Friday, June 18, 2021

What Goes Up Must Come Down

I have already said that I would not be wading too deep into this colorism debate surrounding In The Heights. Inasmuch as I can try to avoid doing so, I will try to stay true to my word...

Instead, I will opine about how fickle the nature of fame can be. A few years ago, no one had heard of Lin-Manuel Miranda when he was dropping rhymes on the re-booted Electric Company to help kids understand the power of the Silent E. I may need to go back to line up the dates better, but I hadn't heard of him or his first play until that White House special with the cast of Hamilton (that I had only heard of because Spelman's incoming President glowingly raved about it at some alumnae function). It was only later that year that I got hitched onto the Miranda bandwagon and I am happy to say that I am still riding.

Although I get the criticism of both Hamilton and In the Heights, as I point out to people on a regular basis, everything ain't for everybody. If you don't like Miranda's music, that is fine. Trust, there is a LOT of music that I can't stand (TRAP) and y'all love it. I cannot tell you how many IG and TikTok videos have trap music soundtracking and how hard my eyes roll. But since I don't know who any of those artists are, I don't make it a point to declare on my social media how proud I am to hate their music. I'm a Busy Black Woman with too much to do...

So the persistent hate that appears to be aimed at Miranda has puzzled me. But he isn't the only artist who has found himself served as the main course at the opposite of a love fest. I've seen it happen to Lizzo, Issa Rae, and even the Queen Bey herself. In the past, I watched it happen to Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, and the Oprah. I am sure that there are others who have hit the pinnacle of success only to fly too close to the sun like Icarus and find themselves free-falling back to earth. It is the ying and yang of fame.

Yet, there is something extra mean about the way certain artists and public figures get dragged on social media. I agree that no one is above criticism, but there is a tendency on these platforms for people to strap up and viciously attack people for small misdemeanor level offenses. Even I have done it, so my glass house has its own cracks. I took great joy at lampooning the last President for his clumsy mis-statements and verbal vomit, precisely because he took great joy at punching down and relentlessly bashing others for their missteps. He didn't earn the name Trumpelthinskin for being a live and let live kind of guy. And to the extent that public figures know that for all of the love, they will receive plenty of hate, it still seems as if the rise and fall of fame is a lot quicker and the crash a lot harder these days.

Take Chrissy Teigen for example. I have followed her on Twitter for years. When she left, I missed her, so I celebrated her return to the platform a month or so later. Admittedly, I had not paid close attention to her tweets unless she said something funny, so I was not as aware of her history as a bully. And that is unacceptable, so she deserves to be called out and even lose some of her commercial endorsements if she behaved as badly as has been reported. But that doesn't mean that turn-around is fair play (Candace Owens), because in a few years that could be you (Candace Owens), and it would be terrible for your children to be exposed to some of the horrible things that you (Candace Owens) have said about others and then have all of that vitriol hurled back at you.

(Yeah, CandO I won't forget how you took great glee in outing Andrew Gillum, which was one of your most egregious mean girl moments. As the old folks say, God don't like ugly and He ain't too fond of cute.) 

Bullying is ugly in all of its various forms. It is ugly when it comes from the President of the United States and it is ugly when it comes from the mean kid on the playground. It is also ugly when it comes from the rest of us average folks with marginal talent. You may not be a theatre geek, a sci-fi nerd, a political junkie, or a sports fanatic. But let those that identify in that manner be who they are. Legitimate criticism is one thing, but gleeful bashing because you can't relate is something else.

Before Hamilton was released on Disney+ last summer, I noticed that Miranda was taking a few knocks on the chin for his other work. He wrote the music for Moana, a movie that I happen to love, and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Song in 2017. At the same time, he starred in the sequel to Mary Poppins, made numerous guest appearances, wrote a song for Puerto Rican hurricane relief, and was generally everywhere. Folks were taking small shots at him on Twitter, dissing his music and his acting, but as far as I could tell, it was the normal backlash that one could expect while basking in the limelight of fame. Then Hamilton was released last summer and whew...

Mind you, a few years earlier when we were not all stuck in the house during a global pandemic, trying to secure tickets to see Hamilton on stage was like trying to get a vaccine appointment back in February 2021. It was here in DC at the Kennedy Center in 2018 and the cheapest ticket sold for $200 in the back of the balcony. I had been entering the daily ticket lottery and hoped that maybe I could even score a chance to see it in London (no, I cannot justify how I intended to pay for a hotel and plane tickets but not for a theater ticket). I got my Niece hooked on the soundtrack and then my Kid, so every single day for at least a year...Hamilton became for them what The Wiz (film version) and Annie soundtracks were for me when I was their age. 

And for what it is worth, I have joked that Miranda's songs all sound the same. But so do most artists because they have a distinctive style. Go through a few of the #PlaylistProject pieces and you will see what I mean. The fact that his style is recognizable doesn't make him any less talented. 

So the backlash against Hamilton once it became more accessible was fierce. I saw many tweets that dismissed his work, much of it expressing a general disdain for musical theater, but then it morphed into diatribes against his interpretation of the history (because he chose to paint a much rosier picture of Alexander Hamilton than what was in fact true). Now with In the Heights, the barbs seem more personal, as in suggesting that Miranda intentionally chose to showcase a white-washed narrative of his own life.

Yeah, so I will have to wade into this colorism theme a bit because In the Heights is Miranda's story. And in all of the debate, it feels as if folks aren't acknowledging that part.

As you know, I am married into a Puerto Rican family from Sunset Park in Brooklyn via Aguadilla on the island. I have been a part of this family for 25 years. All of them look like the folks in Miranda's movie (which I have not yet seen). My late MIL, who was very intentional in identifying herself to me as a woman of color had brown skin only slightly darker than mine. Part of the reason why I have been reluctant to address the colorism is because I understand how that has played a role in my own life (and how it would read like I was getting defensive). Yet, my Blackity-Black non-Latinx family's color spectrum runs the gamut. We hail from Washington, DC via Southern Maryland; Fredericksburg, Virginia; and Toccoa, Georgia. So if I were to cast actors to star in the movie version of my life, how much agency should I have in making those choices? 

In asking that question, that doesn't let Miranda off the hook. He could have made different choices, and given the criticism that director Jon Chu acknowledged about his casting in Crazy Rich Asians (2018), nobody will walk away happy if they feel that their perspective is missing from the narrative. It's almost as if Miranda's words and deeds keep coming back to haunt him--who lives, who dies, who tells your story...

Because when he created Hamilton and cast it the way he did, he opened a Pandora's Box that he will never be able to close. Of all people, Lin-Manuel Miranda will always be held to a higher standard and will be judged more harshly, and that isn't fair. The producers of Les Miserables never worried about representation, not until they cast Norman Lewis as Javert for the 25th Anniversary concert in 2010, and then miscast Russell Crowe in the 2012 film. And though somebody didn't mind his terrible singing, my guess is that Crowe was cast because he is a bigger named star than Norman Lewis, who is only well-known to the New York theatre-going crowd. 

Thus, in a story written about the experience of growing up Latinx in New York City, there is no doubt that Miranda could have insisted on casting more Afro-Latinx actors. Therefore, the next question is whether that would have been enough. Aren't there other marginalized ethnic groups in New York City that would love to see aspects of their community represented on the big screen? Wasn't our complaint about shows like Seinfeld, Friends, and Sex and the City that while these shows were based in one of the most diverse cities on the planet, they rarely featured people of color? Or when they did, we existed on the periphery like the wallpaper? Has David Schwimmer sufficiently recovered from the dragging he got from making the suggestion of an all-Black Friends reboot?

Is it Lin-Manuel Miranda's responsibility to create space for every representation of the Latinx community, or does he need to prop the door open for others to follow him to the stage or studio in order to tell their stories? 

Okay, I will wade back into the colorism conversation with another anecdote--my daughter knows exactly who Lin-Manuel Miranda is when she sees him. She also recognizes several other cast members from the original Broadway production by name: Anthony Ramos, Daveed Diggs, Christopher Jackson, and Phillipa Soo. She recognizes Rene Elise Goldsberry and Leslie Odom, Jr. as their characters. I never gave much thought to why she knows some cast members by name until now. Several of those characters look a lot like members of her family. In particular, Miranda, Diggs, and Jackson look like they could be her uncles and Ramos looks like two of her cousins. She pretends to be Eliza Schuyler whenever she is singing along and sometimes taps me to be Angelica...because representation does matter.

Back to Miranda's unfortunate Icarus fall from the sky--his wings got singed, but he will be alright. Like Taylor Swift (another one who has been up and down on the see-saw of popularity) sings, haters gonna hate. He can compose a new musical, write more songs for PBS Kids and Disney, release another Hamilton mixtape, and continue to make it possible for other artists of color to get their shot. 

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

So Hard to Say Goodbye

Something I never thought would happen occurred this past weekend as I toured the hallways of my old high school one last time before the building is set for demolition in a few weeks. I forgot how much I hated high for the time being, all is well.

I have shared on this blog a few times that I have all kinds of complicated feelings about my high school experiences. I liked some of my teachers better than others. I liked most of my classmates then, and still do now. I met my BFF there my sophomore year and we've remained tight for these almost 35 years. In spite of all of the things I thought that I hated about that time (and felt justified in my contempt), this past weekend as I walked the building one last time, I came once more to a place of reconciliation and absolution. After 30 years of lingering bitterness over stuff that seems almost too petty to complain about now...

Hail La Reine High,

I'm all gooey and emotional over what it will actually mean for this building to come down. Until I went back inside, I thought it was rather absurd to feel any attachment to the physical structure of the school. A few months ago when this plan was first shared, it came at a moment when I was already starting to share some of my negative associations, the repressed or long-forgotten memories of early adolescence. Therefore, this effort felt like a continuation of the same cognitive dissonance of celebrating the school's glorious past without much of an acknowledgement of what hastened its abrupt closure, or what is its current status. So when I participated on the first Zoom call and saw who was leading the charge for this effort and why, I wavered for weeks until the last minute. And then I determined that if I do make this final trip through the school, then at some point along the way I need to reconcile with my ambivalence.

Hail to thee!

The last time I went back to the building was in March 2015, and I was eight months pregnant. There was an all-class reunion, and since that was the same year as my 25th I thought it would be fun to go (inspired by my 20th Spelman reunion the previous year). I also thought it would be kind of a hoot that as the youngest member of our class, I would probably be the oldest first-time mother. Prior to that visit, I had been back to the school twice since it closed--once for my 11th Class Reunion and one other time for another all-class reunion. I missed my 20th in 2010, but I don't recall that they had access to the school so the gathering was off-site, and for the most part, my class hasn't been very consistent in planning reunions. 

However, I have not been adverse to reconnecting with my classmates and peers. Even though I don't have the same strong ties to those friends in real life, I do maintain contact with them via social media. So each time I attended a reunion, it was for the express purpose of seeing them. Touring the building was something of a bonus attraction. My parents still live ten minutes away, so I have driven by enough times to bore my younger cousins, my niece, and my daughter by pointing out that building as the place where I and a couple of older cousins went to school. Also, I have had the good fortune to run into various classmates in recent years through our sorority and as a recruitment volunteer for Spelman, so to some extent, I have never really lost touch.

When I went back six years ago, I don't believe we knew about any plans to demolish the building, but we were made aware of the plans to build a new science center at the successor school. Our old building has been in continuous use as a public middle school since 1995. It never occurred to me that there would come a time when we would no longer have access to that facility, or that we would go back and not expect to see everything as it had once been 30+ years earlier. So one part of my brain wondered how the County could justify tearing down such an iconic monument? I mean, the giant Crown of Mary spire...

Hear thy daughters exalt thy majesty!

Of course the other religious references are gone, such as the Blessed Virgin statue and the motto "Look to the stars, call upon Mary" which had been painted on a wall in the main lobby. The convent, which had been inaccessible to us, has been converted to extra classroom space. The chapel is gone, probably changed into something more useful to public middle schoolers. I'm guessing when the County acquired the building, it was quite a bargain to get such a functional and solidly built facility. No need for furnishings or that many upgrades, so as I took pictures in front of the same lockers in the hallway and in the gym; the same long tables that we used in the cafeteria; the same bleachers and scoreboard in the gym; the same blackboards, windows, and doors; and even the same un-replaced worn out floor grips on the stairs...thus every tile, every fixture, even the smells were pretty much the same as they had been in the late 1980s.

The other part of my brain wonders why the County waited this long to schedule the demolition. If nothing has changed in 30 years, then nothing is new or modern. I didn't see a computer lab or docking/charging stations or even modern appliances/equipment in the science lab. The payphones are gone and there is an elevator in the space where the bookstore used to be, but no other significant upgrades. As there are more dedicated boys' restrooms in other parts of the building, I wonder if the same rusty feminine hygiene disposals are still bolted to the floor (because they were in the bathroom I used by the old "Freshman entrance" where the parking lot still hasn't been repaved). 

Therefore, it is time to let it ALL go. Plenty of other schools have alumni who have had to face this same abrupt jolt of reality. Buildings age and people need modern amenities. My old elementary school is closed and is used as a temporary space while other schools undergo construction, and my mother's high school has been torn down and rebuilt twice since she graduated. Some old schools are re-purposed, some are renovated, and others make way for over-priced condos. Several schools are changing names to honor more recent American heroes or to shed associations with the uncomfortable past. When change happens, it can be for good.

Because typewriters, pay phones, analog clocks, and shuffle board are all obsolete in a digital world. While I'm sure one or two of the current middle school students would be polite enough to listen to tales of how we had specific memories attached to various favorite places in the building (the band room where I spent an inordinate amount of time, for example), the rest of them wouldn't even politely ignore us. And at least one smart aleck would point out, really when Ronald Reagan was President, before my Mom was born?

Thou has given knowledge and truth
Great success to our nation's youth 

There are two versions of the school hymn and as such, there are two sets of memories that I associate with my high school experience. There is the version that I have been pondering in my head for the past few months: the one where the changing demographics of Prince George's County brought unique challenges to the administrators who understood the world as it had been in the 1960s and 70s. That is the golden era of the school for many returning alumnae, when the nuns and priests had more prominent roles in shaping the minds and futures of their students. By the 80s, things were changing and in 1989, a new music teacher composed a soaring new arrangement to the school song. In that recollection, there were more lay (non-vocational) teachers, more career-minded students, and fewer Catholics who did what they were told without challenging the edicts of the Church. We made demands, we had opinions, we sang a different tune...

We pledge to thee everlasting loyalty
Give to thy name glory, honor, and fame

So in releasing my bitterness, I begin with letting go of my resentment of the Administration, particularly the principal. I saw her this weekend, and while I wouldn't fake like I was happy to see her, I am glad to know that she is still alive and well. Several of the nuns were able to join us, so it is good to know that they have been well cared for these last 30 years. A few of my old teachers have passed away in recent years, and whatever animosity I held against any of them, I have let that go as well. I was not the best student, but not for the reasons that they assumed, because they never probed. In spite of what they thought about my abilities then, it was in high school where I first began to write.

It was in high school that I first was introduced to the concept of sisterhood. At the time, I didn't perceive it the way I do now, but it began among the sisters with whom I caught the Metrobus to and from school. It strengthened with the sisters that mourned together the tragic death of a classmate (so we chose our class song in her memory). There were the honors class sisters who tricked me into thinking that I had received a letter from Andre Agassi. There was the group of sisters who loved New Kids on the Block and some of us thought they were insane because of New Edition. The Humanities class sisters who went to New York City for an unforgettable weekend that changed all of our lives. The sisters who sat in the cafeteria or the student lounge for study hall or after school and talked about everything under the sun. The sisters who remembered that there were snickerdoodles sold at both of our local mall hangouts. And of course, there was the alumna sister science teacher who wrote my recommendation letter for Spelman.

Proudly thy banner will fly
Most cherished and loved La Reine High...

No, it doesn't produce the same as the flutter I get when I see a trio of blue hearts posted on social media, or when I see a certain three Greek letters in red. But it does move me to take notice that if not for this school, I might not have been so driven to prove so many folks wrong. Who can't do what, you say? Because I'm too young, too flaky, not focused, in over my head, susceptible to peer pressure, not well-suited...really?

That the scheduled demolition of the building comes at this full circle moment of racial reckoning in the broader society is not lost on me. Because while some of us are willing to accept the explanation that the times changed too much and too fast for the nuns, others of us know that it was hastened by the rapid demographic changes in the county. Someone commented on the fact that the school became a lot more diverse in the 80s; the same cannot be said for the successor institution. So when the suggestion was made to direct some of the proceeds to the new science center that is supposed to carry on our legacy and there was resistance, I had a visceral negative reaction. Either we support our alma mater or we just have fond memories of our time in that old building that y'all abandoned 30 years ago...

It can be both. I wanted to take pictures of everything because I have memories imbedded in the walls, the floors, the cracks and crevices, and even the windows. I have memories of secret spaces, such as the back stairway from the convent side that led to the front of the building. I remembered that there was a hallway between the cafeteria and the lower level of the gym where the locker rooms were located. I forgot that we had dogs, but somehow remembered that their names were Ginger and Pepper. I never ate outside where the smokers hung out, but I spent many hours in the student lounge that looked out onto that courtyard. I remember that access point between the public magnet school next door and the side lot to our school where we sometimes met boys. I could not precisely remember where the home-economics classrooms were, but it didn't matter since my Mom said I could learn to cook and sew on my own (she was half right).

With thee our hearts ever will remain...

The plans for the new science center will include duplications of our Blessed Virgin statue, the crown and compass floor mosaics, and hopefully the motto will be re-inscribed as well. Not much could be salvaged from the old building because of asbestos, so there is another very good reason to proceed with the demolition. We were given tiles from the building that were blessed as mementoes, and those along with my yearbooks, and whatever pictures I find will suffice to remind me of that time in my life. I also plan to become a regular donor to our successor school because there is no point in cherishing the legacy of an old building when I can actually bless the next generation of young people who will embody that spirit. 

Ironically, it never occurred to me until now to inquire about the middle school students who went to school there--do they have the same attachment to the building, or was it just where they went to school for a couple of years? Caught up in my own nostalgia, I never even knew how the current school got its name or paid much attention to how they used the building. I wonder if the sentimental siren that called to our alumnae from various parts of the country has the same draw for anyone else who passed through those corridors. Does anyone else who walked those marble floors or encountered that distinctive, yet very 60s blue tile feel some kind of way? Has some very persuasive graduate from the 90s planned a similar last tour of the building as it is just as much their space now as it was ours. Is anyone as attached to their middle school as we all are to high school and college?

(Because I'm nosy, I took a look at the new plans. I'm pretty sure that the new state-of-the-art facility that will replace our old structure will be a fabulous sight to behold. So as bittersweet as it will be to see the crown come down, the replacement will be better suited to serve the needs of the students, who deserve a modern learning environment. Oh, I did not know until now that the current occupant of the building is itself a successor institution of a renamed junior high school...and hmmm, history indeed repeats. I will write about that another time.)

Hail fount of truth, LA REINE!

Thursday, June 10, 2021

BBW Tea Party: POSE for Me

I am still processing this final season of POSE. I began writing this piece after the second much to unpack, so if you haven't been watching, no worries about spoilers. But I am about to serve some BBW tea.

The year is 1994. A lot happened that year to me personally, so some of what I am processing is a combination of recalling that time in my life and trying to place it in the context of what is happening to the characters. (I know how self-indulgent that reads, but trust this is a necessary part of where this is going.) If you are just tuning into the show, the first two seasons provided a lot background regarding the life and struggles of our LGBTQIA+ siblings in the 80s and 90s. I began watching during the last three or four episodes of the first season (which I will revisit so that I can have a more complete appreciation for certain characters), but I think you can start from wherever to appreciate aspects of this journey.

So where do I start in this unpacking? Do I begin with my initial impression that this was a Fame redux--a show about aspiring dancers and young models in New York during its grittier pre-Disney on Broadway days? Or was this a re-imagined Dynasty based on family dynamics and drama fueled by the relationships that we choose versus those into which we are born? Then once I realized that POSE is both and neither because that is the trap of assuming that shows like Will & Grace, Ellen, and even Queer Eye for the Straight Guy were any more ground-breaking and progressive than 80s sitcoms were on race...

The category is LIFE!

Real life, not the Tyler Perry morality play version that treats AIDS like an Old Testament biblical plague for unrighteous women. Not the privileged marginalization that dismisses sex workers as trannies and addicts. Not the predictable rejection by one's biological parents and family for unnatural tendencies that were never addressed especially when the victims were male. 

LIFE. Out load and unapologetic. Messy AF. Flamboyant and superficial, yet creative and inspiring.

What would it have meant to live free in the 1970s? How many people were pushed back into the closet because of that Disco Sucks stunt? What about in the 1980s when movie cowboys and stuntmen apparently knew more about everything? What about in the 1990s when we said that our hair stylists, choir directors, and interior designers were cool as long as they didn't talk about their personal lives? What about in the 2000s when having a gay BFF was as hip as voting for Obama? 

What does it mean now that America is used to Rosie O'Donnell, Sean Hayes, Cat Cora, Nathan Lane, Don Lemon, Anderson Cooper, Robin Roberts, and even Pete Buttigieg's husband because they are non-threatening and respectable? Hell, we don't give Caitlyn Jenner the ridicule she truly deserves for thinking she should be the next Governor of California. What we aren't comfortable with are people defining themselves without our approval. For that which we cannot proscribe is that which we cannot control.

POSE is awakening me to a lot of misconceptions I had as a young woman. I was raised to fear Hell as a place in the afterlife, instead of a state of living and being in this realm. Hell is hunger and deprivation. Hell is living without basic needs of human dignity. Hell is ignorance. Hell is living a life that someone else has restricted you to...and that can be a gilded cage or in squalor. Hell is desperation. 

So I can only imagine what it must be like to receive too much of the wrong kind of attention. How it must hurt to be told that God loved us enough to send His only begotten son to die for everyone else's sins, except for yours. Hell is getting disowned by the people who brought you into this world, because they are ashamed and small. It is masking your hurt in drugs and fucking with the kind of recklessness that that says I if I die, so be it. Hell is not getting infected with HIV because trust me, there are plenty of horrific ways to die. The difference is that HIV and AIDS caused too many people to die forsaken and alone.

I am more aware that my choices as a young woman in 1994 were once subject to similar condemnations, but I could make everything right by getting married. I could feign virginity with a fancy white dress, legitimize a bastard love child by marrying the father or some other man. I could become an honorable woman by a simple declaration of the state. If someone tried to shame me, I could call it sexist or chauvinist and rest assured that the name would sting momentarily (although it wasn't the same as being called a whore).

Until recently, we could disregard the dying wishes and feelings of people on the basis of who they loved. We could invalidate families as if they never existed because lovers and special friends had no recognized status under the law. Imagine if you will how the parents who rejected their children could suddenly reappear and override choices and erase every trace of their disapproval. They could rewrite narratives out of whole cloth to reinterpret lives that they had disavowed. Consider having no rights that others were duly bound to respect because you were gay/trans/queer...and to justify that level of cruelty, to have someone shrug and then point to several neatly highlighted passages in their Bible. Ignoring the verses that say do unto others as you would have it done unto you and to love your neighbor as yourself, can you fathom the smugness of someone leaning into their prejudices and then implicating God as the one with the issues (His Word, not ours)? 

In 1994, we claimed our small towns were all Eden and the dens of iniquity were Sodom (New York) and Gomorrah (San Francisco). However, when hurricanes and tornadoes and flooding brought disaster to those small towns, we blamed the gays. We claimed that their love was more dangerous than our hate, and that our God was displeased by them. We never considered if His displeasure was with us for casting out our children and for our bad environmental stewardship of the earth. Instead, we prayed for their deliverance, not from the clutches of the streets, the prisons, the brothels, or the crack houses...but from the perversion.

That was then. Now we have evolved to the place where we worry about personal pronounsbathroom usagerainbow cookies, and who gets to run track

Now a few thoughts about POSE and the fact that it is ending after only three seasons. It probably could have gone on for another two, but I think that the time jumps have made this abbreviated run inevitable. My biggest complaint is that if it was known in advance that this would be a limited run series, then some of the character development should have been offered on the front end instead of now. There are loose ends that deserve better resolution than what we're getting, which is why we're all so emotionally spent after each episode. Without spoiling anything, there is no satisfying way to resolve much of what we anticipate will happen by the closing credits of the finale. And I don't know how I feel about that.

What I do know is that this show has pushed me to do the kind of self-reflection that hopefully will make me a better ally. I said as much two years ago and I meant it. The thing about calling oneself progressive is to evolve. We have to accept that the world is not static and that the complexities of living among human beings is ever changing. Little boys want to play dress up and little girls want to build cities with primary colored Legos. There is a lot we need to normalize, such as allowing our children to be freer than we were. It means creating space for people to feel that their lives matter. How much beauty and creativity is lost to despair and premature death?

Back in 1994 when there were fewer letters in the acronym, if someone compared the LGBT struggle to the Black experience in America, we would shut it down especially if the person making that assertion looked like Neil Patrick Harris. What in the world did Doogie Howser know about struggle? And that has been the great awakening POSE has brought about--in every possible way the Black and Latinx experience is perpetually marginalized, even among our gay/trans/queer siblings. To appear palatable, the LGBT struggle focused on mainstream identity and acceptance, so when it became wearing flannel, driving a Subaru, and adopting children America relented. Straight actors dressing sharper (gay) or messier (lesbian) were fine as long as they kept us laughing. Thus, by the time we get to depictions of being trans, we get Kathleen Turner lowering her already husky voice in Friends or Jeffrey Tambor in a bad wig and matronly clothes in Transparent. It's quirky and weird, and uncontroversial like the dedicated PRIDE aisle of merchandise at Target.

POSE doesn't deal with the warm fuzzies. There are light moments, humor, and of course the theatrics of the ballroom, but there is also grit and violence like the death of a celebrated queen killed by a john. For those who couldn't find acceptance from the coffee shop/J. Crew retail mainstream, they did what our people have done since the beginning and created beauty from what had been thrown out or left in the gutter. In some cases, it was about challenging norms: designer Willi Smith transformed street-wear into haute couture and singer Sylvester infused gospel into his dance club anthems. Alvin Ailey added jazz and blues to the ordinary movements of Black and Brown bodies through life and called it American dance theater. And designer Patrick Kelly took inspiration from mismatched buttons and an old racist icon, the gowliwog, to create subversive fashion. That all four of them died from AIDS-related complications is what POSE sought to remind us. The high cost of living can be fatal.

More than 25 years later, if we are finally saying that love is love, then so too is hate. Suppression is oppression and violence. We cannot force people to contain, edit, or hide themselves because beauty does not flourish in the languishes there, collects moth holes, and rots. Creativity must be seen, heard, and experienced in order to fully exist. In the end, we all come to the place where living free is...LIFE.

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

I Am Not My Hair Bonnet

From the Busy Black Woman book of truth, "Be ye ever open to instruction," which in the vernacular is, even if you already think you know everything, you don't. 

This is a general PSA for all of you who had a visceral over-reaction to this video message shared by the comic Mo'Nique last week. I initially saw the tweets and comments as comical, but that was before I saw the avalanche of criticism growing larger...and even though I changed my Twitter handle to reference a bee in my bonnet, that was before I saw her post and had a chance to really process her underlying message. So before I go on my tangent, I want to weigh in with my say on appropriate travel attire by linking to what I already said. I mean it. I will judge you, but I won't approach you unless you are un-lotioned (because that is a different kind of infraction).

However, let me make clear that the choice not to approach you is actually central to a larger issue. It isn't that I would be right or wrong in expressing my opinion, I believe it is more that my opinion would not be appreciated unless it was a compliment. If I walked up to you and said that I like the pattern on your panties that I can see because of your too short, see-through skirt, you might say thank you or think I'm a creep. Both reactions would be correct. Yet, in this current I-am-smarter-than-a-fifth-grader-world of social media, one might be more offended that I had the audacity to even look in their direction.

Be ye open to instruction. I just watched a portion of what was billed as an inter-generational talk with my forever Sister President Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole. She quoted this African proverb: The young go fast; the elders know the way. As she explained, we need your swiftness for the journey, but we've been here, know the terrain, and are only telling you what you need to know for your own good.

So, while y'all are dissing Mo'Nique for wearing her bathrobe while imparting wisdom, her point about showing more self-respect got lost. It became her policing Black women's stylistic choices instead of her being that Church Mother that hands you a lap scarf because your skirt is short. Look, I hated it too, but now that I am of the age where one might expect me to carry a lap scarf, a hand fan, some hard candy, and a shawl, I implore you to at least be open to why all of that became part of the whole armor of God. Our body temperature fluctuates as we age. Hard candy helps to keep the throat lubricated. And some dirty old man might be staring at my glory instead of giving all praise and honor to the Lord. It ain't even my ministry to be worried about his eyes or his soul, but now that we know how many young people were sexually exploited and abused in churches...

That Church Mother knows the way. When she pulls on the hem of our garments or when she hands over her shawl, we might get offended by her implicit judgment, but she is also instructing us about the ways of the world and of life. She is acquiescing to mores and norms that are outdated, patriarchal, and oppressive and she knows that. Yet, she is alive to provide that guidance because she survived being caught off guard in a compromising position with some entitled man who told her that no one would believe her story because of who he was. Maybe she still carries the scars and the shame, somewhere hidden on her body, covered up by a shawl or a lap scarf. And trust, she also knows that neither is a shield or a cape imbued with super repellent powers.

We appreciate your quick wit and determination to call out sexism. But she knows how to navigate it and still keep the faith.

Y'all can criticize respectability all you want. I've certainly approached my 40s with less concern about what people think about me or how they perceive me. And that is the wisdom that comes from accepting that the world will see me as it sees me and will mistreat me anyway. So the issue is not tied to some need to be deemed worthy to the outside world, it is about feeling my best in my own skin. My self-presentation to the world is a reflection of how I see myself, so pulling out an iron, wearing a bra, or putting on lipstick isn't patriarchal or respectable inasmuch as it is my choice to look the way I want in public.

Are we being too literal in our dismissal of Mo'Nique's critiques about wearing bonnets and scarves in public? I know that Mama Berenstein Bear wore her hair bonnet in every book and TV episode, but she also wore the same blue polka dot house-dress and no shoes. Of course, an anthropomorphic cartoon character isn't really a role model. Instead, let's focus on the fact that at least through the 70s and 80s, typical daily hair coverings ranged from those plastic rain bonnets that the Church Mothers carried in their purses to the elaborate Sunday morning hats those same Church Mothers revealed on Easter and Mother's Day. Culturally, there are groups of women all over the world whose custom or religious beliefs require them to keep their hair covered.

So this isn't really about that. And I say that as a woman who carries this modern-day Grandma's rain bonnet in my oversized Mom purse. If I could save some more pennies, I might rock one of these fantastic wax print turbans on my next transatlantic voyage. I am not above wrapping a gele if need be (and I definitely think more of us should learn the variety of styles). And let's be real--Mo'Nique ain't tapping Alicia Keyes in the airport over this look, nor would she check her homegirl Jada Pinkett-Smith at the Red Table.

But she is right that some of you look messy on purpose, and Auntie YaYa agrees. 

The real issue isn't what Sis said because plenty of us have dragged folks on social media for leaving their homes without first checking the mirror. When a school district suggested guidelines for appropriate parental dress for school drop-off/pick-up, most of us would agree that expecting parents to even have on clothing was de minimis. Casual Fridays, if we ever return to a full week of work, will probably be canceled. And we have all shared opinions about the person on the Zoom who should have kept her camera off until she got herself together (or the guy who should learn how to how to use his filters). 

That some of y'all are out here on Blue Ivy's internet still mad at Mo'Nique for speaking her truth about pay inequity is...hmmm, rich. We're still thinking that her opinions on how racism manifests in a variety of forums is just her telling Oprah to suck it? As if she doesn't know a thing or two about being too big, too outspoken, and too Black for people to care what she has to say, even if it is the truth? So now that she's back on the chitterling circuit, recording PSAs between shows in the hotel bathroom, y'all are more focused on her audacity to say what she said than on what she is actually saying?

Coming from a sister who has been judged on her appearance all of her life, whose talent has been under appreciated, whose voice has effectively been relegated to her Instagram followers...y'all don't know the way like she does. She is telling you that you can do everything right: star on a syndicated sitcom, be a Queen of Comedy, even win a damn Oscar, and folks will still disrespect you and treat you like you ought to be happy to get those coins from the fountain they offered. You can be talented. You can be beautiful. You can be skinny. You can be a Black bird-watcher and some white lady will call the cops and falsely claim that you are threatening her life.

Mo'Nique knows that what we wear on our heads doesn't even matter if folks are more obsessed with judging our skin color. She knows that when Oprah was trying to buy herself a fancy silk hair scarf, the saleswoman at the Hermès store in Paris wouldn't reopen for a Black billionaire. She knows that Meghan Markle can wear a fascinator just like her sister-in-law and still get trashed in the British tabloid media. Simone Biles will fix her teammates' hair ribbons and still get points deducted for pulling off truly amazing gymnastic feats. And that the tennis press will insist on imagining a rivalry between a Black Grand Slam champion and a white ingénue. 

Y'all are quick to point out that Black people are over-policed and profiled by appearance even when we conform to the so-called respectable norms. Black travelers with locs and braids must submit to intrusive searches of their hair to go through customs and TSA. So your ratty sleep bonnet or messy doo rag won't shield you from those indignities. Auntie knows that, so her point is that we need to carry ourselves with dignity and self-pride anyway. She said that the world will do what it does, so you must choose how you will show up. 

Let's keep it real, Vice President Harris and former First Lady Obama and every other Black woman in the public eye wears a hair bonnet. Even the Queen of England wears one (and we know this because those royal curls are tight like she faithfully rolls them in tissue paper and pink rollers every night). We ain't never going to see any of these women informally casual, wearing fuzzy slippers and pajamas in public. They face ridicule and unfair judgment too; yet they exude the utmost confidence and presence as they walk through the world.

Mo'Nique is saying that you have that same power to make the world see you in spite of how it defines you. Carry yourself with dignity. It isn't your fault that the deacon won't focus on the sermon, but here is my shawl in case your legs get cold, sweet baby. Be ye open to instruction because you may be quick, but I know the way.

Finally, a word on ashyness, which is a heinous act of omission that will earn you a rebuke by the Busy Black Woman. You can't be walking around unmoisturized, because too much friction can be flammable. Therefore, if someone offers you some hand lotion, take it in the spirit of generosity and concern that it was offered. Only God may know what is up under that sleep bonnet, but everybody can see them crusty knuckles and finger be ye open to instruction, and a few squirts of lotion.

Thursday, June 3, 2021

Take This Ball and Bounce

Naomi Osaka did something this week that so many people have only imagined doing. If ya'll-don't-pay-me-enough-to-put-up-with-this-bullshit could be dramatized in some epic, unforgettable way, it is exactly how she called the bluff of the French Open and quit. Actually, it might be more accurately described differently since Osaka paid a $15,000 fine and then quit, but if there is a fancier way of saying "fuck you and keep the change" in French, I would love to see it.

Yes, I support Osaka. I have already shared my thoughts on her situation with respect to her mental health, so there is the other issue of how I keep reading the social media bar association interpretation of employment law and contract obligations. Take it from this lawyer, y'all ain't right. Some of you need to have your heads examined to see if you lost the capacity for empathy after all of these months of social distancing.

I've seen a lot of trash takes, and while I won't debunk them all, I will hone in on the implication that Osaka doesn't have the right to prioritize her mental health as an elite athlete on the world stage. Ancillary to that is the notion that the amount of money she earns, both in prizes and endorsements, means that she earns too much to be exempted from the rules of engagement if she isn't feeling well. To these folks, a hamstring injury is an acceptable reason not to play but crippling social anxiety is akin to forgetting to wear her lucky socks. Suck it up and play...

One of the only reasons why I tune into watch tennis is because I am a fan of certain players. I rarely watch the men play because I'm not as personally invested in any of the current stars. I was in law school when Venus and Serena Williams first began their domination of women's tennis in the late 90s, and I cried like an older play cousin when they won Olympic gold. In the same way that I used to only watch golf to see Tiger Woods play, I would skip the tournaments when the Williams sisters weren't playing.

As a fair weather tennis fan who doesn't distinguish among the various Opens and tournaments, I can only tell you the minor details about Wimbledon (all white attire, in the UK) and that I know where the the US Open is played near the UFOs in Queens. I know that the French Open is infamous for getting precious about Serena Williams' catsuit and the Australian Open is where she learned she was two months pregnant. While many young players can point to the Williams Sisters as their idols, our eyes are on Sloane Stephens, Coco Gauf, and Naomi Osaka as the next generation of Black Girl Magic on the courts. Maybe one of these young ladies will inspire my daughter to pick up a racket (because college is expensive).

In addition to changing the complexion of tennis, the Williams sisters helped to highlight the issue of pay inequity between the women and the men. It has only been since the time of their dominance that women achieved pay parity at the four major tournaments, which is a crucial detail to remember for the remainder of this piece. Hence, it has only been 20 years that women have received equal prize money at the Australian Open, and then 14 years since Wimbledon. Equal pay is still a major issue of contention for women in other professional sports, most notably basketball and soccer. It was just in March of this year that the NCAA got embarrassed by its treatment of the college women via a viral social media post. So for as much progress as has been made, there is still a long way to go.

Therefore, part of what bugs me about the criticisms of Naomi Osaka is this suggestion that she gets paid too much to complain. That if she has any issues that are not satisfied by the amount of money she could potentially earn or by the endorsement deals she has, then she is acting like a brat. Echoes of this viewpoint have been made against male players so one might argue that it is an equal opportunity jab at these elite athletes, but I sense more. Somehow, the impression is that getting paid above a certain amount to do certain kinds of work strips one of their own agency, as in y'all get paid too much not to do your job. 

To me, this is very similar to the complaints about NFL athletes who knelt during the anthem. They get paid too much to complain about police misconduct. Or how the NBA gets attacked for individual player activism (LeBron James needs to just play ball, not advocate for social justice). And if we think we've heard this sentiment expressed in other arenas away from the football field or the basketball court, we have--The Chicks (formerly of Dixie) and Taylor Swift have faced backlash for political statements that were at odds with certain powerful interests. You remember how they were all told to shut up and sing...

Then there is that nagging feeling that some of this backlash is a reaction to Osaka's deliberate and intentional efforts to honor the victims of police misconduct in recent months. We are in a polarized moment that isn't just confined to events in the United States. If she's wearing a statement on her facemask but won't answer questions about her game, that will not endear her to the press. I'm imagining that some snooty French reporter went whining to his editor: Je ne suis pas raciste, je veux juste lui poser des questions sur cet ensemble moche (I am not a racist, I just want to ask her about that lousy set)? 

Enforce the rules, is the cry from the cheap seats, she knew what she signed up for. Well, my Clintonian legal interpretation is that the fine levied against Osaka for not participating in the press interviews is enforcing the rules. She did know that was a consequence of not giving press interviews, so is the problem that her check bounced, or is it something else? 

Is it that sports fans, increasingly feeling the need to express and exert their opinions, feel entitled to get their money's worth, and that includes a sweaty post-match interview? Are there no concessions sold at the Roland-Garros stadium to keep fans occupied between matches? Does anybody really pay that much attention to these interviews anyway? If by skipping the scrum, are the players cheating the fans of something they paid for, or are the players costing the venue or the tennis governing bodies something more lucrative? How much revenue did the French Open lose when Osaka called their bluff and withdrew from the tournament?

There are several stunning aspects of this situation, with Osaka's ultimate decision to withdraw being the most sensible. People who assume that invoking the need to protect one's mental health is some kind of gambit or ploy are the very reason why most of us rarely talk about our struggles with anxiety or depression. For an elite athlete on Osaka's level, the kind of pressure and attention she has received in the past three years since she defeated Serena Williams has to have been overwhelming. And it is a mistake to assume that everyone has the same ability to cope. So for everyone who keeps pointing to the obligations of her job, let's break that down.

As the number #1 ranked women's player in the world, her job is to focus on her game. That means she needs to win to maintain that standing. If you have ever watched a professional tennis match, it is intense. For those of us who watch on television, there is commentary to explain the action, and much of that ponders the mental aspects of the game. What was he thinking when he missed that or what was she thinking when she rushed the net like that? If an elite player appears to be having a rough time, the commentators will suggest that they aren't on top of their mental game. There is no noise while the ball is in play because crowd cheering or jeering is a distraction. Therefore, the casual dismissal of Osaka's anxiety as just an excuse doesn't sit well. If she can't focus, then she doesn't play well which is...her job.

Thus when she released her pre-emptive statement that she would protect her mental health and pay the fine, I don't understand why she needed to provide the Tennis Tournament Overlords ("TTO") with any additional information. Folks are out here invoking HIPAA to avoid wearing face masks in the Whole Foods, but not one of those yahoos has to submit to the kind of drug testing imposed on athletes like Osaka in order to do her job. Yes, and she has to comply with mask mandates, social distancing, and I'm sure she had to get vaccinated because all of that is part of her job.

So again, what is the something else that makes this move so controversial?

For one, it is her choice to exercise personal agency. Whether you agree or not, a person has the right to decide if/when an obligation is too much. How many women walked away from jobs during this pandemic because the choice between being a parent/caregiver and a worker was an uneven split? How many of you have gone to work on days when you were already too tired at 8am for the booshay, so you told your co-workers in advance to give you space, and they did? Or you put on the mask or applied the lipstick/warpaint just to get through the day, and it backfired? So let's not trivialize Osaka's anxiety. She, better than any of the rest of us, understands what she's going through at any given minute.

And obviously for her, it ain't about the money. Because let's go back to where this began with the sentiment that she wasn't being paid enough to go through the motions of something that had a deleterious impact on her game. Or, as those who would brand her as arrogant would point out, let's restate that as she makes enough money not to be bothered or deterred by a fine. And therein lies the problem for the TTO. They don't want this revolution to be televised. 

The governing body in tennis might be the closest thing to an NFL owner, and as we know from the Colin Kaepernick freeze out, the owners can do what they want, even if it is unfair. The league fines players for not giving press interviews as well, but that doesn't get as much attention. In fact, Marshawn Lynch's blunt "I'm just here so I won't get fined" is a meme and a joke.

Osaka's statement was neither. And the fact that Lynch and many other professional athletes stood up for her suggests that the team owners nor the tennis governing bodies are taking the mental health concerns of their players as seriously as they claim.

Times have changed, and the problem with bureaucracies and team ownership structures is their resistance to change. Too many people have bought into the fallacy that traditions are more important than the people affected by them, including those who are willing to follow along. Is it tradition that the TTO is upholding, or is it their ability to dictate edicts to the players? For example, was the catsuit ban intended to set a tone or to send a message? If players are given too much freedom, then who is in charge?

And I must ask the question--if Rafael Nadal had issued a similar statement about the need to protect his mental health, would he have been called a brat or brave? While we are applauding these NFL players for their courage, is anyone taking what they are advocating to heart? Or is that another slick publicity campaign like wearing pink cleats in October?

So while I haven't been naming the -isms because they are implied, I will point out that part of the reason why we are having these expanded conversations is due to the damage we did by never taking the time to properly identify and treat the mental health concerns of elite athletes in the past. What if Monica Seles' stabbing had been addressed differently? What about Jennifer Capriati's addiction issues? Have the years of intense scrutiny and criticism contributed to Venus Williams' autoimmune disorder? Does the TTO believe that by allowing reporters to question players about how they feel that is some form of therapy? 

But let's get back to the money move that Osaka pulled that really set this all in motion. One of the classic ways that people in power assert their authority over us little people is to either dangle money as an incentive or threaten to take away money as a punishment. Plenty of lower ranked players on the circuit who don't make Osaka's money would have just done the interviews. The ability to write off a $15,000 fine is a luxury that few of us have, and for women players not married to billionaires that is a newfound power. But it wasn't arrogance or hubris that Osaka demonstrated by walking away--it was principle, which she calculated was far more valuable in the long run. In addition to the money, she also put her ranking on the line in order to protect her peace. And by bouncing, she started a real conversation about mental health, not just a feel-good exercise for the morning shows. 

For what good is money if it doesn't provide for your basic needs? Peace of mind is a basic need, so let that marinate the next time you get it in your head to tell someone that they should put up with a stupid policy or some form of injustice for the sake of a dollar. The fact that Osaka knows this at 23 years old is game, set, match.