Wednesday, July 1, 2020

The Wind is Back

For every step forward we take in ridding ourselves of racist pancake mix and out-dated amusement park theme rides, we take two steps backwards with federal executive orders protecting statues, white people rioting at the Trader Joe's, and Gone With the Wind returning to HBO Max. We should have known that the first two steps were forthcoming--the DESPOTUS had a bad weekend of headlines and that nice lady just wanted some brie. And in all honesty, I knew the third step would happen eventually because y'all just love Miss Scarlett O'Hara.

Not that I blame you. She is the original Steel Magnolia.

Before I delve into a critique of this most interesting culture war chess move (because it was absolute genius to get a Black woman to explain that reversal), let me admit that I have been known to watch GWTW at least once a year when it airs on Turner Classic Movies (TCM). It has been my intention for quite some time to come clean with that confession, and to make all kinds of excuses why I subject myself to this annual tortuous melodrama. But I never had a good enough reason until now.

So here is a quick history: I first saw this film as a child. It aired on television, and my Dad must have been out of town because I remember seeing it with my Mom. I'm sure that I didn't watch the entire movie in that setting, but I definitely recall the scene when Butterfly McQueen's Prissy got slapped. And I remembered her from the ABC Afterschool Special where she portrayed a fairy godmother. The detail that my Dad must have been out of town is very significant as he would NEVER allow us to watch that movie in his house. (And as an aside, I'm pretty sure that when Song of the South was re-released in the theaters a few years later, that was a solo trip with Mom because I can't imagine he would have stood for that either.) Fast forward to my college years in Atlanta where the film could be seen daily at the CNN Center, or at least once a year when it aired on TBS. I think I watched it over Thanksgiving weekend the semester before I took my Images of Women in the Media class. A few years later when I was in law school, I tried again, but was drunk by the second half...

We shan't address that though. Instead, we will address how GWTW aired for years with no disclaimers, context, or other attempts to mollify the feelings of Black viewers. GWTW is so embedded in our culture that despite my intentional efforts to avoid it, that was nearly impossible in the South where I lived for seven years. I lived in Margaret Mitchell's Atlanta and Belle Watling's brothel (New Orleans). There is always some popular reference to it, such as this famous Carol Burnett Show sketch or the controversial spoof written by Alice Randall, The Wind Done Gone (2001). Every tall, dark, and handsome scoundrel on television is a version of Rhett Butler (here's looking at you, Victor Newman). Dedicated viewers of the Academy Awards recognize that the play-off music when someone is talking too long is the GWTW theme.

(And as a humorous aside, I thought GWTW was originally a black and white film that had been colorized by Ted Turner. Part of the reason why I believed he insisted on showing it every day was to rub the fact that he owned it in the face of his critics...but I was wrong. The original movie had been filmed in color; however, Turner did colorize a bunch of other classic films, hilariously spoofed here. I really want to add a bad pun right now, but read on.)

Years later when I was teaching and I finally had cable, I decided to watch the movie again to help me understand this idea of the Lost Cause. Somehow providence had aligned the timing, so I watched this film in its entirety, sober and with an open mind. On the one hand, there is the historical context and the convenient glossing over of major issues (in particular, the night raid scene which was technically a Klan rally gone awry); on the other, there is the love story. There are several other layers to this film that I will briefly interpret for your consideration: Scarlett is no heroine; Ashley Wilkes is a fuck boi; Rhett Butler is an abusive asshole; Bonnie Blue is a cautionary warning to all of us raising these spoiled ass children; and everybody who hates Scarlett is a mean girl coward.

As for the is obvious why Hattie McDaniel won the Oscar. She steals every scene that she is in, and with all due respect to Olivia de Havilland (who was also nominated), it is not random tokenism that resulted in McDaniel becoming the first Black recipient of an Academy Award. And while I will never understand her acquiescence to segregation in her attendance at the ceremony, I won't second-guess her earnest assumption that this would be the biggest night of her career. It was, and she never achieved any subsequent career triumphs, nor has the passage of time afforded her any more respect--not even from the institution where she bequeathed that Oscar.

Apart from that, I understand the enduring allure and seductive power of GWTW. Once we look past the antebellum bullshit and the overuse of the word honor, there is a compelling story that pits a woman against a changing world for which her ruthlessness equips her to handle better than nearly everyone else in her orbit. To really get the point of this movie is to ignore the fainting Aunt Pitifuls and jealous rivals, the ridiculous love triangle, and even the Confederate flag to see that Scarlett O'Hara doesn't give a damn about any of that. Her goal is to survive, and in that most pivotal scene at the end of the first act when she vows never to be hungry again, she makes good on that promise for herself and everyone around her.

That is how I got sucked in. Once I chose to ignore all of the egregious melodrama and Southern redemption themes, I saw the heart of the film. Yet, that is what makes all of us guilty in perpetuating the mythology of timelessness and greatness all of these years. We see what we want to see. From the very beginning of the film with its anticipation of the coming insurrection to the physical and emotional abuse Scarlett endures from Rhett, this movie is TERRIBLE. Why can't we see that? In comparison, only but the most die-hard fans shed tears for Song of the South, which has been locked away in the Disney vault since the 1990s. It has a lot of the same revisionist themes (at least from what I remember having seen it 35+ years ago)--well, it gave us Zippidee Doo Dah and earned James Baskett a special Oscar. Surely that is epitome of the American Dream, to receive special recognition from his peers for his convincing portrayal a formerly enslaved person? Yep, that sounds just as bad as the lies she tells herself about her racist pancake batter.

We only see the racism if we want to see it. We can pretend that the night raid scene was some gallant effort at protecting Scarlett's feminine honor because that is what Saint Mellie said, or we can instinctively know better. The warning not to drive through Shantytown unheeded, Scarlett was either going to be raped by the white guys or robbed by the Black guy (or both) until Big Sam came to her rescue. She had been such a good Mistress, so of course for his troubles he probably got a hot meal cooked by Mammy and some new shoes. And maybe the opportunity to work Tara again, or a job at her lumber mill--golden opportunities both, to live the American dream by returning to the very conditions he had been in prior to the war.

Ever think about why there was a Shantytown on the outskirts of Atlanta, why in the midst of the rebuilding and prosperity that kept Scarlett clad in her fancy frocks, there was such homelessness and deprivation? Perhaps it is because you missed the conversation that took place just prior to her ill-fated ride wherein Scarlett insisted that her use of convicts to work her mill was justified to keep her from losing Tara. Convict leasing was another form of labor exploitation, similar to sharecropping...previously known as slavery. And what were those nice Christian ladies sewing? I'm guessing bedsheets.

GWTW euphemizes what Birth of a Nation (1915) put on full display.

But y'all refuse to let it blow away, so you asked Jacqueline Stewart to give you permission cover to revive it. Don't think that detail had slipped my notice. So this is what happens when you finally decide to listen to Black women? The effort expended on defending this movie pales in comparison to the effort put into finding Hattie McDaniel's missing Oscar. Yeah, don't think that I let that detail escape my notice either. If anyone really cared about ensuring her work was appreciated, they would lobby the Academy to replace her statue. Seriously, just present another one to her surviving family and let them decide what to do with it.

Or just admit that your plantation fantasies are the real American dream. Your love of Scarlett O'Hara is no different than your admiration for every other beautiful 'benevolent' billionaire--you don't care about the hurt feelings of Black people because our humiliation is part of the fantasy too. The enslaved, migrant farm workers, the undocumented, the incarcerated, essential workers, etc., we live in Shantytown, not on plantation estates or golf courses. We sit at the small table in the back corner of the room, waiting to collect worthless consolation prizes for which you congratulate yourselves for conferring on us. If we're still offended after 80 years of you telling us that this is just a movie...frankly, why should you give a damn.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

In Search of Our Mother's Gardens

My inner Boho Busy Black Woman is quite pleased. I am sitting outside in my backyard, dressed in a flowing caftan, and surrounded by growing plants. I have a functioning compost pile where I deposit daily food scraps. What I don't compost, I am attempting to re-grow (so far an onion and some celery look promising). I found all of the pieces to my juicer and may try a new juice concoction later (nah, I'll pour a drink instead).

I don't know whose life this is, but I kinda like it.

What I mean by that is, I had an epiphany this morning as I sat outside in my backyard for my daily prayer call. I was pulling double duty, so I was up a little earlier and sat bundled in a small blanket because the air was still crisp and moist with morning dew. Right before I dialed into the first call, I took a moment to breathe in the scene--there were all kinds of birds and the white noise of my neighbor's A/C unit. At the end of the second call, I inhaled again and felt transported to some distant memory of a scene that didn't quite mesh with my usual Busy Black life. Familiar, yet strange to feel so at peace in the midst of pandemic and protest chaos.

The last time I had a summer garden was the year I got pregnant. I mentioned this on the Facebook page the other day, and I promise to tell the full story of the zucchini plant that foretold the coming of this rambunctious girl child I had the following Spring. (I checked the archives and realized I wasn't writing during that time period, so stay tuned for another post.) She is very excited, yet easily bored and disinterested in this gardening effort. Though not at all surprising, I am proud to say that she did maintain her focus long enough to help me plant some of what is now growing.

Is it a vision of my life I am channeling in these peaceful moments, or is it a memory of a scene that belonged to one of my foremothers? Is it my Grandmother Viola's tiny front-yard flower bed, full of store bought annuals that came from Eastern Market a few blocks away? I look at my unproductive and diseased peach tree and remember how the one in her ivy-covered yard, planted by the careless toss of a peach pit by my mother and her younger brother as children, flourished and yielded edible fruit for years without much effort. Or at least I was unaware that anyone affirmatively did anything intentional to keep it alive from year to year. I wonder should I dare to resuscitate mine since the squirrels and the deer probably wouldn't let the fruit ripen to maturity.

Is it my Grandmother Amanda's flowering bushes that framed the front and side yard of her little house? She had the typical assortment of what I call nice-lady bushes: azaleas, Rose of Sharon, hydrangea, roses, and probably others that I cannot remember. She and the other nice ladies bonded over their bushes, grandchildren, and the slower pace of retired life. There was also an evergreen bush that produced berries she cautioned me never to eat and a giant blue spruce that I called the Christmas tree. I remember it being a sore point when the next owner (my cousin) cut it down and planted an old rusted cab in its place. Or maybe it was Mrs. W's backyard oasis, one of Grandma's neighbors and church buddies, who had upped the ante with a fish pond (funny how I hadn't thought about any of that in years)!

Is it my MIL Martina's urban vegetable garden that had to be protected from her ball-tossing sons and their friends? The Hub recalls that she grew tomatoes and that his father had to install chicken-wire fencing to shield the plants. When I knew her, arthritis prevented her from gardening, but she still maintained various house plants outside on a deck that overlooked the street.

Is it Soror B's garden? Every year I marvel at her hot peppers, collard greens, and other garden delights, so this year I am attempting to duplicate her success in containers. I cannot wait to share pictures with her as they grow. I want to install flower beds similar to hers around my little patio and maybe plant flowers that the deer won't find appetizing. Or is it Soror M's backyard paradise, where for years, we gathered every August for new student send-offs? Like my Grandma Amanda, her house is framed by the same assortment of nice-lady bushes in the front yard and along the sides, but then the backyard transforms to an extensive outdoor mancave/she-shed. There is a grill built into what looks like a fireplace or an altar that is the focal point, along with a lounge/entertainment space decorated with potted flowers. Come to think of it, that appears to be a common pattern...

Mrs. E, Mrs. B, Mrs. M, Mrs. F all planted the same nice-lady bushes in the front of their homes, and then ceded some space for their husbands' side projects out back. Of course, that was not how it worked with my Mother. Audrey wanted nothing to do with nice-lady bushes, and my Dad was never granted a special place for any outdoor hobbies. She did have azaleas planted by the front door after she pulled up some evergreens and our basement flooded. She maintained two respectable flower beds on either side of those azaleas that are now overgrown with vinca and other assorted weeds. Since her illness, no one has tended to those beds, and while it has been something of an annoyance that I am the only person who gives it much thought, I may spend Independence Day this year digging up and planting something special for her. 

As I scrolled through my Facebook timeline after the prayer calls, I saw posts of friends with pictures from their gardens, all in various stages of development. Some were planted weeks or months ahead of mine, so they could show off first fruits. Others were planted a bit after mine, so they were excited about first buds. Some people bought already established plants while others started from seed. All of us are excited, so perhaps I might start an online group for us to share our progress. I have also wondered whether it would be worth the effort to revisit my old garden blog to track mine.

While admiring their work, I remembered the Alice Walker book and essay that gave this piece its title. It has been quite a while since I last read it, but it seems so appropriate in this moment. All of us who are planting flowers or vegetables or maintaining fruit trees, how many of us are channeling memories spent with a mother, grandmother, or aunt who tended a garden? How many of us recall how those women came home after a hard day or week of unappreciated work that never paid them what they were worth? How many of those women taught us indirectly how to create art and beauty in our own special way?

Having just written about the liberation of Mammy, my head is still in that space of recognizing how extraordinarily gifted our mothers, aunts, and grandmothers were. Those women whose hobbies we assumed were about killing time, when in fact, they were about making do with the meager resources at their disposal. Gardens were about providing vegetables to eat in-season and then to can for use in the winter months. Cooking elaborate Sunday meals were about having leftovers to sustain their hungry families on those weeknights when they had to work late. Clothing scraps were sewn into quilts and curtains and patched up holes in clothes. Sewing helped them to avoid Jim Crow humiliation in stores where they could not try on garments before purchasing. Our foremothers taught us to make the best of less than ideal situations...we just didn't know then how it would be useful to us now.

In my recollection, my mother stayed up late to sew dresses for me and clothes for herself. It had nothing to do with Jim Crow in the 80s, but she had two other children, and not many hand-me-downs from older cousins fit my lanky frame. She also sewed costumes for her students, and I still remember one night when I crept downstairs to find the entire living room swathed in velvet pantaloons for some Shakespearean festival. Rentals were not in her budget.

I remember how we had a grape vine in the backyard of our first home, and how Grandma Viola made us jars of grape jelly (and peach preserves) every year. I remember that we never had to worry about grapes going unharvested because one of our neighbors, Mr. J, enlisted a crew of relatives to pick them for us (and then spent half the winter drunk). His mother and sister were the overseers and chief vintners.

Since I haven't developed a desire to sew, my interest in gardening probably came from my Dad, who had a vegetable garden the summer we lived with him in Michigan some 40+ years ago when he was in grad school. I was younger than my daughter when I helped him harvest carrots and corn from our backyard. I don't recall that he ever attempted to duplicate that effort here in DC because I'm guessing Audrey would not have been down with it. However for years, he talked about getting a plot at the community garden nearby. He never did that, so maybe that's what I'm doing--planting my Daddy's garden (he was Amanda's only child)...

Not that it matters which parent, grandparent, family friend, etc., bequeathed this innate need to watch things grow to me. Like everyone else who finds solace in nice-lady flower bushes, koi ponds, barbecue altars, self-designed backyard patios, outdoor work spaces, vintage clothes, heirloom quilts, cookie tins full of extra buttons, rag dolls, handwritten recipes for gumbo and red beans with rice, shelves of pickled veggies, fruit preserves, secret diaries of poetry, soap or candle-making, or bathtub brew, we are all in search of peace. We are looking for beauty that we cannot conjure up on demand, places we can go to retreat from the relentlessness of chaos.
And so our mothers and grandmothers have, more often than not anonymously, handed on the creative spark, the seed of the flower they themselves never hoped to see: or like a sealed letter they could not plainly read. -- Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mother's Gardens (1972)

Friday, June 26, 2020

A Very Unhappy Juneteenth to You

Last Friday, June 19, 2020 was a LOT for me to process. I have a lot going on in my personal life, so while it would have been nice to have a day off, that really isn't possible when one is a stay-at-home parent in the middle of a global pandemic and has an elderly parent in the hospital*. I also had a lot of writing to finish, but I did manage to catch a Juneteenth sale...

And right after I hit confirm and realized what I had done, I saw that there were several other Juneteenth sales going on. Most of them were connected to the various Black-owned businesses that I follow on Instagram, but a few others appeared to be something along these lines --->

This came to my attention courtesy of Twitter, and what made it stand out was how the original poster thought that she was doing a good thing by making a donation from the sale proceeds to her local Black Lives Matter group. How thoughtful...

To be clear, I am rather excited about my new flip flops, and once I get my feet to looking human again, I will be glad to model them for you on Instagram. I was also happy to drop a few extra coins on a Black restaurant for Father's Day take-out and I am not at all that annoyed that my order for Father's Day gifts from a Black-owned bookstore came the day afterward (not that I will be seeing my brothers any time soon anyway.) But let's get a few things straight. Juneteenth is not Black Independence Day.

I know that we were all taught some rather problematic interpretations of American History, but this is the one time where I need you to remember that you were correctly taught that President Abraham Lincoln signed an Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, which went into effect on January 1, 1863. You might not remember the various political machinations that went on behind the scenes, because we don't teach much detail in middle school which is when most of you learned anything about slavery. Therefore, if you are still operating on what Mrs. Temple taught you during that week dedicated to the Civil War and Reconstruction, then keep reading.

You also may recall that the Emancipation Proclamation only freed certain enslaved people--those who were held in bondage in the eleven seceded Southern states that were part of the Confederacy. Texas was one of those states, and and as you know, geographically it is the southernmost state situated west of the Mississippi River. Therefore, it would take a lot of effort for Union soldiers and news to travel that far, given that most of the action took place along the eastern seaboard. Logistically, that remoteness served the needs of slaveholders who retreated to the state with their human chattel. Thus, it is worth noting that is why there was one last battle in Texas, at Palmito Ranch in May 1865, after the war had effectively ended. The following month is when General Gordon Granger issued his General Order 3 in Galveston, on June 19, 1865.

You were also taught that it was the Thirteenth Amendment that officially ended slavery in the United States. However, before we unpack that historical detail, I want to direct your attention to the movie Lincoln (2012), which offers a dramatization of the effort to ratify that amendment while simultaneously pursuing an end to the Civil War. If you are still keeping track of dates, General Lee's official surrender at Appomattox Court House took place in April 1865 (and Lincoln was shot days later). When the State of Georgia ratified the Thirteenth Amendment on December 6, 1865, it officially amended the Constitution. Another quick historical note for those of you who are keeping track--Texas ratified this amendment in 1870 while Mississippi just ratified it in 2013 (thanks in part to that film).

In the 1980s, I had a conversation with my Dad after I first heard about Juneteenth. I thought I was being clever when I questioned him, the woke revolutionary, about celebrating Juneteenth in lieu of Independence Day (which we didn't acknowledge for reasons I wrote about here). His reason for rejecting my proposal was simple: why would we celebrate the delayed notification of freedom for the enslaved people in Texas? To him, that was a 'doggone shame' not a festive occasion.

His tune changed a bit by the time DC formally recognized Emancipation Day, which officially became a holiday in 2005 thanks to his fraternity brother and my former Councilmember Vincent Orange. On April 16, 1862, the enslaved people of the District of Columbia were formally emancipated by President Lincoln eight months before he issued the Emancipation Proclamation. He also compensated the slave holders for the loss of their human property, so let's put a pin in that detail for now. Thanks to DC, the rest of the country gets a grace period in filing taxes. (You're welcome, now make us a State!)

There was a point to all of that--there is no single date that marks the transition from enslavement to emancipation. The entire push to elevate Juneteenth as a response to Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests ignores other systemic obstacles to equality. Black freedom meant very little in a world where sharecropping, tenant farming, convict leasing, Redemption violence and terror, Black codes, and grandfather clauses replaced chattel slavery. Sure, we can designate Juneteenth as a representative date for the end of the peculiar institution in this country, just as soon as we settle on 1619 as the start date...

What had once been a day of awareness and regional celebration, became #BuyBlackFriday. Perhaps that was inevitable given the economic precariousness of the last couple of months. There have been calls all month for either a boycott or a concerted Black-business buying effort (I addressed both matters here). Then there was the outcry over the initial plans for the Trumpet's comeback rally in Tulsa, which also helped (whether we want to admit that or not). To the extent that people have learned some more American History, that pleases this former professor. If our purchases helped a small business owner keep the doors open for another few weeks, I am encouraged. However, with respect to everything else I offer this modest proposal:

Please don't wish me a Happy Juneteenth. I'm not from Texas, but more importantly as a Washingtonian, I have my own issues with freedom and equality and what that means in this city which still exists as a colonial holding. That doesn't mean that I don't want people to acknowledge Juneteenth (because I do). However, I do not want to see it become Cinco de Mayo. By all means, sell your wares at a discount to move product, but please, do not conflate support of your business with the pursuit of justice and liberation if it only happens once a year.

There are plenty of calendar dates of significance that we do not commemorate with commercial exploitation. I have yet to see D-Day (June 6) sales aimed at veterans or any special discounts on gun purchases made for Constitution Day (September 17) for all of those folks who swear that the only Amendment worth knowing is the Second. Election Day, which is always the Tuesday after the first Monday of November is not even a federal holiday, so can we fix that first?

And please, learn something about the history of struggle in this country and why we don't necessarily need extra holidays, but we do need more awareness 365 days of the year. I mentioned Cinco de Mayo as example of how commercialism bastardizes these observances to the point that wishing someone a Happy whatever is enough to claim wokeness. Go on and enjoy your shots of tequilla--just acknowledge that you are drunk, not woke. The same is true as PRIDE month comes to a close and you're hoping that your rainbow accessories and appreciation for Disco make you an ally. I really am impressed how y'all overran Black bookstores with orders and by the array of Black Lives Matter merchandise you have acquired, but we are not on the same page if you turn around to call the cops on a bunch of kids who are playing football in the street.

So what would I suggest in lieu of donating to random cash app requests on Twitter (and yes, I saw many similar requests)? Read that anti-racism book you ordered, and then read a few more. Donate to an HBCU or give to one of the local organizations on the ground that are engaged in anti-racism work. When July 4th comes in a few days, spend some time thinking about the meaning of freedom and how that has been pursued by countless immigrants, women, Indigenous people, etc., and how we might work harder to become a more perfect Union. WEAR A MASK.

And please 'like' my new sandals when you see them posted on social media.

* My Mom was discharged from the hospital on Tuesday. So now you know why it took me a week to finish this...

Saturday, June 20, 2020

How Are You, Sis?

Over the past three months, I have randomly sent that message in a text to various friends of mine. I always feel that I should check up on more friends and definitely on more of my relatives, then I try to rationalize my neglect...I am the Busy Black Woman, after all. But still, if I have not checked in with you yet, trust that I will do my best over these next few weeks.

Because I need you to survive. I need us to get through these public heath crises of pandemic and racism. I need us to have the strength to keep marching and protesting and agitating for our babies, our siblings, our parents, and our neighbors. I need us to make it.

Thus, in the midst of the crazy, I have done the opposite of what I would normally do. I have not been down to Black Lives Matter Plaza to join any protest marches. I haven't written much for the blog in days. Instead, I have been in my back yard, sitting in the sun and sowing seeds/food scraps in the container garden that was intended as a stay-at-home project to occupy my daughter. It has now become a necessary retreat for my peace of mind.

Lord knows I need it. As the outside world reels from COVID and protests against racial injustice, my Mom has been hospitalized for dehydration and other health concerns. We'll be facing a very different care dynamic once she returns home. My daughter has been lashing out in anger, frustration, and distress as the isolation from friends, family, and normal routines has dragged on for over three months. My temper is short. I barely have enough energy to do anything significant.

I have friends who have lost parents and loved ones in this pandemic. Folks have lost jobs and businesses. I have stopped commenting on the actions of the DESPOTUS because those of us who are perpetually horrified remain so, while those of you who have an insatiable appetite for his crap sandwiches are all lined up for that rally in Tulsa (please wear a mask). I had thought that Dr. Fauci was ghosting us, but there have been sightings. However, nothing he has said in those periodic pop-up appearances has been reassuring...

I started on this piece when the news was shared about the sudden death of the staff writer from This Is Us, a show I used to watch (no I haven't taken the time to catch up). Her name was Jas Waters. At first, I thought she was another COVID-19 tragedy, and was all prepared to lament the disproportionate health outcomes for people of color, but then the truth was revealed. She had committed suicide, so my lament turned to that other health disparity that we're not discussing because we would rather focus on racist food packaging.

Black woman cannot save the world if we cannot save ourselves.

However, before I drill down on that point, I need to go back and emphasize that the world is literally upside down for so many of us because nothing is as it should be. So everything is messing with people in untold ways. The sad story of Jas Waters reminded me of Lorna Breen, the New York emergency room doctor who committed suicide weeks earlier. She had recovered from COVID and was convalescing at home in Virginia with her parents. But the emotional toll of watching countless people die was too much for her, but it was only a 12 hour news story that we just shrugged off because mental health only becomes a big deal when it manifests in harm to others.

Throughout this pandemic, people have been posting those well-meaning (yet meaningless) status updates where they implore others to reach out if they need help. Let me tell you, that shit is as annoying as those like-if-you-love-Jesus chain letters. If I need a suicide hotline number, I promise that I won't be scrolling through your FB timeline to find it. And heaven forbid, in the moment when one's mind wanders to that dark place, I hope the the last person I would want to speak to is a stranger. I would like to know that I could turn to a friend.

And that is always the unspoken problem with depression. In the times of greatest need, no one wants to talk about it. I had a rough week, and after crying, eating, drinking, and sleeping my way through an emotional roller coaster, I am still not that keen on discussing my feelings. It is too exhausting. And I am not in the mood for a disingenuous pep talk about how I can make it through if I just blah, blah, blah. Don't worry, I'm not suicidal, but I completely understand how someone who is on the edge can prefer disengagement to outreach.

Thus when someone asks, it is so much easier to lie and say that things are okay. That is the most noncommittal and honest assessment I can offer most of the time. And while I know that if someone is responding to my texts with that same mindset, saying okay doesn't set off the alarm bells for me to spring into Busy Black Superwoman mode (yeah, sometimes I must amp up my mutant powers for good).

I can't save you if I am also drowning. And let's real talk the fact that what I really mean by 'saving' anybody is just listening and possibly going to the liquor store. We can tread water together.

I won't conclude this piece with any profound insights. These past few weeks have been Hell. We might have to endure several more weeks of disaster before shit evens out, and that might be worse than where things are now. If we only have control over our response, then let's start there by taking these calls for self-care seriously. If that is bath salts, candles, loose teas, gardening, hiking, and yoga, or going to bed in the middle of the day with a pint of ice cream, a fifth of vodka, or some racist pancake mix--so be it.

I am joking about that last part. DO not eat anymore racist foods. And if you find yourself reaching for the vodka more often than you are heading outside to take a walk or to garden, then be honest about that. When someone asks how you are, tell them the truth, that you are not okay. They might not be able to say or do anything useful to help, but knowing that people care is important. People do care and they will mourn you (but you won't know that). If no one has reached out to inquire about your well-being, then start the ball rolling on your end. You might save two lives with one phone call or random text.

Friday, June 19, 2020

The Liberation of Mammy and Jemima

I saw Aunt Jemima trending on Twitter the other night, but I didn't see anything noteworthy or out of the ordinary until the next morning when a friend posted this article. In response, I posted this on the Busy Black Woman Facebook page. To preserve those images and to offer a few reflections, I wanted to index everything here. Apparently, a lot of people were surprised to learn about Aunt Jemima's origins, so allow me to offer this history lesson in the form of a lecture I would offer if I were teaching one of my favorite classes from college, Images of Women in the Media.

Let's start by distinguishing Aunt Jemima from Mammy, the ubiquitous icon that has held pennies, cookies, and salt for more than a century:

Many people assume that the two images are interchangeable, when in fact, it is important to highlight that Mammy is the archetype, a pop culture expression of an antebellum Black mother figure. Various renditions of her have included Aunt Jemima, Mammy from Gone with the Wind, and even modern drag versions as with Martin Lawrence's Big Momma or Tyler Perry's Madea. Aunt Jemima is most commonly known to us as a brand name, one that originated as a minstrel character.

The name came from one of several songs, credited to Billy Kersands, a Black minstrel performer, who is believed to have written the first of several versions of Old Aunt Jemima in 1875. This version is not credited to him, but the lyrics are similar. The song and character Kersands created were adopted by a white minstrel company performing in blackface, which was a very popular form of traveling entertainment. In 1889, an audience member named Chris Rutt saw the character and decided to adopt her likeness for advertising his pancake mix. He then did what was common whenever white folks appropriated the creations of others--he trademarked the name and likeness. Here are a couple of early ads:

As you can see, Aunt Jemima closely resembles the classic Mammy figure. The woman whose image was used for the original ads was Nancy Green, a formerly enslaved woman who was first hired by the Pearl Milling Company to serve as the face for the brand. She held that position until her death in 1923. By that point, Green's own life story had been re-written to support the mythology of "her" famous pancake mix...

Of course, since Aunt Jemima was a fictional character, other actresses were hired to continue on in the role. Lillian Richard (1891-1956) was hired in 1925 to travel throughout the South as the character, while Anna Robinson (1897-1955) was hired for the Chicago Worlds' Fair in 1926. By then, the company was owned by Quaker Oats and Robinson was prominently featured in their print advertisements. Other actresses to fill the role included blues singer Edith Wilson (1896-1981); actress Ethel Ernestine Harper (1903-1979); Quaker Oats employee Rosie Lee Moore Hall (1899-1967); and Aylene Lewis, who portrayed the character at the Aunt Jemima Pancake House in Disneyland from 1955 until her death in 1964.

(I'm a bit stuck on the fact that there was a chain of Aunt Jemima Pancake Houses/Kitchens, even in Canada...and no, we are not just going to overlook the fact it was once a Disneyland attraction until 1970, but keep reading.)

Mammies like Aunt Jemima were not just characters selling products. They were part of a nostalgia machine that manufactured and sold romanticized images of an idealized past. For example, two major Hollywood period movies set in the antebellum South featured mammy figures--in fact, they were portrayed by the same actress, Hattie McDaniel. We are all familiar with her quintessential Mammy from Gone with the Wind (1939), the role that won her the Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1940. She also played Aunt Tempey in Disney's Song of the South, released in 1946, for which her co-star, James Baskett, won an honorary Oscar for his portrayal of Uncle Remus.

(A quick pause here to acknowledge that GWTW was just removed from HBO streaming services to much consternation, and SOTS hasn't been seen since the 1980s. I will definitely dedicate some time to addressing both movies in a future post. But I also wanted to note that SOTS is based on folklore that Joel Chandler Harris gets credit for having written because he got the copyright, and I will just let you interpret that for yourself. If you have never seen the movie or want to learn more about it, this site is a good resource.)

The Mammy figure, as depicted in McDaniel's onscreen roles and the advertising campaigns that featured Aunt Jemima, was intended to reinforce white comfort and Black servility. Mammies were mother figures who cared for everyone, especially the white children in the households where they worked. Black women were employed as domestics all over the country, but it was the specific use of happy southern Black mammies, uncles, and pickaninnies on pastoral plantations that seemed to be the most enduring. Perhaps it was the times--the country was emerging from the depths of the Great Depression, but not yet engaged in the second World War. Content and servile Black people were not demanding the right to vote or organizing with other urban immigrants to form labor unions.

And good, benevolent white people loved and depended on their mammies. She was a confidante and protector. In the case of Aunt Delilah in the original Imitation of Life (1934), she was the inspiration for a lucrative pancake business on the Atlantic City boardwalk...

In the remake of Imitation of Life (1959), Annie wasn't supposed to be a mammy, but that didn't  prevent her employer, Lora, with whom she lived for many years, from knowing anything about her private life until it was too late. Mammies only lived to please others and only mattered in their subjugated context.

If a family was not lucky enough to have a mammy, maybe there was a gentle Uncle who served the children semolina for breakfast and rice with their dinner. Or maybe he taught them how to dance.

Thus, the fact that Aunt Jemima was licensed to Disney as an attraction until 1970 is a curiosity that can only be explained as peak white nostalgia. It was a conscious choice that the happiest place on earth would maintain a relic of the antebellum past during the Civil Rights Movement. One can only surmise that was because Aunt Tempey wasn't as well known for her biscuits...

By the 1980s, Mammy was being reclaimed and liberated by Black artists such as Betye Saar and Faith Ringgold. Black woman (my Mom included) had realized that it was imperative to re-imagine Mammy in opposition to the ways she had been remembered fondly for her docility and loyalty. Instead of looking upon her with shame, what if we revered Mammy? Only a badass Black Mama could be so proud and powerful as to raise other folks' children, cook their meals, clean their homes, and manage those same tasks in her own household. Mammy became a figure of resilience and strength, and suddenly she was on display in our homes like so many porcelain teacups and thimbles.

So when Aunt Jemima received her well-publicized makeover in the early 90s, it might have been in response to our defiance, or it could have been a subtle effort to reassert ownership of an image that had always been about placating them. I didn't know this history when Aunt Jemima got her new hairstyle, but I did take notice of how she remained non-threatening and accommodating. No longer a Mammy, but definitely the respectable suburban carpool mom whose son Kyle is such a nice young man in his khakis and polo shirt.

Aunt Jemima, Uncles Rastas and Ben, the Land O' Lakes Indigenous woman, the Quaker Oats man, the Keebler Elves, St. Pauli's Girl, Ronald McDonald, and every other corporate image is as much the product as whatever they were created to sell. No one at Pepsico just woke up in the middle of the night, scrolled through their social media, saw this TikTok video, and suddenly decided that the time had come to retire a 130-year old icon. Because it would have been much easier to just allow it to disappear from the packaging without saying anything. I assure you, nobody misses the Tidy Bowl Man or the original Brawny Towel guy.

And before y'all get too obsessed with toppling corporate icons (RIP Mrs. Butterworth) as progressive victories in the struggle against racism, don't believe the hype. Aunt Jemima's smiling face was still selling pancakes when Indra Nooyi, one of the most successful woman in corporate America, oversaw the acquisition of Quaker Oats by Pepsico, and she was the CEO when Dan Gasby lobbied for his late wife B. Smith to replace Jemima in the advertising. That was three years ago, and it didn't happen. There are NO Black women currently heading a Fortune 500  Company, and only four Black men serving as CEOs. Anybody can be hired to sell a product (Joe Namath once sold pantyhose and Michael Jordan used to sell perms). So ditching Aunt Jemima should never have been as controversial as taking down Confederate monuments.

Yet, here we are. 

And to clear up one point because I mentioned Tyler Perry's Madea and Martin Lawrence's Big Momma as examples of modern-day incarnations of Mammy, the issue is not their resemblance in physical appearance. It is with their choice to depict a Black mother figure in drag. I don't equate drag with blackface, but when it is used as a comedic device in an intentionally unflattering way because the point is to know that the character being portrayed is a becomes hard not to see it as ridicule.

As the Quaker/Pepsico company reevaluates and tries to come up with a new brand identity, I don't expect that Aunt Jemima will become Sister Jamilah sporting an Afro or braids. I suspect that she will be retired to the museum of old brand icons where she can hang out with the original Colonel Sanders (nope, scratch that)...well, she'll be alright. Y'all just better leave the Popeye's Lady and Betty Crocker alone.

Happy Juneteenth.
Happy Father's Day!
(PS: Pancakes aren't that hard to make.)

Friday, May 29, 2020

We Can't Breathe

The people in Minneapolis are NOT rioting.
The people in Minneapolis are NOT rioting.
The people in Minneapolis are NOT rioting.

The people in Minneapolis are ANGRY.
The people in Minneapolis are ANGRY.
The people in Minneapolis are ANGRY.

The people in Flint, Michigan have been drinking bottled water for years because their tap water is contaminated. There are people in Louisville, Kentucky who gathered to demand justice for an EMT who was killed in her home by police officers. There are people in Brunswick, Georgia who cannot leave their homes for a jog through their own neighborhoods without arousing suspicion.

Meanwhile in Michigan and Kentucky, there are other people who have stormed the State Houses armed for battle. And in Georgia, there are people who have heaped praise on their Governor for his swift calls to action...but those people are not demanding clean water or justice. They just want hair cuts.

In the midst of this crisis when front line medical workers were begging for more personal protective equipment to shield them from the possibility of contracting this disease, there were protestors gathered in Denver to yell and scream at them. That was in April, just a month into the global shut down. At no point were any of those protesting the inconvenience of sheltering-in-place turned away with tear gas. No one got arrested. The police presumably had more than enough protective gear and face shields. No shots were fired.

But this week when a Black man got his throat crushed on tape and folks got angry about that, y'all are more upset that a Target got looted.

I used to ask the same naive, self-righteous questions about looting and burning shit down in our own neighborhoods. Never got a satisfactory answer, until I thought long and hard about my own lived experiences. My parents lived through the '68 riots, and they lamented the damage that was done in certain parts of the city--economic and physical blight that remained for decades until the gentrifyers came. Then I witnessed the Atlanta Riots in 1992 (an offshoot of the Los Angeles riots that captivated the nation). I was forced back behind Spelman's gates by an angry boyfriend and then cussed out by an angry Grandmother, so I was indoors when my friends took out their frustrations on our conjoined campuses. I still remember the stench of tear gas.

I was years removed from New Orleans by 2005, where I had lived in the late 90s. I had lived through a flood my first year of law school that trapped me in my third floor apartment for a day or two. But in 2005, I saw the Black people whom I had known to clean hotels, serve food, work the tables at the casinos, and who proudly lined the streets during Mardi Gras to cheer on their babies...I saw them drowning while abandoned pets were ferried away from the city on air-conditioned buses.

Thus while grandparents lay dying alone in nursing facilities, while under-paid essential workers are compelled to expose themselves daily, while the unemployed are trashed by public officials as lazy, while small business owners wade through mountains of bureaucracy for pennies, the DESPOTUS worries more about his ability to prevaricate and incite his followers on social media.

The people in the Twin Cities are NOT rioting. Nor are the people in Phoenix, Denver, Memphis, Columbus, or Louisville. The people in the Twin Cities, Phoenix, Denver, Memphis, Columbus, and Louisville are ANGRY.
We are NOT rioting. We are ANGRY.

We burn shit down in our communities because we can't get across town to burn your shit down. We are surrounded. We are caged in and confined to impoverished or chronically underserved red-lined neighborhoods. Those invisible boundaries are enforced by over-policing. We can't march to the State House or to the Governor's mansion with tiki torches and assault rifles without encountering armed resistance and violent suppression. The jobs in our neighborhoods pay less than unemployment insurance. We can't vote without encountering time-consuming and discouraging barriers. We drink lead-poisoned water, eat processed foods, drink cheap liquor, die younger, assume that our white overlords can't continue to ignore our pleas, and our air is so polluted that we can't breathe.


I heard a pundit say this morning that his ability to empathize with the protestors was slipping away as the violence continued; apparently, we need his consent to express our outrage in more respectable ways. Does it matter if I write down my grievances on this blog instead of taking to the streets? Did the anger of my parents in 1968 result in better jobs and economic investment in the inner cities? Did the frustration of besieged college students in 1992 produce more freedom for the residents of the West End community or did that merely hasten their displacement? Do you even remember why Los Angeles was on fire back then, or have you reduced Rodney King to a soundbite, pleading for calm (instead of crying out for justice...can we all just get along)? As New Orleans flooded again during this pandemic, did you mourn the loss of Ellis Marsalis and the 100,000 others who perished this spring, or did you lament the cancellation of your summer plans?

Spike Lee's brilliant 1989 movie Do the Right Thing illustrates the precise moment when the powder keg of communal rage ignites. We've spent years debating the morality of the scene when Mookie hurls the trash can into the window of Sal's Famous. But we've missed the point of it all if we judge his actions without recalling everything else that led to that moment. If that was a weekday, how come nobody was at work? Why weren't the kids in camp or at the pool? How were the patrons being treated at the businesses in their neighborhood? How come nobody seemed to know that the guy in the Larry Bird shirt had bought a brownstone (and why didn't he seem to know any of his neighbors)? Why did the police come twice to protect white property owners, but were gone when the mob was set to turn their attention to the Korean store owners? Do you know why they were chanting Howard Beach? Is this the first time you have contemplated any of these questions?

Dr. Martin Luther King once said, "a riot is the language of the unheard." I'm sure that someone has already countered with a quote about his commitment to nonviolence, because the pacifist MLK is more palatable for shaming us into believing our rage is unfounded. Surely, his peaceful protests never devolved into disproportionately violent encounters with the police...

Frederick Douglass once said that power concedes nothing without a demand. He didn't say how that demand should be presented: on a silver-plated tray served by a tuxedo-clad butler, in a strongly worded letter to the editor, by calling the manager and shedding a few strategic tears, with a bayonet or an assault rifle, or by burning shit down when the other approaches fail to make the point.



Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Land of the Free

When I woke up on Memorial Day 2020, I scrolled through my phone for a few minutes and came across some video footage on Twitter of a group of protestors in Kentucky. I don't wish to write another piece about the absurdity of protesting against public health and safety pronouncements made for the benefit of the common good--so I won't. Instead, I will write to educate you about the imagery and the symbolism and the historical significance of what happened outside of the Governor's mansion. Don't forget I taught American History in a previous life...

I have never been so naive as to assume that there are no depths to the depravity that is synonymous with certain displays of patriotism. While there are some who question the morality of that stunt--what about the children who saw that, I wonder if that same question was ever asked when there was a real human being swinging from a tree while supposedly good, respectable folks posed for the cameras. Did anyone deign to ask that question with concern for the children of the man or woman who had been strung up? Were their frightened offspring safer hiding in the bushes, or under a car seat, or were they curled up under a bad or in the back of a closet? When the angry mobs swarmed to claim Black soldiers dressed in their uniforms to slaughter them for the crime of existence, who expressed outrage and disgust as the flag and flesh burned together?

Mind you, Governor Andy Beshear's children were watching that spectacle from behind lace curtains in a mansion. That was not their actual father who was strung up in that tree, but his image was affixed to a symbolic black body. Take a closer look, and don't you dare look away or try to rationalize it.

Look straight at the recycled totems of terror visited upon one of your own. Sure, be outraged and horrified because it is disturbing. It is sickening. These men are probably good people (see how that phrase suddenly feels like a dagger to the gut). Good people who just want to proclaim that they are free. And to prove it, they played Lee Greenwood in the background because nothing signifies good old-fashioned American freedom quite like that gawd-awful self-righteous bullshit anthem.

A little over 100 years ago, Charles Lewis wanted to live free too. He was a veteran of World War I, and after being discharged he returned home to Kentucky. I'm sure he expected that his military service would afford him the rights guaranteed in that Constitution y'all love to swear we don't read. So when he was accused of a crime, resisted arrest, was pursued and then jailed, never given a trial, and then executed all without due process in his uniform...yeah, good people, free to kill.

So it is not at all ironic that on what was once known as Decoration Day, a day that formerly enslaved people and white missionaries initially organized to bury Union soldiers, a few good men chose to rile up the passions of the inconvenienced mob. It is fitting that for this Memorial Day weekend, a day after a roll call of nearly 100,000 names was published listing all of the American casualties of this pandemic, we crowded beaches and boardwalks because we, the living, are free. It is entirely appropriate on this Memorial Day that a picture of a public figure wearing a protective mask is the object of ridicule; whereas, the choice to armor up to buy a soggy sandwich is peak patriotism.

We take great pride in placing little flags beside the headstones of our honored dead that are buried in military cemeteries. We live for the pomp and circumstance of draping coffins with flags. Because of them we are free, we proclaim.

We are free to hunt down suspicious looking joggers in broad daylight.
We are free to kill unsuspecting citizens in their homes.
We are free to take land that belongs to others because we covet their resources.
We are free to disparage our neighbors who wear hijabs or speak in languages we don't care to understand.
We are free to kill mass numbers of people at work, at concerts, at movie theaters, at churches, at schools, or wherever, with a constitutionally-protected personal arsenal.
We are free to demand that a wall be built along our Southern border, but not along the Northern one.
We are free to poison children with contaminated water and to choke them with industrial particulates in the air.
We are free to call the police to escalate petty confrontations into deadly encounters.
We are free to demand that some people ought to die because they are weak or deemed worthless.
We are free, unless we are Black or Brown or Indigenous or Muslim or Queer or Imprisoned or Impoverished or Differently-Abled or Elderly or otherwise disposable.

YOU are free because WE wear the masks.

When the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar penned those words, he had no idea that we would still need to wear metaphorical masks more than a century later. Not just to hide our contempt for the hypocrisy of liberty as exercised by good people, but in order to survive. We've had to camouflage our beautiful Black, Brown, Indigenous, Muslim, Queer, Imprisoned, Impoverished, Differently-Abled, Elderly selves just to be regarded as halfway human.

This Memorial Day 2020 weekend should have been a solemn time of reflection, perhaps even prayer--after all, the DESPOTUS had already declared the imperative for churches to re-open. Instead, those good people in Kentucky thought it was a better idea to resurrect imagery of domestic terror to combat their idea of government tyranny. They must have been encouraged by the praise heaped on the good people who had attempted to storm the State Capitol in Michigan several weeks ago. They also brandished Confederate flags, so imagine the shouts and cheers when the next group of good people burns a cross on Independence Day...

Because they're free.