Friday, January 24, 2020

Dometi Pongo, True Life Crime, and Kedarie Johnson

The third episode of True Life Crime on MTV focuses on the killing of Kedarie Johnson, a vibrant 16-year-old, in Burlington, Iowa, in March 2016. The case gained widespread attention in part because of Johnson's gender identity.

As Courtney Crowder for the Des Moines Register reported, "While sometimes reported to be a transgender teen, Kedarie’s status isn’t that simple ... Most of the time he presented as male, but he loved to wear hair extensions and leggings." Crowder goes on by pointing out that Johnson "sometimes went by Kandicee and kept a Facebook page under that name, but his friends and family say Kedarie exclusively responded to the pronoun 'he' offline."

Dometi Pongo shines a new light on Johnson and explores the issue of whether the killing was a hate crime. But first, Pongo presents interviews with family and friends describing their loved one Kedarie. Here was this wonderful young person so exuberant and creative. He was a gender-fluid teen comfortable exploring varied aspects of identity.

One advocate interviewed on the episode explains to Pongo about the increasing violence committed against transgender people. The Office for Victims of Crime reports that "the majority of transgender individuals are living with the aftermath of trauma and the fear of possible repeat victimization." The episode of True Life Crime performs an important service by bringing more attention to these issues while also providing a specific focus on Johnson.

A driving force for the show concerns the multiple questions that Pongo raises about violent crimes committed against young people. Who was the victim before and beyond this horrible crime? Why did this horrible death take place? Who was responsible? What are some of the varied theories people have of what really happened? These are just a few of the kinds of questions that Pongo explores.

By returning to the scene of crimes to pose new and familiar questions, Pongo offers a framework for purposeful curiosity. He's also working to unsettle complacency with seemingly closed cases. Maybe there's more for us to consider, he's constantly suggesting.

Two men were eventually convicted for the killing of Johnson. Those men were sentenced to life in prison. But for Johnson's supporters, which Pongo amplifies, more should have been done to label what happened as a hate crime. 

"When you’re not allowed to try a crime as a hate crime," says Pongo toward the close of the episode, "you’re removing data and real experiences from the conversation.”

Dometi Pongo and the debut of MTV's True Life Crime series
Dometi Pongo, True Life Crime, on the case of Junior Guzman-Feliz
Dometi Pongo

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Lakenzie Walls Commentary

Lakenzie Walls is a graduate student in English at Southern Illinois University Edwarsdsville. She is a contributing writer for the Cultural Front.

• January 23: Representing Awkward black girls matter

• December 5: A Different World: Black Women, Hair and Cosmetics on College Campuses
• November 20: 15 memoirs by black women, 2015 - 2019
• November 15: When You Can’t Dance, Pt 1
• November 5: "Awkward Black Girls Really Do Exist"

Representing Awkward Black Girls Matter

Lakenzie Walls
“YouTube has revolutionized content creation. If it weren’t for YouTube, I would still be at studios trying to convince executives that Awkward Black Girls really do exist.” — Issa Rae, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl
The representation of Black women and girls on television matters. Currently, we’re witnessing a shift in how Black women are portrayed on screen.

A few weeks ago, I was thinking about the impact of Issa Rae’s Awkward Black girl characters. Before her show, I don’t recall seeing any black girls on television shows that had personalities similar to my friends and me.

With the help of characters like J on the YouTube series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, Black women and girls were given a chance to envision themselves outside of stereotypical roles. The show helped push boundaries set around identity. It contradicted the images most Black girls have seen while growing up immersed in pop culture.

There is no doubt that viewers will continue to see more shows like The Misadventures of Awkward Black and Insecure because we need shows with narratives that reflect diverse representations of black women and girls.

Lakenzie Walls is a graduate student in English at SIUE and a contributing writer for the Cultural Front.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

A checklist of poetry volumes on black historical figures

What follows is a partial list of poetry volumes focused on various historical figures. 

Jean-Michel Basquiat
2001: To Repel Ghosts: Five Shades in B Minor by Kevin Young
2005: To Repel Ghosts: The Remix by Kevin Young

E.J. Bellocq's photographic subjects
2002:Bellocq's Ophelia by Natasha Trethewey

George Polgreen Bridgetower
2009: Sonata Mulattica: Poems by Rita Dove

George Washington Carver
2001: Carver by Marilyn Nelson

MacNolia Cox
2004: M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A by A. Van Jordan

Prudence Crandall students 
2007: Miss Crandall's School for Young Ladies & Little Misses of Color by Elizabeth Alexander and Marilyn Nelson

Fortune’s Bones: The Manumission Requiem by Marilyn Nelson

Fannie Lou Hamer
2015: chop: a collection of kwansabas for fannie lou hamer by Treasure Shields Redmond

Donny Hathaway
2009: Cooling Board: A Long Playing Poem by Mitchell L. H. Douglas

Jack Johnson
2013: The Big Smoke by Adrian Matejka

Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter
2005: Leadbelly by Tyehimba Jess

Issac Murphy2010: Issac Murphy I Dedicate This Ride by Frank X. Walker

Nina Simone

Venture Smith
2008: The Freedom Business: Including A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Venture, a Native of Africa by Marilyn Nelson

Emmett Till
2005: A Wreath for Emmett Till by Marilyn Nelson

Harriet Tubman
2004: They Shall Run: Harriet Tubman Poems by Quraysh A. Lansana

2004: Buffalo Dance: The Journey of York by Frank X. Walker
2008: When Winter Come: The Ascension of York by Frank X. Walker

A checklist of poems featuring ex-slaves
Poetry Lists

Friday, January 17, 2020

Dometi Pongo, True Life Crime, on the case of Junior Guzman-Feliz

Last week, I was thinking that one of the toughest challenges that Dometi Pongo had encountered as a journalist was coveraging of the case of Kenneka Jenkins. But after watching him this week's
True Life Crime on MTV about the murder of Lesandro 'Junior' Guzman-Felizn, I'm not so sure. Maybe this was Pongo's biggest case. Or maybe it'll be next week, or the next.

When it comes to Junior, what a terrible crime. In 2018, a Dominican gang brutally killed this 15-year-old boy outside a bodega in the Bronx. I was visiting New York around the time the incident took place, and it was all over the news. I continued following it, though I was deeply disturbed by what happened.

I'm really glad that Pongo shined new light on the case and gave some attention to Junior and his family beyond the killing. Too often, all we hear is that some black or brown person was killed. That's all we know about the person -- that they were murdered. But Pongo and his crew for MTV True Life Crimes have been working to talk to families and friends about who the person was -- how the person was full of life, laughter, and dreams.

It was really difficult to watch this episode, and so I can only imagine how unbearable things must be for the family.

I can't stress enough how important it is for a show like True Life Crime to delve into the complexity of violent crime in black and brown communities. If you ever wade through the dozens of shows, especially all those popular podcasts, about crime and murder, you'll mostly encounter cases involving white people. You might fail to consider what's happening with others out in these streets.

Too, many white liberals have a tough time getting involved in cases that deal with people of color as the victims and perpetrators. Those liberals don't want to be accused of pathologizing certain racial and ethnic groups. Hence, they remain silent.

Thankfully, Pongo doesn't feel restrained in that way. He goes in respectful, and he raises questions and provides coverage that prompts us to ask additional questions and come to new realizations with these cases.

There's a moment in this episode where Pongo makes a point about what he was witnessing first-hand with gang violence and streets codes in Chicago, and he asks someone from the Bronx if it's like that out here in New York. That's a crucial challenge and contribution that Pongo is undertaking -- connecting the dots about violence across distinct kinds of communities.

Dometi Pongo and the debut of MTV's True Life Crime series
Dometi Pongo

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Dometi Pongo and the debut of MTV's True Life Crime series

Last night, I tuned in to the debut of True Life Crime on MTV -- a series about unsettling crimes. I was interested for two main reasons. For one, the show was about the death of Kenneka Jenkins, a young black woman from Chicago who was mysteriously found dead in a hotel kitchen freezer.

The second main reason I wanted to watch was because the host of the show is Dometi Pongo, a graduate of SIUE, who was one of my favorite collaborators when he was a student here.

The specific angle of MTV's show deals with mysterious violent crimes involving young people. The majority of my black students are from Chicago, and the young women in particular have been deeply invested in discussing this case. Each year for the last couple of years, I included a unit on Jenkins in one of my courses.

Over the years, there have been various television crime shows, and more pervasively, there are dozens of true crime podcasts. But here's the thing: despite the disproportionate numbers of black people directly affected by violent crimes, hardly any of us host the television shows and podcasts. In this regard, Pongo fills an important void.

Beginning with the Jenkins case was quite fitting given Pongo's Chicago roots. He worked for Chicago’s WGN Radio and voiceover talent for WGN-TV. And he was actively involved in the arts scene.

While viewing the True Life Crime episode on Jenkins, it was evident that this was a case that Pongo took personally. At the same time, he displayed the necessary professional distance as he conducted interviews and discussed the case. My sense is that family members and interviewees felt comfortable talking to Pongo, whom they viewed as one of them.

Pongo had to walk a thin line too. Large numbers of folks from Chicago are convinced that there was a coverup with the Jenkins death. They firmly believe there was some sort of foul-play, and there are all kinds of theories about what really happened. Pongo listened to their perspectives respectfully. At the same time, he took in the opinions of professional investigators who concluded that the incident was a tragic accident. The competing narratives that Pongo had to absorb for this case revealed that he is of the people and in some ways in a slightly different place as a journalist.

During the closing credits, it was revealed that sometime after the taping of the episode two of the men that Pongo interviewed had been violently killed in Chicago. Their murders remain unsolved. The announcements about those homicides at the close of an episode about a mysterious a death were reminders of the ongoing violence and tragedies that affect so many families, especially black families in Chicago.

I'm looking forward to following where Pongo goes with this work.

Dometi Pongo
• Dometi Pongo, True Life Crime, on the case of Junior Guzman-Feliz

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Poetry by black writers, 2000 - 2019

Here's a roundup of poetry volumes and chapbooks published between 2000 - 2019. More bibliographies here.

This list is a work-in-progress, so by all means, get at me if you have suggestions for additional volumes by black poets to include.

Blessing the Boats by Lucille Clifton
Storms Beneath the Skin by Regie Gibson
Domestic Work by Natasha Trethewey
Passing Over by Houston A. Baker, Jr.
Affrilachia: Poems by Frank X. Walker
Multitudes: Poems Selected & New by Afaa Michael Weaver
The Ten Lights of God by Afaa Michael Weaver

Antebellum Dream Book by Elizabeth Alexander
Brutal Imagination by Cornelius Eady
Rise by A. Van Jordan
Pleasure Dome by Yusef Komunyakaa
Da Black Book of Linguistic Liberation by C. Liegh McInnis
Carver by Marilyn Nelson
The Sound of Dreams Remembered: Poems 1990-2000 by Al Young
To Repel Ghosts: Five Shades in B Minor by Kevin Young

Jazz Fan Looks Back by Jayne Cortez
Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea: Poems and Not Quite Poems by Nikki Giovanni
Songlines in Michaeltree: New and Collected Poems by Michael S. Harper
10 Tongues: Poems by Reginald Harris
Hip Logic by Terrance Hayes
Leaving Saturn by Major Jackson
Imitation of Life by Allison Joseph
Octavia: Guthrie and Beyond by Naomi Long Madgett
Blues Baby by Harryette Mullen
Sleeping with the Dictionary by Harryette Mullen
Rock Harbor by Carl Phillips
Bellocq's Ophelia by Natasha Trethewey
Transcircularities by Quincy Troupe
Black Swan by Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon