My heart’s been heavy this week, and I’m gonna blame it on the news. The issues I addressed on Tuesday got me down, first.

After that, the response to Michelle Obama’s “That’s America” statement — which has been already turned and twisted and reduced into a quote-unquote unpatriotic soundbite that is as best a caricature of the deeper truths I think she was trying to underscore.

Then I found myself staying up late and watching BBC News the other night. Lord have mercy. I wonder how many people switch off the national news — which comes prepackaged with a Bart’s People or celebrity news type of segment at the end for that little kick of feel-good to end the broadcast — to see what’s happening in the rest of the world, where things aren’t nearly so shiny and pretty? It hurts to look. I can’t even lie.

This particular evening, more than half the broadcast focused on unfolding tragedies in Africa — Anarchy in Mogadishu. Utterly heartbreaking prostitution in Zimbabwe. The murder of aid workers delivering food to the most desperate people in the Sudan. After enough looking, it forms what feels like a thundercloud over your mind. And somewhere in that cloud, a song drifted back into my memory. Syl Johnson’s “Is It Because I’m Black?”

What you know about that?

To be perfectly honest, I didn’t know Syl’s version until the Wu Tang Clan sampled this classic soul joint for “Hollow Bones”. I grew up knowing a different version of Syl Johnson’s classic — a reggaematic version by Ken Boothe.
But when I discovered Syl’s version, I fell head over heels. The song is a protesting plea, disguised as classic gangsta lean low rider material, and it was released in 1969 — an era of increased consciousness and black empowerment when the music spoke directly to the struggles of the civil rights movement.

Johnson’s lyrics present blackness as a burden — “looking back over my false dreams that I once knew, wondering why my dreams never came true. Is it because I’m black? Somebody tell me, what can I do? Something is holding me back. Is it because I’m black?” He gives voice to the kind of depressing thought that so many of us minorities, immigrants, and people trying to come up in the world have had at some time. Is this all there is? Is this my lot in life? “I wanna be somebody so bad. I want diamond rings and things, like you do. I wanna drive Cadillac cars. But you keep on putting your foot on me, and I believe I can break away and be somebody, somehow, some way. I heard somebody say sometime, “you can make it if you try.” And some of us, we try so hard, we try so hard,” he groans. Heavy lyrics and a heavy song.

It’s the kind of sentiment Bill Cosby has railed against, and that people like Pat Buchanan would determine as “ungrateful.” Does that make the question invalid, or pointless? I don’t think so. Not at all. The sharp contrast of equality that Syl Johnson was singing about in ’69 has diminished, yes. We have overcome and then some, in so many ways. Still so much remains to be done, and I think particularly these days — feelings of difference and awareness of continued inequality are there more than before.

Syl Johnson’s song feels like throwing your hands up in defeat, and that’s not the tone I want to leave you on today. So what’s the response to “Is It Because I’m Black?” I think it might be Nina Simone’s “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black,” which will be included on Protest Anthology, a new collection of music and interviews to be released on April 8. Check out the high priestess of soul at the Harlem Festival in 1969.

That song captures the swelling spirit of the same period, and turns Syl Johnson’s lament around by celebrating blackness, and infusing our spirits with hope. And hope is what I want to feel. Hope that we can get past this racial stalemate in this country, and lend a hand to brothers and sisters at home and around the world who need our help.

I’m looking for a few good charities to support, bellas, to give back to communities in need both here and abroad. I’ve been doing some research on Charity Navigator. Do any of you have suggestions?

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AmiJane says:
March 27, 2008, 10:26 am
Great Post Bella! It was a joy to read. Yes, I step out my ignorant bliss often, and it is disturbing. Disturbing because I know I can't save the world, but I know I still have to do my part.
b. says:
March 27, 2008, 10:46 am
Oh oh oh!!! How I loved the Nina Simone clip. Between her grace and raw talent and the FIERCE 'fros in the audience, I felt lots of pride while watching. My puff is growing rather large now (since my last low cut), and I have renewed resolve to grow it even larger. (My hair has been chemical-free for nine years and I intend to leave it that way.) Thanks again, Bella, and feel better! Among all the images of anger and sadness in the world are lots of positive humanity. It's up to each one of us to counteract the bad with good.
nyc/caribbean ragazza says:
March 27, 2008, 10:48 am
I like how you posted both songs. I chose to celebrate my blackness. If I didn't I wouldn't be able to get out of bed in the morning.
Bebroma says:
March 27, 2008, 10:59 am
You need about two fingers of bourbon while you're sitting on somebody's front porch to get the full effect of Syl Johnson's song, I think. I feel the part in the song where he says "we all got to stick together" says a lot. That attitude of sticking together and helping each other seemed so much stronger among black people as a group in the United States then, and I know there are a lot of reasons for that, past and present, but the fact remains that there is strength in unity. As far as so many situations in Africa, that is heartbreaking, period. But so many people are unaware of what is going on!! You have to be proactive and find out what is going on, because it's not mainstream news. And then you have to tell other people. It's not enough if you got yours, we should be concerned about others, too. I love Nina Simone's "Young, Gifted, & Black." I think all young people should hear that song at least once. It makes you feel good to be exactly that. Great post, bella.
Jenene says:
March 27, 2008, 11:21 am
Hi Bella, I am a frequent supporter of Doctors Without Borders ( well as local charities. The aid workers you referred to were working on behalf of DWB. This is an amazing organization that is on the ground trying to provide relief in places the US would rather forget about. Locally I support a girls empowerment program and an AIDS charity. Thank you for encouraging charitable involvement on your site. When I attend the events, there are hardly any Black faces there. Especially for the girls (most of whom are Black and Latina) I think it's even more empowering to see the example of us reaching back to help them. I welcome the help from other groups (because the charities could not survive with them) but I wonder what it would mean to the people we are helping to see people like them giving assistance.
Danielle J says:
March 27, 2008, 11:26 am
I supoort my local shelters and donate to AIDS hospices. "Dress For Success" is a wonderful organization dedicated to helping women get back on their feet and into the business world. They ask for donations of business clothes (blouses, skirts, etc). I am proud to be black. I've never had a second's doubt about it. It can be hard and sometimes I wonder that as a people we've re-gressed. The struggle is hard and that's why it's a struggle. Sometimes we get tired and that's ok. I'm tired of all this nonsense as well. I think about Harriet, Sojourner, Malcolm, Martin, Mary McLoud-Bethune, Fannie Lou, Nat, Frederick and my spirit is lifted. If they did it given the disadvantages they suffered, then I can and we can too. The struggle continues
Bebroma says:
March 27, 2008, 11:41 am
I donate my time to an educational program and I donate to the local food pantry, because if you're hungry it's hard to concentrate on anything else, and it seems women and children visit the pantries most, at least where I am.
edesse says:
March 27, 2008, 11:52 am
Bella: Great post. Have you given a thought about starting your own charity? That would be beyond awesome. I have a small scholarship for high-achieving minority high school students. I donate a small portion of my sales to the fund. On another note. Usually Michelle Obama says some pretty spot on things, however, I don't like her comment noted via the link you provided. It's a horrible generalization. Not all of us black people/americans are narrow-minded.
Bebroma says:
March 27, 2008, 11:54 am
I have also been looking at charities that help poor women in childbirth in countries all over the world, because many neonatal deaths and deaths of women in childbirth could be prevented by simple things like blankets, clean scissors, etc., and just a little basic prenatal education; also, a little bit of money goes a long way.
auragirl says:
March 27, 2008, 12:03 pm
THANK YOU FOR POSTING BELLA! I always learn about amazing artists and songs from you. (Debarge's "All This Love" is on CONSTANT play on my ipod thanks to you--I LOVE that song!) Now if that Sly song isn't soul, then I don't know what soul is!!!!!! I could just feel the pain through his words--what a talent! Thanks again!
Mrs. Mckinzie says:
March 27, 2008, 1:03 pm
Hey Bella! My husband ,and I give to St. Jude.When we see those sick children it breaks our heart especially since we don't have any yet.
Shones says:
March 27, 2008, 1:57 pm
Nice post. In fact, I just put both vids on my FB profile because each song MOVED me and I want to share it with others. I love the diversity of thought expressed in your posts AND in the comments section. And, I always enjoy reading what the other bellas (and bellos) have to say. Regarding charities, I recommend the Clarence E. Lightner Leadership Endowment Fund ( This organization, which is named after Raleigh's first and (to-date) only African-American mayor, takes at-risk youth and gives them leadership training and development. But they don't stop at one semester or one year; students stay in during their entire high school careers. I first learned about this org at the annual MLK banquet in Raleigh this year, and was SO impressed with the 14- and 15-yr-olds who stood up to speak insightfully about various social and political issues. If I had a teen, I would be battling to get him/her into this organization.
islandgirl550 says:
March 27, 2008, 3:14 pm
Wow! *blinks* Wow! That's all I can say. That song by Sly Johnson really hit home. There is such a duality with being black in America. You love your country, but the ills of some of the injustices here does make your heart heavy. I know where Michelle is coming from... she'll be a different kind of first lady. She is saying things that have been on the minds of many for quite some time. Unfortunately, the people who need to hear these kinds of things will meet them with eye rolls, side-eye glancing and a loud sigh...
Seth says:
March 27, 2008, 4:38 pm
Really good blog you have going on here... I am definitely going to keep up with it. Check out a baby at Please feed it with your eyes and comments so it can become big and strong.
pets says:
March 27, 2008, 4:44 pm
BAJS Alumni Association, Hilarians & All Saints' Airconditioning Fund as charity begins at home & in USA something that helps girls & young women to empower themselves.
sungoddess says:
March 27, 2008, 4:59 pm
"To Be Young , Gifted And Black", is one of Nina's finest moments in song, and I always sing along with her, the way she sings it: with CONVICTION. Be Blessed Mama....
Naturally DevaSTing says:
March 27, 2008, 8:41 pm
In light of your post, I think this charity is perfectly suited to the concerns of your heart and desire to give back and that is Women for Women International. It allows you to sponsor a sister in a war torn country for a year-SUDAN, RWANDA, CONGO, IRAQ & AFGHANISTAN, where your monthly allowance provides financial assistance to your sister, along with teaching them AIDS awareness, lifeskills and job skills related to their respective communities. All the women who are sponsored are taught together to create a community within a community from which these women can support each other once they've graduated from the program. The founder of the organization has been featured several times on Oprah, among other media, for her work empowering women devasted by war.
ceecee says:
March 28, 2008, 1:03 am
Wow Bella I have got to say I had pretty much thrown my hands up in the air and given up on this whole election. Thanks for this inspiration not to give up :) I'm currently on the lookout for trustworthy charities that focus on substinence(sp) farmers in African countries. I'll keep you posted :)
thistimenow says:
March 28, 2008, 10:45 am
Hello Bellas! I have not visited this site in awhile, and I've been away in Thailand for two weeks on a photo assignment. I've decided to see if I've missed something important on this site and indeed I have. I too wonder like Danielle J, if we as a people have regressed. I think that a lot of us have. The comment made by Danielle J was quite true: "I think about Harriet, Sojourner, Malcolm, Martin, Mary McLoud-Bethune, Fannie Lou, Nat, Frederick and my spirit is lifted. If they did it given the disadvantages they suffered, then I can and we can too" In my opinion a lot of our people are focused too much on material things, Our children want to be "ballers, shotcallers". There is nothing wrong with excelling in sports, entertainment, etc. but it seems to me that a vast majority of adults and children get their culture, education and "information" from the boob tube (t.v), hip hop magazines (although at times they may give a paragraph or two about a worthy cause or situation in need of our attention) or some other entertainment outlet. The hunger for material things is sickening. On the plane back to Korea we were all "entertained" with a expose on Beyonce. I see why a lot of foreigners think that most Americans worship money. We have infinite opportunities that our parents, grandparents, etc. never had and now I hear a lot of moaning and complaining about it "being hard out here for Black people" What?! People need to realize that life at times is hard, FOR EVERYONE. Do you think the very dark-skinned Asian Indians I passed in the airport today in Bangkok complain about the color of their skin and how they are discriminated against in their own country? No, they get up every day, like my parents, your parents and try to make a better life for themselves and their family. Believe me, when we're all gone to the next life, there will still be someone somewhere groaning about their skin color, hair texture, height, weight and basing their current unhappiness, lack of material abundance on something else that they have no control over: the way God created you and meant for you to be. I thank all of you who have named your charities or organizations. I've always wanted to start my own scholarships fund for budding artists and foreign language enthusiasts. Ciao!
Erin says:
March 29, 2008, 6:46 pm
Hello All- I commend you for wanting to support charities. So many people feel that society's problems (especially the ones that don't affect them directly) will disappear when ignored. Having said that, I work for the Maryland Legal Aid Bureau ( In short, we provide civil legal services to MD's low-income residents. You know that line in the Miranda rights, " if you cannot afford sn attorney one will be appointed for you" it only applies if you have been arrested for a crime. What about those people who have had their benefits cut/denied? Or abused and neglected children? Residents who are victims of slum landlords or fraud? The list goes on. Who helps the everyday folk who have a legal problem, don't know where to turn and can't afford proper legal counsel? We do. And, we have to fundraise on our own. We receive some State funding, but not enough. We are a bonafide 501 c3. Also, you would be surprised to hear how many people feel as though legal help isn't a pressing need and doesn't deserve support. Many people turn away until they find that they need it...
Bebroma says:
March 29, 2008, 9:24 pm
Erin -- OMG, you have no idea how much I appreciate your post. I don't want to go all into it, but I obtained my divorce through Legal Aid in my state. I had to meet the qualifications, which were not just low-income, but also the reason for the divorce. Without Legal Aid, I would not have been able to get my divorce when I did and certainly without legal representation. My lawyer was wonderful, and my divorce went the way I wanted. So many people think that Legal Aid only has cut-rate lawyers -- that is NOT TRUE!! These are people who have decided to devote their time and energies to helping people who cannot afford legal representation, who have not committed a crime, but need legal help, instead of pursuing a law career in another direction which could bring them more money, etc. I cannot emphasize enough how wonderful having this provision was for me, and bless you, bless you, BLESS YOU Erin, and those like you, who expend your time and energies in this area.
Kenyan Sister says:
April 2, 2008, 4:13 am
Hi Afrobella About the situation in Africa, it is heartbreaking of course, but European and North American media always play up the negative side of Africa. There are a lot of positive things going on, but they only focus on the ones that portray Africans as savages and helpless victims ravaged by war, AIDS and hunger. I don't mean to deny that there is great need here in Africa, but this is not the whole story. On the issue of what charity you can give to, are there any are targetted at enhancing the self esteem of black girls so they can love their hair, colour, bodies, history etc? I'm sure this would be close to your heart, but I don't know of any.
Mahoganydymond says:
April 6, 2008, 3:38 pm
This is a powerful song. While I was listening to the song, my mother. She started talking about when she first heard the song. So it goes to show, music was music back then. Most of it had feelings. I am going to look this song up for my collection. Thanks for the post..
Maryee says:
April 7, 2008, 10:49 pm
My sister Jen loves her some Nina S. I think she has this same video on her blog. Thanks for sharing!
technicolor says:
July 10, 2008, 4:17 pm
I appreciate your post. I am new to blogging, but happened upon your post because of my own entitled, "Is it because I'm Black?". I wonder sometimes, about the different things that I encounter from day to day! Thanks for that Syl Johnson song, I don't think I have ever listened to him, only his daughter Syleena, so thanks for sharing, and uplifting!


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