Thursday, December 31, 2020

Hindsight is 2020

I am sitting here on the last day of the year that will never be forgotten. I can't actually come up with an adequate description that doesn't sound cliche, so let's just call it the year of hindsight. A year when we learned that everything we thought we knew could be both right and wrong at the same time. A year that I should have known was going to be Hell because it began with me weeping inconsolably at the stroke of midnight in church when the grief and tears that I had been holding inside for a week finally forced their way out of me like a shaken carbonated beverage when the seal is broken. 

Now that you have a visual, thankfully we only have a few more hours to go.

I had plans to write something longer and more thoughtful. I considered all of the pieces that were not completed that might deserve some final resolution. I spent the bulk of this morning working on a project that took up more time than intended, so now that the day is practically over, and I have tasks that are still undone...and the fact that I spent a great deal of time this year camped out in front of this computer just trying to finish one last thing, I will make this as quick as possible. (I wrote that four hours ago.)

I accomplished a lot this year. I wrote a lot. I found a way to write even as I had to adjust to a broken computer screen (freak airport accident); seemingly less time because of my daughter's school schedule (before the 'temporary' shutdown became permanent); and even through this sudden career change to becoming a virtual Montessori teacher's aide/classroom Mom. I sit here on the last day of the year pleased that I got anything done, including all of that laminating that I thought would never be finished. Although, never enough laundry...

As is always the case, my successes in one area came at the expense of other aspects of my life. I will not be entering the New Year with a clean slate--not even a clean kitchen. I should have been inspired by everyone else's purging and organizing, but I've gone in the opposite direction. I haven't exercised in months, I have been eating too much fried chicken, and some of the local liquor stores know me by name. If anyone needs to make a list of resolutions to break in a few weeks, that would most certainly be me. I have an unfinished vision board for 2020, so I maybe I will try to pick up where I left off and see what happens by February.

I took some steps towards really building this brand this year, and that has been great and scary at the same time. While I was disappointed by a few launch failures, I am not deterred. My glass is still half full. I have more readers/followers and have had opportunities to introduce my brand of punditry to my peers in ways that I never could have imagined (much love to my Morehouse Brother Ol' Hobbs). I have reconnected with some sisters, sorors, family, and good friends, and expanded my tribe with a few fellow blerds. Everything happens when and how it should. 

My mother is still here! Y'all don't even know how close I could have come to disaster this summer. If I had not listened to that inner voice that insisted that I check on her in person, in spite of the social distancing protocols...the same voice that warned me ten years ago to pay closer attention to her and not to listen to anyone who tried to downplay what I was experiencing. (Now I am not telling anyone to violate the guidelines, but I am telling you that you must step in to intervene as necessary with the proper precautions to protect our seniors. The isolation and despair of this pandemic has killed plenty of people who weren't even exposed to the virus.)

I am amazed at how much my daughter has grown this year. She is half my height at five years old, a very gregarious and imaginative child, unlike the quiet, defiant little chickadee she was just a 18 months ago. I need to spend more time with her, which feels like an insane thing to say since we've been practically inseparable for the past nine months. But the other day she asked me why I am always in a meeting because she came in and saw me on the computer with headphones on, which is pretty much how she always sees me. But I am what I am...

And that is a Busy Black Woman. An unapologetically Black woman, with a capital B--and I say that in case someone else wants to accuse me of being a racist. Yes, remember when that actually happened? So in case the Facebook algorithm that brought those disgruntled Canadians to my page decides to trip again, I'm still here, and I'm not going to tone down to make them or anyone feel better about their own insecurities. You're mad at me for being proud of my ancestry? You want to convince me that I have reasons to be ashamed of conditions that were imposed on my people? Look colonizers, I've reached the age where I'm ready to tell folks that my birthmark is an IDGAF tattoo. Get some therapy, and then come tell me about myself.

Because I'm digging in and never backing down. I am finally at that place of not seeing myself as some coulda-been. I spent too many years feeling like an imposter because I thought that I was supposed to have been some big shot attorney or otherwise living some illusion of success. Thanks to 2020, I officially let that shit go--I am what I say I am. So I proudly claim that other capital B, for I stay Busy for a woman with no real job. And it is finally okay that I am not where I thought I should be at this point in my life since God has been pretty clear at steering me to this place of infinite possibilities. 

I thought I would regret not realizing that sooner, but I don't. The early part of my life was spent in a rush trying to achieve these artificial milestones of accomplishment--graduating high school at 16, college at 20, law school at 23, and passing the bar by 24...but for what? To wake up 20+ years later and wonder if all life had to offer was a 401(k), red bottom shoes, and a McMansion in the suburbs?

So I will tell you what I do regret--not cutting my hair this short sooner. I regret some of the bad habits that this pandemic has encouraged, but I like wearing caftans and yoga pants, so those are keepers. I regret that I didn't start growing my collard greens until September because I would have those to harvest and cook instead of having to go to the grocery store. I regret allowing myself to ever feel powerless by making choices in the past that put the happiness of others ahead of my own. In that I am not alone because Black women are groomed to see ourselves as saviors. I see the memes and the declarations on Twitter. And y'all can have that. I'm not anybody's Superwoman.

This was supposed to be a quick reflection. So to bring this piece to a close so that I can get out of this spot that I have been sitting in since this morning, here are my words of intention for the year 2021: vision, purpose, and bold. Stick with me to see how that will make more sense to you as you continue on this journey with me.

Monday, December 28, 2020

Kwanzaa Is A Holiday

In elementary school, we had a very cool and hip science teacher named Ms. Tucker. Of all the things I remember about her, specifically that she was unapologetically Afrocentric in a time when that was considered passé and weird, and she taught us about Kwanzaa. I don't remember exactly what year it was, but one December she pulled out some African instruments, her Black Liberation flag, a wooden menorah, some plastic fruit, and began to tell us about the seven principles. Then she taught us this song, which I still know (because y'all know my memory for randomness):

Kwanzaa is a holiday, 
Kwanzaa Kwanzaa Kwanzaa
Is an African holiday
Seven Principles, seven candles
Seven Black days for the African!
She actually danced around the room a bit as she taught us this song. We even sang it in a round, which is also a rather random recollection. I remember that when I got home, full of excitement and pride, I asked my father, Mr. Revolutionary Civil Rights rabble-rouser, if we could celebrate it since it was an African holiday. The response I got has been with me for four decades: NO. 

I'm not sure that he offered much of an explanation at the time, but subsequently, he would declare that he would never celebrate Kwanzaa because of issues he had with its founder, Dr. Malauna Karenga. I was in college when he finally chose to elaborate on those issues, and to my knowledge my Dad has never willingly celebrated Kwanzaa. If he has been in the room when there have been rituals or ceremonies, I know he's been polite and respectful to nod along and smile. But that is the extent of his participation. In recent years, he has said that it is enough for him to focus on Christmas, which is a much bigger deal for him as a Catholic deacon. 

As for me, I had my own reasons not to celebrate Kwanzaa. In addition to my Dad's issues with Dr. Karenga, I came across a few of my own feminist reasons to disassociate from his creation. I also didn't need the added drama of another thing to do in an already over-scheduled holiday season. I am usually traveling during this time of year to visit the Hub's Puerto Rican relatives, and it was enough to get them to add collard greens to the family dinner menu. I couldn't find a third of my Christmas ornaments this year, so the idea of keeping track of a kinara and seven candles???

For years, I acknowledged the criticisms of our siblings from the Motherland, that the celebration itself isn't African, it just uses words and images that we (Americans) perceive as African. That pan-Africanism is a buffet of choices that affirm very narrow and ahistorical narratives about an entire Continent. That we are all the descendants of Kings and Queens. That we all lived in Zamunda or Wakanda until the Europeans arrived. And I got that, because for years it felt as if celebrating Kwanzaa was a demonstration of wokeness instead of a cultural reawakening. 

However, thanks to my daughter's multicultural Montessori education and my own sense of We-Are-The-World ecumenical ism, I am more open to the idea of exposing her to various holiday observances such as Kwanzaa instead of dismissing it as some made up hotep nonsense. As we know, all holidays were made up at some point, so what is the harm? She learned about Hanukkah this year and has been referring to chocolate candy wrapped in gold foil as gelt, so if she can learn about the Maccabees and believe in Santa with no confusion, then why not add a little Swahili to the mix? Am I the only person that remembers Chrismahanukwanzakah?

For starters, Kwanzaa isn't a Black cultural alternative to Christmas...not anymore. Kwanzaa doesn't have mascots like Rudolph or the Easter Bunny (although Kwanzaa Timmy is a classic). There are actually a LOT of Kwanzaa songs online, which I didn't know existed until I tried to find the song that Ms. Tucker had taught us. There are tons of Kwanzaa books and stuff, most of which seem to contradict the intention of a holiday that isn't supposed to embrace commercialism, but y'all know how Afroeconomics works (somebody always prints tee shirts). And yes, Malauna Karenga, the founder of Kwanzaa is problematic for both his collusion with the FBI against the Black Panther Party (Dad's reason) and his torturous and abusive sexism (my reason). 

Yet, Kwanzaa has managed co-opt valuable space on the calendar. In recent years, I have noticed how Kwanzaa ushers in a season of Black Awareness wherein we get to go from celebrating our connection to the African continent to honoring one of our most revered civil rights leaders to spending an entire month teaching the world about all the ways Black people have endured and triumphed in spite of its racism. Or at least in my mind, that is how it should work. Which is why we must start by acknowledging that Kwanzaa is an American holiday, quintessentially so in that it combines numerous cultural, secular and religious elements into one (kinda like Christmas with the Baby Jesus and Frosty the Snowman inflatables in your front yard). So yes, it is somewhat random and slightly absurd, but that is also what makes it beautiful.

While I don't plan on incorporating any ceremonial rituals or dressing us in matching kente cloth pajamas, I will take time to teach my daughter the seven principles. I surprised myself in being able to name all of them from memory, but that just proves how 40 years of consistent messaging can eventually make an impression. And for the past couple of years, I have been intentional about promoting Ujamaa, cooperative work and economics through my elevation of Black businesses via the Busy Black Woman Holiday Giving Guide. In fact, it occurred to me that I have been a proponent of all seven principles through much of my advocacy and work, so why not embrace Kwanzaa? It isn't as if I don't acknowledge other holidays that are annoying or have problematic origins. Two of my least favorite holidays exist to sell greeting cards, candy, and jewelry (and I have happily accepted all three). 

So no, I won't roll my eyes if you buy my Kid a Kwanzaa book. And perhaps when we're not in the middle of a pandemic, I may seek out a public celebration or two to incorporate into our holiday traditions. However, I have a few suggestions for the Kwanzaa PR folks because we need to move our people beyond just dressing the part for seven days out of the year:

When we say Black Lives Matter, that is Umoja (unity). 
When we say vote like your life depends on it, that is Kujichagulia (self-determination).
When we say wear a mask to stop the spread of COVID, that is Ujima (collective work and responsibility).
When we say buy small, buy local, and buy Black, that is Ujamaa (cooperative work and economics).
When we say it takes a village, that is Nia (purpose).
When we elevate our stories and express ourselves through the arts, that is Kuumba (creativity).
When we say the struggle continues, but we shall not be moved, that is Imani (faith).

Habara gani?

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

The Princess of My Heart

Eleven years ago, I took a group of young girls to see The Princess and the Frog, the first Black Disney Princess movie. I was a mentor in my sorority's junior debutante program, so we thought this would be a great outing for them. I remember my excitement in buying them little trinkets to celebrate the moment of being a princess...and how most of them were like, meh shrug okay. Then it took me a year to finally write out my thoughts about the film, which weren't even posted to this blog, but to the Cafe (which, to my surprise, y'all have discovered). So I guess it makes sense that I would eventually share some musings about that movie here, since Tiana is absolutely the animated Busy Black Woman!

I've watched the movie many, many times since it debuted in 2009 and as I've grown older and now have a daughter of my own, I definitely have some new perspectives about the film, its historical significance, and the lessons it imparts. I still love it as much as I did when I first saw it, and if I can set an intention for this piece, it is my hope that I can describe and fully articulate the joy that so many of us felt when this movie came out! Even now, I don't think that girls growing up in a post-Tiana world really understand why this was SO ground-breaking and emotional. And now that Disney has announced plans to revisit her story, we will be watching with eagle eyes to ensure that they don't mess it up like they did The Lion King...

Speaking of, let's start with The Lion King (1994), which was clearly the animated forerunner to The Princess and the Frog. If you saw that movie when it debuted you probably have fond memories, and might remember that it was one of the most successful Disney animated films of all time. In the 1990s, Disney animation was on a hot streak with the release of a new movie each year that established its dominance. It all began with The Little Mermaid (1989), which we watched with my then-baby cousin (who is now a grown Big Cousin/Auntie herself). We loved that movie, as well as the two hits that followed, Beauty and the Beast (1991) and Aladdin (1992), so when The Lion King was released, I remember being puzzled that it was a film about animals instead of people. Hmm, I thought, surely I am not over-thinking things by wondering why after three successful films about princesses, including a very brown-skinned Princess Jasmine, we would get a film about an animal prince whose parents happened to be voiced by King Jaffe Joffer (James Earl Jones) and Queen Aoleon (Madge Sinclair) from Zamunda? 

(Side note: the fact that I knew/thought this is evidence of several things, namely my age--I was 20 when The Lion King came out. Coming to America was released in 1988 and had reached cult classic status. Among my woke HBCU peers, we had time to make up conspiracies for why Disney had opted to present an animal story set in Africa. Also, I know why John Amos's character, Cleo McDowell, was flirting with the Queen...and if you don't, check the original Roots.)

Aside from those musings, we still loved the movie, even if we were perplexed about several of the voice actor choices, namely Jonathan Taylor Thomas in the speaking role of Simba instead of Jason Weaver who did the singing. That film was followed up by Pocahantas (1995), which pushed the envelope in a more radical direction with an Indigenous princess and her people pitted against a racist, greedy colonizer. That certainly was not the version of the Jamestown story we had been taught, and the film was released in the early skirmishes of the culture war we are still fighting. There were other issues as well, and though subsequent movie offerings continued to promote diverse story-telling such as Mulan (1998) and Lilo and Stitch (2002), the more successful movies throughout the next decade were the 3-D animated films produced by Pixar.

Those of us who grew up on the Disney offerings in the 70s and 80s recall so-so animated adventures such as The Black Cauldron (1985) and The Great Mouse Detective (1986); corny live action movies that starred Don Knotts; and periodic re-releases of classics from its vaults. One of the movies I saw on television was Dumbo (1941), and even though it is one of my favorites, there is no need to even discuss why that film is so problematic. I also saw Song of the South (1946) at the theater with my Mom, who must have taken us to see it without my Dad's knowledge. I don't suspect that movie will be released again, not even for sentimental reasons as references to it at the theme parks are about to be re-branded for Princess and the Frog. The point is, Disney may not have been the worst company with respect to its depictions of people of color, but yeah...the progress they made in the 90s was VERY noteworthy.

Thus, when we got to the remake of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Cinderella, it felt like a trial run for what audiences might expect from a Black princess story. The original musical had starred Julie Andrews in 1957, and a remake was made with Leslie Ann Warren in 1965. Forty years after the original, Whitney Houston produced a version with her protege Brandy Norwood in the title. It was a very diverse cast overall, similar to what might be typical in the theater instead of television. But it was part of the evolution that would lay the groundwork for Tiana.

Helping to pave that path was Raven-Symone, who starred in her own Disney channel sitcom for four years, and has been a mainstay in their various offerings. There were also Black animated characters, most notably The Proud Family, which not only featured Black voice actors, but was the creation of Bruce Smith, a Black animator (who would work on Princess and the Frog as well as HBO's Happily Ever After series). While I won't suggest that I was sitting in wait for a Black Princess movie, I did take note of these developments as evidence that something was coming. When it was announced that plans were underway, I held my breath, anxious but reassured that delays were necessary to avoid the mistakes that had been made with Pocahantas

So when Princess and the Frog finally premiered in December 2009, I was psyched! I intended to see this movie at the theater, even though all of my nieces and cousins were teenagers or young adults and my niece Nasya hadn't been born yet. To ensure support for the opening weekend my sorority designated it as a red carpet affair, so I went all out in preparing an elaborate outing for our junior debutantes. I went to the party supply store to find tiaras and Mardi Gras beads for the girls, and I smiled inwardly at the prospect that a Black face would soon be incorporated into the Disney Princess franchise (for which an entire aisle of the store had been dedicated).

Despite my excitement, there was no major marketing campaign that I can recall, not even Happy Meal toys. After the movie, the girls humored me by posing for the picture below. I assumed that maybe it was their age (12-15), but then one young lady suggested that it was hard to get excited when Tiana had spent most of the movie as a frog. Subsequent reviews aligned with her observation although I defiantly insisted that it didn't matter. The fact that there was a movie centered around an empowered Black girl with her own story, even if she was human for all of 20 minutes was good enough for me. However, when Tangled (2010) and Brave (2012) debuted to much bigger fanfare, those criticisms began to make sense. Then Frozen came out in 2013, and suddenly every little girl wanted to be the elusive Ice Princess (but not her sister Anna who had a more substantial role).

Marketing is everything. And apparently, heroines need to be presented in their fully realized heroic form in order to make an endearing impression. Little Black girls who are willing to humor their mothers and aunties by playing with those Tiana dolls and costumes all still want to be Elsa. They will be pulled into the story that ignites their fantasies and wins their affections. I wanted my daughter to like Tiana and Elena of Avalor because they look like her, then it occurred to me that my favorite Disney Princess is Mulan...

That doesn't suggest that Disney didn't get Tiana's story right, it means they can always do better. The crows in Dumbo have always been problematic, so thankfully they found a new way to tell the story without them. The only salvageable aspect of Song of the South has always been Zip-A-Doo-Dah, which still greets visitors to the theme parks. The Lion King has been successful in every incarnation because it is a timeless story. Cinderella can be remade again and again because Rodgers and Hammerstein were musical geniuses. Raven Symone is always going to have a job with Disney.

I still love the original Princess and the Frog story of hard work and self-determination, because that is the essence of Black Girl Magic. However, what is clear after all of these years is that Disney really created Tiana for all of the Black mothers and aunties who grew up without seeing our images reflected in their fairy tales. Our daughters didn't need her story as much as we did, and I suspect we care more about what life is like for Tiana and Naveen as humans than they will. It matters to us whether they are still friends with Louis, the horn-playing gator and how many husbands Lottie has had by now. We want to know how it must be as the only princess who needs to work because her husband got disinherited (come thru Meghan Markle)! And now that Splash Mountain will be re-themed as a bayou (so Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox can still linger in the set pieces), I can't wait to check out a Tiana's Place New Orleans-themed restaurant in Downtown Disney. 

Sunday, December 20, 2020

The Christmas Ruiners

I recently posted this picture of myself to my Instagram page. The caption alludes to the fact that my Busy Black Woman Holiday Giving Guide has been delayed. Last year, I was so proud of myself for posting items before my birthday, but this year (10 days or so later) I am still waiting for half of what I ordered to arrive. And I began placing orders before Thanksgiving! This is all thanks to delivery delays and increased shipping costs, so I dare not order much else if I hope anything will arrive in time for me to put it all back in the mail for Christmas/New Year/Valentine's Day delivery. Such is 2020...

Yeah, because of COVID, no holiday travel this year, so everything will be in the mail or dropped off on your doorstep. And since I'm not going to any indoor malls or holiday bazaars, I have to find inspiration from Instagram ads and Etsy. I am still waiting on the Christmas cards that I ordered two weeks early so that also delays my timeline for shipping gifts as well. I know that I could just order everything from a certain big, bad corporate behemoth that delivers whatever you need in two days, and if I get that desperate, I know that is an option. But I have at least three more days until that becomes necessary. (<--I wrote that sentence five days ago.)

Mind you, I am not upset that Christmas is already a disaster this year because that was the one guarantee we could anticipate. Call it the ying and yang of life--the price of exiting the Hell that has been 2020 is the opposite of a Hallmark Christmas movie. It's Die Hard

Which is why all of these calls for Trumpelthinskin to concede with dignity have me scratching my head. As if! Nah, I'm glad he's continuing to show his entire man-baby ass for all of the world to see. It isn't like he has any shame to begin with, so spare us the farce of him being a gracious loser. I know, it undermines the dignity of the transition process (blah, blah, blah), but we're so past the point of expecting anything less than a drawn out clusterfuck. He is King Midas's little brother Fredo--E-V-E-R-Y-T-H-I-N-G he touches turns to straw, so the only sane thing to do is to watch him implode and hope that Satan brings a Roomba after he extinguishes the embers.

(I know, that was a lot of randomly mixed metaphors. Keep reading, I'm sure I have more.)

The 74 million who voted for him--those same self-righteous folks who storm the malls every year to demand that the over-worked and under-paid cashiers wish them a Merry Christmas instead of a Happy Holidays? They are all ruiners too. They are Meghan 'Jesus-is-white-and-Santa-too' Kelly questioning what's so wrong with blackface (because Robert Downey, Jr. did it) level ruiners. They are I caused a 10 mile long car pile up on the freeway because my dog knocked my phone out of my hand and I only looked down for a minute, but you shouldn't have stopped so suddenly in bumper-to-bumper traffic, so it's not my fault level ruiners.

I feel that I should pause to define what I mean by ruiners, since that is quite a broad swath of people that I am branding as terrible. Well, because they are and I have reached that point of my middle age where I refuse to extend compassion or to seek reconciliation with anyone who thinks that being called a Karen is worse than calling the cops on a kid for selling water on the street. I don't believe that goodness and virtue are political ideologies but I do think that the intentional choice to side with evil for the sake of personal expediency is an indication that maybe there are some very bright lines.

For example, I started writing this a few days ago, but as usual, when I get distracted I am like a cat following a laser. I came back air my various grievances because it is so freaking hard to get anything done in these COVID times. As in basic shit, like getting my Mom excused from jury duty. She cannot serve, and despite the fact that I provided a written explanation on her survey, supported by the required doctor's certification, which was faxed to court in a timely manner, and have attempted to contact them to verify that her form was received...she is STILL scheduled to show up in January! Honestly, it might be easier just to wheel her in than to go through all of this trouble because apparently NOBODY IS AT WORK.

Mind you, customer service was bad even when we weren't in a pandemic. And I blame the ruiners who would rather that things be cheap and efficient instead of done right. We don't want to pay one person to answer the phone and connect calls so everyone has an automated system that is supposed to be more helpful at directing you to the right answer to your question. How often do you still need to be connected to an operator after listening to a menu of inapplicable options or after having a computerized voice insist that it cannot process your request? If you have been to a McDonald's lately (don't judge me), there are kiosks instead of cashiers. Your food doesn't come out any faster because you didn't place your order with a human, by the way, it just saves the corporation $8 an hour per person who was replaced. Not that those were good jobs, because they weren't. It just seems fundamentally wrong to tell young people to get a job but have nothing to offer because no one thinks they are worth the investment. But at least your order was accurate and you didn't have to repeat yourself to the Latinx cashier with the heavy accent.

The ruiners are the people who saw Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and shared spoilers on social media (luckily I saw the play 20 years ago, so not too ruined). The ruiners are the folks at Mattel who shipped the Barbie Dream House in a box that clearly indicates what is inside, and as I ordered in a timely manner (because it is a hot ticket item), it arrived on my front porch while my Kid, who is still at home doing virtual school, could see it. Her Dad announced that it had come, so he is a ruiner too, but for a bunch of other reasons including his inability to think on his feet! The ruiners are also all of those parents who insist that we should all drop the pretense, and even though that Larry David episode was hilarious, it sucks when those people try to justify being a ruiner because they don't believe in the fantasies we sell our children.

Again, 74 million of you wanted more Trump though.

This Christmas was already trash back in September. Because the ruiners who didn't want people of color to vote couldn't get away with the usual suppression tactics in the middle of a pandemic, they messed up the mail. Packages are piling up at the post office, since shopping at the malls is risky. Or at least I think the malls are risky...I wouldn't know; I've been in the house social distancing like Dr. Fauci advised. And I'm guessing that by now, all of the cashiers have been replaced with self-serve kiosks, which I refuse to use because I can just stay at home to shop on my own computer. But allow me to caveat that the mail isn't entirely messed up since all of my bills still seem to arrive on time. 

Of everything I have highlighted as ruined, there are the more obvious and serious losses of life that I have yet to mention. I cannot begin to fathom what Christmas or any other holiday (and yes, my fellow Christians, there are other holidays that occur this time of year) will be like for the millions of people whose loved ones died in this pandemic. I spent a year mourning the passing of a good friend from cancer, and as we approach the anniversary of her transition, I am still a mess. The cancer that claimed her life took three months to diagnose, then an agonizing two weeks of watching her suffer. So I can only imagine how anyone who has dealt with death from COVID must feel with a disease that only needs two weeks to inflict its lethal damage. This pandemic is THEE reason why this holiday season will forever be remembered as one of the worst ever. 

If I have not yet called your name or included your specific nonsense on this list, no worries, because you have two weeks to ruin what remains of this year:

  1. You decorate more than one Christmas tree in your house.
  2. You insist that writing 'Xmas' instead of 'Christmas' is disrespectful.
  3. You renege on participating in one of those gift-giving pyramid schemes. (✋ raises hand)
  4. You post conspiracy theories about the coronavirus vaccine.
  5. You re-gift a present back to the person who gave to it you.
  6. You go broke buying stuff for yourself, so your gifts to everyone else come from Costco.
  7. You use terms like 'mask-shaming' or 'virtue signaling' with no sense of irony.
  8. You've gone back to church amidst the surge in cases. (my Dad)
  9. You criticize intelligent people with whom you disagree by saying that we are better than this, as if after 9 months of lockdown we care what you think.
  10. You voted to confirm another Trump judicial appointment, but refuse to vote for another relief package to give people a measly $1200.

And finally, a special middle finger, sit on it, and may you itch in inaccessible places with no relief to the person (s) who broke into our car, and our neighbors' cars last night.

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Through the Generations

The actress Marguerite Ray, who originated the role of Mamie Johnson on the long-running soap opera The Young and the Restless, died last month at the age of 89. Initially, I was just going to write a short remembrance in her honor on the Facebook page, but then I got sentimental and began reminiscing about my childhood--back to when my grandmother took care of me on sick days and half-days off from school. Back when there were only six channels, one working television in the kitchen, and the only shows airing were game shows and soap operas.

Those were the days of eating food that my Dad wouldn't buy like Saltine crackers, Cool Whip, and Steakumms. Those were the days of having one rotary phone that sat on a lace doily and plastic-covered furniture that stood on paws. Those were the days when every closet and drawer smelled of cedar and mothballs. Those were the days when all of the neighbors spoke to each other and all of the neighborhood kids went to the same school and played together. 

If I was home due to illness, Grandma would serve me soup (Campbell's chicken and stars was my favorite) in a coffee mug and promise me Graham crackers if I ate it all. Then at 12:30pm, once the noonday news was done, she would send me to the adjacent bedroom for my nap. If we were released from school early, Granddaddy waited outside for us in his station wagon, parked in the same spot that no one dared to invade. After driving the two blocks to the house, he sometimes stuck around to make us lunch, and maybe took us with him on whatever errands he had to run for the day.

Technically, I wasn't allowed to watch the soap operas, but I never napped (so there is something my Kid inherited honestly). I would sneak back into the kitchen to watch the soaps 'with' Grandma, then hurry back to bed and pretend to sleep whenever the phone rang (because it was in that same bedroom). I'm sure that she knew I was lurking in the background, which explains why she eventually allowed me to stay in the kitchen with her. That's how I can remember the exact lineup of shows from the retro black and white sitcoms, to Betty White on half of the daytime game shows, to the noonday news followed by a three hour block of soap operas, and finally The People's Court with Judge Wapner. Only rarely did we get to watch something different, perhaps the occasional Merrie Melodies cartoon if Grandma had something to do in another part of the house.

Those were the days...of barely seeing anyone who looked like us on most television shows unless it was on a current sitcom, the news, some special guest appearance or random cameo, or on Roots.

Seeing a rather short obituary for Marguerite Ray earlier reminded me that for many Black actors in that transitional era of television in the 70s and 80s, their best remembered role might end up being some kind of stereotype. Huggy Bear from Starsky and Hutch. JJ from Good Times. Mama from That's My Mama or What's Happening. Many of those actors made the rounds on the various popular sitcoms as well as the obligatory appearance in Roots, but other than that, their TV and movie roles were small and often uncredited. Other than Y&R, Ray's other major credit was on a rebooted Sanford as Redd Foxx's girlfriend. A quick study of her IMDB listing confirms that she worked regularly, but then after she left Y&R, not much at all. Sadly, unless someone else writes a more comprehensive biography, there isn't much else, so she is best remembered for an anachronistic character, not quite a stereotype, but close enough. Her character's name was Mamie for goodness sakes...

If I were a regular contributor to woke, Black, and angry Twitter, I would feel some kind of way about her sparse obituary as some kind of final insult--best remembered for playing the maid on a soap opera 30 years ago, before many in Generation Z were born. And obviously, I do feel some kind of way about that, but it isn't anger, nor is it the resigned shrug of acknowledgement that things were much different then. I would like to know what happened to her career all of those years between her departure from Y&R to her last listed acting credit in 2001. But I know that life happens, so instead of dwelling on the what ifs or assuming the worst, I think it is more appropriate to asses her role as pivotal to changes that came not just to that particular show, but to other shows in that genre as well. 

Marguerite Ray originated a role that would contribute to the changing complexion of soap operas in the 80s and 90s. She certainly was not the first maid on television, nor was she the first Black character on the soaps. That honor goes to Rex Ingraham, who appeared as a preacher on a show in 1962. I don't remember when Mamie Johnson first showed up in Genoa City, nor did I see any of the previous storylines on other shows that featured Black characters. However, I do remember the emergence of the first Black supercouple, Jessie and Angie, on All My Children in the mid 80s. As such, I recall how perplexing it was to see Ray in a subservient role, until it became clear that she was supposed to be regarded as more than a maid.

Now, these aren't researched facts, just my observations, but whenever a character is given a name on a soap opera or in a film, the intention is for us to take note of them for some specific reason. Otherwise, who cares which extra on set that day was tapped to bring Mrs. Chancellor her fancy rotary phone on a silver tray or who brought Nikki Newman her afternoon scotch? And we know that having maids/housekeepers/butlers around serve as useful plot support. Someone overheard that conversation about the hostile corporate takeover and surely someone observed who shed those discarded clothes that led from the living room to the bedroom. The other noteworthy maid on the same show, Esther Valentine, figured prominently in various storylines (as did Miguel, the hot Latinx manservant at the Newman Ranch). However, Esther was treated as a comic foil and Miguel was under used eye candy; whereas Mamie was the surrogate mother to the motherless Abbott children and confidante to their hen-pecked father, John, who always fell for the wrong women. 

I remember when Ray's Mamie reassured an insecure Traci Abbott (Beth Maitland) about her appearance; comforted Ashley Abbott (Eileen Davidson) through her various relationship entanglements; and how she scolded Jack Abbott (Terry Lester) for his rakish behavior. So when the role was recast, it was noticeable. The new actress, Veronica Redd, wasn't bad, it was the timing--just when Mamie was finally getting some action. In a lonely moment, John Abbott and Mamie shared an on-screen kiss, and we were intrigued to see if she would bring him more than his cup of coffee the next morning. Perhaps Ray's more grandmotherly Mamie wasn't young enough to entertain that possibility. Furthermore, a younger Mamie was a more plausible mother figure for her street-wise niece who arrived in Genoa City with a chip on her shoulder. The arrival of her other niece, along with a hot young junior executive at Jabot Cosmetics gave us a front-burner Black storyline that my college friends and I planned our afternoon classes around by the 90s.

Fast forward thirty years to the point where there are now three generations of a Black family in otherwise lily white Genoa City. Where an interracial love story between Mamie and Mr. Abbott had been hinted at and quickly abandoned, times sure have changed for her great niece Lily Winters...

Thirty years ago when it was novel to cast and craft stories for the Black actors in soap operas, the ground-breaking Generations debuted to much fanfare. At the time, the expectation had been that this new show would compete with Y&R by adding much needed diversity to the daytime landscape, but it fell into predictable patterns by centering the drama around the white characters. The show folded within two years. In hindsight, the backstory that established the premise for that soap--that the Black matriarch of Generations had been the maid for the white family was a too-convenient and unrealistic white fantasy of racial progress.

(For trivia lovers, the actress who portrayed the Black matriarch on Generations was Lynn Hamilton, who had appeared on the original Sanford & Son as Fred's recurring girlfriend Donna. Marguerite Ray  appeared on the subsequent Sanford show as Fred's recurring girlfriend Evelyn. Kristoff St. John, who also appeared on Generations, became the patriarch of the Winters family on Y&R. All three actors appeared in Roots.)

It seems that I've fallen down a rabbit hole of nostalgia, so allow me to climb back up to where this started, which began with me reminiscing about my grandparents and then shifting to memorialize a life that represented certain cultural changes. Something about remembering Marguerite Ray has evoked memories from my childhood despite not having thought about her in years. Nor had I indulged too many fond memories of my grandparents, so I began with the assumption that this piece would be a look back on a simpler time...

Which it was, from the uncomplicated perspective of a child. Forty years later, I see it all so differently and can fill in more details. I remember that my parents both worked, so we attended the elementary school closest to my retired paternal grandparents who cared for us. My maternal grandmother did not watch us during the day because she still worked well into her 70s. I remember that Grandma did not approve of me watching the soaps with her, but doing so kept me out of her things. I did not know that Granddaddy ran a shoe repair shop with his brothers during the day which is why he wasn't home (learned that from a cousin many years later after his death). 

It makes sense that Marguerite Ray and the other actors from that era made the rounds on Black sitcoms because that was regular work. I'm betting that working on-call for what was essentially a phone-in job gave Ray flexibility as well as visibility to book those other roles. Securing a steady gig on a soap opera or dramatic serial was a big deal for those actors as JET Magazine, the Black culture Bible, made it their business to remind us every week. It was appointment viewing whenever a Black actor crossed over to mainstream television, and in the 80s, that was akin to that Dorothy's iconic landing in Oz...

There were more incremental changes that I witnessed as I grew older. During the summers when my cousins kept us to give my grandparents a break, they watched All My Children, so that's how I got caught up in the cult of Angie and Jessie. As a middle school latch-key kid, I got to watch the soaps of my choice every Friday. By then, the hot show was As the World Turns which had a Black female lawyer and a major guest appearance by Whitney Houston. I remained loyal to Y&R and got hooked on the new show The Bold and the Beautiful in high school, but I was lured away by the promises made by Generations. I gave that show a few months before it became clear that there were more promotional pictures of the Black cast than actual plots that featured them. By the time I went away to college, Mamie's nieces, that hot young Jabot executive, and the other Black guy in town, a private detective, were entangled in the love quadrangle that would become one of the juiciest storylines on Y&R.

Now there are people of color on television all day. Where it was once unique or groundbreaking to see white collar Black professionals, that is now the standard. There is still plenty of room for improvement (for Latinx and Asian American actors in particular), but soap operas deserve some of the credit for the current level of diversity on television. Of course, all of the progress came as the broader landscape of television changed dramatically. Only three classic soaps still air. I stopped watching the soaps almost 15 years ago, but there was a month-long stretch this summer because CBS aired classic Y&R episodes during the production shutdown. That included an entire week devoted to the Winters family...descended directly from Mamie Johnson!

Times have changed, and as my Grandma would say, we have six in one hand and half a dozen in the other. Kids don't grow up on soap operas anymore because there are more kid-friendly programming options available during the day. And thankfully, those don't come with the racist/sexist baggage of those Merrie Melodies we used to watch. But we no longer live in close enough proximity to our retired relatives who could provide daily child care. Those of us who do might be caring for our elders and our children, a situation that was already stressful before the pandemic. Sadly, my parents never have been in a position to care for my daughter the way that my grandparents cared for us. 

In times like these, sometimes we need the comfort of nostalgia, even if the memories don't always tell the full story. It gives us a chance to revisit the past to fill in some of the gaps, which helps us to see how far we've come. Marguerite Ray was a pioneer whose impact extended far beyond the margins of the limited role she portrayed. And that is significant, given that this year many other veteran soap actors also passed away, she earned the right to be remembered as more than just a maid.

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

The Peanut Gallery

My Morehouse Brother and fellow scribe Ol' Hobbs sent me a piece he had written regarding the qualifications of General Lloyd Austin, nominated to lead the Department of Defense in the next Administration. I wrote back, surprised to learn that there was debate over this particular selection. I had not given much thought to the notion of controversy, since the Biden picks so far have been pretty straight-forward. Besides, I responded, it isn't like anyone questioned the qualifications of the reality TV game show grifter who became Leader of the Free World and nearly ushered in its total annihilation.

Throughout the day, I saw small rumblings erupt on Twitter. Concerns that the General had not been retired long enough from the military were most common, followed by complaints that his race had been the primary reason for his selection. By the end of the day, I was seeing opposition from members of Biden's own party, all of which was prefaced by suggesting that it was nothing personal, just principles. While reading all of this commentary, the following visual popped into my head:

Lucy snatching the football away just as Charlie Brown is about to kick.

As Brother Hobbs pointed out in much detail, there should be NO argument whatsoever over General Austin's qualifications for this job. As in, none of us civilians have the capacity to adequately judge military credentials to begin with, since so few of us make the choice to serve. The man spent 40 years in the Army and attained the rank of General...less was required to erect and defend monuments to long-dead Confederate traitors. So it should go without saying that General Austin is eminently qualified to lead the Department of Defense. Period.

So if there are no further questions about his resume, then what remains is the pro forma issue of granting him a waiver to serve in the Biden Administration. After World War II, Congress sought to establish civilian leadership over the military and required a separation of seven years from military service. Austin retired in 2016, which falls short of the requirement by three years. On two previous occasions in modern history, Congress granted a waiver, most recently four years ago when General James Mattis was nominated. I do not recall that we were offered any long elaborate explanations from then President-elect Trump, eager to argue the merits of his selection. He just squinted into the camera, announced his choice, and then despite some procedural opposition, General Mattis was confirmed.

For what it's worth, the third and current acting Secretary of Defense, Christopher Miller, would have required a waiver for confirmation as well, but since he's a placeholder and no one actually knows who still has what job in the Trump Abomination, we shan't revisit the timeline of pure cray and fuckery that has brought us to this moment. Thus, after these tumultuous years of instability and constant upheaval, are we seriously debating a congressional waiver?

If you were ever a fan of the Peanuts comic strip or holiday cartoons, you rooted for the hapless Charlie Brown to finally kick the football. Although you knew better than to trust Lucy, you wanted to believe that she would relent just once. For some, it was out of sympathy for the underdog; for others, it was the hope that Lucy had at least one redeeming quality. The truth is, this is the continuous loop some of us are caught in--a perpetual cycle of repeatedly having the ball yanked away at the last second. No matter if the effort is sincere and earnest, no matter how worthy the cause, no matter how deserving we are to have the opportunity, and no matter how just it would be to extend some courtesy...Lucy will always yank the football.

In this instance, the loudest detractors and opponents of Austin's nomination are on our side. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) has declared her intention to oppose the waiver. So instead of Lucy donning her witch mask and resetting the rules to her advantage, she's enlisted Charlie Brown's own sister, Sally. 

Warren is joined by a few other Senators, some Members of Congress, editorials written by Jennifer Rubin in The Washington Post, Jim Golby in the New York Times, and Hayes Brown on MSNBC. And of course, there are others because Lucy is always backed by a crew of sycophants. Hence the name of the comic strip...

The point here is not to delve into another psychological study of Charles Schultz's affable disturbia. Nor is it to argue how rules always seem to be more stringently enforced when certain among us are in the limelight. After all, Franklin was invited to that janky Thanksgiving dinner of popcorn, jelly beans, and cold buttered toast, but he was seated on the opposite side of the table. We already know what will probably happen.

But let's go through the motions anyway. Let's convince ourselves that this will be the day that Lucy will look deep into her celluloid heart and something will actually be drawn there that might compel her to give old Charlie Brown just one chance to kick that football...

Better yet, let's stop the insanity. Do not play football with Lucy Van Pelt!

Some of these people have made it clear that they will always put their exalted principles above everything. And because they are in a position to exercise some power, they will do so regardless of the outcome. If they sink this nomination (which can happen since the Senate majority is in play), they will have won the Pyrrhic victory of holding Presidential appointees to uniform standards. They will throw out words like 'integrity' and 'restoration' to justify their version of cancel culture. They won't even bother to read the editorial Biden wrote to defend his choice of Austin because this is about claiming the moral high ground.

Political coalitions are always fraught and flimsy. What unified this particular coalition was our hatred of Donald J. Trump. What will fracture this coalition is the realization that merely ridding ourselves of his demagoguery is insufficient firepower against entrenched racism/sexism as justifications for maintaining political hegemony. 74 million people voted to keep this shitshow going, and they don't care about your hallowed principles. There is no Secretary of Peace, so other than a retired General or Admiral who's been sitting at home knitting for the past seven years, who else should be tapped to lead the Pentagon? Our every internal disagreement will be exploited as an Achilles' heel to neutralize Biden and kneecap Kamala Harris for 2024. The fact that Biden even felt compelled to write an op-ed to justify his choice indicates that he anticipated this, and here we are. 

Deluding ourselves that because Lucy is Linus' sister and Linus is Charlie Brown's best friend, she might hold that football in place. But Lucy ain't never been Charlie Brown's friend! And you cannot trust her or anyone who follows behind her--not Frieda, Violet, Pig-Pen, Schroeder, Patty, little sister Sally, and not even Snoopy, the dog. Peppermint Patty might be down, but not Marcie (who sat with her back to us instead of sitting next to Franklin). Trust me, leave them Peanuts alone...