Friday, March 23, 2007

Twenty years later, Don McPherson in Harlem

(L-R: Columbia U. fellow Aries Dela Cruz; author Raquel Rivera; former Philadelphia Eagles QB Don McPherson; GenderPAC ED Riki Wilchins & Beyond Beat and Rhymes Director Byron Hurt at last night's youth community forum in Harlem)

Last night after work I headed up to Harlem's Children's Zone for a screening of Byron Hurt's "Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes" and a discussion on the role of gender, violence, sexism and homophobia in hip hop and rap culture presented by GenderPAC.

You probably have seen these topics addressed before but what makes this sometimes uneven but fascinating documentary stand out is that Mr. Hurt puts himself at the center of the debate and admits from the beginning that he is a "hip hop" lover himself. This might have opened some doors (Mos Def, Chuck D, De La Soul, Fat Joe, Busta Rhymes, Talib Kweli and Russell Simmons all appear in brief but telling segments; Bustah Rhymes' knee-jerk homophobia doesn't surprise anymore considering his past skirmishes but Russell Simmons claim that he can't do a thing to change the industry rings hollow and his evasiveness stings).

Good thing that I caught the airing of the film last month on PBS because last night technical glitches forced the screening to be cut short. A shame, because the huge number of kids that showed up missed out on some of the most thought-provoking issues that the film raises.

There was an additional reason why I decided to go last night: One of the panelists was Don McPherson, a former Philadelphia Eagles quarter back that I had known twenty years back when I lived in Syracuse and he was then the star QB for Syracuse University (he is now the Director of the Sports Leadership Institute at Adelphi University in Long Island).

During the break, as people tried to fix the technical glitches, I walked over to Don and introduced myself. I'm probably forty pounds heavier and twenty years older so I wasn't surprised that there wasn't any immediate recognition but the moment I started describing where we'd met it all seemed to click. You should have seen his double take! He was still shaking his head in wonder as I made my way back to my seat as the presentation resumed.

The panelists all made some good points but considering there was a mostly younger audience some of the discussion seemed a bit dry and too academic (not sure a fourteen year old is going to appreciate a comment on hip-hop being a way to tell the history of the impact of Reaganomics on black urban masses).

Don, though, was amazing.

On appropriating the word nigger and using it as a term of endearment: "You can't take back a word that wasn't yours in the first place!" - He argued that the word was born out of hate and not as a gift to blacks and that it shocked him that some African-Americans used it almost with pride. He also argued that there were many other really bad words in the American vernacular that could be used to express anger or pride and, as an example, pointed out that - in Pulp Fiction - Samuel L. Jackson's character had a wallet imprinted with the words "Bad M.F." on it (when few of the kids in the audience seemed to react to the reference he said "Damn, I guess I'm showing my age!").

On homophobia: "Homophobia polices masculinity and doesn't allow us to be who we truly are as men" - He said that he'd been reading former NBA player John Amaechi's autobiography "Man in the Middle" and that he was struck by how he desrcibed the locker room, all these basketball players competing in showing the most bling bling or the best clothes and Amaechi sitting there and thinking "And I'm the gay one!"

On being punked: Reacting to an audience question on why some were so quick to violence as a reaction to being disrespected, "We need to teach kids that you can let it roll off your shoulders," adding that kids needed to be taught that someone who resorts to insults and taunts is instead showing their own insecurities.

And, finally, when an audience member said that it was one thing to attend this meeting and quite another to reach out to kids in the street and asked the panelists what they would say to a kid in the street if they only had 2 and a half minutes to make a point Don replied "I'd spend those two minutes trying to make sure that we would have a follow-up conversation because you can't do much to change someone's perceptions in 2 and a half minutes."

I didn't realize that Mr. Hurt had also been a quarterback at Northeastern University and at the end of the presentation he spoke of how much he had respected the strides that Don made as one of the few black quarterbacks in the NFL back in the late '80's.

Twenty years ago I was just coming to terms with my sexual identity and fearful that any of the football players who were my friends at Syracuse University would ever find out. Don spoke of his own road in conceptualizing these issues and of the years it took for him to be able to express his thoughts as well.

To sit there and hear Don talk about all these issues was totally bizarre. Who would have known that I'd be meeting him again under these circumstances... No disrespect to the other panelists, who I have hardly mentioned but, it still blows my mind.

More On Don McPherson's recent work:

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