Comedian Chris Rock said it best: “The oldest people on the planet get the shortest month of year.” And from the post-election buzz, some might think even that’s too much. “Still, we laugh to keep from screaming,” I said at my first February African American Heritage Month event at Seward Park in the shadows of the old Cabrini Green housing projects where fellow panelist, Regetta Saunders, once lived. She and her husband, Rev. Steve Saunders, are currently my South Oak Park neighbors. 

The event featured a screening of Ava DuVernay’s Selma, the first film directed by a black women ever to be nominated for an Academy Award in 2014. I know the story reasonably well since my step-father, Henry Mayfield, was born and raised there. My step-dad loved to tell me about when Selma’s black citizens invited Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to join the Southern Christian Leadership Council’s march across the infamous Edmund Pettus Bridge, which is depicted in the film.

J.L. Chestnut Jr., a famous civil rights lawyer — Selma’s first — who later became my godfather, opted not to go. “Someone’s got to bail them out,” he said. “Plus, I wasn’t one of those non-violent types so it was better that I not be there because if one of those cops laid wood on me, someone would have to die.” The bloody march created so much international attention that then-President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the historic Voting Rights Acts, making voter discrimination illegal. Twenty-five years later, I traveled to Selma to see for myself. 

Chestnut explained that, while there were now thousands of registered black voters and a handful of African American politicians, “The good white folks moved the hospital out of town and other services like that so they wouldn’t have to be bothered with us.” What I saw beneath the bridge astounded me. Called “Crack City,” blacks, whites, Latinos and Native Americans all smoked crack cocaine in an integrated environment that I’m sure MLK did not envision or want. Chestnut died Sept. 30, 2008 before the first black president was elected.

Meanwhile, Ava DuVernay did not get the Oscar for Selma, or this year for directing her documentary, 13th, about how the prison industrial complex is defying the 13th Amendment by “enslaving 21st century black men in prison” and making them work for pennies producing products, said one of the legal experts depicted in the film, but maybe she should have.

A panel of black males (not a crime) discussed all of these issues and more on Feb. 23 at Oak Park Public Library’s second discussion of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, an epistolary book written to his black son. Our event began with Claudette Roper’s film, The Man Project, featuring me and my twin sons on the same subject, debunking the myths and stereotypes about African American men and boys as pathological models. Other panelists included moderator George Bailey, Austin educator Nakisha Hobbs, and Chicago Sun Times columnist John W. Franklin, whose son and grandsons are Oak Parkers.

The very next day, I took my black Mexican transsexual rabbi cousin, Ramona Hernandez Perez, back into Columbia College’s “Doc Unit” studio to complete post-production on a post-Trumpocalypse documentary simply called Ramona just 48 hours after the new administration rescinded the previous administration’s federal guidelines on non-gender bathrooms in schools like Columbia where I shot a photo to illustrate Ramona’s story.

It was quite a month.

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