Sunday, November 21, 2021

Beauty is a Beast

Recently on a trip to New York City, we took the Kid to see the Empire State Building. I hadn't been inside in decades, and like many classic attractions, it has ben re-designed as an experience. Now there are interactive exhibits on the building process and the various ways that the iconic structure has been depicted in popular culture. There were nods to films such as An Affair to Remember (1957), Sleepless in Seattle (1992), and of course, the multiple versions of King Kong. My daughter enjoyed seeing the King Kong references, and I didn't have the heart to reveal the scowling face I was making behind my mask. So in all of the pictures, you see me smiling as if I didn't have a visceral reaction to being reminded of one of my earliest lessons in subliminal racism and sexism.

Yes, and don't act so surprised that I caught on at an early age that some women are regarded as damsels in distress in need of rescue and protection, while others are collateral damage left to perish or fend for themselves. I must have been about eight or nine years old when I first saw the 1976 King Kong remake. It aired on a Saturday night, and I watched it with my Mom. Like most precocious kids, I had questions, including why women were being sacrificed and what this giant ape did with them once he got hold of them. I also wondered why Kong seemed so smitten with this particular white woman and why it was necessary to save her, but not any of the native women. I'm sure my Mom gave me all of the answers that one is supposed to offer a child; nevertheless, I really got the message when I saw the original film with Fay Wray...

Since this piece is not really about King Kong, my point is that certain women are treated like hapless victims while others are fair game. I guess I could attempt to deconstruct why a giant carnivorous ape was allowed to terrify the inhabitants of a tropical island, but that would also require me to come up with an explanation for how those same humans were able to survive on that island with him, that ginormous serpent, and various prehistoric dinosaurs...

It is a lot easier to point out that the message has been the same whether we are talking about movies or politics. I am referring to that anime video that Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ) posted last week (before he deleted it and got censured for it) that included his heroic fantasy of killing fellow Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY). I noted that she was depicted as some giant beast hellbent on a mission of destruction, and Gosar imagined himself as some kind of action hero, aided by fellow Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) and Lauren Boebert (R-CO) as his sidechick co-avengers. 

Much of the initial fallout honed in on AOC's response to being the subject of his sick and twisted revenge porn video, but as usual, I saw a lot more in that 90 seconds of pure fuckery. There are the illusions to AOC as Kong; actual footage of the mistreatment of Haitian migrants and refugees; the celebration of border patrol and law enforcement; and of course, the insinuation that Gosar and Company are fighting the good fight against the current Administration. The anime portion is typical of the violent imagery that became common under the DESPOTUS Regime, so while it must be upsetting and frustrating to AOC personally, it occurred to me why all of this is so familiar.

I am not a fan of anime, so I hadn't seen the original video or the series that inspired this dreck. But knowing what I know about how certain imagery tends to be borrowed and reinterpreted, it doesn't surprise me at all that Gosar and his staff would cobble together this racist and sexist mish-mash of fearmongering tropes. Of all the people who best represent the embodiment of his worst fears, it is the beautiful, smart, and outspoken Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC)--a Latina whose very existence is both an affront and a delight. 

Of course he hates the Squad. And it follows that he would hate Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Vice President Kamala Harris, former Secretary Hillary Clinton, and every other powerful woman who disagrees with him ideologically. That part isn't surprising, but it is intriguing that he didn't choose to dehumanize or kill any of those other women, all of whom make cameo appearances in his video. Nor did he choose to depict himself slaying President Joe Biden, though I'm sure that could be a crime (but you can ask Kathy Griffin just to be sure). Therefore, it isn't enough to suggest that AOC makes an easy target for derision and ridicule. But it is a good starting point to mention that her youth and attractiveness probably rev Gosar's engines. And that's one major reason why she's so dangerous...she might seduce him to betray his core beliefs to accept climate change or to cancel student loan debt! 

Hence, another important lesson of subliminal racism and sexism--women that don't know their place aren't damsels in need of rescue, they are beasts that must be broken. 

I've noticed the devolution in the manner of attacks on AOC since she rebuffed Candace Owens' offer to debate on Twitter. Remember that nonsense? Before she even got elected to Congress, folks thought they could prove that she was an intellectual light-weight just because she had been working as a bartender in the Bronx. Perhaps the assumption was that she would be the Democratic version of Joe the Plumber and become a caricature--Sandy from the Burbs. But when she refused to be baited into a breakroom brawl with the designated toadie, her detractors searched for other means of attacking her. She can't be that broke, they argued when she was photographed in an expensive pantsuit that Anna Wintour loaned her from the VOGUE closet. She can't be that smart since she graduated cum laude from Boston University, but not Harvard. 

When they found that old footage of her dancing in a college video parody of an iconic scene from The Breakfast Club and bellyached that she was bringing Cardi B instead of respectability to the hallowed halls of Congress, not even that was scraping the bottom. She responded in typical Millennial fashion with a Tik Tok video filmed in the hallway in front of the entrance to her office. That must have really set their pants on fire, so they hit back with memes. And then at some point, it became acceptable to dehumanize her appearance so that the attacks could better appeal to the intelligence of her detractors. 

That's another tactic of the patriarchy that goes back to Saartjie Baartman, otherwise known as the Hottentot Venus. Turn the object of your obsession into an oddity, a curiosity, or worse, a revulsion. Exaggerate certain physical characteristics to convince others that the person is subhuman or some kind of freak. If you think that's a reach, then consider how in just a few years AOC, a mere cocktail waitress from the Bronx, has morphed from the village idiot to being depicted as a rampaging, hairless Titan in Gosar's video. Explain the tepid reaction to when she was called a fucking bitch by another Colleague over an ideological difference of opinion on poverty and crime. Explain how her admission to having PTSD after the Capitol Insurrection was downplayed and mocked in the conservative media. Explain why it even made sense to release this video mere days after she pissed off her Caucus and her Party by voting with Gosar and most of the GOP against the infrastructure bill.

To offer a study in contrasts, explain why Rep. Lauren Boebert, also a mere cocktail waitress from Colorado, can claim that she fears for her life and must carry a gun around the most heavily guarded neighborhood in this city. Ain't nobody coming for you, lady...except maybe the IRS and the FEC! But trust that if IRS and/or FEC agents were to show up with subpoenas and Boebert suffered as much as a paper cut, these mofos would take to the floor of the House of Representatives to defend her honor. 

Thus, another reminder of how patriarchy works tirelessly to rescue the hapless maidens that cry wolf even though they keep looking for trouble. And when all else fails and you can't taunt, humiliate, tame, and ultimately conquer the Beast(s), you can always kill them.

Take a closer look at that video. Then tell me how America's fate depends on the courage of Paul Gosar, a dentist by trade, to prevail. That shit would be comical we hadn't already seen it a thousand times; yet, y'all keep remaking King Kong as if we don't get the message.

Beauty is a filter, a mirage, special lighting, and other tricks of the camera to make us believe we are seeing something that isn't real. If left to be defined in the eyes of beholders like Paul Gosar, then we get Ann Darrow (America the "Beauty") in need of rescue while the native women get devoured or trampled. We get men that rush in to save the damsels, but only to claim them for their collections of trophies and stuffed game heads. We get wannabe heroes who think it is courageous to turn away those in need, to ignore those who are sick and hungry, and to exploit those who are desperate. We get legions of defiant and unrepentant men elevated to the cult status of hero, even thought they lack any moral fiber, and are only motivated by the relentless pursuit of greed and personal gain. We get immature cowards like Gosar, whose shining moment of bravery is an imaginary conquest in a doctored cartoon. 

Beauty isn't one standard quality or physical characteristic, it is a combination of attributes. Beauty is the ability to see the humanity in another person, regardless of our physical or ideological differences. Compassion, fairness, equality, and diversity are beautiful. Charity is beautiful. Kindness is beautiful. Decency is beautiful. Respect is beautiful. Service and sacrifice are beautiful. Tenacity, persistence, and audacity are beautiful. If America's beauty is meant to be more than a celluloid fantasy, then she must live up to the ideals she espouses and claims to represent in the world. Otherwise, she is really the Beast...

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Dining While Black

A friend of mine helped to organize a celebration of Black-owned restaurants in the DC area, and though I missed the official kick-off, my intention is to visit one or two of the spots before the end of the week. Both to support his work, and to lend my support to some local restauranteurs. I've been shut up in the house for over a year, so I need to find some new places to hang. And as an ongoing objective that I've been pursuing here at Busy Black Woman, this gives me a chance to seek out and support more small businesses owned by Black, Latinx, LGBTQIA, and women entrepreneurs.

Does that make me a racist? Apparently it does because I should not care about the gender, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation of the business owner. I should only care that the product serves my needs. To pay attention to those attributes of the owner means that I am not adhering to MLK's dream of a colorblind society and I am only contributing to the division of our already polarized world by taking notice of something that I am supposed to pretend doesn't exist.

Yeah, whatever man.

I am tired of explaining this, but here we go--representation matters. It matters for people to see themselves as part of this society. It matters for our children to have role models. It matters for you and your children to see that competency and success are not reserved for the few but available to all. It matters because I say so!

It matters that when starting a business, women and people of color start off with real deficits. It is a fact that some business owners are less likely to receive start-up capitol from banks, or that they might face repayment terms that are more onerous than others. It is a fact that there is discrimination imbedded in the system that affects where businesses are located. In addition to financing and location, there are 50/11 reasons why small business ownership is a challenge for anyone, so when the owner happens to belong to a historically marginalized or underrepresented group, those challenges are magnified.

So why are y'all so triggered that someone thought that Black-owned restaurants deserve a little advertising boost for a week? Like seriously, how is that any more racist than Taco Tuesday?

Let me put this another way, because as we head into the holiday season and folks are advertising Black Friday sales and deals, I don't hear any complaints. I have yet to see any whining about there being no White Friday sales or how unfair it is to capitalize the word "Black" in those advertisements. I haven't seen any ALL Fridays matter backlash; I see y'all opening your wallets to buy whatever you can at a 25% discount.

Nope, not the same because there is a reasonable explanation for singling out the Friday after Thanksgiving versus the other 51 Fridays on the calendar...right?

I said what I said. I'm tired of the knee-jerk backlash and the intellectual laziness. This isn't that hard. Nobody is forcing you to participate if you don't care to. If you would rather eat homophobic chicken nuggets because their customer service is better, then have at it. Or if you would rather have the pizza from the same chain where the owner got caught on tape using the n-word because they deliver, that is your business. Do you also go into the Chinese food take-out in your neighborhood to complain that calling it Chinese food is discriminatory against other kinds of cuisine? Still mad because there are no Cracker Barrels in the city?

Let's say that you're right. You don't need to know the race or gender of the restauranteur who is serving your truffle fries and ceviche. But you need to know that where you do business impacts more than just that owner, their employees, and their families. Your dollars help to stabilize and sustain communities. If you don't believe that, then drive through the hood or through some small town where the lone factory just closed. 

When I became intentional about supporting small businesses, it was after I decided to try my hand at selling tee shirts to support this blog. I reasoned that it would be good karma to support other small business owners, so wherever possible, I would buy cards, books, candles, jewelry, and other knick-knacks from vendors I encountered at bazaars, street festivals, and on social media. Then it became integral to my Busy Black ethos to disengage from mass-produced merchandise in order to highlight unique goods and products. Sure, I could buy a generic box of all-occasion cards for cheaper at the Big Box, but these cards produced by my Spelman sister are cuter. I can give my Kid a lunchbox or a tee shirt with affirming messages about the beauty of her Blackness. These earrings are one-of-a-kind, this hat is dope, and wow, this is an interesting combination of scents in this hand-poured candle. And so on.

I also noticed the importance of a vibrant Main Street as opposed to a booming Wall Street. Local economies depend on localized economic activity. And big corporate chains don't always see the value in investing in certain communities. However, the Mom and Pop shop that hires local teens who need some spending money and something productive to do outside of school has been around for years. Small diners and restaurants employ single mothers as waitresses and returning citizens as busboys and cooks. The old man at the repair shop inherited the business from another resourceful old man who taught him that shops like these are valuable training centers for skills and life. So what do you mean it doesn't matter?

You mean it matters in those homogenized Hallmark movies, but not in the city, especially in neighborhoods that haven't been gentrified or where there hasn't been the same level of economic development. We don't need to emphasize the existence of small Black or Latinx businesses that will employ local kids and instill in them the value of hard work. They don't need to see entrepreneurship up close when there are jobs downtown. They don't need to know that money deposited in a Black bank will provide the financing for a start up company that couldn't get a PPP loan. That community-based businesses are more likely to sponsor uniforms and equipment for the Pop Warner football and Little League baseball teams than the corporate conglomerate. These kids don't need to be inspired by the story of the intergenerational family who all worked in the restaurant started by their immigrant patriarch who came here to escape civil war. 

No, let's insist that race doesn't matter and that we don't need ethnic hair salons and barbershops because everybody can just go to Supercuts. 

Riddle me this: for all of the complaining on Blue Ivy's internet about highlighting the race of these restauranteurs, is it racist to be told that the owners are Black or more racist to find out and then opt to eat somewhere else? In a city where folks line up for overpriced Top Chef burgers, $15 salads, and $4 doughnuts, y'all are offended by a listing of Black-owned restaurants? But it's okay to go on Yelp to look for whatever other ethnic cuisine... 

In a past life I was a civil rights lawyer who advocated for affirmative action. I will never forget the time I stood next to a small business owner in line outside the Supreme Court during oral arguments over a federal contracting case. This man told me that his business was adversely harmed by set-asides that guaranteed portions of government contracts to qualifying minority-owned small businesses. He got plenty of other contracting work, but because he couldn't compete for every contract, that was unfair to him and his family. When I pointed out that like his, these businesses were vying for taxpayer-funded contracts and the set-asides ensured equitable distribution of work that those businesses would not have access to otherwise, he stopped talking to me.

To illustrate with a restaurant metaphor, he had his own table (one of the best in the place), but he still wanted someone else's table as well.

We are emerging from a global pandemic and the fact that some of these places are still open should be a cause for celebration. Last month y'all were complaining that people don't want to work for $2.13 an hour; last week the debate was over the ethics of tipping at least 15%; and now the issue is not wanting to know that the owner is Black. I'm detecting a theme here...

But don't let me call you on your bullshit and risk not having your support for teaching American History.

I'm done, because I need to make lunch plans. I've got some new places to try and some old faves to track down (since a lot has changed in a year). The holidays are approaching, so I need to gear up for my Busy Black Woman Holiday Giving Guide and get on with my Busy Black business. In the wise words of someone, everything ain't for everybody, but you won't know if you don't try. Ciao!

Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Adventures in Gen X Nostalgia: Hey You Guys!

Recently, I was in the car when I heard the last few minutes of a segment on NPR that celebrated the classic PBS Kid's show, The Electric Company (1971-1977). As many of you know, I am a PBS Kid all grown up, so it was a fun trip back in time to remember that show. I posted a few clips on the Facebook page, and then of course...

Yep, I fell down a rabbit hole of memories and recollections that I just had to share! In addition to so many fond memories of TEC, I found clips of several other kid shows I grew up with, not all on PBS, but several that definitely shaped my Gen X childhood. Additionally, with quite a few friends preparing to celebrate that golden milestone of having lived for 50 years (and several who have already done so), I thought it would be fun to take you all on a trip back down memory lane to recall several of the shows that helped define our childhood.

First, a few words on the original The Electric Company, since that launched this reminiscence. It was an integral part of the programming block of shows that I watched on PBS as a child (as you know, in between Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood). Too much time has passed for me to remember exactly what time of day or for how many years I watched, but certainly enough to still remember several sketches all of these 40+ years later. We also had this cast album which got played regularly, so I have deeply embedded memories of the theme song as well as many others (listed below). At some point, the show got canceled, but never forgotten, as I am sure many of my peers will attest. 

While I have stronger recollections of that classic PBS trio, there were other kids shows on the network that aired during that same time period. Some I remember better than others, maybe because they only aired on the weekends, which is why I have memories of seeing Zoom (1972-1978), but have no idea what it was about. I did remember the opening song and probably noticed that there were different kids on each episode. The same is true for Villa Alegre (1973-1981), which I thought was called Viva Alegre, so that probably explains why my spanglish is still terrible after all of these years. 

However, one show that I remember well was 3-2-1 Contact (1980-1992). In addition to watching it most days after school, special segments were shown in school during science class. What I find remarkable about the existence of this show is how it promoted STEM long before we called it that--when it was merely learning and emphasizing practical applications of science and math. It imagined the reality of relying on a personal computer for relaying information, a prospect that seemed inconceivable in our analog world of the time. It also had a companion magazine, for which I had a subscription until I graduated from elementary school. In addition, 3-2-1 Contact contained a show within the show about a kid detective agency called The Bloodhound Gang, that solved "crimes" using the scientific method or some concept that had been introduced on the show. Was it just me, but did anyone ever see both parts of those mysteries in succession, or was it like those corny Batman cliffhangers?

Beyond PBS, there were cartoons, but we'll have to reminisce about the kid-friendly ones another time. I am old enough to remember Captain Kangaroo (although not this old), but still older than a mug, according to a friend's recent Facebook post. Bob Keeshan (who donned the coat with the big pockets from 1955-1984) was already a kid show veteran, having been the original Clarabell the Clown on the Howdy Doody Show (1947-1960), the first children's show that our parents watched. I have vague recollections of Romper Room (1953-1994) and the Magic Mirror, but I became a devotee of Sesame Street early on, so neither of those other shows made lasting impressions on me. Nor did Shari Lewis and her ubiquitous sidekick Lambchop, whom I saw as a guest on talk shows and gameshows, not knowing that she had once had her own show and a cult following. 

However, the two non-PBS shows that did make an impression on me were the New Zoo Revue (1972-1977) and the Great Space Coaster (1981-1986). What I recall the most about the NZR were its creepy life-sized furries: Henrietta Hippo, Charlie the Owl, and Freddie the Frog. I feel like everybody should remember the theme song to the GSC (as well as this Family Guy spoof), and Gary Gnu, everybody's favorite gnews reader. But did you also remember the Speed Reader and the La Linea segments as well? And I might be wrong, but I think GSC featured the Carole King and Maurice Sendak Really Rosie (1975) animated shorts, including my all-time favorite, the Story of Pierre

Speaking of shows that introduced beloved book characters, we must return to PBS and pay homage to Reading Rainbow (1983-2006), which ranks high on my nostalgia list for a variety of reasons. We revere host LeVar Burton as a national treasure, but that is thanks to his many faithful years of preaching the gospel of reading. I actually saw the premier episode of that show during the summer of 1983, even through I was already older than the target audience. I remember that we watched it together with our Mom and then we spent a great deal of time at the library, always on the hunt for some of the books that had been featured on the show. And for anyone who didn't already know, it was Reading Rainbow that introduced us to Marc Brown's popular Arthur the Aardvark character, before he became the star of his own iconic PBS Kids cartoon (1996-2021). The book, Arthur's Eyes, was read by none other than Bill Cosby.

In the 1970s through the 2000s, Bill Cosby made the rounds on various kid's programs during this era, so we won't ignore or diminish his contributions despite his current persona non grata status. He was part of the original cast of The Electric Company,  he appeared on Sesame Street, and he hosted a segment on Captain Kangaroo. He also created the iconic Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids (1972-1985) cartoon show during this era, which was a staple on Saturday mornings for years. Although we will revisit some of the other great cartoons of our youth at another time, Fat Albert deserves mention along with Little Bill (2000-2004), another Cosby creation that sought to impart moral messages on values and education. with the same objectives. This was why so many of us who grew up with this image of him as America's Dad and life-long education advocate found the revelations about his personal life so dissonant and perfidious.

Of course now at our age, we know better than to conflate the persona with the actor; yet, we also know that the revelation of certain human foibles and faults can be disastrous. Infamously, comedian Paul Reubens, who created the character Pee-Wee Herman and later the TV show Pee Wee's Playhouse (1986-1990), was arrested for indecent exposure in 1991. By that time that happened, I was in college and definitely old enough to understand the concept of separating one's personal life from one's work, but I can only imagine the dilemma that created for parents of younger children. Kids don't necessarily see these characters as performers, but as real people. And adults want to believe that the people who bring these beloved characters to life are as kind and good as their alter egos. 

Ironically, one of the objectives of children's television programming in our day was to teach concepts that might have been challenging for adults to explain. While the most notable example of that was the explanation of death on Sesame Street, Mr. Rogers's Neighborhood (1968-2001) dealt with emotions and feelings from the outset. His show tackled real issues such as divorce, the birth of a new sibling, moving, taking care of pets, and understanding physical abilities. Often mocked for its absurdity, his Neighborhood of Make Believe helped to reinforce the magic of imagination. I still remember when I finally understood why Mr. Rogers never appeared on the other side of the tunnel...

Once that made sense (and as I got older), it was easier to separate fact from fantasy when seeing the actors on adult shows or in commercials. I remember when I saw Lee Chamberlin on other shows and Judy Graubart in commercials. Later I realized how significant these shows had been for actors in the early or transition stages of their careers, particularly for adults like Morgan Freeman, Rita Moreno, and Alaina Reed to half of the performers who appeared on Kids Incorporated (1983-1994). 

Of course, there are a slew of iconic kid shows from the 80s and 90s that I don't remember for various reasons. Fraggle Rock (1983-1987) tops the list because it aired on HBO. The Elephant Show (1984-1989) must have also aired on cable because I only learned about it's existence when as a Toddlersaurus, my daughter became obsessed with the Skidamarink song. I was in high school when Pee Wee's Playhouse aired which explains why I missed the revelation that Laurence Fishburne was the jheri curl cowboy. A friend recently posted about introducing her daughter to Zoobilee Zoo (1986-87), another show I missed by a few years. By the time shows like Barney & Friends (1992-2010) and Blue's Clues (1996-2006) were popular, my kid show watching days were over unless I was babysitting younger cousins, nieces, or nephews.

Thanks to these past few years with my Babe/Toddlersaurus/Kid, I've become reacquainted with several of my old favorites from childhood as well as the current incarnations of those same shows. Sesame Street, which celebrated its 50th Anniversary in 2019 remains the gold standard, even with the format and cast changes since 2015. Although Mr. Rogers has been in syndication since it finished its original run 20 years ago, its animated reboot Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood (2012- ), is a favorite among this generation. The revived Electric Company (2009-2011) had already been canceled by the time it entered our rotation of must-see TV, but we watched the reruns on HBO until it got moved to the streaming platform last year.

The rebooted EC had potential but it only lasted two seasons. It brought back some of the iconic segments from the original show such as the word blends in silhouette and it updated the teaching component with modern musical numbers (like this high energy Silent E). For a while, they even brought back Paul the Gorilla. Their Music Man segments might have been intended as a nod to Easy Reader. Instead of a sketch comedy variety show, the format of the new show followed the classic Sesame Street model with a continuous storyline involving the core cast. After watching a few cycles of it in reruns, and despite an all-star roster of guest artists including Ne-Yo, Wyclef Jean, Good Charlotte, and LL Cool J, it could not recreate the magic of the original. The new EC might have worked better if the cast had been given more interesting storylines, if there had been more memorable songs, and well...let's just say that not even the brilliant Lin-Manuel Miranda could save the show from being corny and dull. 

Now corny is expected in the realm of children's programming, but dull is a mortal sin. Kid shows have a limited amount of time smaller window to catch on because there are a lot more options than when we were growing up. With multiple channels and entire networks dedicated to providing children's entertainment, that means an abundance of distraction, sensory overload, mediocrity, and less emphasis on educational content. In my biased opinion, the better quality shows are still on public television, an observation that makes sense since I grew up without cable. As a parent, I am more familiar and trusting of PBS to support my child's education; yet, I have noted that in order to remain competitive with the cable offerings, their content has had to adapt. Instead of one show like Sesame Street or Electric Company to teach kids reading, phonics, spelling and math, now there might be six. And with shows airing all day and on-demand, new programs can run their course within a few months. 

Repetition is why I can still remember my favorite songs from the original Electric Company some 40+ years later, but that was from watching the show over a span of years, not weeks. The segments were shuffled and recycled constantly, just like School House Rock (1973-1984) which aired on Saturday mornings. We didn't grow tired of those shows, we just grew out of them as we got older, but the lessons never left us. That is a topic for another day as the time has come to bring this episode of Adventures in Gen X Nostalgia to a close. I hope this piece rekindled some great you can tell, I've got enough  to keep this going at least until my 50th Birthday!

In the meantime, here is a Top 20 countdown of some my favorite songs and skits from the classic Electric Company (including a few that were not featured on the Facebook page). There were several skits I was unable to find individually, so you might want to check out this full episode or one of the compilation clip shows for some of your favorite characters like Jennifer of the Jungle, Fargo North Decoder, and J. Arthur Crank:

  1. Original Theme and Closing (season 1)
  2. Opening (season 6)
  3. Silent E (animated song)
  4. There's A Hole In the Bottom of the Sea (song/skit)
  5. T-I-O-N (animated song)
  6. Street Sign Song #1 (Home Sweet Home) and Sign Song #2 (I Love You)
  7. Whimper and Whine (Short Circus skit)
  8. Punctuation (song/skit with the Short Circus)
  9. Easy Reader (theme and skit)
  10. Spiderman (theme and skit)
  11. Word Blend (Ch-sound)
  12. That's Not the Note! (skit)
  13. Otto the Director (skit)
  14. Adventures of Letterman (animated segment "Small Talk")
  15. Rob/Robe (skit)
  16. Lick-a-Lolly (song/skit)
  17. Phantom of Love w/Phyllis and the Pharoahs (song)
  18. D Song (song with Short Circus)
  19. March Cha Cha Cha (skit)
  20. That's All (finale)

Sunday, November 7, 2021

Understanding the Assignment

It is a painful revelation to acknowledge that someone you once admired is terrible. In fact, it really sucks. A few weeks ago, I had to confront the realization that a lot of what has been said over the years about former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was right. I won't call her any of the names that some of y'all have used to describe her over the years, but let's just say that after her appearance on The View, I see things so much clearer. 

For years I have been mis-hearing the subtle reassurances and denouncements in her account of her personal narrative. While I heard her speak of overcoming the racism and prejudice of 1960s Alabama to accomplish remarkable feats, in fact she was demurring that the system was ever implicitly racist or sexist. The difference is more than semantic. You see, she did the work of overcoming her race and gender to be regarded as acceptable enough to advance inside a system where Black women typically aren't concert pianists that speak fluent Russian. And she did all of that without raising her voice or rolling her neck. How admirable.

So when she appeared on The View and made the case for why little white children don't deserve to have their feelings hurt in the hard discussions of American history, it was consistent with her special brand of suburban Mom diplomacy. What would the neighbors think if we traumatized their children with horrific stories about the sins of their grandparents? No, no, we mustn't do that...

For years, I admired and defended this woman, in spite of her politics and her devotion to the neo-Cold War worldview espoused by the Bush Administration. In my mind, it was more important to focus on the fact of her achievements, not the compromises she made along the way. Even when she was shoe shopping while Black people were drowning in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, I argued that her portfolio as Secretary of State did not address domestic policy. Therefore, her presence would merely serve to distract from the incompetence of the Administration's response. In her book, Rice conceded that her trip to New York was ill-timed, the kind of regret one expresses after just missing the end of season sale. 

I thought I had said my peace on Dr. Rice a few weeks ago when I posted my initial reaction to her comments on the Facebook page. However, this week a former colleague of mine posted this thread to Twitter about former Ambassador Carol Moseley Braun. On November 3, 1992 she became the first Black woman elected to the U.S. Senate from Illinois. The thread covered various factoids and anecdotes of her career, and it reminded me how those had been the very attributes that had inspired my class to request her as our commencement speaker in 1994.  

I recall that we were beyond excited and were expecting a rousing speech full of marching orders! That previous summer had been when she argued so passionately against a routine Congressional trademark renewal for the Daughters of the Confederacy. I was primed for her to offer more insight into what compelled her to shame her colleagues into to denying those "delightful gentleladies" the "imprimatur" of the U.S. Senate. I wanted to know exactly what shade of red former Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC) turned in that elevator when she stared him down and told him that his singing of Dixie could never make her cry. I was ready!

Instead, we got some insipid Flag Day keynote address to the local VFW. Disappointed doesn't begin to describe how we felt. All of these years later, that is what my classmates remember (or try to forgot)--that she came all the way to Atlanta to lecture an audience full of Black women and their families on patriotism. Someone on her staff clearly misunderstood the assignment. 

Or did they...

Wisdom, the passage of time, and current events would suggest that the Ambassador came to our graduation with a different agenda than to deliver a typical "win one for the Gipper" commencement address. We knew what we wanted to hear from her, but in hindsight it was a four-hour long graduation ceremony with several speakers. There were others on the dais that salvaged the moment and offered the more memorable and meaningful remarks. Whether she knew that in advance or just made up her mind at the last minute once she had sat through at least two hours of pomp and tediousness is anyone's guess. I just know that most of my classmates don't recall with any detail much of what she said, not even the fact that she gave a soporific speech on patriotism. I can't imagine she expected us to reflect on her theme, so methinks she used our graduation as an opportunity to send a message to a broader, national audience of folks who didn't seem to understand what has now become the gospel truth. 

Black people, particularly Black women, don't need to be lectured on patriotism. But apparently white people do. If you disagree, then just consider the fact that white people would rather overthrow this democracy than see certain women and people of color ascend to positions of power in our government.

Of course, no one foresaw that possibility in 1994, but then again, no one foresaw the impact of integrating the Senate with one single Black woman. They didn't expect for her to cause any trouble since none of the other nice ladies had been so bold as to challenge their traditions. It was supposed to be a routine vote, but she threatened to hold the floor until hell froze over--and she had every right to do so under Senate rules. After all, hadn't some of those same Senators tried to filibuster the Civil Rights Act almost thirty years prior?

One day I hope to inquire about this directly, but perhaps Braun felt the need to explain to those white southern gentleladies and their defenders why their support of a symbol of insurrection was so objectionable. She knew that her invitation to the Daughters of the Confederacy annual Margaret Mitchell Tea Party had been permanently revoked, so she used the platform of Spelman's graduation to show them what real patriotism looks like. This wasn't the soaring oratory the great-great granddaughters of women who had once been enslaved and forbidden an education were expecting; instead it was a message to the descendants of Miss Mellie and 'nem on what it means to be an American.

And I declare that whether we realize it or not, that is exactly what Black women have been doing all along. We've always understood our assignment. We keep saving this republic from the clutches of these "innocent" gentleladies who would rather debate white children's self-esteem than support the actual lives of Black and Latinx children. At every decisive turn, we show up to vote against tyranny and injustice. We advocate for the needs of our communities after having worked a full shift for less pay, fewer benefits, and for longer hours. Our blood, sweat, and tears run red, white, and blue; yet y'all keep insisting that their reverence for a Lost Cause is somehow more patriotic. 

You know how exasperating it is when someone can't or won't do what is expected of them? We often sigh facetiously, you had one job...but in reality, it isn't just one job. It is always the 'other duties as assigned' part that makes the difference. For Black and Latinx women in visible positions of power, part of the job is to inspire our children to believe that they can accomplish anything when given the opportunity to shine. And another part of the job is to burn the place down as necessary. We can't transform racist and sexist structures if we allow them to remain intact. Therefore when I juxtapose my frustration with the Ambassador in 1994 to the profound disenchantment I've come to feel about the Secretary, it becomes so clear why I have been wrong all of these years. One woman understood the assignment.

In all the years Condoleezza Rice has been on the national stage, I have never witnessed her flub a line or stray off-script. She recites every word with A+ perfection, even when she recounts her childhood in Birmingham. Never a quiver in her voice or a tear shed for the violent death of a playmate or whatever indignities segregation forced her to endure. She's not bitter; she's better than those who took to the streets to demand justice because she stayed in the library to get her homework done and didn't cause trouble. She made it to the halls of power and didn't touch anything, not even the furniture. The only fires she's lit have been the candles in the candelabra atop her grand piano.

Carol Moseley Braun may not have set the Georgia Dome ablaze at my graduation, but I bet there are still some smoldering embers in the U.S. Senate. In fact, those nice gentleladies are still burned that her words on the Senate floor have reverberated across the country and their flag no longer flies. She made them so big mad that they have led the charge to ban curriculum that isn't taught to prevent the sins of their parents and grandparents from being revealed. In spite of the backlash, Braun declared that one doesn't become the first Black woman elected to the Senate to make nice with the good ole boys

"My duty is to stand up for something and to be a spokesperson for the outrage and disappointment and those who wanted to see change in the Senate."
-- Carol Moseley Braun

Someone understood her assignment, and it was not the star pupil who never let her race or gender distract or offend those in power. Putting up with sexism isn't the key to unlocking the corner office. Racism isn't some fairy tale that happened once upon a time, long ago in a land far, far away. And patriotism isn't misquoting MLK so that white children can feel better about enjoying their skin color privileges guilt-free. We can disagree about a lot of things, but we cannot disprove the existence of systemic -isms by pointing to our historic positions within exclusive spaces as progress. Until there is more than one face in the crowd, paved roads for others to follow--unless there are fundamental changes to standard operating procedure, then there is NO progress. 

Let me close by invoking and tweaking the words of another famous women who made history during the first week in November back in 1968. Shirley Chisholm understood that the assignment was not to demand a seat at the table in order to pour tea. If you did the work of bringing your own chair, you'd be wise to have brought along some matches as well. 

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Rules of Holiday Engagement

Now that we have entered the last quarter of 2021, some of you are about to assume the role of insufferable self-righteous assholes, so I am going to call you out on it right now. I don't really care to engage in debates over secular coffee cups or Christmas being ruined by someone wishing you a "Happy Holidays". I am not concerned about the images of ghosts and goblins or sugar skulls, nor am I willing to celebrate Holy-ween in your church's parking lot. We are not going to argue about what is traditional or not about Thanksgiving, so if my Kid comes home with a homemade Pilgrim hat, I am just going to deal. We are not doing the Culture War Hunger Games this year.

I've got plenty of battles I am willing to fight, but here are some ground rules. We will not be intentionally mis-gendering any one. We will not discuss tattoos or piercings at the dinner table. It is none of your business when someone is going to settle down or if they ever will. Ditto for having children. We're not going to be passive aggressive and make disparaging comments about discipline until them and their bad ass kids are gone. We will not discuss weight loss or your Peloton workouts. We are not going to entertain your lectures on vegan living and no one is going to eat that tofurkey (so wrap it up and take it with you). Yes, we will be considerate of food allergies and won't force your children into unwanted hugs or kisses by relatives they don't know. We will avoid topics that will likely result in unnecessary drama, so don't start none, won't be none.

We are not watching that Dave Chappelle special

I don't care if you bleed burgundy and gold, you will refer to the Washington Football Team (WFT) as the Washington Football Team (WFT) until such time as they settle on a real name. Baseball season will be over soon, so you've had enough time to get used to the fact that the MLB team in Cleveland is called the Guardians now, so stop whining snowflake. If you say anything negative about any female athlete, so help me you are not getting a to-go plate.

And now we get to my most controversial pronouncement: we are not blaming anything on the gays. I've already said what I said about intentional mis-gendering and not watching Dave Chappelle, so this should not be surprising, but it needs to be stated, emphatically and without a stutter. Leave all of that intolerance back in 1989.

Let's stop and linger on that edict in particular because of all the culture war clashes that are raging unresolved for the moment, this is the one topic that is a bona fide dead horse. Stop thrashing that carcass. Cease and desist from blaming all of the world's problems on people who just want the freedom to exist and to love whom they choose. For in spite of the lip service we pay to not caring about what people do in their personal lives, we very much care and that inconsistency has real consequences. 

This isn't about whether you approve of someone's 'alternative' lifestyle or if you truly care about the eternal destination of their souls. There is some child who will hear your disparaging tirades on sissies and dykes, and they will spend considerable time tormented by descriptions of their feelings as unnatural and unholy. That child will look in the mirror and question whether God loves everybody, and that could result in all kinds of self-destructive choices. And no, it isn't persecution or censorship because you are entitled to your opinions, but you are not entitled to express them in such a manner as to intentionally cause harm to others in mixed company. 

It starts at Halloween at costume selection time. Things have changed a lot since I was growing up, but those flammable plastic hazmat suit costumes were probably the origin of a lot of trauma. You want to be a superhero you say? Well, you had five options: Superman, Batman, Spiderman, the Hulk, or Wonder Woman. Dawuzzit. I don't recall if Robin was a choice, but I can only imagine the ribbing some poor kid would have gotten for choosing the Boy Wonder. We won't even address the obvious issues of being a non-white kid dressed in a two-dimensional reproduction of comic book characters with peach "flesh-toned" skin. And what if you wanted to be something else, like a cowboy or a motorcycle cop (just a reminder that I grew up in the 70s and 80s):

We've come a long way, but a lot of folks are having to adjust to the notion of gender as a construct. Kids have a lot of choices and the urge to guide them towards something gender-conforming is strong.  Fight it. That was the world as we knew it, when the fine seeds of intolerance that have become unwieldy weeds were sown. There are unisex costumes, and then there is everything else, some of which is hella problematic. But please, within reason, just let your kids be kids. 

Thanksgiving is the Wrestlemania of family gatherings. Everybody comes, knives out, and it is a grand battle royale until the last person standing is Big Mama cleaning up the kitchen. Every topic is fair game, even though that shouldn't be, and every conceivable bias is exposed. So just nip it at the bud upon entry and declare that the only shit talking is taking place after dinner over Spades. Don't allow any brown liquor dranking before dinner and confiscate all Hennessy at the door. Don't even go around the room to ask folks why they are thankful, just appoint someone to say the blessing over the food and get on with the meal. Protect every cousin in the crosshairs of the family drunk(s) at all costs. 

Because feelings can get hurt. Faces will have permanent cracks. Some folks may never recover from the implications that can follow from an inappropriate question or observation. I have never forgotten being asked about my romantic proclivities because I had never come to a family function with a significant other. Mind you, I was only 18 years old; thankfully, my Grandmother swooped in and shut down any additional questions that might have escalated my embarrassment. Years later, there were the uncomfortable questions about when I would start a family or if I planned to have another child. None of this is light-hearted banter, especially among people that you only see once a year.

So what then, if someone does show up as part of a same-gender loving couple? Or someone notes the absence of a particular cousin who might be living his/her truth? That's why we have Aunties--compliment the wrong one and start an argument over who brought the better side dish or dessert. As this is an perennial debate (and as such, acceptable dinner conversation), the goal from that point on will be to set the stage for the Christmas rematch. Advise new dinner guests not to show any preferences, because they will need vocal allies. And it is an undisputable fact that enthusiasm for an Auntie's mac and cheese and another Auntie's sweet potato pie means that they are going to defend you, no matter what.

Now, this is the point where we need to acknowledge that there are other holiday celebrations that take place during this last quarter of the year, namely Diwali (November 4) and Hanukkah (November 28-December 6). That could mean additional family gatherings for some blended couples, or alternative get-togethers in lieu of Christmas. Since I have never formally celebrated either, I cannot offer definitive statements about the dynamics of non-Christian gatherings; I am addressing un-Christian behavior here.  If you are a guest at one of these dinners, you don't need advanced familiarity with every custom, just be polite (but know that Google is free). If you extended the invitation to an outsider, you know your folks, so prepare your guest accordingly. 

Formally, the Christmas season begins just as the dessert gets served at Thanksgiving dinner. Half of the folks pack their to-go plates and head out to the mall, while those who remain begin to help the host Auntie put up the Christmas decorations. This is right about the time that your racist Uncle, who has been quiet for most of the gathering, will begin to reminisce about the good old days. The inherent danger in allowing this tirade is that he won't stop at just being racist or sexist, but he will go full on Trumpet to rail against everything. Your job, and you have no choice but to accept it, is to jump in the ring and spar until his itis sets in or Big Mama makes him take out the trash. The longest ten minutes of your life...

However, it is a necessary fight because this is why your parents mortgaged their home for your college education. This is why Big Mama brags about you to all of her friends. You're smart. This dude has been the family bully all of your life, and the shit that comes out of his mouth has traumatized folks for decades. He won't change nor will he listen, but the point is not to convert him. It is to send the message to the younger generation that this is not who we are and that his views are not universally held. That is, of course unless your entire family agrees with him...then you just need to pack up your to-go plate and bounce in that first wave of post-meal departures.

If you do stay, you already know the first complaint out of his mouth will be how Christmas just isn't the same as it was when he was growing up. Yeah, because you are no longer a naïve child who believes that some old guy moonlighting at the mall is the real Santa Claus or that your parents would allow a complete stranger in their home to leave you toys. But we're not here to spoil the magic for anyone too young to be cynical or tech savvy, so we'll let that one slide. What he is really lamenting is how his Boomer celebrations of the past never had to be inclusive or accommodating of other people's truths. His racist uncle or grandfather said whatever terrible things he wanted and no one would challenge him. It was better then because everybody knew their place, from the women to the hired help to the children to the pets--all of whom were terrified of him. Nowadays, nobody is scared of Uncle Tink Tink...

So when he starts in, ask him if the holidays are no longer the same because he's no longer welcome to pop up at his Baby Mama's house until the restraining order gets lifted? Or when was the last time he invited his mixed-raced grandchildren to dinner? Trust, Big Mama will have the trash bagged up in the kitchen waiting for him. And then he'll disappear to the basement for Spades. 

I was going to address various individual micro-aggressions in this paragraph, but rethought that in favor of issuing a blanket "Do no harm" in December. Err on the side of caution: don't send religious cards to non-Christians; don't send the dreaded Christmas morning group text; and don't get knee-jerk indignant over the design of your disposable coffee cup. Yes, times have changed and people are more sensitive now, but what does that make you if you are complaining that you actually have to be mindful about your holiday expressions? I thought the point was to wish the other person well... 

Do no harm when you see the retro toys and are tempted to buy your goddaughter a Holly Hobbie oven because you had one or a Rock'em Sock'em for your nephew. Your memories are cool and your intentions are honorable, but inquire with the parents to make sure that those kinds of gender-specific toys are appropriate first. Call, exchange pleasantries, and then ask if this is something they could use. 

Do no harm because the rules for the family Christmas dinner are pretty much the same as the Thanksgiving guidelines. The difference is that there may be several smaller get-togethers instead of one, so you might have to keep your game face beat for multiple outings. Get you some dressy stretchy pants and you can make it all the way through Kwanzaa and New Year's Eve! (We'll address Christmas and Kwanzaa etiquette at another time.)

Thankfully, almost everything ends at the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve! I don't know anyone who goes out to anyplace other than church, so if we make it to December 31, that is where I plan to be (or at home watching it online because of the 'rona). I would offer guidance on how to politely decline some well-meaning person's invitation to the post-church meal that Big Mama had smelling up the house all day. But I will keep this simple and warn you in advance that it will involve pork, so take along your blood pressure pills and check your sugar. Depending on the neighborhood, you might want to linger in the church until the shooting stops...

And dassit! You may have read through this piece and wondered if it is even worth the effort to celebrate any holidays with all of these new rules and changes, and the answer is an emphatic DUH! So you will have to make adjustments because times have changed. It happens, just like the jheri curl went out of style and all of these kids are grown, we've got to keep up and keep going.  No, your sister doesn't cook the greens with fatback the way Big Mama did, but cooking with smoked turkey is healthier. You want to be around to complain next year, right? Well then get another helping and maybe add some string beans to that plate instead of some more carbs. See you soon!

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Daddy Dumb Asses

If we needed any concrete proof that our country is knee-deep in shit right now, exhibit A continues to be the Energizer Bunny persistence of the disgraced former DESPOTUS, still holding super-spreader rallies to whine about losing his job. Exhibit B is tabloid clickbait, because no, I am not blown away by how good Heather Locklear looks at 60 with her new lesbian partner, Drew Barrymore. Exhibit C is the revelation that a lot of very loud men are both homophobic sexist pricks and terrible absentee sperm donors. 

That last example comes courtesy of the social media musings on the news that Pete Buttigieg, Secretary of Transportation, took two months of paternity leave after welcoming twins. That he and his husband Chase would both opt to stay at home to care for two babies while most of the federal workforce is also still working from home due to COVID is the epitome of...something that makes this Tim Taylor gif seem totally appropriate.

What a bunch of wusses. And yes, I m referring to the fraternity of man-baby bros who think telling Dad jokes about breastfeeding are funny. (God forbid a kid with no teeth gets nipple confusion.)

Leading the charge of criticizing Buttigieg is Tucker Carlson, the frozen TV dinner heiress whose most challenging daily decision is whether to bring back the bowties and sweater vests as his signature look. His tag team partner is a fellow conservative Dad of four named Matt Walsh, whom I'm guessing is also still working from his basement judging from the background in his videos. That the defenders of detachment parenting are Carlson and Walsh, two guys who went to prep school and would probably run a craft brewery with Brett Kavanaugh if they weren't assholes Tough Dads in the send-them-off-to-boarding-school tradition, for sure. 

However, stooping to their level by ridiculing them isn't why I'm here. Nor is it to defend Buttigieg, a man about as interesting as a glass of milk. He withstood some below-the-belt sucker punches for taking time to be present for his children, something that should be laudable to the family values set. But I forgot, they long for a return to the Leave It to Beaver days when the most important jobs for Dad were to read the evening paper, mow the lawn, and look concerned when one of the kids had a problem. A lot was assumed and superficial about those 50s and 60s era TV Dads, but we'll come back to that later. The point is that for all of their big talk, guys like Carlson and Walsh couldn't manage two hours alone with their children without back up from their wives, so picking on Buttigieg isn't even about parental engagement.

Of course it is several shades homophobic, which is easy enough to denounce. And we also know that guys like them were hardly at the top of the adolescent social pyramid, so making fun of the Buttigiegs is a playground defense mechanism that still works all of these years later. To avoid getting stuffed in their lockers, these dweebs found someone else their own size to pick on which is why they think it makes them look tough to diminish the work of women as primary caregivers. Taking care of a newborn baby is just breastfeeding and cleaning up poop, they proclaim, and no 'real man' needs to use his paternity leave for those tasks. 'Real men' can accomplish the job of being present in five easy steps: (1) taking the car seat to the local fire station to have it installed; (2) driving the mother to and from the hospital; (3) not passing out during the birth and cutting the umbilical cord; (4) emptying the Diaper Genie every night; and (5) making coffee every morning before heading off to work. 

All of that can be done without breaking a sweat. Therefore those detailed lists of household chores that were posted by several modern Daddies in response to Carlson and Walsh's obtuse pronouncements are the kinds of responsibilities that get outsourced to other female relatives or the hired help. 'Real men' don't fold laundry.

Because they can't.

A 'real man' who feels the need to proclaim on Al Gore's internet that he did not use his paternity leave is obviously projecting the veneer of toughness to distract from his inadequacies. It's a weird flex to forgo using an employment benefit that most people don't get. It is very similar to the tone-deaf brag of not contracting COVID at a Trump super-spreader rally, but only because you gave your ticket to someone else who did. You got lucky Tuck, whereas the average new mother barely gets three to six weeks of unpaid maternity leave. You are blessed Matthew to have a benefits package that provides some manner of support to your family and respects the contributions that can be made by the two parent households you tout as ideal. That you opted not to use it because you want the admiration and respect of other 'real men', like this gem of the ocean...otherwise he'll call you a pussy and stuff you in your locker?

So let's deconstruct all of that. Lockers are cramped spaces and it's no fun getting shoved into one over a long holiday weekend. Pissing in your pants is definitely not cool either. And being called a pussy is a taunt that no 'real man' can afford to let go unanswered. It is much more acceptable to be called a dick--an apt description for all of these 'real men' out here who make their living as professional whiners. Bragging about not using paternity leave must be the 21st Century social media equivalent of buying a sports car. Good luck keeping those seats clean now that you have kids!

The true reveal here is how the views of these 'real men' reflect workplace policies that treat the birth of our children, indeed the entire existence of family, as a disruption. Work is always their priority. In theory, parental leave is supposed to give new parents time to adjust to the upheaval of caring for a new life; instead, it is regarded as an inconvenience, subject to the cost-benefit analysis of how much time can one afford to stay away from one's job. As previously stated, most new mothers are lucky to get unpaid leave to keep their jobs, and most new fathers barely get enough time off to provide meaningful support other than those five tasks. For these families, one or two missed paychecks are all it takes for them to descend into financial ruin. So who can afford family leave?

'Real men' like Carlson and Walsh can take a few paid days off, but they would rather brag about having fathered four children while their wives breastfeed, clean poop, and cut their meat. 'Real men' don't use their paternity leave to stay home with sick children or to attend parent-teacher conferences. 'Real men' don't take time from work to advocate for their elderly parents, let alone visit them at the nursing home. 'Real men' can't really take care of themselves without co-dependence on a wife or a personal assistant. Yet, 'real men' can and will defend an exploitative system of labor that grants them meager privileges they dare not use lest they be mistaken for...women.

Because it is women's work to perform the domestic labor of raising children, housework, cooking, shopping for the household, planning vacations, keeping up with relatives and friends, carpooling, caring for elderly parents, etc. Or it gets delegated to other women in low-paying jobs that don't offer any kind of leave. 'Real men' ought to be at the forefront of arguing for workplace policies that support families and protect workers. Instead, these dudes would rather be modern-day overseers, wielding the whip, yet and still sweating in the fields, grinding in the factories, digging in the mines, serving at the pleasure of the master/owner/game show con man former DESPOTUS. 

Real men, defending segregated coffee shops and public transportation:

Real men, traumatized by the prospect of seeing their graven idols to a Lost Cause moved to a museum:

Real men, losing their tenuous grip on reality and political power:

Real men, triggered that Pete Buttigieg, a man who shows up for duty to country and family, isn't worried about your childish taunts:

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

An Elegy for Ghetto Malls

It was this tweet and then this article that inspired me to take a stroll back in time to revisit an unfinished piece I had started way back in June about living and growing up in DC in the 80s. The original piece was part of some research I had started after I wrote this piece about my high school, and the last visit we made there as a alumna community before its demolition (which just began this past week). In the process of writing about the changes I had witnessed over the years between the District and neighboring Prince George's County, it got a little too overwhelming to confine it all to just one long-form article (therefore, it is still in draft, so you'll have to wait for it). In the meantime this more urgent matter deserves separate emphasis because it is imperative to settle the question of which DMV area ghetto mall has the better snickerdoodle cookies.

Of course it is Forestville Mall. Fight me.

But before I engage in that debate, this elegy for the ghetto mall is a lot deeper than cookies. Times and shopping habits are rapidly changing, and pretty soon it won't matter which mall had what because by the end of this decade, they might all be gone. So, in response to that original tweet, no, Iverson Mall is not still making it. (But you should keep grinding, if that advice resonates.)

When that tweet was posted at the beginning of September, I had to seriously stop and think about the last time I had been inside Iverson. Mind you, I have driven by Iverson countless times because my parents still live about fifteen minutes away. I no longer live on that side of the city, so my trips in that part of Prince George's County are generally rare. Before COVID, my parents used to like eating at the Red Lobster further down the road and I have friends that live in the neighborhoods adjacent to the Mall. I've gone to the $5 movies at the Marlow 6 next door with the Kid a few times and I might have been in that Macy's for towels or something random because I was desperate. The last time I had been in the area was before the pandemic for a house blessing.

I hadn't actually gone inside Iverson Mall in nearly 20 years.

Before I share my recent adventures there, let me say that I have been on a rather coincidental nostalgia trip back to some of the long deserted landmarks of my youth, stirred up by a series of various events that began with my Mom's Zoom birthday party back in February. Because I was determined to reach every relative I could, that drive took me to a lot of homes and hoods that haven't been in my orbit since high school. Then there was that aforementioned all-class high school reunion in June. That visit was  a surprising high point, which was then followed by the sad news of the death of a high school friend a few weeks later. On my return visit to the area for his funeral, I ended up driving past several other old haunts from my youth, including my grandparents' old neighborhood in DC. A friend purchased a home not too far from there two years ago, and I have been reacquainting myself with those old stomping grounds as well. Finally, on a whim last week, I decided to use some errand time to take a trip to Iverson.

Because of the pandemic, I hadn't been inside any mall until fairly recently. Not even my local ghetto mall, Prince George's Plaza, which I used to frequent regularly for errands. The first time I went back there was in Spring of this year when I was shopping for my daughter's birthday party. A closer Target store in the city has made it unnecessary for me to travel outside of my COVID-condensed bubble of home, the Kid's school/camp/ballet, my parents' house, and assorted errands within a limited radius. So when I had to travel into Virginia to Pentagon City Mall to pick up a pair of shoes this summer, for the Kid it was exactly like that scene from The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy opens the door to Munchkin Land. And it dawned on me that her excitement was genuine because the last time she had been inside of a mall might have been when she was still being pushed in a stroller to take this picture with Santa.

And from the looks of the many vacant store fronts whether inside traditional malls, open air shopping strips, or stand-alone retail, to declare that the pandemic took a toll on brick and mortar retail is an understatement. Everywhere, even in Manhattan, we walked passed dozens of deserted establishments. My guess is that some of those store fronts will be re-occupied as some businesses and national restaurant chains re-brand new concepts. Or there will be a lot more banks and pharmacies. But a lot of that will depend on economic factors that are beyond my Busy Black understanding.

The experts say that malls are dying, and it doesn't seem to matter if we're referring to the local ghetto mall or the former upscale mall that has rapidly become a ghetto mall. Major department store anchors have closed at Annapolis Mall (Lord & Taylor), the Marlow Heights Shopping Center (Macy's), and the Bowie Town Center (Sears). I haven't gone into Mazza Gallerie in a while, but my understanding is that the Neiman Marcus closed a year ago. On my most recent trip to downtown Silver Spring, we perused the Five Below because it was the only store open at the former City Place (now Ellsworth Place Mall) after 5pm. 

I didn't even see a Five Below at Iverson.

A few days after that "motivational" tweet, I saw a similar tweet about the West End Mall in Atlanta, and that one made me laugh out loud for real. I lived within walking distance from that mall for four years and it has been at least 27 years since I've been in there. I didn't spend nearly as much time or money there as I did uptown at the now beleaguered Lenox Square Mall, but I have walked by West End whenever I've taken the MARTA to visit campus. That stretch between the station and the campus parking lot have remained unchanged, and I regard it as a last vestige of old Atlanta that only survives because gentrification had more lucrative options in the area. As it has also been the same amount of time since I've been in the Greenbriar Mall, also in the SWATS (SW Atlanta), and I am curious to see how it is still surviving as well. 

I guess the point of this analysis, short of arson and in spite of improbable odds, is that ghetto malls do manage to endure. Upscale malls decline to the point where they become ghetto malls or get redeveloped into condos, some kind of art space, or just abandoned like Landover Mall. I foresaw the fate of Lenox back in 1994 when I got locked inside the Crate and Barrell Store during Freaknik--all because Snoop Dogg and his entourage walked past the Macy's. Now that the METRO goes all the way out to Tysons Corner, it is only a matter of time before the anchor stores forget to renew their leases. Georgetown Park Mall, White Flint, and Landmark Mall are or will become redeveloped as high-end mixed-use communities. 

As for Iverson, there isn't much to see and my visit there had to be one of the saddest nostalgia journeys to date. When my Mom and I used to frequent there, we parked at the Woodward & Lothrop (Woodies) entrance, because that was usually her primary destination. We only parked in the deck if it was too crowded, typically during the holidays. On the morning of my recent pilgrimage, I had to use the parking deck because the store now occupying the old Woodies didn't appear to have a public entrance from the lot, and I could not remember where the mall entrance was on that side. Then I had a kind of Wizard of Oz experience in reverse, from technicolor to black and white (or more like that scene from The Wiz when Dorothy and friends confront him for lying to them). It was 10:30 in the morning, and half of the stores weren't open yet. I expected to see a few mall walkers, but apparently I was too late, or perhaps that effort has been dispatched to another locale or disbanded.

Afterwards, I drove over to Marlow Heights and learned that the Macy's finally gave up the ghost. I didn't even look to see if the Baskin-Robbins was still there. I drove down St. Barnabas Road and thought about making a trip to Rivertowne Commons, but decided that one retail graveyard was enough for the day, so I headed back to the strip where the Cavalier Men's Shop and the Kemp Mill Records used to be. I thought back to when it had been my dream to score a retail job at Iverson Mall instead of in the corporate office at the downtown Cavalier's, because it was closer to home and many of my friends worked there. Those were the days...

Indeed, there had been better days when life and commerce teemed from every storefront, and every nook and cranny. I wonder if the patrons that still shop at Iverson know that once upon a time in the main concourse, there had been a Jordan Kitts Music store where some of my friends took piano lessons. The pet store next door is where my brothers would go to stare at the dogs, and later where my parents bought us goldfish. We spent what felt like hours waiting to try on shoes at the Stride Rite, and then more hours waiting on my Mom to flip through the enormous pattern books at the fabric store across the way. Sometimes while we waited, we could get a slushie from Orange Julius, or maybe some fancy candies at the Fannie May upstairs. There was a costume store where my Mom bought my first ballet leotard and a few of the costumes her students wore for their performances. There was a Wilson's Leather, a Florsheim Shoes, a Lerner's, and a Hit or Miss. Although we didn't venture often to that side of the mall, the other anchor store had been Montgomery Ward.

Get a group of local Gen Xers and maybe a few geriatric Millennials together and we could go on and on about the glory days of Iverson before it became the ghetto mall where we used to shop. Shoot, there is a whole movie about how our generation came of age at the mall. So yeah, Imma need a minute or two, because this hits a little different...

However, I'm not that torn up over the reality that the modern mall concept has more days in its rearview than ahead. COVID has seen to that, aided by Amazon and the trend towards e-commerce in general. There is an ebb and flow to our shopping habits, and while I miss those marathon mall excursions with my Mom and Aunt, the truth is that I like receiving products in the mail from a more diverse assortment of businesses. For example in the golden era mall days, I bought candles from the stores that sold candles, and that was probably from an exclusive or limited number of brands. Now I can order candles from any number of small businesses, and the same is true for stationery, personal care items, and clothing. The new trend in retail appears to be the pop-up, which allows a hybrid of options between traditional brick and mortar storefronts and smaller entities that "rent" access to those patrons. Another trend that may help more small businesses grow are these food halls, which also incorporate some space for retail. Perhaps we don't really need the mega Mall of America model of retail when there are other options that aren't as dependent on the fortunes of regional and national department stores. 

If Iverson is barely making it on a tired business model that hasn't changed in over 20 years, then maybe that isn't the kind of encouragement we need in uncertain times. For all of the Black wealth in Prince George's County, Iverson is a poor reflection of all that "success". I'm not saying that there is anything wrong with shopping at stores like Roses if that is your price point (because it ain't like rich folks don't shop at Walmart and the Dollar Store). However, it speaks volumes that there are so few small Black-owned businesses occupying spaces in these ghetto malls except for nail and hair salons. That is not a criticism of the immigrants that appear to run most of the stores, but I don't see them doing much shopping or hiring...

So then the issue is us. It is our definition of "making it" and what that is supposed to look like. When I started this piece, my objective was to lament the decline of a once vibrant community space. Well I've done that, but I also realize that as long as Iverson and West End and their sister malls are still standing, there is hope that those spaces can be revived. Perhaps not restored to what they were, but reinvented into something else. 

On the same day of my trip to Iverson, I made a few more stops, including one last ride past my old high school. The demolition had begun and throughout the week, other alumnae posted pictures of the process. I posted my own and wrote about the prospect of new beginnings and perhaps that is the metaphor that we miss when we focus so much on what was or is instead of what could be. Unlike the other alumnae, I do not mourn the end of that era because the school no longer serves the purpose for which it was built. We left, and the middle school students that will inhabit the new school deserve a modern and more functional space. The same is true for the patrons of Iverson--now that we've moved on, they deserve a better mall. Not some relic of a bygone era. 

As for the snickerdoodles, one of my LRHS sisters conducted this taste test to compare the offerings and for the record, I was always #TeamForestville. As someone who could once brag that I knew every inch of both malls, I never had any recollection of getting snickerdoodles from Iverson (although we must have). If I venture back over there again, hopefully I will have more compelling reasons to go inside.