Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Who Invited You?

Imagine if you will some really formal fancy dress up event that you were invited to attend and while standing by yourself at the open bar, one of the guests toddles up to you and offers something along the lines of what she had convinced herself would be polite banter: 

  • Hello there, nice weather today?
  • Yes, indeed. (You extend a hand and say) Hello, I'm xx...
  • Yes, and I'm Queen Elizabeth's fourth cousin removed, Countess Nosypants. How nice that you're here. Tell me, are you a friend of the Blah Blahs? I've known them for more than 200+ years.
  • Actually, I just met Mrs. Blah Blah at the Harris Teeter the other night. She insisted that I come because she thought I might meet some interesting people.
  • Oh, I see (pregnant pause). Isn't that the cleanest Harris Teeter? I've often remarked on how competent the staff is in keeping the produce looking freshly picked (another pregnant pause). Tell me, did you know Colin Powell? He was Black too and I once saw his wife at that same store.

And after another awkward moment of silence when you wonder if the reason why she asked you such a random question was because your fancy black dress/tux looks exactly like you bought it off the rack a few hours ago (it does, but so what), you smile and say no, but your Grandfather served in the Navy during WWII.

I don't know why I went through that very Rachel Maddow-ian opening, but the point was to place a visual in your mind wherein some dowager society bitty tries to engage you in conversation before asking the uber loaded hot potato question, "how ever did you get invited to this event?" And I thought of this as I watched the social media reaction over the past few days to the concert footage of Lizzo from last week when she played a few notes on a crystal flute that had once belonged to President James Madison. 

Because the feathers of quite a few self-appointed cultural gatekeepers were ruffled, I thought this was an opportunity to explore how this latest outrage is consistent with their overall struggle against progress. You see, these people whose livelihoods depend on keeping a red-hot culture war going like an out-of-control wildfire decided that Lizzo would be an appropriate target of their rhetorical attacks. And get this, their beef was not with her skill in playing the flute, but whether she ought to have been allowed to touch this rarified artifact that once belonged to a Founding Father.

Mind you, because I'm guessing most of them conveniently missed this little detail, Lizzo was invited to come visit the Library of Congress (LOC) an entire week before she arrived in town for her performance. She accepted their offer and expressed her joy in ALL CAPS that she was looking forward to seeing their collection and possibly getting to play the crystal flute in particular. Fast forward to the video that she released from her show where she played a few notes on the flute and apparently that was all it took for the gatekeepers to start beating their breasts, aghast that Lizzo had the nerve to put her lips on such a rare and precious item that no one knew existed. The following day, the Library released its own photos and videos from her visit, including a demonstration of her playing in the Great Hall.

Now I need to say this because the algorithms on my timeline didn't reflect a flood of negative reactions, so at first, I only saw the commentary offered by Jenna Ellis on her show FB live feed. And I thought hmm, one of the Trumpet's incompetent lawyer minions is taking cheap shots at an accomplished Black woman...must be a day of the week ending in -y. I didn't bother searching for any other statements until this week, because as I suspected, it was the usual clown car of pundits who take issue with everything. It was almost too predictable, with generous use of the word 'woke' to describe the spectacle of a Black woman playing a flute. The horror! 

Or more like the nerve...

And then to make the haters big mad, the folks at Montpelier, the Madison plantation estate, extended an invitation for Lizzo to come and have tea and crumpets on Dolly Madison's china the next time she's in town. To think that 200 years ago, that's definitely not the kind of invitation she would have received!

But let's get to the heart of what these gatekeepers are upset about, because if Lizzo was the breakout first chair flautist for the National Symphony Orchestra or the leader of her own jazz quartet, then we know this would not have generated such interest. Apparently, the Library of Congress has this vast instrument collection, and it often invites famous musicians to come visit when in town. Who knew is exactly the reason they made a point of reaching out to Lizzo because only other musicians would have taken notice of a visit from a first chair flautist or maybe one of these other world-famous musicians...

Lizzo is hot right now, so for both the LOC and the folks at Montpelier, having her visit is great publicity. It is just that simple; yet, we all know that in life nothing is ever just anything if it results in this kind of howling at the moon. Therefore, I will use the word fortuitous to describe how we got here and why the predictable backlash by the gatekeepers is consistent with their overall outrage over a changing society where they are rapidly losing ground. 

Because when have these people ever had such issues with plus-sized Black women? These same folks who cried in their racist pancake batter over the long overdue retirement of Aunt Jemima? They've got concerns about a voluptuous Black woman flaunting her curves in public? Because when they were exploiting Saartjie Baartman, there are no videos to document whether James and Dolley Madison were entertained or repulsed by the way she was mistreated. Or perhaps, as my brother Ol' Hobbs and others have pointed out, the Father of our Constitution and fourth President of the United States was too busy being served by the women he enslaved at Montpelier.

So this is not just because Lizzo twerked onstage at her show with James Madison's 200+ year old flute. Entertainers do all kinds of provocative stuff in their stage shows that raise eyebrows, and after Aunt Pitty Pat is revived with smelling salts and has a sip of bourbon, we all go back to minding our business. It hasn't always been that way, and one can look back a few years to when Elvis Presley's hip gyrations got him drafted into the Army. 

And now we're getting to the heart of the matter--the traditional gatekeepers are losing all semblance of control over society. They can't punish Lizzo, so they tried to humiliate her. It didn't work, and they're frustrated because this really is Blue Ivy's internet now and only the residents of their cul-de-sac are clutching pearls over Lizzo doing Lizzo everywhere she goes. She remains moisturized and thoroughly unbothered. Mind you, it is okay to have opinions about her that aren't favorable. But it is undeniable that in 30 seconds she brought more attention to the importance of public libraries, music education, and the preservation of historic places than the complaints of her detractors at having to come to terms with James Madison's complicated legacy.

That isn't the conversation the gatekeepers want us to be having. Remember how upset they were about visiting Montpelier this summer, and instead of being served Dolley Madison's ice cream, they were lectured about yet another flawed Founding Father. So they decried 'wokeness' and banned books, re-wrote curriculum, conspired to overthrow elections, rioted inside the Capitol, and continue to revise all their old tricks in undermining democracy. 

Don't miss that because what has been happening is bigger than last week's shiny distraction of Lizzo and that crystal flute. Implied in all of the backlash and outrage are these questions: Who invited you? Who brought you into this space through the front door instead of making you enter through the kitchen? Who insisted that you are my equal instead of a servant? Who are you, but more importantly, who do you think you are

When James Madison authored the Constitution, he didn't have to provide any answers or explanations about his obvious personal hypocrisy in purporting to speak for 'we' the people. The early patriots were the elite few who consisted of white property owners, their wives, and their recognized offspring. Although he claimed to believe in direct democracy, Madison acquiesced in the compromise over the Electoral College. However, this country has been evolving ever since to become more perfect which is the conundrum for the gatekeepers--democracy gives everybody access. Everybody has a right to participate in the system. 

And you want to know what ensures that everybody has access? Public libraries. Comprehensive education that includes music, science, civics, and history. Programming offered at museums and historic homes that present the unvarnished and un-retouched truth. The Bill of Rights that Madison himself wrote as amendments to the Constitution. Free and fair elections.

So to answer the question as posed by Countess Nosypants at that society party, the person who invited Lizzo to walk through the front door and then handed her a priceless crystal flute was none other than Dolley Madison herself, our Nation's premier hostess and first official First Lady. 

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