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.

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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.

The MLK Jr. National Memorial’s Bookstore: If You Build It, Will They Come?

Child at The MLK Jr. National Memorial’s Bookstore

Seven different conversations with seven different friends: What are you doing this weekend?

Me: Thinking about stopping by the bookstore of the MLK Jr. National Memorial?

All seven friends who asked: The MLK Memorial has a bookstore?!

Me: Uh. Yeah. It’s located next to the Memorial. Directly across the street. 

Their Response: I had no idea. 

The Unfortunate Point: Four friends had visited the Memorial and completely missed the store. The other three had not visited the monument as of yet and had no clue the store existed. 

Much has been said about the newest addition to the National Mall’s tribute to a great American leader and hero – from the now removed wall inscription that took one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous quotes out of context to the statue’s likeness of King not being a more accurate likeness of King.

And while the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial is not the first National Park Service (NPS) site to receive a wave of criticism for its design and inscriptions – the World War II Memorial, the Franklin Delano Memorial, and Vietnam Memorial are all members of this club – it’s one of a small number of the National Mall-Tidal Basin properties to have a dedicated standalone bookstore.

The Lincoln Memorial has a bookstore inside its walls, but it’s small enough to fit in the palm of Lincoln’s hand. The statue of Lincoln, not the actual man.

With that being said, along with the conversations I had on seven different occasions this past week, I wondered why more attention has not been paid to bookstore of the the first National Mall property to be dedicated to an African American. Here’s what I came up with:

  • Ambiguous Architecture: Perhaps it’s because the building is so nondescript. At first glance, the store’s bland metal exterior makes it look like storage or work space for the Park Service staff dedicated to maintaining the Memorial’s pristine grounds. And while its large windows should make it easy for passersby to see the inside the store, its location always seems to have a sun glare that reflects the outside of the store more so the inside.
  • Banished Branding: The building lacks actual signage – permanent or temporary – designating it as the official bookstore of the The Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial. Not even one of these saying “Get Ya MLK Jr Books Here”.

However, for anyone who is lucky enough to actually go inside store, they’ll be greeted with an array of close to 400 books, DVDs, posters and other items that communicate the direct words of Martin Luther King Jr., explore his life’s work or emulate his teachings of nonviolence, social justice and racial equality. The books range from King’s Strength to Love and Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?  to The Essential Gandhi: An Anthology of His Writings on His Life, Work, and Ideas and elementary educational materials on the civil rights movement like This Is the Dream

When I visited the bookstore on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, it was of course crowded and I was overjoyed by the number of adults and children browsing and buying books  – here’s a link to the photos I took of the store – but I worried what would be become of the store’s foot traffic after this holiday weekend.

Yes, the store is operated by the same independent contractor that manages all the National Park Service bookstores, but the Memorial’s NPS Web page still lacks information about its exact location and hours, and the foundation dedicated to the Memorial’s creation and funding merely lists information about contributing to the store’s donor wall on its Web site – nothing about the store’s vast inventory of books and other items for sale.

Memorial visitors who miss a chance to join one of the NPS Ranger talks that are started outside the bookstore, might also miss an opportunity to become aware of the store’s existence and actually visit it. Visiting the Memorial is great, but reading and learning about King, and understanding his words and lifestyle is more memorable. More should be done to promote the store.

  • Signage: Adding a sign or banner that’s either affixed to the building’s roof or side exterior, and clearly identifies it as the Memorial’s bookstore, will give it more prominence. If that’s not possible for logistical or economical reasons, a simple sidewalk sign noting the store’s existence and hours will also increase the store’s visibility. To draw in children and families, add some balloons.
  • Literary Support: Authors releasing new books that explore the historical contributions of minorities, analyze the teachings of social and civil activists, or promote a free and just society should make the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial bookstore a preeminent stop on their tours, talks and book signings.

If you build it, they might come, but any bookstore worth patronizing needs a genuine spotlight shone on its existence – not just the Memorial across the street. The bookstore should serve as complement to the Memorial, not an aside.