by Dr. Boyce Watkins
The people have spoken, and the Carters have answered. Shortly after the stinging public criticism of her husband’s diss verse against Harry Belafonte, there’s been an uptick in the activism category on the busy schedules of Beyonce and Jay-Z. This week, as the world expressed its rage about the Not Guilty verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman, Beyonce and Jay showed up to lend their support at a Trayvon Martin rally in New York.
Then, going beyond the call of duty, Beyonce posted a petition in support of Trayvon on her website. These were some of the words on the petition:
“We are still struggling with the issue of inequality and the lack of value for a black man’s life. Trayvon Martin’s most basic civil right, the right to live, was violated. We have made so much progress and cannot allow hatred and racism to divide us. When we all join together, people of all races, we have the power to change the world we live in. We must fight for Trayvon the same way the generation before us fought for Emmett Till. I joined over 570,000 people in signing the petition below, and hopefully you will, too,” she said, linking to the petition.
Making matters even more interesting, Beyonce posted a picture of her visiting Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta and remembering the important contributions of the great Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I certainly hope the reflection was sincere, and that Beyonce is growing in her understanding of the black struggle, as well as her role and opportunity to be a part of it. She should also learn from her friend Oprah Winfrey that sometimes, fighting for what you believe in means being strategically tough and controversial.
There is no proof that Belafonte’s words had anything to do with the Carter’s actions, but it’s awfully curious that this is the first time that I can recall Beyonce supporting any petition of any kind that might somehow be interpreted as an attack on the Obama Administration. Obama Administration Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett takes her celebrity friendships seriously, and tends to interpret even modest requests from President Obama to be tantamount to black treason. So, one shouldn’t take lightly Beyonce’s decision to put her name behind a petition that asks the Obama Administration to do anything. They don’t seem to appreciate any degree of African American discontent.
I’m always smiling when celebrities step their game up, and I am happy with what the Carters have done this week. Now, I only hope that Beyonce can convince her husband to never again write lyrics insulting one of the greatest civil rights icons in history. Harry Belafonte’s sacrifices as an entertainer nearly left him unemployed, broke and dead. He is older than Jay-Z and Beyonce put together, so they should respect his wisdom and see his tough love as a call to arms for a community that is in deep peril. For all of the money that black folks spend traveling to Beyonce and Jay-Z concerts, I hope they will remember that support should be a two-way street, and not just one where your audience is asked to “Watch the Throne” while you’re sitting in it, draped in diamonds and gold.
On a similar note, the Trayvon Martin tragedy wasn’t just painful just because of what happened to Trayvon. It was symbolic of the millions of other Trayvon Martins around the country, many of whom are racially profiled, making them more likely to be stopped, arrested and incarcerated, even when they commit the same crimes as whites. Just a night in jail can scar and destroy a person for life, and too many of our kids are being fed into the criminal justice system at an early age, either as a victim of perpetrator (the case of straight A student Gabbriella Calhoun is a perfect example of how good kids are destroyed by police who abuse their authority).
As a result of consistent racial profiling by police, millions of black men are part of the criminal justice system, and even more have died. These are the men who were meant to be husbands and fathers in our communities, so we cannot allow their fates to be determined by an imbalanced and unjust system. The same thing is true for all of the women who are now being affected. This is destroying our families, and ultimately our community. You only need to hear the messages in our music as a reflection of what has happened to black America as a result of being polluted by a corrupt criminal justice system.
These were the images that were discussed when I spoke extensively with Russell Simmons about our joint campaign to stop mass incarceration. Over 175 celebrities, scholars and activists signed the letter that Russell and I wrote to President Obama, and our sense of urgency was driven by the fact that the black community is in a state of crisis.
Any statistician will tell you that when it comes to unemployment rates, urban violence, educational inequality and incarceration rates, black America has hit rock bottom. We’ve gotten used to the idea that our families are falling apart, that people can’t find jobs, that our kids can’t read and that every other black man is going to prison. We cannot accept our genocide to be part of business as usual, and Trayvon’s death is the social alarm clock we need to understand just how deep this problem goes. But as with any alarm clock, you can’t just hit the snooze button. You’ve got to get your black a** out of bed.
Times as dire as these require every soldier to line up and be prepared for battle: Beyonce and Jay-Z included – No justice, no peace, no excuses. It’s a new day in black America.