Sunday, April 3, 2011

A Question is Worth a Thousand Words



I have nothing, but love and gratitude for people in my life who love me enough to call me out on my crap when necessary. This may not always come in the shape of a full-fledged admonishment or verbal spanking, but instead can appear as a subtle comment or question with the ability to convict, embarrass and correct. I know that your curiosity has now been piqued... ;) Allow me to paint a little backdrop.

Tonight I was talking to a good friend who lives halfway across the country. Whenever we have an opportunity to talk it is a treat, but this evening you would not have known it from the way I commenced to squandering our precious phone time by launching into a tirade about some dude that I can't stand. I blathered on about his arrogance and how he's so self-important that he does not even realize how unilaterally disliked he is.. I mean...I went ALL the way in, examples, citations, works cited. It was like I was giving a presentation on the dude for a grade! This is how thorough I was in the expression of my disdain for this fellow. I sought to justify my pettiness. Sure I was spending lots of energy not liking him and making sure everyone knew it, but it was my mission to excuse this pettiness through illustrating just how deserving he was of my rancor.

When I finally came up for air, my friend asked me this simple question: "Why are we still talking about this guy?" Ouch. Instant conviction.








The "interrogative methodology" as I will dub it, is really quite brilliant. It is the method psychologists have used for decades to help people arrive at breakthroughs allowing them to have agency and take responsibility. Questions are an extremely effective medium for forcing people to examine their own behavior, attitudes, tendencies and thought patterns. If my friend has said to me instead, "Janell, give it a rest. You've been talking about this dude for like 20 minutes now and that's kinda wack," I may have eschewed the truthfulness and validity of his statement in order to defend myself or nurse my wounded ego. The interrogative circumvents this by asking us to be the one to judge our own actions.

I did just that and what I came up with was that it is extremely unproductive and paltry for me spend ANY amount of time hating or talking negatively about anyone. Particularly because this person is busy loving himself and being happy. By answering my friends brief, yet pointed question I was granted the realization that while entitled to my opinions, I need to strive daily to transcend the pettiness of giving my valuable time and energy to anything that limits or subtracts from that which is important to my own growth, spiritual development and enlightenment.

I considered not posting this. I was going to stuff it away in a journal for my eyes only and privately stew in my shame, but a recent conversation with my father made me decide otherwise. He called Facebook, "BestFacebook" stating that people are only there to put their best faces on and hide their foibles, shortcomings and mistakes.
He believes that we are collectively missing a golden opportunity to learn valuable lessons from the reality of each other's lives. I hope that you are able to find value and insight in my blunders. By no means am I perfect, so I dare not pretend to be, but each day with the help of my closest friend and family I move closer to the person I want to be. Thank you for letting me share this journey with you.

A Different, Different World: The Politics of Reclaiming Blackness on Primetime Television

The commodification of ethnicity has effected African Americans on television ever since networks began to figure out that co-opting blackness would lead to huge profits.  NBC's A Different World, a spin-off of the Cosby Show, was not immune to this marketing of difference. However, while the network viewed the show as an opportunity to capitalize on Cosby's success, the series reclaimed its blackness by purposefully recreating the true spirit of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and addressing controversial issues that were specific to the black community. This paper aims to address the various ways in which A Different World, reclaimed and boldly expressed blackness.


Although this work will briefly discuss season one of the series for several important contrasting features, it will primarily focus on the five seasons that follow during which the show became explicitly set at an HBCU and highly topical. A Different World was a national success, able to cast a wide net for viewership, yet elegantly represent the collective voice of a new generation of young black adults. This paper will also seek to contexualize A Different World within the idea of marketing difference, a phenomenon that, no doubt, contributed to the meteoric success of its parent series. Through a close textual analysis of the show and one of its main characters, Whitley Gilbert acted by Jasmine Guy, I will demonstrate how placing a character who reflected white values at the center of the show increased popularity and mitigated the show’s bold presentation of afrocentrism and essentially unapologetic treatment of blackness.

In 1987, the year A Different World began, American was still experiencing the fallout from nearly a decade of “Reaganomics.” Unemployment soared, having its most pronounced effect on black Americans. Youth employment was even more devastating. The introduction of a crack-cocaine into low income areas ravaged the black family and caused problems such as black on black crime, drug dealing, drug and alcohol abuse, teenage and unwanted pregnancy. As a result of the aforementioned factors, the late 1980s also saw the truncation of black education occurring at an alarming rate.1 In an era during which blacks experienced more visibility than ever in all public arenas, issues of representation became a main focus.

What was happening in black television in the late 1980s was antithetical to what statistics showed as the common black experience. The Cosby Show revolutionized the manner in which the black family was perceived in the American society, but was also criticized for not creating a realistic image of black family life and failing to address issues that plagued many black people during its run. Media Scholar Herman Gray commented on the show saying it “often failed to even comment on the economic and social disparities and constraints facing millions of African Americans outside the middle class,”2 while its spin-off series, A Different World, came to represent the voice of the black educated youth. Carsey-Warner executive, James Anderson, compared the two shows noting, A Different World dealt more directly with societal issues.3

A Different World (1987-1993) is best remembered for its exploration of a wide array of political and social topics many which directly effected the black community. An equally defining characteristic of A Different World, was its dedication to accurately displaying the dance, music, black history and fashion of African American audiences. It did not, however, begin this way. While an all-black collegiate environment seems like it would provide writers with an overflow of riveting and exciting issues to explore, the first season of A Different World strayed far away controversial fare, choosing instead to focus on silly pranks, school assignments, teacher-student relations and the misadventures of the irresponsible Denise Huxtable. The first season of A Different World was markedly different from the subsequent five seasons. Though it was a ratings success, the show proved to be a critical failure during that initial season.

A Different World would eventually be regarded for it cultural resonance but, in the beginning things were not nearly as vibrant. NBC and Bill Cosby deployed a format they now knew was effective and lucrative on television. Images of affluent and educated blacks had been thriving since The Cosby Show first aired 1984 and began dominating in the ratings. By the mid-1980s white America was ready to accept a different kind of black representation than what had be previously offered through shows of the seventies and early 1980. Scholar Patricia Hill Collins provides a reading of Claire Huxtable that speaks to these changes. “Claire certainly modeled a view of Blackness that White America found highly comforting,” Hill says. It is useful to refer to Hill’s close analysis of Claire Huxable’s role:

Never speaking Black English, free of dreadlocks, braids and other indicators of nappy hair, Claire demonstrated her Blackness largely through a love for jazz and Black art depicting an idealized southern Black experience...she exhibited minimal racial solidarity, preferring instead to associate with a rainbow of friends. Although she was comfortable expressing an identity as a woman, she rarely identified herself as part of a Black collectivity, especially a political one. She showed little evidence of attending church on a regular basis, her expression of a moral, ethical position, although present was not tied to any recognizable traditions of Black political struggle. 4

Hill goes on to point out that none of the Huxtable children had any “serious problems with drugs, alcohol, pregnancy, school violence, police harassment or rape.” Ironically Debbie Allen, the sister of Phylicia Rashad, the actor who plays Claire, comes onto A Different World with the intention of confronting every one of these issues head on. She is concerned with realistic portrayals of black life. When Allen replaced Anne Beatts as producer, she was extremely vocal about what was wrong with the show, seemingly stopping short of saying that it was too much like The Cosby Show. Allen admitted to Jet magazine that she was asked to take over the show at a time when, “the cast was unhappy and the show was in shambles.” Furthermore she blamed “white scripts written for black characters.”5 The condition of the show when she came on board indicated the ineffectuality of simply extending The Cosby Show format to depict the college life of black co-eds.

Comedy writer Anne Beatts, who produced the first season of A Different World described her experience working on the show as “very, very difficult.” She goes on to elaborate, “As Bill (Cosby) had originally conceived the show, it was going to be [ a show] about a white girl at a black college and it became about a black girl going to a black college with a white friend, so the show was sort of off kilter about the concept from the jump.”6 Interestingly Beatts’ statement underscores her status as a white American woman hence she does not identify the show’s problem as its reluctance to explicitly state its blackness through indicators other than the presence of black characters. She was correct about the show being “off-kilter” however she was ostensibly mistaken about the reason.
As director and producer from the second to sixth seasons (as well as a key engineer of the changes the show would undergo), Allen said, “I have lived what Hillman is all about and it’s not about that high school stuff they were dealing with. College life is about young adults coming of age; their intellectual, political and sexual maturity and none of that was being dealt with.”7 The fact that the prominent HBCU, Howard University is Allen’s alum-mater played a significant role in her demand that A Different World reflect the authentic experiences of the African American students attending all-black colleges.

COMMODIFICATION OF ETHNICITY






Black feminism scholar, Patricia Collins Hill believes that, “Essential differences become commodified, marketed, consumed and eradicated... this not only strips it of its political meaning, but reformulates it merely as a matter of style.” 8 Television fits into this logic extremely since networks continue to look for and present the next new and different thing and present it to the public for consumption. When what is being marketed is no longer desired by the public or profitable it is yanked from the air or “eradicated”.

A Different World was created by NBC with the idea of sustaining the success that marketing blackness has achieved for them with The Cosby Show given that black faces on television were a successful venture, much in the same way that gender was traded on during the age of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and its spin-off Rhoda. Subordinate groups are unable to manipulate their own ethnic or cultural symbols. Hill asks us to “consider the commodification of difference in practices such as using kente cloth as part of the uniforms of KFC in selected African-American neighborhoods.” She also presents hybrid moniker “wigger” as it is applied to white youth who want to exhibit and experience the characteristics of hip-hop culture, but who reject the black people who how have constructed the culture. A more recent example of this phenomenon is how the film Slumdog Millionaire (2008) commodified Indian and Bollywood culture. Now the final dance sequence of the movie has inspired the creation of workout DVDs using Indian dance as the form of exercise. Whatever political or social meaning the dance may have held previously is reduced to merely a fun way to shed pounds.

As far as Brandon Tartikoff,(head of NBC’s Entertainment Division 1976-1991) was concerned, as long as the show was successful in rating things were copacetic. So what if the critics hated called it flat and uninspired? In 1988, Tartikoff complained that “numbers alone somehow don’t seem enough anymore at NBC” 9 in response to the unsavory critical response to A Different World. This leads one to believe that A Different World was a happy accident, an accident Debbie Allen used to provide the viewers with poignant and moving stories about slavery, apartheid, interracial dating, teen pregnancy and images of black women and men. People watching the show who expected to passively experience black culture through costume, set decorations and the occasional line of head snapping dialogue, instead had to sit up and pay attention. This allowed A Different World to transcend its own commodification in ways that other all-black cast sitcoms before it could not.

WHITLEY GILBERT







On playing Whitley Gilbert Jasmine Guy said:

There is definitely an upper, middle-class black echelon that Whitley represented that I didn’t realize at the time that has rarely has a voice on television or anywhere else... Whitley was fun to play because she was to me a fish out of water going to an all-black college. I always assumed she had gone to prep schools and had been a little isolated from her African-American culture. 10

Whitley Gilbert is complex character. She is a transitionary character whose evolution over the course of the series represents the elevation in black consciousness over the duration of the series. While talking about head writer of the series, Susan Fales-Hill, Guy called the character “autobiographical, even though Susan herself is not southern.” Hill was born to a famous Haiti-American mother, and wealthy entrepreneur father. According to Guy, “She brought the depth of being caught between worlds and having to negotiate as a very young person how and where you fit in with knowing French, and how to ride horses and nobody cares about that.”

Fales-Hill’s similarities to the Whitley character brought authenticity to the show in the same way that Debbie Allen’s research trips to black colleges to create a credible HBCU did. Fales-Hill’s ability to embrace whiteness and create a racially ambiguous character who identifies with white values was deft in is dual function of preventing white audiences from feeling alienated. Whitley’s character also allowed the show to comment on the ways in which these values were perceived and responded to by the black community. As a result, A Different World had rare depth and dimension for a twenty-one minute situational comedy.

Perhaps one of the most impressive feats of the show is that it was able to remain laugh-out-loud funny while simultaneously addressing incendiary topics. In an episode from season two, “To Have, To Have Not” Whitely is convinced by a faculty member, to become a volunteer at the local youth center. The kids who attend the center are underprivileged (Whitley calls them “needy”). While giving one of the children she had grown attached to a tour of the college she tells her friends:

Look deeper, ladies. Behind those dimples lies the face of urban blight. He and his entire family share two tiny airless rooms. He cooks all their meals for them and still has time for grade school! Makes me realize how truly self and spoiled we all really are.” 11

Her friend Kim’s response, “I’ll remember that next time you can’t get an appointment for your saline rub,” is a way of questioning the sincerity of her deeds and not allowing her to use the young boy to appease her momentarily guilty, rich conscience. The fact that one line of dialogue could serve as such a complex social commentary and be simultaneous hilarious is a credit to the show’s writers and reflects a true understanding of the dynamics between blacks from different classes.

In the final part of the same episode, Whitley is upset because her wallet has been stolen. She goes into a tirade saying, “You can’t expect that much from people like that...people in those neighborhoods, but if you grow up like that you’re bound to turn out a certain way.” Dwayne, Whitley’s boyfriend is angered by the remarks, stating how he grew up in the same neighborhoods and calls Whitley to task. As he is storming out the viewer logically assumes that he is leaving because he is offended, but when asked where he is going, he responds, “To the youth center, forgot to lock up my computer.” Not only does this provide the comic relief that is necessary after a scene fraught with such tension, it also shows the depth and dimension of the black consciousness. Dwayne is from a poor neighborhood and has empathy for that experience, yet still feels the need to be cautious.

Deracination, “the extent to which blacks feel alienated from their African heritage as well as from other blacks,” 12 is explored through Whitley’s character in the aforementioned episode, however A Different World, effectively illustrated how each black person struggles with deracination to some degree. Writer and creator of the term “hip-hop feminism,” Joan Morgan, admits:

Every time I heard African Americans speak horrid, broken English or I see a flash of gold teeth, public displays of Jheri-Curl caps, genital-holding, or big, gold door knocker earrings, I cringe. The hairs literally stand up on the back of my neck. I am fully award that indulging in such obvious feelings of elitism is regressive and borders on identification with “the oppressor.” I understand that, historically, politically and culturally, this system is designed for certain people to win and others to lose. I acknowledge that my education--private schools and Ivy League college has placed me in a very privileged, winning position. But I can’t help the way I feel. 13

The series reclaimed its blackness episode after episode by telling layered and realistic stories about blacks and aspects of black life that had been previously unexplored on network TV.


SCHOOL DAZE



Like Allen, Film director, Spike Lee, had also dedicated himself to telling truthful stories about black college life. 1986-1987, Spike Lee, wrote, directed and starred in the very controversial film, School Daze. The film showed attempted to show life at black colleges and some of the issues that are specific to that environment. In fact, the list of similarities to A Different World is extensive until we arrive at black audience reception. Most hated the film. In 1988 (the year the film was released) a film reviewer from the New York Times called Lee “angry” offering this synopsis, “This in Mr. Lee’s mind is a place whose population is sharply divided. For every light-skinned sorority girl there’s is a darker-skinned poorer, less artificially coiffed classmate who bitterly resents such aspirations.”14 Some blacks were so outraged by the film that Lee was barred from numerous speaking engagements. He had to finished filming the movie at Morris College since neither Spelman College nor Clark University in Atlanta (where he began) would allow him to finish shooting on their campuses. In their opinion he was giving HBCU’s a bad name.15 Jasmine Guy, who also starred in School Daze, said of the film’s main theme, colorism, “You know, no one other than black people knew there was a light-skin/dark-skin thing that goes on within the back community...It was just scandalous, our dirty laundry being aired in that way.”16 Many blacks shared the same sentiment. “We tend to want our history in the closet,” head writer on A Different World, Susan Fales- Hill, commented.

The first interesting synchronicity between School Daze and A Different World is that the exterior shots of A Different World’s fictitious Hillman College are at either Spelman College or Clark University. Furthermore, three of the A Different World’s principle characters, Kadeem Hardison, Jasmine Guy and Daryl M. Bell had roles in School Daze. It should also be noted that the film was release in the same year that A Different World made sweeping changes to reflect more explicitly black themes and become an unmistakable HBCU. The most paradoxical coincidence however, is that although A Different World dealt with identical issues, (colorism, intra-racial classism) their approach was much more well received by black audiences.

Perhaps Spike Lee just gave it to them too raw. It is interesting that having to operate within the parameters of television protocol and network surveillance, A Different World was able to deliver powerful episode like “Mammy Dearest” in which the issue of colorism and black female self-esteem are addressed, and “Pride and Prejudice” in which Whitley is so invested in her identity as a wealthy woman that she fails to see that she is being treated disrespectfully based on her skin color.

CONCLUSION

A Different World was groundbreaking for representations of black people on television. Its college setting made the exploration of topics like, date rape, domestic violence, racism and so many others appropriate and even necessary. Debbie Allen, Susan Fales-Hill and other creative and conscious African American voices behind the series recognized this and set in motion the changes necessary create a series that would come to define a generation young black adults. In spite of resistance from NBC A Different World subverted the commodification of ethnicity that it was created under and reclaimed power and responsibility for its images and messages.

A Different World laid the foundation for shows like Living Single and Girlfriends that also realistically portrayed professional black people who did not want to simply have a “sepia-colored American Dream.” A Different World’s success and longevity allowed these shows to be courageous enough to grapple with issues that specifically effected the black demographic. Though black television has experienced a dark age from the mid 1990s to present, I hope that through shows like A Different World being available and well-received on the internet, black TV will undergo a transformation and experience a renaissance in years to come.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Slow Down to Love




Yesterday morning I was walking my daughter to school as I do each day. We are often rushing, so this usually more closely resembles me nearly jogging as I pull her in tow than a leisurely walk. But I saw something today that caused me to put my breaks on--a man walking with his wife. The young woman was slightly bent over, walking extremely slowly and wincing in pain with every step. Immediately I was convicted and halted in my hasty steps. Looking up at me Sael asked, “What Mommy, what happened?” I felt a thought coagulating. My daughter is not ill or disabled, but she is a little person with much shorter legs than I have. Perhaps I should slow down. I then realized that this was not the first, but second time that I had encountered this same couple walking. The first time I held the apartment complex gate open as they slowly approached. She looked grateful in spite of her obvious discomfort. This time as I glance at them, he with briefcase in hand and patience in his countenance (her struggling to do a thing that nearly each of us takes for granted) I considered the fact that he must have had to give himself an extra half hour to an hour to make sure that he had adequate time to walk alongside his wife without making himself late for work. In that instant as I stood immobilized I saw this man as the epitome of devotion, patience and love.
I began to walk again. This time at Sael’s pace. I told her nothing at all was wrong and that I loved her. I let her pick up flowers and leaves, I answered her questions with care and detail and when we arrived at her school I reveled in my hug, kiss goodbye and, “I love you Mommy!”
Nowadays after dropping Sael off for school I go for a run. During my morning run I finally got it! Learning to slow down is learning to love better. This applies also to self-love. When I am taking my time, ordering my steps and creating peaceful spaces in my life through prayer, meditation, exercise and even making time to check up on family and friends, I am practicing love. When I take the time to prepare my food from scratch instead of eating out I am loving myself and my body rewards me by looking and feeling better. When I slow down enough to consider what I am about to say before I say it or think about the ways in which I may be at fault before being quick to place blame, I am loving others. When I allow my daughter to see that I have enough patience to let her take steps at her own pace, whether it is her learning process, letting her help me cook or leaving enough time for us to walk to school at a pace that is comfortable for her, I am loving her. I am grateful that God can allow a couple walking along my path to teach me a more direct and healthy path to giving love. I am grateful for the lesson that sometimes we must slow down to love.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Rohan vs. Ebert




In December of the year 2000, Roger Ebert issued an unfavorable review of the Coen brother’s eighth film, O Brother, Where Art Thou?” dismissing it as a “highly stylized” exercise in organized confusion with no unifying theme. It seems that Ebert’s discovery of the Coen’s failure to actually read “The Odyssey” has bristled the critic beyond the ability to eek out a fair assessment of the film. (Though given the Coen’s propensity to needle critics and stretch the truth, the voracity of this information is questionable.) That any film professional would have the myriad gems in this picture be lost on them is inconceivable, but this critic has. Calling it “one darn thing after another,” Ebert appears overwhelmed by the many powerful “images” and lets the technical brilliance of the film distract him from it’s social and allegorical significance. In purporting that there is no unifying theme present in O Brother, Where Art Thou,? Ebert misses the point entirely.
Upon viewing O Brother it emerges that seemingly disparate vignettes along the path of our hero Everett McGill’s (George Clooney) journey are purposefully selected to evoke the feelings of oppression, depression and desperation of the period juxtaposed with a spirit of resilience and burgeoning social change. An apt illustration of such a scenario is the Ku Klux Klan scene. The leader of the Klan says, “Them color guards is colored!” In this short and humorous line lies the Coen’s genius ability to satirize the social ills of whichever period they’ve endeavored to address. In this case it is the 1930’s American south. They are able to highlight the ludicrousness of the hateful organization. This is a theme that is shown at several other junctures in the film such as at the political rally when the angry politician stops the concert to spew racist doctrine . He climaxes to a shrill exacerbated scream, “These boys ain’t white! Hell, they ain’t even old timey!” The crowd looks on in disdain and annoyance at their Soggy Bottom Boys concert being interrupted. What the Coens are conveying to the viewer is the prevailing and unifying power of music versus the outdated attitudes of intolerance and segregation, using humor to underscore the nonsensical nature of the presented ideology. For Ebert this scene was all about the “false beard. Really false beards.”
O Brother reflects several common Coen themes: criticism of capitalist American society, ineffective law enforcement and government (symbolizing the need for change or reform), the championing of the underdog and the “American Dream” gone awry. When Ebert expresses, “...the story strands meet and separate as if the movie is happening mostly by chance and good luck...Although not one that inspires confidence that the narrative train has an engine,” he reveals his own failure to observe the intricacies of the film and how they intersect to form a piece of cinema rich in significance and hidden meaning.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? is to film what “The Odyssey” is to literature. It is rich in memorable imagery and can be talked about analytically for years after its publishing. Ebert believes that the film reads more like a collection of “lovely short films,” that never manage to successfully form a whole movie. His foundation for this argument is “The Odyssey” was never intended to be experienced in once sitting, but rather read in separate episodes. Ebert gets caught up in the literal translation of the epic poem thus severing his ability to connect with the brilliance of the Coen’s adaptation or recognize the amount of substance contained within the film.
A prevalent issue of the 1930’s south is race relations. The Coens find a way to integrate this into their entire story. As the escaped convicts are traveling down the road, they see a black man walking along. Pete (John Turturro) suggests to his comrades, “Let’s pick up that colored boy by the road.” This is another simple, yet poignant example how the Coen’s have embedded the theme of social change into O Brother. It is not probable that such a gesture happened often in real 1930’s American, however, the Coen’s have included it as a part of their examination and rewriting of Americana to signify a necessary shift in race relations in the United States during that time. As a seasoned critic, it would have served Ebert well to exhibit an understanding that such pieces of script were not arbitrarily constructed, but carefully weaved into the plot to imbue the story with a significance that could be discussed for ages to come like its inspiration, “The Odyssey.”
The Coens are given to exposing the evils of big business and the “Establishment” in their films and O Brother is no different. Even the plight of our protagonist is a statement on the corrupting nature of capitalist values and the love of money. Everett and his escaped buddies encounter random situations, though many have a common thread (and is this dynamic not in keeping with road trips and the road trip genre)? The first acknowledgment to be made is that the three men are chasing a treasure that does not exist and end up forging an extremely close bond by the end of the film. Here loyalty trumps material possession. Even once the men find out the treasure is a farce, they continue to follow their friend.
Conversely the men in this film are who greedy and gluttonous end up losing their fame, money or lives. When Everett McGill and his band of escaped criminals happen upon a crooked bible salesman (John Goodman) he is shown in a subsequent scene being crushed by a burning cross. There are many such instances in O Brother, when we realize that we are experiencing the playful, yet jarring jolt of the American filmmakers calling certain aspects of the dominant culture in their society into question.
Ebert does not completely negate the effectiveness of the Coen film. He merely dismisses it as a work which encompasses and promotes the unique skill set of the filmmaking duo, but essentially calls the film empty, complaining, “I had the sense of invention set adrift, of a series of bright ideas wondering why they had all been invited to the same film.” Indeed, many “bright ideas” are “invited” to this film, but unlike Ebert suggests, they all have a very necessary reason for being introduced in the same film. They are importance slices of American Pie that are melded together to bring attention to the social strife and financial despair of the Mississippi during the Great Depression.
The most important “bright idea” that is mostly overlooked by the critic is the soundtrack for O Brother Where Art Thou? The music for the film is a collection of bluegrass and blues that is an as much a character as our hero and his fellow escapees. For Ebert the music only warrants a one line mention recognizing that it is, “at the heart of the film as it was of Bonnie and Clyde.” After starting a comparison that leads to nowhere, Ebert trails off, also leaving incomplete the ostensible importance that music has on this film. When The escaped convicts records a song together along with Tommy Johnson, “the colored boy” they’ve pick up along the way (who has sold his soul to the devil for perfect guitar chops akin to the tale of real life bluesman, Robert Johnson) as The Soggy Bottom Boys. The product is magical. Although in the company of some serious contenders, “A Man of Constant Sorrow” contains the story’s heart, feeling, intensity, and even spiritual confusion, and blind faith within one song. It is hard to understand how one can write a review without ever mentioning it. Ebert loosely refers to the tune, erroneously calling the band of singers “The Soggy Mountain Boys.” Again, he misses the point, putting emphasis instead on the false beards they don at their impromptu concert instead of adequately recognizing the unifying effects of the music.
Critic Roger Ebert is often inconsistent in his film criticism and analysis. He loves Fargo and rightly so, however, to recognize such film genius in one instance and have it go over his head in the next can be slightly damaging to his credibility as a film professional. O Brother, Where Are Thou? is a film that begs a close examination and parsing much in the same way that a dense literary text full of metaphor and allusion does. A surface level enjoyment can be gleaned from the sheer beauty of its imagery, soundtrack and cinematography, but for the full Coen experience one must dig slightly deeper to uncover subsequent layers of significance. This cinematic masterpiece is so meticulously constructed that it takes a dedicated viewer and perhaps several sittings to fully appreciate the scope of the Coen brother’s genius at work in this film.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Precious Perspective

Disclaimer: Following the election of President Obama there has been a flurry of discussion in the media, on campuses and in private circles about The United States of America being “post racial.” During the consumption of this chapter, please keep in mind that in no way, shape, form or fashion do I believe this is true. Not for a moment. I believe quite the opposite, which is that the appointment of a black president has generated a hostility that has not been adequately addressed by the public or the media. However, that is a topic for another book. Still, I am not naive to the fact that skewed race politics still occupy a strong presence in our society.



I loved Precious. Being a film geek, I anxiously awaited the critical response to the film, but the banter amongst the general movie-going public was entertaining enough to tide me over until I was able to read something more substantial and informed. Many people were opposed to seeing the film, and it seems that for every person who has seen it, there are two who refuse. Mentally, I began to construct my own review. I love this film because it is brazen and unapologetic. It is raw in its indictment of class and the broken educational system in the inner city. The acting was inspired, authentic and resonant. Although I squirmed in my seat at certain junctures, I ultimately could not hate on a movie that confronted the most stigmatized and concealed form of abuse in our society, quite artfully I’d be remiss to not add.
There are the older black critics, who referred to the film as scandalous, exploitative, a spectacle, embarrassing, wretched, outrageous, a “Klanman’s fantasy,” “celebrity-endorsed self-pity” and a slew of other melodramatic adjectives to characterize Lee Jones’ sophomore project. I began to wonder why. Why is it that when I discuss this film with my peers a completely different vibe is projected? Those who bothered to watch it, (to this day people are telling me that such a depressing film is not their idea of a fun movie watching experience, but that strong and widespread resistance to the movie is aptly being addressed in another chapter of this anthology) were accepting of the movie. If they disliked it, this was not a result of them taking umbrage at the race politics of Precious. The reasons had more to do with not wanting to spend their money to have their mood severely altered over the course of two hours. Those, however, were the anomalies--the nearly unanimous sentiment was that Precious was dope. For several reasons. The number one reason being its ability to facilitate an engaging national discussion about social and filmic and artistic topics.
Incidentally, I had been thinking about Precious and anticipating its release way before my friends. This is because Che Patterson, a filmmaker friend of mine called me immediately after the screen of the film to rant about how amazing this movie was and how it was going to win a truckload of awards. After learning the plot I was admittedly curious about how a film teeming with so much despair and depravity could manage to be good without seeming overwrought and over-the-top melodramatic--as if the director was piling on the pain and tragedy for shock value.” Che convinced me that the film was artfully executed with flawless performances and worthy of the Grand Prize and Jury awards that it received by the end of the festival. That said, my anticipation was at freakish levels by the time I was able to see the film myself. After seeing the movie and reading the critical response, it became obvious how Jim Crow fear and a reluctancy to air the black communities “dirty laundry,” has played a significant role in the interpretation of Daniels’ interpretation of Push: A Novel by Sapphire.



DON’T BE CONCERNED WITH WHAT OTHERS THINK, BE AN INDIVIDUAL

Young blacks children of my generation were encouraged to be individuals. It has occurred to me that while scores of black parents strive to impart this lesson to their children, the principle has been lost on the black community as a whole. My parents viewed this preoccupation with people’s opinions as a weakness. There is a strong connection between this and the self-conscious preoccupation with what people think about blacks. Critics like Armond White and Ishmael Reed project a preoccupation with what people think about “us” (blacks) a self-conscious desire to not expose our “dirty laundry” to American society as a whole. I suspect that this old Jim Crow fear masquerading as black pride. It’s weak.
When White says in his piece “Pride and Precious” that Precious “raises ghost of ethic fear” he likely thought that he was solidifying his stance that the movie is patronizing “race hysteria.” The hysteria more rightfully belongs to the demographic of older blacks who cling to their expired fears about what the white man will think about them. He was spot on, but these ghosts more aptly describe the crusty black fear that white people’s opinions of them will result in a weakening of equality, discrimination and a compromised social status--Jim Crow fear.
This is the same fear that spawned a conversation between my grandmother and I a few years back. Usually when I come to visit she makes it her business to point out a new zit, several gained pounds or a blouse that is cut too low. On this particular visit my afro was the offending party. “Why you wear your hair like that?” I was taken aback by the inquiry and not sure how to respond.
“Ummm... because I like it like this?” The response was more of a question than an affirmative answer. I knew that I liked wearing my hair naturally, but was unsure about where this discussion was headed. When she answered with, “Well white folk don’t like them types of styles. You ought to get a perm or something,” I was sure that the conversation had landed in some parallel universe. Had my grandmother just suggested, in the year 2003, that I modify my hairstyle to avoid offending “white folk?” I was appalled at my grandmothers words. My reaction to her comments was not unlike my reaction to the reviews of Precious by Armond White and Ishmael Reed. Each of their essays seemed fueled by an undercurrent of hostility toward any blacks who were exhibiting a desire to shed the responsibility of representing a pristine Black America to the largely white public.

THIS IS AN AUTUER’S FILM...NOT A BLACK FILM.
Truthfully, I am of the opinion that art is like love--it covers a multitude of sin. Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, for example, depicts moments of extreme violence, sexual deviance and what critics interpreted as a harsh indictment of youth culture at the time. Despite being extremely controversial with similarly disturbing imagery as Precious,(in one scene his it is now recognized as one of the most masterfully crafted movies in film history. Films often reflect the societal climates from which they emerge. Interestingly, A Clockwork Orange has many parallels with Precious. Both films depict a sort of dystopian society (or segment of society in Precious’ case). In Kubrick’s 1971 masterpiece, Alex, like Precious lives in a housing project. The society that he lives in is plagued with “ultra-violence.” Like the Harlem neighborhood that Precious lives in Kubrick’s London focuses on a class of poor, welfare-supported youth. The film serves as a cultural criticism of the scapegoating of youth culture much in the same way that Precious indicts the failing education system in the inner city, classism, and the welfare system. Film scholar, Chris Berg contends that, “when A Clockwork Orange resonates it does so because social breakdown and socialist decay are very real features of western European states today.” This is a valuable insight in the discussion of Precious since Precious resonates with the black community much in the same way that A Clockwork Orange continues to resonate with victims of broken socialist dystopias. Precious connects with victims and perpetrators of the heinous offenses shown in the film. I am certain that some of the adverse reactions from the older member in the black community can be attributed to having these hurtful wounds reopened. Truth hurts.
The film Panther (also based on a novel) was released shortly after Rodney King was beaten to a bloody pulp by the LAPD in March of 1991, an event which catalyzed the race riots of 1992. It is arguably the mounting racial tension in the early 1990s that inspired Mario Van Peebles to release a film about the Black Panther Party at this time. However, some films are simply a filmmaker’s vision or personal pet-project. Not all filmmaker are preoccupied with consciously reflecting their societal climates.
Lee Daniels is such a director. Daniels may strike a few sore spots, but to a 25 year-old viewer of the film, malice against his own race would be the last notion to come to mind. It is doubtful that Daniels even considered his film a “black movie.” There are scenes borrowed from My Private Idaho (Gus Van Sant) and the Neoclassicist hit, Two Women (Vittorio De Sica) as well as themes borrowed from Female Troubles (John Waters). Critic, Jim Emerson even goes so far as to call it a “virtual remake.” While I do not support that extreme interpretation, I can say with certainty that Daniels employs many film conventions established by pioneers of European art film movements. When I look at Precious I see the self-conscious navel-gazing that screams “Look at me! I’m an auteur! It is the same self-aggrandizement that Jean-Luc Godard made famous during the French New Wave in movies like Breathless and Pierrot Le Fou.
I also see in Precious, numerous references to pop culture icons--also a New Wave convention. Daniels clearly has a profound film education and like his mentor, Spike Lee, he uses as many cinematic moments as possible to make his audience aware of this fact. I would have to disagree with essayist, Armond White, and suggest that Daniels is much less of a “shrewd pathology pimp” than he is a film snob. When Ishmael Reed got his boxers in a bunch over the high praise of the indie blockbuster on the film festival circuit, it was not because white audiences enjoyed seeing blacks “shown as incestors and pedophiles” as he suggested. The real and much less cynical reason for Precious’ art movie house success is a bunch of film nerds, such as myself, recognized Daniels’ allusions to French and Italian art films, the gritty, abstract cinematography and Oscar-worthy performances. Through this lens, the notion of a room full of whites gobbling up the depravity on the screen as “racist slop” making them feel more justified in their racist assumptions, seems far-fetched, dramatic and not the least bit erroneous.
My friend Che (who was in actual attendance at the film festival, thus capable of making an accurate statement about the composition of the audience) has a very different profile than the people Reed claims populated the theaters at the Sundance Film Festival in 2009. For starters, he is black--a young black man who refuses to even listen to music that uses the N-word in the same room with white folks. Not only was he not offended by Precious, he as able to appreciate it. This can be attributed to the years he spend studying film theory and aesthetics--he was able to recognize that this film was the execution of a filmmaker’s vision. An artistic journey. A conversation with my outspoken friend shed some serious light on the generational division this movie continues to engender.
Me: So, why do you like it?
Che: I thought it was brilliant. It is very important to make the viewer step into the shoes of the protagonist. I think that always makes an effective film. That's what makes Requiem [Requiem for a Dream (Darren Aronofsky) ] so great because you really feel what the characters are going through. At the end of the day I'm not going to think about the plight of an illiterate black teen, but if you can make me think about her for two hours and want her to win by the end of the story, I’m sold. That’s quality filmmaking.
Me: You don’t think that it is in the least bit exploitative? What is your answer to critics like Armond White who called Precious a “con-job” a “sociological horror-show” and racist cliche propaganda?
Che: Sure, it's gory, salacious [and] over the top. Film is someone's personal take on a story. Just because there are things in it that make you uncomfortable doesn't The things that make people uncomfortable are what makes it a great film. Good art is supposed to move you!

Me: What about his taking issue with Precious fantasizing about having a white boyfriend?
Che: Anyone who doesn't like the way that's portrayed has a problem with reality. The movie is abrasive and raw but you know what? That's life.
Me: Ishmael Reed, felt that black men were being slighted in the film, saying that Carl is “a vile prop. A person with no story and no humanity”?
Che: He's acting like he doesn't know 20, 30, 40,50 people who don't know their father. People want to act like this doesn't exist. Bad black fathers are an epidemic. So don't complain when someone makes a movie about it when you can take a rock and hit someone in the black community whose father is lock up, abusive or just not around.

How weak are we to let one film define what people are saying about us a a culture?

Mr. Reeds unwillingness to part with his resentment toward the vilification of blacks, specifically the black male, has set him way off-base in his interpretation of the reactions to Precious. I would argue that Precious is unconcerned with race politics or exploiting the black community, and more concerned with being counted amongst contemporary and acclaimed art cinema. It wants to embody the campiness of a Pedro Almodovar film, the gritty social criticism of a Spike Lee film, and the ability to draw the performances from its actors in the same way that Sidney Lumet (Dog Day Afternoon) or Scorsese can. The artistic aspects of the film are being overlooked by a demographic of older black critics and moviegoers, who prefer to vilify Precious because they refuse to let go of an expired compulsion to scour all media images of blacks for unfair representation and stereotypical treatment of character.
On a surface level, I am against this antiquated approach to dissecting the film because I suspect it encourages the production of boring-ass, sanctimonious, unadventurous and trite black cinema like, The Great Debaters, Akeelah and the Bee, and any pretty much any Tyler Perry flick--choose one. Black filmmaking 101:
Story must have a happy ending
Alcoholics, abusers, and all other degenerates must be peripheral characters. If they happen to be main characters, they must get their lives together in enough time for the happy ending, which usually takes place in church.
Nine times out of ten, they are comedies. If they are not comedies, they generally suck. This unfortunate phenomenon cannot be because black filmmakers are any less skillful than directors of other ethnicities. My conjecture is that they are instead hemmed in by a set of unwritten rules that result in the conspicuous limitation of artistic range and the creation of often drab and contrived cinema.
On a more substantive level, I take issue with this vantage point because it compromises one’s ability to participate in a rational discussion of the film. More detrimental is the distraction it creates. It is precisely what enables writer, Cecil Brown to say something as nonsensical as “Carl (the incestuous rapist) is the real victim of the movie.” I think that Brown is so blinded by his misogynistic hostility, he is clearly the victim here. Calling a man who rapes his own daughter a victim is most likely not what he intended. A victim of residual Jim Crow fear, he appears to have lost the use of his most simple reasoning faculties. What has happened to Precious in this discussion? Into a world of testosterone soaked race politics, she has all, but disappeared. Reed says that this is “the worst depiction of black life yet done.” That statement devalues all the people who watched the film and saw huge chunks of their lives on the screen. Actor and comic Monique (mother Mary in the film), revealed that her brother molested her when she was 7 years old--an offense which her parents swept under the rug. The article a long list of reader responses including this woman’s comment expressing frustration with blacks’ historic refusal to air our dirty laundry:
“This is the fate that will and has befallen many a black child and especially black female children in our communities. I can't tell you how many black sisters I've come in contact with that suffered sexual abuse at the hands of bio-fathers [biological fathers], brothers, uncles, cousins, grandfathers, etc. But to let black folks tell it, "We" don't do stuff like that, that's ol’ nasty white folk stuff.
I say, tell it, Monique, and never stop telling it. Every sister that has suffered sexual abuse please tell it!.For the sake of our precious little black girls everywhere--tell, tell, tell, tell, tell it!”

This woman, as well as a myriad others who commented on the Essence article, expressed their strong desire to remove the muzzles of community sanctioned silence and step out of the shadows of shame into a conversation about the abuse that happens far more often than is admitted, reported or discussed. In a commentary on the film,Essence Magazine blogger, Dr. Janet Taylor admitted her initial reluctance to watch Precious, but ultimately praised its ability to realistically tell the story of an incest survivor. “In the black community, we tend to keep our secrets held tightly to our chests, without realizing that secrets are meant to be dislodged,” Taylor tells Essence.com readers. “All of these sickening exposures may remain underreported because of guilt and shame from the victim and their witnesses.” Dr. Taylor reveals that up to 20 million Americans have been victioms of parental incest in childhood. That staggering statistic alone is enough to make Precious a universal tale. She goes on to say “It is also presumed that the prevalence of incest in black families is a bigger issue than athorities are aware of because of our own protection of ‘family business’ [or what I have been calling “dirty laundry”], a fear of legal consequences and the minimization of active complaints to social services because of instituional racism with a tendency for some workers to brush complaints off.” Both Monique and Tyler Perry went public with their accounts of sexual abuse. Black celebrities coming forth can be an important catalyst for increasing the exposure of these terrible sufferings. Precious serves as the same. During her ascetic and brief return to the music world, Lauryn Hill told us these wise words: “fantasy is what we want, but reality is what we need.”
With influential cultural critics like Ishmael Reed spouting his superfluous and counterproductive rhetoric, we move away from progression and the hopes of having a useful conversation about sexual abuse and the silence in which it is enshrouded. Our generation wants healing, not hiding.

DOING THE WASH
With all this healing to do, why do older generations seem determined to have a pointless discussion about black men being demonized in media (which by the way has been happening for years and is not likely to stop anytime soon)? I am not saying that these dynamics do not exist or that they aren’t hurtful at times. And it is not that my peers and I are not are insensitive to the numerous inequities out of which this paranoia was born. I often speak on how I am grateful to not have been born during Jim Crow era or the civil rights movement. I recognize how difficult these period were for blacks in the United States, and I am grateful for the struggle that has afforded my generation the opportunities that we have.
My generation is grateful, but not interested in following in these footsteps. Nor are we interested in being invisible. Instead of stuffing our dirty laundry into an overflowing basement, we want to do the wash, tackle the stains and get rid of what no longer fits. We were raised in the spirit of individuality and diversity training--in an era where “keep it real,” “real talk” and “it is what it is” have become a ubiquitous part of our lexicon and a black man can and has become president. The grew up in a time when nobody talked about being homosexual especially in high school. When I was growing up, many of the gay kids were born out of the closet. By age 15 they were proudly kissing their girlfriends and boyfriends in the halls of my Connecticut high school. Black students mixed freely with the white ones and cliques who lived in the rich section of our town and could afford to wear real Tommy Hillfiger and Nautica than someone’s ethnicity. Precious was welcomed into to my generation with open arms because we are the adult products of a hypersensitive and culturally respectful period in history. Now we are individuals, unwilling to let any leader, film, entertainer or media outlet (BET comes to mind) be our mouthpiece. The stigmas and embarrassments of our parents generation are things that we are willing air out. Coming of age in a self-help explosion drove home the golden tenet of recovery: There can be no healing if there is not first acknowledgement.



WHERE IS THE UNILATERAL UMBRAGE?
My generation is quick to dismiss rationalizations that do not make sense. We watch Myth Busters and peruse websites like snopes.com, politico.com, factcheck.org, and thesmokinggun.com attempting debunk things that do not meet with scrape against our sensibilities. Perhaps this is why when I arrived at the part of Armond White’s commentary on Precious in which he touted Norbit, Little Man and The Ladykillers as “excellent recent films with black themes,” I called bullshit on the entire article. This may seem harsh, but “excellent?” I’m convinced that even someone without the same film background as me, would be hard-pressed to find merit in yet another film that has Eddie Murphy in a fat suit. The Coen brothers’ box office failure (with good reason) The Ladykillers was a veritable pastiche of the most trite ethic stereotypes there are. (Marlon Wayan’s Quote here) And as bad as those films are, what confused me most was his praise of the Wayans’ buffoonery, Little Man which portrays a grown-assed black man as a baby! If this is not an insult to the agency of the black man, I’m not sure what is. So how has Precious ended taking the flack? This section of the article murdered White’s credibility to discuss the film Precious within any boundaries of reason. I read the remainder of the article with jaundiced eyes wondering about real reason why he hated Precious so.
The real problem is that there is no balance. Precious should not have been forced to stand alone as the only representation of black life, as it were. The content of the film is not nearly as problematic as the is underrepresentation of blacks in mainstream media. We see whites on television and in film as addicts, ruling the world, being wealthy, being poor--the whole gamut. The Eurocentric film and television industry does not demand the examination and discussion about the unfair ways in which whites are being represented. Because of this limited representation, the desire to have the slight amount of media that is released about blacks to be positive and uplifting is understandable. Yet, I still contend that when played out, this principle creates a body of films that are conspicuously controlling the images of blacks when they should be just concerned with telling real stories that resonate with people. Positive or negative. People who are offended and find themselves in the financial position to support and create projects that sit more comfortably with them should do so. The newer generations understand the importance of an individualistic artistic vision.


A cultural shift in the way that films like Precious are received by young black Americans has taken place. Being raised in the spirit of individualism (as opposed to our parents and their parents who like my grandmother were told advised to blend in) we recognize that Precious is just one perspective and who isn’t entitle one of those? My generation is further removed from the politics of the Civil Rights Movement, Jim Crow, Reagan Era. We do not have as many firsthand experiences of racist treatment, leaving us less likely to interpret films like Precious as cynically. My sister-friend Dinae watched the film, called me immediately afterwards and said, “This isn’t a black movie. It’s a movie about a girl who gets crazy abused, but those girls come in all different colors.” As products of a generation of diversity training, hyper-political correctness and cultural sensitivity we are more inclined to consider ourselves members of universal community. We want to let Precious exist on the screen because she exists in our world, in the black community and beyond. It is art and it has the right to be here. As black artists we do not need to apologize for the art that we create because ultimately, “It is what it is.”

Friday, February 26, 2010

The Brooklyn Connection




Everyone is leaving. What does this mean for me? It certainly means inevitable endings. All around me circles are closing, rings finish and roll on out into history finding finality behind me. In the short term it means I get away. Take a trip somewhere. I chose Brooklyn.

When I hear her song it both moves me and inspires jealousy. I'm not that good anymore maybe never was. It's like one talent suffers, wanes, pales and sputters last words as another develops new life. I crave dexterity, want to keep all those balls in the air, but I drop them all like a constant novice. Words acquired, then forgotten, inspiration kindles and swells, then Dead and Rotten. Vacillations between anger, sympathy, resentment, guilt and love plague me and surround this little one. I wonder what his daydreams are like, or if he has them at all. Can he feel sparks, circuits shorting, catalyzing impulses. When he jumps on me, knees first, his beautiful face inches from mine, I do not feel the pain.

I just see love buried in his eyes and curling up around his lips, resting in the rhythmic way he nestles his mohawked head into my armpit. I have that "Motherly Scent," Bashira tells me. He removes items from my lap, a book, my hat, a cd... and replaces them with his head. Just then my own child comes to mind.

Should she be along with me? Guilt. Always guilt. Guilt, overcompensation, burn-out, anger, and resentment, then more guilt (in that order). But I'm always with her. I suspect she needs a break from me too, so she's at Chuck E. Cheese and mama is at a cafe in Brooklyn.

Choice Market to be exact, where several patrons have just witnessed a youth of approximately fourteen years circle the corner a few times then finally snatch the satchel of a bruncher. She was inside ordering a latte and brioche. Inside his mind, he’s Robin Hood, robbing from the rich (they afford overpriced coffee beverages and pastries he can neither spell nor pronounce) and giving to the poor. HIMSELF. The NYPD show up within minutes of receiving the frantic, guilt-ridden call of the boyfriend who was supposed to be watching the pilfered goods, but was instead engrossed in a conversation about a sale on hiking goods at a camping boutique in Ft. Greene.

The police vehicle screeches dramatically to the corner of the scene of the crime, smoke rising from behind its wheels. Everyone including the fat baby with the runny nose and purple leggings looked. “Which way did he go?” The cop yells. “What was he wearing?” The plaid shirt clad boyfriend turns and points up the street.
“He wore a black hoodie and black jeans. He was riding a little blue bike with black handle bars.” No race description provided, none asked for. Was it a given that the criminal was black or was this political correct exchange a product of our assumed post-racial society?
Latte-sipping patrons look on, relieved it wasn’t them. They cracks jokes and say things like “I hope they find it.” One man wonders if the contents of the bag he lifted would be an even compensation for the bike the culprit discarded on a fancy street during his flight from the corner cafe.

I began to contemplate the contents of this bag. A wallet most certainly, probably an iPod (this is always the most heart rending and painful item to part with). “It’s so personal, like looking at someone’s bookshelf,” Bashira says.
“Or like flipping through a photo-album,” I add. Phone, keys, maybe some gum, birth control pill pack, tampons, possibly a stick of natural deodorant--the kind you wear for an hour then wind up funky for the rest of the day. Give me my chemicals over B.O any day.

The reaction of these people was most unusual. It was that of a demographic guilty of gentrification. There was a certain amount of “Oh well” in the atmosphere. Sort of like this the cost of usurping unsavory neighborhoods and bringing in fancy strollers and handbags. This was the price to be paid for attempting to stretch cramped Manhattan into resistant, neighboring boroughs. The fourteen year old fled on foot like a deer victim of urbanization flees back into his natural habitat, the forest. Should he be held to account for his petty and onerous attempts at survival?

In some humorous twist of irony, the victim, a hipster with freckles and a greasy head of lifeless brown hair, who spoke with an Irish lilt, stood holding the handle bars of the abandoned get away vehicle (which the cops had recovered and brought back to the crime scene) ...as if it were a barter.

In Brooklyn overpriced strollers are the status symbol Du Jour. Gentrification brought hipsters and the over-privileged spilling in droves, into Biggie Smalls’ old neighborhood, where they erected shi-shi, fru-fru boutiques, cafes, galleries and gently-used clothing stores pedaling the formally owned, exorbitantly tagged wares of the yuppies for a mere fraction of their original damage. I buy Sael two dresses.

Weekenders pushed $800 Bugaboos, Quinny’s and a myriad other European baby buggies, sipped 1000-calorie coffee concoctions and wore Keen footwear. Then a fourteen year-old comes in all black and steals one of their purses. Welcome to the dark side of gentrification.

But enough of that and back to the boy. At home on the Flatbush brownstone’s second floor, he flails around and screams. Piercing screams, much to his mother’s dismay.

“AAAAYYYEEEEEEE”, “OOOHOOOOWHOOOOOHOO” calls the boy as if he were fascinated with the sound of his own voice. He seems to be testing the limits of his vocal range, seeing if each yell could be louder than the last. “Shut up!” his mother screams.I scan my mind for solutions. More frustration. Autistic children refused to have their woes quelled with promises of treats, story time, fun movies, trips to amusement parks, or McDonald's. Hers were the vain commands of the futile. The exasperated pleading of a mother who has had too much.

“I have to move back to Philly,” she sighs. I nod and look up at the ceiling, knowing she will not.

I love the boy, but flinch nervously when he approaches guarding my breasts and other soft parts. I think he smells my fear. You know...like dogs do? Instead of attacking me, though, he retreats. My heart sinks. What can I do to help? The entertaining of that notion doesn’t last long. Instead I sequester myself and my electronic belongings in a quieter section of the apartment. A sitting room with bay windows, walls the color of store brand vanilla ice cream and faded burgundy carpet. It has just been cleaned the night before so I sleep on it comfortably until I wake up to see a few roaches skittering across the wall and what I’m guessing is a flea from the way it bounced along the baseboard. Gizmo, the mother’s ex-girlfriend’s cat, gives herself a bath, squints her eyes at me and turns around placing her butt an undesirable distance from my face. I frown and rollover. From the other room I hear the beautiful boy jumping on the bed. His mother bellows at the top of her lungs “STOP!” He will not.

This Brooklyn day began beautiful. I woke early, stretched out and went back to sleep. I had bizarre dreams that I can no longer remember. I sat on the stoop and watched a different world unravel before me. I even took a few pictures (see above) I wish I had a spliff--just a small thing...

A woman walking by stops to ask me if the house behind the stoop I’m perched on in my pajamas has any rooms for rent. “I’m sorry, no” I blurt out, immediately regretting not going to find out. Guilt...

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Ode to Ladybugs

I pluck, pluck in disgust.
I can’t get rid of you fast enough.
And to think some folks see you and think luck
I see you and think, “oh fuck. More ladybugs in my bathroom.”
To me you’re nothing more than a critter, a pest, an infestation
Crawling along the handle of my toothbrush, landing in my bath water

And who knew that you weren’t just red but puke yellow and dirt brown too?
Some with no dots some with just two. Well, your luck has run out
because I know the truth.
Before I’d go “awwwww” and let you crawl on my hand
showing my little girl that you are harmless.
That was before I started hating you for the ink blots that you are.

It’s the dead of winter, I open my window to let steam roll out--
18 of you drop in like uninvited guest, but like I said
You’re no friends just pest and no longer is your life protected.
I used to be your biggest advocate
now I collect you and your buggy brethren,
With your asthma and allergy inducing tendencies
and dispense with you.
Looking all cute and innocent will no longer help you.
I’m spending more of my time washing you down the drain
scrubbing your stains from my counter than the primping I came do.

I’m washing you down with scalding water to make sure you don’t come back.
I’m letting a few of you out alive to spread the message to your cohorts.
You are not welcome here.

The thought leaves a film of guilt on me and I cannot feel properly vindicated.

When I was five I thought you were magical.
You crawling gingerly over the picnic blanket spread for my birthday party.
My friends equally naive to your malice, spreading your lore.

But I’m grown now ladies and I want you out.

So I pluck, pluck in disgust.
Place large objects upon you,
hot water wash you down drains
and long for the piece(peace) of my youth
that believed wholeheartedly in your innocence.