What say you about the ABC show “Black-ish”?

Dear Dwonna:

What do you think of the new show “Black-ish”?




Dear Patrick:

Here’s how ABC has described “Black-ish” a new comedy series that airs on Wednesdays at 9:30 eastern time: “Andre ‘Dre’ Johnson has a great job, a beautiful wife, Rainbow, four kids, and a colonial home in the ‘burbs. But has success brought too much assimilation for this black family?” Executive producer Larry Wilmore—who is leaving “Black-ish” to headline a new Comedy Central late-night show that will replace The Colbert Report—says that the show “celebrates black more as a culture than a race” and that “At heart it’s a family show.” “Black-ish” also has a noteworthy and fairly impressive cast—Anthony Anderson, Tracee Ellis Ross (yes, Diana Ross’s daughter), and Laurence Fishburne, among others.

When I first saw a billboard advertising “Black-ish,” my sometimes (well, oftentimes) hypersensitive racial guard immediately went up, and I have to admit that I was kind of offended. What does it mean to be “black-ish,” I wondered? Who gets to decide who is black and who isn’t? What does it even mean to be black? Why are the television networks producing another “comedy” with a mostly all-black cast whose job it seems is to make white folks laugh at their dumb racial jokes? Isn’t “Black-ish” kind of a racist name for a television show anyway?

When asked about the title of the show, ABC executives have said that the show is “not about race but about class and family.” Laurence Fishburne agreed, telling a reporter that “it’s about the Johnson family, and in that regard, it’s about your family, and my family, and everybody’s family.” I’m not really sure how a television show titled “Black-ish” suggests in any way, shape, or form that it’s about everybody’s family, so I don’t really think they’re telling us the truth. I think ABC just wanted to shock viewers into watching this so-called comedy.

When I goggled “Black-ish” and “commentary,” I stumbled upon this Donald Trump tweet:

Donald Trump

Look. This should not come as a surprise to those who know me, but I’m no Donald Trump fan. I mean, this is a guy with a ludicrous toupee (if that is, in fact, his “real” hair, he should tell people that it is a toupee) who has convinced many a white racist that President Obama is a socialist Kenyan Muslim whose Hawaiian birth certificate is a fake. Moreover, Trump’s proclamation that there would be a “furor” over a show named “Whitesh” and that “‘black-ish’” is “racism at [its] highest level” is gibberish. Racism, Mr. Trump, would be you insisting that President Obama is a socialist Kenyan Muslim with a fake birth certificate who hates America and who is trying to take away white people’s guns.

Besides, there are lots of “white” shows on network television that seem to celebrate everything about “white” culture—“2 Broke Girls,” “Mike and Molly,” “Nashville,” “Running Wild With Bear Grylls,” and “Game of Thrones” come to mind—and few white people seem to find any “furor” over that. White people like Donald Trump kind of need to get over this “reverse racism” claim since there is no show called “Whitesh,” and except for Shonda Rhimes and a few other black writers and producers, white folks are still the ones who frequently decide what’s on network television most of the time.

Nonetheless, Trump is right to question the logic and the rationale of the show’s title, though I largely disagree with his assessment that the title is, in and of itself, racist. “Black-ish” is mostly just offensive, and it trivializes the struggle(s) that many African Americans have faced as they negotiate and navigate their way into the white world while trying not to lose a sense of their black selves. Even Laurence Fishburne thinks that the show’s title is funny, as he told an interviewer: “Our title is a little bit of a wink. It’s a bit of a joke because, ultimately, if you live in America and you’ve been in America, let’s say for the last 10, 15, 20 years, you’re probably a little Black-ish anyway.” Tell that foolishness to the Donald Trumps of the world who interact only with people who look like they do and whose interactions with black folks is usually in a subordinate and/or subservient role. The title just isn’t very funny.

Having grown up in Moline, Illinois—the home of the John Deere Tractor and a predominately white town on the Mississippi River—I can say with much certainty that being one of the few black students at Butterworth Elementary, Woodrow Wilson Junior High, and Moline Senior High School was hardly a laughing matter. There were white teachers who didn’t think I would amount to much simply because of my skin color, and the white students who thought it was funny to call me a Nigger just because they could made me sad, mad, and a few times ashamed of my brown skin and kinky hair. No, Mr. Fishburne—we’re not all a little “Black-ish.” Some of us black folks are just trying to find our way—without losing our sanity or, ironically, our sense of humor—in a sometimes hostile white man’s world.

The day after “Black-ish” made its debut on ABC, I happened to be teaching W.E.B. DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk in my “Critical Studies in African American Literature” class. First published in 1903, DuBois’s book gave me a perfect opportunity to talk about his concept of double consciousness and this foolish show called “Black-ish.” In Chapter 1, titled “Our Spiritual Strivings,” DuBois writes:

“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

My students said that they wished that the writers and producers of “Black-ish” had used this show to address DuBois’s concept of “double consciousness” in a more serious and in a more sincere manner, especially now that we have a black president who often finds himself having to negotiate between being an “African American president” and just being the “President of the United States of America.” As more black folks move into the middle and upper class and thus find themselves straddling and engaging with at least two cultures, this notion of double consciousness has become a day-to-day struggle for many of us, and it would have been nice if “Black-ish” had taken the lead in discussing these struggles without the laughter and without the vapid silliness that the title suggests.

In her review of Baratunde Thurston’s 2012 book How to Be Black, MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry writes that his book—which she says is “part autobiography, part stand-up routine, [and] part contemporary political analysis—might “do more to expose and explore the shifting dynamics of race in America than all the Pew data of the past decade ever can.” In this very astute and incredibly witty book, Thurston makes his readers “both laugh and weep with poignant recognition.” Few would ever say this about “‘Black-ish,” a show whose only goal seems to be to make its viewers weep with embarrassment and shame at the tomfoolery of the characters and their incessant (and not very funny) jokes about their new life in the ‘burbs.

In his final chapter, “The Future of Blackness,” Thurston writes about a “New Black History Course” that will teach people a “more complete and honest history of black people and, thus, America in far more interesting ways.” A “sampling” of this course, Thurston says, will be a “broader story of the Diaspora with a special focus on the Americanness of black people in America.” “In addition to what we pass on to each generation,” Thurston writes, “it’s also important to change how we teach these lessons.”

“The Cosby Show,” which ran from 1984 to 1992, did a wonderful job of teaching its viewers that a black, upper-class family could peacefully co-exist in (white) American society, and although the show rarely delved into issues of racism or social injustice, it did present two successful black parents (he was an OB/GYN, she was a lawyer) who personified most of our hopes for achieving the American dream for ourselves and for our families. “Black-ish,” on the other hand, is mostly a 30-minute tale of buffoonery that could have used its stature in its prime-time Wednesday night slot to enlighten viewers of all hues that DuBois’s notion of “double consciousness” is a still perpetual reality for those of us who move between two worlds each and every day of our lives.

My hope is that “Black-ish”—in spite of its silly name—will evolve into a show that no longer trivializes the black middle- and upper-class experience in America and instead will expose viewers to the multiplicities of blackness. Baratunde Thurston suggests that he and other African Americans must “discover” their own blackness by “embracing the new, the different, the uncommon, and simply, yourself.” I think the producers and the stars of “Black-ish” attempted to do this, but they failed. If viewers are lucky, ABC will give the show’s writers and producers time to correct this, and the Johnsons will become a family that astutely and cleverly teaches America the joys, the trials, and the tribulations of black life in 2014.

Are leggings pants?

Dear Dwonna:

What does it mean when a guy tells you that “you look pretty…sometimes”?




Dear Cara:

*My pal and former student, Cati Montgomery, has answered this question for me.*

He’s a jerk, and don’t date him. If he can’t see that you are a beautiful PERSON all the time, then he’s not worth looking pretty for any time. Any person in any relationship—straight, gay, whatever—has external (and internal) flaws. Part of being in a relationship is being able to see the person, or the soul, if you will, within, rather than seeing someone through their wig, their Maybelline, their bling, their Jordans, or whatever else….

Dear Dwonna:

Last week, I was sitting on a bench on Austin Peay’s campus in between classes, and a young woman walked by in see-through pink leggings. I could see her polka dot “granny pants” underwear. Should I have said something to her?




Dear Tyler:

Something similar happened to me when I was in my PhD program at the University of Texas at Austin. I had bought this very cute and very short shirt, and I decided to wear it to my study date at the library. I sashayed my way through UT’s campus thinking that I was hot stuff when this young black woman approached me and put her arm around my shoulder.

I can only imagine the perplexed and/or hostile look I gave her as I wondered why this strange woman was so close to me. She then whispered in my ear, “Um, your skirt has come up in the back, and we can all see your underwear.” I smiled, thanked her profusely, moved my skirt down over my big booty and then continued my walk to the library with one hand holding down the back of my skirt.

I still appreciate this young woman telling me this, and I have tried to “pay it forward” when I see other young women who are guilty of similarly embarrassing fashion faux pas. So, I think that you should have said something to this young woman so that she wasn’t walking around campus showing everyone her polka dot “granny pants.”

Ladies, do only wear leggings when you are going to the gym to workout or when you’re wearing a tunic, and in both cases, do make sure that your t-shirt or tunic is long enough to cover your buttocks. Let this story of this student walking around campus in her see-through leggings be a fair warning for all of those who are reading this—LEGGINGS ARE NOT PANTS.


Adrian Peterson & black folks & whipping kids

Dear Dwonna:

Do you have any comments about Adrian Peterson or the seemingly sorry state of the NFL?




Dear Roger:

Yes, I do. Thanks for asking. I’m going to focus my answer on Adrian Peterson because, given the popularity of the NFL, I imagine that they will rebound from this recent rash of bad behavior from too many players and owners of the National Football League.

For those who have been napping for the past two weeks, here’s some background information on Adrian Peterson, a 29-year-old running back for the Minnesota Vikings who was charged with beating his young son.

On September 11, 2014, a Montgomery County, Texas, grand jury indicted Peterson and an arrest warrant was issued for “reckless or negligent injury to a child.” According to a police report, Peterson admitted that he had “whooped” his four-year-old son with a “branch from a tree” while the boy was visiting him in Houston. When the four-year-old boy returned to his home in Minnesota, his mother took him to a doctor because the child had “a number of lacerations on his thighs, along with bruise-like marks on his lower back and buttocks and cuts on his hand.” One doctor described some of the marks “as open wounds” and termed them “child abuse,” and another examiner agreed, calling the cuts on the boy’s body “extensive.”

According to one report, Adrian Peterson’s beatings of his four-year-old son “allegedly resulted in numerous injuries to the child, including cuts and bruises to the child’s back, buttocks, ankles, legs and scrotum, along with defensive wounds to the child’s hands.” After the beating—which Peterson said occurred because his son had been mean to another child—Peterson texted the boy’s mother and told her that “one wound in particular would make her mad at me about his leg. I got kinda good wit the tail end of the switch.”

When investigators first spoke with Peterson, he told them that he regarded his discipline as “normal spanking and not excessive,” even though he had earlier texted the boy’s mother and wrote that his son “got about five more pops than normal. He didn’t drop one tear! So that was another indicator I’ll have to try another system with him. SMH he’s tough as nails…” The mother replied: “Well you can’t hit him til he cries! That’s just mean. He’s trying to be strong for you. He’s afraid of you. He’s 4, he’s not playing mind games with you…”

Here are images of the injuries that Peterson left on his four-year-old son; these pictures were taken at least a week after he “disciplined” him.


After the arrest warrant was issued, the Minnesota Vikings deactivated Peterson, who flew to Houston and later posted $15,000 bond. Afterwards Rusty Hardin, Peterson’s lawyer, released the following statement:

“Adrian is a loving father who used his judgment as a parent to discipline his son. He used the same kind of discipline which his child that he experienced as a child growing up in east Texas. Adrian has never hidden from what happened. He has cooperated fully with authorities and voluntarily testified before the grand jury for several hours….”

Peterson then posted the following statement to his Instagram:

peterson instagram

Peterson and other famous and not-so-famous black folks have taken to the airwaves to tout the long-term benefits of whipping children, with many of these black folks using the Bible to support their position while simultaneously arguing that that was how they were raised and that they turned out fine. “I have always believed that the way my parents disciplined me has a great deal to do with the success I have enjoyed,” Peterson said in defending his use of corporal punishment with his six or seven children (by several different women).

Charles Barkley, a former NBA player and a co-host of “Inside the NBA” on TNT Television, told radio and television sports host Jim Rome, “I’m from the South. Whippings—we do that all the time…. Every black parent in my neighborhood in the South would be in trouble or in jail under those circumstances. I’ve gotten beat with switches. When the media talks about it, ‘beating a child’—We called it ‘spanking’ or ‘whipping’ our kids.” Not surprisingly, Charles Barkley has become the archetype and the favorite sound bite for all those who wish to defend corporal punishment, the “southern” and the “African American way for raising children.”

When Jim Rome suggested that there was no “fine line” in the Peterson situation—that that was clearly a case of “child abuse” and not of “child rearing,” Barkley said, “I think there’s a fine line, Jim. I’ve had many welts on my legs.” No, Charles Barkley—and all the other black folks who keep bumping their gums on the airwaves telling anyone and everyone who will listen to them—there is no “fine line” between spanking and/or whipping your kids and child abuse. I’m completely bored with these folks who justify beating/abusing their children with switches and belts with the nonsense of “well, that’s how I was raised, and I turned out ok.” Since when is this the standard by which we measure what’s appropriate when raising children?

The fact of the matter is that black folks probably should stay away from the “but that’s how I was raised card” when arguing whether something like corporal punishment is a beneficial tool to rearing happy and productive citizens of the world. The reality is that “beating” and “whipping” black children is hardly helping these kids leap to the pinnacle of success. According to federal statistics, some 73 percent of African American children are born out of wedlock, which often translates into a life of poverty and a substandard educational experience; approximately 38 percent of black children under the age of 18 live in poverty; almost 27 percent of black folks have an income below the poverty line; 38 percent of the prison population is comprised of black folks even though we only make up 12 percent of the U.S. population; and young black men are more likely to be a part of the criminal justice system than they are to be in college. Proverbs 13:24 says: “He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him.” Lots of black folks turn to this Bible scripture when defending, explaining, or simply justifying why they whip their children, but if we honestly look at the state of black America in 2014, perhaps we will see that whipping children with switches from a tree in the backyard isn’t working as well as some black folks want to believe it is.

As a full disclosure, I should say that I was one of those black folks whose father “whooped” her and her siblings for both minor and major transgressions. My father kept a tattered black belt—one that was too old and too beaten up for him to continue wearing—on the top shelf of the kitchen’s broom closet, and he summoned us to quickly retrieve “black betty” at the very moment he believed that talking to us was no longer getting through to us. In an op-ed in the New York Times, Michael Eric Dyson—an African American professor of sociology at Georgetown University—writes that children who are beaten often have “feelings of sadness and worthlessness, difficulties sleeping, suicidal thoughts, bouts of anxiety, outbursts of aggression, diminished concentration, intense dislike of authority, frayed relations with peers, and negative high-risk behaviors.”

Although I probably seem well-adjusted and successful to most people who meet me, I have, unfortunately, suffered from some of those aforementioned effects of corporal punishment. I know that my father did not want this for his children, and I know that he did not expect that I would suffer so much into my adulthood. I also know that my father was simply replicating how he had been raised and that he was simply trying to raise black children who would grow up to be productive and prosperous members of a sometimes racist and oftentimes hostile white society. Still, those whippings left scars that took lots of time—and years of therapy—to heal. Did my father’s whippings make me a more disciplined person? Maybe. Did they make me think twice before I did something that violated my father’s rules for behavior in and out of the house? Probably. I guess I turned out “ok” once the physical scars healed—I’m an English professor with a PhD from the University of Texas who has written a book and lots of articles on race and gender. However, the emotional scars have taken much, much longer to heal.

In their 1968 book Black Rage, African American psychiatrists William H. Grier and Price M. Cobbs wrote: “Beating in child-rearing actually has its psychological roots in slavery and even yet black parents will feel that, just as they have suffered beatings as children, so it is right that their children be so treated.” Does the continued use of violence when disciplining black children foster the misconception that African Americans have to use physical strength rather than intellectual strength just like slavemasters did with their slaves? I don’t know. Clearly folks like Adrian Peterson, Charles Barkley, and too many other African Americans continue to embrace—and justify—what should be considered an antiquated and mostly ineffective way of child rearing. Although corporal punishment may make children obey a parent’s immediate request, it rarely teaches long-term self-control or self-respect.

Dr. Benjamin Spock, a pediatrician and one of the world’s most preeminent authorities on child rearing, once said, “If we are ever to turn toward a kindlier society and a safer world, a revulsion against the physical punishment of children would be a good place to start.” We do need a world with kinder and more compassionate children, and perhaps it’s time for black folks to evolve into the 21st century and find alternative methods for disciplining their children. Leaving scars and welts may have been how their parents disciplined them, but it shouldn’t be how black parents—or any parents—discipline their children today.



Why does Janay Rice stay?

Dear Dwonna:

I heard you make a passing comment in our world lit class about Ray and Janay Rice and criticizing him for hitting her and her for staying. Could you elaborate on this, please?




Dear Cara:

I’ve thought a lot about this, and I have gone back and forth about what I think about Janay Rice since the day she sat by her husband at a news conference in March and announced to those who would listen that she “deeply regrets the role that she played the night of the incident.”

For those of you who have been asleep for the last seven months, Janay (Palmer) Rice is the wife of former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice. After TMZ released a second video showing Mr. Rice delivering an uppercut to Janay and subsequently knocking out his then fiancée in an elevator (the first video only showed Rice dispassionately and nonchalantly dragging her unconscious body from the elevator), the Baltimore Ravens terminated his contract. Shortly afterwards, the NFL indefinitely suspended Rice, after originally only suspending him for two games.

The Baltimore Ravens, the NFL, and Roger Goodell have all been criticized for how they first handled Ray Rice’s assault of Janay Rice, and ESPN’s Adam Schefter has called the subsequent fallout “arguably the biggest black eye the league has ever had.” Roger Goodell is still telling the world that he never saw that second video of what happened between Ray and Janay Rice in that casino elevator, though many people question the veracity of that statement, including someone who says that he personally delivered the video to the NFL offices. However, did Roger Goodell really need to actually see Ray Rice deliver an uppercut to Janay Rice as if she were Mike Tyson to know that something terribly awful had happened before those elevator doors opened showing an unconscious Janay Rice being dragged from it?

Less than 24 hours after the Baltimore Ravens fired Ray Rice and the NFL indefinitely suspended him, Janay Rice posted the following statement to her Instagram:

 “I woke up this morning feeling like I had a horrible nightmare, feeling like I’m mourning the death of my closest friend,” Janay Rice wrote. “But to have to accept the fact that it’s reality is a nightmare in itself. No one knows the pain that [the] media & unwanted opinions from the public has caused my family. To make us relive a moment in our lives that we regret every day is a horrible thing. To take something away from the man I love that he has worked his ass of for all his life just to gain ratings is horrific.

“THIS IS OUR LIFE! What don’t you all get. If your intentions were to hurt us, embarrass us, make us feel alone, take all happiness away, you’ve succeeded on so many levels. Just know we will continue to grow & show the world what real love is! Ravensnation we love you!”

Many people have questioned Janay Rice’s vociferous and sometimes defiant defense of her husband, and some have even argued that those of us who question Janay Rice’s decision to stay in an abusive relationship are simply re-victimizing her and “forcing her deeper into a bunker where she blames herself,” writes ESPN’s Jason Whitlock. Others have (rightfully) pointed out that the continued re-airing of the two videos simply makes Janay’s “private shame” a “public spectacle,” and so she is “angry with the media.”

It is difficult for me to understand why Janay Rice has not only stayed with her husband but has also taken on a Perry Mason-like defense of his behavior. I also don’t want to believe that a woman whose partner knocked her out like she was Floyd Mayweather’s sparring partner could then stand by and loudly defend what most of us would consider to be defenseless behavior. Is Janay Palmer afraid but still feeling a lot of love for her “wronged” husband? Is she really a victim because she chooses to stay? Why are we now focusing on her and not on her husband who put her in this situation by knocking her out cold in an elevator on that February evening?

I want to stand in judgment of Janay Rice, and I want to question her motives for staying with—and then marrying—her abuser. Like my friend Brenda Ford, I, too, wondered if Janay Rice defended her husband only because she didn’t want to give up the money and fame that go along with being “the wife of a super bowl champion.” “Really, though,” Brenda told me, “Janay Rice has some sort of responsibility to other abused women to get out.” Whether or not Janay has a responsibility to other women is debatable, but she certainly has some to herself and to her daughter. If you’re wondering why women stay in abusive relationships, just search the Twitter hashtag #whyistayed, and your eyes will be widely opened like mine were.

The fact of the matter is that lots of women stay in abusive relationships for reasons that many of us will never be able to fathom, and I hope this terrible situation causes society to more deeply examine why women stay with abusive men and how to help them leave when domestic violence happens. The sad reality is that we (still) live in a patriarchal society that tells too many women that it’s better to stay in an abusive relationship than to be alone, and we need to do a better job of showing women that being alone is better than being with a man who hits you.

So, we can continue to blame Roger Goodell for originally only suspending Ray Rice for two games and the Baltimore Ravens for not suspending him at all until TMZ released the second video, and we can continue focusing our efforts on what Roger Goodell knew and when he knew it and whether or not he should be fired from his job as NFL commissioner. When we do this, however, we simply deflect from the real issues at hand—that there are too many instances of domestic violence in the NFL and in our own communities and that too many people minimize these incidents by making excuses for the abuser’s behavior.

One of my former students wrote on his Facebook wall that he hoped Ray Rice wins his appeal of the NFL’s indefinite suspension because Rice has “already admitted to his wrongs, told the commissioner about the incident, cooperated with the authorities and the league as well as entered an intervention program.” I probably don’t have to tell you that the person who wrote this is a man. I suggested to my student that he would be fired from his job if he did that to his wife, and another woman commented that Ray Rice had simply sown the consequences of his actions.

Though my student did acknowledge that Rice was “wrong” for what he did to his wife, he believes that Rice has “paid his debt to society.” Unfortunately, too many men think that an NFL player simply apologizing for knocking a woman out and dragging her unconscious body out of an elevator and then entering a deferred adjudication program after being arrested means that his “debt to society” has been paid. While I am not in charge of deciding when Ray Rice has been punished enough (though I’d gladly take on this role), losing his job as a running back for the Baltimore Ravens and being indefinitely suspended from the NFL seems to be a judicious and fair beginning.

It perplexes me, too, that so many women support Ray Rice and that they also believe that he has been punished “too much,” and perhaps this says more about the bizarre and/or curious state of male and female relationships in this nation than most of us realized. Before TMZ released the second video, two female students in two different classes argued that perhaps Janay Rice had hit Ray Rice first and “that’s why he responded the way he did.” One black female student even said, “You know how crazy and out of control we black women can get, and if it means he has to hit us to make us stop, oh well.” When I suggested to her that a real man would NEVER hit a woman even if that woman hit him first, my student said, “Well, if she comes at him like a man, he has a right to hit her like a man.” For one of the few times in my teaching career, I was left speechless. It makes me sad that some black women believe this.

Has domestic violence become so normalized in American culture that people are not embarrassed to defend a man who has been caught on video beating, knocking unconscious, and then dragging his fiancée from an elevator? Why has so much of folks’ antipathy for what Ray Rice did to Janay Palmer shifted to the NFL’s indefinite suspension of Rice and whether or not Roger Goodell is fit to continue his job as NFL commissioner? Why is there ever an instance where it’s “permissible” for a man to hit a woman, especially when that man is a strong and muscular NFL running back?

Anne C. Osborne, co-author of the forthcoming book Female Fans of the NFL: Taking Their Place in the Stands, said that the Ravens’ decision to cut Ray Rice was “good for the team, good for the league, and good for women.” “They are taking a stand, and he is a valuable player to lose,” Osborne said. “That is good news for everybody. It’s not just good news for women. That culture of violence, everyone loses. Good for them.”

What will really be good for society is the day when women no longer feel the need to stay in a relationship after domestic violence has occurred. This isn’t so much about Roger Goodell, the NFL, and the Baltimore Ravens; it’s about empowering women like Janay Rice to leave the men who brutalize them. It’s about not defending the indefensible, even when the batterer apologizes and says he’s going to get help. Statistics show that one in four women will be victims of domestic abuse; it’s time we teach women to respect themselves enough to walk away without apologizing for the abuser or for leaving.

Last Thursday night, before the Baltimore Ravens-Pittsburgh Steelers football game, CBS’s James Brown—host of “The NFL Today” on CBS and “Inside the NFL” on Showtime—looked directly into the camera and asked viewers in a 90-second monologue if it “wouldn’t be more productive if this collective outrage…could be channeled to truly hear and address the long-suffering cries for help by so many women.” “And as they said,” he continued, “do something about it? Like an on-going education of men about what healthy, respectful manhood is about.”

Indeed, a real man never hits a woman no matter what that woman might first do to him, and although Janay Rice may not consider herself a victim, millions of women in this country are.

ray and janay

On Death and Dying and Joan Rivers

Dear Dwonna:

I heard you say that you weren’t sad about Joan Rivers’s death. Why? She was a trailblazer for female comedians, and she should be remembered as such.




Dear Stephanie:

Yes, it’s true that I was not one of the ones who mourned Joan Rivers’s death, though of course I was not “happy” that she had died. (CAVAET: I don’t really mourn any celebrity death, as I don’t actually know these people and do not feel the loss like a close family member might. In fact, I think it’s weird that people get upset about a celebrity death, sometimes behaving like it’s their mother who died.) Not to state the obvious, death is more than likely permanent (unless you believe that we’re reincarnated until we get it “right”), and even Joan Rivers did not deserve to die so suddenly and so seemingly tragically.

Yes, Rivers was a pioneer in comedy, and she was the first female to serve as a permanent guest host for Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show. Yet, even Johnny Carson did not like her (for reasons neither has ever disclosed). “Our friendship existed entirely on-camera in front of America, and even then, during the commercial breaks, when the red light went off, we had nothing to say to each other” Rivers said in a 1986 op-ed in People magazine.

Rivers became famous for saying nasty and vile things, and for her, no one was off limits. She and her daughter Melissa Rivers hosted “Fashion Police,” a show on E! Entertainment, and their goal seemed to be to say the nastiest things about what the stars were wearing. (“Who are you wearing?” would become one of her signature catch phrases.) Though many people found their crude and insulting comments funny, I did not. Joan and Melissa Rivers (but mostly Joan) often went beyond making illuminating commentaries about famous people’s clothing to just making vicious and downright degrading remarks that often had nothing to do with what a person was wearing. In fact, Joan Rivers seemed to take much pleasure when people got angry at what she always claimed was just her “sense of humor.”

On “The Today Show” in April, Joan Rivers talked about her living situation with her daughter on the WEtv series “Joan and Melissa: Joan Knows Best?” and she said that “those women in the basement in Cleveland had more room.” Not surprisingly, her comments “prompted a sharp response” from the attorneys of Gina DeJesus and Amanda Berry, two of the three women who had escaped from a home where Ariel Castro had held and tortured them for ten years. When asked to apologize, Rivers said, “I’m a comedienne. I know what those girls went through. It was a little, stupid joke. There is nothing to apologize for. I made a joke. That’s what I do. Calm down. Calm fucking down. I’m a comedienne. They’re free, so let’s move on.”

When asked again to apologize, Rivers suggested that The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer should stop writing about her “stupidity” and instead shift their focus to government leaders. “They got to live rent free for more than a decade,” she told TMZ. “One of them has a book deal. Neither are in a psych ward. They’re okay. I bet you within three years one of them will be on ‘Dancing with the Stars.’” She even suggested that the women lacked a sense of humor, saying that “the TV the guy gave them must not have had SNL.”

Stay classy, Ms. Rivers.

When I was in high school, a guy who used to call my brother and me a “Nigger” whenever the moment struck him was struck and killed by lightening while playing golf, and while I wanted to feel some sadness for his untimely death like all the others at Moline High School did, I couldn’t help but think he deserved what had happened to him. When my Catholic guilt kicked in and I was unable to reconcile my feelings of disgust with wanting to feel pity for him, my mom tried to comfort me by telling me that death didn’t change a person and if someone was a jerk in life, his death could not change who he was in life. I think she was right.

In her 2012 book, I Hate Everyone…Starting with Me, Joan Rivers wrote that she hoped that her funeral would be a “huge showbiz affair with lights, cameras, action” and “Hollywood all the way.” She also wanted Meryl Streep to cry “in five different accents” and a “wind machine so that even in the casket my hair is blowing just like Beyonce’s.” Her wishes were printed in the funeral program, and Howard Stern—probably the only person more vile and more repulsive than Joan Rivers—delivered the eulogy. Few should be surprised that Joan Rivers made sure that her funeral was as ostentatious (and as tacky) as she was.

Indeed, Joan Rivers was a pioneer for female comediennes, and she paved the way for the Wanda Sykes’s and the Kathy Griffith’s of the comedy world. She also handled her husband Edgar’s suicide with such grace and class that I actually liked her, if only for a brief moment. However, Rivers’s death does not change the fact that she was a nasty and oftentimes spiteful and hateful woman who claimed that she was just “being funny” when she was putting people down with her profane and boorish comments, and in many ways she is simply a symbol for what’s wrong in this culture. Joan Rivers was just another negative, nasty person with power and an audience who felt the constant need to say negative and nasty things about other people, too many of whom were unable to defend themselves from her vitriol.

Mother Theresa once said, “Let no one every come to you without leaving better and happier. Be the living expression of God’s kindness: kindness in your face, kindness in your eyes, kindness in your smile.” Perhaps if Joan Rivers had embodied and fostered this philosophy, she might have been remembered for more than having been a catty, punitive, nasty, vile, and vindictive woman. Life in America is difficult enough for far too many people, and we need fewer women like Joan Rivers and more kind and compassionate women like Mother Theresa. There’s enough meanness in the world; let’s infuse more love into it.

British Academy Television Awards - Arrivals

Ray Rice and the NFL’s policy on domestic violence

Dear Dwonna:

I know you’re a lifelong sports fan and that you’re a big fan of the Chicago Bears. You’ve been really quiet on the Ray Rice situation, and now that Roger Goodell has announced stiffer penalties for players who are convicted of domestic violence, I would like to know your opinions on this.




Dear Vicki:

Here’s a little background for those who are unfamiliar with Ray Rice and his assault on Janay (Palmer) Rice, his fiancée at the time.

On February 15, 2014, a surveillance video captured Ray Rice—a running back for the Baltimore Ravens—dragging his unconscious fiancée from an elevator at Revel Casino and Hotel in Atlantic City, New Jersey. A “sparse” arrest summons charged Ray with committing an assault by “attempting to cause bodily injury to J. Palmer, specifically by striking her with his hand, rendering her unconscious.” Neither Palmer nor Rice requested medical attention, and both were arrested and charged with simple assault. It’s not clear why police arrested Palmer, and Ray Rice’s attorney described the incident as a “minor physical altercation.”

Although the video TMZ obtained four days later only showed the aftermath of the incident between the couple, viewers could see Rice lifting and dragging an unconscious Palmer by her arms out of the elevator and “laying her on the floor.” One witness to the assault said that Rice threw an “uppercut,” and another person said that Rice hit Palmer “like he [would punch] a guy.”

On March 27, 2014, a grand jury indicted Ray Rice for third-degree aggravated assault for “allegedly striking Palmer unconscious.” The two married the following day, and according to the Baltimore Sun, the couple had planned a summer wedding before “moving the date up without a public explanation.” Another source said that the March ceremony “had been planned for a couple of weeks.”

On May 23—almost two months after the assault at the casino—Ray Rice and Janay Palmer Rice publically spoke for the first time on what happened in Atlantic City. Appearing at a news conference with his mother and their daughter, and Ray Rice apologized for “the situation my wife and I were in,” and he promised that he was “working every day to be a father, a better husband and a better role model.” “I failed miserably,” Ray Rice said. “but I wouldn’t call myself a failure cause I’m working myself back up.” Janay Rice, too, apologized “for her role in that night,” though simple assault charges against her were eventually dropped.

Prosecutors eventually offered Ray Rice a plea deal that would have spared him jail time, placed him on probation for one year, and required him to attend anger management counseling. Rice rejected this deal, and instead he pleaded not guilty and was accepted into a diversionary program for a first-time offenders program that could allow him to clear his record of charges “in as few as six months.” Rice’s attorney told reporters that Rice must also stay out of trouble for the next year and continue to receive family counseling with his wife, who had written a letter in support of him. “We’re very happy with the result,” Rice’s attorney said. Rice “will now be able to move forward with his life, and he and Janay are looking forward to putting this behind them.”

On July 24, the NFL announced that it was suspending Ray Rice for the first two games of the 2014 season under the league’s personal conduct policy, telling Rice that the punishment “comes with the expectation” that he will “continue with his counseling.” “I believe that you are sincere in your desire to learn from this matter and move forward toward a healthy relationship and successful career,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in his letter to Rice. “I am now focused on your actions and expect you to demonstrate by those actions that you are prepared to fulfill those expectations.”

Many people were, rightfully so, outraged at the light punishment that Roger Goodell meted out to Rice, who said in response to criticism that the NFL has a “very firm policy that domestic violence is not acceptable in the NFL and that there will be consequences for that.” In contrast, the NFL suspended Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon for one year for his third violation of the NFL’s drug policy for smoking pot, Denver Broncos wide receiver Wes Welker was suspended for four games for testing positive for amphetamines, and Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsey was suspended for six games and fined $500,000 after pleading guilty to driving while intoxicated. Get caught smoking pot for the third time? One year. Knocking out cold and then dragging your unconscious fiancée from an elevator? Two games. The NFL should have used more common sense when meting out punishments so that smoking pot didn’t warrant a stiffer punishment than beating up your woman.

Even ESPN seems to have more sense than the NFL, as the company suspended “First Take” co-host Stephen A. Smith for a week after saying on his show—in response to the Ray Rice incident—that women should make sure that they “don’t do anything to provoke wrong actions” from a man who might later abuse them. No matter how much a woman might “provoke” her significant other, a REAL man never puts his hands on a woman. Ever. A REAL man walks away. Every. Single. Time. That’s what Stephen A. Smith should have been telling listeners.

After weeks of criticism—mostly because of the apparent discrepancy between “suspensions that result from violations of the league’s drug policy, versus those incurred through the code of personal conduct”—Commissioner Roger Goodell announced sweeping changes to the Personal Conduct Policy. In a letter to NFL owners last week, Goodell said that violations of the Personal Conduct Policy “regarding assault, battery, domestic violence or sexual assault that involve physical force will be subject to a suspension without pay of six games for a first offense.” A second offense, Goodell announced, will “result in banishment from the NFL for at least one year,” and although a person can petition for reinstatement after one year, “there will be no presumption or assurance that the petition will be granted.” This policy applies to all NFL personnel and not just players.

Goodell then apologized for how the NFL handled Ray Rice’s punishment, acknowledging that the league had “allowed” their “standards to fall below where they should be and lost an important opportunity to emphasize our strong stance on a critical issue.” The commissioner also admitted that his “disciplinary decision” led many people to “question…whether we understood the toll that domestic violence inflicts on so many families.” “I didn’t get it right,” Goodell writes, “Simply put, we have to do better. And we will.”

New York Giants president Jim Mara said that he was “100 percent supportive of the new policy” and that the NFL needed to “make a stand and be much tougher on domestic violence.” Some people questioned whether or not Goodell had changed his stance because of the public outcry, but it really does not matter why he decided to toughen the NFL’s punishment for those who commit acts of domestic violence. Kim Gandy, president and CEO of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, said that although she was “personally disappointed in the Rice suspension,” her goal was to “figure out how to make it right.” “I think that whatever moves a business or an entity in the right direction on this issue is good movement,” she said.

I agree with Kim Bundy that any time an organization does the right thing it is a good thing, and it’s not necessarily our job to question their motives. As Gloria Steinem said, “Whenever one person stands up and says, ‘Wait a minute, this is wrong,’ it helps other people do the same.” In a sport where violence is epidemic and where players often have difficulty turning off this violence when they walk off the field at the end of a game, we should applaud the NFL for establishing stricter punishments for those who are involved in domestic violence incidents.

The NFL has appropriately articulated to its players and employees that domestic violence will no longer be tolerated and that incidents will be swiftly adjudicated, and I hope that they will also establish programs that teach players how to avoid domestic violence situations so that the public never has to witness a Ray Rice-like incident again. May the NFL’s bungling of the Ray Rice situation and the public’s subsequent outcry at his paltry suspension be the beginning of a more candid dialogue about the violence that too often happens between men and women because domestic violence is everyone’s problem, and love should never hurt.



On Monday, September 8, 2014, TMZ released the video that showed what happened in the elevator BEFORE Ray Rice dragged an unconscious Janay Palmer out of it. Here is a link to the video: http://digg.com/video/tmz-releases-video-of-ray-rice-knocking-out-his-fiancee.

Saying that the video is disturbing fails to capture the horror of what happened in that elevator, and hours after its release, the Baltimore Ravens terminated Ray Rice’s contract, thereby making the running back a free agent. Although the NFL says that they requested to see the video before ultimately suspending Rice for two games–many people question the veracity of this statement–once the video became public, the NFL indefinitely suspended Rice, leaving many to wonder if this is the end of Ray Rice’s NFL career.

Though it is easy to criticize Janay (Palmer) Rice for standing by–and one month later marrying–a man who would so brutally assault her, I applaud the Baltimore Ravens for loudly (albeit a little late) declaring that the organization will neither tolerate nor condone domestic violence.

Denver Broncos defensive tackle Terrance Knighton tweeted, “As players we must speak up. Stand up for what’s right. I don’t give a damn who u are or how much money you make. No place for this.” Many thanks to the Baltimore Ravens for finally doing what the NFL didn’t have the testicles to do in February when the video first became public–to protect those who are battered by the men who say they love them.


ray rice

What are your thoughts about Michael Brown and the events in Ferguson, MO?

Dear Dwonna:

What are your thoughts about what’s going on in Ferguson, Missouri?




Dear Winn:

As some of my Facebook friends might have noticed, I have stayed away from commenting on what has happened—and continues to happen—in Ferguson, Missouri. For those who may have missed this, here’s a little bit of background:

On August 9, 2014, an unarmed 18-year-old African American named Michael Brown was fatally shot by Darren Wilson, a white police officer, in Ferguson, Missouri, a predominately African American suburb of St. Louis. A private autopsy performed by Dr. Michael Baden (the former chief medical examiner for the City of New York) showed that Brown was “shot as least six times, including twice in the head.” According to the New York Times, one of the bullets “entered the top of Mr. Brown’s skull, suggesting his head was bent forward when it struck him and caused a fatal injury.” Brown was also shot four times in the right arm, and “all the bullets were fired into his front.”

Unfortunately, Brown is not the only unarmed black man to be killed by a white police officer in the last 30 days. On July 14, 2014, 43-year-old Eric Garner was killed after a cop put him in a chokehold and other officers slammed his head against a sidewalk. At least five NYPD officers took down Garner—a 400-pound asthmatic Staten Island father of six and grandfather of two—“when he balked at being handcuffed” in front of a Tompkinsville beauty supply store. (Police say that they were attempting to arrest Garner for illegally selling cigarettes.) “I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!” Garner screamed at the cops, and within moments, he had “stopped struggling and appeared to be unconscious as police called paramedics to the scene.” An angry crowd recorded the incident with their smartphones.

While Garner’s death set off a series of protests against the NYPD, Brown’s killing led to two weeks of demonstrations, riots, and looting. The day after Brown’s death, demonstrators held a candlelight vigil to honor him, but instead it turned violent. More than a dozen businesses were vandalized and looted, cars were vandalized, and some 30 people were arrested and two police officers were injured. Throughout the two weeks of protests and demonstrations, police wearing riot gear used tear gas and rubber bullets to try to disperse the large crowds that had gathered. The unrest and chaos became so untenable that on August 18, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon ordered the Missouri National Guard to Ferguson to protect the “Unified Command Center so that law enforcement officers could focus on the important work of communicating with the community, restoring trust, and protecting the people and property of Ferguson.”

There are many, many problems with what happened in Ferguson, beginning with the shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a white policeman and the tomfoolery of protesters in Michael Brown’s name. The fact is that officer Darren Wilson and the mostly white police force—only 3 of the 53 officers are black in a city that is 67 percent black—are only party to blame. Rightfully so, the police in Ferguson have come under sharp criticism for their handling of the aftermath of the shooting and death. In the first days of the demonstrations, police attempted to smear Brown’s name by suggesting that he had stolen $50 worth of cigars from a convenience store, but later they had to admit that Officer Wilson did not know that Brown was a suspect in this theft. Police also made “mass arrests” and used “heavy-handed tactics and military gear widely seen as provoking more anger and violence by protesters.”

Yes, police showing up in riot gear may not have been the best strategy. Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery said one man in Ferguson told him, “When I go somewhere and see a cop in riot gear, first thing I think is, ‘Riot.’ When I see someone that looks like they’re ready to fight me, I’m going to put up my fists.” The head of Ferguson’s police department did change their tactics, and he said that officers would “facilitate” demonstrations rather than “restrict” them. “With the chaos that’s going on right now,” Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson said, “I’m at least happy that nobody’s gotten seriously injured.” It is very difficult to “defuse tension in the streets” when the police are “hardened up.”

Many people blamed the violence and looting in Ferguson not on the police but on “intentional provocateurs” and “outside infiltrators.” Although members of the New Black Panther Party and the Nation of Islam showed up to demonstrate, former leader of the New Black Panther Party Malik Zulu Shabazz said that he and his group were “peacemakers” in Ferguson. “My group and—thanks to you—my organizers, along with the New Black Panther Party and the Nation of Islam,” Shabazz said during a news conference held by Missouri Highway Patrol captain Ron Johnson. “We are the ones who put those men in the streets, and we controlled the flow of traffic.” Johnson did agree that Shabazz and his group had helped out during the demonstrations.

Too many of the protesters were from cities other than Ferguson, and too many of them lost focus about why they were there—to ask for a fair and impartial investigation for Michael Brown and his family. However, we still don’t know why Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown, and speculation that Brown went for the officer’s gun is just that…speculation. Being a police officer is hard, and they have to make snap judgments that most of us will never understand. Is Officer Darren Wilson a racist simply because he shot an unarmed black teenager? I don’t know, and neither do the protesters.

What should black America do when a white police officer shoots an unarmed black person, something that happens far too often in this country? Rioting and looting and behaving like scalawags should be at the bottom of that list; asking Al Sharpton and his cronies to stay home should be at the top of that list. However, I can’t help but believe that the mostly African American crowd of protesters is simply reinforcing negative stereotypes that too many white people embrace about us. Holding demonstrations and protesting the killing of the unarmed Michael Brown is admirable and necessary; looting and vandalizing businesses and cars is destructive and counterproductive. As Jonathan Jeans, an African American graduate of Austin Peay State University, wrote on his Facebook wall in response to the events in Ferguson: “I think we should all work hard to change the minds of our fellow countrymen by casting down and proving wrong the stereotypes that plague our society. We must remain cognizant of the fact that they do exist within our society.”

I wish the media would talk more about the good things that black folks are doing, instead of focusing on the miscreants in Ferguson. Let’s spend more time talking about the 11- and 12-year-old baseball players from Jackie Robinson West, the Little League team from Chicago, Illinois, that represented the United States against Korea in the 2014 Little League World Series. The all-black squad is a member of the Urban Initiative, a program that supports Little League programs in “needy urban areas,” and its members all hail from the South Side, one of the most distressed neighborhoods in Chicago. “The city of Chicago could not be prouder of them,” Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel has said. “Their positive attitude and success on the field has rallied people from every neighborhood to support these kids, and they continue to demonstrate why they are the pride of Chicago.” Although Jackie Robinson West lost to Korea 8-4, we should be spending more time and energy praising the good works and sportsmanship of these young men.

Dr. Cornel West—a professor of philosophy in the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University and a prominent member of the Democratic Socialists of America—has been critical of President Obama’s “slow” response to Brown’s killing. For West, Obama’s public statements on the events in Ferguson were “motivated by electoral considerations rather than moral beliefs.” “His words reek of political calculation rather than moral conviction,” he said. West also said that it was “disgusting” to have a black president who is “not able to keep up with what was going on with young black youth.”

What too often is “going on with young black youth” in this country is the antithesis to a successful life. According to the latest government statistics, African American women had the highest rate of out-of-wedlock births at 67.8 percent, though this does includes women who may be living with—but not married to—the baby’s father. CNN anchor Don Lemon, during an on-air commentary following George Zimmerman acquittal in 2013, said that in order for black people to “fix the problems in the black community,” the “most important” item to fix was the number of children born to unmarried women. “Just because you can have a baby, it doesn’t mean you should,” Lemon said. “Especially without planning for one or getting married first. More than 72 percent of children in the African-American community are born out of wedlock. That means absent fathers. And the studies show that lack of a male role model is an express train right to prison and the cycle continues.”

The black community must remain vigilant in urging young black women to wait to have children and to stay in school, and we must urge young black men to delay having children and to stay in school, too. I’ve read that people have asked students to skip class on Monday, the day of Michael Brown’s funeral and what would have been his first day of college classes. Would we not better honor Brown’s life and his tragic death by asking ALL students to go to class?

I’m not sure I’ve answered your question, Winn, mostly because I’m not really sure what my thoughts are on what happened in Ferguson. We don’t have enough information to make an informed conclusion since there has been little transparency from the Ferguson Police Department. In contrast, NYPD Training Commissioner Ben Tucker ordered a “top to bottom review of all the training that his department provides to its personnel, specifically focusing on force, how do we train our officers for a takedown, [and] how do we train them to use the various levels of force that they’re authorized to use.” “I would anticipate that coming out of this effort that there will be a re-training of every member of the New York City Police Department in the weeks, months and potential years ahead,” NY City Police Commissioner William Bratton said. Still, white America should not stand idly by when the Michael Browns and Eric Garners are tragically killed by white police officers, and they should join African Americans in demanding that a full investigation be fairly and swiftly adjudicated. The black community, too, must do a better job of making sure we hold our young men and women to high standards, and we should support them in making moral and honorable choices that will facilitate a successful transition into adulthood.

On Monday, August 25, thousands of mourners filled the Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church in St. Louis for Michael Brown’s funeral. His father asked protesters to observe a “day of silence” so that the family could grieve their “gentle giant.” “Tomorrow all I want is peace,” Brown Sr. told hundreds of people at a festival in St. Louis that promotes peace over violence. “That’s all I ask.” Let’s hear—and heed—the cries of Michael Brown’s family, and let’s make sure that their son did not die in vain. Let Michael Brown and Eric Garner teach us how to better deal with police, and let’s hope their tragic deaths teach the police how to better deal with us.




Are people who commit suicide selfish and cowards?

Dear Dwonna:

What do you think about Fox News anchor Shephard Smith’s comment that Robin Williams was a “coward” for committing suicide and Todd Bridges’s Tweet calling Williams’s suicide “a very selfish act”? Do you think people who commit suicide are cowards and/or selfish?




Dear Patrick,

First, a little bit of background on the story:

On Monday, August 11, at 11:45 a.m., actor and comedian Robin Williams—best known for his roles in “Mork and Mindy,” “The Crazy Ones,” “Good Morning Vietnam,” “Dead Poets Society,” and “Mrs. Doubtfire,” among others—was found unresponsive at his home in Tiburon, California, by his personal assistant. He had “a belt secured around his neck,” Marin County Sherrif’s Lt. Keith Boyd told reporters in a press conference the following day. The official cause of death has been revealed as “asphyxia due to hanging.”

Mere hours after the news of Robin Williams’s tragic suicide was made public, Fox News report Shephard Smith called Williams a “coward” for taking his own life. “One of the children he so loved, one of the children grieving tonight,” Smith said. “Because their father killed himself in a fit of depression.” “…[S]omething inside you is so horrible or you’re such a coward or whatever the reason that you decide that you have to end it. Robin Williams, at 63, did that today,” Shephard concluded.

Todd Bridges—star of the television show Diff’rent Stokes—used Twitter to call Williams’s suicide “a very selfish act.” “It’s a very selfish act you’re not thinking about your family your friends or your fans,” Bridges wrote. “much better way get help or if you know someone like that get them help even if it means getting them locked up in a psychiatric hospital.” (The grammatical errors are Bridges’s and not mine.) Both men have since “apologized” for their “inconsiderate” comments.

As someone who is a survivor of suicide—my 42-year-old brother took his own life on May 4, 2010—all I want to say to Shephard Smith and Todd Bridges is “WOW.” (Well, really I’d like to yell “WTF!!!”) That two men—one of whom (Bridges) has publically battled his own demons (drugs and alcohol) which earned him multiple stints in jail/prison—would be so callous and judgmental about another man’s struggles with depression is repulsive (though in the case of the Fox New reporter certainly not surprising). Like cancer and diabetes, depression is a real illness, and people need to get educated about the very real effects of the disease before they start taking to television and to Twitter to pass judgment on an act that many of us could never envision for ourselves.

Do I think that Robin Williams—or my brother or the other 50,000 Americans who successfully complete suicide in any given year—was a coward or selfish? I answer that with an emphatic “NO.” As I learned in my Survivors of Suicide (SOS) support group, people who commit suicide don’t necessarily want to die; they just want the pain to end. For these people, their despair is overwhelming, and suicide seems to be the only option left. Completing suicide does not make them cowards; it makes them people who are in so much agony and distress that death becomes the only relief available. As Sally Brampton writes in Shoot the Damn Dog: A Memoir of Depression, “Killing oneself is, in a way, a misnomer. We don’t kill ourselves. We are simply defeated by the long, hard struggle to stay alive.”

Like other people, I wish that Robin Williams, my brother, and all those who have suicided knew how much they mattered to the friends and family they left behind. I wish they knew how much they were loved. I wish they knew how much we would miss them. However, those who suffer with severe depression often cannot comprehend that at all, and they are not selfish because they are unable to see beyond their own deep and intense pain. They are simply people who need our compassion, not our derision and disrespect.

At the end of my first SOS meeting, the elderly facilitator discretely handed me a 3×5 notecard on which he had handwritten: “My hope is that one day you will no longer just remember how your loved one died but that you will only remember how well he or she lived.” I’m not yet there with my brother, but I do reminisce about our life together more often than I think about how his life ended. My hope is that Robin Williams’s suicide will compel us to have a more public—and a more honest and a more knowledgeable—dialogue about depression and suicide and a less judgmental attitude toward those for whom suicide was the only way to end their despair.


*If you or someone you know is suicidal, there is help available. Please call the Suicide Prevention Hotline at (800)273-8255. You do matter, you are loved, and you will be missed.

My boyfriend drinks too much; what should I do?

Dear Dwonna:

I’m a 44-year-old woman, and I think my boyfriend of almost three years is an alcoholic He’s 50 and never drinks during the week, but he likes to drink on the weekends. Most of the time he’s easy to get along with, but sometimes he becomes a mean drunk. He always apologizes on Monday when I point out that his bad weekend behavior, and although this helps for a few weeks or so, it eventually happens again. I love him and hope to one day marry him, but I’m not so sure I can do that if this weekend binge drinking continues. What should I do? Thanks!




Jennifer Cooper, a recovering addict, answered this question for me. 

Dear Trina,

Reading your question took me back many years. Let me first say that I have been on both sides of the alcohol issue. I am a recovering addict of 27 years, and I was married to an abusive alcoholic for five of them.

The first thing you need to realize is that your boyfriend may be an alcoholic, but until he can or will admit it, there is absolutely nothing you can do to “fix” the situation. (Trust me; I’ve tried it myself.) Addiction is an illness. You may hear about treatment centers that say they can “cure” an alcoholic, but it’s a lie if that person does not want help. I am an addict. I will always be an addict. However, with hard work and daily commitment, I am able to live a relatively normal life.

Still, my addiction sometimes feeds my brain lies. You see, Trina, being an addict isn’t just about drinking or taking drugs; it’s a mental state that my brain enters telling me that that I “NEED” something. That something can be alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, gambling, sex, or a multitude of other things. The process is strange when the addict quits the object of his addiction.

For example, my brain tried to convince me I couldn’t function without drugs or alcohol. I had trouble doing everyday tasks as my brain went through withdrawal and told me I couldn’t walk, read, or even breathe correctly without the drugs. For me to heal completely, I needed to be addicted to something positive—I am 44 and working on two masters degrees while I work full time. I am now addicted to my education. When I finish schooling, I will have to find something else to latch on to.

You mention that your boyfriend can be a “mean drunk.” If this means he hits you, then get out immediately! I was in that situation for five years. I heard the apologies and thought it might somehow magically get better, but it never did. For five long years there were earth shattering fights as he pummeled me over and over again, somehow making his drinking my fault.

In the midst of my own addiction, I thought that I could fix my husband. I believed that if only he would stop drinking everything would be fine. I must have made him angry to drink so much, to spend the rent money, to not come home for days on end, to hit me, to lose job after job, etc. By making excuses for him, I was feeding my own addiction.  

I hung on for all I was worth. My parents and friends saw the bruises—both physical and emotional—and they pleaded with me day after day to leave him. I was afraid. I was afraid I wasn’t strong enough, smart enough, independent enough, and that I couldn’t make enough money. When I mentioned leaving him, he threatened to hunt me down and kill me. Eventually, I got sick and tired of being sick and tired. Facing a life of misery, abuse, and isolation, I knew it was time to get out, and I did finally leave him. He did make good on his threat and came after me, but he was too drunk to fire the gun.

The best advice I can give you is if you really think your boyfriend needs help, get to some Al-Anon meetings. These meetings are free, confidential, and supportive. The people in these meetings are all at some stages of life that involve dealing with an alcoholic partner, parent, sibling, or friend, and they will offer you advice. You can take what you want and leave the rest behind. They can offer you support, too, but you have to pick up the phone and call. If you go to Al-Anon, you will not be alone.

I do understand that dealing with an addict is tricky. We want to support them and love them, but by making excuses for them, we are actually making it easier for them to continue the behavior we do not like. If you are making excuses for him now—e.g., he only drinks on weekends, he promises not to hit me anymore, it was better for a few weeks—you are not promoting the change that you hope to see.

Tough love is one of the hardest things anyone can practice, and standing up to someone we love and telling them that their behavior is unacceptable seems overwhelming. However, it must be done, though do not have this conversation when your boyfriend is drinking.

Keep in mind that if he quits drinking for you that there’s a good chance that he will start again. The fact is that your boyfriend has to WANT to quit drinking to actually quit drinking permanently. My husband quit for weeks at a time, and at the next spat we had, he’d go back to drinking again and then it was my fault he couldn’t stay sober. Don’t fall into the alcoholic’s traps.

Do beware the apologetic drunk! During one of my ex-husband’s apologies and shame, he attempted suicide. The hospital called me while I was at work, but I didn’t go visit him until I had gone to an Al-Anon meeting myself. He had taken a bottle of pills and called 911 because my ex-husband really didn’t want to die; he just wanted me to feel so bad that I would take him back. Later, I walked into his hospital room and hit him over the head with my Narcotics Anonymous book and told him he was a “Sorry selfish son of a ……” (you get the idea!)

I also told him that if he ever wanted to try to pull such a stunt again that he should let me know ahead of time so I could help him get it right! He was shocked and actually started to go to AA meetings. I was elated because I had changed him! Boy was I wrong. Soon after, he met up with an old friend and the “just have one” kicked in. He was drunk and beating me again shortly thereafter.

I suggest moving out if you live together. This does not mean you cannot be there to support him if he does quit drinking on his own. However, if he enters a 12-step program, he will be encouraged not to have a serious relationship for at least a year. This does not mean you cannot communicate with him; just support him and be his friend. (Be only this friend, though.)

Please seek some form of help for your situation. If you cannot find an Al-Anon meeting that fits you, try Nar-Anon. To find meetings in your area, you can go to these links:

  1. aa.org
  2. Al-Anon.org
  3. na.org
  4. nar-anon.org

If you do not have transportation to get to a meeting, call the local number for the group, and they will find someone to give you a ride.

Good Luck!

Jennifer Cooper

Jennifer C.2

What I’ve Learned About Life From Air Supply

Dear Dwonna:

You’re always telling your students how much you love Air Supply and Barry Manilow and other “old people” music. What lessons about life have you learned from these songs?




*Brenda Ford asked me this question, and she helped me write this answer, too. Brenda and I attended Butterworth Elementary, we played softball together in the summers (I played short stop), and we also went to Moline High School. Thanks, Brenda, for helping me write this!

Dear Brenda:

Yes, it’s true that I love Air Supply, Billy Joel, Lionel Richie, Barry Manilow, Neil Diamond, James Taylor, Barbara Streisand, Chicago, Leo Sayer, “The Golden Girls,” “Matlock,” “Murder, She Wrote,” “Diagnosis Murder,” “9 to 5,” and “Snapped.” If it’s something that old white women watch or listen to, I probably like it, too.

The truth is that I’m secretly an old white woman trapped in the body of an angry (but very cute) black woman who also masquerades as a professor of English and African American studies. I’m afraid that the black card will be in jeopardy again by the time I get to the end of this essay. Sigh.

But, I digress. Here are 13 songs from Air Supply, Lionel Richie, and other “old white lady” music that explain what I’ve learned about life. Some of the topics overlap, but love and kindness seem to be persistent themes of this “easy listening” music.

1.     Lionel Richie and Diana Ross, “Endless Love

“And love/Oh, love/I’ll be fool/For you,/I’m sure/You know I don’t mind/Oh, you know I don’t mind”

Listen, we’ve all been a fool for love at least once, and we all thought that we, too, would find endless love. This happens for some, but for many of us, love eludes us, and we sometimes make fools out of ourselves in the process. It’s ok, though. Love with a good person is a wonderful thing to find, and even if the love isn’t endless, always cherish the good times that you had with that person. As Oscar Wilde once said, “Keep love in your heart. A life without it is like a sunless garden when the flowers are dead.” Heartbreak sucks, but endless love is wonderful and worth the search.

2.     Chicago, “Hard to Say I’m Sorry”

“Hold me now/It’s hard for me to say I’m sorry/I just want you to know/Hold me now/I really want to tell you I’m sorry/I could never let you go”

Yes, sometimes it’s hard to tell someone you’re sorry, and sometimes it’s the most difficult thing for the strongest people to say. However, if you’re wrong and you know you’re wrong, say you’re sorry. I know, from personal experience, that nothing sucks more than realizing that you’re wrong in the middle of an argument. Apologize anyway. It’s the right thing to do, and it doesn’t make you weak—it makes you humble AND vulnerable AND courageous. Saying you’re sorry can repair a relationship, and even though “sorry seems to be the hardest word” (Thanks, Elton John!) it’s oftentimes what needs to be said when there is nothing else left to be said.

3.     Billy Joel, “And So It Goes”

“In every heart there is a room/A sanctuary safe and strong/To heal the wounds from lovers past/Until a new one comes along”

Few of us will escape this life without someone breaking our heart (even I’m still a little bit heartbroken about my first college boyfriend), and it makes sense to protect yourself from getting your heart broken again. Still, be open to finding new love, but be smart. Pick a nice person with little baggage and a kind heart, and treat this person kindly and gently. “The truth is,” Bob Marley once said, “everyone is going to hurt you. You just got to find the ones worth suffering for.” Don’t close your heart completely, for it might miss the one who may fill it with love and happiness. Cheesy and trite, I know, but it’s true.

4.     James Taylor, “You’ve Got a Friend”

“You just call out my name, and you know wherever I am/I’ll come running to see you again./Winter, spring, summer, or fall, all you have to do is call, and I’ll be there, yeah yeah yeah/You’ve got a friend”

I’ve had some really good friends who were there for me even when I wasn’t very pleasant to be around, and I will forever be grateful to these people for helping me through difficult times. (Thanks Blas and Neil and Paul and all the other gays who have one-upped my fabulous stories of debauchery!) Find the people who will be there for you when things get tough, and be that friend for whom others can turn to when things get tough for them. As Dean Koontz writes, “Never leave a friend behind. Friends are all we have to get us through this life—and they are the only things from this world that we could hope to see in the next.”

Finding the right friends can be essential to your health, happiness, and growth. Choose friends who won’t just tell you what you want to hear but who will tell you what you need to hear even when you want to stay in your fantasyland of unwise choices. Finally, always remember Barbara Kingsolver’s words: “The friend who holds your hand and says the wrong thing is made of dearer stuff than the one who stays away.” When you do find that kind of friend, hold on to her for dear life.

5.     Air Supply, “What a Life”

“I don’t care about the money I make/Or what it can do/I’m alive and that’s/What’s important to me”

My students never believe me when I tell them that Air Supply is probably my most favorite group, and I’m a huge fan of—and know all the lyrics to—their more well-known songs: “I’m All Out of Love,” “Here I Am,” “Making Love Out of Nothing At All,” “Even the Nights are Better,” “Young Love,” “Lost in Love,” and “Two Less Lonely People in the World.” But, I like this not-so-commercially popular song, too.

Create a life that is meaningful for you, even if it means you won’t get wealthy. Steve Jobs said, “Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle.” Find a job you love, and don’t settle for a job just because it will make you rich.

Don’t become obsessed with making a lot of money, though do try to make enough money so that you and your family can live comfortably. And, even if you hate your job, find the good in it and be grateful that you have something to do. Find what’s important to you, and spend more time doing that. As Mark Twain once said, “Do the right thing. It will gratify some people and astonish the rest.”

6.     Culture Club, “Karma Chameleon”

“I’m a man without conviction/I’m a man who doesn’t know/How to sell a contradiction/You come and go/You come and go/Karma Karma Karma Karma Karma Chameleon”

I’m not going to lie, but I had absolutely no idea what this song is supposed to mean, so I looked it up on that trusty website called Wikipedia (a site that I forbid my students from using by telling them that I will immediately fail them if I find that they have cited it). Anyway, according to Wikipedia, Boy George—the cross-dressing lead singer of Culture Club—said, “The song is about the terrible fear of alienation that people have, the fear of standing up for one thing. It’s about trying to suck up to everybody. Basically, if you aren’t true, if you don’t act like you feel, then you get Karma-justice, that’s nature’s way of paying you back.”

Who knew that Boy George was such a philosopher? He may not be Aristotle or Socrates or Confucius, but he’s right nonetheless. We all have a responsibility to be true to ourselves, but in doing this, we must always remain gentle and compassionate to the world around us. “If you want others to be happy,” the Dalai Lama tells us, “practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

Free yourself from resentful thoughts so that you, too, might find peace. Be kind. As Philo said, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” (A Facebook meme I just saw said, “Everyone is fighting their own battles. Try not to be an asshole.”) Your kindness will never be wasted because, as Barbara DeAngelis says, “They bless the one who receives them, and they bless you, the giver.”

I think Wayne Dyer’s quote best sums up my views about karma: “How people treat you is their karma; how you react is yours.” Now go into the world and be kind. And behave yourself.

7.     Michael Bolton, “When I’m Back on My Feet Again”

“Gonna break from these chains around me/Gonna learn to fly again/May be hard, may be hard/But I’ll do it/When I’m back on my feet again/Soon these tears will all be dryin’/Soon these eyes will see the sun/Might take time, might take time/But I’ll see it/When I’m back on my feet again”

This is not my all-time favorite Michael Bolton song—“That’s What Love is All About” and “How Am I Supposed to Live Without You” are my two favorites—but this one is a solid third. Life will knock you down, and sometimes after you get up, it will knock you back down again. Get. Back. Up. Every. Time.

An old Irish proverb says, “There’s nothing so bad that it couldn’t be worse.” Sometimes when you’re in the midst of something awful, you will convince yourself that it can’t get any worse, and most of the time it really can’t—and won’t—get any worse. Go figure out what you need to do differently, and then take the steps to do something different and be different.

“In order to succeed, your desire for success should be greater than your fear of failure,” America’s black father Bill Cosby once said. You will get back on your feet. Listen to Mr. Cosby.

8.     Bobby Brown, “My Prerogative”

“Everybody’s talkin all this stuff about me/Why don’t they just let me live/I don’t need permission/Make my own decisions/That’s my prerogative”

When I was an undergraduate at the University of Iowa, my friend Roger tried to teach me how to dance to this song. His efforts were mostly in vain because I have absolutely no rhythm, thereby stomping on that myth that all black folks can dance. Somewhere in America there is a white woman who can dance her behind off, and apparently she has the “black dance gene” that I was supposed to get. But, I digress again.

Don’t worry about folks who talk about you behind your back. They don’t know your struggle, and sometimes they are just insecure and envious of you. Whatever the reason for it, don’t spend a lot of time fretting about it. I think that Eleanor Roosevelt was right when she said, “Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people.”

I have learned that when you are a person of good character and you live a life with integrity and morality, you won’t care that much about what other people say. The most important thing is not so much who they think you are but who YOU think you are because, well, it’s your prerogative to be you.

9.     Barry Manilow, “Somewhere Down the Road”

“But somewhere down the road/Our roads are gonna cross again/It doesn’t really matter when/But somewhere down the road/I know the heart of yours/Will come to see/That you belong to me”

Most of us have an unrequited love somewhere (I’ll spare you the details about mine), and while it’s nice to fantasize about it every now and then, don’t let it consume you. “Unrequited love does not die,” Elle Newmark writes in The Book of Unholy Mischief, “it’s only beaten down to a secret place where it hides, curled and wounded. For some unfortunates, it turns bitter and mean, and those who come after pay the price for the hurt done by the one who came before.”

Do not do that. Do not be unkind to a current love because you miss someone from your past. Perhaps “somewhere down the road” you will meet again, but don’t count on it. Live for today. In the words of Mark Twain, “Life is short. Break the Rules. Forgive quickly. Kiss SLOWLY. Love truly. Laugh uncontrollably and never regret ANYTHING that makes you smile.”

10.     Michael Jackson, “Man in the Mirror”

“I’m starting with the man in/The Mirror/I’m asking him to Change/His ways/And no message could have/Been any clearer/If you Wanna Make the world/A better place/Take a look at yourself, and/Then Make a Change”

I remember first hearing this song when I was an undergraduate at the University of Iowa, and I was a mess. I didn’t really like who I was, and I don’t think my friends really liked who I was either. I quickly learned the words to this song and would sing along to it while watching myself cry into the mirror.

But, Michael Jackson was right—if we want to make a change in the world, we must begin with ourselves especially since we really only have control over ourselves. Forgive yourself. Forgive others. As Bill Cosby said, “People can be more forgiving than you can imagine. But you have to forgive yourself. Let go of what’s bitter and move on.”

Let go of your anger, too. Buddha says: “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.” Or, you can embrace Mark Twain’s suggestion in Pudd’nhead Wilson: “When angry count to four; when very angry, swear.”

11.     Cyndi Lauper, “True Colors”

“But I see your true colors/Shining through/I see your true colors/And that’s why I love you/So don’t be afraid to let them show/Your true colors/True colors are beautiful,/Like a rainbow”

Dr. Seuss says, “Today you are you! That is truer than true! There is no one alive who is you-er than you!” Be yourself, and don’t apologize for that. My grandma used to ask me why I couldn’t be like everyone else, and she said she wondered why I felt this “need” to be so different from the other girls. I told her that if my parents wanted me to be like everyone else, they would have named me Mary or Julie, not Dwonna Naomi Goldstone so that I would have to go through life with people constantly wondering if I’m black or a Jew (or both) before they have ever met me.

I have embraced being different, and I think that most of my students appreciate my unique—and charming and loud and sometimes obnoxious—classroom persona. I also read a lot and have lots of opinions that I am not afraid to share when the moment is appropriate (though I’ve been known to share a thought or two when perhaps I should have remained silent). “The only real failure in life is not to be true to the best one knows,” Buddha says. Embrace being different.

Be your authentic self, be bold, and be courageous. “I’ve learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” –Nelson Mandela.

You are braver than you think you are, and the world will see this when you show your true colors. So go be yourself. Everyone else is taken.

12.     Tone Loc, “Funky Cold Medina”

“Back in the saddle, lookin’ for a little affection/I took a shot as a contestant on ‘The Love Connection’/The audience voted and you know they picked a winner/I took my date to the Hilton for Medina and some dinner/She had a few drinks, I’m thinkin’ soon what I’ll be getting’/Instead she started talkin’ ‘bout some plans for our weddin’/I said, wait, slow down, love, not so fast, says, I’ll be seein’ ya/That’s why I found you don’t play around with the Funky Cold Medina”

Ok, I know that “Funky Cold Medina” probably makes me seem a little less “old white lady” like, but work with a sister (and her sidekick Brenda Ford) here. There are many, many things going on in this song, including “the Funky Cold Medina” sleeping with a woman he just met and finding out that she has an “Oscar Meyer wiener.” “You must be sure that the girl is pure for the Funky Cold Medina,” Tone Loc warns his listeners.

Mr. Loc is right that you must make sure that whomever you decide to get naked with is “pure,” but you really should avoid sleeping with someone you’ve just met. Not only is it unsafe in this day and age of STD’s (or VD, like they said in the 1980s), having sex with someone too soon is a really good way to get your heart broken. If you’re a woman, a man who just meets you and has sex with you usually means nothing more than what it is—he’s just having sex with you.

As Billy Crystal once said, “Women need a reason to have sex; men just need a place.” In other words, some men are really just looking for a warm place “to put it.” Many men will gladly have sex with a woman they have just met, and all they are mostly thinking is, “Wow. If she’ll do this with me, she’ll probably do it with anyone.”

So, back to “Funky Cold Medina.” Here’s Brenda’s succinct summary of this song after listening to it again: “From what I heard, ‘Funky Cold Medina’ is a for sure ‘f**k potion,’ and he failed with it all three times—dog, tranny, and woman who only wanted marriage with kids. So, the moral of the song is that there is no $50,000 ‘f**ck potion’ that is 100% guaranteed. Tone Loc only wanted a ‘little something’ and no relationship, and although casual relationships and the ‘hook-up culture’ are much more acceptable in today’s society, you should try to avoid them.”

Woody Allen once said, “Sex without love is a meaningless experience, but as meaningless experiences go, it’s pretty damn good.” Still, don’t be afraid to invest some time into getting to genuinely know someone before you hop in the sack with that person.

If you do decide to quickly hook up, do not expect—nor be surprised by—a lack of communication thereafter. Don’t believe him when he says that he’ll call (or text) you the next day. He probably won’t. And, if you feel the immediate urge to call or text that person with whom you just got naked, let the words of the Beatles echo in your head: “whisper words of wisdom…let it be.”

13.     Bobby McFerrin, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”

“In every life we have some trouble/When you worry you make it double/Don’t worry, be happy”

No one escapes this life without some trouble, but Bobby McFerrin is right when he tells us not to worry but to be happy. “If you have fear of some pain or suffering,” the Dalai Lama once said, “you should examine whether there is anything you can do about it. If you can, there is no need to worry about it; if you cannot do anything, then there is also no need to worry.” Figure out what you can fix, and that which you cannot fix, let it go. Remember that being happy is a choice and that “worry never robs tomorrow of its sorrow; it only saps today of its joy.” Find joy in your day-to-day life, and go be a blessing to someone else when you feel like your life is overwhelming, or just plain crappy.


I could have continued writing about what I’ve learned about life beyond these thirteen songs, as I wanted to include Whitney Houston’s “How Will I Know?”; Journey’s “Faithfully”; Leo Sayer’s “When I Need You”; and Lionel Richie’s “Hello.” However, I needed to finish this piece before it got too long. As one of my graduate school professors used to tell me, “Sometimes you just need to call it a night and print off your paper and turn it in. You can’t work on it forever.” So, I’ll just finish this “paper” with my new favorite Maya Angelou quote: “I love to see a young girl go out and grab the world by the lapels. Life’s a bitch. You’ve got to go out and kick ass.” Go forth into the world and kick some ass, but do be nice about it. 🙂

Air Supply