denzel washington Archives - The Jose Vilson

denzel washington

Glory, by Rory Amor

Normally, I don’t start posts like this, but imagine my annoyance at another misinformed message regarding Black History Month, this time from an unlikely source. Not sure who first posted it, but in the video, Morgan Freeman asserts two points:

  1. Black history is American history, so we shouldn’t relegate the history to a month. To an extent, it’s true, but then …
  2. The best way to get rid of racism is to stop talking about it. Just refer to others as their names and that’s all there is to it.

I love Morgan Freeman, but I hope that doesn’t soften my critique of his position about the influence of race in our country, and from my point of view, the way we school (and educate) children of color. First, Carter G. Woodson first created Negro History Week to ensure that people didn’t forget that Black history was a part of the American story. As with most stories, we also know that the victor of the wars gets to tell his story. Thus, what we’re seeing now is a watered-down version of the history I’m sure he envisioned. He is the author of one of the quintessential Black books in American history, The Mis-Education of the Negro, must-read material. It’s a book that’s relevant because he speaks about how African-Americans (and others in the African diaspora) needn’t be told to walk through the metaphorical back door after seeing generations of ancestors do it; after a while, they just do it as a force of habit, never realizing that their masters walk through the front door just fine. This is their education; there must be one.


In the periphery around Black History Month lies how we address social studies and becoming a well-informed citizen. I speak on this often, but I truly believe present and future curricula should root its foundations in social studies and science, not math and English. Because they’re harder to assess and more complex, I see ways for children to ask the right questions about how society functions and the balance between the human politic and human nature. Yes, Black history is American history, same with the other “races.” Yet, in the context of our current education system, we’re dumb lucky (and blessed with  centuries of struggle) that enough teachers believe studying Blacks in this country makes sense. Even if it’s just MLK and Rosa Parks.

So, what do we do about Black history? Let’s discuss it in the present. I find cogent examples of the way race plays into our culture daily, but because we’re not using names as per Freeman’s suggestions, we don’t see racism, do we? How about Dan Brown and Stephen Lazar both shedding light of the racial make-up of the typical Teach for America recruit at the recent Education Writers Association panels, and jointly, Diane Ravitch reminding people how it’s always the most underprivileged kids that get the most inexperienced and unproven teachers? How about Dick Vitale saying that the LeBron-Wade-Bosh-Melo-free-agent-dujour mess is like “the inmates running the asylum,” ignoring the racial undertones of young Black and Latino men as inmates, and him making millions off of mostly unpaid Black athletes?

Also note the systematic nature of all these pieces.

How about NYC testing out pre-kindergarten classes where mostly Black and Latino kids “learning” by running around and making as much noise as they want to, 60 per class with teachers on the walls looking onwards? Or how about stuffing as many “small schools” as possible into a building not meant to organizationally sustain such a model? How about closing 1/2 the schools in the 22nd most populated school district by 2014, the same year the Common Core Standards are supposed to go into effect? Can you imagine the perturbed feeling some of us had seeing Beyonce in blackface for a magazine in France, when every time she’s put in an ad or TV show here in the US, she’s Photoshopped to lighter gradients?

A few years back, The NewBlackMan (Mark Anthony Neal) discussed Denzel Washington’s comfort with the role of “race man,” a disposition of the role model who just happens to be part of any race other than the dominant one. Denzel particularly excels at this with critical and popular acclaim, receiving positive ratings from all audiences. He can tow the balance between the racially charged themes and the mainstream topics. It’s almost as if he’s implicitly doing his part to spread the idea of “Black history” across the entire year. Maybe that’s the approach people like me need to take.

Because this country is not at a point where someone like me doesn’t have to mention race wherever I go, but occasionally, it’s nice to know that, if I haven’t gotten to it explicitly yet, someone else can. Even when they don’t have to.

Jose, who’s enjoying his vacation from working all day by … working all day.


The Manhood Series: The Other Denzel Principle

by Jose Vilson on July 5, 2010

in Jose

Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in Fences

Manhood is one of those topics in the Black community that’s often discussed but rarely put in context. Consider the following: Denzel Washington, whose street credibility and Hollywood status is never questioned, has evolved into an actor whose mentioned in the same sentence as Al Pacino and Robert Deniro, and without the word “not” in the middle. Like those actors, their catalogues are versatile and profound, to the point where they’ve almost become caricatures of themselves.

It’s with that thought that I watched Fences a few months ago, an August Wilson play set in the 1950s, a revival of a play that featured James Earl Jones in the lead. I saw Denzel sway from loving family man to stern father, swig-stealing garbage man to conflicted womanizer. The whole play, well-written and acted, pushed the Black men and women in the audience to confront a man who in Act 1 has a charismatic and fluid edifice but by Act 2 has a deep dark secret and a battle with himself that many in the community sympathize (and empathize) with. Those suppressed secrets that simultaneously mollify and rot the image of the Black man hammered at the foreheads of those of us in the audience.

The same guy who, in the beginning of the play, gave a soaring speech to his son about responsibility (“A man is supposed to take care of his family. You live in my house, sleep your behind in my bedclothes, fill your belly with my food because you my son. You my flesh and blood, not ’cause I like you!”) couldn’t stop from cavorting with another woman. The audience had to know that he wasn’t perfect, but we still applauded the callousness and “tough love” to his sons, even when it came from the same lack of emotions he showed when making other riskier decisions.

That guttural fatalism, handed down to him from his father, rings so true to the many of us who’ve grown up even without one. We either emulate our fathers, whether we like it or not, or we run as far away from him, whether we like it or not. The varying degrees of these dichotomies exist, and Denzel, the actor and the person, embody so much of that debate that I sat in awe during intermission. The same man who played Malcolm X and Alonzo Harris, who gives tons to his community and has had alleged marital issues, the same man who the hood and the boulevard loves, are embodied in the same person. Impeccable and respected by all, even when we forgive his not-so-secret life.

Maybe that’s why he’s the first person one thinks of when anyone mentions “Black man.” Even this obelisk of manhood has a little dirt on his otherwise sturdy shoulder. It also may be why we love him.

Jose, who had to fill in the wedges in this topic …

{ 1 comment }