Sunday, July 18, 2021

High Value Nonsense

Please tell me, that in this year of our Lord 2021, we are not still dealing with the ashy opinions of folks who make their living advising others how to achieve relationship goals on social media. Especially if that person has no legitimate counseling expertise and s/he is dispensing advice from the front seat of their car or a poorly lit bedroom.

I don't know any of their names. I scroll on by as soon as I see somebody looking straight into their camera phone without blinking. Because that is the first clue--someone who is on camera solo, sitting in their driveway or parked outside in some parking lot (wearing a seat belt) to record some cell phone video. Do their partners ever make cameo appearances or do you just assume it is the person displayed in that picture frame on the bookshelf in the background? And why do many of the videos begin with this disclaimer: Look, I don't have much time to talk, but I just wanted to say...(and then go on to post for 10 minutes)!

Mind you, there are exceptions to this rule. The comedian Kev On Stage used to deliver daily commentary from his car, and look at him now! Guest starring on A Black Girl's Sketch Show and issuing disavowals in support of Black women being mistreated on his social media. And of course there is Tabitha Brown, who has been smiling, making avocado toast, and reminding us all that nice Southern ladies use their words, not shanks, to inflict bodily harm.

But generally, y'all need to be more discerning.

A few weeks ago, someone posted a video* in a Facebook group that featured some guy who was debating a woman about her dating prospects. Midway through the argument he threw out the term "high value man", and then I think I went deaf and possibly blinded by rage. He made a few other erroneous claims about women not taking on intellectual or physically demanding jobs, so naturally I was done listening, but then a few youngins' in the group chimed in to co-sign on that foolishness. And I could not just scroll by and let that ignorance go unchallenged. 

* not the actual video, but a spoof

I do not understand this stubborn strain of modern chauvinism that y'all have adopted, so what the entire huh? Who is raising you and are they proud of you? By the way, I am not exclusively addressing that question to men since there are plenty of women who agree with this booshay. At first I thought it was just that one thread, but come to find out there is an entire YouTube congregation of believers that follow this mindset. And they appear to be actively recruiting more sheep into the fold.

(Caveat: I read various takes on the "high value man", and need to emphasize that I am calling out the specific trash take that comes for Black women. Another thread I saw made a list of qualities that had less to do with earnings and more to do with personal character, so there are multiple perspectives.)  

After one sister addressed the ashyness of the high value misogynoir cult on Twitter, it reminded me that I have already written a PSA about these man-babies y'all need to avoid, but I guess the time has come for me to offer a broader warning. Because I don't care if the person is my Sister-Soror on a perpetual pro-patriarchy crusade or some dude dressed in a three-piece suit or some brother in a dashiki and a kente kufi or Wendy Williams still bitter from her divorce, you cannot take relationship advice from everybody. As one of my friends said, if the person who is offering the advice claims to be anything other than a therapist, an image consultant for example, that could mean that they work at the Men's Warehouse. They know how to package a brother to look like good, but so does an undertaker.

Therefore, if I ever start spouting off what you should or should not do in order to attract or keep a man, you know that I am either writing under duress or my Kid is playing with my phone. Sure, I am confident enough in my years of married wisdom to tell you that there are certain red flags you might need to avoid, and I have been known to give solicited one-on-one personal advice. But I know my lane and what is in my bank account. So short of me urging you to start a bail fund, that's all I got. Therefore, in the form of a disclaimer, what follows are my personal opinions.

The concept of people being of high value begs the question of whether there are people of low value. I assume that is the image consultant way of describing people with wealth, but also of more worth. As in, if they call themselves a person of high value, then they must think of their lives as being worth more, and as such, they are a superior human being. They don't do things for others unless it is worth something to them. They don't associate with people who cannot improve their standing. All of their human interactions are transactional. They have children who probably hate them, but they want Mom/Dad's money so they feign love and respect. Their partner is someone who doesn't complain because they don't wish to be replaced.  

Perhaps he fancies himself as some reincarnated Hugh Hefner. But more than likely, he is some under-employed slickster living a double life which is why he is shooting this video from the car. He is waiting for the midweek girlfriend to come home from work, or for one of his baby mamas to arrive with the kids for a weekend hand-off in the fast food parking lot. He knows all the tricks of the trade because this is his latest hustle. Or perhaps she aspires to be one of the vapid women who makes her living by keeping up appearances on reality television. It certainly looks like a glamorous life, living with a self-proclaimed high value man who never comes home. She is an expert on reinventing herself because she aspires to be a Proverbs 31/Book of Ruth/woman at the well who faithfully waited for her Boaz or Jabez or whomever his azz is, and all she has to do is put up with his bullshit and smile.

Look, life is imperfect. So are people. There is no formula. What worked for your grandparents who were married for 50/11 years did not work for your parents who got divorced. And that isn't because women are more independent or some of the other sexist nonsense you've heard. Everybody gets to choose the life they want nowadays, and that means different things to different people. Marriage is not for everyone, nor is the single-minded pursuit of wealth and success. We need to normalize the idea that happiness can come in a variety of forms, and that those old rules and expectations didn't just limit the rights of women; they also put constraints on men.

In the video I watched, the image consultant was telling a woman how she needed to stay in her rightful place, and then offered his opinion where that was. Then I checked the date to see when this had been recorded because the notion that women should walk several paces behind men seems more like the brand of retro masculinity that claims high value men can't fix their own plates at the barbecue. But they can take out the trash and kill spiders, so help me understand how being submissive wins me that kind of prize? Tell me how adhering to the same fixed gender roles that were written to maintain racism, sexism, and homophobia have benefitted our families and communities...

While you think about that, allow me to offer my independent womanist assessment: there will be times when the man will take the lead, and alternatively when the woman will take the lead. That has very little to do with biological predestination, but everything to do with knowing which person is better suited for the job at hand. There are men who are happy to live with a woman who makes more money, not because they are lazy or weak, but because her earnings afford them amenities like better healthcare and the ability to save money for the future. There are women who want to stay at home with their children because many jobs are not flexible enough to accommodate the needs of all families. I assume that in same-gender loving couples, these issues are already understood. Single unmarried people are out here living their best lives, and there are married couples who spent the last 16 months getting reacquainted. So can y'all stop coveting what you see going on in someone else's yard and learn to bloom where you have been planted?  

If you think high value individuals are more content with their lives, read the news. Rich white men who own everything under the sun on earth are now trying to conquer space. High value couples aren't happier than the rest of us, but if you disagree, you might want to chat with Melinda Gates or Mackenzie Scott (or their ex-husbands once the settlements are finalized). Their grass may have been greener, but somebody else was getting paid to tend it...or you were fooled by the astro-turf. 

Furthermore, life is too short to spend it staring at yourself in the mirror. This is just another justification for narcissism. Very few people who focus on making big names for themselves leave the world any better off for having been here. Sure, we can all cite the names of the big-time philanthropists who built museum collections and endowed university libraries, but they also killed plenty of "low value" people in the process. The last self-described high value man who got too much power and attention nearly destroyed this country, while his wife stood behind him and squinted alluringly into the camera. They are not relationship goals.

I know, you don't emulate them, but if the Obamas or the Carters are your ideal, then you need to look more closely at the nature of those relationships. I assure you that Michelle Obama stands next to her husband, as she did when she earned more money while he was organizing the community. Beyonce works as anyone who has ever attended one of her shows can attest, while Jay does the shopping (he calls it investing). If you thought I was referring to the former President and his wife, yeah, she just chooses not to speak up that much in public and you need to believe rule #1. So don't let some image consultant fool you into thinking that those partnerships are based on old school patriarchy--ain't nobody arguing over who got served first at Thanksgiving and why they ran out of forks.

And so that everyone is clear, the women that preach this same crap are just as harmful and wrong, and it is my Busy Black duty to call them out too. Don't believe anyone who is out here saying that your grandmother liked being mistreated and that she put up with it because of her faith in Kirk Cameron's Jesus. The Devil is a liar--the narrative of the ever-steadfast Black Big Mama who never complained or stood up for herself has perpetuated too much suffering and abuse, which is why so many of us are broken. Not because families were physically broken apart, but because there were so many spiritually broken people trying to maintain the veneer of family unity amid dysfunction. 

Some of y'all need to realize that Soul Food was a story told from the perspective of a child. Uncle Miles was a high value man who fucked his wife's broke ass cousin.

You can believe me or the image consultant, the front-seat relationship guru, the gossip girl, or some hertep who's out here trying to snag her own high value man...

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Red Beans and Rice: Revisiting A Different World

I recently watched a marathon of episodes from one of my all-time favorite TV sitcoms and (deep sigh) did we allow this show to go on for so long past its prime? I know this is a blasphemous question and it might upset a lot of folks, but why did we let them ruin this show after the third season?

Yeah, I said it! It was a lucky show its first season, a much improved show in its second, and a great show by its third season. It didn't exactly plunge from great to bad in the fourth season, but it did begin to slip to simply good. By the fifth season, which gave us the iconic Gilbert-Wayne wedding finale, it had jumped the shark, only we were too caught up in the excitement to admit it. Which is why the last season is practically unwatchable, even though we tried. 

Now please keep reading, because I promise not to offer a trash take on how various couples were toxic mis-matches or how obvious it was that Byron Douglass III went on to become Eli Pope on Scandal...because no, it is pretty simple. On a show that was supposed to depict life at an HBCU in the late 80s and early 90s, that should have remained its focus. If it had, then I would be much more content about the three hours I spent watching episodes from that fifth season on Saturday morning. Because now I really kinda hate the wedding episode too.

The Hub jokes that Black sitcoms in that era were good for those very special episodes, and that was A Different World ("ADW") in a nutshell. It was the definitive very special show because it highlighted several of the issues that were relevant during that time: date rape, unplanned pregnancy, Apartheid, intimate partner violence, HIV/AIDS, and the debate over the continued relevance of these institutions. All of those issues were covered in those two brilliant seasons, along with racism, campus protests, career choices, work/life balance, moving off campus, and yes, relationship issues (which did take up an inordinate amount of time in real life and on-screen). 

In addition to be topical, the show also gave us archetypes of the different personalities that one would encounter on an HBCU campus. I cannot speak for how these same characters would have fared at a PWI, but most of the people I know from college were composites of characters on ADW. Of course because I went to a woman's college in the deep South, half the women on campus could have been the model for Whitley Gilbert. A fair number of sisters were working class, first-generation over-achievers like Kimberly Reese and Jaleesa Vinson, the non-traditional student with high ambition and hyper-focus (before she married Colonel Taylor and was ruined). There were too many Ron Johnsons, but that could just be my impression of how many brothers walked around trying to be players. There were an equal number of goofy-smart brothers like Dwayne Wayne, as well as many free-spirited bohemians like Freddie Brooks. Although Walter Oakes was technically not a student, there were a number of those older dudes who stuck around for years until a new opportunity to move on finally presented itself. 

That was the classic core group of students, and if they had done a better job of introducing and incorporating the second and third wave that consisted of Terrence, Lena, Gina, Dorian, Terrell, and Charmaine, I would argue that we could have had five very good seasons instead of three. There is no real need to go back to autopsy the first season because we all know that it was a disaster.

Now that we are in this moment of rediscovering HBCUs, of course watching any episode of this show would make me get nostalgic. You already know it doesn't take much for me to take to my soapbox to promote support of HBCUs. And now that we have entered a realignment phase wherein others are lending their voice to the same righteous cause, I welcome that because we need all of the help we can get. Part of the pitch to this next generation will include how popular culture can shape our impressions and relates to our experiences.

Currently, there is a meme circulating on Facebook that asks which fictional HBCU would you attend, and the choices are Mission College (School Daze), Hillman College (A Different World), Atlanta A&M (Drumline), and Truth University (Stomp the Yard). Mind you, all of those shows/movies were filmed in the Atlanta University Center...(and that is my shot across the bow to my Howard University alumni friends reading this :) 

However, the meme does correct a common misconception that ADW was the last noteworthy time an HBCU was prominently featured in popular culture. There was also a short-lived show on BET called The Quad and references to other real-life HBCUs have been incorporated on popular television shows (This Is Us, Blackish, and POSE).  Director Will Packer made sure that we knew that the Flossy Posse from his hit Girls' Trip movie met at his alma mater, Florida A&M University (FAMU). And obviously, there is Madame Vice President Kamala Harris. 

What ADW did was lay the foundation. I know School Daze (1988) was a contemporaneous depiction with several of the series stars featured in prominent roles, but it is safe to say that more people have seen episodes of the TV show than remember that film. (And as much as I love that movie, it is problematic on several levels.) If there had been no ADW, I am unsure if we would have had such a significant pop cultural reference point that inspired so many people to enroll at HBCUs in the 90s.

Therefore, we must start by giving credit to Bill Cosby for making this possible. The first references to Hillman College were made in the first season of The Cosby Show when it was introduced as the alma mater of Heathcliff, Clair, and Grandpa Huxtable. Whether it was intended from the beginning to spin-off another show about an HBCU or whether the concept evolved based on other factors is anyone's guess, since its debut also coincided with the millions Cosby gave away to several institutions at the same time. Neither Cosby nor his real-life wife attended HBCUs, but three of their children did. Whatever motivated this concept, once that ball got rolling, the rest is history.

Okay, so I will offer a few thoughts about the first season of ADW: look closely and you will note that several of the cast regulars and guests appeared together in an iconic blaxploitation parody in 1988 and then in a ground-breaking comedy sketch show that began airing on a renegade new network in 1990. And that is pretty much all that needs to be said... 

Once the show was re-framed around the HBCU experience, it struck gold. By bringing in producer-director Debbie Allen, who attended Howard University, she remade Hillman into an unapologetically Black institution, representative of the times. Her first brilliant move was to introduce younger characters, which is why Kimberly Reese and Freddie Brooks were such strong additions. With Denise Huxtable and Maggie Lauten gone, Freddie offered burgeoning bohemian feminism and naiveté in one character; Kimberly gave us a more relatable Jaleesa without all of the adult baggage. Several of the better very special episodes centered on them. Ron Johnson's transformation from puppy to dog was crucial. Dwayne's maturation provided an interesting foil to Whitley's consistency--she remained a spoiled rich girl, just more likeable once they ditched her first season flunky. Before the show became dependent on the Gilbert-Wayne love story, it had actually been a solid ensemble effort.

College Band Trip c. 1990

Which is how most of us fondly remember our college experience, with our friends. With our friends in the dorms, in the library, in class, on the quad, in the cafeteria, at games, at parties, and everywhere else we went. Those are the fond memories that we relive every Homecoming, every Graduation/Reunion, at dinner parties and brunch, in our Facebook groups, and pretty much every chance we get to reminisce. So part of the frustration with the love story taking over was how it over-shadowed everything else.

Not that our romantic entanglements weren't integral to our college experience, but there was so much more going on. Minus the song and dance number, that episode about the Persian Gulf War mirrored our anxiety on campus about that conflict. The Mammy episode still remains one of the most powerful refutations of colorism (soooo much better than how Spike Lee addressed it in School Daze). Before Freddie hit the Freddiest peak of annoying, one of her best episodes dealt with acquaintance rape. Ron and Dwayne pledging together provided that bittersweet reminder that even best friends often have to follow their own paths. And as disconcerting as the AIDS episode is to watch all of these years later, it is an important reminder of how we once thought of HIV as both a death sentence and a punishment for pre-marital promiscuity.

Of course I was rooting for a Gilbert-Wayne romance to blossom, and possibly rekindle, but not at the expense of the other characters and stories. When Whitley decided to stay in school for another year, it was to take additional classes to prepare for a corporate art buying career that most of us had no idea existed. It was relatable that she spent much of the season finding creative ways to earn money, although not by working for her friends as a maid (because we were all broke). And how ridiculous was it for Dwayne to sell his computer to help her with her tuition? When the campus was abuzz over that book written by Shazza Zulu (perennial undergraduate), did that really need to have a Whitley and Dwayne subplot when the real point was to navigate the minefield of interracial dating at an HBCU? Why was Whitley the director of the campus time capsule video when Freddie should have been the more obvious choice? And so on...I could revisit half of the episodes from that fourth season and point out how the show had lost focus. 

Or perhaps it had been decided that in the limited universe of other sitcoms with Black characters in lead roles, ADW had to be more than a show about college. The other Black sitcoms on air that overlapped during that same era (1987-1993) were: The Cosby Show (1984-1992), 227 (1985-1990), What's Happening Now (1985-1988), Amen (1986-1991), Frank's Place (1987-1988), Family Matters (1989-1998), The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (1990-1996), Roc (1991-1994), Martin (1992-1997), and Hangin' With Mr. Cooper (1992-1997). In other words, there were phases during its run when ADW was the only show that was not a goofy family sitcom, lasted longer than one season, and didn't rely on too many of the stereotypical sitcom tropes that had been so frustrating on other shows. 

On a show built around characters who were supposed to exist in a finite time and space, it was necessary to introduce new cast members to the core group each season. The problem was in the transitioning out the older main characters. Part of the point of college is to move on to make space for the new students to have their own very special episodes instead of being relegated to the supporting cast of what essentially became a romantic comedy. Walter Oakes, who had been on the front burner as the dorm director for two seasons languished in the background while Colonel Taylor became the most ubiquitous professor on campus. Oakes' departure came after Colonel Taylor hooked up with Jaleesa, who was also still hanging around campus two years after graduating. Somehow the writers thought she would be useful as a housewife--a prospect she emphatically rejected when it was offered to her with Walter. Then she disappeared, with her newborn without any explanation.

In addition to thinking theirs was the more toxic romantic entanglement, there was the matter of Taylor's son Terrance, who had been introduced as a new student with the promise of his own very special stories to tell. He did get a few, the most significant of which was when he objected to his father being offered membership in an exclusive country club, but the focus was more on Colonel Taylor's decision. Terrence was never fully developed into a more substantial presence (nor was the actor Cory Tyler officially added to the cast). A similar pattern was repeated with Gina Deveaux, who initially appeared as a recurring character with no real introduction, no background, and no major. By the last season when she was included in the new core group, it never made sense to me that an upperclassman would be hanging that tight with a bunch of freshmen...

The Douglass-Gilbert-Wayne love triangle was messy because it was so contrived. Byron Douglass III was old enough to have known better than to get serious with a 24 year old woman three months fresh from a broken engagement, and then expect to marry her six weeks after she slipped up with her ex-fiancé who also worked on his campaign? Or was I the only person who thought that was insane? Furthermore, I always found it frustrating that on the morning of the wedding, Whitley's parents seemed happier about the prospect of her "career" as a future political wife. Was that why they sent her to college for five years? What about the words of the theme song: here's our chance to make it, if we focus on our goals--was it marriage all along? While I definitely appreciate actor Kadeem Hardison's suggested alternative ending, it wouldn't have mattered which man Whitley ended up with because as far as I'm concerned everything for her went down hill from there. And as for these stupid Nick at Nite Hillman College Reunion vignettes, honestly who thought that Dwayne and Whitley were still together?

I've had 30-some years to think through all of this... 

If they did reboot this show (and no, I am not convinced), there is some new ground to cover. One new major issue is the presence of more white students on campus, the very elephant in the dorm room that was IGNORED the entire first season, and that was avoided in the fourth by having Matthew attend another local university. I could think of a few others, including an open LGBTQIA+ relationship, a debate over Black Lives Matter, competing political ideologies on campus post trump, gender equity in athletics, and the consequences of social media abuse. (Or you could just watch Grown-ish and pretend that is an HBCU.) Obviously, a rebooted ADW could also revisit some of the issues that had been raised in the original series and I might tune in for a few episodes. I would need the Aretha Franklin theme song, but with an entirely different opening sequence since that one has been done, redone, overdone... 

However, in spite of everything I just wrote, you do realize this show will forever be one of my favorites, I will always watch the reruns, and I will forever credit it for having inspired my choice to attend an HBCU. One of the great ironic truths that every college alum comes to accept is that our schools were far from perfect, so much like watching a TV series, we never can realistically claim to have loved every show, or every minute of our tenure. It was a brief moment in time, a very special episode of our lives that we get to revisit and remember fondly.

Thursday, July 8, 2021

What Is Your Fourth of July?

My Kid declared the night of July 4th to be the best day ever, and this was after a week spent at her happy place (the beach and the house we have rented for eight years). She said this after she experienced the fireworks and hoodworks in our neighborhood, because they are inescapable. We ventured into an alley not too far from the house where we met the young nephew of a neighbor and they became fast friends, as little kids are adept at doing. They ran relays, tossed two packs of snap pops, and marveled at the flying sparks and colors from competing fireworks on the ground and in the air. A little later, we walked down the street to where some guys were shooting off rockets, which excited her even more. Right before we put her to bed she made her declaration, because six year olds are easy to impress...

Of course, now that we are a few days past Independence Day, I am hopeful that the nightly bombardment of firecrackers and cherry bombs will end soon. They've been at this since Juneteenth, but it also seems that each summer, the fireworks start popping off earlier and earlier. Black people love fireworks. I don't know where they are sold in other places, but here in DC, little makeshift plywood storefronts suddenly appear mid-June at various locations throughout the city. For years, the structure that was erected on the northwest side of the Sousa Bridge (near one of the entrances to Anacostia Park) is where my Dad bought our fireworks. Yes, my been-woke Dad, who reminded me on Sunday of his sentiments about Independence Day, including his annual re-reading of Frederick Douglass' famous speech. Even he likes the fireworks.

Therefore, I am here to tell you that it really didn't matter that President Biden made Juneteenth a federal holiday two weeks ago. It was nice, but Independence Day is the crowd favorite with the clear advantage of 245 years of tradition. More than likely, Juneteenth will become the weekend when folks will shop for their American flag apparel and decor on sale in preparation for July 4th. The fireworks will probably become available right after Memorial Day, so all of you gentrifiers better invest in a thunder vest for your dog and learn to wobble. To all of the Incredulous Red Kool-Aid drinkers with no Black friends, Hobby Lobby will have plenty of white sheets and tiki torches...

All of the unnecessary lament that Independence Day would somehow be overshadowed or eclipsed by adding another federal holiday to the mix has proven to be unfounded. After all of these months of lockdown, folks have been eagerly awaiting and preparing for this holiday. Lots of Aunties making potato salad and cousins making playlists. Folks were READY. The day before when we were spending our last few hours in Ocean City at a water park, all of the lifeguards wore their loudest Uncle Sam jester hats, knee-high flag socks, and other ridiculous American flag apparel. The patrons wore flag trunks, bathing suits, tees, and one woman had a sequined flag cowboy hat. Back in DC with the COVID gathering restrictions lifted, all of the parking spaces in my neighborhood were taken by holiday revelers similarly decked out in American flag apparel (some of it clearly purchased for this first social cookout in 16 months). At some point, I wondered if I still had any of those Old Navy $5 tees.

Earlier in the day, I saw that Vanessa Williams had been trending for her forthcoming performance at the pre-recorded Capitol Fourth celebration. The complaints from right-wingnut Twitter were about her singing both America The Beautiful and Lift Ev'ry Voice, also known as the Black National Anthem (soprano Rene Fleming sang The Star Spangled Banner). And predictably, I had something to say in response to their nonsense...

By the end of the evening when I was scrolling through social media again, the complaints from get-off-my-lawn/Gen X Twitter focused on the nonstop fireworks. Between upset pets, fears of not being able to discern the difference between gunshots and firecrackers, and just general frustration about the nonstop noise, I was reminded of an observation I have made countless times in the past.

Black people are thee most patriotic Americans you will encounter. Speaking for the Latinx branch of my family, they get all red, white, and blue for the 4th too, and I imagine that is the same for most people of color. For all of his talk, my Dad enjoys the Capitol Fourth festivities every year (and I know for a fact that he TiVo'd it this year).

So for anybody who wants to get froggy and tell me to go to another country if I have complaints about America, lemme tell you like successive generations of my ancestors have defiantly said: I AIN'T GOING NOWHERE!

First of all, I know that the wolf-cries against Critical Race Theory have many of you thinking that if you keep denouncing it, you don't need to acknowledge the truth, but let's start with some basic facts. My ancestors were brought here to work the land. You can quibble about the dates and terminology, and you can argue that the kidnappings on the Continent were carried out by other Africans, but none of that moral back-tracking is persuasive. You can offer your bullshit justifications cloaked in benevolent Christian Nationalism if you want, but it won't change the fact that many Black people can trace their origins in the New World to when there were Thirteen British colonies, Spanish colonial holdings in Mexico and the Caribbean, the French still owned Louisiana, and Lower Manhattan was still New Amsterdam. 

Furthermore, since I am old enough to recall when there were scarcely any mentions of the contributions made by Black people in America other than as enslaved labor, I know that at the very least, you were taught certain basics about the American Revolutionary War. You may claim to have never heard the name Crispus Attucks, but you do know that prior to the official declaration of war in 1776, the Boston Massacre (1770) was one of many skirmishes between colonists and the occupying British soldiers. The specifics of Virginia's colonial proclamation issued by Lord Dunmore to the enslaved in 1775 may not be common knowledge, but you do know that there were Loyalists to the Crown and most of them migrated to Canada after the War. Look closely at this iconic painting and you will see that there is a Black man seated in front of General Washington as he crossed the Delaware.

I won't waste your time with "woke" history lessons because I know facts don't always sway opinions, but some of you need to get clear that this is our country too. We fought for it, built the wealth that your forefathers passed down to you, and we've saved it from the brink of disaster many times. You don't have to like that, but there ain't nothing you can do about it. You've tried and FAILED to deport, resettle, segregate, lynch, redline, starve, mis-educate, and disenfranchise us out of the narrative, but we are still here. And we will continue to fight for the equality that you claim we have, but have yet to fully experience. 

So yes, our first Black Miss America sang the Black National Anthem in primetime and if you decided to change the channel, that's fine. We love Lift Ev'ry Voice and stand to sing all three stanzas because it is a patriotic song written by two Black men in honor of Abraham Lincoln. The fact that you take issue with it being designated as a Black anthem speaks to your issues, not ours and certainly is telling since the song was written by an accomplished Black composer and his equally accomplished brother. But do go on about the divisiveness of a song that encourages everyone to lift their voices to sing...

Yes, we're going to shoot off fireworks in the hood. We bought them legally. If you moved to this neighborhood and think it is your right to police the behavior of the folks who have been here for decades then do what you have to do, Permit Patty. Call the cops and stand outside in your front yard instead of hiding in your kitchen with your wine spritzer, carrot-raisin salad, and bag of pita chips. Come outside with your bad self and face the neighbors to whom you barely speak as you jog by every day. Because then they'll know whose house not to look out for...

Yes, we are still going to celebrate Juneteenth, the Lord willing and the creek don't rise come next year. And while we debate the politics of the easy layup versus the hard work of restoring the Voting Rights Act, we're going to talk shit and organize for Senator Rev. Raphael Warnock while Unc burns the hotdogs on the grill. We're going to buy Black and shop local and wear our BLM tees with African wax print skirts that have pockets. We won't go all out for PRIDE, but we will welcome those cousins without judgment or too many intrusive questions. We will politely sample all of the potato salad, keep the kids from going in and out of the house, and will introduce the old heads to Uncle Nearest. You will probably hear both versions of Before I Let Go and there will be a loud argument about which version slaps harder (Maze, of course). And we'll right back at it in two weeks for the 4th of July.

Because we too, are America. That's why we march against police misconduct AND stand with the Capitol Police officers like my cousin who were there on January 6. We can mourn the deaths of Officer Brian Sicknick and George Floyd because we know that grief and loss are not political positions. We understand the rights and privileges of citizenship, which is why there are long lines to vote in our communities. Just watch next month, our tears will flow when the American women win that hardware in Tokyo whilst we debate whether Sha'Carri should be watching from home. 

We love this country, even when that love is un-reciprocated.

If that sounds too dysfunctional, too one-sided, the truth is, you do love us. You just don't want to admit it, but you love our food, our music, our art, our strength, our courage, our tenacity, and our fortitude. That we survived the Middle Passage, enslavement, Jim Crow, the crack epidemic, and trumpism, you are impressed and a little envious. Those aren't easy hurdles to overcome, but that's what Americans do. We fight to win.

So before you get too keyboard bold, let me tell you that if you don't like it, then you leave. 

You go back to wherever your family originated so you don't have to listen to my unruly, arrogant, brash, and entitled rants about how this country can and must do better. You find someplace else on the globe where there is no religious freedom. You go where it is typical for mercenaries and mobs to assassinate duly elected officials. You shut up and pledge allegiance to some dictator if you want a conman grifter in power. You migrate to another country where it is acceptable to jail and torture political opponents for their beliefs. You leave, because you're the one who hates America.

Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History

This piece is dedicated to Sha'Carri Richardson, but not for the reasons you might be thinking...

First of all I believe the suspension, while draconian and wholly unrelated to her ability to perform, was unfortunate but fair. Richardson may still get to compete in the Games, just not for an individual medal. She can run in the relays, which can earn her some hardware. And she's young enough that this will only set her up for a great comeback in 2024 (which is sooner than we all realize, since these Games were delayed due to the pandemic).

I had not intended to write anything more formal about this situation with Richardson, but then I happened to catch the last hour of I, Tonya, the film about former Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding. Perhaps this was the intention, but I came away from that movie with all kinds of sympathy and mixed emotions about the way Harding got treated all of those years ago. While I recalled the broad outline of what purportedly occurred (that Harding orchestrated a physical attack on her rival, Nancy Kerrigan), I did not remember all of the individual players who were implicated in the matter. However, I do recall that I took a side...

And now nearly 30 years later, I have a very different read on the entire matter. 

When I tuned into the movie, it was midway at the point where Harding allegedly arranged for Kerrigan to receive a death threat, which to her understanding would be a phone call. So as not to spoil anything, that isn't exactly how things went down. Instead, the rivalry between the two women became a lot more personal. Other aspects of what we probably didn't realize or know at the time include the abusive nature of the relationship Harding had with her ex-husband, her complicated relationship with her mother, and the lack of support she endured from the U.S. Figure Skating Association (USFSA).

I had to re-examine my own personal biases from that time about the image of figure skaters and the "type" of people who were considered representative of the sport. In particular, I thought back to the juxtaposition of Harding to Kerrigan, and how the rivalry between the two women shaped perceptions of them both on and off the ice. Even before the attack, Kerrigan enjoyed more public support as America's Sweetheart, while Harding was dubbed the Bad Girl of Skating. I hadn't thought about them or this incident in years, not even when the movie was released in 2017, but once I sat with it for a few minutes, it immediately dawned on me how not much has changed with respect to how women are scrutinized in athletics.

Even though most folks would argue that this is kind of a reach, Sha'Carri Richardson and Tonya Harding (and a bunch of other women I plan to mention in this piece), are kindred spirits who made (and will make) history.

Think about it. The critiques of Harding had everything to do with the image the USFSA sought to present to the world of American figure skaters as graceful, elegant, and poised ice princesses. A ballerina on blades. In the pantheon of memorable American champions, there were the legendary Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamil, and Tai Babilonia, then the modern champion Kristi Yamaguchi, who won the gold medal in 1992. Yamaguchi's natural successor could have either been Harding or Kerrigan, with Kerrigan in the sweet spot, having won the bronze. Harding was more athletic as the first American woman to land a triple Axel in competition, but the subjective nature of skating prized artistry and presentation above stunts (something that bedeviled France's Surya Bonaly).

And at the mention of Surya Bonaly, I thought about a long-abandoned draft from a piece I wanted to write about her a few years ago. It was after I had read an article about her (in a now-defunct publication) that reflected on her career, including the obvious racism she faced in competition. Interestingly, a few aspects of Bonaly's story were similar to Harding's: handmade costumes, loud makeup, and the unlikely rise from obscurity to national champion. There was the added element of racism, which certainly wasn't applicable to Harding, but to the extent that Bonaly was a pioneer for Black women achieving prominence in an elite sport where we had not been visible, the skating rivalry of that era should have been between them. 

However, a Harding-Bonaly rivalry was not meant to be. Instead, Bonaly was simultaneously lauded and penalized for her athleticism. She could perform BACKFLIPS on ice, but got points deducted whenever she successfully executed one. She was deemed deficient in the artistry of skating, which was the same critique of Harding, who was more of an athlete than an ice performer. The subjective nature of the scoring prevented both women from obtaining Olympic medals. Harding was criticized as the exact opposite of graceful in contrast to her teammates, with her loud colors, hair scrunchie, and white trash associates. The fact that she had overcome abuse and had dedicated her life to skating was not a narrative that could be spun to make her more likable, not even when Kerrigan was quickly downgraded from Sweetheart to Spoiled Sore Loser

The thing is, nobody is interested in seeing a movie about Nancy Kerrigan or Kristi Yamaguchi, not even on Lifetime. They were celebrated and enjoyed their moment in the bright glare of fame, but the most interesting thing that either woman has done in recent years is appear on Dancing with the Stars (as did Harding). Perhaps Bonaly can get tapped for an upcoming season...

However, before we make the quadruple toe loop from Harding to Sha'Carri Richardson, there are several other names that deserve mention, beginning with the obvious nod to none other than the late great track star Florence Griffith-Joyner (Flo Jo). Last week as the news was unfolding about Richardson's lapse in judgment, some woman took to Twitter to claim that Flo Jo was an "obvious drug user" as indicated by her long acrylics (because marijuana abuse leads to Black women storming the nail and hair salons). The only thing obvious about Flo Jo was her speed, her sex appeal, and the fact that whomever that chick is, she's a bitter, jealous shrew. And for the record, there was never any evidence that Flo Jo abused drugs.

She made history by setting world records and and stacking those medals around her neck with her own unique sense of style. I don't know why some random Australian journalist with no tangible evidence to back up her allegations felt the need to trash a dead Olympian to make her nonsensical argument about smoking weed and nail growth, but this will probably be the only reason why anyone ever remembers her.

The Williams sisters are in this mix too, because around the same time Flo Jo was flashing and Surya Bonaly was flipping off judges, two girls from Compton showed up on the professional tennis circuit with their hair beads and rackets. Previous Black champions blazed trails, but these sisters built interstate highways. They were ridiculed for their appearance, but instead of trying to fit in, they designed their own fashions. They were criticized for exploring outside interests, but that meant they weren't consumed by their sport and are actually interesting people. They advocated for pay equity and won on behalf of every woman who has competed since. Their unapologetic Blackness inspired other Black girls to pick up rackets, so even as their careers approach twilight, there are other young champions in the ranks to help inspire the next generation.

I know this piece is supposed to focus on notable women, but I'm invoking editorial privilege in mentioning the Jamaican men's 1988 bobsled team--a group of sprinters whose quest for Olympic glory became the inspiration for the Disney film Cool Runnings. The fact that they weren't the first tropical nation to compete in the Winter Olympics notwithstanding, the point is that it takes audacity to do the unexpected. And what was written off as a novelty for the men has become a crusade for the women's Jamaican bobsled team, possibly on their way to possibly winning medals. And they are frank that their motivation is to change the complexion of the Winter Games, which in my opinion is rather badass to declare that Black women from the Caribbean can be snow bunnies too.

And if this was just about highlighting the various pioneers, then Debi Thomas deserves recognition for being the first Black woman to win a medal in figure skating. Yet, she was quickly forgotten, until she resurfaced years later in the tabloids, her life a train wreck. She was the epitome of Black Girl Magic before that became a hashtag, but sometimes stars implode and that is what some folks are more interested in witnessing. I'm guessing that there are a lot of people in the world that predict the same fate for Richardson.

Not that weed is on par with mental illness or illegal doping, which is what destroyed Marion Jones, a tragic cautionary Icarus tale of great triumph and tragedy. She became the public face of an Olympic doping scandal that resulted in her losing her medals and world records. Several athletes were implicated, but it was her downfall that served as the catalyst for the kind of rigorous drug testing that disqualified Richardson. 

The thing is, folks can sell more papers when someone stumbles than when they win. Right now, a bunch of folks are opining about the fairness of Richardson's suspension and whether it is racist (which to me it isn't), when the real story is how this young sister took responsibility for her mistake. In a world where folks are claiming alternative facts and embracing lies, this woman declared that there are inescapable truths and unfortunate consequences. So instead of arguing about how she's being mistreated, or admonishing her for the choice to smoke weed and literally blow this opportunity...what if we applauded her for owning it?

And she owns all of it, from showing up to compete in her colorful hair, eyelashes, tattoos, and the acrylics to admitting that she knew better. No need to compare her to other athletes who soldiered on in the face of tragedy, because y'all conveniently omit certain cogent details and are selective with your praise. Y'all didn't applaud Tonya Harding for escaping an abusive marriage. Y'all didn't try to intervene to save Debi Thomas from chronic over-achieving and perfectionism. Y'all knew Marion Jones was headed for disaster and watched her crash. Before she failed this drug test, y'all were debating whether Richardson was respectable enough to get featured on a Wheaties Box. What kind of example is she for our young girls...because she's confident and authentic? Isn't that the message we've been bombarding them with since birth--that you can be your own unique self and be great? When did we add the asterisk *but only if you wear pearls and are VOGUE-cover ready? 

As for the rules are rules crowd...

Rules change all of the time. A bunch of new discriminatory rules and policies went into effect to define who is eligible to compete in sports. Half of Simone Biles' floor routine has been outlawed so that she doesn't dominate the other gymnasts. I'm not saying that weed shouldn't be banned, but we all know it is the exact opposite of performance enhancing. It was a mistake, a costly one, but let it be the lesson Sha'Carri can impart to others. And, let's hope she gets some big-time endorsement deals from OPI, Sally Beauty Supply, and some major CBD distributors.

Friday, June 18, 2021

What Goes Up Must Come Down

I have already said that I would not be wading too deep into this colorism debate surrounding In The Heights. Inasmuch as I can try to avoid doing so, I will try to stay true to my word...

Instead, I will opine about how fickle the nature of fame can be. A few years ago, no one had heard of Lin-Manuel Miranda when he was dropping rhymes on the re-booted Electric Company to help kids understand the power of the Silent E. I may need to go back to line up the dates better, but I hadn't heard of him or his first play until that White House special with the cast of Hamilton (that I had only heard of because Spelman's incoming President glowingly raved about it at some alumnae function). It was only later that year that I got hitched onto the Miranda bandwagon and I am happy to say that I am still riding.

Although I get the criticism of both Hamilton and In the Heights, as I point out to people on a regular basis, everything ain't for everybody. If you don't like Miranda's music, that is fine. Trust, there is a LOT of music that I can't stand (TRAP) and y'all love it. I cannot tell you how many IG and TikTok videos have trap music soundtracking and how hard my eyes roll. But since I don't know who any of those artists are, I don't make it a point to declare on my social media how proud I am to hate their music. I'm a Busy Black Woman with too much to do...

So the persistent hate that appears to be aimed at Miranda has puzzled me. But he isn't the only artist who has found himself served as the main course at the opposite of a love fest. I've seen it happen to Lizzo, Issa Rae, and even the Queen Bey herself. In the past, I watched it happen to Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, and the Oprah. I am sure that there are others who have hit the pinnacle of success only to fly too close to the sun like Icarus and find themselves free-falling back to earth. It is the ying and yang of fame.

Yet, there is something extra mean about the way certain artists and public figures get dragged on social media. I agree that no one is above criticism, but there is a tendency on these platforms for people to strap up and viciously attack people for small misdemeanor level offenses. Even I have done it, so my glass house has its own cracks. I took great joy at lampooning the last President for his clumsy mis-statements and verbal vomit, precisely because he took great joy at punching down and relentlessly bashing others for their missteps. He didn't earn the name Trumpelthinskin for being a live and let live kind of guy. And to the extent that public figures know that for all of the love, they will receive plenty of hate, it still seems as if the rise and fall of fame is a lot quicker and the crash a lot harder these days.

Take Chrissy Teigen for example. I have followed her on Twitter for years. When she left, I missed her, so I celebrated her return to the platform a month or so later. Admittedly, I had not paid close attention to her tweets unless she said something funny, so I was not as aware of her history as a bully. And that is unacceptable, so she deserves to be called out and even lose some of her commercial endorsements if she behaved as badly as has been reported. But that doesn't mean that turn-around is fair play (Candace Owens), because in a few years that could be you (Candace Owens), and it would be terrible for your children to be exposed to some of the horrible things that you (Candace Owens) have said about others and then have all of that vitriol hurled back at you.

(Yeah, CandO I won't forget how you took great glee in outing Andrew Gillum, which was one of your most egregious mean girl moments. As the old folks say, God don't like ugly and He ain't too fond of cute.) 

Bullying is ugly in all of its various forms. It is ugly when it comes from the President of the United States and it is ugly when it comes from the mean kid on the playground. It is also ugly when it comes from the rest of us average folks with marginal talent. You may not be a theatre geek, a sci-fi nerd, a political junkie, or a sports fanatic. But let those that identify in that manner be who they are. Legitimate criticism is one thing, but gleeful bashing because you can't relate is something else.

Before Hamilton was released on Disney+ last summer, I noticed that Miranda was taking a few knocks on the chin for his other work. He wrote the music for Moana, a movie that I happen to love, and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Song in 2017. At the same time, he starred in the sequel to Mary Poppins, made numerous guest appearances, wrote a song for Puerto Rican hurricane relief, and was generally everywhere. Folks were taking small shots at him on Twitter, dissing his music and his acting, but as far as I could tell, it was the normal backlash that one could expect while basking in the limelight of fame. Then Hamilton was released last summer and whew...

Mind you, a few years earlier when we were not all stuck in the house during a global pandemic, trying to secure tickets to see Hamilton on stage was like trying to get a vaccine appointment back in February 2021. It was here in DC at the Kennedy Center in 2018 and the cheapest ticket sold for $200 in the back of the balcony. I had been entering the daily ticket lottery and hoped that maybe I could even score a chance to see it in London (no, I cannot justify how I intended to pay for a hotel and plane tickets but not for a theater ticket). I got my Niece hooked on the soundtrack and then my Kid, so every single day for at least a year...Hamilton became for them what The Wiz (film version) and Annie soundtracks were for me when I was their age. 

And for what it is worth, I have joked that Miranda's songs all sound the same. But so do most artists because they have a distinctive style. Go through a few of the #PlaylistProject pieces and you will see what I mean. The fact that his style is recognizable doesn't make him any less talented. 

So the backlash against Hamilton once it became more accessible was fierce. I saw many tweets that dismissed his work, much of it expressing a general disdain for musical theater, but then it morphed into diatribes against his interpretation of the history (because he chose to paint a much rosier picture of Alexander Hamilton than what was in fact true). Now with In the Heights, the barbs seem more personal, as in suggesting that Miranda intentionally chose to showcase a white-washed narrative of his own life.

Yeah, so I will have to wade into this colorism theme a bit because In the Heights is Miranda's story. And in all of the debate, it feels as if folks aren't acknowledging that part.

As you know, I am married into a Puerto Rican family from Sunset Park in Brooklyn via Aguadilla on the island. I have been a part of this family for 25 years. All of them look like the folks in Miranda's movie (which I have not yet seen). My late MIL, who was very intentional in identifying herself to me as a woman of color had brown skin only slightly darker than mine. Part of the reason why I have been reluctant to address the colorism is because I understand how that has played a role in my own life (and how it would read like I was getting defensive). Yet, my Blackity-Black non-Latinx family's color spectrum runs the gamut. We hail from Washington, DC via Southern Maryland; Fredericksburg, Virginia; and Toccoa, Georgia. So if I were to cast actors to star in the movie version of my life, how much agency should I have in making those choices? 

In asking that question, that doesn't let Miranda off the hook. He could have made different choices, and given the criticism that director Jon Chu acknowledged about his casting in Crazy Rich Asians (2018), nobody will walk away happy if they feel that their perspective is missing from the narrative. It's almost as if Miranda's words and deeds keep coming back to haunt him--who lives, who dies, who tells your story...

Because when he created Hamilton and cast it the way he did, he opened a Pandora's Box that he will never be able to close. Of all people, Lin-Manuel Miranda will always be held to a higher standard and will be judged more harshly, and that isn't fair. The producers of Les Miserables never worried about representation, not until they cast Norman Lewis as Javert for the 25th Anniversary concert in 2010, and then miscast Russell Crowe in the 2012 film. And though somebody didn't mind his terrible singing, my guess is that Crowe was cast because he is a bigger named star than Norman Lewis, who is only well-known to the New York theatre-going crowd. 

Thus, in a story written about the experience of growing up Latinx in New York City, there is no doubt that Miranda could have insisted on casting more Afro-Latinx actors. Therefore, the next question is whether that would have been enough. Aren't there other marginalized ethnic groups in New York City that would love to see aspects of their community represented on the big screen? Wasn't our complaint about shows like Seinfeld, Friends, and Sex and the City that while these shows were based in one of the most diverse cities on the planet, they rarely featured people of color? Or when they did, we existed on the periphery like the wallpaper? Has David Schwimmer sufficiently recovered from the dragging he got from making the suggestion of an all-Black Friends reboot?

Is it Lin-Manuel Miranda's responsibility to create space for every representation of the Latinx community, or does he need to prop the door open for others to follow him to the stage or studio in order to tell their stories? 

Okay, I will wade back into the colorism conversation with another anecdote--my daughter knows exactly who Lin-Manuel Miranda is when she sees him. She also recognizes several other cast members from the original Broadway production by name: Anthony Ramos, Daveed Diggs, Christopher Jackson, and Phillipa Soo. She recognizes Rene Elise Goldsberry and Leslie Odom, Jr. as their characters. I never gave much thought to why she knows some cast members by name until now. Several of those characters look a lot like members of her family. In particular, Miranda, Diggs, and Jackson look like they could be her uncles and Ramos looks like two of her cousins. She pretends to be Eliza Schuyler whenever she is singing along and sometimes taps me to be Angelica...because representation does matter.

Back to Miranda's unfortunate Icarus fall from the sky--his wings got singed, but he will be alright. Like Taylor Swift (another one who has been up and down on the see-saw of popularity) sings, haters gonna hate. He can compose a new musical, write more songs for PBS Kids and Disney, release another Hamilton mixtape, and continue to make it possible for other artists of color to get their shot. 

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

So Hard to Say Goodbye

Something I never thought would happen occurred this past weekend as I toured the hallways of my old high school one last time before the building is set for demolition in a few weeks. I forgot how much I hated high for the time being, all is well.

I have shared on this blog a few times that I have all kinds of complicated feelings about my high school experiences. I liked some of my teachers better than others. I liked most of my classmates then, and still do now. I met my BFF there my sophomore year and we've remained tight for these almost 35 years. In spite of all of the things I thought that I hated about that time (and felt justified in my contempt), this past weekend as I walked the building one last time, I came once more to a place of reconciliation and absolution. After 30 years of lingering bitterness over stuff that seems almost too petty to complain about now...

Hail La Reine High,

I'm all gooey and emotional over what it will actually mean for this building to come down. Until I went back inside, I thought it was rather absurd to feel any attachment to the physical structure of the school. A few months ago when this plan was first shared, it came at a moment when I was already starting to share some of my negative associations, the repressed or long-forgotten memories of early adolescence. Therefore, this effort felt like a continuation of the same cognitive dissonance of celebrating the school's glorious past without much of an acknowledgement of what hastened its abrupt closure, or what is its current status. So when I participated on the first Zoom call and saw who was leading the charge for this effort and why, I wavered for weeks until the last minute. And then I determined that if I do make this final trip through the school, then at some point along the way I need to reconcile with my ambivalence.

Hail to thee!

The last time I went back to the building was in March 2015, and I was eight months pregnant. There was an all-class reunion, and since that was the same year as my 25th I thought it would be fun to go (inspired by my 20th Spelman reunion the previous year). I also thought it would be kind of a hoot that as the youngest member of our class, I would probably be the oldest first-time mother. Prior to that visit, I had been back to the school twice since it closed--once for my 11th Class Reunion and one other time for another all-class reunion. I missed my 20th in 2010, but I don't recall that they had access to the school so the gathering was off-site, and for the most part, my class hasn't been very consistent in planning reunions. 

However, I have not been adverse to reconnecting with my classmates and peers. Even though I don't have the same strong ties to those friends in real life, I do maintain contact with them via social media. So each time I attended a reunion, it was for the express purpose of seeing them. Touring the building was something of a bonus attraction. My parents still live ten minutes away, so I have driven by enough times to bore my younger cousins, my niece, and my daughter by pointing out that building as the place where I and a couple of older cousins went to school. Also, I have had the good fortune to run into various classmates in recent years through our sorority and as a recruitment volunteer for Spelman, so to some extent, I have never really lost touch.

When I went back six years ago, I don't believe we knew about any plans to demolish the building, but we were made aware of the plans to build a new science center at the successor school. Our old building has been in continuous use as a public middle school since 1995. It never occurred to me that there would come a time when we would no longer have access to that facility, or that we would go back and not expect to see everything as it had once been 30+ years earlier. So one part of my brain wondered how the County could justify tearing down such an iconic monument? I mean, the giant Crown of Mary spire...

Hear thy daughters exalt thy majesty!

Of course the other religious references are gone, such as the Blessed Virgin statue and the motto "Look to the stars, call upon Mary" which had been painted on a wall in the main lobby. The convent, which had been inaccessible to us, has been converted to extra classroom space. The chapel is gone, probably changed into something more useful to public middle schoolers. I'm guessing when the County acquired the building, it was quite a bargain to get such a functional and solidly built facility. No need for furnishings or that many upgrades, so as I took pictures in front of the same lockers in the hallway and in the gym; the same long tables that we used in the cafeteria; the same bleachers and scoreboard in the gym; the same blackboards, windows, and doors; and even the same un-replaced worn out floor grips on the stairs...thus every tile, every fixture, even the smells were pretty much the same as they had been in the late 1980s.

The other part of my brain wonders why the County waited this long to schedule the demolition. If nothing has changed in 30 years, then nothing is new or modern. I didn't see a computer lab or docking/charging stations or even modern appliances/equipment in the science lab. The payphones are gone and there is an elevator in the space where the bookstore used to be, but no other significant upgrades. As there are more dedicated boys' restrooms in other parts of the building, I wonder if the same rusty feminine hygiene disposals are still bolted to the floor (because they were in the bathroom I used by the old "Freshman entrance" where the parking lot still hasn't been repaved). 

Therefore, it is time to let it ALL go. Plenty of other schools have alumni who have had to face this same abrupt jolt of reality. Buildings age and people need modern amenities. My old elementary school is closed and is used as a temporary space while other schools undergo construction, and my mother's high school has been torn down and rebuilt twice since she graduated. Some old schools are re-purposed, some are renovated, and others make way for over-priced condos. Several schools are changing names to honor more recent American heroes or to shed associations with the uncomfortable past. When change happens, it can be for good.

Because typewriters, pay phones, analog clocks, and shuffle board are all obsolete in a digital world. While I'm sure one or two of the current middle school students would be polite enough to listen to tales of how we had specific memories attached to various favorite places in the building (the band room where I spent an inordinate amount of time, for example), the rest of them wouldn't even politely ignore us. And at least one smart aleck would point out, really when Ronald Reagan was President, before my Mom was born?

Thou has given knowledge and truth
Great success to our nation's youth 

There are two versions of the school hymn and as such, there are two sets of memories that I associate with my high school experience. There is the version that I have been pondering in my head for the past few months: the one where the changing demographics of Prince George's County brought unique challenges to the administrators who understood the world as it had been in the 1960s and 70s. That is the golden era of the school for many returning alumnae, when the nuns and priests had more prominent roles in shaping the minds and futures of their students. By the 80s, things were changing and in 1989, a new music teacher composed a soaring new arrangement to the school song. In that recollection, there were more lay (non-vocational) teachers, more career-minded students, and fewer Catholics who did what they were told without challenging the edicts of the Church. We made demands, we had opinions, we sang a different tune...

We pledge to thee everlasting loyalty
Give to thy name glory, honor, and fame

So in releasing my bitterness, I begin with letting go of my resentment of the Administration, particularly the principal. I saw her this weekend, and while I wouldn't fake like I was happy to see her, I am glad to know that she is still alive and well. Several of the nuns were able to join us, so it is good to know that they have been well cared for these last 30 years. A few of my old teachers have passed away in recent years, and whatever animosity I held against any of them, I have let that go as well. I was not the best student, but not for the reasons that they assumed, because they never probed. In spite of what they thought about my abilities then, it was in high school where I first began to write.

It was in high school that I first was introduced to the concept of sisterhood. At the time, I didn't perceive it the way I do now, but it began among the sisters with whom I caught the Metrobus to and from school. It strengthened with the sisters that mourned together the tragic death of a classmate (so we chose our class song in her memory). There were the honors class sisters who tricked me into thinking that I had received a letter from Andre Agassi. There was the group of sisters who loved New Kids on the Block and some of us thought they were insane because of New Edition. The Humanities class sisters who went to New York City for an unforgettable weekend that changed all of our lives. The sisters who sat in the cafeteria or the student lounge for study hall or after school and talked about everything under the sun. The sisters who remembered that there were snickerdoodles sold at both of our local mall hangouts. And of course, there was the alumna sister science teacher who wrote my recommendation letter for Spelman.

Proudly thy banner will fly
Most cherished and loved La Reine High...

No, it doesn't produce the same as the flutter I get when I see a trio of blue hearts posted on social media, or when I see a certain three Greek letters in red. But it does move me to take notice that if not for this school, I might not have been so driven to prove so many folks wrong. Who can't do what, you say? Because I'm too young, too flaky, not focused, in over my head, susceptible to peer pressure, not well-suited...really?

That the scheduled demolition of the building comes at this full circle moment of racial reckoning in the broader society is not lost on me. Because while some of us are willing to accept the explanation that the times changed too much and too fast for the nuns, others of us know that it was hastened by the rapid demographic changes in the county. Someone commented on the fact that the school became a lot more diverse in the 80s; the same cannot be said for the successor institution. So when the suggestion was made to direct some of the proceeds to the new science center that is supposed to carry on our legacy and there was resistance, I had a visceral negative reaction. Either we support our alma mater or we just have fond memories of our time in that old building that y'all abandoned 30 years ago...

It can be both. I wanted to take pictures of everything because I have memories imbedded in the walls, the floors, the cracks and crevices, and even the windows. I have memories of secret spaces, such as the back stairway from the convent side that led to the front of the building. I remembered that there was a hallway between the cafeteria and the lower level of the gym where the locker rooms were located. I forgot that we had dogs, but somehow remembered that their names were Ginger and Pepper. I never ate outside where the smokers hung out, but I spent many hours in the student lounge that looked out onto that courtyard. I remember that access point between the public magnet school next door and the side lot to our school where we sometimes met boys. I could not precisely remember where the home-economics classrooms were, but it didn't matter since my Mom said I could learn to cook and sew on my own (she was half right).

With thee our hearts ever will remain...

The plans for the new science center will include duplications of our Blessed Virgin statue, the crown and compass floor mosaics, and hopefully the motto will be re-inscribed as well. Not much could be salvaged from the old building because of asbestos, so there is another very good reason to proceed with the demolition. We were given tiles from the building that were blessed as mementoes, and those along with my yearbooks, and whatever pictures I find will suffice to remind me of that time in my life. I also plan to become a regular donor to our successor school because there is no point in cherishing the legacy of an old building when I can actually bless the next generation of young people who will embody that spirit. 

Ironically, it never occurred to me until now to inquire about the middle school students who went to school there--do they have the same attachment to the building, or was it just where they went to school for a couple of years? Caught up in my own nostalgia, I never even knew how the current school got its name or paid much attention to how they used the building. I wonder if the sentimental siren that called to our alumnae from various parts of the country has the same draw for anyone else who passed through those corridors. Does anyone else who walked those marble floors or encountered that distinctive, yet very 60s blue tile feel some kind of way? Has some very persuasive graduate from the 90s planned a similar last tour of the building as it is just as much their space now as it was ours. Is anyone as attached to their middle school as we all are to high school and college?

(Because I'm nosy, I took a look at the new plans. I'm pretty sure that the new state-of-the-art facility that will replace our old structure will be a fabulous sight to behold. So as bittersweet as it will be to see the crown come down, the replacement will be better suited to serve the needs of the students, who deserve a modern learning environment. Oh, I did not know until now that the current occupant of the building is itself a successor institution of a renamed junior high school...and hmmm, history indeed repeats. I will write about that another time.)

Hail fount of truth, LA REINE!

Thursday, June 10, 2021

BBW Tea Party: POSE for Me

I am still processing this final season of POSE. I began writing this piece after the second much to unpack, so if you haven't been watching, no worries about spoilers. But I am about to serve some BBW tea.

The year is 1994. A lot happened that year to me personally, so some of what I am processing is a combination of recalling that time in my life and trying to place it in the context of what is happening to the characters. (I know how self-indulgent that reads, but trust this is a necessary part of where this is going.) If you are just tuning into the show, the first two seasons provided a lot background regarding the life and struggles of our LGBTQIA+ siblings in the 80s and 90s. I began watching during the last three or four episodes of the first season (which I will revisit so that I can have a more complete appreciation for certain characters), but I think you can start from wherever to appreciate aspects of this journey.

So where do I start in this unpacking? Do I begin with my initial impression that this was a Fame redux--a show about aspiring dancers and young models in New York during its grittier pre-Disney on Broadway days? Or was this a re-imagined Dynasty based on family dynamics and drama fueled by the relationships that we choose versus those into which we are born? Then once I realized that POSE is both and neither because that is the trap of assuming that shows like Will & Grace, Ellen, and even Queer Eye for the Straight Guy were any more ground-breaking and progressive than 80s sitcoms were on race...

The category is LIFE!

Real life, not the Tyler Perry morality play version that treats AIDS like an Old Testament biblical plague for unrighteous women. Not the privileged marginalization that dismisses sex workers as trannies and addicts. Not the predictable rejection by one's biological parents and family for unnatural tendencies that were never addressed especially when the victims were male. 

LIFE. Out load and unapologetic. Messy AF. Flamboyant and superficial, yet creative and inspiring.

What would it have meant to live free in the 1970s? How many people were pushed back into the closet because of that Disco Sucks stunt? What about in the 1980s when movie cowboys and stuntmen apparently knew more about everything? What about in the 1990s when we said that our hair stylists, choir directors, and interior designers were cool as long as they didn't talk about their personal lives? What about in the 2000s when having a gay BFF was as hip as voting for Obama? 

What does it mean now that America is used to Rosie O'Donnell, Sean Hayes, Cat Cora, Nathan Lane, Don Lemon, Anderson Cooper, Robin Roberts, and even Pete Buttigieg's husband because they are non-threatening and respectable? Hell, we don't give Caitlyn Jenner the ridicule she truly deserves for thinking she should be the next Governor of California. What we aren't comfortable with are people defining themselves without our approval. For that which we cannot proscribe is that which we cannot control.

POSE is awakening me to a lot of misconceptions I had as a young woman. I was raised to fear Hell as a place in the afterlife, instead of a state of living and being in this realm. Hell is hunger and deprivation. Hell is living without basic needs of human dignity. Hell is ignorance. Hell is living a life that someone else has restricted you to...and that can be a gilded cage or in squalor. Hell is desperation. 

So I can only imagine what it must be like to receive too much of the wrong kind of attention. How it must hurt to be told that God loved us enough to send His only begotten son to die for everyone else's sins, except for yours. Hell is getting disowned by the people who brought you into this world, because they are ashamed and small. It is masking your hurt in drugs and fucking with the kind of recklessness that that says I if I die, so be it. Hell is not getting infected with HIV because trust me, there are plenty of horrific ways to die. The difference is that HIV and AIDS caused too many people to die forsaken and alone.

I am more aware that my choices as a young woman in 1994 were once subject to similar condemnations, but I could make everything right by getting married. I could feign virginity with a fancy white dress, legitimize a bastard love child by marrying the father or some other man. I could become an honorable woman by a simple declaration of the state. If someone tried to shame me, I could call it sexist or chauvinist and rest assured that the name would sting momentarily (although it wasn't the same as being called a whore).

Until recently, we could disregard the dying wishes and feelings of people on the basis of who they loved. We could invalidate families as if they never existed because lovers and special friends had no recognized status under the law. Imagine if you will how the parents who rejected their children could suddenly reappear and override choices and erase every trace of their disapproval. They could rewrite narratives out of whole cloth to reinterpret lives that they had disavowed. Consider having no rights that others were duly bound to respect because you were gay/trans/queer...and to justify that level of cruelty, to have someone shrug and then point to several neatly highlighted passages in their Bible. Ignoring the verses that say do unto others as you would have it done unto you and to love your neighbor as yourself, can you fathom the smugness of someone leaning into their prejudices and then implicating God as the one with the issues (His Word, not ours)? 

In 1994, we claimed our small towns were all Eden and the dens of iniquity were Sodom (New York) and Gomorrah (San Francisco). However, when hurricanes and tornadoes and flooding brought disaster to those small towns, we blamed the gays. We claimed that their love was more dangerous than our hate, and that our God was displeased by them. We never considered if His displeasure was with us for casting out our children and for our bad environmental stewardship of the earth. Instead, we prayed for their deliverance, not from the clutches of the streets, the prisons, the brothels, or the crack houses...but from the perversion.

That was then. Now we have evolved to the place where we worry about personal pronounsbathroom usagerainbow cookies, and who gets to run track

Now a few thoughts about POSE and the fact that it is ending after only three seasons. It probably could have gone on for another two, but I think that the time jumps have made this abbreviated run inevitable. My biggest complaint is that if it was known in advance that this would be a limited run series, then some of the character development should have been offered on the front end instead of now. There are loose ends that deserve better resolution than what we're getting, which is why we're all so emotionally spent after each episode. Without spoiling anything, there is no satisfying way to resolve much of what we anticipate will happen by the closing credits of the finale. And I don't know how I feel about that.

What I do know is that this show has pushed me to do the kind of self-reflection that hopefully will make me a better ally. I said as much two years ago and I meant it. The thing about calling oneself progressive is to evolve. We have to accept that the world is not static and that the complexities of living among human beings is ever changing. Little boys want to play dress up and little girls want to build cities with primary colored Legos. There is a lot we need to normalize, such as allowing our children to be freer than we were. It means creating space for people to feel that their lives matter. How much beauty and creativity is lost to despair and premature death?

Back in 1994 when there were fewer letters in the acronym, if someone compared the LGBT struggle to the Black experience in America, we would shut it down especially if the person making that assertion looked like Neil Patrick Harris. What in the world did Doogie Howser know about struggle? And that has been the great awakening POSE has brought about--in every possible way the Black and Latinx experience is perpetually marginalized, even among our gay/trans/queer siblings. To appear palatable, the LGBT struggle focused on mainstream identity and acceptance, so when it became wearing flannel, driving a Subaru, and adopting children America relented. Straight actors dressing sharper (gay) or messier (lesbian) were fine as long as they kept us laughing. Thus, by the time we get to depictions of being trans, we get Kathleen Turner lowering her already husky voice in Friends or Jeffrey Tambor in a bad wig and matronly clothes in Transparent. It's quirky and weird, and uncontroversial like the dedicated PRIDE aisle of merchandise at Target.

POSE doesn't deal with the warm fuzzies. There are light moments, humor, and of course the theatrics of the ballroom, but there is also grit and violence like the death of a celebrated queen killed by a john. For those who couldn't find acceptance from the coffee shop/J. Crew retail mainstream, they did what our people have done since the beginning and created beauty from what had been thrown out or left in the gutter. In some cases, it was about challenging norms: designer Willi Smith transformed street-wear into haute couture and singer Sylvester infused gospel into his dance club anthems. Alvin Ailey added jazz and blues to the ordinary movements of Black and Brown bodies through life and called it American dance theater. And designer Patrick Kelly took inspiration from mismatched buttons and an old racist icon, the gowliwog, to create subversive fashion. That all four of them died from AIDS-related complications is what POSE sought to remind us. The high cost of living can be fatal.

More than 25 years later, if we are finally saying that love is love, then so too is hate. Suppression is oppression and violence. We cannot force people to contain, edit, or hide themselves because beauty does not flourish in the languishes there, collects moth holes, and rots. Creativity must be seen, heard, and experienced in order to fully exist. In the end, we all come to the place where living free is...LIFE.