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Archive for the ‘Blacks’ Category

Unless you’re a president of some nation or the leader of some over-achieving guerrilla faction, rarely do you get the chance to put the world on stop.

rick rubinBut then there are people like Rick Rubin.1

Go ahead; look at that face. That grizzly-Jesus-lookin’ mofo is a pioneer of modern music because of his influence on hip hop. From what I understand, his gameplan was as follows:

a) make music I like, even if I don’t look like the kind of dude who should like it

b) make you like it, too, even though you’re not supposed to

c) be happy.

To have had this mission in the 80s with music featuring black artists, when up until 1983 the Billboard music chart gods, for instance, had filed most of the music by black artists as “Black” Singles, Records, etc., is nothing short of remarkable.

And I miss his era.

Look, I’m not gonna get all “there are X-number elements of hip hop” or “I know real hip hop” with this. Hip hop (“HH”) is a wedding reception celebrating the marriage of soul and inner city blues.2 And, like at any wedding reception, you’ve got all sorts of different people at different tables. There’s a table for the wedding party; and a table for the cousins you don’t really remember; and one for your coworkers that insisted on being there, etc.

At HH’s reception, it’s the same thing. You’ve got a table where the giants of the industry sit and there are all sorts of other people there who have been invited because that’s just what you do. It’s like a sprawling family reunion. That’s how you get people like Russell Simmons — a co-founder with Rubin of HH’s groundbreaking label, Def Jam — in the same room with someone like Chingy. And people drink heavily at this party. Hell, I’m sure Souljah Boy was the result of a night — and pregnancy — of really, really heavy drinking.3

But it’s not a secret that something’s missing lately. And I don’t know what it is. It’s like: friends – check; money – check; soundboard – check; microphone – check. But while I totally think a bunch of these young artists should get paid if they can, you can’t convince me that doing the stanky legg is anything like It Takes Two by Rob Base and DJ EZ Rock.

I was watching the 2009 Hip Hop Honors last night and Lyor Cohen was telling the story of how he decided to sign Warren G — most known for Regulate, a track with a famous Michael McDonald sample — to Def Jam. Cohen said he walked in to Warren’s house and there was barely any furniture; a TV and one chair, basically. But when Warren took him to the space where he made music, Cohen looked down at his turntables, saw a copy of Carole King’s Tapestry spinning and knew this was the kind of guy he wanted to sign; someone with versatility who wasn’t afraid to like good music and not care who made it.

And that’s what I miss. I miss the almost tangible sense that HH artists were multifaceted fans of music; that they appreciated sounds they “weren’t supposed to” like; that they found a way to convince us that these were sounds they were supposed to like. Because at the end of the day, all of our talk about what “real men” listen to, or white people listen to, or older generations really “get/understand,” is nonsense.

It’s just about whether it’s good music. It really is that simple.

____________

1Great article, though now dated, about Rubin here.

2Just an “oh, by the way,” but one of the best songs ever: Marvin’s Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler).

3I kid, Souljah Mom. I kid.

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… a long time coming.¹

disney-introduces-first-black-princess-tiana-in-_the-princess-and-the-frog_-washingtonpostcom

Disney finally has its first black princess.

Her name is Tiana.  I’ve seen all of her predecessors’ stories.  We’ve had Snow White, Aurora, Cinderella, Ariel and Belle.  And if you expand the “princess” category to include any animated lady in a leading role, then there are also characters like Alice, Megara and Mrs. Incredible.  We’ve even had leading ladies of color with Jasmine, Esmeralda, Pocahontas and Mulan.  In other words, we’ve seen everything but a black princess from Disney.

But I’m not going to wallow in the fact that it’s been 72 years or why it’s been that long or why the gist of Tiana’s story includes:

She must journey into the dark bayou to get a magical cure from a good voodoo queen.

Why?  Because “the implied message of Tiana, that black American girls can be as elegant as Snow White herself, is a milestone in the national imagery.”  That’s why.

As a kid, when I thought I was going to be an animator, I actually dreamed about this moment.  I even drafted characters and a story-line to send to Disney that featured black characters at the helm.  So I’m just going to enjoy this moment and get ready to pre-order my movie tickets.  I’ll worry about “what the story means” after I see it.

Thanks, universe.  Just when I was beginning to feel concerned, this is a genuinely good way to start the week.  In a world where children learn that even the little things, like “flesh-colored” band-aids, imply some shade of beige is the standard, I’m grateful we’ve got a new story to tell.

_____
¹Sam Cooke – A Change is Gonna Come. Listen here.

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¡Bienvenidos a Free Verse Friday!  It’s the day when I share something different than banter and prose and hope it reads wherever you are as it sounds when I hear it, here, on my side of the interwebs.

But before we get to the content…

You know those moments in which you expect noise and so it’s the silence that’s alarming?  That pretty much describes why I took down last Friday’s post (temporarily).  It’s ironic, actually.  I took it down because of something I thought, not because of anything that was said; certainly nothing on this blog.  It’s out of context here, and I don’t want to simply rehash the issue, but the text itself read: “…my roommate and I were black.”

Quite obviously, being black is something not subject to change.  And since I’m of the belief that being black is also not learnable behavior or a style capable of emulation, I thought the irrefutably factual nature of the statement would be funny.  I stand by that.  But as with any life’s path, there are things on mine I’m constantly trying to outrun, even if they be spirits some think I concoct out of madness.  And one of those things is the constant sensation that many of the people I’ve met don’t find me black “enough.”

It breaks my heart, but I’m not paranoid about this.  This isn’t systematized delusion.  I’ve been told this, quite frankly, by many people shockingly unafraid to admit they thought so.  And so any, and every, time I step out my front door – literally at home, figuratively on this blog – I wonder how I’ll be perceived by my own.  Because it’s stupidly unfortunate, but I don’t consider it a fair choice to choose to ignore it.  It certainly isn’t that I consciously try to respond to situations “blackly;” again, that’s a fallacy: it can’t be done.  But I do measure observations of my self in the eyes of people.  I take notes.  And so this feeling reared its head last Friday, and I panicked that someone would consider that line I wrote indicative of everything they had come to believe about me: a guy uninterested in being in line with his race.

I took it down because the silence was maddening.  I had posted the link on clandestine-stalker-haven Facebook.  Those of you who read this blog regularly know my advocacy.  But what were other people thinking?  Who read it?  Had I just solidified a reputation I’d never be able to escape?  I still don’t know those answers.  Nonetheless, I soon decided I like my reputation as someone willing to honestly present his self as he sees himself, even in the face of challenge, just fine.

And so I hope the writing below doesn’t seem like a cop out.  It’s something I wrote during college when a girlfriend said she needed to perform, on behalf of her sorority, a poem honoring black men.  I was her ghostwriter.  Posting it is not an attempt to appease anyone who doubts my “allegiance to the cause,” but instead a chance to pound my chest as affirmation of the person many judge too quickly to see.

It’s not that long; so if you read it, thanks.  But if not, I’d still love to hear from you today.  Help me make this post more than just my own story.  I’d love to know about a group or class of people you’re a part of.  Have you ever felt uninvited despite so clearly wearing the membership card across your chest?  Not feminine enough…  Not masculine enough… What have you done when those like the you you can’t change tell you you aren’t them?

As always, thanks for stopping by.

you waltz the room
from the doorway to your table.
you smile quickly, and then it hits me:
i’ve seen you in my dreams.

you’re that knight
in copper-toned, dark chocolate or caramel armor
from a long line of brown-skinned royalty;
whose most precious jewels aren’t the frost around your neck,
but the heart on your sleeve
and that smile that rescues me,
even if just for a moment…
and i can forgive the world
its indiscretions,
the heartache of its misperceptions
and its inability to honor the beauty in our imperfections.

’cause see, the lesson you teach is redemption:
that no dose of depression cures oppression.
so, you walk.
no.
you saunter, in with a swagger,
and i smile through the tears.

’cause who but you
knocked down for everything –
from the sag in your pants
to the curl of your hair,
the way you make love
and the genius they can’t see –
could rise head held high
and march to the rhythm
of his own pomp and circumstance?

you’re so versatile, you adapt
so well they don’t even know it’s an act.
truth is, you’re like Denzel:
washing tons of pain away
for the audience’s sake.
’cause every time you step out your door,
you’re on stage,
trying to convince them
you won’t steal her purse,
that your backpack really does have books without pictures in it,
that you never even jaywalked, let alone shot a man…

but when the award ceremonies come around,
you’re always overlooked.
so this is your award.
you can’t put it on your mantle,
but you can wear it on your soul.
and you can tell your sons
our daughters will always understand.

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It is Free Verse Friday (FVF), but first I want to thank all of you for yesterday.  It wasn’t my moment, and so it feels selfish to admit how much it mattered to me.  But it did.  And if you plan on being at Marvin tonight around 8, I’ll thank you in person.

 

But the business…  Yesterday, I promised today would be a conclusion to that entry.  And it is.  This is an excerpt of something I wrote about a year ago.  If you want the whole thing, I’d be honored to email it to you.

If you know me, I’m one of the quintessential child of divorce types: I don’t think I’d make a good dad, afraid I’d…  I don’t know.  It’s irrational.  And it works itself out irrationally; like with this excerpt, one of many things I’ve written about what it would be like to be a dad.

These few words are about what I’d have to say to a son to explain to him the world he’s inherited.  Because whenever he’d become real, that would be it.  That would have been the best I could do, as far as making him a better world is concerned.  There’d be no more prep time.  And in light of the cartoon from Wednesday, it’s obvious there’s a lot to be done before I could proudly answer the questions I imagine he’d ask.

Thanks for stopping by.  Looking forward to seeing as many of you as can come tonight.

 

i don’t know god
but i’ve seen her in my dreams,
so i’m writing this open letter
just in case she reads.

but there’s no time,
i need more time,
to change it all
before he comes;
’cause once he comes
then there’s no time,
it’s way too late,
he’ll be my son.

so what do i do?
i can’t lie;
no, wait, no: that’s a lie.
but i can’t lie to kids, i can’t:
there’s something in their eyes.
so if i can’t fix the world
before he comes to question truth,
i’ll answer:
“the best defense against the rain’s
a pair of sturdy boots.

“because there will be many
who smile
to watch you fall from grace;
but there’ll be some not satisfied
unless they pull you down themselves,
who wanting more
than the discourtesy
of stabbing you in the back,
bask in the injustice
of doing it to your face.”

and i pray we’re not so blinded
by hatred and fight
that the DNA we give our kids
fails to give them sight.

because this letter is a poem
and this poem is a plea,
that my son,
the new black man,
knows not the trouble i’ve seen.

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Before you (probably) ever read this blog, it was often very different.  Not that I’ve changed, but it is what it was: back then, “readers” were people kind enough to read the links I delivered to their inboxes, people who already knew me.  And so what follows today may feel different.  It’ll probably sound more like that thing I wrote about Gary Sheffield, or that thing I wrote about Imus.

Maybe you’ve heard about it already.  This made it into the New York Post yesterday:

2009-02-18-cartoon

Credit: Sean Delonas

I suppose I should “set the scene.”

If you don’t live in the NY metro area, you can find the cartoon in its context here.  It is the meshing of two stories, one literal and the other figurative.  The literal story is that police in Stamford, CT (my hometown, actually) responded to a 911 call regarding a domesticated chimpanzee, named Travis, that had escaped and mauled a woman.  They shot Travis to stop him.  The figurative story, at its most agreeable base, should be clear: a critique of the passage of the stimulus bill.

The problem, for many of us, is obvious and actually layered.

I’ll start with facts:
1. The economy is reeling.
2. Therefore, the stimulus deal (apart from its effectiveness and so at a minimum as an effort) is considered a big deal.
3. The economy was an integral part of the presidential campaign’s homestretch.
4. Obama has been active in making the stimulus package his visibly preeminent priority.
5. The stimulus package is lauded by many as the first major piece of legislation by Obama.

What all of this means: the stimulus package, certainly by its critics, is currently being affixed to Obama.  He is its figurehead.  This doesn’t seem reasonably debatable.  Sure: the truth is that it is an idea of many.  There are many responsible for its construction and passage.  Forgive the cliché, but that’s politics, and quite obviously so.

But not in that picture.  There is no team of experts, no crowd of faces, no group of monkeys of various sizes and shapes.  There is only one.  And that one chimp, the “someone” to whom the writing of the stimulus bill is attributed, is shot by police and rests bleeding on the ground, dead.*  So let’s not insult modern intelligence by suggesting that dead chimp isn’t supposed to represent the figurehead behind the stimulus package, punished for his “crime.”

Historically, though, it should be pretty widely understood that black Americans have been analogized to monkeys.  Hell, I bet we could even find that kind of information in one of those outdated, yellowing textbooks they still force upon some of our public schools.  The comparison takes at least a couple of forms: 1) the darkness in complexion, physical features and 2) the almost, but not quite human status.  That’s the funny thing about race: it’s so often really obvious and lends itself to similarly conspicuous interpretation.

And so it shouldn’t seem absurd to anyone that many of us drew a certain conclusion: Obama is that dead chimpanzee.  Simple, right?  And it shouldn’t be odd that many of us would feel that we’ve seen such images before.  And so we get to perhaps the most finely split hair of the new millennium: the difference between being a racist and being racially insensitive.

A racist is defined by her or his motivations; it’s as straightforward as understanding that the suffix “-ist” refers to an active, outward, purposeful nature.  Someone who is racially insensitive, however, is defined by her or his ignorance.  To be clear, then, this post isn’t about racism.**  I don’t know the cartoonist, Sean Delonas, and I won’t pretend to know his motivations.  My problem is with his ignorance.

He should’ve known the conclusions many of us would draw.  The New York Post should’ve known this, as well.  And that should’ve mattered to both of them, regardless of whether they agreed with our interpretations.  It’s not about bending to every whim of any group of readers.  It’s about a cognizance of the classic stabs at black presence in America.  It’s not like we’re a secret.  It’s also not like there’s only about a thousand of us (not, of course, that that would serve as justification).

Racial sensitivity is, perhaps ironically, about acknowledging the context of your own existence.  We don’t live in bubbles, at least not solitary ones.  And with that shared residence comes shared responsibility.  It’s what grown-ups do: they mature, then they appreciate and then they understand.  We forgive sensitivity mistakes in children because they haven’t had the time to experience difference.  Our patience for adult missteps is shorter.

But maybe that’s why the tone for this post is different than it would have been years, or even months, ago.  I’m not asking for repercussions to befall the paper or the cartoonist, because while my patience has long run out, so has my desire to scream about it anymore.  I’d love, once and for all, for us to have actual conversations about these dilemmas.

The true conclusion for this entry will be posted tomorrow.  But for now, I’d really just love for any people who read this to ask how readily they forgive themselves for not knowing about a life they don’t lead.  I do it all the time.  While I can confidently say I don’t do it like Delonas did, I do it.  I do it because it’s easy.  But I shouldn’t, ever.

I think one of the biggest pitfalls for the American conscience is the notion that none of us are mind-readers; that we don’t ever really know what others are thinking and feeling and that, therefore, we’re allowed to make huge mistakes out of that ignorance, and/or that we’re allowed to demand of the very people who are very often voiceless that they scream, only in a language the rest of us understand, loud enough for us to acknowledge as alarm.

But it’s really all just intuition.  We really are just other human beings.  It’s not nearly as difficult as we convince ourselves it is.  And that’s why the constant failure to empathize hits harder, each time.  Because we could just choose to be different, to be better, but we don’t.


*On another day, I’d have time to discuss our history with police violence in this country…
**Though, I don’t believe the nouveau theory that insensitivity is worse than racism. The power of active, direct hate seems unparalleled.

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Tyler Perry.

I’m sure he’s a good guy.  And by “sure” I mean he’s probably not, but I can’t prove it, so I’ll benefit-of-the-doubt him for the time being.

I’ve never seen more than a trailer for any of the movies.  So the following might be a little premature and woefully ungrounded: I bet I’d feel marginalized, rather than celebrated.

Being marginalized is generally unwatchable.  Not necessarily in the “I wouldn’t watch it intoxicated” way.  I mean, I did see and surprisingly like Soul Plane after a few drinks, and discovering Kevin Hart has worked out pretty well.

But when I saw this, as a mini-billboard, on 6th and K

img_0611

I soon thought this

… and that can’t be good for anyone.  Not for Tyler Perry.  And not for me.*

If your hook is:

Hey! It’s like “Ernest,” but for black people!

… then you lose.

I know this multiple character thing is popular.  Since 1996, I’ve passed a lot of people on the street, wondering whether Eddie Murphy is somewhere deep inside, buried beneath layers of synthetic skin and makeup.

But it’s not that funny.  And it’s certainly even less funny when it takes itself seriously.  Tyler Perry’s stream of consciousness is signed, sealed and delivered as the look into “black life” that the rest of Hollywood ignores.  It self-elevates.

And that worries me.  Ernest Goes to Africa

… screwed us all; the whole freaking rainbow of us all.

It made us all caricatures of what we actually are.  Ernest went to Africa in 1997, and all he found was that mask?  And unlike any minimally informed, “I can get by”-literate person, he insisted on imposing his shenanigans so that “Africa [would] never be the same” and couldn’t even identify one of the 53 nations, so apparently he just went to the whole continent?!

Madea seems to draw us all the same way: overly dichotomous, with a hint of reverse-assimilation.**  But we’ve used that crayon before.  It’s been reduced to a nub.

Just saying: who’s going to be surprised if we see “Madea Goes to Salt Lake City?”

 

*Awesome, though, for Jim Varney.

**Where a white character, wide-eyed and hopeful, seeks to convince the cast of black characters how laid back, easygoing and tolerant she/he actually is “despite” her/his color.  Maybe she/he even tries to dance a little?  You know what I mean.

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every moment is a once in a lifetime
not because tomorrow’s not promised
but because even if it was
right now is exactly what tomorrow could never be:
this very moment.

but instead of living life like we own it
we’ve lived life like we’ve been loaned it –
like we’re seat-fillers at the Oscars
only to shine after commercial breaks,
or anxious temporary cardholders
awaiting an expiration date –
we trudged through the motions
as if soon it would all be over
and we’d see the other side.

we’ve lived in the tiniest corners of our minds
unable to share close encounters of the human kind
figuring any extra terrestrial
must be an extra-terrestrial
and that no body on Earth
could be as heavenly as the celestials…
but we’re all stars in the dopest show in the universe,
so why do we act like understudies?

we’re all headliners
and though the only act we know
is in these costumes,
the only stage we’re on is this one
and though we can’t guarantee an encore performance next week
when the only future we can grab belongs to yesterday,
why do we hold on for dear life
like living’s worth not wanting more?

and when we do get a glimpse of tomorrow,
why do we assume it’s beyond our control?
like on the right hand of God sits Jesus
and on the left sits a deistic puppet master
whose strings hide from sight
as imitation silver linings in clouds,
strings that guide us
to waltz through years like ballrooms,
light on our feet
mid-dance, anxious of our judge’s scores;
we get caught up
assuming destinies
awaiting hand-me-down fates…

but when we assume that we’re only,
that we’re second, that we’re barely
we assert selfish superstition upon malleable experience;
like when the politics of hope are broken into fantasy
and the pieces show their cracks
jagged and unseemly;
or when the power of our faith,
one a god could never have,
is traded in for short-term gains
and our souls sugar-crash.

yet with our power to assume
comes power to engage –
to move from cleaning off the table
to eating off the plates,
from being victims of the law
to deciding how it’s made,
from meaning “dark,” “feared” and “unknown”
to shining on the brightest stage.

we won’t be kings like kings once were
we won’t be queens, or even dukes;
we won’t get rich off reparations
it’s 2008, we don’t need mules;
our homes will still be measured in feet
not in acres, not draped in jewels;
we won’t strike back with vengeful hearts
’cause we know what it’s like to lose.

what we will be is the promise
that our parents made to us:
finally embraced
with more than arms-length transactional hugs.

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