Throughout the passageways of my youth, perhaps no other voice was as critically important. When I questioned my own existence in a predominantly white school and community, it was his voice and music that carried me through. During my saddest and most vulnerable moments, he filled me with hope and the strength to face another day. When I was locked inside the torments of my own mind, he would free me from the shackles of despair. The Reverend Andrew Young would go on to say that his music had the spiritual power of Martin Luther King. For me and for many others, his voice was one of guidance and of supreme understanding. His name was Curtis Mayfield, and I owe him more than these words could ever say.
Curtis Mayfield was born in Chicago and would die on December 26th, 1999 from several years of complications due to a tragic stage accident that resulted in paralysis. He was a quiet and honest poet, a messenger who had an empathy and comprehension of the human condition without allowing racial bitterness to compromise his cultural identity. At a time when he could have renounced his oppressor of 400 years, he had the wisdom to find love and understanding. His rhythm would influence the development of funk, his lyrics the development of inner-city rap and his music, the hope identified by several generations of race.
Like many of history's greatest artists and visionaries, he had the unique ability to assess the time he was living in. Historians and academia need time in order to fully study and evaluate an era conclusively, but the artist has a unique awareness of the time and events as they materialize. This is true with artists such as Bob Dylan
, Marvin Gaye, John Lennon
, Tupac Shakur, Salman Rushdie, Stevie Wonder
and now Liu Xiaobo along with the great and insightful leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, Mahatma Gandhi, Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela. It is a phenomenon and genius that Mayfield shared.
A lifelong activist of human rights, he believed in a dream that all people and cultures would someday come together as one. And during a time when few black musicians retained any control over their own music while receiving paltry handouts as industry executives became wealthy, Mayfield would become one of the first Black artists to start his own music label, Curtom Records, in 1968. He understood the power and necessity of self-determination and would accept nothing less.
Born on June 3rd, 1942, Mayfield would begin singing at the age of seven with the Traveling Soul Spiritualists, a gospel church group started by his grandmother, the Reverend A.B. Mayfield. It was through his grandmother that he would acquire his lifelong love for gospel music. He would spend part of his teenage years with the Northern Jubilee Gospel Choir, and would meet Jerry Butler, who would soon invite Curtis to join his group, The Roosters. He was 14 and living with his mother, Marion Washington, who taught him poetry in the Cabrini-Green projects of Chicago. He would drop out of Wells Community Academy High School at 16 and would start the vocal group known as The Impressions. The group included Sam Gooden and Jerry Butler but Butler would leave the group and Fred Cash would take his place. His song, "We're a Winner," would become the anthem of black power and black pride movements.
Reluctantly, Mayfield would leave the Impressions in 1970 and begin a solo career writing compositions that provided social commentary and reflected the struggle of African Americans. More importantly, he composed lyrics that reached and uplifted the soul and spirit of the oppressed.
Of history's greatest musicians, perhaps no one has been less documented than Curtis Mayfield. I would argue that it's due to his willingness to speak out on the subject of race that many find uncomfortable. But it is impossible to provide a complete and truthful portrayal of Mayfield without the inclusion of his passionate and brilliant voice on the struggle of African Americans.
While many focus on President Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey as proof of racial equality, in reality, it has only created the illusion that racism no longer exists. In actuality, what little progress has been made has only forced the face of racism to strengthen itself through institutionalized and systematic conditioning that has influenced the perception of most Americans. Consequently, discrimination has become so much a part of the American fabric that we have lost our ability to even distinguish the difference. Sadly but not surprisingly, racism has further embedded itself into our social foundation and structure.
In Mayfield's hometown of Chicago, the number of those incarcerated for a drug crime between the years of 1985 and 2005, increased by 2,000 percent . And even though African Americans and Latino's only make up 25% of today's drug users; they are 90% of those incarcerated for a drug offense. In contrast, whites are over 70% of today's drug users but only about 10% of those in prison for possession.
When young black youth are arrested for drug possession for the very first time, they are incarcerated forty-eight times greater than the rate for white youth, even when all other factors surrounding the crime are identical.
According to a Justice Department report in 2005, "Contacts Between Police and the Public," black males are three times more likely than white males to have their vehicles stopped and searched by police, even though white males are four times more likely to have illegal contraband in their cars.
William Bennett, the former drug czar under President George Bush, stated that the average drug user in America is a fully employed white male in his thirties.
Black youth are six times more likely than whites to be sentenced to prison for identical crimes. However, the U.S. Justice Department has found that biased treatment is magnified even more with each additional step into the criminal system.
Additionally, more African Americans are in prison today, on probation or parole, than were enslaved in 1850, a full decade before the civil war began. Is it any wonder that black children are less likely to be raised by both parents?
The Journal of Alcohol and Drug Education has reported that 95% of whites report envisioning a black person when asked to envision a typical drug user. However, according to the Centers for Disease Control, only 13% of blacks make up the total percent of all drug users.
According to one survey on Nightly News, 60% of the images of African Americans are negative in tone.
Princeton sociology professor, Devah Pager, summarized in her book, Marked, Race, Crime, and Finding Work in an Era of Mass Incarceration
, (University of Chicago, 2007), found that white men with a criminal record are equally, or even slightly more likely to be called back for a job interview than black men without one, even when the men are equally qualified and present themselves to potential employers in an identical fashion.
National studies have found that more than 80% of brutality victims are people of color, while the overwhelming majority of officers involved are white, and in three out of four cases where police kill someone, the person killed was unarmed.
According to justice Department data, we are five times more likely to be victimized by a white person than by a black person.
According to the American Journal of Public Health, about 900,000 blacks died from 1991 to 2000 but would not have died had they had access to health care that was equal to that received by the average white person.
94% of government contracts go to white-male owned businesses.
Since the 1970s, a vast majority of black families have lived in the poorest neighborhoods for consecutive generations compared to only 7 percent of whites that lived in similar poverty.
It took five days for food, water and medical supplies to reach New Orleans after Katrina. How long would it have taken if the same situation occurred in Boston or Manhattan?
2006 saw the largest number of race based housing discrimination complaints on record, and according to government and private studies, there are up to three million cases of housing discrimination each year against people of color.
According to the National Urban League's The State of Black America Report 2006, one-third of Black men are in prison. What kind of message does it provide when as a society we are willing to pay far more to incarcerate individuals who are black than to pay a much smaller price to improve their education?
Black and Latino students are about half as likely as whites to be placed in advanced or honor classes in school, even when test scores and prior performance would justify higher placement, and are twice as likely to be placed in remedial classes.
Indiana University conducted a research that reviewed fourteen studies from across the nation and discovered that students of color are two to three times more likely than whites to be suspended or expelled from school, even though the rates of serious school-rule infractions do not differ to any significant degree between racial groups.
In one of Charles Murray's studies, he found that there are blacks that have equal IQ's to whites but earn less money. They are also 32% more likely to have a college degree.
According to census data, black college graduates are only two-thirds as likely as whites to be employed in a professional or managerial position, while Latino college grads are only 44% as likely to be employed in such jobs. Furthermore, black men with college degrees earn on average, about $20,000 less annually than their white counterparts, which is a difference of 50%; whites with master degrees earn about 10% more than comparable blacks, on average, and whites with professional degrees (like medical or law degrees) earn, on average, about $30,000 more than their black counterparts each year.
In Joe Feagin's book, Systematic Racism
(Routledge), published in 2006, he found through unconscious stereotyping that nearly 90% of whites, who took the test, implicitly associate the faces of black Americans with negative words and traits such as evil character and failure.
Even though over half of all crime is committed by non-Hispanic whites, almost all whites and a large number of participants of color believe that these crimes are committed by people who are black or Latino.
The United States incarcerates a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid.
We continue to question China on its record of human rights, as we should but it's important to note that of China's population of 1.3 billion people, 1.6 million remain in prison. In contrast, the population of the U.S. is considerably less at 309 million, yet the number of blacks incarcerated is at over 2 million, which is more than the entire prison population in all of China.
According to national surveys, roughly three out of four whites refuse to believe that discrimination is any real problem in America. In fact, there isn't a time in the history of our country that white people have thought that blacks have had less than themselves. As a result, and this is critical, African American's are reluctant to bring up race in the work place since it will likely be questioned by most, bring further suspicion to their integrity and character, and even possibly place their jobs at risk.
And finally, when Arthur Ashe was asked in an interview about the pain and struggle of dying from AIDS, which he acquired through a blood transfusion, he would reply that growing up with racism was far more painful.
On August 13, 1990, Curtis Mayfield was in Brooklyn, New York to perform at an outdoor concert at Wingate Field in Flatbush. As Mayfield walked up the steps and took the first few steps on stage for a sound check, an unusual burst of wind would take down the stage light scaffolding, falling on Mayfield and paralyzing him from the neck down. As he lay motionless on his back and people began to scream, he would remember that it also began to rain. Six others would be injured but it was Mayfield who would remain a quadriplegic for the rest of his life.
Eleven years later, his message continues to live on as he remains a mirror of our social conscious and the voice of the oppressed. He is a light that shines in the midst of struggle, the hope for those that continue to sacrifice in the name of brotherhood and human rights. He had the sensitivity and wisdom to love all people and his search was one that confronted the problems that faced all of humanity. He was a brother, a gentle and spiritual man with a dignified and soulful voice who also understood the power of love and understanding. And though the rain has passed and he is no longer with us, his integrity and truth shall remind future generations of an extraordinary man who exemplified the very essence of nobility and compassion.
May he rest in peace.
"We the People Who are Darker Than Blue"
We the people who are darker than blue,
Are we going to stand around this town
And let what others say come true
We're just good for nothing they all figure.
A boyish, grown up, shiftless jigger
Now we can't hardly stand for that
Or is that really where it's at?
We people who are darker than blue
This ain't no time for segregatin'
I'm talking about brown and yellow too
Hey yellow girl, can't you tell
You're just the surface of our deep well
If your mind could really see
You'd know your color same as me
Get yourself together; learn to know your side
Shall we commit our own genocide?
Pardon me brother
As you stand in your glory
I know you won't mind
If I tell the whole story
Now I know we
Have great respect
For the sister and mother
It's even better yet
But there's the joker in the street
Loving one brother and killing the other
When the time comes
And we are really free
There'll be no brother's left you see
Pardon me brother
I know we've come a long way
Let us not be so satisfied
For tomorrow there can be
An ever brighter day
"People Get Ready"
People get ready Text Notes
there's a train a coming.
You don't need no baggage
You just get on board
All you need is faith
to hear the diesels humming.
You don't need no ticket
you just thank the lord.
So people get ready,
for there's a train to Jordan.
Picking up passengers
coast to coast.
Faith is the key
open the doors and board em
There's hope for all
among those loved the most.
There is no room
for the hopeless sinner
who would hurt all mankind
just to save his own.
Have pity on those
whose choices grow thinner
for there's no hiding place
against the kingdom's throne.
[Note: It is important to note that most of the data that is documented in this article would not have been possible without the work of authors, Michelle Alexander, Cecil Brown, Farai Chideya, Joe Feagin, Devah Pager, William Julius Wilson and Tim Wise. I am forever grateful for their wisdom and courage.]
Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
(New Press, 2010)
Cecil Brown, Dude, Where's My Black Studies Department, The Disappearance of Black Americans from our Universities
(North Atlantic Books, 2007)
Farai Chideya , "Holding the Media Accountable," from Black Genius, African American Solutions to African American Problems
(Norton & Company, 1999)
Joe Feagin, Systematic Racism, A Theory of Oppression
Devah Pager, Marked, Race, Crime, and Finding Work in an Era of Mass Incarceration
(University of Chicago Press, 2007)
William Julius Wilson, More Than Just Race
(Norton & Company, 2009)
Tim Wise, Speaking Treason Fluently, Anti Racist Reflections from an Angry White Male
(Soft Skull Press, 2008)Photo Credit
All Photos: Courtesy of Curtis Mayfield website