Melaneyes Media co-founder Born Logic Allah. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Before the pandemic shut down most public events, and before Black Lives Matter protests filled the streets, Melaneyes Media had been busy conducting monthly Freedom Bus Tours highlighting Black history in San Antonio.

Once in-person tours were no longer possible, the documentary-focused company migrated its tours online and expanded its scope with information-rich presentations.

On Wednesday, Melaneyes Media co-founder Born Logic Allah hosted an information gathering session for an upcoming documentary film titled High Risk that will examine the disproportionate Black maternal mortality rate.

Sunday at 7 p.m., Allah and co-founder Aundar Ma’at will host The Case for Reparations, a live presentation with a question-and-answer session on the Zoom videoconferencing platform. Previous virtual tours and presentations have addressed the relationship between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., lynching in America, Black women activists, the dehumanization of South African Sara Baartman as the “Hottentot Venus,” and the media company’s own film on Black life in San Antonio, Walk on the River.

Videos produced by Melaneyes Media. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Moving online has not only expanded the scope of the presentations beyond local history, Allah said, but has allowed them to reach audiences outside the city. The audience growth has been especially noticeable since June when Black Lives Matter protests began in earnest, he said. “People just really wanted to become more informed about Black issues.”

Serious issues persist

The interactive online platform also allows Allah and Ma’at to learn more about topics they intend to pursue in media projects, such as Black maternal mortality. Wednesday’s open discussion created a base of information and potential interview subjects to be included in the High Risk film, slated for release in 2021.

Nicole Carr, an assistant professor at Texas A&M University-San Antonio, became involved in the project when she met Allah during a bus tour in the fall, and was then introduced to Nikki McIver-Brown, a certified nurse midwife.

The issue is personal to Carr, who lost a baby at 33 weeks in 2016, and has since studied the Black maternal mortality rate, as well as the equally disproportionate Black infant mortality rate, both three times higher than rates among white Americans.

Carr said the issue is based on “this idea that Black women and Black mothers, when they enter the hospital, they are dismissed or neglected. Or procedures are performed without their consent, or life-saving procedures aren’t performed at all” – referring to what is termed “obstetric racism.”

Nicole Carr, assistant professor at Texas A&M University-San Antonio. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

In the Wednesday online discussion among nearly 30 participants, a Black mother, who 25 years ago had an experience similar to Carr’s, shared her story. Carr said that it demonstrated the persistence of the issue.

150 years go, right now

Reparations for Black Americans is another issue that has recently gained momentum with the introduction of a reparations bill in the House of Representatives in January 2019, followed by a June 2019 appearance before the U.S. Congress by author Ta-Nehisi Coates and actor Danny Glover.

Prior to their appearance, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made a statement that reparations were not “a good idea.” After noting the progress made through the Civil War, civil rights legislation, and the election of an African American president, McConnell said, “no one currently alive was responsible for [slavery],” and that reparations were not the proper way to address “something that happened 150 years ago.”

In his address to Congress, Coates confronted McConnell’s statement directly. “For a century after the Civil War black people were subjected to a relentless campaign of terror … that extended well into the lifetime of majority leader McConnell,” he said.

Coates continued, “That is the thing about Senator McConnell’s ‘something’ – it was 150 years ago, and it was right now.” He cited statistics including that the typical Black family possesses one-tenth the wealth of the typical white family, and raised the issue of the maternal mortality rate for Black women, who die in childbirth at four times the rate of white women.

The reparations bill, officially known as H.R. 40 or the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act, was first proposed by longtime U.S. Rep. John Conyers of Michigan and was introduced each legislative session from 1989 through 2017 without result, until being taken up by U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas following his death.

The purpose of the bill is to address the wealth disparity of Black Americans due to slavery in the colonies that would become the United States between 1619 and 1865, and unfulfilled promises of the post-Civil War Reconstruction era, including the notorious cancellation of the “40 acres and a mule” policy that would have given former slaves the property of former slaveholders.

The Sunday discussion will bust some myths about reparations, Allah said, including that African Americans are asking for what amounts to a gift, “as if [the reparations are] not for actual human labor that took place for hundreds of years. … A worker for a company would be owed wages, and a pension,” he said, among other compensation.

Mario Salas, a prominent San Antonio civil rights activist and subject of Walk on the River, echoed Coates in focusing on gaps in wealth and health resources for whatever form reparations might eventually take.

“Let’s look at it as a tangible social resources issue as opposed to dollars,” Salas said.

In discussing the issue with his wife Maria, Salas said they concluded that African Americans should receive 100 percent free medical care for at least the number of years of enslavement, free housing to make up for the property that was stolen from them when General Sherman’s Field Order No. 15 was rescinded, free education to make up for slaves being denied schooling and subsequent segregated education, and police reform.

As chair of the San Antonio Coalition for Police Accountability, the 71-year-old Salas said that he’s “probably the oldest guy in the room,” but mentioned the involvement of younger generations, including coalition members from Young Ambitious Activists (YAA), a group affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement.

For YAA President Lexi Qaiyyim, reparations means incremental anti-racist action. “I think systemic change has to happen before anything of substance can be done,” she said, acknowledging the difficulty of overcoming deeply embedded racism.

“Reparations for me is just doing the bare minimum, to make sure that we aren’t being judged because of our skin color, that we aren’t being killed because of our skin color,” she said.

Like Salas, Qaiyyim also looks toward a pragmatic, issue-based approach that addresses police reform, equality in education, voting access, and attention to underserved communities.

Asked what things might look like when she reaches Salas’ age, the 25-year-old Qaiyyim said, “I’m hoping when I’m 71 we’re not still having this fight. … I want to be able to just go wherever I please, without being worried about a random person assaulting me, or yelling at me, or calling police on me, or what have you, because of my skin color.”

Following the Sunday presentation and discussion, Melaneyes Media will begin hosting Black Thursdays every other week, which will include discussions, film screenings, and virtual tours. In addition to the current tour focused on the history of the East Side, future virtual tours will explore the Black history of downtown and the West Side, Allah said.

All events require registration, with optional payment between $1 and $100, which Allah called “the honor system,” meant to encourage broad participation from community members.

Interested community members may register for Sunday’s The Case for Reparations presentation here.

Nicholas Frank

Nicholas Frank

Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with an indie rock...