Open Letter to President Obama – The Power of Narratives
The following post was written by guest contributor Byron Smith. It is addressed to President Barack Obama, and was written after the President granted Chris Matthews an interview on the campus of American University in December.
By: Byron Smith
Dear Mr. President:
Last week I repeatedly watched the interview you granted to Chris Matthews on the campus of American University as it aired a number of times. Mr. President, I want to concentrate on a point you made about the American people’s trust in government. In response to a question asked by Chris Matthews you answered, “Ever since Ronald Reagan left office the republican narrative has been that, ‘government is the problem’. If people hear that over and over again then sooner or later they’re going to start buying into it.” Mr. President, I couldn’t agree more.
The same premise can be applied to America’s children. Ever since gangsta rap invaded America’s airwaves in the early 90’s the narrative has been, “Be a thug, be hard, be a hustla, get rich or die trying, smoke blunts, sell keys, abuse women verbally and physically, women are sex objects, tote gats, shoot gats, kill or be killed, etc.” Mr. President, American children hear this narrative repeatedly and not just in sound bites. They are bombarded with lyrics that paint vivid pictures. The images invade and remain embedded in their minds.
Mr. President, I watch a lot of C-SPAN and I‘ve heard 40, 50, 60, 70, and 80 year old adults from different parts of the country call in to C-SPAN programs and emphatically assert that you are a Muslim, I’ve heard them emphatically say that you were born in Nigeria, and I’ve heard them emphatically assert that you pal around with terrorists. Mr. President, there is no doubt in my mind that the mind-set of the callers has been established by sound-bites in lieu of sound facts. But Mr. President, if mature and well-read adults can have their views shaped by narratives, then how can we expect our impressionable children to be mature enough not to have their mind-set established by narratives.
This weekend I listened to Dr. Steve Perry on CNN assert, “America’s children are not the problem. We can’t blame failing schools on them. We have to look at us because they look at us.” Mr. President, it is true that many kids are visual learners. Sadly, the visual images promoted in rap videos are what many youth are using as a learning tool. The people that create these videos are adults. As Dr. Perry said, our kids look at these adults. Mr. President, you have repeatedly said that you want America to out-educate, out-innovate, and out-build the rest of the world. This is an admirable goal and positive narrative. The problem is that this narrative isn’t heard enough and our children are bombarded with a narrative and definitive sermons that asks them to out-hustle, out-gangsta, out-thug, and out-hood the people within their own communities.
Mr. President, from July 1994 to October 2000 I worked within a state court judge’s office in Montgomery, Alabama. I witnessed a countless number of young people receive prison sentences and I witnessed a countless number of mothers scream, “Lord have mercy Jesus!” I witnessed mothers faint in the courtrooms. I witnessed mothers, wives, and grandmothers have nervous breakdowns and cry uncontrollably until they were breathless. In 1996 I was naive enough to think that a change would come after the Million Man March. In 2005, again I was naïve enough to think that change would come after Bill Cosby accurately articulated problems facing our communities. In my opinion, Bill Cosby’s only mistake was that he didn’t assemble a team prior to delivering his message. Had he assembled Oprah Winfrey, Magic Johnson, Maya Angelou, Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz, Harry Belafonte, Rev. Run, Marian Wright Edelman, and Angelina Jolie to assist in the message delivery the message would have been mightier. I was also naïve after the First Lady attended the funeral of Hadiya Pendleton, the honor student slain in Chicago. I actually thought that people would be assembled to vigorously combat the problems faced by America’s young people.
In lieu of attacking the narratives promoted by the rappers we protect the narrative and call it freedom of speech. When in fact, it is our children who need protection because the “free speech” used by rappers is establishing our young people’s mindsets and school superintendents, principals, teachers, counselors, and parents are having a difficult time reversing that mindset. Moreover, the narrative is that schools are failing. The narrative should be that children are failing because they buy into the sermons and narratives promoted by rappers and therefore they are not applying themselves in classrooms and they are not conducting themselves as scholars, our youth, males and females, are conducting themselves as thugs on school campuses. Teachers cannot be blamed for this.
Mr. President, the narrative presented by members of the rap community is drowning out your narrative and the narrative of every day parents. I’ve been in courtrooms and I’ve witnessed a great number of mothers say to a judge, “I didn’t raise him that way.” I could see the honesty and sincerity in their faces. Again, I, for one, like your narrative. America’s children should adopt the goal to out-educate, out-innovate, and out-build the rest of the world. But far too many are bombarded with a narrative that asks them to out-hustle, out-gangsta, out-thug, and out-hood the people within their own communities. Mr. President, some way somehow this narrative has to change.
Impassioned about seeing change in America’s kids,
Byron L. Smith