Egypt: Its People, Its Political Battlefield

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Eman’s “I Voted” Index Finger – Alexandria, Egypt – May 2012

Considering all that’s occurred in Egypt since I departed the country three weeks ago, it would be beyond selfish to follow up An Egypt Travel Manifesto with a prosaic rundown of the sights and sounds. I thought of opening with a rant about my detention in U.S. Customs & Immigration at Newark International Airport, but that 20-minute hold up – while totally unexpected and a little frightening – was far more comical than life altering, especially compared to what the Egyptian people are experiencing now.

Egypt’s presidential election was held halfway through our seven-day tour and the atmosphere was surprisingly calm during those two days of voting. In fact, our hotel in Cairo – the Semiramis InterContinental – is a 10-minute walk from Tahrir Square. That climate shifted drastically once we left.

The health of former and dishonorably ousted president, Hosni Mubarak, has seriously deteriorated. Egypt’s first democratically-elected Parliament in more than sixty years was just disbanded by a panel of judges that Mubarak appointed. Two of the original thirteen presidential candidates will compete in a runoff election this weekend, but neither choice seems to be a popular or positive alternative among the majority of Egyptians.

Yes, we visited some amazing places (the Pyramids of Giza, the Sphinx, the Temple of Karnak, etc.) and captured thousands of photos (you can link to some of them below), but I think what we’ll remember most is the people of Egypt.

During our last night in Cairo, the travel agency arranged for the tour group to meet with Ashraf Khalil, author of Liberation Square: Inside Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation. In addition to giving us his analysis of the election, the government and the political upheaval, Khalil actually thanked and commended us for visiting Egypt during a time when most will not.

Tourism in Egypt represents 11 percent of its economy versus the U.S. economy which takes in a little under three percent of its gross domestic product from travel and tourism. From the hundreds of unfinished resorts along the Red Sea to the dozens of merchant boys as young as eight years old who swarmed the tour bus doors at each stop, it’s evident that the current turmoil has greatly impacted travel in a country whose residents greatly depend on it. With the few Egyptian pounds we managed to spend in the local markets, I’m hoping we were able to give to Egypt as much as we learned from it.

Our tour guides – Eman and Dalia – possess an overwhelming wealth of knowledge and sense of pride in their home and its richly complex history. They’re academically-trained guides, so I guess this should be expected. However, Eman is currently her blind mother’s sole caretaker, and Dalia is a wife and mother in a country where women are not exactly on equal footing with their male counterparts. To have such an unfailing esteem for your homeland despite this, is an embodiment of courage I think only a few could cull themselves to have, and it was a honor to travel with and learn from them.

Eman proudly displayed her inked-stained voting finger for days following the election. The “I Voted” sticker I acquired this past Tuesday – following Alexandria, Virginia’s primaries for the U.S. House of Representatives and city council – was stuffed in my jacket pocket.

While I definitely appreciate my right and ability to vote, and the U.S. political system is by no means on par with Egypt’s, it’s hard to stay consistently upbeat about any political process that has become so overwhelmingly negative when it doesn’t need to be.

Come November 6, 2012, the “I Voted” sticker I obtain that day might suffer the same fate as its predecessor, but the cartouche pendant that Eman once wore around her neck and gave to me on the last night of our trip, will still be worn proudly around my neck. The pendant’s symbols represent prosperity, eternal life and protection.

You can view my photos of Egypt on Flickr:

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An Egypt Travel Manifesto

The Abu Simbel Temples, Egypt – Photo courtesy of Rosanna Leung via Flickr.com

In a little over 24 hours, a not-so-well-traveled thirty-something female from the D.C. metropolitan area will embark on her first trip to the continent of Africa.

  • Destination: Egypt
  • Duration: Seven days
  • Companions: Three well-traveled gal pals
  • Origination: An irresistibly hard to pass on LivingSocial Escapes Deal
  • Motivation: It’s about damn time I did something like this

Other than a week-long trip to Buenos Aires and the Iguza Falls in 2008, and a few days in the Bahamas, my passport’s stamp collection is nothing to be admired. The globetrotting history of my Egypt travelmates includes Paris, Italy, Germany, Morocco, and quite a few other fabulous cities and countries.

According to the State Department, “Egypt is the most populous country in the Arab world and the second-most populous on the African continent.” And exactly three days following our arrival to this country of 82 million, citizens will cast their votes in Egypt’s first-ever contested presidential election – over a year after the country’s political regime was uprooted by citizen dissidence and its former President Hosni Mubarak resigned from office.

An excursion like this will probably happen to me only once in my lifetime.

So in addition to the to-do (secure tourist visa, buy linen pants) and packing lists (SPF 45, straw hat, international plugs, and 32GB SD card) I’ve been following diligently, I figured creating an Egypt Travel Manifesto – a declaration of what I hope to accomplish while I’m there would be a list to have as well. Here’s what I’ve got so far:

  • PHOTOS: Take between 50 and 60 photos per day. With a newly purchased Canon EOS Rebel T2i Digital SLR Camera (Thanks, Target, for the awesome sale); a borrowed extended lens from my ultra-generous photography mentor and coworker, John Taylor; and an ample number of landmark visits on the travel itinerary,  I hope to kick my photo-taking skills up a notch or two, and have a great portfolio of high-res digital photos to prove it.
  • CULTURE: Be a good representative of the U.S. and fully respect Egypt’s mores. No profanity, inappropriate attire, staring, finger pointing, or disrespectful behavior. I try not conduct myself this way on American soil, but hey, even I have an off day. In any case, this will be my first trip to Africa and the Arab Spring, and I will not give credence to the notation that Americans are not tolerant or willing to immerse themselves in foreign traditions, the Islamic faith or countries abroad.
  • LOCAL NEWSPAPERS: Pick up a few local newspapers the day after the presidential elections. Next week’s presidential election will be as historic for Egypt as the 2008 presidential elections were for the U.S. I purchased a copy of a few national newspapers following the U.S. elections, and although I can’t speak or read Arabic, I hope to do the same in Egypt.
  • NOTES: Photos are great, but journal keeping is good as well. Great photos of the pyramids and local residents will serve as a great record of this trip, but I also want to remember the intricate details and experiences that photos can’t capture. An interesting question that’s asked. A nice nugget about the local culture from the tour guide. A funny joke from a local businessman. These are memories that will definitely be the bookmarks of my trip and I hope to capture them in the written word.
  • FOOD: Don’t be afraid to eat the unfamiliar. The DC area has no shortage of restaurants devoted to authentic ethnic cuisine, but I’m sure none of these establishments can beat the palate pleasing experience of dining at an establishment in the heart of Cairo or along the Mediterranean Sea.
  • SHOPPING: Gotta buy stuff for the ones you love. Fresh spices, fabric, jewelry, and coffee are just a few of items and gifts I’m buying for family and friends while in Egypt. Hopefully I’ll be able to get everything through customs on the return trip and in one small bag. Traveling internationally with extra luggage is not cheap.
  • SOCIAL MEDIA: Don’t neglect Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr. I’ve been shamefully neglecting these social media channels over the last few weeks — work, life and tweet balance. I’ll be solely dependent on WiFi whilst there, but hope to posts as many real-time updates and photos as possible. Thanks in advance to the Cairo area Starbucks I plan to camp out in for a few hours.
  • TROUBLE: Stay out of it. Most if not all of our itinerary stops will be in safe tourist areas, but if the unexpected protest, peaceful demonstration or whatever happens to occurs near us, I will resist the urge to take photos or grab a flag or poster in support – “if I know my place, I’ll stay safe.”

A long manifesto, but a simple one to uphold. If you have suggestions on what I should add to the list, please, please share. I welcome your ideas, especially if you’ve previously visited Egypt, Africa or anywhere in the Arab world. 🙂

You, Two Rooks, and a Tight Hip-Hop Hook

Eight year-old Bum Rush the Boards 2012 participant practicing with father before start of the tournament (April 21, 2012)

Imagine you’re the lead character in a movie about an African-American high school student from DC’s Ward 8 or the Williamsburg area of Brooklyn, NY with a talent and winning streak for chess – a game that is purported to have origins dating back to 600 A.D.

Your residential surroundings might not be ideal, but your parents and teachers recognize your desire to live a less than ordinary life and overwhelmingly give their support and time to help you walk this path. Your character – the quintessential protagonist – has one best friend who also shares your dream, another who serves as relentless roadblock, and a love interest whose commitment to you has started to waiver.

What would you want the soundtrack of this movie to sound like?

If none of these suit your tastes, try looking to hip-hop culture for some inspiration. About two weekends ago I did exactly that.

I had already decided to attend and write about the Word, Beats & Life Seventh Annual Bum Rush the Boards event before my interest was heightened further after reading a recent New York Times piece about the rise of successful young chess champions in urban environments.

Like one of the students in the New York Times story,  I’m a graduate of Brooklyn Technical High School, but chess was not an activity that was ever presented to me in my adolescence. And although I grew up during the meteoric rise of The Wu-Tang Clan, a popular hip hop ensemble obsessed with mastery of chess, my days and nights were sadly limited to spades, Scrabble, and Nintendo.

Luckily for the young participants I met that Saturday in late April, Words, Beats & Life, Inc. realized almost a decade ago that chess can offer significant benefits to players who master its intricacies, including enhancing memory performance; building self confidence and discipline; increasing concentration; improving communication and independence skills; and developing critical thinking skills.

Couple this long list of pros with hip-hop music – an art form that when done right can be an amazing and genuine expression of artistry and imagination – and you get Bum Rush the Boards. Started in 2005, Bum Rush the Boards is billed as a civic event convened to “promote strategic thought and actions within the hip-hop and chess communities.”

With great partners like Chess Challenge in DC – and DC’s DJ RBI providing a backdrop of songs from artists like CommonJay ElectronicaA Tribe Called Quest and Outkast – over 100 students from various DC metro area elementary, middle and high schools were given an outlet to showcase their love of chess with a full-day tournament.

As round one of the tourney’s four kicked off, most parents watched intently from the stands, but a few parental units with kids as young as six decided to unwisely join the tournament monitors on the playing floor. They were kindly and respectfully guided back to the stands by round two. Five hours passed with a lunch break, and a few workshops on DJ mixing and abstract art in between play. The winning chess teams were from Ballou Senior High School and the Ceasar Chavez Public Charter Schools, and in the end, dozens of students got an opportunity to display their talent for the game and enjoy time with others in an environment that fed their creativity through a continuous stream of hip-hop music and art.

Here’s a link to the event photos I captured and details on what I learned:

  • There’s no reason anyone should be without a basic understanding of chess – It’s always good to try a new activity that will challenge and stimulate your mind. While I was there, a former chess coach took pity on my novice understanding of the game and gave me a mini lesson. And without taking notes, I discovered the game is not too difficult to pick up and actually quite fun. Sixty-four squares, a few knights and rooks, eight pawns to guard your most important pieces, a diagonal move here and there. Got it.
  • Chess play does not need to occur in so-called traditional environments – Mentions of chess can evoke stereotypical images of tweed jackets, bow ties, boarding schools and perhaps, even solemn old men with long white beards congregating in New York’s Central Park. Groups like Words, Beats and Life have proven that chess is not a one-dimensional activity and can be coupled with other cultural elements like hip hop music and art in an effort to enhance strategic and creative thought.
  • Organizations like Chess in the Schools and Chess Challenge in DC are doing what successful enrichment programs do best – Whether it’s focused on polo, tennis, golf or advanced spelling, after-school programs that teach children a new skill while also getting them to think strategically; develop self-discipline and positive social skills; and increase their self-esteem, are a great resource for schools which lack immediate access to such programming, and they deserve our support. I plan to help sponsor a Chess Challenge in DC school.
  • Mastering chess is another pathway to a life in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) – A large number of the chess coaches I met at the Bum Rush the Boards tournament were math or science teachers at their respective schools. And while no singular extracurricular activity can compensate for years of hard academic work, a specialized curriculum and dedicated adult supervision, I assume for these chess coaches, learning the game as a child served as a significant catalyst towards their interest and eventual success in STEM studies and careers.

If chess is an activity you know well and love, you can make a huge impact in the life of a child by sharing your knowledge with them. If you’re a novice to the game, try to take your skills up a notch. The benefits are endless. Mix in a little hip hop music with your play and you might find a creative spark you never knew existed.

Still don’t believe me? Read what this guy has to say. Chess and hip hop are his specialties.

Sure, You Can Write a Good Book, But How’s Your Pitch?

Aspiring author at the Politics & Prose Book Store 2012 Pitchapalooza!

  • John Belushi meets Betty White when a newly divorced mother in her fifties tries to turn her life around by reliving her collegiate years and moving in with a group of fraternity brothers – becoming the house mother they never knew they needed and finally living the adventure she always knew she could. 
  • Confessions of a Worry Wart explores the all consuming anxiety of a woman who blogs about “worry”, and worries about blogging and basically everything else. From her dog’s happiness and her twenty-something daughter who moved to Colombia, to her ex-husband’s therapist and her fear of dying by way of an out of control ceiling fan, Ms. Worry Wart is the quintessential protagonist struggling with life and with herself. 
  • A young medical student starts researching the life of his recently departed grandfather – a former Mormon who became a pioneering surgeon in the field of gender reassignment, and gained infamy on the black market of the medical world. 

Sounds like a new lineup for primetime television, huh?

These are actually books. More specifically, they’re ideas for potential books – also know as a pitch, which is a writer’s passport to become a publishing house’s latest literary darling and getting their book to the top of Amazon’s recommended new releases list.

If there’s one essential thing that I’ve learned from years of media and public relations work is the art of a finely tuned pitch – a concise, well-delivered and engaging summary of a story – and how it has the power to earn visibility for an idea and its originator.

While I attended the Politics & Prose Book Store recent edition of Pitchapalooza! and do have dreams of New York Times Best Seller grandeur, I was glad to be a spectator and passed on tossing my John Hancock into the overflowing fishbowl of eager pitch-ready writers.

  • Over the course of 90 minutes and out of a room of a hundred aspiring writers, twenty-three were randomly selected to tell a group of book industry insiders in 60 seconds or less why their story was the sole idea worthy of a personal introduction to an established publisher and agent. 
  • The gatekeepers slash panel of critics – a matrimonially-connected duo of self-proclaimed book doctorsa rep from Penguin Books; and a local book agent who also specializes in publishing and media law – delivered honest, comical and quote worthy feedback on every pitch that was delivered.
  • Eleven of the pitches were ideas for really interesting memoirs. Another was a poetry book about travel. One was about a mischievous pug. The pitch after that was a history of cartography. Two writers wanted to intersect tales of immigration and with third-person narratives. The rest were duds. 

Before J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series made tweens and adults camp out in their pajamas while clutching bookmarks, or Nicholas Sparks became the 21st century’s male reincarnation of Jane Austen, their first successful book needed to be pitched and pitched well. Potential publishers had to be sold on and believe in their stories.

Of the Pitchapalooza! entries, the three mentioned initially above were my favorites. I’ll reveal later on which was designated the overall winner by the panelists. Feel free to guess beforehand, but try not to scroll ahead. I’m about to tell you what I learned from this event and the panelists.

  1. Whether it’s a memoir, biography or young adult novel, make sure your book and its pitch has a clearly defined arc. Your arc is the progression of the main protagonist. If Harry didn’t mature from unproven and orphaned legend into Quidditch all-star and magically unmatched hero, Rowling might still be a struggling single mother instead of a internationally-known billionaire.
  2. If you can’t describe your book in six words, you have a problem. Five sisters fearlessly seek true love (Pride & Prejudice). Black career woman comically navigates dating (Bitch is the New Black). Toddler-aged preacher’s son cheats death (Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back). Teenage boy discovers temperance and friendship (Adventures of Huckleberry Finn). Take note.
  3. Don’t make your pitch plot heavy. Think of the blurb on the back or inside cover of your favorite book – that’s the pitch. That’s what drew you in. 
  4. Visualize your book’s pitch like a movie trailer. You have one minute, perhaps even two, to hook your audience. Your words should paint a picture.
  5. When in doubt, use comparable titles. If your book is a Charlotte Bronte twist on The Grapes of Wrath, say so. Will readers think it’s like Running with Scissors mixed with a little Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks? Don’t be afraid to express that in your pitch. Readers like the familiar. 
  6. Publishers love numbers. If your story centers around an introvert, elite gymnast, Mensa member, or paranoid schizophrenic, say how many there are in the world or the city the book is based. Make the publisher and the reader care about the protagonist and others like them.
  7. The book industry is fanatical about categories. Like a location means everything to the success of a neighborhood shop or restaurant, the same applies to books. The category that designates where your book lands in a book store could mean the difference between a single printing of 5,000 and one million sold. Whether it’s science fiction, humor or travel, choose your book category wisely.
  8. An independent book store is a writer’s best resource. Visit frequently. Study the books that you enjoy and writers you want to emulate. Learn the various category of books and which publishers specialize in those genres.

Now that my very scaled down version of Book Pitching 101 is complete, I’ll reveal the Pitchapalooza! winner.

The story about the transgender surgeon had attendees gasping 15 seconds into the writer’s pitch. We all should look forward to his book’s debut. And while he’s working on his masterpiece, you and I should continue plugging away at our own, because as one Pitchapalooza! panelist, David Henry Sterry, said:
The good news is that anyone can get published. It’s a great time to be a writer. The bad news is that anyone can get published. There’s a lot of competition out there

Two books every aspiring author should read.

I Speak for the Liner Notes!

"Hear Me Howling!: Blues, Ballads & Beyond as Recorded by the San Francisco Bay by Chris Strachwitz in the 1960s" - Authored by Adam Machado, 2012 Winner of the Grammy Award for Best Album Notes

If he were actually real, he’d probably be less than happy to have his name evoked in an effort to preserve the future of an item that’s made of paper and could potentially lead to the destruction of more trees, but I’m channeling my inner Lorax today by paying homage to the under appreciated art form that is music’s liner note. 

Not familiar with this object? Here’s some help from Merriam-Webster and Wikipedia.

Liner Notes (plural, noun): (1) The text printed on a paper insert issued as part of the packaging of a compact disc, cassette, or on the sleeve of a phonograph record. (2) Exploratory notes about a music record, like credits for individual(s) involved in the recording, information about the record label releasing the record, copyright information, and sometimes, song lyrics.

Yes, the colorfully decorated, heavily worded and photo laden booklet that comes with every compact disc has an official name, and they outline every detail of an album’s creation: who wrote the lyrics; whether a song is a remake; what songs were sampled; the names of the guitarists, bass players, keyboardists, etc.; the background vocalists; and so on. One could say that liner notes are an intricate tool of music education.

I was inspired to write this post after attending an event a few days which featured the super talented musicians and artists of B-Fly Entertainment. The musical performance – see a video promo below – was not only a well produced mash up of how jazz and soul music have influenced and heavily contributed to the early and current streams of hip-hop music, but also a tribute to a slip of paper whose prevalence has floundered over the years with the advent of the MP3.

Performers read the poetic liner note dedications and expressions from great albums such as A Tribe Called Quest’s “Midnight Marauders”, Ahmad Jamal’s “Jamal Plays Jamal” and Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage”And, although iTunes offers a digital booklet version of liners notes with some album purchases, their availability is in very, very limited supply.

So, why do I think this issue is important?

When publications like The Rolling Stone or The Los Angeles Times give an unfavorable review of an artist’s newest LP, the singer, musician or band usually has little recourse – albeit Twitter – to defend themselves, the creative vision that inspired their music, the team of people that helped create it, or the lyrics they wrote as an expression of their lives and the world around them.

While I speak for the liner notes in this post, liner notes have always had a way of speaking for the artist and the artist’s work. 

In Corinne Bailey Rae’s  2010 “The Sea”, she ends her liner notes with “This album, like everything I do, is made to try and impress Jason Bailey Rae.” Those  unfamiliar with Rae’s work or life, could read her lyrics, read her dedications and realize that this album and its poignant words are an expression of the pain Rae felt following the tragic, substance-related death of her husband, Jason, two years prior.

The significance of liner notes also have an industry stamp of approval.

Since 1964, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences has given a Grammy Award for Best Album Notes to the authors of the best written liner notes, not the album artists or performers unless they also authored the notes. Past winners  include Johnny Cash, James Brown and even famed crime novelist, Walter Mosley, for writing liner notes to the comedic album “Richard Pryor…And It’s Deep Too!: The Complete Warner Bros. Recordings (1968-1992)”. This year’s Grammy recipient – the album note cover at least – is pictured above.

And in a time when the Academy has been very eager to trim the so-called low-hanging fruit of Grammy Awards, an annual honoring of the liner note has managed to survive.

Liner Notes – they (1) educate, (2) promote the artist’s vision and (3) have the support of music’s holy grail. So as I typically do, here are a few bullets of what you can do to reinvigorate your love for an item that’s both, artistic and educational:

  • Tweak Your Instant Music Gratification: It’s the feeling you get when buying a song seconds after it becomes available on iTunes and immediately downloading it to your iPod. You can still get this same feeling the day an album is released by pre-ordering the CD via Amazon.com or Target.com and having it delivered to your doorstep. The added benefit? Reading and appreciating a slick, glossy version of the liner note’s photos, art, credits and dedications.
  • There’s Always, Always, Always Vinyl: There are many who feel that MP3s decrease the sound and playback quality of music and prefer compact discs. There are some who go even further and feel vinyl records are the only way to have a truly sublime listening experience, and for the optically challenged, they come with a large text version of the album’s liner note. If you’re wondering where does one find vinyl in an age of digital, Best Buy and the disappearing local music store, there’s (yes, again) Amazon.com and UrbanOutfitters.com. Both sites offer not only a great selection of vinyl records, but also record players that range from the cute, compact and pastel-colored to the high-end, ultra-complex and nostalgic. If that doesn’t work for you, there’s always the flea market. Here’s a photo of four vinyl records I picked up last year for a dollar each.
  • Buy Albums at Concerts: If you frequent concerts at smaller venues for artists that are still considered indie or underground, there will more than likely be an opportunity to purchase a CD version of their albums. The bonus? If you happen to bump into them in the VIP area, they’ll autograph your purchase. It happened to me in Chicago. The artist was Eric Roberson and the day happened to be December 31, 2009. Peep the photo. Liner notes included.

If you’re still not convinced and live in the Washington, DC area, you should check out B-Fly Entertainment’s series of Liner Notes performances in late April at The Dunes. I’ll be there, along with my friend, @MsAliTee, who not only introduced me the group, but is also my oracle on all things hip, cool and undiscovered in the arts, music and dance world.

We can grab food afterwards, and I don’t know, perhaps trade liner notes. 😉

Elevating NMAAHC into the Stream of Black Cool

Yesterday’s New York Times piece on the reemergence of new museums and cultural centers showcasing the historical achievements of African Americans and their battle for civil rights caused me to flashback to an interesting period in my professional career and I hope what I’m about to write is never held against me by a hiring committee.

I was in a junior public relations position and my director at the time was actually a cool guy – intelligent, quick witted, a great task manager, and not too cranky after three cups of coffee sans any cream or sugar. However, without any initiation from me, he had an uncanny habit of routinely comparing the past plight of African Americans to that of his Jewish ancestors.

My cube was adjacent to his office and he started a conversation on this topic at least once a month. Over the course of thirty plus months, this amounted to one time too many.  I was young enough to be his child (possibly even his grandchild), the conversations were emotionally uncomfortable and endless discussion on the impact of Black slavery versus the Holocaust wasn’t helping me learn any new professional skills other than workplace tolerance.

Without getting into the exact dialogue of our conversations, I’ll just say they typically ended with he and I saying the following, respectively: “I can’t believe you’ve never been to the Holocaust Museum. You really should visit it.” — “I will. As soon as a national museum honoring the history and achievements of African Americans is built in Washington in a similar fashion.” We would then proceed to roll our eyes at each other and continue tip tapping away at our computers.

Fast forward a number of years later and that museum I dreamed of is actually being built on The National Mall and I couldn’t be more overjoyed. In fact, the National Museum of African American History and Cultural’s official groundbreaking will commence less twenty-four hours from now with President Barack Obama delivering remarks, but sadly I see one wrinkle.

At a recent book signing and discussion of Rebecca Walker’s Black Cool: One Thousand Streams of Blackness, there was a constant reiteration of the unmatched ability African Americans have to remix the ordinary and make it cool, and their dominant presence, participation and influence on Twitter.

However, if one were to take a page from my former director and compare the Twitter following of @NMAAHC to the number of amassed by @HolocaustMuseum – 3,784  to 107,377 – the institution deemed with having the greatest social media influence would be the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. In terms of Facebook, the number of likes are a little less contrasting with 12,883 for NMAAHC and 34,406 for the Holocaust Museum.

To be fair, NMAAHC started tweeting on May 1, 2009 and although it’s been hosting an impressive number of exhibits and events over the last few years at fellow Smithsonian properties in Washington and other cultural institutions across the country, its actual building won’t be completed until 2015. The Holocaust Museum has been tweeting since August 28, 2007 and next year will mark its twentieth anniversary, so the museum has had a lot more to tweet about and more time to do so.

In Rebecca Walker’s intro to Black Cool, she decodes the cool factor of a popular photo showing President Obama emerging from a black sedan. Walker deems the photo Black Cool and concludes that “it is made up of elements that can be traced back to a place, a people and a culture…”

These are definitely elements that are embodied by the idea of NMAAHC and its very creation is undeniably cool, but its social media presence needs to be remixed a little to get it to black cool. So how can the tremendous presence African Americans have on Twitter correlate into social media success for NMAAHC? Here are a few ideas:

  • Follow @NMAAHC & Live Tweet: Tomorrow’s groundbreaking event for NMAAHC is not open to the general public, but will be live streamed over the web starting at 10 a.m. ET. If you can, follow @NMAAHC, watch the ceremony online, and live tweet using the #groundbreaking2012 hashtag, and encourage others to do the same. There’s no reason so many us can live tweet a reality show, a celebrity’s funeral service, a professional or collegiate sports game and not do the same for a new Smithsonian institution dedicated to our ancestors.
  • Twitter Trending Topics: Today’s US trending topics on Twitter include Madri Gras, #AndYouWonderWhyYouAreSingle, and Rihanna and Chris Brown. For tomorrow, let’s help make NMAAHC, Smithsonian and #groundbreaking2012 part of this list. Here are some resources to get you started:
  • Post Photos & Videos of NMAAHC’s Construction: Social media enthusiasts can be very enterprising when they’re passionate about a cause (e.g. education, free speech, the digital divide, the development of DC’s Southwest Waterfront, and even, social media). I hope there are a few local residents that will take on NMAAHC’s success as a passion and over the next three years, post numerous photos and videos of the building’s development to their Flickr and YouTube pages to get folks outside the Beltway equally passionate about its success.

According to Walker and the other esteemed writers of her black cool homage, there are one thousand streams of blackness. Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites are not the sole avenues to increase NMAAHC’s black cool quotient, but they are essential tools. Let’s help bring all of these thousand streams together to elevate NMAAHC’s social media reach – starting tomorrow and beyond.

To Err is Human, To Be a Nittany Lion…

Johanne at Penn State vs. Indiana (November 2010 - FedEx Field)

Roommates: You’re from where?

Professors: How did you end up at Penn State?

Family Back Home: Are you okay up there?

Graduating from high school landed me and my best friend, Johanne, in drastically contrasting collegiate landscapes. Both uniquely different from our New York City upbringing and infamous for their sports history and marquee status in their respective states. 

I headed for the ultra-sunny, ultra-conservative and Confederacy-linked campus of the University of South Carolina. Jo found herself in the snowstorm prone and academically challenging halls of Penn State University.

Between 1997 and 2001, she was consistently asked the three questions above. My experience was equally similar, but more ten years later the most historic people and events to ever mark the University of South Carolina Gamecocks include Lou Holtz, Steve Spurrier and a few bowl game wins.

We all know of the recent travesties at Penn State University, its famed former and dearly departed football coach, and the impending trial of its accused sex offender, but not all of us know an actual Nittany Lion who has lived, rooted for and unconditionally loved Penn State, its football coach and its history. 

Johanne is a Penn State alum and these are her words: 

I hadn’t even heard of Joe Paterno before attending Penn State University. I had no clue who he was, how many games he had coached, nor his significance to Penn State.

I didn’t even know what a Nittany Lion looked or sounded like, and why its history should be capitalized. And I didn’t have a clue about football.

My admission to Penn State was accepted without even visiting the school, but all my friends knew I was going to Penn State or bust. The people I looked up to and admired the most went there. My track teams captains who exemplified the notion of the student-athlete and a slew of other intelligent young men and women from my high school went to Penn State. They were smart, confident and carried themselves with respect. And so, my mind was made up. Happy Valley, here I come.

It didn’t take long to learn what mattered at Penn State: school pride, school pride, and oh yeah, school pride. And no one exemplified that more than Joe Paterno – from Paterno Library and Joe Paterno Halloween masks, to the culinary finds of Peachy Paterno ice cream at the Penn State Creamery and Joegies in the student center.

With their sizeable donations, Joe and Sue Paterno helped expand and grow the Penn State campus. They were committed to the students and the school. Joe was ingrained in the institution. We questioned his sanity when we lost games we should’ve won and marveled at  his genius when we won games we should’ve lost.

He was a legend. A hero. The (unofficial) school mascot, historian, keeper of the flame, and all things good and great about State College, Happy Valley, and every Penn State campus. If he grew up in Brooklyn, New York like me and spent 40-plus years in Happy Valley, surely I could get over my homesickness and survive four years.

During freshman year, my roommate and I had a list of things we wanted to do before we graduated – one of which was to meet Joe Paterno.

One day, I was leaving work study still wearing my PSU work uniform: khaki pant and navy polo. I exited through the back of the building so I could take a shortcut to class. From far away I see a man walking in my direction with a familiar outfit: khakis, black shoes and PSU polo shirt. And then I heard it group of guys shout “We love you, JoePa!”. He turns around and responds “I love you, too!”. He waves to them and keeps walking in my direction.

I wanted to say hi or something, but he beat me to it. Joe Paterno walks up to me and holds out his hand and says “Hey, how ya doin’?” My response: “Good. Going to class.” He shakes my hand and tells me to have a good day and get to class before continuing his daily walk to his office. That was my JoePa experience.

For the past few months I’ve told that story more than I’ve repeated it  in the past decade. And over the past few days, that was my memory of Joe as I watched thousands of people line up to pay their respects to his legacy. That’s what I remember when reporters and sports analysts debate and argue  his legacy and life at Penn State after JoePa. And while my story is not as compelling as the encounters or relationships others have had with him, it is the image I will always have of the man affectionately known as Joe Pa.

I was in love obsessed with Penn State before I even heard of Joe and Big Ten football. I loved it after I graduated and I will continue to love it and represent the school’s past, present and future in the best light possible, because Penn State helped shape the person that I am today. It was the long lines at the Penn State Creamery, breaking civic fundraising records with THON, wondering what the Willard Preacher would do or say, and enjoying the first day of spring on the lawn of Old Main.

It wasn’t a perfect experience, but it was my experience.

It was Penn State

I am Penn State

WE ARE…