Video: Shane Flowers and ‘Am I Next?’

“Arise, cry out in the night,
at the beginning of the watches!
Pour out your heart like water
before the presence of the Lord!
Lift your hands to him
for the lives of your children,
who faint for hunger
at the head of every street.”–Lamentations 2:19

‘Am I Next?’: Ferguson’s Protests Through the Eyes of a Teenager from Transient Pictures on Vimeo.

Looting, chanting, tear gas, rubber bullets – these are the images from Ferguson, Mo. entering American homes. But the vast majority of protesters are armed with little more than chalk and paper signs, hoping to create a memorial for Michael Brown, the teenager killed by a police officer in the St Louis suburb on Aug. 9. We followed teenager Shane Flowers as he weaved through the protests, attempting to let his voice be heard and fight for change with darkness slowly falling on Florissant Avenue. As he moves through the crowds, he hears differing opinions from other protesters on the best ways to fight for change.–Filmmakers

This was shot as part of the feature documentary School of Last Resort. VIDEO by Nicholas Weissman and Jeremy Levine; PRODUCER Jeff Truesdell; PRODUCTION ASSISTANT Jordan Jones. See the original short video here.

Short Documentary: ‘The Line’ from Sojourners

Mitt Romney bravely mentioned the “poor” once and “poverty” twice in his acceptance speech before the Republican National Convention. Last night, Bill Clinton also raised the P-word (“poor” seven times and “poverty” three times) at the Democratic National Convention. Will President Obama address this critical issue tonight in his acceptance speech before the Dems? 46.2 million Americans living below the poverty line want to know.

Sojourners believes Christians need to raise up the stories of the poor and powerless. Poverty needs to be back on the public agenda. Sojourners worked with an Emmy-award winning writer and producer to create a new film called The Line that reveals what poverty in America looks like today.

This 30-minute documentary features real people, their economic struggles, and their inspiring and creative responses to the challenges they face. This resource will help break through traditional political divides, foster honest dialogue, and re-focus our society on the common good.

The film will premiere at 8 p.m. EDT October 2, and we’re organizing viewing parties of The Line across the nation. It’ll be a powerful tool for your churches, communities, families, and organizations to use in raising awareness and fostering conversation about poverty’s effects and potential solutions.

I’m sharing the film’s trailer here in hopes that you’ll ask your friends, family, and community to host screenings. Additional details about the film and information on arranging a viewing can be found at www.thelinemovie.com.

This film is really good! I’m proud to be part of this Sojourners project. (And you get to see some footage of my Columbia Heights neighborhood.)

Duke Ellington’s D.C.: ‘What we Could Not Say Openly, We Expressed in Music’

Duke Ellington in front of the Apollo Theatre, New York, 1963. Photograph by Richard Avedon.

Last week I watched the 2000 PBS documentary Duke Ellington’s Washington. It’s a great way to learn the history of D.C. at the turn of the century – especially the Columbia Heights, LeDroit Park, and Shaw neighborhoods around where I live. I highly recommend it for viewing! Here’s a short description of the video:

“Before the Harlem Renaissance, Duke Ellington’s Washington was the social and cultural capital of Black America. From 1900 to 1920, it was this country’s largest African American community. Anchored by Howard University and federal government jobs, this community became a magnet for African American intellectuals and sent a stream of shining talents to the nation for generations. It developed a prosperous black middle class which forged a strong society of churches, newspapers, businesses and civic institutions. Its businesses were black owned and run; its buildings, designed, built and financed by blacks; its entertainment, by and for African Americans. This was a proud and elegant community that flourished despite, or perhaps even because, of Jim Crow, the oppressive segregation that forced blacks to create their own separate destiny.”

The New Yorker (May 17, 2010) also has a great essay by Claudia Roth Pierpont titled Black, Brown, and Beige: Duke Ellington’s music and race in America. Pierpont reviews Harvey G. Cohen’s recently released book “Duke Ellington’s America.” Both the book and Pierpont’s essay are an interesting way to examine race in America through classical American music – jazz. Here’s an excerpt from the essay:

“What we could not say openly, we expressed in music,” Ellington wrote in the British magazine Rhythm, in 1931, trying to explain the Negro musical tradition that had grown up in America, music “forged from the very white heat of our sorrows.” All his life, Ellington gave the impression of having been unscathed by racism, either in his early years—color, he said, was never even mentioned in his parents’ home—or during the long professional decades when it defined almost every move he made: where he could play his music, who could come to listen to it, whether he could stay in a hotel or attend another musician’s show, and where (or whether) he could find something to eat when the show was over. The orchestra made its first Southern tour just after its return from England, in 1933, travelling (thanks to Mills) in supremely insulated style: two private Pullman cars for sleeping and dining, and a separate baggage car for the elaborate wardrobe, scenery, and lights required to present a show more dazzling than any that most of the sleepy little towns where they made their stops had ever seen. Ellington made a special effort to perform for black audiences, even when it meant that the band added a midnight show in a place where it had performed earlier that night exclusively for whites. Reports from both racial groups were that the players outdid themselves; it is difficult to know where they felt they had more to prove.

Segregation was hardly peculiar to the South, of course, any more than it was limited, in New York, to the Cotton Club and its ilk. The down-and-dirty Kentucky Club had been no different: even without thugs at the door, there was an unspoken citywide dictate about where the different races belonged. The only exceptions were the “Black and Tans,” the few Harlem clubs that permitted casual racial mixing, and to which Ellington seems to have been paying tongue-in-cheek tribute with the not-quite-meshing themes of “Black and Tan Fantasy.” This was the first number played, after “The Star-Spangled Banner,” at Ellington’s landmark Carnegie Hall concert, in January, 1943, although the piece sounded very different from his twenties hit: taken at a slower tempo, with extended solos, it was twice its original length—so deliberative it seemed a kind of statement—and showed off the burnished power of Ellington’s forties band.

Read the whole essay here.

Dispatch from Prison: How Strong Is Hope?

In my daily prayer book, the morning antiphon for today said: “The Lord chose these holy men for their unfeigned love …” The men referred to are Saints Phillip and James, whose feast day it is today. But as I return from a writing workshop at one of Maryland’s federal men’s prisons, the phrase takes on a fresher meaning.

This week I’m the visiting humanities scholar inside the “big house.” There were about 20 men in class today. I think they are all from Washington, D.C. When the federal prison at Lorton, VA, closed in the late 1990s and early 2000s, D.C. federal prisoners were shipped all over the U.S.– sometimes very far from their families.

Hope House DC was established by Carol Fennelly in 1998 to help keep those D.C. families with someone in prison together and keep incarcerated fathers active in the lives of their kids. Hope House also works to reduce the isolation, stigma, and risk families experience when fathers and husbands are imprisoned and raises public awareness about prison issues and this at-risk population.

Carol Fennelly invited me to participate in this program – funded by the Humanities Council of Washington, D.C. – and made it possible for me to come teach these classes as part of the National Endowment for the Arts “Big Read” program. The book that D.C. has chosen to read and that we are discussing in these workshops is Ernest Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying, which takes on the question: Knowing we are going to day, how should we live?

The guys are discussing the book and writing about their own experiences. I was impressed that every single man had read the book in advance. From the depth of our discussion I think some had read it multiple times. One man quoted sections from memory and cited the page numbers.

We talked about the characters, their motivations, the setting in rural Louisiana in the 1940s. We talked about what makes a character — and whether a character always has to be a person or can it be the landscape or even an experience that looms large in the story line. The men struggled with each other over whether the main character “Jefferson” was a “victim of circumstance” or “did he make a bad choice” that ended with him on death row.

We talked about the preacher that peddles hope on Sunday mornings, but the hope fades by sunset and never leads to changing the systems of oppressions. Just how strong is hope? And how weak is optimism? We discussed how very small acts or things can be used to dismantle an overarching system — the weapons of the weak can take apart dehumanizing systems. But they only work if they force the oppressors and the oppressed to recognize their shared humanity.

At one point our conversation shifted. One man said, “We keep saying that Jefferson was simple or retarded or slow or stupid and that’s why he did those things that ended him up in jail. But WE did the same things! We made the same choices. And WE aren’t stupid or simple or slow.” Then each one began to wrestle with who he was in the story and the choices that he had made and how hard it is to build up enough strength to make new choices when the same old situations arise on the outside.

I won’t say that anyone in the workshop – myself included – is “holy” in a morally righteous sense. But instead “the Lord called these holy men” in the sense that holiness also means moving toward becoming a whole and healed human being. And even in this first day, I can stand as a witness to their “unfeigned love” – especially when they talk about their kids or show pictures of their families. Tomorrow we’ll work on a number of writing exercises and end with a reading from their work and a graduation certificate.

On another note, it turns out that “Casino Jack” Abramoff was also at this facility, on the minimum security side. He’s getting released to a half-way house this month just in time to see Alex Gibney’s newly released documentary about his life called Casino Jack and the United States of Money. Suffice it to say, the range of “bad choices” made by men in Washington, D.C., is wide-ranging.