly women with children. Here comes a brother who may have traditional ideals about nuclear families. And what’s the first thing to happen? There’s a clash. A power clash.

Forget that stuff about shared responsibility and decision-making. There will come a time when someone has to make the final decision. And then you’ll see the battle over power floating to the surface.

My lesson, developed from years of observations and confrontation, is to go with the flow as much as possible. Give everyone their day in the sun; don’t get into a tither because someone wants to feel their oats.

In general, you should allow everybody his or her day in the sun, particularly if it’s harmless.

For example, you’re at a dinner or social event and someone constantly uses bad grammar, or mispronounces a word. Do you have to correct them?

Do you have to interject every time someone says something stupid, brags about something superficial, or takes credit for something they didn’t do?

Life Lesson Two. One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned being in the public eye is to not take criticism personally. Or when attackers do cross that line (violating the unwritten rule never to personalize an attack), to accept it as the price of doing business.

There was a time when I would strike out, counterattack, dig up dirt, or scream to the high heavens when someone criticized or attacked me.

I wasn’t kidding when I said I had mapped out an attack scenario for a Black minister, and given the opportunity I would have carried out my plan. I was totally out of my mind; anger had replaced logic and common sense, and my retort to his personal attack against me for telling the truth was a plan to get physical.

(For the record, before you freak out because I’m talking about a so-called servant of God, everybody knows darn well there are corrupt, egotistical and ungodly ministers out there. Some with hidden agendas, others on power trips and a few who sleep with the enemy, or otherwise betray their vows.

The individual I’m talking about fit that description and choose to defame my family and me when I caught him with his hand in the cookie jar and publicized his ‘sins’ and betrayal of the Black community.

Because he was a ‘man of the cloth’ some people believed him when he tried to assassinate the messenger, in this case me.)

For the most part, journalistic advocacy and community activism is a game played with vague rules. And players must realize every time you open your mouth to say something (even if it’s profound) you’re inviting some insect the opportunity to fly in there.

Sometimes consider the source. Other times realize few engage in battle without blood being drawn. And keep in the back of your mind the remote possibility that the opposition may be as strongly passionate about an issue as you are.

It took me a long time to come to grips with the fact that no matter how compelling your position, there is always the possibility that the other side in the debate may feel equally right in their own mind.

To me, advocacy for school choice was rooted in it being a path to Black empowerment, providing options to poor families (most of whom were Black) and in forcing the public school system to be accountable to the “Have Nots.”

Moreover, given the history of educational apartheid in this city, supporters of the measure felt opposition to school choice was nonsensical.

But opponents had equally compelling reasons for their positions, and our assumptions that they were dupes of the status quo or misled by the Negrocracy, were frequently misplaced.

Of course, it took me a while to learn that lesson, primarily because some special interests with a vested interest in maintaining the educational status quo positioned themselves between the two emotionally driven sides.

Among their tactics was a scheme to bring in Black character assassins whose sole purpose was to divide and conquer. And that included a scheme in which they would disparage and viciously attack the character of choice supporters, myself included.

To say it was nasty would be an understatement. I’ll never forget one such attack in which they authored a letter linking my oldest son’s death (he was a teacher at a charter school), to “God’s punishment” for my role in advancing school choice.

I don’t think anyone would blame me for my anger and plans to break the fingers of the author(s) of that letter. But eventually I learned to put it in God’s hands and not to dwell on stupidity. I also learned to believe in Karma, and to accept the fact that when you put wood on the fire of anger, you stand a chance of getting burned yourself.

My final lesson (for the day) deals with my coolness under fire while taping Sunday Insight.

Over the years the most consistent question I’ve been asked is how I can remain calm when it appears I’m under attack every week. The reference is to the fact, or assumption, that I’m the lone voice of reason, the sole left of center pundit among five panelists. And usually the only African American.

“I would have pimp slapped all those MFs,” somebody recently told me.

Oh yeah? Why? What would it accomplish?

Why trip out over people’s opinions? And to be honest, sometimes they use unflattering truths, we just don’t want to hear or acknowledge it.

For example, I’ve asked people over the years what was said that they construe as ‘racist,’ and the response is generally something about statistics used by a Republican or conservative on the panel. Like, huh, Black folks commit most of the crime in Milwaukee, or that we led the state in out of wedlock births, illiteracy and the high school drop out rate?

Of course the usage of the statistics may be used in a mean spirited way, or to justify some prejudicial assumption. And on those cases I’m quick to jump in. I also reject the validity and intent of Black folks like Herman Cain to justify stupidity.

On the other end of the spectrum I don’t always agree with the Al Sharpton’s and Jesse Jackson’s of the world, particularly when they espouse the rhetoric of the missionaries.

But overall, I don’t allow myself to get overwhelmed or disrupted by methodology or philosophies that are counter to my own. Opinions, my father used to say, are like…everyone has one.

My primary purpose in doing the show is to provide another perspective, to represent the voiceless and to advocate on behalf of Black people. And sometimes that puts me in the awkward position of lambasting individuals and organizations that some naively believe have our best interests at heart.

Which is another lesson I’ve learned over the years that has helped me maintain a cool demeanor: “Black people have no permanent friends, nor permanent enemies, just permanent issues.”

I look forward to doing Sunday Insight every week. I’ve done more shows than the host, Charlie Sykes, and have probably received more hate mail, and letters of support and recognition than anyone on the panel.

Moreover, the show has forced me to become more analytical, more pragmatic and more resourceful than I otherwise would have been. It’s also helped me see the world through other people’s prisms.

When I was young, I thought everything was black and white. As I matured, I learned that there were various shades of grey. As I entered elder (not old) status, I’ve finally realized that the world is black and white.

And that’s the greatest lesson to be learned.


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