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#BackChannel: A Historic VP Candidate, Linking Yusuf Hawkins' 1989 Murder To BLM & 'Black Is King'

A painting of Yusuf Hawkins, surrounded by protest signs, pink flowers and and the Black Liberation flag.

Sen. Kamala Harris is breaking barriers as the first Black woman and Asian American person to appear on a major party’s presidential ticket. The former California attorney general is already facing right-wing attacks on her “eligibility” to run and left-wing criticism of her reputation as a prosecutor. 

On this installment of BackChannel, our series connecting culture and context, host Frank Stasio is joined by popular culture experts Mark Anthony Neal and Natalie Bullock Brown to assess Harris’ impact on the November election and and examine what she brings to the Biden ticket.

“Even though I have some reservations about her time as a DA in California, I think that she is evolving. And I think that there is a way that because of how she identifies — not only as a Black woman, but also as an Indian American woman — I think that she really represents and embodies this idea of a big tent,” said Brown.

Natalie Bullock Brown is a filmmaker and teaching assistant professor at North Carolina State University. Mark Anthony Neal is the James B. Duke Professor and chair of the department of African and African American studies at Duke University. He is also an author and the host of the webcast “Left of Black.” The two also look at the victory of activist Cori Bush in Missouri’s 1st Congressional District. Bush beat out Rep. William Lacy Clay, whose family held the seat for over half a century.

There's some folks who will say that this is the maturation of Black Lives Matter. I think if we go back and actually think about it as a movement, having elected officials that could rep Black Lives Matter was always an endgame for them. - Mark Anthony Neal

“What is important is this reminded [us] that there's always this moment where Black folks decide — even when they have Black representation — that that Black representation represents too much of the status quo, and there needs to be a break with the status quo. And that's what we really saw in that primary win for Ms. Bush,” explained Neal.

The popular culture experts also look at the news last month that five-star forward Makur Maker chose to attend Howard University. The athlete was also considering UCLA, Kentucky or Memphis. Will this spark a new trend of high-profile basketball players choosing HBCUs? And what could that do for these institutions? Neal shared that he is hopeful:

“Once these top players go to these institutions, and then the television money follows them to those institutions, and all kinds of other investments that do, then the infrastructure will come up to pace. ... We've always thought about — whether we're talking about athletics or even in terms of scholars — that there's always been a brain drain away from the Black community. And one of the ways in which that brain drain can be addressed is being able to ... work and contribute at Black institutions of higher education,” he said.

Plus, a new documentary from HBO examines the murder of Yusuf Hawkins, a 16-year-old Black boy who was killed in Brooklyn over three decades ago. “Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn” reveals the legacy of pain felt by his family, friends and community and shares how their demands for justice are echoed in the Black Lives Matter movement today.

A whole generation of thinkers and activists and writers and filmmakers were born in the moment around Yusuf Hawkins' death. - Mark Anthony Neal

Brown was in college at Northwestern University in 1989, when Hawkins was murdered. She reflected on how she thought about the tragedy at the time:

“It deeply affected my friends who were from New York, and the guys in particular, because they were familiar with Bensonhurst. … They definitely knew something about the racial tensions and how Black folks were being treated in the city even as they were away from the city in bucolic Evanston, Illinois. So I remember being affected. … But it was, in many ways, the beginnings of my political awakening,” she said.

Brown and Neal also review Beyonce’s latest masterpiece “Black Is King” on Disney+. The visual album is a companion to her 2019 album “The Lion King: The Gift.” Critics expressed concern that Beyonce was appropriating the culture of Africa before the film was released.

“The idea that we project onto Beyonce who we want her to be, who we think she is. I mean, it's kind of coming full circle from Kamala Harris, right, this idea of bestowing upon a Black woman their identity instead of allowing them to self-define. And so I think in many ways the critiques of ‘Black is King’ — I can see these issues of appropriation playing out. I'm sure that there's something that could be debated there. But I also think that I tend to trust that Beyonce, when she says this is what she's trying to do, that’s what she’s in fact trying to do with ‘Black Is King,’” said Brown.

She's trying to celebrate Blackness in a way that you certainly are not going to see on Disney. And we typically do not see anywhere in popular culture. - Natalie Bullock Brown

Neal added that the release of the film in this particular moment was a factor in all of the critiques and conversations that it started.

“There was this added attention to ‘Black Is King’ because of everything that we've been going through — with COVID and the killings and everything else, Breonna Taylor, etc. — that really sets us up for certain kind of expectations in ‘Black Is King’ that were never intended to be delivered. One, because it was done before this moment even occurred but also speaks to this investment in us that we have in Beyonce … I'm not sure there should be any singular artists in which we give that kind of attention,” he shared.

Amanda Magnus is the editor of "Embodied," a weekly radio show and podcast about sex, relationships and health. She's also the lead producer for on-demand content at WUNC and has worked on "Tested" and "CREEP."
Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.
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