Monday, July 27, 2020

A Test of Character

I have developed this habit of falling asleep with the television on, and since that is 90% of the time tuned to MSNBC, that means I wake up to whatever news they are reporting around 5:30am. And 90% of the time, the topic is our current White House occupant. Trust and believe, even if he yawned in an offensive way, Joe Scarborough will take ten minutes at the top of the six o'clock hour to opine...

Wednesday morning, the topic was the recent Montreal Cognitive Assessment (MoCA) that the DESPOTUS kept touting as proof of his intelligence and mental acuity. I had heard some analysis of his test after the interview he gave with Chris Wallace on Sunday, so I had already decided not to give it much more thought until I realized just how harmful this boasting could be based on my own experience with the test. So I sat down and posted my thoughts on the Audrey's Big Read page (the page I created a couple of years ago for an Alzheimer's Association fundraiser). I was still considering whether to post it to the Busy Black Woman page, but got distracted and then I had to head over to my parents' house for my Mom's tele-health follow up.

If you haven't read the original piece, just know that my feelings about his comments have hardened. I can't shrug off what the President said as just another example of his depravity and mean-spiritedness. That lets him off the hook, and quite frankly after four years, we know better than to expect him to demonstrate any kind of compassion or sensitivity. We've become so immune to his cruelty that all of those warnings about normalizing trumpism feel akin to yelling at the screen during a horror film...

But this piece isn't about him. It is about me and the journey to this point in my life, this week in July 2020, in the midst of this pandemic, in the space where the weight of guilt, sadness, depression, frustration, and everything I have endured for the past ten years feels heavier than usual.

Here is the truth about dementia. It isn't just memory loss. It isn't stumbling over a few words. It isn't just getting older and not remembering faces or details from the past. It isn't anything like the movies. It isn't funny like the jokes that make me cringe because if only there was something funny about watching your mother go from a vibrant, outspoken woman to being bedridden and mute. It isn't pretty, so no amount of makeup or fancy clothes can camouflage what you prefer not to see.

Even as I curse the day that man was born, I would never wish Alzheimer's on him. Never.

I have written about my Mom and our relationship and other aspects of my life on this blog for years. It is strange to be so emotional over something that I have lived with for so long, but as I shared on Facebook, I was in the room with my Mom the second time that cognition test was administered a year later. I know that when I requested some kind of neurological evaluation, it was because I was witnessing and experiencing a version of the woman who raised me that was extreme and unpredictable. It was my hope that the results of the initial test were accurate, and that instead of some kind of cognitive decline, my Mom was just stressed and agitated.

After that first test, she was very proud that she had done so well. She talked about it for several days after the fact until it got to the point where it seemed like the results had been more reassuring to her that all was well. But all was not well. She was having issues on her job. She had stopped going to her church. She only drove to specific places. She would sometimes get disoriented about the time of day. She was hyper-sensitive about everything.

I began to insist that my Mom needed a second opinion. She had been adamant that everything was fine, so she stopped speaking to me. Then one day she changed her mind, so I quickly made an appointment with a neurologist. When the day arrived, she greeted me with hostility and agitation. She demanded to know where we were going, and then spent the entire ride complaining about my driving. We arrived at the doctor's office and she sat across from me, glaring in red-hot anger, as if I was turning her in for having committed a crime. Inside the examination room, she relaxed a bit during the small talk, but as soon as the doctor began to take notes and asked what she felt were insulting questions, she reverted back to anger. I was so anxious that I posted a plea on my Facebook page asking for prayer. And I remember that because within a few minutes, she calmed down to sufficiently complete the test. I was still a wreck, but at least I walked out of there with some tangible next steps for determining what was happening with her.

So when I hear the DESPOTUS brag about his results, it upset me because it caused those memories to resurface. Where we are now is a far cry away from that very intense encounter with that neurologist. I worry that too many people will accept his braggadocio and assume that this test proves the opposite of what so many of us who live with dementia know. Mind you, I am not a neurologist, a psychiatrist, a psychotherapist, or a Republican.

A few weeks later, I was in the room with my Mom for her first MRI that would detect if there was damage in her brain. I was there when we got the results. I was there when she began to experience sun-downing. I was there when she didn't seem to remember that we had just finished Christmas shopping. I was not there a few months later when she walked out of a restaurant in Georgetown and disappeared into the night. But I was there when she was brought back home by the police at 5am, after she turned up across town at one of the dorms at Howard University. I was there when the attending physician in the ER pulled me aside last month to discuss DNRs and advanced directives and only gave me a few moments to provide definitive answers.

It isn't fair game in politics or in real life to make jokes about someone's cognitive abilities. It isn't ironic that this President has submitted to this test multiple times with the inference being drawn that he's well--not that his handlers are terrified that he might not be. Because it isn't a routine evaluation given to someone over the age of 60 although that is the lie I begged the doctor to tell my Mom. The lie that the trumpet has been told and keeps telling shouldn't be a comfort to's a stall tactic.

If you're reading this and are assuming that since I align with an opposing political ideology, my intention is to deflect from the gaffes and misspoken statements made by the presumptive Democratic nominee, you're wrong. If he demonstrated any tangible signs of dementia I would be similarly alarmed. But I won't discuss him now because this piece isn't about him either. This is about me and how maybe my friend who thinks I need to write a book about my experiences as a caregiver is right.

As I was still working on this draft, I happened upon an episode of ER, The Peace of Wild Things, with Alan Alda guest starring as an aging surgeon who was showing early signs of dementia. How ironic, I thought, that this would air now given what I was writing (and how I haven't watched a full episode of ER in years). How accurate too, since it is probably one of the more honest depictions of that moment of reckoning I had in that neurologist's office nine years ago. It was one of the most gut-wrenching experiences of my life, to not only hear such devastating news, but to watch someone process how they would or would not accept the truth. On TV, the character doesn't have a choice.

Thus, if I had so much difficulty hearing and telling someone I love such news, I keep wondering, does anybody love this President? Is there anyone in his personal circle of family and sycophants who understands that if there is something going on, this is a progressive disease? How cynical it would be to let this drag on...and terrifying?

It was not until after we received my Mom's diagnosis that things began to make sense to me: why she had stopped going to church; why she refused to explain the body damage we discovered to her car; and why she had written out the recipe for Belgian waffles and posted it on the refrigerator. Unfortunately, not everyone in the family came to that same realization, and it took her disappearance on a trip to a hair appointment five minutes away from the house to make clear that she was not well. We had to disconnect her car battery to keep her from driving.

Other than concern for the country, my selfish reason for hoping that this test hasn't foretold anything about this President's cognitive function is that I don't want to feel any sympathy for him. I don't want there to be any justification or mitigation for his maleficence. He doesn't deserve the benefit of any revisionist perspective to suggest that the damage this man has wrought stemmed from the same illness that has ravaged my Mom and so many others. Dementia doesn't discriminate so people from all walks of life and of varying character are susceptible. As tempting as it is to wish that there is a such thing as karma, it should have caught up to him long before he got elected, so to wish it on him now defeats the purpose (multiple bankruptcies and divorces don't count).

He passed the cognition test this time, but does it matter if he always fails at being a decent human being?

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Did You Know Him: Tribute to Patrick Ellis

Last year I had intended to write a tribute about a beloved local radio host. I mentioned him a few times in other posts I wrote about various topics, but never got around to doing what I had hoped not to be doing right now...but here we are, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic we are mourning the passage of the legendary Patrick Ellis of WHUR.

I am too stunned and too upset to go into all of the ways this news has hit me, because for as long as I can remember, this man's voice has been a part of my life. As in, I remember hearing his voice on the car radio when my Dad took us to Sunday School with our Grandmother Hawkins. As in, I don't remember a time not hearing him on the radio, including the seven years I was away at school. As in, I always could tell when he was not on the air because his sub (Jacquie Gales Webb, who always gives her full name) just has to throw in more contemporary gospel during her set. As in, I just heard him on the radio a couple of Sundays ago. As in, when I first read someone's status that broke this news before reading this obituary, I was in utter shock...because Patrick Ellis is like an uncle (just one that I never knew personally). However, in DC, everybody knows somebody who knows the person you don't actually know, because this is a small town where everybody IS somebody. Patrick Ellis' Sunday Morning Gospel show is one of the main reasons why that is so.

We all knew him just as we all knew the folks who sent in birthday and anniversary announcements for him to read on air. We all knew somebody who went on one of those trips to the Sight and Sound Theater or to Woodbury Commons. We all knew somebody who attended one of the churches that got a regular shout out for their choir concerts and usher board anniversaries. We all knew that if you heard a certain song from his playlist, you were probably late for church. And we all knew that he played this same organ/flute version of Come Ye Disconsolate every Sunday, and now I bet some of you are just learning the name of that song...

I cannot summarize or adequately express the emotions I am cycling through right now, because on the one hand there is the disbelief and anger at everyone who casually shrugs off the severity of this pandemic. It is real. There are real lives that have come to an abrupt end from a virus that is no respecter of person, yet has been particularly discriminating and devastating towards people of color. In the months since this thing started, nearly everyone I know has lost someone. Now we've all lost Patrick Ellis. On the other hand, I can't help but to reflect fondly how one man's life has been such a blessing to so many for so long. Most of us only knew Ellis from his weekly radio show, but he ministered to us over these past 40 years just by playing music and calling out our names. The irony is that this would be one of those moments when we would look to him to play a song of comfort.

Life happens fast. Like I said, I just heard him on the radio a couple of Sunday ago, broadcasting from his home studio. I often told my husband that whenever Ellis took a Sunday off, my Sunday was off. There was just something special about his soothing and calm presence on air. Yes, his playlist was predictable. Yes, he was seemingly reluctant to incorporate more contemporary artists. Yes, I did wonder how much longer he planned to keep working and how folks would manage without him.

Sadly, here we are, and in the cliched way that we often make statements like this, Sunday mornings will never be the same. For starters, who still listens to radio (except in the car) when there are other dedicated venues to accessing gospel music any day of the week? The whole point of having a birthday or anniversary shout out is for folks to hear it, which is why I never got around to making a request (most of my friends probably wouldn't have been listening). This is truly the end of an era.

Yet, in honor of his transition and in appreciation for the 40 years of Sunday morning inspiration, I pulled together this playlist of a few personal favorites (no theme, just selections from what he played over the years). Of course, this is by no means comprehensive, but it represents various stages in the evolution of gospel music and the constancy of Ellis in the midst of that:

Touch the Hem of His Garment (1954) - Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers

How I Got Over (1961) - Mahalia Jackson
How I Got Over (1972) - Aretha Franklin

Come Ye Disconsolate (1972) - Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack
Come Ye Disconsolate (1974) - Hubert Laws (instrumental)

Lord Help Me To Hold Out (1973) - Rev. James Cleveland

Going Up Yonder (1975) - Walter Hawkins

The Storm Is Passing Over (1976) - The Donald Vails Choraleers
The Storm Is Passing Over - The Detroit Mass Choir

I Just Can't Stop Praising His Name/Call Him Up (1980) - Min. Keith Pringle and the Pentecostal Community Choir

Jesus is Love (1980) - The Commodores

Jesus Can Work It Out (1980) - Dr. Charles Hayes and the Cosmopolitan Church of Prayer Choir

Jesus Dropped the Charges (1981) - The O'Neal Twins

You Brought the Sunshine (1981) - The Clark Sisters

Rough Side of the Mountain (1983) - F.C. Barnes and Janice Brown

I'm Still Holding On (1984) - Luther Barnes and The Red Budd Gospel Choir

Tomorrow (1984) - The Winans

Fully Committed (1987) - Kingdom Fully Committed

Don't Cry For Me (1988) - CeCe Winans

That's When You Bless Me (1989) - L.A. Mass Choir

I Remember Mama (1989) - Shirley Caesar

Total Praise (1990) - Richard Smallwood with Vision

The Potter's House (1990) - Tremaine Hawkins
Your Grace and Mercy (1993) - Mississippi Mass Choir

Order My Steps (1994) - Gospel Music Workshop of America, Inc

Take Away (1995) - Yolanda Adams

His Eye Is On the Sparrow (1996) - Deniece Williams

Stand (1996) - Donnie McClurkin

He Reigns (2002) - Kirk Franklin

Let the Church Say Amen (2011) - Andrae Crouch feat. Marvin Winans

Nobody Greater (2011) - Vashawn Mitchell

Take Me To The King (2012) - Tamela Mann

Ride Out Your Storm (2014) - The Flowers Family Singers

Every Praise (2014) - Hezekiah Walker

I Shall Wear A Crown (2019) - Yolanda DeBerry

Yeah, I got a little carried away...FYI, last night the station aired this tribute to him which I am listening to now.

One final note, if coronavirus has taught me anything, it is that life is finite. We don't have as much time as we think to accomplish the things we want, so we need to figure out the best way to live our best lives NOW. As I mentioned previously, Ellis intended to broadcast his Sunday morning show from a home-based studio because that is how much he loved his work. As many of us fumble and stumble around through life, we make the mistake of assuming our purpose is tied to a job, a title, the stuff we accumulate, but honestly it is imperative to imagine that life is so much more. Life is about who you love and the joy you bring to others. And a life well-lived is one that allows us to be grateful for the joy, even in the midst of sorrow and pain.

Rest In Paradise and roughly quoting your sign off: many thanks to the Master for giving us these 40 years of Sundays with Patrick.

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Counter Narratives

If Black Lives Matter, then why they don't matter to us?

For weeks, I have been seeing some version of that sentiment expressed within private Facebook groups or on the pages of friends, posed in response to the tragic news of more violence and death within a Black community. More often than not, the code name invoked to inflame the passions is Chicago.

Chicago. The Chi. The Windy City. The Second City. The Midway. One of the great American cities. When I think of Chicago, I think of gospel, jazz, and blues. That weird green relish and hot dog buns with poppy seeds. Deep dish pizza. Ebony and Jet magazines. A Raisin in the Sun and Clybourne Park. Michael Jordan. Bernie Mac. The White Sox. Jesse Jackson. The Oprah Winfrey Show. Hoop Dreams. Good Times. The Bean in Millennial Park. The Joffrey Ballet. Where Michelle Robinson met Barack Obama. Ferris Bueller's Day Off and Adventures In Babysitting. Da Bulls, da Cubs, da Bears. Bill Murray. Al Capone. Bob Fosse's musical. Navy Piers. Soul Food and Love Jones.

Chicago. Where one million Black people settled from the deep South to escape Jim Crow in the early 1900s. Where working-class immigrants and Black Pullman Porters founded unions to petition for better wages, hours, and working conditions. Where social reformer Jane Addams and civil rights activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett met. Where Mamie Till-Mobley exposed the world to the brutality of unconstrained racism through her son's open casket. Where the election of its first Black mayor made anything seem possible, such as the election of the first Black woman to the U.S. Senate. Where a community organizer launched a national movement for hope and change.

Chicago. The city founded by a Black trader named Jean-Baptise-Point du Sable in 1780. So it is a sad irony that this great city has become synonymous with the idea of Black carnage. That on a daily basis, someone posts an article that tells the sad story of multiple Black lives lost to gun violence. That some disingenuous public official uses those accounts of casualties to evoke images of a dangerous, lawless urban wasteland. That even well-intentioned but frustrated Black folks whisper among ourselves, if Black lives don't matter in Chicago...

Well, I am here to offer the counter-narrative to declare unequivocally that Black Lives Matter everywhere, all the time, even in Chicago. Especially in Chicago, where our ancestors made that pronouncement more than a century ago by their arrival in that city by the thousands in search of a better life. Because Black lives didn't matter in Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas, your great-great-grandparents left. Even when they arrived and were warehoused in the tenements and alleys of Bronzeville (on the South Side), Black Lives Mattered, demonstrated by their insistence to bloom as roses in the cracks of concrete. When they set about the business of founding churches, benevolent societies, fraternal affiliations, suffrage clubs, and other charitable and civic-minded organizations, their work was to establish the permanent roots for Black Lives to Matter for future generations. Black business enterprises that were founded in Chicago serve as a testament to how much Black Lives still Matter.

So I rebut the problematic question by asking the following questions:
  1. Where do Black children get access to guns in a city where the legal age for personal gun ownership is 21?
  2. Why don't Black children see reaffirming images of themselves living and thriving in urban homes in popular culture?
  3. For every Black professional who works with a community-based organization to reach urban youth, how much of that work is government-sponsored vs. privately funded?
  4. What long-term employment prospects exist in urban neighborhoods as compared to more affluent commercial zones?
  5. Do the families on the South Side of Chicago have access to the same health care services, living amenities, affordable housing, jobs, recreation, and transportation that residents in other parts of the city enjoy?
  6. Does the police presence in certain neighborhoods exist to protect citizens from crime or to confine criminal activity within those designated spaces? 
  7. Why is there an enduring dead-end narrative about the South Side--that it isn't supposed to thrive because too many people are invested in its dysfunction? Until gentrification...
Do you see the pattern? If you treat people like they don't matter, then they will act accordingly. Children who are constantly told that they will never amount to much seldom do. Adults who are constantly discouraged by circumstances beyond their control become determined and resolute to guard what little they do control with their very lives. Urban poverty, which for many people is generational and intractable, is regarded as a personal, moral failure whereas rural poverty (also generational) is almost lauded as noble. Both conditions are the result of systemic policies that were designed to maintain strict class divisions. Yet urban poverty in the modern era has the added pre-existing condition of racism.

Just for the sake of argument, it isn't as if Chicago has never been the epicenter of crime in the past. Prohibition was a particularly violent era, if one considers the Saint Valentine's Day Massacre as an example. Al Capone was a notorious gangster, but that didn't stop Hollywood from releasing six (6) movies and counting in homage to his criminal reign of terror, beginning with Scarface released in 1932 (right after his conviction for tax evasion). And let's not forget that the Broadway play Chicago is based on a 1926 Jazz-era play about the murder of a man committed by his married lover, Roxy Hart, the heroine of bored housewives...

But please, go on and tell me how the glorification of Black gang culture influences our children to kill...

None of that gets to the point of answering the question of how we convince ourselves that Black Lives Matter, even in Chicago. I readily admit that this response offers no great panacea. To suggest that we are not sufficiently outraged is untrue. We are. Every life taken leaves behind a mourning mother whose tears chill my blood, break my heart, and wound my spirit. Yet, as I have responded to those who have posed the question (and to borrow a metaphor from another friend), I am going to do my best to throw as many starfish back into the ocean. I will continue to work with my church, my sorority, my alumnae association, and through this blog. I will continue to teach our history in and out of the classroom, and hope that a few of my readers/students are inspired to do something substantive. And if I need to march in the streets, I will do that too.

I will never accept the narrative that Black Lives don't matter to Black people. Not even on my dying day. Do not dismiss my resolve as naiveté. I know that the re-education effort requires us to break through layers of entrenched self-hatred and despair. I won't accomplish that in one setting or in one singular post about a city that I've only visited three times in my life. Nor do I advocate that we grant a perpetual forbearance for sociopathic behavior. Unlike police shootings, we don't take to the streets to demand justice because we know that there will be some measure of accountability. But if we need to be more visible in the streets to prevent these tragedies, then we'll do that.

We will do whatever it takes, but with love. I am sure that there is some struggling nonprofit community center on the ground that could use an angel investment to continue its work. There is a job training center that needs more equipment, child care centers that have needs, and mentoring programs that need more volunteers. Tell us where the needs are greatest and we WILL show up. And if we cannot be there physically, we will pray--for those who are hurting, for those who mourn, for those who are thinking of doing harm, and for everyone who must carry on.

Instead of asking us rhetorically if Black Lives Matter in Chicago, ask yourself that question for real. Do the Black lives in Chicago (or Atlanta, Baltimore, Ferguson, DC, Louisville, Minneapolis, New York, insert any city the President has disparaged) matter to you? Because if your knee-jerk response is a deflection or the counter offensive All Lives Matter while you refuse to wear a mask, then you don't have the moral superiority to suggest that our actions against one another permits America to deem us as unfit to live. You don't have that right. Because if you just shrug, point to Chicago, and then go back to your golfing...#BeBest

We've got work to do.

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

It All Falls Down

As has been the case with everything this year, we've just experienced an unprecedented Independence Day weekend. My days were quiet because the Kid got to spend time with her cousin (but at night, it was bombs bursting in air). It was nice to see friends and to have adult conversations that were not constantly interrupted. In preparation for the next lock-down (yeah, because y'all keep doing the most), I decided to order as much liquor as I might need to get through the tentative start of school. Because 5 year old drama in quarantine requires top shelf and heavy pours.

On Sunday, I noticed two trending topics that I should have known would trend because y'all can't be satisfied unless there is something to deride. So let's start with how this article about Anna Murray Douglass, written two years ago, suddenly began circulating just as folks were publicly citing her husband's famous What to the Slave is the Fourth of July speech. On Friday, I noted an uptick in the number of people who had made reference to the speech, including this inspirational reading by the Douglass' descendants on NPR. Thus, it was not surprising that the backlash would soon follow on social media. I saw this tweet, then there was a debate in one of my Facebook groups, then on Monday morning I saw the news that a statue of him was destroyed in Rochester, NY. It only took three days...

Similarly, on Friday I noticed that as Lin-Manuel Miranda's Hamilton began streaming and folks were excitedly watching it for the first or fourth or fiftieth time, the perpetually disgruntled were airing their cranky pants out on social media. Some complained about the idea of having to stream it from an exclusive service; others proudly proclaimed that their hatred of musicals saved them from partaking in such trash. Meanwhile, I was low-key jealous (I don't have Disney + because we already pay an arm and a leg for cable, HBO and this wifi connection I am using from my back yard), but I know that I will get to see it eventually. Then I noted the criticism changed from calling it over-hyped to historically inaccurate. They even invoked Toni Morrison's alleged disdain for the play in the effort to justify the bashing. That only took five years...

Sometimes our heroes are flawed. Deeply. Because they are human. That isn't a very profound statement, yet, as we find ourselves in this national moment of reckoning with the past, we need to be prepared to accept that no one's legacy is safe. Someone will go digging through your trash, your old tweets, and in that long-buried trunk of skeletons from that hidden closet to uncover the worst of your sins. And once revealed, there will be a giant floodlight trained on your flaws, and people will judge you. Or in the words from this refrain from Hamilton, history has its eyes on you.

It has been quite the spectacle to watch monuments that never should have been built come down, so gird your loins. Everyone will be scrutinized more closely...everyone except the living, breathing, racist/sexist/xenophobic/homophobic degenerate in the White House who spent the entire weekend shooting off fireworks, hurling insults, and lobbing Molotov cocktails in defense the long dead losers of a vanquished insurrection. November is coming, but go on, and debate Jemele Hill's stupid tweet about Lift Every Voice and Sing...

Back to the reckoning--we have been given this choice at this moment in the midst of this pandemic to re-imagine who we are supposed to be. This nation is at a crossroads, and if it is so self-evident that ALL of us have a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, then that is the task that lies before us. With liberty and justice for ALL: not just to those whose ancestors came on the Mayflower; not just those who pray from the Bible; not just those who grew up on stories of being greeted by Lady Liberty in New York Harbor; not just those who speak English as a first language; not just those who live on propaganda and call it news; and not just those who advocate that unborn lives matter more than Black lives. 

We're smart enough to know that the Frederick Douglass statue that ended up in the river wasn't destroyed by an mob of angry feminists (because he was himself an early feminist in the 19th Century understanding of that concept). And quite honestly, we (women) are more likely to act impulsively against sins committed against us personally, not on behalf of someone else. As someone told me this weekend, we (Black people) don't really cancel folks, and we definitely wouldn't tear down the great Orator for being a bad husband. So whomever your drunk, racist ass is, we will be on the lookout. 

But I will take a paragraph or two to deconstruct this Hamilton backlash and the concerted effort to undermine the success of one of our own (which we absolutely would do, especially on social media). I've been a HamFan since I bought the soundtrack, but I am willing to put aside my love for the music to address the legitimate historical concerns head-on. It is a play. Specifically, it is a musical that re-imagines the life of an all but forgotten Founding Father. It stars Black and Latinx actors whose casting alters the perspective of how we visualize our place in this country. Yes, there are inaccuracies that are undeniable and very problematic. Alexander Hamilton was not an undocumented immigrant in the way we define that term today, nor was he an abolitionist (not owning enslaved people isn't enough to qualify, but thanks for trying). However, if you are the Latinx composer and titular lead, you are not going to write yourself into the role of an outright villain, are you? No, you take creative license and give that role to your friend.

Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?

Hamilton is not a federal monument nor a state flag. It can withstand the scrutiny of being disliked, avoided, and even denounced by the great Toni Morrison. Nobody who chose not to watch or who expressed disparaging opinions will be prosecuted for slander. Disney will get your coins some other way. Y'all can go watch Ishmael Reed's play and declare yourselves sufficiently enlightened.

Yet, this thirst to tear down and cancel folks will eventually become a circular firing squad. I'm not sure why Miranda deserved to be taken to the woodshed on this round, unless all of that negative energy was fueled by something other than a visceral hatred for musicals. Just asking for a friend, but what do y'all only like documentaries?

Not that it matters because eventually, it all falls down. Our heroes, our statues, our flags will be assessed by future generations and they will decide what monuments will remain, which ones will be tossed into the river, and what will be erected to fill up the vacant spaces. Maybe they will decide to put everything into a museum, host an Ivory Tower colloquium, or they might buy the DVD for private viewing (if that is still a thing). Who would have thought that Harriet Tubman might replace Andrew Jackson on the twenty dollar bill? Who would have thought that even old Honest Abraham Lincoln would become so controversial?

Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?

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.