Friday, April 19, 2013

Violent Contrast (Published in Muslim Journal)

In the wake of yet another spectacle of mass violence at this year's Boston Marathon, we are left with more questions than answers. Of course it’s still early on in the investigative process and we look forward to those responsible for this heinous act being brought to justice, but until then we’re left to dissect the possibilities and reflect on what this means for the collective American conscious and spirit. In private settings however, Black and Brown communities throughout the United States respond to the horror of Boston with obvious disdain, concern, and empathy, but lacking the outrage offered by much of the majority of America.  Understandably, as many in them are plagued by daily violence and loss of life with numbers so staggering they dwarf wartime casualties abroad.  
As an African American Muslim who grew up in a community, which even back in the early 80’s had its share of murder, I find that my perspective on violence and death is probably not what some mental health professionals would consider healthy. Yes, I  did experience the social angst and frustration of 9-11, but my experience was as a Black man and a Muslim, in that order. My response to the violence perpetrated in Boston is that of an African American first. If there is any dialogue I am eager to see take shape and influence the American sentiment, and public policy, it’s the dialogue about the lack of importance given to an American landscape that witnesses thousands of its African American citizens murdered each year, with little, or no national uproar.
As I listened to a broadcast on public radio about the bombing in Boston, one of the callers commented on our perceived ignorance as Americans regarding our awareness of possible contributing factors that lead to violence against U.S. citizens like, foreign policy, military occupation, government intervention, cultural demonization, economic sanctions, and preemptive strikes. In the United States, many affluent whites are often ignorant to the contributing causes of violence taking place within urban centers. Many of these communities are fighting uphill battles, struggling with a lack of economic opportunity, an educational system which is content to see a national high school graduation rate for Black males at an abysmal 52% (2010, mass incarceration, substance abuse, teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, domestic violence and media demonization. Point blank, violence and homicide—against this backdrop—is an expected, accepted, and even a celebrated outcome by some.
It’s genuinely difficult to sustain caring about someone without getting to know about them, but that’s a part of the quandary facing the collective conscious of United States. To quote the DePaul University newspaper (The Depaulia, April 2012) which addressed a major metropolitan area home to many  black and brown urban spaces, “ Chicago is the most racially segregated city in the United States of America, according to recent Census data reports.” Chicago, IL saw 4 homicides and 22 gunshot victims between Friday April 12th and Sunday April 14th. Those homicides took place in predominantly black and brown communities. The racial separation of Chicagoans leaves each community to fend for itself, and those most often coping with the sudden tragic loss of life are the lower strata of black and brown.  Politicians stand up, private interest pledge resources and support when those lives are deemed worthy of saving; when the faces of the dead don’t resemble the poorest among us, the loss is unexpected and intolerable.
Poor communities of color have been overwhelmingly plagued with high homicide rates. In these neighborhoods the sudden and violent loss of life is a bitter reality; it is a sour odor wafting into school classrooms, offices, churches and masjids. It is a low rising fog covering playground surfaces and basketball courts; it is the agony of mothers wailing as they crouch over their fallen sons and daughters; it is the empty blood stained bed where an 8 year old black boy caught in gang crossfire once laid as he read himself to sleep; it is the eulogy of a high school honor student whose bright future was darkened with the flash of a gun barrel;  it is the stain ingrained into the exterior walls of buildings, embedded in park benches, driveways, and alleyways. It is a gray overcast obstructing the brilliance of the sun, and interrupting its warmth. Killing is reported so routinely that there is no uproar, save that of those who fight back—attempting to shed light on the disparity of media coverage and lack of concern by the rest of America—to save their communities and those in them. Those who continue to soldier on know full well that violence in these communities is not a random event. They plug away, addressing a bevy of underlying issues.  Certainly organizations like Ceasefire Illinois, Little Black Pearl, and United For a Cause, to name a few, have assisted in eradicating violence in their communities for their people.  However, in the midst of these “hood” killings our US flag flies at full mast. We do not mourn these deaths as a nation, because we do not value these lives as a nation.
Some might call it cynical to turn attention to the violence and loss of life taking place in the urban centers of America, in the face of our latest tragedy.  I’m sure there are some who might even feel it insensitive to suggest that American media, intellectuals, politicians, etc. are playing favorites when it comes to the reporting and response to violence in America, based on where it takes place and whom it affects. To those persons suffering offense, I ask that you not look at the terrible loss of life in Boston as an isolated incident. I ask that you not look at the despicable murders of New Town as a random horror. As the nation grieves for the loss of those lives, it turns a blind eye to the violence being committed every day in communities of color. It is all but printed in the newspapers, streamed across teleprompters and read aloud by news anchors, that the lives of those who live in these conditions are not worth grieving over. These lives are not worth allocating resources to; these communities are not worth investing in, its youth are not worth educating, and certainly its victims of violence are not worthy of discussion; I vehemently disagree.  
The outpouring of support and concern for the victims of the cowardly marathon bombing is a human response, we should be outraged.  However, we should also understand how that outrage stands in stark contrast to the social apathy which is currently, and historically, demonstrated when that loss of life is Black. So, in the same breath that we pray for the victims of this tragedy and await the execution of justice for those responsible for it, we continue to poke and prod at a dormant American conscience. I call the United States to attention; I pray for it to demonstrate that it values the lives of all of its sons and daughters.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Missing Dad

It's been a while since I've written anything and I guess I'm offering my disclaimer right now; I'm not even putting forth the effort to look for grammatically incorrect sentences or misspells. I just feel like I need to get this post out.  On May 30, 2012, my father, Tariq H. El-Amin made his transition from this life, and into the next. His physical departure has presented me with the biggest adjustment of my life. I've had to reassess my understanding and perspective on life and death.

Of course I miss my dad. What's sort of odd to me is that I find myself recreating him in my mind, I revisit the feel of his hands, or the way his brow felt when I would kiss him on the forehead.  My father lived the last 2 or 3 years of his life, primarily confined to a wheel chair. I guess we got used to seeing him that way, after all he had his stroke almost 10 years ago, and little by little he lost a bit more mobility until finally, after suffering a heart attack, he was finally in the chair for good.

I mention the wheel chair because when I see him in my mind now, or in a dream, I see him standing tall and strong.. All 6ft-4inches of him, and it just makes me--for lack of a better word-- giddy. Being able to see him as he was prior to the stroke and the heart attacks has been such a blessing for me.

Its been difficult to sulk because I've seen quite a few people around me suffer the same loss and I've watched as they've handled it to the best of their ability. I've empathized with their pain and through that empathy I gained a deeper perspective and even some consolation. Not that misery loves company, but to know that we are all connected, that we all suffer the same losses and that we all revel in the same joys gave me an even greater peace.

I'm thankful to live in an age where I can turn on my computer or my phone and pull up videos of him. I'm thankful to be able to hear his voice and look at the creases in his brow, or the salt-n-pepper mustache and beard, I hope to some day inherit. I'm still adjusting to day to day life without "Pop" and even though I miss him, I still feel his presence, and though I don't like to say it--I feel a sense of relief for him.

I know that he is no longer wheel chair bound, he's no longer hurting, he's not limited, he has his freedom and I pray that he has Allah/ G-d's mercy.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Weakest Among Us

It's a cold Friday afternoon in April reminding us that the warm weather we had, in Chicago IL, a few weeks ago, during March, was a loan and we were paying for it now. We've just finished Jumu'ah (Friday Prayer) and have sat down to have some early dinner, drink coffee and talk with other congregants. My mother is on her way to work and lets me know that my father's ride should arrive shortly.

Numerous peeks out the window, several trips to the corner, all to discover that, without conscience, the driver never showed up and he ,or she, has reported my father as a no-show.

Several phone calls to dispatch, and two hours later a sullen looking driver, giving terse one word answers, arrives to take my father home. I walk with him to the van, place his ramp inside and wait for the driver to secure his chair to the floor.

My father is, among other things, a disabled senior citizen confined to a wheel chair. At 64 years old he's a 9 year stroke and heart attack survivor and travels primarily by handicap accessible van.  He's a retired Structural Ironworker (Local #1 ), U.S. Veteran (USAF/USA-ANG),  respected martial artist, writer, community organizer, Imam, and also one of the most well read people on any number of subjects you could ever dream of meeting.

Despite what he has accomplished in life, his gracefully graying presence in a wheelchair affixes the label of  disabled-senior to him, which in the minds of the ignorant means, powerless, ready for the picking, and of no account. The original driver's failure to show up and his/her statement that my father was a no-show is emblematic of that ignorance.

I cringe to think, how many elderly and disabled fall victim to this type of laziness and hardheartedness? My father is still mentally sharp and more than capable of fighting his own battles, but I'm thankful he has my mother and the rest of the family to advocate for him as well. What of those who are unable to speak for themselves?  What of those who have no one to advocate for them? They sit frustrated and powerless, being made to feel of no account.

Something as simple as arriving on time with a smile to pick up a passenger, can make all the difference in how a person transitions from a "normal life" to negotiating life in the sphere of the "Handicapped", "Disabled", or "Differently Abled."

People working in industries offering provider services to seniors and the disabled take on a responsibility which they are likely never to be justly (monetarily) compensated for (there should certainly be some reform in this area). I've met some really dedicated and beautiful people, working in this industry; unfortunately, they are the exception and not the norm.  These individuals are depended on by people to take care of their mothers, fathers, grandparents, and sometimes their husbands and wives. They have every expectation that their loved ones, or they themselves, will be treated with dignity, patience, and respect, and every fear that they will not be. The fear is to be looked at as a broken vessel with no worth, and no voice.

In light of the United States increasing senior population, coupled with medical advancements which have lengthened  the life expectancy of stroke and heart attack victims, conversations around how to best serve them will continue to come to the fore. Among these conversations the criteria regarding the quality of care and service provided to these individuals must be reexamined.

Regardless of where a person falls in the hierarchy of those entrusted to serve our senior, disabled, or both, they must embody a prerequisite modicum of integrity, civility, and respect.
It's said that you can judge a society based on how well it treats its young and its elderly. If this is true, we have a long way to go.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Guard Your Grill

No one thinks about their teeth when they're 10 years old. We foolishly think we'll have them forever, and without regular visits to the dentist to scare us straight, many of us float on - in an "ignorance is bliss-like" fog- until the walls come crashing down around us. Tooth loss at 39 is so not cool.

I've had a sweet-tooth for as long as I can remember, and that translated into going to bed, many a night without brushing the old choppers. Flossing? That wasn't even a thought for me, back in 1981. Truth be told, I didn't start flossing until...a few years ago.

In hindsight, what should have been an eye opening dental experience for me, in 2003, was treated like an isolated incident, completely unrelated to my lack of dental diligence. I was standing in my kitchen talking with my wife, Snickers bar in hand, when I went to bite down and felt a grenade go off in my mouth. The pain was UNBEARABLE. Seriously, I almost passed out. It turns out that I took off the bottom of a weakened, decaying, wisdom tooth, biting down with 150 psi.

The frantic search for an open dentist on a Saturday afternoon was almost comical. After a harrowing three hours I was back home, with one less tooth. This should have served as what Oprah refers to as an "Ah Ha moment."

Before settling in back home, one might have thought I would have done a little shopping first. I should have walked through my door armed to the teeth with a:

  • five gallon drum of super-duper plaque & tartar removing tooth-paste, 
  • ten year supply of floss,
  • motorized toothbrush and replacement heads,
  • water pic
Ten years later, I finally got the message: I'm brushing and flossing a few times a day. But, this is after seven extractions (includes 4 wisdom teeth and 1 unsuccessful Root Canal Therapy), and two more upcoming Root Canal Therapies. I'm fortunate, the extractions I've had done are not easily noticed. How would I deal with missing my "Eye Teeth?" I guess I'd have to tell people I was a hockey player.  

Thanks to a great dentist and dental implants, I'll be flashing a full smile in another three months. I kick myself when I think of how I neglected my teeth all these years. Of course I point to myself as I talk to my young daughters about the benefits of regular brushing and flossing; I think they're getting the point.  

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Trayvon: The Symbol

Today, when something is deemed newsworthy folks come out of the woodwork to drop their two-cents in the bucket. Right or wrong, informed or walking in on the end of the conversation, everyone has an opinion, an analysis, and now- more than ever- a means to share that opinion, yours truly included. So it was no surprise to see so much public discourse around the killing of African American teen Trayvon Martin and the severely delayed arrest of his Caucasian killer, George Zimmerman.

However, after continual cries of injustice, apathy, and racism, some in the African American community began to ask in all earnestness "What's so special about Trayvon?" especially when inner-city African American youth are being murdered by other African Americans with regularity, minus the news coverage. Why not any one of the others? 

On its face its a fair question, and I don't get the feeling that those who pose it are any less empathetic and/or outraged by Trayvon's killing; its that they don't understand the silence around all those other young men whose lives have been cut short. Why did Trayvon become the symbol representing the gross injustices that young people of color in the United States endure day in and day out?

Trayvon has moved into a space that many of us are all too familiar with; he's become a symbol of the oppression that has continued to plague our African American males, young and old. In death he's become a  de facto spokesman, gunned down in a quiet gated community. He gives voice to an awareness rarely vocalized by many of our inner city youth. An awareness they grapple with on a daily basis, regardless of where they are, they are never safe from harm.

 We've galvanized around his story, donning our Hoodies in support of him and as a way to decry the rampant violence claiming the lives of our young. We don our Hoodies as a way to protest the byproduct of the media's  demonization of the African American male, which has primed Americans for flight or fight responses when they cross paths with these young men. The slanted media depiction of African American youth has some saying "He must have done something to provoke the situation."  

 Freedom fighting journalist, Ida B. Wells railed against the unfair media portrayal of African American men as lazy, thievish, immoral, and lustful. She illustrated the effect of this heinous portrayal as it impacted the nations collective psyche and how it influenced the court of public opinion (particularly in the south). This demonization served as a justification for the rampant lynchings of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.  The anti-Blackman propaganda was so pervasive and relentless  it not only convinced many White Americans that it was only a matter of time before the African American male would "get himself lynched", but it also, gradually, pushed African Americans to see each other through the same perverted lens. Many of us began to believe if trouble befell us, it must have responded to our invitation.

Yes, Trayvon is but one of many, and his murder and his family's pain should push us to see this in a broader context, not as an incident isolated from the killings in Chicago, Detroit, L.A., New York, New Orleans, Cleveland, Washington D.C., etc. If the Hoodie represents anything at all, it should be a reminder that all of our (young) men may fall victim to the same plight if we don't address the systemic issues and understandings  that have caused such unconscious and unspoken fear, disdain and devaluation of the African American male.

The debate goes on about the systemic effects of (mis)education and (un)employment and how these two factors continue to wreak havoc in our communities, contributing in no small way to the violence present there. And, there is also the mindset which has been formed through hundreds of years of constant programming, presenting the African American male to society and to himself through a most distorted and ugly lens. Today, we see and respond to each other through this manufactured lens. 

In order for Trayvon's death to have any meaning it must serve as wake up call to break the glass. Because of - not in spite of- the issues present in so many of our communities, we have to see our youth and each  other with a fresh pair of eyes. We must endeavor to provide our children with a feeling of security and safety which has eluded so many of them. We must address the unbalanced media coverage given to the ills in our communities, often to the exclusion of its successes. Because, even as we are losing lives we have triumphs which go unmentioned and for that we and the world lose an opportunity to see our youth in a different light.  I can only hope and pray that we are able to reverse this image, in half the time it took for us to get here.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Daddy's Little Girls

"Sometimes I am walking with my daughter, I’m talking to my daughter, I’m looking at her, I’m pushing her in the stroller. And sometimes I pick her up and I just stare at her and I realize my only job in life is to keep her off the pole. Keep my baby off the pole!  I mean they don’t grade fathers but if your daughter is a stripper you f*&$#@ up" 
Chris Rock

Chris Rock's commentary aside, funny as it may be doesn't really give a complete picture of the angst a father feels when raising daughters in today's 'everything goes society'. As a father of three girls, I'm constantly aware of the images on television, songs on the radio and the ads on billboards. All these things, if unchecked, can have a tremendous effect on determining their values and sense of self.  . 

Equally important for myself, and many other fathers is the  realization that at one time I was a young testosterone driven teen. It is this thought that scares the hell out of most Dads! Puberty is a difficult time for a young boy, and the years that follow are no picnic either. Remembering ourselves as teenagers, heck! some of our (Dads) worries extend well into the twenty-somethings. We recall an adolescence filled with lustful glares, sometimes open and other times secret, aimed at our female counterparts. 

As Daddy's little girl begins to mature and develop, the last thing he wants to think about is her running into a junior version of himself.  No self respecting father wants his daughters name on the lips of young men, bragging about real or invented conquest.  Dad wants to keep his daughters reputation untarnished, because we remember those girls who had the wrong kind of reputation.  And, once you get a reputation, deserved or not, it can be really hard to redefine yourself.  

Thoughts like this have prompted many a father, to their daughters bewilderment, to get a shotgun and place their little girls under lock and key.  Dads focus can easily become singular; concentrating only on those external forces which might cause harm, while ignoring those factors existing in the home. Often times, lock and key only serves to motivate a person to break out.  

Being a father is not easy, and I'm not offering any cookie cutter solutions.  I believe that "when you know better, you do better". Fathers shouldn't be afraid of remembering and even (when appropriate) talking to their daughters about their past. It's important our daughters understand the experiences that have shaped us; it makes the advice we give them more credible and more valuable. I pray I'm giving my daughters the love and attention they need. I hope that I'm supporting them as their sense of self grows. And, I hope they see my worry isn't about them, it's about a junior me that I want them to be ready for.     

Sunday, March 4, 2012

She's a genius!!

As this is my first post, allow me to give a tidbit of background information about yours truly, before I begin raving about how my 10 year old daughter is a genius: I'm an African American Muslim Husband to a beautiful, intelligent wife, and Father to three beautiful daughters. My wife and I have been married for 12 years; the girls are 10 (identical twins) & 8, and we reside in a small suburb outside of Chicago, IL.

Now, anyone who has more than one child knows that one of the toughest challenges you'll face is encouraging one, without discouraging the other(s).  Remember, these are individuals- even the twins- who have differing aptitudes, interest and varying levels of success in their endeavors. So, my wife and I are constantly looking to uncover and develop their talents and hope those talents mesh with their interest.

  Anyway, on to my genius daughter: I was checking her math homework, a subject that has left her ruffled and flustered- this year. I began tossing single digit multiplication at her and she would blink and an answer would pop out of her mouth. I assumed that the first question I posed to her  was one she had already done, during class, at school.

To my absolute delight, my daughter continued to throw answers back at me, problem after problem. I couldn't believe what I was witnessing! My little girl, who has struggled all year with the subject, had a mental Red Bull, right in front of me, and grew wings! Okay, hyperbole aside...I'm elated to see triumph where there had been failure, and even if she did bring home an F the very next day (on a test she took a week ago), I still hold out hope that I really did just witness my baby girl tapping into an unknown talent.

Maybe, fifteen years from now when she's an mathematician, quantum theorist, or...a high school math teacher, we'll share a laugh remembering the day she convinced her Dad she was a genius.