A Discussion On Economic And Social Class In The Black Community

“Even though it was 1968, a period of unrest for many blacks throughout the country, Great-grandmother – like the blue-veined crowd that she was proud to belong to – seemed, at times, to be totally divorced from the black anxiety and misery that we saw on TV news and in the papers.”

Online Discussions Regarding Social Class

Every now and then I’ll venture into something social and political. I’ve been wanting to write something about ‘class’ in the black community for a while now, and Black History Month 2019 has finally presented me the opportunity to do so. Before I jump in, I want to acknowledge Rom Wills, a writer in the “Negro Manosphere” and a YouTube content creator who teaches black men about dating and becoming better versions of themselves. I can personally say that ‘Uncle’ Rom and his content have been critical in my evolution, in terms of manhood, and he’s helped me to better understand my journey – past, present and future. If you’re a black man, and you still feel lost in the dating world and in life in general, I recommend watching some of Uncle Rom’s content.

In his YouTube content, Rom Wills is very outspoken about the black community not acknowledging the role of ‘social class’ in dating and mating where it plays a major role, particularly in our bigger cities. He eloquently discusses what attracts black men and women together and why in some instances, some couples who don’t look like they should be together, end up doing so. He also discusses why some men and women pass over each other – potentially good mates, specifically to get to together with someone in their social class. He emphasizes men having some sort of vision, getting into the gym, and the concepts of ‘select’ and ‘non-select’ men.

Debutantes And Cotillions

I first became aware of social class in high school in my hometown of Buffalo, NY. Every spring, one of our black newspapers, the Buffalo Criterion or the Challenger, presented the ‘Debutantes’ and the ‘Cotillions’. The Debutantes were young ladies in high school, usually juniors and seniors. They were associated with one of the black sororities – probably “Alpha Kappa Alpha”. The ladies were all dressed in black dresses (and maybe pearls). They took lovely solo head shots and were presented as a group on the front page. One year, one of the girls was a classmate. There was also a formal event where these girls were ‘presented’ to the world.

I first heard of the term Cotillion in high school as well. I had a friend who played on the varsity basketball team with me when we were sophomores. He stopped playing in our junior year, and a little while later, he started going on and on about some of the other guys in his Cotillion. One night when we were at a party, they did a ‘step routine’ of some sort, showing they were also affiliated with a ‘Black Greek’ organization. I think he later pledged “Phi Beta Sigma” in college.

There were two Black Greeks in my family. My eldest cousin in Georgia pledged the sorority “Sigma Gamma Rho”, and my father was a member of one of the more prominent fraternities which I’ll keep anonymous for everyone’s privacy. I interestingly have very little memory of him being active in his fraternity or regularly interacting with his ‘frat’ brothers. Later I found that there were reasons for this. I also later found out that this Black Greek world was in fact its own world within Black America.

Lawrence Otis Graham’s Our Kind of People: Inside America’s Black Upper-class periodically pops up in my writings. I read Member of The Club one summer, and then seeing him one night on Tavis Smiley’s show on BET debating Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, was a seminal moment for me. Highly criticized for celebrating America’s black upper-class, it was an important work for me personally. It let those of us who didn’t grow up in that class know that it existed – something, as a black person, you encounter and must reconcile in cities like Washington, DC, where I now reside. These people were born into the upper-class through generational wealth and inheritances, while others attempted to climb there through digging in and sacrificing throughout their lives.

While the book discusses the afore mentioned black fraternities and sororities, it also describes other clubs, groups and organizations within this upper-class such as Jack and Jill, The Boule, and The Links. The book also points out that being in the black upper-class isn’t simply a matter a of having money, as the ‘black elite’ don’t necessarily accept ‘new money’ celebrities, athletes and entertainers into their circles. Instead, there was a cultural aspect to their lives where individuals had to go to the ‘right’ schools and be a part of right clubs and families to be accepted. It might sound like a bit much to the outsider, but I find it all fascinating.

Why Does This Matter?

Why is this important? Well, as I discussed in my previous piece entitled, Who should or shouldn’t be in the African American History Museum?, there are numerous real divisions within the black race which are often overlooked. One of the big ones is social class. If you weren’t in the right circles in smaller cities like Buffalo, you didn’t really know debutantes and cotillions existed, or of the opportunities offered through participation in them. Since ascending in education and living in Washington, DC where the Congressional Black Caucus Annual Legislative Conference takes place every year, and attending the affluent church that I attend, you can see the delineations in social class.

And as Rom Wills, whom I discussed above states, you often see it in the dating arena. Men and women in some instances pick each other based upon their educational and social pedigrees and backgrounds. Likewise, if you’re not from those types of families with certain types of training, it’s important to understand how to socially mingle and carry yourself in certain circles when those instances arise.

Economic Class

I’m going to close this by saying that I didn’t really have a concept of ‘economic class’ until my brother commented amongst our friends when we were younger. He stated that we were ‘lower middle class’. Economic class is typically delineated by household income, healthcare and overall quality of life. Both my parents were college educated, they both worked, and I grew up in a house as opposed to the housing projects. We weren’t poor, but we also weren’t rich either and this does influence social class.

All of this is interesting to me because it suggests that we’re all different, despite being grouped together based upon skin color. It also explains much of what we see now in terms of variability in our personal natures, how we navigate the world, available opportunities for advancement and political agendas. We’re seeing many of these class divisions bubble to the surface now in politics. That said, skin color does factor in as well, and once you throw ‘Colorism’ into this discussion, this all gets further complicated.

What’s also fascinating is that we aren’t restricted by our social or economic class and don’t necessarily stay in them. There are instances where individuals in the upper-social classes have affinities for individuals in the lower classes in terms of dating and friendships. Also, individuals who have ascended into higher economic classes in terms of salary may still have the behavioral inclinations and vices from those in the lower-classes.

Modest But Privileged Beginnings

In writing this post, I am in no way complaining about my upbringing as I’m very grateful for it. One cousin recently actually told me that both my brother and myself had ‘privilege’ that she didn’t have growing up. Again, keep in mind that we weren’t rich, and we were raised by a single parent most of the year. The take home message here is that there are also delineations in privilege within a race even though we tend to think of privilege solely in terms of white vs. black.

The opening quote for this piece came from chapter one of Our Kind of People – a very fitting opening as we’re once again all different. I’m going to close by saying that social and economic class are real dynamics that affect everything from our quality of life, to dating/mating, to politics. These are just some of my thoughts on class. It’s something that I think we need to pay more attention to and acknowledge, and the sooner we do, I think the better off we’ll be.

An Important Discussion Throughout The Year

The original title for this piece was, A Black History Month discussion about race in the black community. I shortened it because this is a discussion that shouldn’t be restricted to one month. I want to thank Rom Wills and another YouTube content creator named BGS IBMOR for their work, and for helping many of us who needed these teachings to become better and wiser men.

BGS IBMOR authored the controversial “Octane Scale“, which we discussed on my original YouTube channel, Big Discussions76. It’s a concept that offends many people, but it’s a concept that I think is important nonetheless. Many of us didn’t understand the roles of social and economic class in our lives aside from the contexts of color, racism and prejudice, but they are real and they are there.

Thank you for taking the time to read this blog post. If you enjoyed this, you might also enjoy:

Whose job is it to teach black history?
Who should and shouldn’t be in the African American History Museum and who shouldn’t?
Are you Cooning? Thoughts on Black America’s new favorite racial slur, critical thought, and groupthink
A Black History Month reflection on Percy Julian
A Black History Month interview with Dr. Vernon Morris part one
A Black History Month look at West Indian Archie: A story of wasted scientific potential

The Big Words LLC Newsletter

For the next phase of my writing journey, I’m starting a monthly newsletter for my writing and video content creation company, the Big Words LLC. In it, I plan to share inspirational words, pieces from this blog and my first blog, and select videos from my four YouTube channels. Finally, I will share updates for my book project The Engineers: A Western New York Basketball Story. Your personal information and privacy will be protected. Click this link and register using the sign-up button at the bottom of the announcement. If there is some issue signing up using the link provided, you can also email me at bwllcnl@gmail.com . Best Regards.

Whose Job is it to Teach Black History?

“Marcus Garvey had the idea back in the day, doing for self, keeping the way……..”

One of the principles of my blog is Creative Thought and a key focus is Education. I’ve been thinking about this topic for a while now, and with Black History Month here, the time has come to put pen to paper, as they say. It’s a sensitive topic, and it may upset some readers, but I think that it’s a conversation worth having and a question worth asking. If you disagree with me here, that’s okay and it’s actually a good thing. Please leave a respectful comment below this piece. With that out of the way, let’s jump in.

Whose job is it to teach Black History? One of my most vivid memories of high school is my mother, and I believe other black parents, writing a letter to the Principal of my high school about a Black History Month program which he may have cancelled during my brother’s senior year. Around that time, and probably since, there was the sentiment that there needed to be more black history taught in the United States’ schools.

I always pondered this myself, and I wondered if this job should fall to our schools which in some instances are very, very diverse. My thoughts always settled on time and practicality. While the descendants of African slaves (my ancestors) were critical in the inception and then the construction of the United States, is there enough time during an eight to nine-month school year to cover every aspect of African American history? After all, the United States is now comprised of several races, ethnic groups and cultures.

As I’m getting older, I’m becoming more of a Marcus Garvey-type in that I believe that we as black people can and should do for ourselves as much as possible, and not look to other groups as much. Thus we should be responsible for passing down our own history, or at least clarifying, correcting, and supplementing what’s taught in the schools. In addition to the practicality of time described above, I have two other reasons.

One is that other races and ethnic groups seem to take the passing on of their culture and history into their own hands. As discussed in my second vlogcast on my new Big Discussions YouTube channel, when I was postdoctoral scientist at the Wadsworth Center in Albany, NY, I was in a lab that was 95% Chinese. Likewise, my advisor and his wife were from mainland China, and their two children were being raised as first generation United States citizens. In casual talk my advisor’s wife shared with me that both of their children attended a Chinese school on the weekends.

That meant that they wanted their children to learn the intricacies of their culture and history above and beyond what they were learning in their respective school systems. Other groups seem to do the same thing: Jewish people, Arabic people, etc. I’ve observed that Arabic communities continue to retain their customs from countries like Pakistan, for example, even while their children are born here in the United States and are ‘westernized’.

This does of course bring to light the paradox that we African Americans face in that we don’t have a culture besides that which we were born into here in the United States. Some of us argue to this day that the United States isn’t our true home. Others feel that using the qualifier ‘African’ in front of American is an insult for us, as we have every right to be here. White Americans are also seldom referred to as ‘Euro’ Americans.

My final reason for saying that we’re responsible for our own history is accuracy. After all, who would know our history better than us? Just like in the media, I think that he or she who controls the historical narratives, controls perceptions, personal identities, self-esteem, etc. Images matter and this is why the movie Hidden Figures was big deal for example. As a black scientist myself, I’m very passionate about shinning the light on our historic black scientists such as Percy Julian, and astronauts Dr. Ronald E. McNair and Lieutenant Colonel Michael P. Anderson.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is one of the figures who is most synonymous with Black History Month. He is lionized and even romanticized these days and as we know, it wasn’t always that way. While we know that he was the figurehead of the Civil Rights Movement and that he opposed white racist elements in the south, what isn’t discussed is how he was perceived by other black people of his time in an open and transparent way.

A black elder from the “Baby Boomer” generation who grew up in the south, once shared with me that Dr. King had numerous black detractors as well, and there were in fact other black people who wanted to take his life. I was surprised to hear this revelation, as I’d never heard about it before. The same was true of Dr. King’s extramarital affairs which Dr. Michael Eric Dyson discussed in one of his books about Dr. King.

The point here is not to besmudge the great Dr. King, but instead to emphasize the importance of a balanced historical perspective – telling both the good and the bad. I suspect that generations from now, people will be unaware of Reverend Jesse Jackson’s disparaging comments about President Barrack Obama leading up to his historic election in 2008, and that they’ll only remember the picturesque scene of Reverend Jackson crying at Grant Park on election night 2017 shortly after Senator John McCain conceded.

I’m going to close by extending this world history. In my “Global Studies” courses back at Hutch-Tech High School in Buffalo, NY, I didn’t learn anything about “The Moors” – explorers and tradesmen from Africa who occupied Spain in the early 700s. I first heard about them from a friend from Buffalo who I’ll call “Kenny”, who was and is very, very passionate about African world history. We as African Americans probably could and should know more about mainland Africa beyond what we learn in class and see on the news and in the media – the good, the bad and the ugly.

When I look back at my youth, one woman comes to mind in terms of actively spreading black history beyond the jurisdiction of our schools. Back in my home city of Buffalo, NY, Ms. Eva Doyle was actually my very first science teacher in the second grade I believe. As I got older though I saw that she was very active and passionate about the teaching and spreading of black history. She became a fixture in our local black newspapers and in the community in general and continues her work today, setting an example for all of us.

These are just some of my thoughts on Black History Month, and I hope that I haven’t upset anyone. In a way it’s funny that it’s the shortest month of the year, but at the same time it’s something that we as black people should be learning throughout the year. In today’s digital age, we’re very fortunate that vast amounts of information are available online to us via a simple Google searches and via video platforms like YouTube. It wasn’t like this years ago.

The quote at the beginning of this piece is a lyric from the hip hop track “Black Star Line” by a group called “Brand Nubian” I listened to when I was a teen. It was from one of “Lord Jamar’s” verses. This track was based on Marcus Garvey. Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s as opposed to modern times, hip hop and rap music had educational, social and political messages, and I learned quite a bit of black history from it. The visual at the beginning of this piece is from the 36th Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Birthday Celebration hosted by the Washington Inter-Alumni Council of the United Negro College Fund., which is regularly supported by my Johnson C. Smith University Washington DC Alumni Chapter.

Thank you for taking the time to read this blog post. If you enjoyed this one, you might also enjoy:

Are you Cooning? Thoughts on Black America’s new favorite racial slur, critical thought, and groupthink
A Black History Month reflection on Percy Julian
A Black History Month interview with Dr. Vernon Morris part one
A Black History Month look at West Indian Archie
A review of Marvel’s Black Panther
A review of Hidden Figures
A review of All Eyez On Me

The Big Words LLC Newsletter

For the next phase of my writing journey, I’m starting a monthly newsletter for my writing and video content creation company, the Big Words LLC. In it, I plan to share inspirational words, pieces from this blog and my first blog, and select videos from my four YouTube channels. Finally, I will share updates for my book project The Engineers: A Western New York Basketball Story. Your personal information and privacy will be protected. Click this link and register using the sign-up button at the bottom of the announcement. If there is some issue signing up using the link provided, you can also email me at bwllcnl@gmail.com . Best Regards.

Are you Cooning? Thoughts on Black America’s new favorite racial slur, critical thought, and groupthink


With a key principle of my blog being “Critical/Objective Thought”, I’ll occasionally jump off the STEM- and Financial Literacy-trains to discuss aspects of culture, current events, and politics as I did for Colin Kaepernick’s retirement.  Similarly, Black America’s adoption and use of the word “Coon” has been rolling around in my mind for a while and begging me to write a thought-piece about it.  Thus, at the risk of upsetting some people and sharing this with the “Dominant Culture”, I’ve decided to capture some of my thoughts and observations regarding modern day usage of this racial slur by the same people it was ironically first used against.  If you’re easily offended by the word Coon, you should stop reading now because it and others are mentioned quite a bit in this post.

Send Up The Coon Signal!

In the aftermath of the events in Charlottesville, VA there was controversy, of course, surrounding President Donald J. Trump and his comments on the clash of protestors – particularly that there was wrong doing on both sides.  There were quite a few criticisms of his remarks; what he said, how he said them, how quickly he said them, etc.  Midweek after that a Facebook “friend” (a fellow African American) posted the link to an article entitled, “Black Christian Leaders Detest Claim That Trump Is the ‘Driver’ of Racial Division in America”.  The individual who posted the article wrote joking language tagging another friend and saying to, “Send up the Coon signal,” followed by a number of other posters who contributed numerous pictures and GIF animations about black people and cartoon characters “Cooning”.

I had mixed feelings when I saw the responses, but I was not surprised.  On the one hand, yes, it was funny.  On the other hand, here was another case of black people ripping other black people because of ideological and philosophical differences.  I shared the article on my page to see what would happen, and a good number of other African Americans in my network saw the article and expectedly became angry.  Most felt betrayed that these black clergymen and women would defend “#45” as he’s referred to now in many circles.

While this post was in part inspired by Donald J. Trump, it isn’t about Trump per se.  It’s about black people lashing out and ridiculing one another due to differences of opinion and points of view.  Unfortunately, this is actually common as discussed on one of Mumia Obsidian Ali’s podcasts titled “Dumb it Down”, where he discussed how most of Black America – some of our most respected intellectuals and scholars included, can’t have diverging viewpoints without resorting to personally attacking the opposing side or as we call it in the black community, “Playing the Dozens”.

In the podcast for example, Ali cited Dr. Michael Eric Dyson’s attack of Dr. Cornel West following West’s criticism of the Obama administration – not addressing any of West’s criticisms directly, just verbally attacking him and his character.  This squabble between Dr. Dyson and Dr. West represents a toxic dynamic in Black America today – philosophical and political disagreements resulting in emotional backlashes against black people who diverge from the “Social Justice” narrative, and then calling the person a “Coon”.  It’s very fascinating to witness when it happens.

Ali further described how individuals including: Dr. Thomas Sowell, Jason Riley, John McWhorter, and Dr. Glen Loury – all great black thinkers and writers have been regarded as “Coons” because of their independent/conservative, and non-social justice ideas and views.  Interestingly growing up on Buffalo’s eastside, I’d never heard about Dr. Sowell, the elder of the names mentioned.  I was ironically introduced to one of Dr. Sowell’s books, “Inside American Education” by a Greek-American classmate at the University of Michigan one day when discussing politics as we ran our experiments.  I didn’t hear anything about him either at Johnson C. Smith University, the HBCU I attended.  Anyhow, in his podcast Ali further stated that within Black American social media circles, that it is not uncommon to be met with the term “Coon” for merely disagreeing with a person’s particular personal experience/position or the prevailing zeitgeist of the black community at large.

Taking Ownership Of Racial Insults And Slurs

“Hey!!!  What about me?  Don’t you hold out on me you big Dummy-Nigger!!!  Ha, ha, ha, ha…….”

“Wild Bill” Wharton’s racial slur against John Coffey over not getting any cornbread in The Green Mile features another once humiliating word Black America has taken in as its own.  Just like “Nigger”, “Coon” was also a racial slur used against blacks by whites in the Jim Crow era.  Actually the Coon was a bigoted caricature of black people with the defining character trait of laziness.  I tend to think of it when I think of the old “Minstrel Shows” where in some instances white people would dress up as black people (“Black Face”) and act like clowns and buffoons.  In some instances, real black people participated.

In the 1990s, Hip Hop artists like Tupac Shakur took “Nigger” and transformed it into “Nigga” (Never-Ignorant-Getting-Goals-Accomplished), glorifying and popularizing the term, setting off countless debates both within and outside of the black community about who could use it, and if it should be used at all.  Recently Bill Maher re-sparked the debate culminating in Ice Cube stating, “It’s our word now,” on Maher’s show.  Then as now, some black people found it offensive and demeaning, while others felt as though a negative had been turned into a positive.

Some blacks felt and feel that it’s an accurate descriptor for the worst behaviors of our race – something echoed by many of our most popular comedians.  Overall black people couldn’t and can’t seem to agree on it even today.  Actually most black people do agree that it’s very offensive when other cultures use it with the exception of maybe Dominicans and Puerto Ricans due to some similarities in lineage and culture.

My First Time Hearing About Cooning

“You’re a COON!!!”  I may have been out of the loop, as per usual, but I first heard the modern contexts for “Coon” and “Cooning” when watching one of Tommy Sotomayor’s YouTube videos.  He’s one of the many black male YouTubers that I watch.  I won’t go into too much detail about Tommy, and I may lose some readers here, but yes I have become a regular viewer and a fan.  I don’t know that I would start a show saying the things he says, and in the ways that he says them, but personally coming from my background, he and others like him help explain a lot of things – particularly some of the pathologies in black communities across our country.

In most cases he holds our people responsible for their destructive behaviors and doesn’t blame white people, or dwell in the past.  He focuses on what not to do.  Tommy does lean conservative and he’s particularly hard on black women – I’m sorry, some black women.  Those who regularly watch the show understand the “not all” distinction.  He draws more than his fair share of backlash and death threats, and regularly gets accused of “Cooning”.

“Coon Train is coming.  Coon Train is coming.  Coon Train is coming…”

Tommy’s arch-nemesis, a “Pro-Black” gentleman named Tariq Nasheed, created the “Coon Train Awards” similar to the “Soul Train Awards”.  Someone created a jingle with the above words and a montage including Tommy Sotomayor and Jesse Peterson among others.  The song is actually funny, and it sometimes pops into my mind.  The actual use of the word does make me bristle though, especially when the person called the name is only asking a question, or is thinking differently than the person assigning it.

What is this modern day definition of a Coon?  It’s usually angrily and viciously unleashed upon blacks perceived as having ‘white’ points of view in the eyes of ‘woke’ black people.  It’s the modern day incarnation of an ‘Uncle Tom’, or ‘Oreo’, or ‘House Nigga’, or the character ‘Uncle Ruckus’ from The Boondocks who usually comes up when someone has been called Coon.  It’s someone who is thought to be betraying the race for ‘White Supremacy’.  One of the biggest contradictions is that it’s often used by those who would consider themselves pro-black (some of whom themselves indulge in colorism and bigotry against other brown skinned people).  Consequently, both Coon and Nigga are terms designating one’s blackness, but in different ways – Nigga having good and bad contexts.

Cooning And Groupthink

Calling someone Coon makes me think about the concept of ‘Groupthink’.  A simple search of the term Groupthink on Google brings up the following definition:

“Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon within a group of people in which the desire for harmony and conformity in the group results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome.  Group members try to minimize conflict and reach a consensus decision without critical evaluation of alternative viewpoints by actively suppressing dissenting viewpoints, and by isolating themselves from outside influences.”

Groupthink is very dangerous and organized religion gets a bad rap from instances where groups of people have been mobilized to do evil deeds in a suicidal fashion (Jonestown), or against non-believers.  It’s simply following the herd without thinking.  It’s voting a certain way because one’s parents or race traditionally voted or believed a certain way.  It’s immediately calling someone a racist, a misogynist, or a sexist without analyzing all of the facts – usually responding off of pure emotion.  Groupthink prevents its believers from acknowledging when the other person/side might have good ideas or valid points, strictly because they’re on the other side.  These are all things I hear when someone calls someone else a Coon.

Interestingly, use of the word Coon seems to be an artifact of my generation and those behind us.  When describing this to my mother’s generation (Boomers) who lived through the Civil Rights Era, and who readily heard this word and others in their youths, many are surprised and disapprove – at least those I’ve talked with.  Some elders in general ironically loosely still use the word “Nigga” – sometimes in jest amongst themselves.  Perhaps it’s just in our nature to turn negatives into positives, and adopt words that were once used against us.

How Do You Know If You’re Cooning?

Are you Cooning?  How do you know if you are?  What warrants being called a Coon?  Again, it often involves being black and having independent thoughts and conservative values.  It could be a matter of criticizing Colin Kaepernick’s protest as Minister Jap and Oshay Duke Jackson did – both black men who were subsequently called “Coons” and in some instances “Klansmen” by some of their commenters – the majority black.

It could be something like saying the single-motherhood rate in the black community is too high and is the major impediment of the black race’s advancement in the United States.  It could be pointing out that black people can be just as much, if not more, bigoted than white people – not racist of course, because black people don’t have power.  It could be the belief that black people are accountable for their actions and that everything happening in 2017 isn’t the fault of white people.  It could be stating that you weren’t offended by the Confederate flags and statues.  Lastly, it could be citing and believing statistics arguing that there is an unusually high rate of black on black crime.  Cooning could be any of these things and much more.

“You’re a COON!!!”  Whenever the word is unleashed on someone there is a definite viciousness to it.  The individuals who use it always seem to be angry and have reached a level of frustration with the person they’ve ascribed it to, for not agreeing with their point of view.  To see such a display, look up Roland Martin’s show where he hosted the “Prince of Pan-Africanism”,  Dr. Umar Johnson.  In a panel discussion about the state of Black America, Dr. Johnson readily unleashed the word on some of the other panelists all of whom were black.  Martin, who aligns with the Democratic party, bristled at the use of the word, and constantly reminded Dr. Johnson not use it any further.  The entire exchange was amusing, but at times shocking to watch.

Have I ever been called a Coon?  Yes, I have on Twitter, but it was by someone no one takes seriously.  Considering myself an independent – one who doesn’t belong to either political party, and who questions things, I’ll probably be called it to my face before long, but that’s okay.  The important thing for me is to think critically and objectively – not solely off of emotion if I can help it, and not necessarily following the herd for the sake of following the herd.  So if that makes me a Coon, then so be it.

Conclusions On Cooning

I’ll close by going back to our 45th President.  As I told a cousin who insisted he was a racist over a fiery Thanksgiving dinner discussion prior to the 2016 election, I’ve never heard Donald J. Trump say “Coon” or “Nigga”, but I’ve certainly heard black people say them to other black people quite often.  It’s kind of contradictory right?  It’s like ‘Pro-Blacks’ mocking other blacks because they’re too dark.  I guess it’s okay as long as we’re doing these things to one another.

“You’re a COON!!!”  Do I expect the people who enjoy using the word to stop?  Of course not.  While I stated above that the word is often used out of anger, those using it also seem to get a certain amount of enjoyment and satisfaction from using it.  Interestingly, ‘Coon’ in its modern context offends me more than ‘Nigga’ does.  So no, I don’t expect much of anything to change, but perhaps I’ve raised awareness here to some degree.

A cousin donated the meme at the beginning of this post in a Facebook thread I was tagged in, started by another cousin who really, really wants President Trump impeached.  I used pictures of Dr. Ben Carson and Sheriff David Clarke, Jr. in this post because their books just happened to be in stock at my local Barnes & Noble recently.  The same is true for Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, though I couldn’t find a good picture of Dr. Thomas Sowell.  The newspaper photos were courtesy of the Washington Post’s daily morning express edition handed out during my morning commute.

Both Carson and Clarke are well known for different reasons, and both are considered Coons.   Sheriff Clarke is unashamedly conservative and strongly believes in law and order.  I saw Dr. Carson speak live during graduate school for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday when he still had his legendary status.

He’s intriguing not only because he’s also a Michigan alumnus, but because this brilliant and gifted neurosurgeon has fallen from grace in parts of the black community due to his conservative politics, traditional values, and his working in the Trump administration.  In the eyes of many, his medical and scientific accomplishments are now forever tainted.  Lastly, while I’ve discussed only men in this piece, there are black women who draw similar criticisms – Deneen Borelli, and Stacy Dash come to mind.

I want to thank my brother and a group of friends for being my test audience for this potentially volatile topic.  We collectively discuss these issues all week long.  I especially want to acknowledge the Gaines brothers for turning me onto Tommy Sotomayor, Obsidian Radio, and the other black male YouTubers.  Without the discussions on their channels and podcasts, I wouldn’t have known most of this stuff was going on, and I wouldn’t have had the perspective to craft this post.

Thank you for taking the time out to read this blog post. If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy:

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Challenging misconceptions and stereotypes in class, household income, wealth and privilege
Who will benefits from Apple’s $350 billion investment?

If you’ve found value here and think it would benefit others, please share it and/or leave a comment. I’ve started a YouTube channel which is entitled, Big Discussions76. To receive all of the most up to date content from the Big Words Blog Site, subscribe using the subscription box in the right hand column in this post and throughout the site, or add the link to my RSS feed to your feedreader. Lastly, follow me on Twitter at @BWArePowerful, on Instagram at @anwaryusef76, and at the Big Words Blog Site Facebook page. While my main areas of focus are Education, STEM and Financial Literacy, there are other blogs/sites I endorse which can be found on that particular page of my site.

Kaep steps away: discussions on Colin Kaepernick’s early retirement from the NFL

While the main areas of my blog are Education, STEM and Financial Literacy, I will occasionally comment on Social and Political topics where I see it appropriate – especially when they relate to principles of my blog – in this case critical thought, and empowering others.  This particular topic has the potential to get people fired up due its polarizing nature but I’ve decided to reach my hand into the fire nonetheless.  In writing this I’m not seeking to give an opinion that everyone should follow – just to capture the main points and questions from the discussions that have ensued.  I have to give credit where it is due in that I decided to write something about this after listening to the YouTube channels of Minister Jap, and Oshay Duke Jackson who weighed in heavily on this – both receiving agreement and backlash from their listeners.

A very recent and interesting story is former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s retirement. I won’t go far into who Colin Kaepernick is as his background is available online via a simple Google search.  The entire timeline surrounding his retirement is actually captured in an article written by Dan Wetzel of Yahoo Sports titled, “Colin Kaepernick is making his choice: Activism over the NFL”.  It was graciously shared by a Facebook friend.

Put simply Colin Kaepernick was a very electric player in the NFL at the quarterback position who had about three great years with the San Francisco 49ers before his career bottomed out into mediocrity. With his combination of size, quickness, mobility and a strong arm, the tattooed signal caller looked like the future of his position.  With his good looks and a unique image/persona, he was also destined to clean up money-wise on endorsements, modeling and in the media off the field.

His ascension sputtered though when his brilliance on the field seemed to stagnate and regress which for me was surprising. His decline was mostly due to defenses adapting to his skill set which hadn’t yet evolved to make him more of pocket passer.  The departure of Head Coach Jim Harbaugh back to my alma mater also didn’t help, nor did the dismantling of the roster that surrounded him when the 49ers made their run to Super Bowl XLVII.  All in all, in the last year or so, even though he signed a $126 million-dollar contract, it wasn’t clear if he still had the skills to play in the league.

As all of the police shootings of black men were caught on tape within the last two to three years (Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, and Walter Scott for example), Kaepernick’s focus seemed to shift from returning to the All-Pro quarterback he had been, to becoming more of a vocal “Social Justice Warrior” championing the causes of police-brutalized African Americans who seemed to be victimized more and more. During the 2016 season, he made the bold protest at the beginning of 49ers’ games at first sitting during our national anthem, and then later on opting to famously take a knee.  The reactions to his protests were mixed everywhere.  In the league, some players and teammates disagreed with the protest, while others supported him and joined in.  Kaepernick further did other things like vocally showing little confidence in our voting/electoral process which makes me wonder in hindsight if his example impacted the 2016 Presidential Election.  Many people actually do follow the examples and leadership of celebrities/pro-athletes, and a low voter turnout on the Democratic side was actually said to have helped Donald Trump win the presidency.  In another instance Kaepernick took it a step further by wearing socks to practice depicting the police as pigs – perhaps inspired the “Pigs in blanket: fry em like bacon,” chant by Black Lives Matter in Minnesota in 2015.

In my circle of friends, the question came up as to whether or not Kaepernick should’ve been focusing strictly on football and getting back to where he was a couple of seasons ago. It came up a lot actually.  The other question was whether or not he was being a distraction to his team and organization, and if he was permanently burning his bridges in the NFL – a traditionally conservative organization which didn’t like controversies and always sought to, “Protect the shield,” as talk show host Jim Rome always says.

In Black America, points of view varied as they normally do with all things political and socioeconomic. The Pro-Black Activists and the “Stay Woke” folks vocally and fervently supported Kaepernick.  Others questioned his motives and newfound interest in Civil Rights issues – particularly because he was bi-racial, raised in a white family and never openly took an interest in such issues before – black on black crime for example which some would argue is responsible for more black deaths.  As a result of his protest, many also rallied behind the uncovered origins of the Star-Spangled Banner and rejected our national anthem.  Something I interestingly missed but that a mentor pointed out, was that our traditionally liberal US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader-Ginsburg even disapproved of Kaepernick’s protest which was surprising.

But what would be the outcome of Kaepernick’s protests? What good would come of them?  He may have been, “Following is heart,” as said by a cousin on Facebook, but were his actions the best thing for him and the people he was looking to help?  Some felt that Kaepernick had “won” because he had gotten people talking about him and his protests.  Whether or not they would affect real change remained to be seen.

Fast forward to this summer of 2017 – Kaepernick, now a free agent had one tryout with the Seattle Seahawks who ultimately didn’t sign him leading to his retirement announcement. I heard about his retirement on the above mentioned shows where the discussions got very heated.  Some of Minister Jap’s listeners for example called him all kinds of names like, “Klansman”, in addition to today’s en vogue black on black slur, “Coon”.  The comments in both shows were surprisingly split down the middle in rebuke of Kaepernick vs. rebuking the hosts.

Whatever happens to Colin Kaepernick, I hope that he lands on his feet somewhere and there is a happy ending to his story unlike what some others are predicting. A couple of points stand out to me from Kaepernick’s retirement and the discussions I’ve listened to surrounding it.  They are:

  • For all the younger people witnessing this, think about the long-term effect on your life and job prospects when seeking to make political/social statements. Ask yourself if it is really worth it in the end? Is it the appropriate time? In other words there are consequences to our actions.  My former stepfather once told me that a particular black activist back in Buffalo made quite a few blacks in the city “self-destruct” and self-sabotage their careers. In a way the title of the above mentioned Yahoo Sports article is deceptive in that it sounds as though Kaepernick is highly coveted and doesn’t want to play anymore, versus not being wanted by any of the NFL’s 32 franchises.
  • Change and power in the United States is economic and only minimally impacted by protests and marches. If Kaepernick will no longer command a million-dollar salary and endorsements in addition to his former platform, how will he now effect meaningful change for those he wants to help? One of the arguments on the above mentioned shows was that he could’ve used his salary to build businesses and employ other blacks to make real change – similar to Magic Johnson who has done quite well since his playing days.
  • Not all black people think alike on anything. Issues over politics and race divide and fragment the race a whole. The fallout and name calling whenever there are differences of opinion are always striking to me.
  • Lastly even in 2017, there is a genuine distrust of bi-racial blacks by other blacks – particularly those raised in predominantly white households, who then take pro-black stances when it appears to be convenient.

One of the talk show hosts stated that at some point reality will crash down hard on Colin Kaepernick – if and when his resources are depleted, he’ll be forgotten – similar to what happened to MC Hammer once all of his resources were spent. Likewise, the same people he is seeking to help will eventually turn their backs on him even after some of his gestures of generosity such as giving suits to felons.  Again, my hope is that he has thought all of this out, and will have a productive life after football.  For that stretch of two to three years, #7 was definitely a great one in my opinion.

Thank you for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed this you, you might also enjoy:

Are you Cooning? Thoughts on Black America’s new favorite racial slur, critical thought, and groupthink
What are you doing with your tax cut? Thoughts on what can be done with heavier paychecks and paying less tax
Challenging misconceptions and stereotypes in class, household income, wealth and privilege
Challenging misconceptions and stereotypes in academic achievement
The benefits and challenges of using articulate speech
Who will benefit from Apple’s $350 billion investment?

If you’ve found value here and think it would benefit others, please share it and or leave a comment.  To receive all of the most up to date content from the Big Words Blog Site, subscribe using the subscription box in the right hand column in this post and throughout the site.  Lastly follow me on Twitter at @BWArePowerful, at the Big Words Blog Site Facebook page, and on Instagram at @anwaryusef76.  While my main areas of focus are Education, STEM and Financial Literacy, there are other blogs/sites I endorse which can be found on that particular page of my site.

A review of All Eyez on Me

I was originally going to write my next movie review on Spider-Man: Homecoming, but All Eyez on Me came out of nowhere.  I first saw the trailer a couple of weeks ago, when going to see Alien: Covenant.  I saw the movie shortly after it was released, and subsequently felt compelled to write something about it.  

All Eyez on Me starred Demetrius Shipp Jr. who played the late and legendary Hip Hop recording artist/actor Tupac Shakur.  I immediately thought Shipp was a spitting image of Shakur when I first saw the trailer, and he didn’t disappoint in the film.  Shipp masterfully captured Tupac not only in terms of looks, but also in terms of verbal and non-verbal communication, and even in the way Shakur bobbed around dancing in his music videos, and in the recording studios. 

Similar to Straight Outta Compton, the movie tracked Shakur’s early life – going back to his pre-teen years starting with his mother’s membership in the Black Panther Party.  It further showed his family’s move to Baltimore, and then his initial move to the west coast.  It touched upon his friendship with Jada Pinkett-Smith – a source of controversy as Pinkett-Smith subsequently released a statement saying that the movie wasn’t entirely factual content-wise. 

All Eyez on Me further chronicled Tupac’s ascension to stardom first in music and then on the movie screen in addition to the problems that riddled his life and career.  Similar to many Hip Hop artists, his career was mired by money issues in addition to violence which ultimately ended his life in 1996 while signed with Suge Knight’s Death Row Records.  Similar to most artistic geniuses, he was taken from the world early just as he was on the cusp of going to his next creative level and expanding into other areas; record label ownership and screenwriting projects similar to Ice Cube.

While my favorite all time Hip Hop group is Gang-Starr, my interest in Tupac changed over the years.  I was very much a fan of Digital Underground as a young teen and didn’t know he was actually a part of that group until he released “Brenda’s Got a Baby” – a more socially conscious track than most of what the Underground had produced.  I took a liking to his track “If My Homie Calls”, and even bought a copy of his record “Strictly 4 My NIGGAZ”.  I followed him from a distance as he blew up in movies, and then started to hear about his run ins with the police, the rape charge which put him in jail, and finally when he got swept up into the center of the East Coast-West Coast Feud which arguably took down both him and the Notorious BIG

Simply put, Tupac was genius.  His music embodied the anti-police and black power themes of the Black Panther Party while at the same time telling the stories of young black men in the inner cities.  He released conflicting tracks like: “I Get Around”, “Keep Ya Head Up”, and then “Dear Momma” – a source of jokes at the time.  The track that really grabbed me though was the solemn and dark, “So Many Tears” which he released when he was in jail and reflecting on his life.  He used a double in the video who wore his signature bandana and loose fitting clothing.  My favorite track he created once he joined Death Row Records was “Gangsta Party” where he teamed up with Snoop Dogg.

In the mid-1990s as an undergraduate, I interestingly took a liking to Smooth Jazz.  As a whole I pulled back from the Hip Hop scene.  A bit of a bookworm at the time, I didn’t particularly understand Tupac’s glorification of the “THUG” lifestyle and what it represented though I still respected his articstic brilliance and felt the pain and loss of his death – still unsolved to this day similar to that of the Notorious BIG who was also murdered shortly afterwards.

I would recommend seeing All Eyez on Me.  The movie embodied a couple of the principles of my blog; empowering others and teaching others how to succeed – sometimes by teaching what not to do.  The movie showed the complexity of Tupac’s life, and similar to Straight Outta Compton, it showed the importance of choices, and being in control of one’s financial destiny – something many recording artists of that era grappled with.  Also similar to Straight Outta Compton, if you listened to Hip Hop music in the early 1990s, you’ll find yourself singing along, nodding you’re head, and bouncing your arms up and down in the theater.  You’ll also recognize signature scenes from movies like Juice, and Above the Rim which Tupac starred in.  Hill Harper plays a prominent role in the film, interviewing Tupac from jail.  Interestingly, the actor who played Notorious BIG (Jamal Woolard) in the movie Notorious, reprised his role in this film, though all new actors were used for the prominent members of Death Row Records.  There was also a cameo by NFL wide receiver Desean Jackson.

If you’ve found value here and think it would benefit others, please share it and/or leave a comment. I’ve recently started a YouTube channel, so please visit me at Big Discussions76. To receive all the most up to date content from the Big Words Blog Site, subscribe using the subscription box in the right-hand column in this post and throughout the site, or add my RSS feed to your feedreader. You can follow me on the Big Words Blog Site Facebook page, and Twitter at @BWArePowerful. Lastly, you can follow me on Instagram at @anwaryusef76. While my main areas of focus are Education, STEM and Financial Literacy, there are other blogs/sites I endorse which can be found on that particular page of my site.

JetBlue discusses initial findings from book vending machine program part two

Earlier this year I was granted a second interview with JetBlue regarding its book vending machine program.    JetBlue piloted the program and an associated study in southeast Washington DC seeking to determine whether or not making books more readily available to neighborhoods like Anacostia would increase the reading skills of children living there.  The following interview with Icema Gibbs of JetBlue was previously unpublished as it was conducted and finalized just before the Examiner shut down its operations.  At the time of the interview, Jet Blue was embarking on the second year of the vending machine study (see part one) in addition to expanding it into other cities such as Detroit.

During the summer of 2015, JetBlue and Random House partnered together on a study as part of the airline’s “Soar with Reading” Campaign.  The study looked at whether or not increasing the availability of books to residents in “Book Deserts” could reverse the low reading levels and perceived lack of interest in reading typically associated with lower income neighborhoods.  On June 9, 2016, Jet Blue granted interviews to discuss the initial results from the Book Vending Machine study with Dr. Susan Neuman who has conducted extensive research on ‘Book Deserts’ across America, and Icema Gibbs, JetBlue’s Director of Corporate Responsibility.  In part one, Susan Neuman discussed the initial findings of the program.  In part two, Icema Gibbs also discusses the study findings in addition to Jet Blue’s plans to expand the Soar with Reading Program into Detroit, MI.

Anwar Dunbar:  Hello, Icema.  It’s really good to talk with you again.  I asked Susan a bunch of questions, but I have one main question for you.  Is it true that you all are expanding ‘Soar with Reading’ into other markets?

Icema Gibbs:  You know all things equal, I think it would be our objective to expand as much as we can, but we just don’t have the budget to make it a year round program or to expand it beyond one city at a time.  Right now, we are going back to Anacostia with the vending machine component; our most successful location.  As you discussed with Susan, this time we’re testing the outcomes of the children, and we’re going to do that at a “Counterfactual” site and at the church, and really do a deep dive into trying to figure how what we’re doing makes an impact on the education of the child; their vocabulary and so forth.  We’re not abandoning the city we were in initially, but we’re spreading the program this year based on customer and crew member feedback to a new city, Detroit, where they will have an abundance of vending machines.

We’ll be there starting in July.  At the end of June, we’re having the kick-off celebration in Detroit and we will be in five locations there.

AD:  I asked Susan about which books were in the vending machines in Anacostia, and she said that you all were very particular about putting books with African American characters in the machines in terms of content and on the covers.

IG:  That’s absolutely a goal.  We worked with Random House to help us with this initiative so we’re using their roster of books.  Yes, we did consciously try to put as many books with children of color on the covers because you might have a diverse group of characters in the book, but if you don’t see it on the cover you might not know that.  We thought it was important for the kids to be able to see everybody that looks like them on the cover of the books, even more so this year.

AD:  With these being Random House books, do you have some of the titles handy?  I know Jack and Annie from the Magic Treehouse aren’t African American (laughing).

IG:  Sure.  No they aren’t African American, but they were very recognizable pictures in the airports.  And it has really helped people become more aware of the program because kids had a chance to see Jack and Annie, characters they are very familiar with.

So I don’t know if you know how we operated the vending machines, but we changed them every two weeks.  The host has to be really on top of what’s going on and continue to rotate the books regularly.  There are also different age groups.  Examples of titles for age four to five included:

So we have quite a few diverse titles which reflect diverse characters.  Christopher Grant is one of our writers and he wrote ‘Taking Flight’.  We have quite a few books that will speak to all demographics.

AD:  And these are all published by Random House?

IG:  Yes.

AD:  Susan talked about there being a lot of blaming the parents regarding the child’s reading level.  Her interpretation of the data generated is that making the books available is a major component to a child’s learning to read in lower income areas.

IG:  The reason that we wanted to form an Education Advisory Board is because we fly planes really well, and in terms of customer service, we’re probably the best in the business.  We do great things with our customers and we treat our crew members really well.  We don’t profess to be educational experts however.  We know what we read in the papers, but we convened an advisory board with Susan, who is really leading that charge, because we needed to understand some of the myths and what to look for.  We knew that parents wanted good things for their children.  You kind of know that regardless of wherever you are.  We knew that given an opportunity people would enjoy having free books.

Now when we talk about Anacostia and the lessons learned, it’s clear to me that people didn’t believe the books were free.  We had to put out signs that said, ‘Free Books’, because families thought there was a catch to it.  Parents were interested in getting books for their children and they were interested in reading with their children.  They were very interested in helping their children create libraries.  Thus, some of the stereotypes that you may have heard or read were dispelled by our study.  We did not see a parent who said, “No, I don’t want to you to read, don’t take a book,” or, “Reading is not important.”

We heard the comments of people standing in line.  We saw the parents going into the grocery stores who might have been going in to get some milk and said, “We don’t have time on the way in, but let’s stop on the way out.”  There were just so many people interested in obtaining books and in that geographic area, there were no books for them to purchase.  So for us to have been able to give out the books that we did through the vending machines really said that people were interested.

AD:  Yes, that’s definitely an important myth to dispel.  Susan and I discussed this – you all are of the opinion that the store proprietors should take on a leadership role in terms of stocking more books, but are there also roles for our elected officials and government?

IG:  I don’t know that there is a message here for our lawmakers and elected officials.  More so, I think that we have to look at offering opportunities and I don’t know if that stands with the lawmakers.  So it goes back to, “I own a business.  I care about my community.  Can I see if I can get some discounted books to put in my store?”  How do you make that happen?  When we first started this program with the vending machines, you were talking to some of your peers and the pushback we got so adamantly from one young lady was that there are libraries and that this is not necessary because there are libraries.  We talked with her a little bit further and expressed that we love the libraries.  We’re not competing with the libraries, but at the end of the day you give the book back at a library and these are books to keep.  Children who have the books to keep have a tendency to read them over and over again and to read them to other people.

It helps children to continue to build their vocabulary and gives them a conversation point when they go to school, or over the summer when they see their friends, especially if they’ve picked up the same book.  We saw that in the church where the kids would say, “We love this book…,” and finishing the sentences and just hearing about a book they had already read.  We were pleased with all of those types of situations that happened during the course of our time in Anacostia.

We’re not saying that during this election year there needs to be books in every retail outlet, but we want community leaders to stand up and say, “We need books in our community.”  We want churches and educators to talk to proprietors and tell them that we need books and they need to be reasonably priced.  They can’t be so high priced that you can’t afford them.  Everyone has smart phones and smart devices, and that’s also a way to get books, but they’re also relatively expensive. So how do you get equal access for everybody?

We found that many people didn’t have equal access to books, but when they did they enjoyed reading them and would come to get them.  When we sent out text messages people were able to opt into our program and we would text them that we were putting in new books and having reading sessions.  They would come to our locations and participate with us.  The parents were engaged in the education of their children, and they were engaged in taking books that they were able to choose.  It wasn’t a handout.  The kids were especially excited about being able to pick a book that they wanted.  It was really interesting last year for us – there was nothing better than seeing the light on the faces of the children who were able to select books and build their own library.

AD:  Another piece to this which goes beyond the scope of what we’re talking about is who actually owns the stores in the neighborhoods we’re discussing.

IG:  To be clear though, a business can be anything.  I think we first think of larger outlets, but if you are a barbershop or a hair salon, you could have books there as well.  You probably already have magazines and you can also invest in books as well, especially if the books are inexpensive.  If you can sell sunglasses you can also sell books.  So you’re right about who might own the retail outlets, but in all of these communities we should have access to books.  One thing I took for granted is that in most communities if you go into $0.99 stores, you can buy books.  I thought all $0.99 stores were alike, but in some areas they sold books and others they didn’t.

IG:  I have the locations where we’ll be in Detroit.  Are you interested?

AD:  Yes.

IG:  We will be at the following locations: the Northwest Activities Center, the Samaritan Center, the Matrix Center, Patton Park, and Rosedale Park Baptist Church.

AD:  Okay, very good.  I’m sure they’ll be very happy to have you guys there.  Do you have any closing comments?

IG:  We’re very happy about ‘Soar with Reading’ this year and we hope you’ll be able to come out and see it.

AD:  Okay, well if you let me know in advance, I can put it on the calendar.

A special thank you is extended to JetBlue for allowing me to capture their important effort and study.  If you liked part one of this interview, please share it, and leave any thoughts and comments below.




JetBlue discusses initial findings from book vending machine program part one

Earlier this year I was granted a second interview with JetBlue regarding its book vending machine program.  JetBlue piloted the program and an associated study in southeast Washington DC seeking to determine whether or not making books more readily available to neighborhoods like Anacostia would increase the reading skills of children living there.  The following interview with Dr. Susan Neuman of the University of Michigan was previously unpublished as it was conducted and finalized just before the Examiner shut down its operations.  At the time of the interview, JetBlue was readying the second phase of the vending machine study in addition to expanding it into other cities such as Detroit.

During the summer of 2015, JetBlue and Random House embarked on a study as a part of the airline’s “Soar with Reading” campaign.  The study looked at whether or not increasing the availability of books to residents in “Book Deserts”, could reverse the low reading levels and perceived interest in reading typically associated with lower income neighborhoods.  On June 9, 2016, JetBlue granted interviews to discuss the initial results from its Book Vending Machine Study headed by collaborator, Dr. Susan Neuman, who has conducted extensive research on book deserts across America, and Icema Gibbs, JetBlue’s Director of Corporate Responsibility.  In the first interview Susan Neuman discusses the program’s initial findings.  In the second interview Icema Gibbs also discusses the study findings, in addition to Jet Blue’s plans to expand the Soar with Reading Program into Detroit, MI.

Anwar Dunbar:  Hello Susan.   The last time we spoke, you all had started the book vending machine program in the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington, DC.  A year out from starting that program what have you found?

Susan Neuman:  So just to recap last year, we did put book vending machines in high traffic areas based on our previous work.  So we asked, ‘Where do people go and where might they hang out with one another?’  At the same time we picked what we call “Counterfactual” sites; sites where there were a lot of people who would walk back and forth, but just in different areas.  We put the book vending machines at: a Shop Rite, Saint Matthews Memorial Church, and then a Wellness Center/Salvation Army.  Our job as researchers was to do was to examine how these machines were used, how often they were used, and the effects on those who used them versus the people at the counterfactual sites which did not have the vending machines.

There was a tremendous outpouring of interest from people who saw these vending machines.  They know how to use them because vending machines are a part of our society, so it wasn’t hard to do.  We found that people really used them, and in eight weeks’ time, 27,000 books were downloaded, used and selected.  We also noted some very interesting conversations between the parents and their children, or maybe the grandparents and children including, “Which books did you choose?  Why did you choose this particular topic?”  We also overheard lots of other interesting discussions including, “Oh my gosh, this is so needed.  We needed this in our community.”  So the vending machines were really used towards the end of August when school was looming ahead.  We found that there were even waiting lists and waiting lines.  People would stand in long lines in order to get books.  So it was a tremendous success, in terms of participation.

At the same time we found that parents and caregivers recognized the titles of books more frequently, so they were able to identify children’s books.  And that’s really important, because when you go to a library it’s often hard to know which books to get.  They knew titles which are especially important for the counterfactual areas.  And they reported reading more to their children.  So, in short, those were the effects.  We saw no damage and no problem at all with the machines.  They were pristine at the end of the experiment and they showed how much the people cared about books.

AD:  That’s interesting.  Yes, a natural concern would be what would happen to the machines once they’re put into certain areas.  I want to ask you about the counterfactual sites, but first an obvious question would be which books did you all supply at the locations?  Were they the Magic TreehouseHarry PotterChronicles of Narnia – something like that?

SN:  There were a wide variety of books that Random House collected and donated.  I’m sure some of them were overstocks.  But JetBlue really made an effort to make sure that there were multicultural titles – titles with lots of African American authors as well as main characters.  Many of these books had African American characters on the cover and that was really important because we wanted children to be able to identify with characters that could be important to them.  The other thing that we found was that it wasn’t just the very early education age groups who were interested.  That was the assumption that we had – that books would be picked out that were solely for babies and toddlers, but that wasn’t the case.  Even the teenagers would use the vending machines and they would download a sizable number of books.  So that was very heartening.

Regarding the counterfactual sites, we picked areas that we thought were high traffic – not terribly close because we didn’t want to see any type of bleeding, if you know what I mean.  One of the sites was a CVS Pharmacy.  One was close to the metro station.  Another, I believe, was a 7-Eleven.

AD:  Did you say bleeding?  What’s the context for that in this instance?

SN:  Well, what I mean by bleeding is that the same people could go to counterfactual sites and the vending machine sites and we didn’t want that to happen, especially in a place like Anacostia.  What you find is that people traffic around a particular area – they lived around Main Street, for example, and that was a key traffic area.  We tried to pick a place that wouldn’t be a key traffic area – somewhat removed so that we wouldn’t get responses from the same person in different areas.

AD:  So the significance of the counterfactual site is that it was your control site?  What’s the significance of that name?

SN:  It was.  It was like our control group.  We don’t call it a control group because control indicates more control.  We basically call it counterfactual – similar to a neighborhood, but did not have vending machines there.

AD:  And so did you all test a certain number of weeks or did this go on throughout the school year as well?

SN:  Just the summer.  We were interested and concerned about the “Summer Slide”.  You’ve probably heard about that, but generally kids who live in poor areas – their scores go precipitously down because there’s just a lack of resources.  What we had noted in our previous year was that Anacostia is a little bit like a book desert – there aren’t resources for children when libraries are closed.  Interestingly we found that this particular population did not use the library a lot.  We suspected that was because libraries have fines and that patrons are worried about paying those fines.  That was another real benefit of providing books and giving them a great deal of choice.  The book titles would change every two weeks so we got lots of repeaters.  A lot of people who would come back and use the vending machines over time.

AD:  So you said that you had a questionnaire.  Was it designed to gauge how the experience was or were you looking to measure something?

SN:  We were looking to measure a couple of things.  Number one was: who they were, their reading habits, and how many books they had in their home.  By in large the population is very predictable.  They don’t have very many books in their home – less than 25 books typically.  It’s a small number and so our questionnaire was basically interested in finding out more about them.  They wanted to read and they just did not have books.  There was a separate questionnaire that was designed to determine whether or not they recognized book titles.  Recognizing book titles is an indicator that they are paying attention more to children’s books and children’s literature.  And that is likely to enable them to select a book for their kids.

AD:  So what’s the conclusion for this work thus far?

SN:  I think the conclusion is that if you put books in they will come.  We want to convince proprietors that if they begin to stock books, people will buy them.  We can’t make that presumption because we gave books to them in this instance, but our preliminary findings indicate to us that people really do care about reading, and it debunks the notion that parents don’t care about this for their child, and they don’t want to read to their children.

What we’re arguing is that there are structural inequalities in certain areas and neighborhoods preventing parents from doing what they really want to do, which is to help their child, and I think that’s a very important message.  There’s a lot of blaming of parents that, “They don’t do this, they don’t do that.  They don’t talk to their children.”  All of this very deficit language and we’re trying to convince people that it’s not true.  How can you read a book to child if you don’t have one?  So what we’re saying is that if they have books, they will read them.  That should provide proprietors with an indication that maybe they should stock some books for a change and see if parents will buy them.  I predict that they will because they care deeply about their children and they want their children to succeed.

It was very interesting, Anwar, just an anecdote.  We did a lot of interviewing and we asked parents, “What would you like to see if we were to do this again?  What would you like to see more of?”  They said, “We’d like to see more workbooks in these vending machines.”  I thought that was fascinating because many of us say, ‘Well, workbooks aren’t terribly great for children,’ but it shows us how much parents care.  They want workbooks because they want their child to be ready for school.  And if you can highlight that, I would really appreciate that because there’s a lot of blame going on which I think is very detrimental to these families and it’s unfair.

The other thing is that this year we’re now looking at child outcomes.  We are now going to be back in Anacostia in the coming year and we’re doing a study to compare children’s vocabulary over the summer to see whether we can stall the summer slide.  If they have books will their vocabularies at least stay stable or will it grow over the summer when it generally goes down?  That’s what we’re specifically looking at this year.

AD:  In this last set you asked them how using the machines went, but you didn’t do any scoring in terms of rating their reading level or their ability to spell.  Is that correct?

SN: No, we didn’t do that last year.  Last year we focused on the parent.  This year we really want to focus on the child.  It’s a three step process.  First we documented that there’s a Book Desert.  We then said, ‘Okay if you change that Book Desert what happens?’  We found that parents will use the book vending machines and get books for their children.  This year we want to see what the impact will be on child outcomes.

AD:  I have two more questions.  It sounds as though you think the proprietor is the person to court here in terms of reversing this trend.  Should government elected officials have a role in this in terms of allocating more money for this type of effort?

SN:  Yes, of course we do think that.  You know there’s a new opportunity to learn language in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) law.  I hope that Icema will begin to do this, but we would like to see that opportunity to learn focus on having access to books.  There’s all of this talk about digital access and stuff like that, but the good old book is how children begin to read.  So yes, we’re hoping to affect the opportunity to learn language with the new ESSA law.  And yes, we are trying to convince proprietors to step up because JetBlue can’t do this forever.  Proprietors have got to begin to stock books and recognize that people will buy them.

AD:  My last question is – are you all going to publish your initial findings in an academic journal in multiple parts, or are you going to wait and publish everything together?

SN:  Yes, we have one article coming out already in Urban Education, which is about the Book Desert.  We’ve submitted this year’s project to a journal and we’re waiting to hear back from the periodical.  We will definitely be putting the third phase into a journal when it’s done.  That’s what Academic’s do (laughing).

AD:  Okay, well there will definitely be people who will want to read about this work, track the timeline, etc.

SN:  Well, you always have good questions.

AD:  Thank you, Susan, and I definitely appreciate being able to help you all get the word out about this important effort.

SN:  Thank you, Anwar.

In part two of my interview with JetBlue, Icema Gibbs discusses the expansion of the book vending machine program into other markets in addition to what local proprietors can do to make books more readily available to their patrons.  If you liked part one of this interview, please share it, and leave any thoughts and comments below.