Thanks, but . . .

CNN reports that Jada Pinkett Smith will give $1 million to the Baltimore School for the Arts, of which she is an alum.  She asks that the theater to be restored with her gift be "dedicated to" her school chum the late Tupac Shakur.  BSA tactfully replies that the theater will be named after Pinkett Smith herself.  Good for them–but what will the School have to do that will constitute "dedication" to Shakur?  The Nonprofiteer raises the question because if it’s required to put up so much as a plaque with Shakur’s name the School should do the nearly-impossible and refuse the gift.

Why?  Because Tupac Shakur was a convicted felon murdered in what the headline writers used to call a gangland slaying.  He was shot to death just hours after having been caught on videotape helping beat up a member of a rival gang.  Pinkett Smith doubtless intends to honor the artist, or the friend, but she’s going to end up honoring the thug–and making a permanent statement to the young people at the Baltimore School for the Arts that it’s okay to be a criminal as long as you’re a famous one. 

And the very second someone names a public high school for John Gotti the Nonprofiteer will be prepared to hear arguments about how racist it is to refuse to put the name of a black gangster on the side of a schoolhouse. 

But the good news is, if BSA does have to turn down the gift, it will give the Baltimore Public Schools the opportunity to put its money where its mouth is.  If the system really believes that the School provides the arts as an alternative to less savory group activities in public high schools, then it won’t mind paying to assure that the alternative stays truly gang-free. 

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4 Responses to “Thanks, but . . .”

  1. Anita Bernstein Says:

    I too think BSA should refuse the gift if Jada Pinkett Smith insists on naming the school for Tupac. But it’s a closer question than you suggest. John Gotti didn’t sell millions of records and isn’t regarded, by consumers and critics alike, as the consummate practitioner of a particular kind of art. Labels like “felon” and “rival gang” don’t say much about Tupac. He fought hard, and spent much money, to appeal his felony conviction (for sexual assault). An entourage that surrounds a rap star isn’t a “gang” in the sense of being banded together only to commit crimes. If individuals were precluded from receiving honors from a nonprofit merely for having once been part of a group that did antisocial things, we’d have an awful lot of Empty Halls on campuses and Nobody Memorial Hospitals.

    Now I admit I’ve never heard one word, or note, of Tupac Shakur’s art–so I won’t defend him as a person worthy of honor. But I don’t think his criminal record and lack of respectability are enough to disqualify him.

  2. Nonprofiteer Says:

    Tupac’s criminal history predates his being a rap star or the center of an entourage. And it doesn’t much matter whether a group is organized primarily for the purpose of criminal activity: if you get your buddies together to beat up someone you perceive as a rival or threat or just victimizable–as contemporaneous video shows Tupac did–you’re a thug.

    It’s true that the comparison with John Gotti is inexact, but I’d make the same objection if someone proposed to name a public school building after Ezra Pound–likewise “a consummate practitioner of a particular kind of art.” Schools ought not be in the business of honoring the dishonorable.

  3. Gayle Roberts Says:

    Hi,

    As a subscriber to your blog for a few months, I’ve truly enjoyed your writing. Uncensored and insightful, it is a valuable addition to the dialogue found online. Please keep it up.

    But I must say, that from reading your previous posts, I was surprised by this one. I would have expected a more nuanced examination of the intersection of race, class and the criminal justice system – let alone the role of fundraisers in helping find common ground between donor values and agency missions. Given that December 13th was also the 1-year anniversary of the California state-ordered execution of Gang Leader and Peace Activist Stanley “Tookie” Williams was an irony not lost either.

    Comment boxes are so limiting in constructing dialogue, but I do have many questions, rhetorical if they may be. With U.S. incarceration rates at 1 in 32 — the highest in the world – and significantly higher for people of color, what does it mean to be labeled a “criminal,” when large scale white collar and genocidal political crimes go unpunished? Is one who resists oppression a criminal or activist, terrorist or freedom fighter? Is justice limited to only retribution, or is their a role or restoration, rehabilitation and redemption? When measuring the value of a person’s life, do we look a whole of their life, or merely isolated events? Can people change, and if so, what is the value of that transformative message to the rest of us?

    Though Tupac was murdered over 10 years ago, he continues to be an inspirational figure for millions of people in the Hip-Hop generation around the globe, across all continents, languages, races and classes. Why do you think that is? Perhaps there is some lesson to be learned here?

    Peace,
    Gayle

  4. Nonprofiteer Says:

    I appreciate your thoughtful response. It’s certainly true that the term “felon” has a different connotation as applied to African-Americans, especially young African-American men, than when used in connection with crimes like those of the Enron guys. And though I don’t think Tupac’s artistry–or anyone’s artistry, including Ezra Pound’s–is a justification for misbehavior, I don’t underestimate the value that artistry had and continues to have for millions of audience members.

    But I stand by my view that people–of any color or social class–who beat up other people should be held to account for that by the law; that men–of any color or social class–who are convicted of sexual violence against women should be considered rapists and held to answer for that behavior by and in the penal system; and that to claim otherwise is to libel all the people whose race and/or social class gives them a legitimate bone to pick with society but who nonetheless don’t damage their fellow citizens. A society in which violence is presented as a suitable response to oppression is one in which violence will soon spiral out of control.

    I also understand that my perspective on this is that of someone who is more likely to be a victim of freelance violence than of violence at the hands of law enforcers, and that therefore my sympathies are with law enforcement and against freelance perpetrators. I realize that’s not the only perspective but I think it’s the perspective that public schools should reflect, given their unique role as the carriers of common values: again, a society that won’t stand up for enforcement of the laws will soon have none. Witness the consequences of the Bush Administration’s disdain for law and determination to do exactly as it pleases! I believe we have to hold ourselves individually to the same standard to which we hold the government we so proudly describe as being “of laws, not of men”–no special rules for special people, no suspension of the rules (e.g. against doing bodily harm to others) because we really, really feel like we want those rules suspended. I don’t countenance torture by the authorities, and I don’t countenance violence by individuals.

    That’s my objection to memorializing Tupac: his history of using force for his convenience. And while of course people are changed and redeemed over the course of their lives, his last known resort to force (and collective force, where a bunch of people beat up one) was five hours before his fatal shooting.

    I hope this reflects the more nuanced view you very rightly suggested was called for, and I welcome any additional thoughts you’d like to contribute.

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