Thursday, June 28, 2018

Let's Try to Be Civil

It would be nice if we could, in the words of the late Rodney King, "all just get along"...but we can't. Not because we haven't tried, but primarily because we all adhere to different standards when it comes what getting along actually means. For some, it means that we treat others how we wish to be treated. For others, it means that we treat them how we think they ought to be treated. So we end up with incidents like the one that occurred last month at a New York City eatery:

Which brings us to the last news cycle's outrage (actually, we might be two or three cycles removed by now thanks to the Supreme Court) over statements made by Rep. Maxine Waters at a rally where she encouraged people to harass Administration officials in public spaces. For the record, I disagree with her, but I'm not taking the bait when it comes to condemning her statements. What she advocates is silly because nobody has time to be following members of this Administration around the city in their off hours. Folks have lives to lead and more important things to protest. Last I checked, Westboro Baptist Church is in Kansas.

But let's be clear that the officials in this Administration are complicit in ruining the lives of many people, so if Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Kirstjen Nielsen can't eat at particular local restaurants because the patrons/owners/workers disagree with the inhumane policies they defend, well then that's unfortunate. It's difficult for me to find that much sympathy for them; yet, I recognize that if I celebrate how they were treated, then I need to be prepared for the inevitable backlash. Which I am, but I refuse to join the chorus of folks who insist that Maxine Waters owes anyone an apology.

Civility is a nice word that implies two people can approach each other with divergent points of view and then walk away with the warm and fuzzies. Civility is how Sarah Huckabee Sanders was treated when she was asked to leave the restaurant last week (and then had her meal comped). Civility is how all of our past living Presidents interact with each other. Civility is why some parents have to meet at McDonald's to facilitate weekend visitation. Civility is the lesson of the Hamilton-Burr duel. Civility is why there are lawyers. Civility is what this President urged when two groups of protesters were gathered in Charlottesville last summer--just as someone was plowing a car into Heather Heyer, killing her. 

Yeah. Civility is what Chief Justice Roger B. Taney denied to black people in 1857 via the Dred Scott decision. Civility is the opposite of how the women who marched for suffrage in 1913 were treated by the jeering and taunting crowds. Civility is not the objective served by signs like this that enforced segregation in public accommodations and education. Now, if these examples are too dated, then how about this incident during the State of the Union address in 2009. Or this example during a campaign rally. Or this tweet written by this President directed to Rep. Waters the other day.

Of course, he continued that line of attack (and lied about what she said), while the Speaker of the House demanded an apology, another colleague called for her resignation, and a fringe trio of protestors showed up at her house. So spare us the faux outrage. Keep your false equivalencies to segregated restaurants because the issue is not really about discrimination, unless we're talking about Latino or Muslim immigrants.

Friday, June 22, 2018

What About the Children?

The fact that the President signed an Executive Order to keep families together in detention centers along the border notwithstanding, I have run out of adjectives to express my disgust with this Administration. Evil is appropriate, but still somewhat inadequate. Perhaps someone can offer me a few suggestions in other languages...

I am not going to linger too long on the fact that the President claimed to have been swayed by the intercessions of his wife, Melania Antoinette, (who made a "surprise" visit to tour the facilities) and daughter, Lady Ivanka, because it follows that his own sense of compassion is non-existent. Of course they got to him--how else could he get to stage that benevolent dictator photo opportunity, complete with the not-so-subtle reminder that he reserves the right to continue to be an asshole if it helps his poll numbers?

Other writers/commentators have expressed with much more eloquence the range of emotions that one can experience while viewing these images. We can be moved to tears, or as some have so callously demonstrated, we can mock the situation. We can have compassion for these children, or we can cling to an ideological argument that allows them to be dehumanized. I took the time to respond to a particularly heartless statement made by actress Stacy Dash the other day via Twitter because these are children.

Not illegals. Not aliens. Not animals. But children.

I've made this observation in the past: that we've become so polarized as a nation that we regard certain children as more precious than others. But I need to adjust that statement to be more historically and intellectually honest since this isn't some recent evolution--it has ALWAYS been true. The Declaration of Independence referred to native peoples as 'savages'. The slave trade, both internationally and domestically, ripped families apart. The Trail of Tears broke a treaty our government made with the sovereign Cherokee Nation in order to provide land for white settlers. The children that resulted from forced liaisons between slave owner fathers and slave mothers usually inherited the right to care for their white half siblings, not their freedom. Poor immigrant children were sent to work in US factories and farms in the early 20th century to support their families (and note how the comments on these photos sparked political debate). Japanese internment. Segregation. Backlash against bilingual education. Muslim ban.

The litany of our past transgressions against others only illuminates the despicable nature of the current President's language, demeanor, and duplicity with respect to the "crisis" along our border. This entire debate about merit-based citizenship is bullshit, as if white people haven't perpetually moved the goalpost (or the border) whenever it suited them. Again, I am unsure if I can express just how offensive that arbitrary nonsense is to someone like me whose family name comes from the English merchant who established the British Trans-Atlantic slave trade (with the permission of the Crown). I have no idea if I am his descendant or if any of my ancestors were in the bowels of his ships, but some dude whose grandparents arrived at Ellis Island centuries later does not get to tell me to go back to Africa.

Whether he is calling black athletes SOBs for kneeling during the anthem; declaring that immigrants from shithole countries are unwelcome in America; issuing a travel ban to exclude Muslims from certain countries; banning transgendered volunteers from serving in the military; conflating asylum seekers with MS-13 gang members; equivocating on white supremacy and Confederate monuments; denouncing the Mayor of San Juan as a nasty woman for refusing to praise his belated and inadequate response to Hurricane Maria; or building his political career against the legitimacy of the first black President--this President has deliberately stirred up the same dangerous sentiments that led to the resurgence of the Klan in the 1920s. That speech he gave on Charlottesville last year was akin to Woodrow Wilson airing Birth of a Nation at the White House.

And then there is the matter of Melania Antoinette and Lady Ivanka. Ever faithful to stand by their despot (using social media to distract and feign faux outrage as it suits them), these two trollettes are the WORST. Honestly, who didn't peep that the First Lady's visit to one of those border facilities was going to be expertly staged, including that $39 jacket that she got from one of her minions? Trust that the message she intended to send wasn't entirely printed on the back of that coat, but what we need to be asking ourselves is whether she deserves anything less than our contempt. She and her step daughter are no different than the antebellum slave mistresses who tolerated those late night shenanigans in the slave cabins in exchange for life in the Big House.

I intended to make a point: these are children and families. These are human beings. Despite our history (and it is OUR history), this situation is a defining moment for this country to choose the right path at the outset instead of eventually. There are sides to the immigration issue, but this isn't a coin. These are children.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Four Golden Girlfriends Living the Single Life in the City

It was last week that we marked the 20th anniversary of the debut of the Sex and the City franchise, which is a pretty big deal (especially when you let it sink in that is has been 20 years). The show was a cultural phenomenon during its six-year run on HBO and led to two reunion movies, several next-generation shows, and brought high fashion brand names to the mainstream such as Birkin, Manolo Blahnik, and Jimmy Choo.

If you are of a certain age, you might be tempted to consider SATC a pioneer of the "girlfriend show" genre...and you would be wrong. I am of a different certain age and by my estimation, the girlfriend show dates back to at least the second season of The Facts of Life, if not earlier. While the first season featured a rather large cast of boarding school girls, by the second season that group got whittled down to four girls for the remainder of its run. I became reacquainted with this classic show during those early days of my daughter's life when I was awake at ungodly hours. Watching TFOL again was absolutely like catching up with an old friend.

Which is exactly the point of the girlfriend show. We are supposed to feel a kinship with four women from different backgrounds who are thrust together by sitcom scenarios such as four girls serving kitchen duty at an upstate New York boarding school. Or four mature women who are semi-retired and living in Miami. Or four career women who live in the city (pick a city, any city). Sometimes there is a slight change to the formula where there might be three friends or a trio of sisters (as was the case for Friends and Charmed). And sometimes the tweak is to center on two friends/sisters and then have the others rotate in and out of the story as necessary (as in Insecure and Half and Half).

While it is tempting to regard the girlfriend show as the female counterpart to the buddy show, it is not that simple. Buddy shows don't follow the set formula of having a certain number of friends (male or female), they rarely delve into the characters for any back story or depth, and at least one of the characters functions as a cartoon foil to the others. Consider how it took six seasons to learn that Kramer's first name was Cosmo (Seinfeld), or that it was a running joke that no one knew what type of job Tommy held (Martin). Buddy shows rely on situational gags for laughs, so that's fat jokes (What's Happening), fart jokes (South Park), and sex jokes. As a rule girlfriend shows rely on the relationships of the friends to drive the humor. That's why I would categorize Will & Grace as a girlfriend show even though it could probably be mistaken for a buddy show in drag.

SATC took the girlfriend show format and tried, for a brief moment, to infuse it with buddy show elements...but that barely lasted through the end of the first season. It was clear once they tried a fart gag, but then spent time discussing it, that there had to be more to these four women than just bed-hopping and brunch. The fact that the show aired on HBO gave the writers license to be more explicit and to use profanity, which paved the way for that same gimmick on shows like Girls and Insecure. Cursing and nudity aside, those shows still rely more on the relationships of the women to each other than to the various men who wandered in and out of their circle.

The idealistic portrayal of women's friendships could be deceiving since there was rarely any conflict among the characters that lasted for more than two very special episodes. Real friendships among women in a group dynamic are a lot more complicated. For example, very few women would trust a Blanche Devereaux, Toni Childs, or a Samantha Jones in their sister circle. While we might appreciate the wisdom of a Dorothy Zbornak or a Khadijah James, we would tire of their sanctimoniousness. Blair Warner and Regine Hunter probably would be BFFs if there could be a crossover in the space-time continuum (which actually was a joke on Living Single). While Rose Nyland and Sinclaire James might have been separated at birth, Maxine Shaw and Miranda Hobbs would have been frenemies. Which is the another element of the classic girlfriend show--the characters are practically interchangeable.

This weekend, there was a marathon of every SATC episode and after watching a few, I definitely agree that the show is worth acknowledging. There were topics addressed on that show that are standard for girlfriend shows such as sibling rivalry, death, chronic illness, marriage and divorce, job loss, and of course, relationships with men. I think that the twist it offered to the genre was its focus on these issues from the viewpoint of a character/narrator who shared her observations about life as it happened to her and her circle. It also took the time to develop the relationships among the friends beyond the two-dimensions of the usual sitcom, so we watched the characters change and evolve and could relate to their struggles and triumphs.

Thus it might be more accurate to suggest that SATC pioneered a more modern twist to the girlfriend that owes a debt to quite a few of the shows that came before it and also to changing attitudes about the depiction of women on screen. Sex and the City was possible because of those very special episodes of The Facts of Life; because an upstart TV network took a gamble on four black women Living Single in Brooklyn (and then three Friends doing the same in Manhattan); and also because four women of mature years dished about sex while eating cheesecake on The Golden Girls. Twenty years later as women are still trying to navigate careers, family, and relationships, we know that we can count on our friends. (And I swear I didn't want to end on such a cliche, but it's true :)

Friday, June 8, 2018

Prince, A Belated Tribute

Two years ago when the news was announced, I recall that I was in the midst of doing Mommy stuff and also that I was writing another piece about Harriet Tubman on the twenty dollar bill, so I never really wrote a sufficient tribute to Prince. And in the time since, I've felt as if I couldn't truly write the type of tribute that wouldn't seem like something I should have written in the moment (although looking back, I did better than I thought I had). But can I fix that?

Well, I admit that one of the reasons why I didn't write the Prince tribute was my disbelief that the Artist Formerly Known as Prince had actually died. I know that he's physically gone, but there have been all of these signs that his transition was not what we are accustomed to experiencing--yes, we had to process the untimely death of an iconic figure. Yes, there was the tabloid nature of all the details and drama. Yes, I was shocked and definitely felt some kind of way when I sat through the first all-day marathon of music videos. But after the initial shock wore off, we comforted ourselves by wearing purple, by attending dance parties, and by speculating about the rain that lasted for three weeks straight. There were awards show tributes. There were reunion tours announced. There were clever memes of Prince giving us eternal shade. Somehow, we collectively chose to celebrate his life with such creativity and enthusiasm that I'm convinced almost none of us have mourned the way fans are supposed to.

Mind you, I was not a casual Prince fan. I liked Prince until two of my friends from middle school showed me a scrapbook that they had created and then I loved him...and then I became obsessed. And while that obsession waned a bit during my high school hip hop phase, it revved up again in college and lasted through law school until I shifted towards neo soul. And like most people my age who had favorite artists and evolving musical taste throughout the years, I could return to Prince as if I had never switched from LPs to tapes to CDs. I should have been devastated...

Instead, I've contemplated how to frame this tribute, which I started to write back in April for the anniversary of his death, but is definitely more appropriate now for his 60th birthday. It's impossible to fully articulate Prince without falling victim to cliched pronouncements, such as his music was the soundtrack of my teenage rebellion and sexual coming of age. I could write about his artistic genius, but I am not a music critic. I could celebrate him as a consummate performer, but I only got to see him perform live once (I know). And then I thought I could offer my tribute via a playlist of my top ten, twenty, thirty, forty...fifty favorite songs, but that could take 17 Days (ha).

So I find myself back where I was two years ago--completely overwhelmed by the daunting task of trying to put a concrete box around an abstract concept. Which is why I've come to accept that I don't need to put that much pressure on myself. Prince wrote his own tribute.

What I can do is make my top ten recommendations for the casual fan or neophyte:
  1. Listen to every album in order to gain an appreciation for his musical progression.
  2. The only Prince movies you need to watch are Purple Rain and Sign of the Times. Instead of watching Under the Cherry Moon, just watch the video for Girls and Boys. And instead of watching Graffiti Bridge, watch this video that someone recorded from their TV of Tevin Campbell singing Round and Round on YouTube.
  3. If you can catch the Prince video marathons that air on April 21 and June 7 on BET Soul, you will get a pretty comprehensive "greatest hits" playlist.
  4. The Hits/B-Sides album that came out is 25 years old; however, that will only give you a sample of his early work before the contract dispute with Warner Brothers. But it's the only way to get access to those classic B-side tracks nowadays.
  5. When Prince got married and later became a Jehovah's Witness, his music changed as did his persona. A lot of what he released from 2000 until his death reflects that evolution. Most of this was neither iconic or popular, but it was still very good music.
  6. Every great artist has a golden era, and for me that was Prince in the 80s.
  7. I think 1999 is a better album than Purple Rain. Lovesexy is tragically underrated because it gets overshadowed by Sign O'the Times
  8. Prince was prolific. He wrote hit songs for other artists and then recorded his own versions of those same songs. And once you heard the Prince version, you sometimes forgot or thought less of the original.
  9. It was never a contradiction to be both a fan of Prince and Michael Jackson, but it makes sense that some people chose sides.
  10. Once you've listened to all of this Prince music, you might be able to declare a favorite song or album or video, but it's highly unlikely. And that's just fine because if you take the time to truly absorb the Prince opus then you will realize why it is nearly impossible to settle on just one favorite.