We were honored to have an in-depth discussion with Dr. Garrard McClendon about the history, hope, and healing of the black community’s dark cloud of self-destruction.
Dr. McClendon is an Emmy award-winning talk show host, professor, and author. People we have work to do. Let’s begin to heal our community, and have open dialog about our experiences.
Starting with the 80’s, can you kind of bring us up to date on the actual history of this pandemic that the African American community has been experiencing with black on black crime?
As we get to the late 80’s and into the 90’s, we saw some interesting things in the African American community. We saw that the premise and content of rap music were starting to change from a dance, party, happy, type of rap (with minor issues of different crews having battles).
In essence, we started to see hip hop become more violent. Then you look at the epidemic of crack cocaine. Of course Mario Van Peoples’ epic film New Jack City with Nino Brown’s character in the film as the one trying to make crack cocaine ubiquitous in our community, it was just a film, but it was definitely art imitating life and so when you look at the music.
Which is a strong influence and then you look at the narcotics influx and the guns influx you started to see increases in gun violence along with high unemployment rates in African American communities.
So that kind of traces black people and our struggle in the 80’s and 90’s in terms of the epidemic.
Do you think that there’s any hope of becoming a closely knit community in the future?
When you look at the crack cocaine epidemic some people ask, “well why do black people use this drug?” The drug didn’t get here on its own, and it wasn’t created on its own. The guns weren’t supplied within the community; they were supplied to the community.
As far as curing the ills of the community, you have to get back to just that word “community” and even now, we’re so interested in dividing ourselves, that we can’t come to any sort of peaceful resolution. The concept of brotherhood is a difficult concept for a lot of us. Even in the upper echelon competitive, intellectual ranks, you see people fighting.
Whether it’s Tavis Smiley and Cornel West, or Rev. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, you got black men who are supposed to be intellects and spiritual motivators fighting on radio shows, and so that behavior, that white supremacy is still perpetuating itself by getting us to turn on ourselves.
Are Black leaders avoiding the subject of black on black crime?
Yes! Black leaders are ignoring black on black on crime and it’s really a shame. It’s like the most vocal, most obvious and the most prominent African American leaders will talk about school, finances, and jobs until the cows come home.
When it comes to our community decimated by these homicides, where are they? We’ve gotten to the point now, where, we look at homicide like it’s just another day. It’s something that happens, and it’ll happen again tomorrow.
Murder should be rare. Unfortunately, it’s commonplace in our community. In other communities when one person gets killed the entire community is in an uproar.
But in Chicago, in Compton, ATL, DC, somebody gets killed and it’s like, “Oh well, let’s go to the funeral, what are you wearing?”
If you’re in a school or you’re in a room full of people and you ask them, “How many of you all personally have known someone that’s ever been murdered” almost every hand goes up.
In a technological and industrialized nation with a high literacy rate, that should not be the case. But it shows you exactly what the federal government cares about and exactly what black leaders care about. They don’t care enough to consider black homicide an epidemic.
Why hasn’t this epidemic generated more of an extreme response from the community?
We’re too comfortable. African Americans in this country are too comfortable, that’s the first reason. We don’t really feel the need to protest. Second, we feel powerless. When you feel powerless, you don’t do anything.
Harry Belafonte is on this crusade now. He is going from college to college, venue to venue, and he’s saying, “Where are the angry black leaders that are making a difference? Why isn’t there any anger on college campuses?”
College campuses, that’s where things really jump off and resonate. The beauty of a college student is that a college student is fairly protected for a 4 year period, and you can cause some revolution. Harry Belafonte is saying, “Where are the revolutionaries today”? We’re too comfortable. I mean you have people in poverty, who have smartphones, that’s comfortable.
When you consider what’s being presented to our youth on television, movies, and music, do you think that it has become an acceptable form of entertainment?
Oh wow, yes, great question! Yes, black on black crime is an accepted form of entertainment. Here’s the crazy part, it’s probably more acceptable to our people than anyone else. We consume it and accept it as a norm.
Even though most black people don’t sell drugs, most black people haven’t been shot, most black people do live in decent neighborhoods, and we don’t want to watch positivity.
We don’t want to watch a family raising itself, we don’t want to watch a father being responsible, we would much rather watch, somebody with some gang affiliation, not dressed appropriately, slanging on the corner, that’s exciting.
When we see a show like First 48, we embrace this image, even when you look at a show like “Housewives of Atlanta” or “Basketball Wives”, those shows are very violent. No one’s getting killed on the show, no one’s gets shot, but when you have grown black women who are supposed to be friends, throwing drinks on each other and cussing each other out, that’s violent.
Who are the consumers of these shows? Teenage girls. And they grow up to think, these are my friends, I can disrespect them backward I want to because they’re my friends, I can cuss them out throw a drink on them, and if you treat your friends like that, how are you going to treat your enemies?
You might even get a reality TV show.
Thank you! Absolutely! I’m glad you saw that. So, what’s happening is you got this weird; I call it the Sidney Poitier, paradox. There was a time when black people on screen had to be the highest representation of civilization to get any type of respect or be put on.
Whether you were playing, Mr. Tibbs role, Sidney Poitier, or even if you were Hattie McDaniel playing a maid, there was still a level of dignity to that.
The key in the new millennium is, let’s see how we can degrade ourselves to the lowest point and then maybe someone will put me on. The group Devo, the punk, technological group, they named their band Devo because they believe that human beings are “de-evolving”, they don’t think we’re progressing. We have better technology, but they think that our ethics, our pathos, and ethos, our ethos is going backwards.
KRS-One said it well a few years ago. He stated, “We’re not a more civilized people, we’re more “technologized, but technology doesn’t advance you in terms of civilization, and honor and respect and loyalty and spirituality. Technology only puts in a position to do evil things, even better.”
That is what’s happening to some radio programs today. You know, I turn to some of these radio stations, and I’m like, wow, am I really hearing this?
Absolutely, there’s an evil influence. I wouldn’t want any of my little cousins to hear some of that stuff.
I heard a girl one day, she had her headphones on, and you can tell she was programmed. She could not have been more than twelve, and I just kind of stopped her because she was kind of loud. I was like; you’re kind of loud baby. She was mouthing the words to the song, and the words were, “I’m just a trick …I’m just a trick…”
Twelve years old, she shouldn’t be singing a song like that. That’s where we are, we don’t have standards anymore, and what you find is, when a person puts standards in the mix, that person is ostracized.
How do you use what happened to you and your family to motivate other people toward positive change?
I‘m just trying to create some awareness out here. When you have two parents murdered on the same day, by two teenage African American boys who deceived them to get in their home.
Tie them up, take as much jewelry and money as they can, leave, go on a joyride in my parents Cadillac, come back to my parent’s house, put them in the trunk of the car, take them to the forest preserve and shoot them for $70 and some jewelry?
My family had two routes we could go, straight vengeance and say, you know what, we don’t care about anyone anymore, let’s wreak some harm, damage and hurt other people, or, let’s take the higher ground and let’s forgive and keep the story in the public eye so that they can train up a child in the way that they should go, not murdering people.
The second thing is to make sure that the penalties are extremely stiff for perpetrators who have aggravating circumstances. When you kill a senior citizen, which is an aggravating circumstance. Those people are defenseless.
We decided to take the higher ground and forgive.
Third, we visit prisons. We visit the jails and I tell them my story. I let people know, look this is what happened. Look, my father would’ve given them $70. One of the boys used to cut my father’s grass.
So my whole vibe is, okay, here’s a horrendous situation, but the sun is going to come up tomorrow, so let’s make sure that the next person thinking about doing something like this doesn’t do it. So let’s get this information out. We perish for the lack of knowledge.
African American boys that don’t have a strong, responsible father figure are in trouble, especially if they’re not doing well in school. Because if they’re below reading level, they’re going to drop out, that’s just a fact. And if you drop out and you don’t have a strong, positive father figure around, the rest is pretty much inevitable.
Sounds like you are describing the “from the cradle to the jail” pipeline.
The prisons and the federal government love this. I even question if they really want to get rid of this, because the 13th amendment says that “….slavery is abolished, except for the convicted felon.”
Everyone thinks that slavery doesn’t exist anymore, oh yes it does, it’s in the 13th amendment. That’s why large corporations go to prisons because the labor is cheap.
If you want a product produced cheaply and you don’t want to go overseas, have your product assembled at your local penitentiary. They’re only getting paid $.35 an hour; some are even getting paid $.35 a day, that’s labor, that’s slave labor.
So, the federal government is saying, it pays to lock up black men. Bob Barker, former host of the Price is Right, owns one of the largest prison equipment and clothing suppliers in the country, Bob Barker! You can go to his website and open it up and you can see all this prison gear that’s for sell. He has prison equipment, and he’s making a fortune, off of the 13th amendment.
Does that mean that black people should continue to do dumb stuff? What do we do? We have to find ways of starting to employee people who may not fit the “system mold”. We have to get creative again. We got creative during slavery and we got creative after slavery, Booker T. Washington was born a slave and built Tuskegee Institute. He raised $6 million to build the school.
He was smart. He befriended people like the Rockefellers’ and Andrew Carnegie, and he went to the deep pockets. We have to get smart and use the creativity that African Americans have used throughout history.
What kind of advice would you give a young brother who wants to do something in his community to curb violence?
I think he should focus on finding out how he can galvanize forces to help create jobs. Because it’s one thing to say stop selling drugs, stop killing people, stop doing this and that, but usually, the word stop doesn’t do anything. It’s the forbidden fruit syndrome.
If you tell me not to do something, I’m going to try to do it. So instead of saying stop, put something in the place of the word stop, maybe that’s a job. There are plenty of employment opportunities in the ‘hood’ that are perfectly legal. That’s what we have to focus on.
I would also encourage that young person to find a mentor, find someone that’s already doing what you want to do. I would also encourage them to get educated on what they want to do.
There are a lot of people out here that want to do things, but they lack the knowledge and there are a lot of people who are operating outside of their calling. And we’re you’re operating outside of your calling, it often leads to chaos.
What is your take on finding that mentor?
Mentorship and mentoring, it’s probably one of the most important things to curtailing some of this violence. I remember at a very early age, I was always looking at mentors. Some of my mentors in the TV world, Bob Jordan from WGN, retired anchor Art Norman from NBC.
I would call these guys up and they would engage me in conversation, they would give me tips and say, hey, try this, or contact this producer.
A lot of times people think they’re some remote person, they don’t want to talk to anybody, but that’s not the case. I’m always looking for someone to mentor and, if I need a mentor, I’m going to get on the phone and say, hey, I need you for this, and 9 times out 10, they are going to say “yes”.
How can black women help keep the brothers alive and out of jail?
I think black women can do two things.If Black women continue to encourage Black men, in terms of not only giving them a path but saying things that are edifying to Black men’s spirits, that’s really crucial. At the same time, not necessarily condemn every Black man, because he’s a Black man, which a lot of sisters do as well. The third thing is Black women have to raise their standards as well.
At the same time, not necessarily condemn every Black man, because he’s a Black man, which a lot of sisters do as well. The third thing is Black women have to raise their standards as well.
What standard should we be reaching for? What should black men do as a bare minimum?
We should be law-abiding citizens, that’s number one. We should be thirsty for as much education as we can possibly get, in our chosen field, whether it’s a trade or a highly intensified cognitive skill. We need to protect, and respect, women, and children. If we can start there, we are in good shape.
Sometimes, people ask me, “Garrard, why do you wear a suit everywhere?” “Why are you always knotted up?” On my day off, I put a suit on!
Everyone doesn’t have to do that. I’m trying to create an image, not for myself, but for people to say wait a minute, as much as I despise black men, I saw this brother today, his shoes were shined, his tie and hankie were matching, he smelled good, he spoke proper English, he opened the door for a lady today, he bought 5 people drinks at Starbucks today, that’s a gentleman.
I’m trying to change the whole game here man because we’re going against forces and principalities that are unbelievable in our community. I don’t have to do all of that, but I’m trying to change the standards.
The Mike Brown and Trayvon Martin tragedies sparked many to protest. What more can we do when our community is violated in such a manner?
When communities feel violated or under attack, they must plan against the attack. The reaction is not good enough. It’s generally best to take a non-violent approach, but that approach should not play defense, but offense. Marches and protests aren’t good enough.
Civil disobedience forces an action from the power structure. If you march, people pay attention. If you block the street, the authorities must ask you to move or arrest you. Marching in the street is cute. Being arrested for civil disobedience takes sacrifice.
Getting the best, most visible or successful lawyer is a key element as well. Fighting without adequate weaponry is futile. Having legal representation that commands respect is more than half the battle. Power only respects power.
You won an Emmy for your show, “Off 63rd”, what made that show special enough to receive such an honor?
That particular show was in the category for best interview discussion television program, and the show that won was “The Challenge of Raising African American Boys.”
I think that show won because it was an unapologetically black show. I think that’s what Black people have to get back to, we need to stop being ashamed of being African, because the more African we are, the more black that we are, the more authentic we are.
The second reason is because that show was edifying. I was really pushing the guest on the show to the limits. Questions like, How can we raise black boys in this society? What are the challenges? What are the answers? And so the Emmy, the National Association of Television Arts & Sciences, said this is the show that we’re going to give the Emmy to for Interview and Discussion television programming.
Black people need to get back to being unapologetically black, unapologetically positive and we have to be unapologetically truthful.
I think that if we can do that, we can get to a point where we can set standards, and that’s my whole vibe here is to set standards, and once we’ve done that, as Jay-Z said, “On to the next one.”
So what’s next for Dr. Garrard McClendon?
We’re starting a research institute on Black English at Chicago State University. We’re going to do a 25 city longitudinal study on teachers’ perception of Black English among high school students, that’s where all of my research is at Loyola University.
We’re bringing it to Chicago State University. I’m an Instructor there. We’re looking at a new television show in the New Year and we’re just looking at publishing more books. I have a book on Barack Obama coming out, where I’m looking at Barack as an American role model and a few other things.
I’m just trying to keep it positive, just like your magazine and I commend your magazine and this exactly what we need. We need revolutionaries who are doing positive things and I think those images can change the whole day.
I think that’s what people need, not necessarily to replace but to come in and counterbalance all of those negative images.