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Maya Angelou Opened Her Life to Open our Eyes

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By Jazelle Hunt
NNPA Washington Correspondent

WASHINGTON (NNPA) – The day before she died, Maya Angelou telephoned Ebony magazine headquarters in Chicago to tell new editor-in-chief Mitzi Miller that she was proud of her. They barely knew each other. Miller knew Angelou mostly through her writings.

“She spoke to me for 10 minutes, so generously and complimentary toward the work I had done in JET. She said that she had just called to tell me how much she had been enjoying JET…and she was proud of how much I had done,” Miller recalls. “I’m stuttering, trying to keep up. It was a brush with greatness. I feel so blessed that, for whatever reason, she decided to call me. I feel incredibly grateful.”

It was a final gesture that exemplified Angelou’s sincerity and openness. As in inimitable as she was, she had a way of making everyone feel they were her best friend.

“This is someone that I have followed my entire life, read her books, looked up to…and she was on the phone with me,” Miller continues. “Having a really everyday conversation, kind of how you’d expect your aunt to call you, like ‘girl, I’m so proud of you.’ And the next day she had passed.”

Angelou was born in St. Louis, Mo. as Marguerite Johnson, but assumed the name Maya Angelou and many other titles over her 86 years: writer, activist, entertainer, San Francisco’s first Black female street car conductor, professor, doctor, linguist, winner of three Grammys, the NAACP Springarn Medal, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to name just a few.

But in her own words, she was simply “a teacher who writes.” And many remember her as that – and so much more.

“There are two things she taught me that I try to remember,” says Susan Taylor, former editor of Essence magazine. “One moment we were chatting and I was very stressed about work. And she told me, time spent away from your desk renewing yourself is as important as time spent hunkered over your work. And that we should never beat up ourselves or feel guilty…she said to me, as I’m sure she’s said to many others, we have to do as well as we know how to do, until we know better. Then when we know better, we can do better.”

Even through her status as an international icon, Angelou constantly took others under her wing, inviting them to her home, feeding, regaling, and encouraging them to live well and pursue their goals. She loved to celebrate and entertain, from warm Thanksgivings with friends and mentees who became her chosen family, to lavish garden parties and ceremonies held in her honor.

CNN contributor and Democratic strategist Donna Brazile recounts reading her work as a girl, and ending up dining with her as an adult.

“Once, my friend Minyon Moore hosted a luncheon in honor of Betty Shabazz, Cicely Tyson, Coretta Scott King and Maya Angelou. It was a moment for us, the up-and-coming, to meet our heroes, to sit at their feet and learn from them,” she said. “Before we could break bread (cornbread), Maya had everyone laughing. She made a place for so many folks in her life, in her kitchen or on her stage.”

Ingrid Saunders Jones, another mentee and chair of the National Council of Negro Women, remembers Angelou’s portrait unveiling ceremony at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. It was the day after Angelou’s 86th birthday, and the last time Jones, former chair of the Coca-Cola Foundation, would see her.

“What I saw that day was complete delight from her that this was happening, and that she was surrounded by people she loved and people who loved her. It was just a love fest,” Jones says. “She gathered all her strength – she was so strong that day – as she answered questions about herself. And she sang to us. It was just a day never to be forgotten.”

In 2009, National Urban League President and CEO, Marc Morial went to Angelou’s home to request her participation in the League’s centennial celebration.

“What followed was hours of conversation sitting at her kitchen table as she told stories, gave life lessons, and shared poignant perspectives on art, culture and humankind,” he shared. “With equal parts majesty and humility, she held court – and I listened intently, absorbing every word and meaning that she had to impart. It was an incredibly powerful experience, and I will always be grateful.”

The visit resulted in her poem titled, “We Hear You.”

Through her works, generations will continue to sit at her kitchen table by proxy. Her most famous works, such as “Still I Rise,” “Phenomenal Woman,” and “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” were imbued with her wisdom and power. Her words could lift a reader out of a personal nadir, fortify, and quietly cheer him or her toward the best version of themselves.

Angelou backed her eloquence with gritty action. An active participant of the Civil Rights Movement – she served as northern coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) – her time was dedicated to human rights and dignified life for all.

“As much as she was an international figure, she was still very much as down-to-earth as soil,” says University of Louisville Business Professor Nat Irvin II, a longtime friend who taught with her at Wake Forest University and attended the same church. “She was majorly dedicated to the common humanity of all people. That’s where her heart rested. That’s what her life was about.”

Rep. John Lewis [D-Ga.] called her a “soothsayer,” adding that her talents and activism “set this nation on a path toward freedom.” He continued, “America is a better place, and we are a better people because Dr. Maya Angelou lived.”

From serving in a leadership for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, to helping Malcolm X establish the Organization of African American Unity just before his assassination, to lending her voice to push for gay rights, Maya Angelou was a consistent crusader for fairness.

“Over the course of a career spanning some of the most tumultuous decades of the last century, she taught us how to rise above ‘a past that’s rooted in pain,’” said Attorney General Eric Holder, whose firstborn was named after Angelou. “She gave voice to a people too often shut out of America’s public discourse.”

Last week, Angelou gave her last public interview to Susan Taylor’s National CARES Mentoring Movement, which seeks to elevate the state of Black youth through targeted, skilled mentorship. Angelou wrote its “Pledge to Young People,” and often delivered at the organization’s local affiliates over the years.

“She was always getting engaged in what really matters most – ensuring the education and well-being of children struggling along the margins,” Taylor says. “One thing I think she wanted to really impart was the importance of being courageous – you can have all the other virtues but it’s meaningless without courage. It takes courage, commitment, and strategy to change reality, to stand with people in crushing circumstances. That was the mandate of her life.”

But above all, she was human. In her autobiographical works, she let the world in on her pain, her uncertainties, and her forays into the wilder side of life, including prostitution. In sharing so much of herself, she led millions to self-acceptance, self-love, and self-actualization.

“I think of how willing she was to share her journey so all of us would know that life is not perfect,” says Ingrid Saunders Jones. “And she articulated it in a way that helped so many people. She taught us through the sharing of her life.”

Marcia Ann Gillespie, former editor of Essence and Ms. magazines, agrees.

“She was a WOMAN. All caps. She was a woman who lived her life to the fullest, enjoyed the company of men, loved her scotch, lived life to the max, was adventurous…she was an activist and icon, and I think all that will be captured, but we forget they’re living, breathing, human beings,” Gillespie says. “She, by example, taught us that it was important to own our lives, not to try to edit or change things, not to feel guilty, and to own both our mistakes and our triumphs.”

Reparations for North Carolina Sterilization Victims

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By Jazelle Hunt
NNPA Washington Correspondent

WASHINGTON (NNPA) – Victims who were sterilized in North Carolina between 1929 and 1974 – approximately 7,600 people – have until the end of June to file a claim with the state, according to government officials.

This month marks the final push to identify victims and their families, who will receive reparations in June 2015 from a $10 million fund. North Carolina is not the first state to publicly acknowledge this practice, but it will be the first state to offer compensation for it.

Currently, the state estimates that close to 3,000 victims, born in or before 1961, may still be alive.

“We honestly don’t know how many [Black Americans] were victims, we’re still subpoenaing records, talking to people, and sharing with others as the data comes in,” says Hilary O. Shelton, NAACP Washington Bureau director and senior vice president for Advocacy and Policy. “But, we’re very clear that for the victims, and families of the victims, justice needs to be served.”

North Carolina’s state legislature established the North Carolina Eugenics Board in 1933 to oversee sterilizations of inmates and mental patients at public institutions. It was the only state to allow social workers to petition the board to have their clients sterilized. Additionally, more than 70 percent of North Carolina’s sterilizations occurred after 1945, unlike most programs, which distanced themselves from eugenics after World War II.

“The first publicly-funded birth control was in the South, and it was intended to reduce the Black birth rate,” says Dorothy Roberts, reproductive rights scholar and professor of African American studies, law, and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. “In North Carolina…initially most of those sterilized on orders of the Board were [mentally disabled] White people, but eventually it targeted predominantly Black women receiving public assistance.”

According to Roberts, Black women went into state-run hospitals and clinics for routine procedures or births, and unknowingly signed documents authorizing their sterilization (sometimes during labor); gave consent after being deliberately misinformed; consented under the threat of losing social services; or were simply sterilized without their knowledge, in addition to the intended procedure. Doctors were compensated for the procedures through state funding (i.e., taxpayer money).

“During slavery, Black women were coerced into having children who were mere property of White men. So their own reproductive decisions have been devalued and regulated since times of slavery,” Roberts says. “This preceded eugenics, but I argue that that familiarity…provided fertile ground for eugenics in the United States.”

The practice of compulsory sterilization was part of a global eugenics movement which the United States pioneered (and from which the Nazis drew inspiration). The theory was that people considered irreparably inferior – such as disabled people, people of color, poor women who already had children, and some convicts – should be barred from having children for the good of society.

The U.S. Supreme Court reinforced the practice in 1927 with its Buck v. Bell ruling. According to the court’s majority opinion, “It is better for all the world if, instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.”

There were 33 states that had eugenic boards and/or compulsory sterilization laws on the books. In some states, these laws and government bodies still existed until recently. Oregon, for example, abolished its eugenics board (which was largely concerned with the mentally disabled) in 1983. North Carolina’s General Assembly formally repealed its last remaining involuntary sterilization law in 2003.

“It’s still part of public policy, even though they don’t expressly say that,” says Roberts. As an example, she points to the policy that welfare recipients are denied additional benefits if they have additional children. “To me, that’s based in the eugenics ideology that certain people’s childbearing causes social problems, therefore the state should deter them from having babies.”

Another example resurfaced this month when California’s Senate approved a bill to ban its prisons and jails from sterilizing inmates (except in life-threatening situations, or as necessary treatment for another physical condition, with inmate consent). The legislation was in response to an investigation conducted last year, which found that nearly 150 women had been sterilized in two California prisons without state approval, often under coercion or deception. Most of the surgeries, which occurred between 2006 and 2010, were attributed to one physician, Dr. James Heinrich, who has a long list of violations.

“I do believe most Americans are not aware this even happened. Most people who truly believe in the promise of America could not conceive of our government and government officials being involved in something like this,” Shelton says, adding that he is aware of similar investigations beginning in Alabama, and other states. “I think most people will support the victims. As more people learn about this, we will see more outrage.”

(The deadline for filing a claim with the North Carolina Office of Justice for Sterilization Victims for compensation is June 30.

The Charlotte-Mecklenberg County chapter of the NAACP is offering free help filing claims on Thursday, June 5 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Little Rock AME Zion Church, (located at 401 N McDowell St. in downtown Charlotte); and again on Thursday, June 12 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at New Ahoskie Baptist Church (located at 401 Hayes St. E in Ahoskie, NC).

If you believe you or a relative may have been sterilized in accordance with North Carolina Eugenics Board policies, call the information line at 1-877-550-6013 (toll free in North Carolina) or 919-807-4270. You can also file a claim and view additional information online at www.sterilizationvictims.nc.gov.)

Hope and Skepticism in the Pursuit of the Abducted Nigeria Girls

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By Nayaba Arinde
Special to the NNPA from the New York Amsterdam News

Hope tempered with trepidation has followed the news that the almost 300 girls have been located. Many are skeptic but also hope the claim is true. The world anxiously waits for positive news of the teenage girls who were abducted on April 14 from their school in the northeastern Nigeria town of Chibok, Borno State.

The Rev. Herbert Daughtry, co-founder of the Interfaith Religious Leaders to Save the Abducted Nigerian Children, said, “I am hope that the news from the government of Nigeria that they have located the girls is factual. At least some progress is made, but I am not satisfied until the girls are home.”

While according to the Associated Press, the U.S. Defense Department has stated that it not been able to confirm the reports, Nigeria’s chief of defense staff, Air Marshal Alex Badeh, said that the Nigerian troops can locate the girls. “We can’t go and kill our girls in the name of trying to get them back,” he said, speaking to a disgruntled crowd of thousands who marched to Defense Ministry headquarters in Abuja.

He said, “We want our girls back. I can tell you we can do it. Our military can do it. But where they are held? Can we go with force?” The people yelled, “No!”

“If we go with force what will happen?” Badeh responded.

“They will die,” replied the disillusioned people, acknowledging the fear that Boko Haram would use the girls as human shields or just murder them if they were confronted.

Even though the Nigeria government has said that it will not negotiate with Boko Haram, the fundamentalist Islamic group, which has caused murderous havoc in the country since 2010, observers say that the government may have to consider the group’s request to swap the girls for some of their captured colleagues.

Reportedly, President Goodluck Jonathan struck down such a deal last week with Boko Haram and would have had at least some of the girls released.

It was reported on Tuesday that in a possible prisoner-for-hostage swap deal, former President Olusegun Obasanjo met with associates of Boko Haram at his farm in southern Ogun State. However, it is unclear if Obasanjo has the power to conduct such a negotiation, as he is now as a private citizen.

The girls are suspected to be in neighboring nations Cameroon or Chad, so 80 U.S. Air Force personnel have landed in the latter. President Barack Obama claimed that the military personnel intend to gather intelligence and surveillance with, among other things, flying reconnaissance missions over northern Nigeria and surrounding areas.

The U.S. also noted that it would be using a Predator drone and “unarmed” Global Hawks.

Fears loom large in certain quarters, however, that this is leading to an increased Western militarization of the continent.

Writer and activist Ajamu Baraka has spoken about how NATO and the U.S. was warned way ahead of time that weapons they sent to Libya in their effort to topple the President Muammar Gaddafi would end up being dispersed in many unknown hands in Africa. Some claim that this is exactly what has happened. Baraka cites such an outcome in his piece “U.S. War Against Libya Boosted Boko Haram” at ‪blackagendareport.com.

Ease Up on Deportations May Be on President Obama's Drawing Boards

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By Tony Best
Special to the NNPA from the New York Carib News

With the outcome of the mid-term Congressional elections hanging in balance, the contentious immigration deportation issue which involves millions of people from the Caribbean, Latin America, Africa and elsewhere may be revised in a matter of weeks or months.

And the President Barack Obama who has presided over the largest number of deportations by any administration in the nation’s history seems ready to cut deportations of undocumented immigrants. Facing stinging criticisms from Hispanic, Caribbean, Asian and other immigrant groups of color who complain loudly that Obama wasn’t doing enough to keep families together and was far too aggressive in deporting people for minor offences, correction action seems in the wings The policy has resulted in hundreds of thousands of foreigners being forced out of the country for doing nothing more than shoplifting a bag of peanuts, driving with an expired license, getting on a bus or subway without paying the fare.

The Administration has hinted that it would weaken the secure communities program that’s at the root of the flood of deportations.

“A fresh start” was what was needed for the highly controversial and hated secure communities program that led to the deportation of so many immigrants and split up families across the nation, said Jeb Johnson, Homeland Security Secretary in a television interview.

While hinting that the White House may revamp its deportation strategy, Johnson said the Secure Communities effort was the place to begin in order to make it “an efficient way to work with state and local law enforcement to reach the removal priorities we have, those who are convicted of something.”

Democratic federal, state and local lawmakers in New York have vigorously criticized secure communities for targeting undocumented immigrants who were arrested for minor offences. They have bitterly complained about federal officials going into Riker’s Island jail to nab people, especially fathers who were arrested but not convicted of criminal offences.

U.S. Congressional representatives Yvette Clarke and Hakeem Jeffries, New York State Senator Kevin Parker and Assemblymen Karim Camara and Nick Perry, have frequently taken the White House to task over its deportation strategy.

Interestingly, the President last week joined the deportation debate by indicating that he might act unilaterally to ease the threat of deportation that hangs over the heads of millions of immigrants.

“You know, these are folks who are woven into the fabrics of our communities,” the President told law enforcement official assembled at the White House. “Their kids are going to school with our kids. Most of them are not making trouble.”

Legal experts charge that Obama hasn’t used his executive powers to slowdown deportations. He has ordered the Department of Homeland Security to review its strategy and Johnson is expected to announce changes in a matter of weeks.

“Presidents have pretty much complete discretion when it comes to enforcing criminal and other statutory regimes,” Peter Spiro, a professor of immigration law at Temple University. “President Obama can’t start handing out green cards. Short of that, from a legal perspective, there are no serious constitutional or legal constraints that apply here.”

But U.S. senator Charles “Chuck” Schumer, Democrat of New York, has issued a word of caution to President Obama, saying that modest changes to deportation regulations could imperil current immigration negotiations to get comprehensive immigration reform through the House of Representatives.

He wants the administration should give the Republicans who control the House until the end of the summer to approve immigration reform before taking unilateral action.

NAACP Legal Team Blasts Alabama Voting Rules

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By James Wright
Special to the NNPA from The Washington Informer

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund is protesting Alabama election rules that require voters without photo identification to either prove their identities or have election officials vouch for them.

The Alabama legislature has ratified a photo-identification and voucher law that will hinder about 500,000 registered voters, most of whom are people of color, because they lack a state-issued identification such as a driver’s license, identification card issued by the motor vehicle department, or passport.

“It is deeply problematic that Alabama’s secretary of state is trying to resurrect an unconstitutional and illegal relic of the Jim Crow South,” said Ryan P. Haygood, director of the defense fund’s political participation group. “Discriminatory voucher tests, which Congress explicitly banned along with literacy tests when it passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965, has no place in modern-day Alabama.”

The fund sent a letter to Jean Brown, the chief legal adviser to the secretary of state, citing a Reuters poll stating that 37 percent of white people in Alabama have no acquaintances of a different race. Therefore, it is logical to assume that many white officials will not be able to vouch for large number of people of color who do not have photo identification, the letter states.

Deuel Ross, the Fried Frank Fellow at the defense fund, said that Alabama needs to act quickly before the June 3 primary.

“This voucher test is exactly the kind of discriminatory device that the Voting Rights Act was designed to stop and that Section 5 would have prevented were it not for the United States Supreme Court’s devastating decision in Shelby County vs. Holder,” Ross said.

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