COMMENTARY

:
SEND IN THE CLOWNS . . . PLEASE!
V. p. Franklin
African American youth, particularly black males, are targets in American
society. It is almost as if they have had a bull's-eye painted on their backs at a
young age, even before they are sent off to school. The circles must be
iridescent and magnetic to attract those elements in society that profit from
the exploitation of children. Corporate capitalists use television to target the
children for their unhealthy food products which are completely unnecessary
for a wholesome, nutritious diet, as well as over-priced shoes and clothing
imported from countries where the hyper-exploitation of children and adults
guarantees huge profits. When our children enter the overcrowded and under-
funded urban public schools, they are targeted disproportionately for separate
Special Education classes and programs that increase the likelihood that, even
if they complete twelve years of schooling, they will lack the skills needed in
an increasingly technological service economy. Many of our young people
have circles added to their personal bull's-eyes by the failure of parents and
guardians to nurture their spiritual and moral sensibilities through prolonged
exposure to their religious and cultural heritage. And many religious
institutions have failed to reach out and make this task easier. Knowing who
they are and why they are here at an early age is an important way to erase
those circles that may be drawn by negative influences in the school or
neighborhood.
In some areas black teenagers are the targets of drug dealers and law
enforcement officers, and their own personal bull's-eyes make them highly
visible targets, especially if they happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong
time. Creating safe and wholesome recreational spaces for our young people
has not been a priority within our communities, and for that reason the
children have the adults to blame for their increased vulnerability. The elders
respond that the young people become targets in school because "they don't
know how to act . . . . If these children spent more time learning and less time
loud-mouthing the teachers, they would not even notice the lack of
recreational facilities." But the failure to provide supervised sports, athletic,
and musical programs for our children means that they spend more time in
the streets where they are more likely to become entangled with (and targeted
by) the prison-industrial complex. It has been demonstrated numerous times
that sports and musical programs can be used to motivate children to excel
academically. And yet we have allowed school officials to curtail or drop
those programs most likely to spark academic success, and the resulting gap in
187
188 The Journat of African American History
our young people's educational experiences has been filled by peers,
promoters, or profiteers.
Whereas we would want all our children schooled in the rich African
American musical heritage of Spirituals, Blues, Jazz, and Be-Bop, as well as
our contributions to European musical forms, on their own they are narrowly
exposed to Funk, R & B, Hip Hop, and rap music. Whereas we would want all
children to receive athletic training that would not only benefit them
physically, but would also allow them to participate in healthy competition
that would nurture their self-confidence and self-discipline, on their own they
might find role models on the basketball courts who may or may not be
burdened by their own personal bull's-eyes.
Since there is evidence that in too many instances the school,
neighborhood, and even some families have been doing a lousy Job of
protecting and nurturing our children, and television and the news media have
focused much attention on the negative aspects of Hip Hop, the question is:
What role can Hip Hop culture play in erasing the circles around the bull's-
eyes that make our children such highly vulnerable targets? The young and
older historians and humanists who have contributed to this Special Issue offer
well-researched analyses of the origins and development of Hip Hop culture.
This information can be used by creative educators to employ various aspects
of Hip Hop culture to teach our young people history, language, and writing
skills.
Rather than merely serving as a reflection of the mean streets that our
children are forced to traverse, sometimes at their peril. Hip Hop culture can
provide an alternative to those circumstances and can be used to develop skill,
intelligence, and self-discipline. For those who would doubt this observation, I
recommend that they view the documentary film Rize (2005), directed by
David LaChapelle. The film tells the story of the impact of "Tommy
Johnson's Hip Hop Clown Academy" on the lives of our children and young
people in South Central Los Angeles and Englewood. In 1992 Johnson started
teaching others the "art of clowning" after he found success entertaining at
children's parties as "Tommy the Clown." In the film the only voices we hear
are those of Tommy, the parents, and the children who describe the positive
things that surround the dance academy—^the sense of family, the discipline,
the sharing, the competition, the spirituality. Over and over the children
declare, "if it was not for clowning and krumping [a form of Hip Hop
dancing], I would have been a victim of the deadly streets of LA." As the
children spoke, I could almost visualize the circles of the bull's-eyes
disappearing from their backs.
The film details the creativity employed in virtually all aspects of the
dance program from the application of the clown's grease-paint and the
making of costumes to the intricate moves and steps in the dance
performances and competitions. Clowning and krumping demand rhythm,
athleticism, stamina, and discipline; and the highly organized competitions in
the "Battle Zone" serve as a way to channel pain, anger, and even aggression
Commentary: Send in the Clowns... Please! 189
into a positive release and alternative to violence. At one point in the film a
parent looks directly into the camera and declares: "Thank God for the Clown
Academy!"
Why is it important that we understand the significance of the Hip Hop
alternative offered by the Clown Academy? The clowns and krumpers make
that clear in the film: they are more important to us than "money, mansions,
cars, and jewels." For those who may be inspired by the film to sponsor their
own versions of a "Hip Hop Academy" in New Orleans, New York,
Philadelphia, Chicago, or other cities, be sure that the teachers are willing to
emulate Tommy Johnson's commitment to being held accountable for those
placed in his care. Tommy visited his pupils in their homes, discussed their
progress with their parents, and monitored their attendance and academic
performance in school. The film makes it clear that Tommy the Clown paid
a heavy price for his commitment (and his success), but "he took his troubles
to the dance fioor," left them there, and through the kindness of strangers
and friends he too was able to "Rize."
The children's dancing is infectious and as I left the movie theater, I was
trying to imitate the intricate moves as I headed across the parking lot. "You
got it all wrong!" a young boy shouted from the sidewalk where he was
standing with several friends. Then they proceeded to adeptly demonstrate
the correct movements. I guess we can all learn something from the Hip Hop
generation.

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