Sunday, February 28, 2021

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?

Every time I sit down and watch Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967), I intend to write about it, so the other night for the umpteenth time, it aired on Turner Classic Movies (TCM). It was in honor of Sidney Poitier's 94th birthday (Feb 20), which gives me the perfect excuse to write about him as well. Because we're going to celebrate and honor every great pioneering Black actor/entertainer in some way.

I attempted to write up a quick birthday tribute for the Facebook page, but I got distracted by the opening sequence of the film and then literally, I sat mesmerized for the next hour. My laptop was open, but all I had managed to write was one paragraph in which I had mentioned a few of Poitier's great film roles--A Raisin in the Sun (1961), Lilies of the Field (1963), and Uptown Saturday Night (1974), and to prove that even great men make big mistakes, Stir Crazy (1980). I had also planned to mention the references made to him in other works, namely two plays The Celored Museum (1986) and Six Degrees of Separation (1990), but once I got to a certain point in the film and realized that I had been sitting there for more than an hour without posting anything, I hastily concluded. Then in the most inexplicable turn of events, I fell asleep and missed the pivotal last half hour!

No worries, though, since I have seen this film enough times to appreciate the ending. However, this time it seemed more important that I saw it from its very beginning, which typically I have not.

In the morning, I woke up to whatever nonsense was airing on TCM and I made a mental note to complain that they need to air more Black films during Black History Month. (I know that some of y'all assume that we're covered by the Black-themed movie channels on Showtime and Starz and the weekend movie blocks on BET, TV One, and Bounce, but none of those networks air the classic Black films I'm referring to.) Perhaps my complaint should be the broader complaint that these films rarely air at all, not just in February. Because as much as I love The Color Purple...

Thus, I feel an urgency to ensure that future generations get to see these films before they fade into complete obscurity, such that only insomniacs, history professors, and film students get to see them. For example, I think of this every time TCM airs Imitation of Life (1959) because I have never seen the 1934 original and often wonder if the reason for a remake was some "problematic premise" or racially insensitive depiction (wink, wink). But I can't determine that if it rarely airs...so this becomes the circular argument about the value of these old films weighed against the racism of the system in which they were created. 

Because as overrated as I think Gone With the Wind is, and as settled as I think the matter of Song of the South ever getting released from the Disney vault is, I have to admit that there is merit to the argument that the work of these Black actors deserves to be seen. However, before I fall down that rabbit hole, let me climb back out to focus on Poitier and why his career supports this notion of reconciling with the past.

In the pre-film introduction to GWCTD on TCM, over the years different hosts have emphasized differing reasons why this film is a masterpiece. Some cite the emotional performance of Katherine Hepburn with her beloved Spencer Tracy in what was to be his final on-screen role. Some cite the obvious--a whirlwind interracial romance that challenges the progressive sensibilities of these coastal elites in the waning years of the Civil Rights Movement. When the commentary is about Poitier, this film is cited as one of his most iconic roles, although I don't believe that his performance is what elevates this film to the level of masterpiece. I think what is always unsaid or under-developed in the analysis is the theme of youthful optimism at a pivotal moment in time. Somehow, a 50+ year old film that is clearly a product of its time, still articulates the contradictions of principles vs. real life. In essence, that tension is why this movie is timeless, and that is what makes it a masterpiece.

Mind you, (and yes, it must be said) that Bernie Mack film Guess Who? (2005) should never, ever be called a remake. Sure, it revisits the subject matter in a humorous attempt to reverse the roles for modern times, but it isn't nearly as funny a topic as they thought it would be. Furthermore, it should forever be known as the film that proved Ashton Kutcher isn't all that talented. But I digress...

As always, Sidney Poitier's performance is mesmerizing. I cannot put into words why, even in a film where I have questioned whether he was miscast (IMHO too old to be falling for some starry eyed spoiled ingenue), there he is. For the life of me, I don't see what he sees in this girl. That is not a swipe at Katherine Houghton, but it is one of the major dilemmas--off all the women he could have met, what is it about this one that renders the great Sidney Poitier, so off-kilter? I know, as Dr. John Prentice he's a world-renowned expert in tropical medicine, but also a widower who has immersed himself in work to blunt the pain of his personal tragedies. And Houghton is Joana Drayton, the care-free doe-eyed daughter of San Francisco liberal elites. She's on holiday; he's in Hawaii to give a lecture, then he's off to Geneva to do more important work with the World Health Organization in Africa. So how does this match made in paradise happen so recklessly? 

Even after my umpteenth time watching this film, I am unpersuaded that Poitier's Dr. Prentice should have been this spontaneous and idealistic. The very idea of such a methodical man falling in love at first sight seems improbable. So we must accept at the outset that it is Joanna Drayton's impulsiveness that is driving everything, and he's caught up in her whirlwind (indeed, everyone is). However, the reality is that he's smitten, but self-aware and cautious enough to give himself an out if her parents disapprove (mind you, he doesn't give his parents that same veto power), which is the central tension of the film.

There are other complexities and nuance that are noteworthy. The super retro version of the theme song, The Glory of Love. Tillie, the family maid, who is the only character in the film who is overtly hostile to Dr. Prentice and uses the n-word. The two gratuitous modern culture clash scenes with Dorothy dancing with the delivery guy and the Draytons' outing for ice cream. Hillary, the prejudiced modern art connoisseur as the foil to the open-minded traditionalist Monsignor Ryan. The very idea that an interracial marriage would be as problematic for John and Joanna in Europe as it would be in the United States (the film released just before the Supreme Court decision in Loving v. Virginia). And the fact that this is all unfolding in the Draytons' gloriously extravagant home in San Francisco, across the bay from Oakland where the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense had been born a year earlier.

Seen with modern 21st Century eyes, this film takes on additional layers of complexity post-Obama and post-Trump. The issue of interracial marriage isn't as controversial and most people would shrug off all of the obvious misgivings about such a coupling. Instead, our worries would be for their children--what race box would they tick on their Census and college application forms? What does it mean to be biracial in 1970s San Francisco as opposed to Los Angeles or Oakland? Given their experience as a married couple, how would John and Joanna react to their children's surprise dinner guests?

Perhaps this is a good point to refer back to my issues with the Bernie Mack film, which got it wrong by suggesting that its protagonist, Percy Jones was a bigot. In the original, that isn't the implication at all as Tracy's Matt Drayton was depicted as caught off guard by the prospect of both an interracial marriage and given less than 8 hours to process the news. It was never implied that his misgivings were anything other than noble and normal, and even with my 21st Century spidey senses attuned to the various micro-aggressions that Prentice endures, I empathize with the Draytons and the Prentices. Alternatively in Guess Who, the fact that Simon's race was kept a secret for months was a bright red flag, indicative of the underlying trust and honesty issues between the couple, not of her father's presumed intolerance.

My husband and I began dating in 1996. My parents knew he was Puerto Rican before he came to dinner. Likewise, his family knew I was Black before I went to dinner. But that is another rabbit hole for another time...

Back to our leading man, Sidney Poitier. His Hollywood career was meteoric in the 60s, which is why I mentioned the two other works that reference his career. By the mid 1980s, he was legendary to white audiences for that earlier work, but as it is evident in Six Degrees, he was not on the tabloid level of A-list fame such that those who should have known better would have. The Upper East Side Kittredges (Donald Sutherland and Stockard Channing) were easily fooled into believing the Black stranger who infiltrated their lives because, and this is a truth that is revealed in the original GWCTD, white people don't really know any Black people. Not even famous ones, of whom they are aware, but don't actually know. So the Kittredges and their pretentious circle of friends have no idea that Sidney Poitier didn't have a son. Nor do they realize that of the movies that were cited, none of them were the films Poitier co-wrote or directed, which was his primary output during the 1970s and early 1980s. (Sidenote: I love this play and the movie, which I believe to be masterpieces in their own right.)

Hence, the irreverent vignette from The Colored Museum that lampoons Poitier is so marvelously ironic. I just happened to see it online within days of watching both Six Degrees and GWCTD, and talk about fortuitous! I won't spoil it (you may be able to find a quality clip on YouTube), but George C. Wolfe's satirization of Poitier is so on point because it deconstructs his most beloved incarnation: the credit-to-his-race Academy Award-winning persona that is/was the eternal underdog of the Black urban experience. Walter Lee Younger is exactly the kind of sympathetic hero whom the Kittredges and the Draytons think of when they congratulate themselves for being patrons of Black art and supporting civil rights at their exclusive cocktail parties.

Nevermind that by the mid-80s when both The Colored Museum and Six Degrees were written, Poitier had moved on to direct behind the camera, including significant contributions to the blaxploitation genre. White folks don't know much about Buck and the Preacher (1972), Let's Do It Again (1975), and though I've mentioned Stir Crazy in jest, yet...

During Black History Month, we don't see any of those movies anymore. Yeah, there are problematic aspects, but if I can sit through Gone With the Wind twice a year, then I think there is an expert out there who can address Bill Cosby the same way y'all pretend Rhett Butler didn't hit his wife Scarlett all that hard. You see where this is going? There is an entire 20+ year span of Poitier's oeuvre between Oscar night appearances that is essentially overlooked. Are y'all waiting for him to die before we acknowledge his full range?

Because returning to the movie that started this, GWCTD is great and all, but it isn't a Sidney Poitier film. It is the last Spencer Tracy/Katherine Hepburn movie, which is how I can justify falling asleep during the last few minutes and assure you that because I have seen it previously many times, I didn't miss anything this time. Poitier has receded into the supporting cast by that point, and the floor belongs to Tracy, who grants his approval to the marriage between his daughter and the exceptional Negro whom he just met hours earlier. He gets to point out how more evolved he is as compared to his own maid and Prentice's father, the humble mail carrier (because the white racists have already been dismissed, so what right does Drayton have to be hesitant about any of this)? How could he; why would he? This is no longer his problem; they are headed abroad to Switzerland.

But enough about white liberal coastal elites who proudly voted for Obama twice...

My final plea is to the program directors at the various networks and cable movie channels--PLEASE don't rely solely on TCM to air classic Black films once a year in February. Yes, they must do better, but how about instead of nonstop Tyler Perry shows/movies and Martin reruns, y'all look into the vast catalog of creative output that was released in the 70s and 80s (and possibly even back to the 40s)? Let's start with the body of great work (i.e. The Colored Museum) that used to air on PBS. And y'all can pay me to frame this content, and I assure you, I won't leave any sacred cows unslaughtered. Don't modern audiences deserve to know as much about Madame Zenobia and Geechie Dan, as well as they know about Nino Brown and Cardi B?

There is no question or debate about Poitier's greatness. What he did in the 60s was to win over white audiences so that he had the freedom to develop as an actor/director in the 70s and 80s. The fact that white folks don't recall his work during that era is irrelevant--we know that he paved the way for Spike Lee, Denzel Washington, and Tyler Perry, among others. Before we start debating who gets to come to the cookout, let's revisit who has already come to dinner, what they brought to the table, and how to reconcile their impact on the current state of affairs in Hollywood.

Claim Your Space!

I have often mentioned my Images of Women in the Media Class, and I wanted to draw attention to it and my professor, Dr. Gloria Wade Gayles, in this transition period between Black History and Women's History Months. I had the pleasure of being her student for three classes during my tenure at Spelman. The funny thing is, I need to consult my transcript to recall the names of those other two courses, but I know they had something to do with African American literature and women. I still have the books for all three, including that Images course, long out of print and outdated, because that is how impactful it had been.

I have her memoir, but in my immediate vicinity I have her book of poetry, Anointed to Fly (1991), on my bookshelf and re-read two of her seminal works to reflect on her profound influence. The poem from which the book takes its title is the poem she read to us in chapel in my earliest days at Spelman. I am unsure if it was our very first convocation or if it was part of freshman orientation, but I sat there completely radicalized by these words (emphasis mine):

you are the 
daughters of women
who dipped you whole
in the waters of promise.

You have no achilles heels.
I don't remember if she read this other poem to us, "And the Women Gathered", or if I first heard it as a performance piece:
THE WOMEN GATHERED

as one constellation.

and the world took notice
that women are warriors

(always have been,
even in the beginning)

However, what I recall was that it was the first time that I heard within my heart and soul that I was in a space that would build me up as a Black woman. I should have know that going in, but for whatever reason, my expectations about what my experience at Spelman would be were clarified and affirmed by her words. I resolved to take whatever classes she taught so that I could glean more of her wisdom and confidence. It took two years before the opportunity came. In the meantime, there were others who prepared us, namely my Advanced Writing professor, who taught us why red ink was a necessity in training young writers...

On the first day of class, Dr. Gayles rushed into the room with an armful of paper and books, and the first words out of her mouth were an admonishment--CLAIM YOUR SPACE! For some reason, I imagine that she shook her fists at us whenever she said this. Over the next two years, I would be reminded of that important duty, which would carry with me to law school and every subsequent milestone on this journey through life. As I am in this current space of re-evaluation and reflection, I am taking some time to acknowledge just how profound her words have been and will be as I seek to reclaim old spaces and inhabit new ones. If you ever get to see this, Dr. Gayles, my gratitude transcends mere words.

Furthermore, I thought of her in response to current events where women have been subjected to standards that seek to dis-empower or diminish their accomplishments. The last four years reaffirmed, in case we thought otherwise, just how ingrained and intractable sexism can be--when every outspoken woman became nasty in the parlance of a certain former White House Occupant. None of that has gone away with his departure; it has been reinvented in the form of unnecessary scrutiny, hypocrisy, double-speak, and other more sinister and subtle criticisms. For example, two Texas Southern Baptist pastors made headlines for calling Vice President Kamala Harris out of her name. For voting her conscience, Congresswoman Liz Cheney (R-WY) has been censured and attacked by members of her own party. Some Senators went out of their way to oppose the historic nomination of Congresswoman Deb Haaland (D-NM) over points of personal ideology instead of her qualifications for the job.

We get the subtext. These women have no business in these spaces. Harris didn't ascend to the Vice Presidency because she worked and campaigned for it (which she did), but because she had one high-profile romantic entanglement years ago. Yet no one has dared to insinuate that her husband was unqualified for a distinguished visiting professorship at Georgetown Law School. And remember that brouhaha over First Lady Jill Biden's insistence on being referred to as Dr. Jill? Somehow it is pretentious in a First Lady who has an actual job as an educator, but not for radio and TV personalities like Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz? Need I remind you that both of those men went on television at the height of the pandemic last year to urge the re-opening of society while Dr. Jill kept her husband safe and kept teaching her classes via Zoom. And isn't it ironic that it has been GOP women who have been willing to stand up for whatever is left of their party's integrity while the others are at CPAC with that golden bull**

Who told us to think or to speak or to redefine ourselves? Neera Tandem has been nominated to run the Office of Management and Budget, but her tweets (which is but her emails 2.0) are likely to derail her confirmation. And we'll just pretend that when Cabinet officials in the previous Administration were summoned for congressional oversight, they weren't disrespectful and hostile when confronted? Bills were introduced in the Georgia Legislature to Stop Stacey Abrams because of instead of trying to win on their ideas, it is more efficient to change the law to criminalize certain voters and re-label us as thieves. And if it wasn't already clear why folks can't stand Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), his antics during the confirmation hearing for Dr. Rachel Levine as an assistant secretary at HHS offer some insight.

Since we've worn Nevertheless, she persisted out literally and figuratively...I am here to share Dr. Gayles's wisdom: Claim your space! It needn't go viral (but if it does, all proceeds go to Spelman College). 

On the eve of this Women's History Month, we claim space to celebrate the two most powerful women elected to hold office in America; to highlight the fact that one of the lead researchers at the NIH for the COVID-19 vaccine was a Black woman; and to anticipate whether a Black Attorney General will send the worst President of our lifetime to jail. We need to claim space for all of the women who have been pushed into new entrepreneurial ventures and career paths because of the past year's disruptions. We need to claim space for the teachers who have rightfully demanded to be regarded as front-line essential workers and not as babysitters. We need to claim space for the health care aides, retail, and food service workers who make minimum wage and have not had the mixed blessing of working from home for almost a year. 

Let's Claim Our Space, and teach our daughters (and our sons) that there are no forbidden corridors, rooms, or tables to women. There are infinite possibilities. There are choices and options. There are challenges too, and obstacles and the likelihood of failure and success. All of that has been true for men as well. We came this far through constant struggle against odds that seemed insurmountable at one time, improbable most of the time, and illusory at other times. Shirley Chisholm didn't get to be President, but plenty of us have taken her advice and brought our own folding chairs in order to claim space at tables we set, but were not invited to sit.

Saturday, February 20, 2021

When the Chickens Come Home to Roost

Infamously, Malcolm X was suspended from his position as spokesperson for the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam when he suggested that the assassination of President Kennedy was a case of chickens coming home to roost. I wanted to offer that introduction as a reminder that it is still Black History Month, and if you have been doing your homework, then you know that a lot of the tomfoolery and shenanigans we have been witness to this month are a result of the Groundhog seeing his shadow. And because y'all acquitted the mango-maniac again and didn't think our ancestors would notice.

They did. And they are displeased.

Of course, we were taught that those in the Great Cloud of Witnesses merely observe human behavior, but don't interfere. Surely, they would intervene to rescue humanity from itself if they could, but then how would we learn? Somebody had to ignore the very explicit warning not to engage in something disastrous or dangerous; for example, don't follow those crazy white kids into that haunted house. Do not vote for the con man reality TV game show host because your intense dislike of a better-qualified woman is not evened out by following that fool...

I know, and for some who have grown weary of my political musings, no, I won't just move on to write about people I like. So if you are wondering, why Busy Black Woman, when we don't need to care about them or the stupid prizes they keep winning? To which, my response is, well I'm not ready to turn on President Biden for not yet forgiving my student loans less than a month in office. I am happy to focus my attention elsewhere until after I get the vaccine or until such time that he really disappoints me by sending VP Harris off to do some ceremonial crap that is better suited for her husband.

Honestly, I just don't want to let these meaux feaux off the hook for being the kind of mitch who would taunt people in other parts of the country during their time of need, and then because the temperature in his house dips below 72 degrees, hops a plane to Cancun. Or the kind of Tracy Flick who thinks she deserves credit for other people's courage by being two-faced, then gets the rude reminder that she is just another mermaid on the mast of a sexist ship. And though I won't say anything else about the dude who died the other day, I will just offer this hymn...

I am not one to gloat because no good ever comes of that, but I am one to point out the obvious: cluck cluck. And the fact that these chickens belong to Ted Cruz and Nikki Haley, the two shitty opportunists we all remember and hated from law school, open the gates!

Senator Ted Cruz deserves this ass-kicking for the full range of his hypocrisy--from enabling the insurrection last month to leaving the country during an extreme weather emergency in his state. But do you know what will likely be cited as central to his downfall? That he abandoned his dog. 

Shall we unpack this booshay? First of all, he has an emotional support dog named Snowflake, the same name used to deride liberals as weak. Because of a new rule change, he couldn't sneak the dog into his carry-on, so his wife told him to hire a dog-sitter. But ever mindful of wasting taxpayer money, he told his security guard to look after the dog, and that raises several additional questions. Who is coming for Ted Cruz? How inept are his enemies as to be so dissuaded by one security guard? Why come said security guard was still in Texas while the family went away on vacation? Was this rent-a-cop supposed to be stationed outside the house in the cold for five days? Was he only allowed in the house to feed Snowflake? So do we honestly believe that Sen. Cruz did in fact hire a dog-walker and then referred to that person as a "security guard" to make this entire scenario sound just as bad as it looks?

Imma let you sit with that for a minute or two...

Somebody explain how this dude, not Beto O'Rourke or the Castro brothers or Matthew Knowles, is the junior Senator from the state that gave us braggadocios ginormous belt buckles, ten-gallon Stetson hats, Jerry Jones, Juneteenth, and J.R. Ewing. And then of all places to go on vacation, he chose Mexico. Nobody would have been the least bit suspicious had he gone to Florida, Puerto Rico, or even the U.S. Virgin Islands (no passport)...but at least now we know what he was looking at on his phone during the impeachment proceedings.

Ambassador Nikki Haley deserves her corpse flowers while she can still smell them too. She thought she was so special, the smart one who could play chicken and not end up on a platter. Remember how she didn't really like Trump at first, then he gave her that nice job? But he kept embarrassing her so she broke up with him, but still wanted to be friends. And instead of taking that L in private by not telling the world that he had de-friended her and blocked her number, she decided to promote the narrative that at least she tried. She's the bigger person; he's the immature one (but maybe she thought we didn't notice that after all these years of name-calling and bullying).

Girl, BYE! We know Melania intercepted that booty call. Or was it Hope Hicks or Kayleigh McEnany or Lady Ivanka who told you to stop making a fool of yourself because he don't want you no more. His new boo is Marjorie Taylor Greene.

Mother Maya told us when people show you who they are, believe them. Brother Martin said the time is always right to do what is right. Saint Mother Teresa said that we should do things for others not because of who they are or for what they can do for us in return, but because of who we are. Baba Mandela said it is easy to break down and destroy, so real heroes are those who make peace and build. Great Uncle Mark Twain said a half-truth is the most cowardly of lies. And Brother Malcolm already told us about those chickens...

Cluck cluck.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Dance With the Devil in the Pale Moonlight

If you recognize the title from that line in the original Batman movie (Tim Burton and Michael Keaton), which came out in 1989, then that is the metaphor I plan to use to describe my sentiments in the wake of Rush Limbaugh's recent death. If you listened to his show on a regular basis, chances are you don't read my writing and wouldn't stumble across my blog except as a secret sexual fetish...

I have lots of thoughts about Limbaugh, but I don't plan to list any of his myriad sins or call him names or relish the irony that he died smack dab in the middle of Black History Month just over two weeks after his final sign off. I don't care that he was charitable. I don't care that he was generous showy with his wealth. I don't care if he had some last minute come-to-Jesus/Rosebud moment on his deathbed either.

I don't really believe in Karma, and his death doesn't change that for me. On the same day, I learned that a woman who had been living under a bridge near my parents died. She kept all of her worldly possessions in garbage bags and in an abandoned shopping cart. I think she sometimes slept in a donated tent or atop a pile. I know that my Dad would sometimes offer her money for food, which she declined. I know that others offered to assist her and that several times when she was taken to an indoor shelter, it was short-lived because she usually returned to the bridge.

Who else died in the past year since Limbaugh was paraded out in front of the world to receive that Presidential Medal of Freedom? I wonder if any of these folks who have been falling all over themselves to laud Limbaugh have any sympathy for them.

So if you are reading this, I'm pretty sure that you get the point of the title--Rush Limbaugh was the pale moonlight. And his fans who have pulled out their sackcloth and ashes (while chiding the rest of us for our apathy and impassiveness) have been dancing with evil all of these years. My advice is to let them mourn this lunar eclipse...in return, let us not dance euphorically on his grave, lest we become what he represented.

Which was a man who earned infamy and a lot of money for the vile things he said about people of color, women, Muslims, Democrats, and anyone else whom he could ridicule and belittle with impunity. I refuse to trade places with him and his followers by dredging up his hypocrisy to justify any ill will I might feel about the 30+ years he polluted the airways. He's gone, the end.

Last month, I took my daughter with me to church to participate in an outdoor community service project. It was one of those charitable gestures that we applaud ourselves for engaging in because it makes us feel good (and we get to post pictures of our goodness on social media as proof). What folks like Limbaugh would call virtue signalling; whereas folks like my Dad would call it living our faith. I brought her with me to teach her a few lessons about life.

The first lesson: life ain't fair. I cannot explain why there are unhoused people living on the street within blocks of the Capitol or in the doorways of churches or under bridges in discontinued tents donated from the expensive outdoor living store. I cannot explain why some people felt so disenfranchised and forgotten that they booked flights and chartered private planes to fly here to storm the Capitol building six weeks ago. Nor can I explain why their feelings of entitlement somehow supersede real deprivation, desperation, and hunger.

The second lesson: do no harm. Be mindful of the words that you speak. Be intentional in your actions. Be what you want to see in the world, because both your words and actions will often reflect the world you strive to create around you.

Third lesson: our journey on this plane of existence is finite. We don't know why life isn't fair, but since we know that it isn't, then what really matters is what we do between the dates that get written in eternity. You will be remembered for everything, maybe not by everybody, but a significant portion of your life will be recalled for its impact on others. And that could mean your good work gets overshadowed by controversy, scandal, and notoriety. Or, your worst moments may get obscured by your generosity of spirit. How do you want to be remembered?

If there are a lot of people left behind who can't say anything good about you, as well as a chorus of others who recount your life in terms of how offensive you were and how it articulated all of the deplorable sentiments they also hold...then there really isn't much I need to add. I was never that good at writing fiction.

Instead, I am choosing to remember the woman from under the bridge. I don't know if anyone ever got the details of her story beyond her name. I hope someone will write about her tenacity in insisting to live on her own terms, even if we never knew exactly what those terms were. Since we may not be able to recall the specific details of her life, perhaps we can look inside ourselves to determine what more we could have done for her or for others in her predicament. Should there be a social safety net that provides services for people or do we let them fend for themselves? Do we drive past or walk over the undesirable aspects of life that we can't understand, or do we stop to help? Do we collect the trash, power wash the spot, and forget? Or do we remember that on the same day, a man who built an empire of mean-spiritedness also died, and because I knew exactly who he was, the last lesson I want my daughter to glean is:

Never dance with the devil in the pale moonlight.

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Bombshell

I watched the film Bombshell (2019) last night and I was left almost speechless. So I tried to sleep it off, but could not, because it was just that disturbing. I wrote most of this while half awake and STILL very agitated (I'm editing now after a midday nap).

As usual, I missed this movie when it was released. I don't recall being terribly interested in the story of the sexual harassment claims brought by the likes of Gretchen Carlson and Megyn 'Jesus -is-white-and-Santa-too' Kelly against Roger Ailes. I guess I assumed it was a given that a network that treated women on camera like spokesmodels selling sports cars would itself be the hot tub of sexism. I knew that was a timely exposé given the wave of #MeToo claims by women in other industries, particularly Hollywood. I just thought it was ironic that of all the stories to dramatize, the one chosen to illustrate the toxicity of sexism in our society would feature a bunch of self-interested white women capitalizing on a hashtag that had been co-opted from a Black woman activist.

Yet, I chose to watch the movie because I have been on a binge of sorts, and as I opt for anything other than 24 hour cable news, I thought it would be entertaining, rather poetic, and almost a too delicious pot of irony calling the kettle sexist. In hindsight, I probably should have watched more MSNBC (instead I was up all night watching Sex and the City reruns)...

I won't spoil the movie in case you haven't seen it or plan to watch, but WOW. I feel like I have been saying this repeatedly over the course of the last four year or more, but sexism is the ism that we tolerate and it will be the ism that destroys us. That statement doesn't absolve racism or nationalism of their lethality, but I just need everyone to know that fealty to the patriarchy is just as dangerous and destructive.

But don't take my word for it. At our collective peril, continue to regard sexism as a less insidious form of bias. Sexism is what fuels the hatred and disrespect for Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Sexism is what was unveiled by the plot to kidnap Governor Gretchen Wilmer of Michigan. Sexism is why the acting Capitol Police Chief, Yogananda Pittman got a vote of no-confidence and is being held to account for the lapses in preparedness against the insurrectionists on January 6 (because her predecessor quit). Sexism is why thirty-three state legislatures have proposed new voter restrictions in response to the 2020 election because the face of increased ballot access is a Black woman. Sexism is how a certain boot-licking Senator from South Carolina can go on television and suggest that Vice President Kamala Harris could get impeached as a form of revenge for supporting a bail fund for Black Lives Matter protestors.

Sexism is what elevated a con man fake billionaire reality TV show game show host with no governing experience to the most important job on the planet. We could have lived through four more years of Hillary and Bill Clinton given that we brought back everything else from the 90s. But no... y'all wanted the 80s. So that brought us the ultimate Abominable Snowflake: a man who threatened a state official in Georgia to find or toss more votes; who summoned angry mobs to the Nation's Capital; who cheered on said mobs while they ransacked the Capitol; who then refused to call off said mob as they hunted for his Vice President to capture and possibly kill; and who denied access to the National Guard from a neighboring state. The man y'all just acquitted (again) for all of these actual high crimes and misdemeanors. 

I said I wouldn't spoil the movie, but the plot of Bombshell centers around Roger Ailes and his 20 years of sexist shenanigans at FOX News. By the end, it felt very much like I had watched a dramatization of the last four years. Only the outcome was the classic stuff of Hollywood hubris--Ailes was taken down by mutiny. Gretchen Carlson's objective was not to bring down the emperor for his crimes against all of the women at her network, it was to bring him down for having demoted and humiliated her. She knew there were other women who had endured his harassment, but only got the courage to stand when her fortunes shifted. As for Megyn Kelly, coming forward was clearly part of her contract negotiations and her cheap shot of revenge against Ailes for making her play nice with Trump after he insulted her

Don't worry--you will not feel any sympathy for these people. While you get the sense that the women who have remained at FOX are trapped, only a few of them appear to mind. The best depiction of Stockholm syndrome is when Kelly coldly informs one of Ailes' victims that no one at the network had a duty to protect her. That in order to become the next Judge Jeanine Pirro, Laura Ingraham, or the next ex-Mrs. Trump (because there is always an opening), the law of the jungle is to kill or be killed.

If there is such a thing as karma, then it has already dealt with Ailes, who died within a year of leaving his lair at FOX. Kelly's soft landing at NBC News was short-lived and Carlson is now doing documentaries for Lifetime after a controversial tenure with the Miss America Organization. But are those real consequences in the grand scheme of things when compared to the collateral damage done by their evil deeds or selective blindness to evil? Ailes was old and in declining health anyway. Sure, Carlson and Kelly no longer enjoy the perks of being the darlings of conservative media, but they ain't hurting financially. And the Frankenstein monster they created and unleashed, he who has metaphorically killed at least half a million people on 5th Avenue over the course of his four years in office and been acquitted of abusing his power twice? He lost his Twitter account...

I tossed and turned all night, agitated by the collateral damage left in the wake of these bombs bursting in and on air. In all of the years that FOX News has been selling alternative facts and narratives, the truth has always been manipulated or mishandled to serve the needs of weak men to maintain their vice grip on power. That much was confirmed in the first five minutes when the film concedes that Trump's ascension was useful to Ailes and the Murdochs. The real bombshell has very little to do with the individual details of what happened at FOX, or at Miramax, or on the Access Hollywood tape, or with whomever Justin Timberlake has screwed with his fuck boi tendencies.

The real bombshell is that a lot of what we see is subterfuge. Makeup. Lighting. Short skirts. Clear desks. Blond ambition. And even when women prevail or succeed in dismantling some hallowed bastion of patriarchy, we still get paid less.


Thursday, February 11, 2021

Black History Month for Dummies

I already know that provocative title will antagonize the very folks I need to read this piece, but I am willing to risk it for the point of stating the obvious:

BLACK HISTORY MONTH IS NOT JUST FOR BLACK PEOPLE!

I can sing it, if you like, but I know that will turn everyone else off...so just trust me on this. I know that there is a historical narrative that suggests its singular importance is to ensure that Black children (and adults who missed a lot depending on when and where they went to school) would learn about the contributions and achievements of the African people who were brought to or emigrated to this country. And that would be correct. But the point was also to educate other non-Black folks about those same contributions and achievements in case there were any doubts about such things.

So here we are, in 2021, debating the right of parents in Utah (of all places) to participate in Black History Month. Like, I need to know, are they suggesting that the month of February is optional and those 28 days can be made up at a later time and date? Of course not, but I guess that's why I'm questioning how/why/who/what/when/where do they do that?

I sat down to opine on the matter on my Facebook page, but it triggered a memory that I had not exactly suppressed, but one that I now realize was pretty significant. It was from my high school days, which some of you know were...not my favorite. The only worse period of my life was middle school and because therapy is expensive, methodical, and takes too long, y'all can feel free to send more wine and chips to help me process the pain after you read this.

But before I delve into the past, I need to update that the school in question, Maria Montessori Academy (and yes, we're going to touch on that aspect too), has rescinded that policy and will not allow parents to opt out. I may decide to check in later this month to see how that worked out for them, but if you read the story in the Post, it will shed some light on the history of the request and how the situation on the ground changed from last week. 

Now let's go back in time to when your favorite Busy Black Woman was a girl starting school in the late 1970s in DC Public Schools when Black History Week was expanded to Black History Month. What I remember, which is why it merits this mention, was that we learned the basics: slavery, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, bus boycott, Rosa Parks, MLK, and Jesse Jackson. And Jackson was bonus material because at the time, he was the most prominent Black person in the universe. I must note that I was in Pre-Kindergarten at the time, so that was the extent of what one would have expected a four year old to understand. 

Because DC was a Chocolate City on the cusp of electing an activist Black mayor and nearly everybody in DCPS at the time was a Black educator (including my Mom and two Aunts), we got a LOT of Black History all year round. The same could not be said for my Catholic middle school, but it was located in an all-Black middle class neighborhood, so they had no choice but to be down. Even the white hippie priest who taught us religion went out of his way to incorporate Black culture into the Mass (like for real because he came in one Monday after watching Lilies of the Field and all I can say is Amen).

So where things changed for me was in high school, where for the first time, I was in an integrated environment. In 1988 during the second half of my sophomore year, our principal suggested making our in-school Black History Month program after-school optional. And while her reasons were practical and generically race-neutral, that was not the spirit in which it was received.

A few random, but relevant details: My high school was located in Maryland, just over the DC line, in an adjoining county. My high school was integrated, like most Catholic schools had been, but there had been more white students than others prior to the mid to late 80s during my matriculation. Unbelievable to anyone who lives there now, but back then, Prince George's County was more rural than suburban, so that meant school cancellations due to inclement weather were common. That year, there was a lot of snow in January which resulted in about six to eight snow days, or nearly two full weeks of missed school. Thus the dilemma for the principal and the school community was how to make up those lost instruction days without canceling Spring Break or adding on a week of school in May. The decision was made to alter our daily schedule and to move a few of the special school assemblies that would have taken place during the school day to after school. On its face, very straight-forward, right?

But then there were the devilish details beginning with the fact that one of the days that was counted as lost was MLK Day. And it was mentioned that the loss of that day, in addition to President's Day, needed to be included in the make up days. In DC MLK Day was a mandatory day off on January 15 until it became an established federal holiday; now that I was in a different state and county, MLK had to be added to the school calendar. That happened for the first time in 1987 and now it had become problematic because of the snow.

There was also the fact that our school had begun to undergo rather dramatic demographic shifts with each incoming class, so there were a lot of adjustments...some of which I alluded to here. I also must mention that there was only one Black teacher at the school the entire time and how strongly I suspected that most of the Black girls were intentionally tracked. Not that those facts imply that it was a hostile racist environment (because that was not the case), but as we know, prejudice and unconscious bias aren't necessarily overt acts.

Therefore, when it was suggested that the Black History Program could take place after school so that it would not interfere with the new schedule, my militant little ears heard that Black History Month was an extraneous activity. It was optional, but the in-school science fair assembly, weekly Mass, and the honors assembly were non-negotiable aspects of school life. Nor was our annual May Day celebration, our in-school club activities, or Big Sister/Little Sister Day rescheduled.

I was by no means a student leader, so even though I definitely floated the idea of some kind of in-school protest, I was not the only person who suggested it. Nor was I the only student whose parents vocally expressed their disappointment with the decision, and knowing my Mother...

The decision was reversed and the program was held. I don't remember what concession we had to accept in exchange, but as I have mentioned in the past, it was one of several accommodations that probably led to the nuns throwing up holy hands and closing the whole school down a few years later.

Most of you know that in another past life, I taught History on the University level, and to say that more than 75% of my students were amazed to learn so much in my classes is not a humble brag, but a truism that many students got no more than the same basic stuff I was taught in elementary school. Most of them could name most of the Very Important Black People (VIBP) that had been written into the curriculum since the 90s, yet almost none of them could explain why some of those people were significant. My favorite example of that is always George Washington Carver--they all knew about how he found hundreds of uses for the peanut, but none of them knew why that mattered.

For what it is worth, if you don't know, it isn't because you didn't have an in-school Black History program. It is because all you had was that in-school Black History Program. Or because you only got to see documentaries about VIBP on Sundays in February. Or because Black parents don't want their children chosen to dramatize segregation and racism for poorly designed school demonstration projects. And these days, everybody is afraid to read any literature in which the N-word is used. 

Not even if you grew up in a Blackity Black household where there was a stack of EBONY and JET magazines, which you religiously read (but also used for your annual Black History Month collages) or had a Black encyclopedia set you loved to read for pleasure. So when I tell you that I was a repository of random Black History facts with the trophies to prove it, color me shocked when I realized that even my understanding of George Washington Carver and his work with peanuts was lacking. And you can't get that much depth in 28 days or in a 90 minute school assembly.

That brings me to the wasted hour I spent reading the 1776 Commission Report this past MLK weekend. Mind you, I already knew it was trash based on who commissioned it and the fact that it was literally the most significant thing Trump did other than foment insurrection during his last days in office. Quite possibly the capstone of alternative facts, this report illuminates the spectrum of opinions that reveal why my high school principal and those parents in Utah felt justified in sidelining Black History as optional. On the one hand, imagine being the well-meaning nun who didn't think her modest proposal was problematic, just practical. On the other hand, imagine being Montessori parents--fully invested in the philosophy and lifestyle of empowering children to make choices and expecting to receive those same rights as parents. According to the 1776 Commission, we've been demanding too much diversity and change over the past thirty or so years. It has been our insistence on truth-telling that has led to these destructive counter-narratives of America as country still struggling with racism...

Yeah, it is our fault that if you were an ardent admirer of Thomas Jefferson's words and accomplishments, the truth that he was a hypocrite who enslaved his own children might be an irreconcilable character flaw. Or that we see poetic justice in these alleged new discoveries at Monticello where the truth has been buried all of these years. Because while this mildly irreverent depiction of Jefferson is entertaining, it doesn't quite compare to this almost 220 year old satirical cartoon.

Imagine having the option to hear the truth. Imagine the luxury of a worldview that can choose whether the Black experience is relevant for 28 days (and imagine having that power to determine the same for other marginalized groups). And the reason for exercising the option not to engage really doesn't have to be articulated because I already know that it unearths inconvenient and less heroic details about your ancestors. Obviously, there are no good reasons to deal with race in Utah--the only state in that western region of the country to allow slavery.

The passage of 30+ years has given me perspective and compassion for my high school principal, but that doesn't mean that she didn't deserve to be called to account for her decision. Hindsight has allowed me to see the situation from her point of view, and until now, I never gave her much credit for accommodating us. I am not giving her credit now for her reversal, because it should not have come to that point (by the way, I don't think we celebrated Women's History Month and this was an all-girls' school). Instead, I appreciate that she had made an error in judgment and took corrective steps. She removed her rose colored glasses, squinted past her privilege, and I'm hoping that she and my peers saw something from whatever performances, skits, factoids, etc. we presented on that program. I hope that it made some kind of lasting impression beyond entertainment.

One loose end to tie up: George Washington Carver's studies of the peanut, sweet potato, and soybeans were to encourage use of those crops to aid in soil enrichment. Cotton, which was the primary cash crop of the time would deplete the land of nutrients, so field rotation allowed for restoration of the soil. Carver's studies found alternative commercial and industrial uses for those crops in addition to food.

Sure, those are details to his story that are not dependent on having a dedicated month to Black achievement. Ideally, Carver's work should be as noteworthy as Eli Whitney's invention of the cotton gin, or be taught with units about the Depression and its impact on rural America. And we can still highlight his significance during the month of February, along with other Black scientists and inventors such as Lewis Latimer, Garrett Morgan, Ernest Everett Just, Granville T. Woods...

And now perhaps it makes sense why we start with a dedicated month.

Friday, February 5, 2021

Get On With It

The spirit that people are urging the country and the Congress to just heal and move on is the same spirit that tells Black people that slavery was 150+ years ago, so just move on. It is the same spirit that denies the Holocaust. It is the same energy that fuels conspiracy theories that the Sandy Hook children and their families were paid actors. It is exactly the same as the disbelief and conspiracies surrounding 9/11. It is the same bullshit argument that the coronavirus isn't really that bad. It is evil.

There are a lot of things I would identify as evil because I have lived long enough to see it face to face. As someone who lived through 9/11 in DC, who eventually lost her job because of the repercussions, and whose life had to adjust to all manner of shifts and changes in its aftermath, I assure you that what happened that day was real. And as a nation, we didn't just get on with it, as if no one watched those towers fall or cared that it happened in a blue state. We demanded accountability, and to this day, we are still at war in the countries where the hijackers were radicalized. Still.

So don't tell us to get over January 6, 2021. Don't tell us to suck it up or to live and let live as if the only harm done was a little property damage. That is akin to suggesting that the millions who perished in the Holocaust were just collateral damage in a worldwide war. No, we can't be that cavalier or dismissive of what happened that day, nor can we simply allow the person who incited that mob to retire to Florida to play out the rest of his days on the golf course, with the only consequence of his crimes being the loss of his Twitter account...

Like most people who have been observers of tragedy, I emerged emotionally unscathed only because it touched me on the margins. I never met anyone who was a slave. I wasn't born until years after the Holocaust. I didn't know anyone who died in those plane crashes on 9/11. When a sniper was terrorizing the DC area in 2002, I didn't know anyone who had been in their crosshairs, even though everybody was a potential target. I haven't been personally affected by any school or workplace or church or nightclub or other shooting rampage at a public venue where people are not supposed to worry about possibly getting shot. Yet, my lack of personal experience with these atrocities does not diminish my capacity to empathize with the victims or survivors.

So as I watched the Capitol siege on television in real time (because I am the kind of politics junkie who tunes into C-Span in the middle of the day), I am grateful that I missed being in the vicinity of the melee. My daughter's teacher wisely chose to postpone their in-person socially-distanced weekly gathering at the playground three blocks from the Senate Office Buildings due to the possibility of chaos. Weeks later, I can go about my normal life and look past the military installation that has been built around the Capitol. I can take notice of, then drive around the unscalable fencing topped with barbed wire or the tanks with armed sentries posted at every entrance. I have plenty of other distractions to help me carry on as if a bunch of disgruntled lunatics hadn't felt so emboldened as to set fire to the house in order to swat at a spider.

Except I was closer to the Capitol rampage than just mere miles. My first cousin is a Capitol police officer, has been since I worked there in 1999. I haven't had a chance to ask him any specific questions about what he witnessed or experienced but I know that several of his colleagues suffered physical injuries and there is untold PTSD throughout the ranks. If it is true that there were collaborators on the inside (and I have every reason to believe that there were, particularly those who opened the doors and let the rioters in), then imagine having to work with people you cannot trust? With folks who were complicit in an uprising that could have gotten you killed?

Obviously from the public safety perspective, those who stormed the Capitol put my cousin, his colleagues, every Senator and Member of Congress, their staffs, the building facilitators, as well as those who work at the Supreme Court, the Library of Congress, Union Station, the various churches, restaurants, and every other small business in that vicinity--in danger. ALL OF THOSE PEOPLE left their houses for work that morning, already facing the uncertain risk of being too essential to work from home, unaware that they might not live to see the end of the day. All because a mob of hysterics sought to avenge an election that was lost by millions of votes. On a deeper level, one that is not hyperbolic, our democracy was at risk. Take a look at what just happened in Myanmar and that is literally what could have happened here on January 6.

So miss me with talk about healing and moving on unless that dude in the horns and facepaint gets the death penalty. Then I might object to excessive or disproportionate sentences...although this band of insurgents came to my city, erected a hanging gallows, and were hunting lawmakers to impose mob justice. So eff that, if y'all decide to force-feed him inorganic produce until it kills him, I won't shed any tears.

I will save my emotions for young men like Kalief Browder, who languished in jail for failure to make bail for a crime he didn't commit. Or for the Exonerated Five, whom your Trump demanded be executed for crimes they didn't commit. Having been thwarted in that endeavor, King Donald the Chicken-Hearted quenched his blood lust by executing five federal prisoners before the Inauguration. My tears are reserved for Atatiana Jefferson, Bothem Jean, and Breonna Taylor who died in their homes...the women killed in direct contradiction of the castle laws that shielded and made heroes of the McCloskeys. No, we can't just move on and heal.

We can't move on when the aforementioned McCloskeys got prime-time business promotion during the Republican National Convention and pardons because they imagined that they were being threatened by folks marching past their house in the middle of the street. Nobody vandalized their cars, no one was caught peeing in their pool, no one's dog shit on their lawn, but a group of Black protestors entered their gated community and that was sufficient to brandish their guns. A Black child cannot even play with a toy gun in a public park, nor can a Black man with a legally concealed gun in his car just drive off with a ticket, but we're supposed to believe that the McCloskeys fears were rational. We're supposed to sympathize with whiners who got upset that 74 million voters didn't prevail over 81 million because now we're doubting math and science?

No, we won't move on while the co-conspirators freely walk the halls of Congress. When the co-agitators can obstruct the functioning of government as a bargaining chip. When it is all but assured that the former President will be acquitted again, in spite of preponderant, clear, convincing, beyond any reasonable doubt that he sanctioned the attempted assassination of his Vice President, the Speaker of the House, and other members of a co-equal branch of government. We Will Not Just Move On. 

Yeah, we're tired, but injustice is a relentless foe. We know how to anticipate your moves, so we're staying organized and galvanized and prayed up and vigilant. Our cameras will always be on. We are going to call out your hypocrisy at every turn. (I bought a megaphone last month, and I know how to use it.)

So get on with it--do what you will to push back against progress. Remain indignant that we are encroaching on territory that you once claimed as yours...don't worry about making space at the table because we've brought our own chairs. Stay mad that the first woman to become Vice President of the United States is the Black Indian-American daughter of immigrants instead of one of your "real" American spokesmodels. Explain why the waitress-turned Congresswoman who live-tweeted the whereabouts of the Speaker (third in the line of Presidential succession) during the insurrection hasn't been sanctioned for her participation. The justify why it is more dangerous to de-platform Congressional Qaren than it was to ever let her to get elected in the first place. Allow former President Quack, the man who systematically destroys everything in his wake with his lies, evil policies, and butt hurt ego to just ride away from the wreckage on one of his little golf carts. Get on with the lie that we're all equal and white privilege isn't real when we've got to fight just to maintain the few rights we've attained.

Better yet, get on with your delusions that racism, sexism, antisemitism, Islamophobia, ageism, ableism, homophobia, xenophobia, nationalism, exceptionalism, and crony capitalism were the secret sauce of American greatness. Your coup to take America back in time to some idyllic utopia failed, so you get on with it.