28 July 2009

Another Word on Bootstraps

On the day the Senate Judiciary Committee considers her nomination:

I didn't watch much of the Sotomayor hearings. I found them boring, and frankly, in some weird way they reminded me of my oral exams. And who wants recall that trauma on a weekday afternoon--especially when one is supposed to be writing a dissertation and not watching C-SPAN? Anyway, I caught part of Senator Jon Kyl's discussion with Sotomayor. I believe this was the first round of questioning on July 14. At some point Kyl, as expected, turns to Sotomayor's speeches and her "wise Latina" remark. He's concerned because he thinks judging has (always been) and should (continue to) be neutral, and that Sotomayor might use her sassy Latina-ness to make decisions. Sotomayor says something to the effect of "I didn't really mean it that way. I was just trying to encourage people who aren't white, straight, male, privileged, etc." Of course, I paraphrase. But Kyl likes her response. So he says:
And if I could just interrupt you right now [but, of course]: to me that's the key. It's good because it shows these young people that you're talking to that with a little hard work, it doesn't matter where you came from, you can make it. And that's why you hope to see them on the bench. I totally appreciate that.
I don't know about you--and by you I mean the one person who might read this--I cringe any time I hear a white dude talking to a person of color about working hard and making it. I've written about Sotomayor and bootstraps before, but I just need to reiterate. Kyl's assertion that the recipe for success in this country is "a little hard work" plays right into this Ben Franklin, et. el.-inspired notion that that's how people get ahead in life. How American. But that kind of thinking obscures biases and institutional barriers that folks, who probably don't look anything like Jon Kyl, have to contend with every day. It assumes, for instance, that a little hard work can override an educational system in shambles, garner one a decent SAT score, and admission into college. It assumes that poor circumstances are the result of poor effort. It supposes that a little hard work can outdo racism or sexism or any other -ism that reinforces white supremacy. Believing this kind of stuff doesn't leave one time to critically examine the cohort of folks sitting in front of Sotomayor asking her questions. It sounds nice, but it evades what's really going on.

But I get it. This is something we all really want to believe. We want to think that we determine our success--or failure. We want to feel that if we just buckle down and grind it out, good things will come. That's comforting. It's nice to think that we got the job, into grad school, the promotion, or have money because of our deeds; that we deserve it. We want to identify with Sotomayor's story, because it makes us forget and not have to contend with the folks before her who didn't make it, and the folks after who won't. Those whose hard work never really seem to be enough. We don't want the disconcerting thought(s) that even if we follow the(ir) rules, and play the game with diligence that success can be elusive to some and an arbitrary stroke of luck to others. Thinking like that can be a real bummer. But what's the alternative? Believing George Bush worked his way into the White House?

And what drooling over Sotomayor's bootstraps and Obama's Horatio Alger remixes speeches about folks working hard, going to college, getting jobs, owning homes gets us is a pleasant case of amnesia. No one wants to remember that in capitalism, someone always has to lose, and when you couple that with a system dedicated to disenfranchising people of color, most of the losers will have melanin. That's the part that they want you to forget: that it's a competition, and that not everyone can make it, not even with a little hard work.

The other day, I read an article about Obama's highly touted campaign speech on race. Adam Mansbach writes, "The essence of white privilege is not knowing you have it; white people in America are bicyclists riding with the wind at their backs, never realizing that they owe part of their speed ­­– whatever speed that is – to forces beyond their control. By no means does this guarantee success. But few whites are conditioned to contemplate how much worse off they might be if they had to grapple with factors like police profiling and housing discrimination, in addition to the other travails of being [a white] American[.]" Jon Kyl appreciates the rhetoric of hard work because it provides him with the energy to just keep peddling without having to stop and think about the wind helping him along, or how that same wind challenges the efforts of other bikers--you know, the ones who have bikes. He keeps taking that blue pill--because he can afford health care.

I think I just needed to say all of this aloud, to remind myself (and maybe others), because getting excited about seeing the "first [insert a non-white, male, and privileged identity here] person to [something a bunch of white guys have done before] may lull us into forgetting to keep our eyes on the ball. (Remember November?) It's really easy call to Sotomayor an exception to the rule without thinking about how she symbolically reinforces them. And sometimes it's really difficult to discern whether or not the tellers believe their story.

Or maybe I overdosed on red pills.

That is all.

On E. Lynn Harris

Last Friday (July 24), author E. Lynn Harris died. Though his passing is getting some attention, by comparison, the deaths of other, more famous people have peppered the mainstream media at a much higher rate. A lot of folks (still) don't know who he is. Either way, learning of his death gave me pause. Not because I'm TOTALLY. FREAKED. OUT. by all these famous black people dying, but because I am surrounded by friends--internet and otherwise--who were deeply moved by his work.

I can't say I ever paid much attention to novels. When it comes to things literary, I can be a bit of a snob. (Yes, life can be explained with the help of an episode or two of The Golden Girls, but sometimes stories from the Bottom, a well-lit hole in the basement, or Yoknapatawpha County are helpful.) I will also admit that I didn't appreciate Harris while he was here. Since his passing, I picked up a copy of Invisible Life, and though it's not my cup of chai, I respect the man for what he did. When the novel was published in the 1990s, black sexuality and tales of black men on the "down low" weren't as accessible as they are now. Harris is credited with birthing that change. And for that, I won't front on him.

Though Harris may never appear in the canon that the literati like to protect themselves with, one cannot deny--no matter the opinion on Harris' politics, writing chops, subject matter, whatever--the positive impact he had on many lives. Since his death, several of my queer homies have discussed how instrumental Harris' work was to them--in coming out, in accepting and loving themselves, in their entire self-actualization process. Writing, art can do so much: take us to different places, help us imagine a different world, expand our minds, heal and accept ourselves. And I think bastards like me often forget that, especially as we construct elaborate theories about 1,369 lights. Though I hate that it came through Harris' death, I'm glad to be reminded.

Thank you, E. Lynn. I appreciate the lesson. Rest well.

27 July 2009

Today in Pre-Race History: Red Summer

Q: What's black, white, and red all over?
A: Chicago circa July 27, 1919.

My kind of town. Today, the high in Chicago is supposed to be around 85 degrees. Seems like decent swimming weather. But when it's 90+ degrees in the mighty Midwest, jumping in a large body of water seems like an imperative, and the only way to escape the humidity that makes the city all groggy--we complain little and bear the moisture hanging in air the because we remember winter. I suppose that's what some young black boys were thinking when, ninety years ago today, they decided to go swimming at a beach on the South Side. (Yes, Michelle Obama is from the South Side. Move along.)

Back in 1919, Chicago wasn't segregated in the traditional sense. (Big Shoulders likes its racial stratification a little more indirect--instead of colored only signs, it just built things like highways and such.) But with a gang of Negroes migrating up north to places like Chicago, I suppose a color line needed to be drawn somewhere. There was one in the water that day when those black boys went swimming. And I guess they (accidentally) crossed it. Which made white people throw rocks at them. The boys threw rocks back (so I hear). The police arrested a black man instead of a white one, and black people protested--you know, because they thought those amendments had given them rights. This, in combination with the overall assault on black life in Chicago--including gangs who attacked black communities and police who didn't seem to care--resulted in a week-long riot. And by riot I mean seven days of white folks attacking black neighborhoods. Eventually, the National Guard came in and shut things down. Thanks.

That riot was the worst in a summer full violent outbursts. There were so many that James Weldon Johnson, the Secretary of the NAACP at the time, coined the term "Red Summer" to describe it. Nearly a century later, summer is a lot less red, but there are small reminders. Instead of rock throwing, black and brown kids are just politely turned away from the swimming pool. The denial had nothing to do with racism, of course; after all, we are post-race. And as long as Tyler Perry uses some of those greenbacks (with blackfaces) to send them to Disney World, we can move on. Nothing like a trip to Disney to efface the memory of racism past. Wait. Is that ironic?

And the police keep arresting wrong guy. Or (accidentally) shooting the wrong guy. And instead of thinking that maybe the President got it right (did I just say that?), we discuss the class implications of calling a police officer's actions "stupid." We worry about how police morale was affected by such comments rather than the lessons this teaches young black boys--and girls. Because a grown (wo)man's self-esteem is more important than a black life. On any day. On any stoop.

The block is [still] hot. Not red hot. But hot, nonetheless. Don't burn yourself. Be cool. Y'all know the rules.

22 July 2009

Skip to My Lieu

A few years ago, when I was still taking graduate school course work, I got into a "disagreement" with a colleague about race and class. We had just left our course on mid-20th century black literature, and were hanging out in the department lounge for some strange reason--something I'd never do now. I think we had just finished discussing Native Son in class that day, and afterwards the issue of race and class came up. I think I started talking about how unsatisfying the last third of the novel, Fate, is. Or maybe I didn't. The memory is hazy, as it was a traumatic time in my life, and I'm kind of old now; I don't much remember my wide-eyed days. Anyway, I think I was making some poorly worded (and perhaps ill-informed) statement about Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison and being black and disillusioned with communism. At some point, and this is clear to me, my cohort emphatically said to me with authority, "I'm sorry. It is all about class." I was pretty much like, no. I might have said something snarky. I might have not.

Though I should have been really offended that this non-black person (of color) was sitting in front of my face whittling down my experience as a black person in the United States to adventures in class struggle, I channeled Jigga, and brushed it off my shoulder. Frankly, I hadn't really taken the conversation that seriously. Until she sent me emails. (I wish I still had them.) I can't recall exactly what she said, but it was pretty much about her marching with commies and an overall mischaracterization of what I had said. It was weird and surreal. I called someone (another non-black person of color) who had witnessed the conversation to make sure I hadn't said what homegirl claimed. But homegirl insisted I had said what I didn't. So I shut down the conversation; I had run out of patience. In retrospect, I can't believe I was so tolerant of someone so committed to telling me that, essentially, white people were an occasional pain in my ass because they were bourgie and I was a proletariat. (Has there ever been a more appropriate time for the retort, "Get the fuck outta here"? Faulkner wasn't lying when he said Dilsey and her people endure[d].) She hasn't really spoken to me since. That's ironic, Alanis.

This morning, I thought about what she'd say about this Skip Gates ordeal. Would she--or the circa 2004 her, assuming her position has evolved--say that a woman called the police, that Gates was confronted by the filth because he looked poor? The police report reads like outtakes from Crash (I pray the police officer made up that "Yo' mama" line, surely a man who wrote a book on signifyin' came harder than that), the statement on behalf of Gates like scenes from a movie starring Morgan Freeman (as Professor Gates). But one thing is for sure: if race got him into those bracelets, middle-, upper-class access got him out.

There's a joke black comedians like to recycle about the show Cops. Essentially, they observe that white folks getting arrested on the show say things to the police black folks wouldn't dare. And they wouldn't dare say those things not because they are (presumably) poor, but because they know that when it all falls down, being black is akin to committing a crime, and thereby always arrest-worthy. That's why there's a primer for black interaction with police--it's like a family recipe: never written down, but passed on through generations. But perhaps you need a bit of leisure time, a little class privilege to study black people long enough to link things like blackness and criminality. Perhaps we sing an ascension, class-based lullaby that causes some of us to daydream, to forget that many of us are what we study. We are becalmed into thinking we have things like rights. I almost got caught up once. I got stopped by the police for walking down the street in Lincoln Park at night; accidentally gave him my student ID. I guess I got temporarily hypnotized by all those Nobels. Just a pitfall of being young, gifted, and black, I suppose.

Was Professor Gates thinking like my cohort, that it's all about class when he showed the police his driver's license and Harvard identification? Was that going to erase the fact of blackness? Were those arm bands not a reminder? How would my colleague account for the fact that "all about class [access]" cannot explain 5-0 running up in the house, putting the manacles on the wrists, but can definitely help interpret why a buzzing internet, Charles Ogletree as legal representation, and--probably--those dropped charges? Can she now see how all of this is like buying freedom papers? And that such action, if I am understating the facts, is heavily seasoned with race?

Either way, it's not very classy to tell a black person--or for a black person to think--that it's all about class. Trust me. I know. And if I forget, I will be reminded. I am reminded that for so many, getting arrested or chastised by the police is just another day around the way. And if that's the case, no one will tweet about it. Or release a statement. Or hire a lawyer for you. Or write a blog about you. Stay black and (or?) die.

And sometimes (Harvard) access isn't enough. Ask Chanequa Campell. She knows.

20 July 2009

If You Believe They Put a Man on the Moon

Then you will believe that I'm going to Mars with Nikki Giovanni. And maybe Octavia Butler.

Let’s Gogh Again (and Again and Again)

Today (July 20) is Muhsinah’s birthday. As a gift, The Golden Girl offered The Oscillations: Square, a 13-track digital exclusive, to her loyal fan base. I'm two tracks in, and I love it already. With Muhsinah, it never takes much. I heart her now and forever.

If you haven't heard of this Washington, D.C. phenom by now, well, you've been surfing the wrong parts of the web. (I'm listening to tracks as I write. "That Day" just started. My god it's a scorcher.) Muhsinah, a classically trained pianist with fabulously mellifluous and effortless-sounding vocals, has taken up residence in the coolest enclave of the internet. A star (light, star bright) in a constellation of internet- and space age-inspired women including, Janelle Monae, Georgia Anne Muldrow, Miss Jack Davey (the vocal half of the darling J*Davey), and Brittany Bosco, Muhsinah has guested on tracks with Common ("Changes" from Universal Mind Control), The Foreign Exchange ("Daykeeper" and "House of Cards" from Leave it All Behind-- arguably the best album of '08), and a host others. Sometimes I just put her cover of Radiohead's "Scatterbrain" on repeat, because it seems like the right thing to do.

The other week, I was fortunate enough to catch Muhsinah opening for PPP (featuring Coultrain--boy crush!--and Monica Blaire, whose cover of Madonna's "Material Girl" I really dig). I ended up being irked by my fellow Chicagoans because I felt that they didn't properly--if at all--understand just how spectacular Muhsinah's music is. After her set, she stood an arm's length away from me. I wanted to tell her that I really enjoyed her set and appreciated her work. Maybe I wanted to tell her something else. There was plenty of stuff I could've said: How the marriage of her vocal cadence with beats, the way she united Dilla and Alice Coltrane (two of her stated influences), the refreshing quirkiness of her lyrics, and her simultaneous genre-busting and merging are pretty much one of dopest things in music right now. But I got scared. Shame on me.

Forget lending my ears, Muhsinah can have them. And though mathematically challenged, I gladly ease through my week with her latest offering, The Oscillations: Square. You should, too.

15 July 2009


In case you haven't heard, there's something in the water in Sweden that makes the musicians there really rad. Jose Gonzalez, Kissey Asplund, I'm talking about you. My favorite foursome, Little Dragon blows into the City of Wind tonight (7/15) and will surely set fire to Kinetic Playground's stage. ($15 bucks at the door.) Hopefully they play some jams from their upcoming album, set to be released Aug. 19.

Here's a clip of Little Dragon singing my jam, "Forever."

Little Dragon's upcoming shows:
JUL 15 @ Kinetic in Chicago, IL
JUL 16 @ The Drake in Toronto, ON
JUL 17 @ LPR in New York, NY
JUL 18 @ Central Park Summerstage in New York, NY
JUL 19 @ Liv Nightclub in Washington, DC
JUL 21 @ The Fire in Philadelphia, PA

JUL 24 @ The Atrium London Royal Opera House in London
JUL 24 @ Secret Garden Party in nr Huntingtdon
JUL 29 @ Vega support for Tv on the Radio in Copenhagen
JUL 30 @ Debaser Media support for Tv on the Radio in Stockholm

AUG 7 @ Grappas Celler, Jardine House in Hong Kong
AUG 8 @ InMusic Festival in Zhanghbei, Zhangjlakov
AUG 15 @ Stockholm Kulturfestival in Stockholm
AUG 21 @ Dragonfly Festival in Falköping

SEP 26 @ Play Festival Hasselt in Hasselt

OCT 23 @ Brugge Cactus Festival in Brugge
OCT 24 @ Petrol in Antwerp

14 July 2009

Till Death

v. - to labor, as by plowing or harrowing, upon (land) for the raising of crops; cultivate.
n. - a drawer, box, or the like, as in a shop or bank, in which money is kept.

I’ve been thinking about death a lot this year, both personally, with the death of my beloved great-grandmother, and publicly, with the deaths of Steve McNair (I thought my cheers would give the Titans the one yard they needed.), Bea Arthur (if you cannot grasp or appreciate the genius of The Golden Girls, there’s no need for us to be friends, internet or otherwise) and Michael Jackson (still waiting for Moonwalker on DVD). Despite the emotions it compels, death often feels like a really abstract thing to me, like having a real job or money in my bank account. But I know death elicits tangible, visible responses, and I saw some of those reactions when I looked at a copy of the Chicago Sun-Times last week.

Burr Oak, an all-black burial area in Alsip, Illinois, just outside of Chicago, was supposed to be the final resting place of many famous and not-so-famous blacks, including Willie Dixon (played by Cedric the Entertainer in Cadillac Records), Otis Spann, Dinah Washington, and other folks my grandmother would claim to have known and/or met. Though it is an old cemetery and space, as it always is in such matters, is limited, blacks have been burying their loved one here for years, to keep family members together, to maintain tradition. It is now a crime scene.

About six weeks ago, Perpetua Inc., the Arizona-based owner of Burr Oak contacted local authorities because of some discrepancies. According to CNN (Why am I relying on their information when I know that accurately reporting on black people isn’t one of its strengths, especially with Black in America 2 mere days away? I don’t know.), Perpetua was concerned about some “financial irregularities.” Upon investigation, the Cook County Sheriff arrested 4 of the cemetery employees, alleging that they were involved in the resale of graves. The sheriff’s office claims that the cemetery office manager, Carolyn Towns, paid three other employees overtime wages to disinter several hundred graves. According to reports, they would then discard the bodies in an area near the cemetery and resell the plots. Investigators found a family of possums living in Emmett Till’s original casket, and also allege that money for the planned Till memorial at the cemetery had also been stolen. They made about $300,000.

Part of me is alarmed, surprised, disturbed. $300,000? (What’s 300,000 divided by 4? I suck at math.) That’s all it took? That’s all it took to get someone to dig up the bodies of somebody's loved one(s), of old people and babies, and discard them and their headstones as if they were worthless rubbish? And Emmett Till, dude? Emmett Till? That’s not Emmitt Smith or Emmet Otter. That’s Emmett Till. There are poems, songs about Emmett Till. People were compelled to action because of Emmett Till. Emmett Till was in Jet. $300,000 (divided by 4) was all it took? For real? For CREAM? Damn.

But maybe I shouldn’t be so alarmed or surprised. Isn’t this, on some level, some poorly organized, low budget version of some of Wal-Mart’s practices? Just a few weeks before this story broke, dirt from historic American Indian grounds in Alabama was removed by workers so that it could be used as raw material for a new Sam’s Club. Last month, the Wintu tribe dedicated a statue in front a Wal-Mart in northern California—because the site used to be a burial ground for their people. The remains will be reburied. Somewhere else. Always somewhere else.

These instances aren’t entirely analogous, but they are not so dissimilar that they are beyond compare. What I think both examples do have in common however is some weird, 21st century rendering of the politics of Manifest Destiny, replicating the way that whole hustle has treated certain groups of color.

We can trace a lot in the story of Native Americans, and one of the things we can track is a theme of dislocation. Possession of Native land has to be in the top five of American capitalistic desire, right? Behind what? Thomas Kincade prints and Big Macs? For land, the Indians can just go somewhere else. Always somewhere else. We will give them a plaque--eventually. And as fucked up as it is, those four cemetery workers did something really American, really western, too: they understood the black body—even a dead one—as a commodity, assessed the situation and came up with a price. There is always a seller; there is always a buyer. Always. It’s an appalling story, but the premise is thoroughly unoriginal. They just didn’t bother to put up a statue. But who can blame them? That bench by the road is barely a year old.

Maybe now we know where the line is. Maybe now we know where we cannot cross. If you’re going to disinter, disrespect those who are no longer living, well, somebody better be saving a bunch of money by switching to Geico dough on paper towels and short sets. After all, it is a recession, and not many of us can afford much. And apparently we've never been rich enough to properly honor (many of) our dead.

07 July 2009

A Word (or Several Hundred) on the BET Awards

It’s taken about a week for my feelings about the BET Awards to be articulated as something beyond, “I hate Debra Lee,” or “If Harriet Tubman got frequent flyer miles, she’s now really upset there weren’t more blackout dates,” or “Where’s Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey when you need them?”** or “How long before they just start calling it the Al Jolson Awards?” But I’m less irritable—and hopefully more constructive—now. Besides, Al Jolson doesn’t deserve that dis; he never did anything to me.

BET didn’t even bother to meet my already very, very, very, very low expectations. I watched the entire show, and waited for the Michael Jackson tribute that the network seemed to forget it publicized in a press release following the singer’s death. But lots of other things filled up my tv screen. By show’s end, there was plenty of confusion—how, in a room full of black folks, was there not at least dance tribute to Michael Jackson?—more charges of coonery and buffoonery, and expletive-flavored things to say. But there was also some clarity.

With some help and discussion, I think I’ve realized what happens in a BET programming meeting: They get together and try to “out-ignorant” each other. It’s sort of like playing the dozens, except instead of, “Your mama…,” the cracks sound something like, “[Insert BET show] will be so ignorant, it’ll make Birth of a Nation look like Do the Right Thing!”

Someone suggests, for instance, reuniting the cast of Baby Boy on stage, just to remind Taraji P. Henson, maybe, that she was Jody’s baby's mama before she was Benjamin’s surrogate mama. Then someone else chimes in, saying that Tyrese should come on stage, because he’s going to be at the show anyway. Another mentions that maybe Ving Rhames is available, and if so he could give that monologue about guns and butter because the audience would really guffaw at that shit. And then someone asks, “What if we made sure Ving Rhames was drunk, or at least seemed like it, before he got on stage?” And then somebody who’s been updating her Facebook page the whole time adds, “If he’s drunk, he should act like he’s about to whoop Jody. I mean, Tyrese. It could be like, you know, a subtle tribute to Joe Jackson maybe?” And so on and so on. I’m just guessing here. But how else can one explain Janet Jackson being followed by the Young Money crew? Sometimes you got to coon to keep from crying? Maybe.

In case you missed it, didn’t Tivo the original broadcast, or just caught the re-aired version, the awards show ended with the now infamous—and edited out—performance by Lil Wayne, Birdman, hip-hop it boy, Wheelchair Jimmy Drake, and some other rappers I don’t know. The seven minutes thirty seconds went something like this: Drake, having duped us into believing he’s going introspective with his performance by sitting on a stool (turns out it was a torn ACL), shouts out Michael Jackson, and then proceeds to rap about a girl or several. Then Weezy ‘n’em rush the stage, rapping about wanting to have sex with every woman in the world—objectify women much? (But BET countered the song’s “message” by showing women in the audience rapping along.) What’s more, at some point during the song, in a move seemingly inspired by the self-proclaimed pied pier of r&b, R. Kelly, several young girls—and yes, by young I mean under the age of 18—including Wayne’s daughter hop on stage and start dancing to the song. Nice touch.

I know, I know. I should’ve stopped sipping the snake oil after Janet left the stage, for I knew that there was no way BET could follow her appearance properly. (Note to self: see above assessment of the BET decision-making process.) My bad. But perhaps in my sorrow I forgot that I was watching the same channel that saw no problem in airing a video that featured a man swiping a credit card down a woman’s butt. (I know it was years ago. I’m still mad.) Perhaps in my sorrow I got sloppy in my thinking, concluding that a black woman heads this company and such things could never happen. (Oh! The pitfalls and limits of identity politics!) Perhaps in my sorrow I thought, of course no one would think it a good idea to allow a performance that not so subtly intimated sexual abuse when the theme of the entire show was a tribute to a man whose later life was plagued by allegations of such abuse. Perhaps I duped myself into believing that someone would have stopped the thought process and said that’s not a good idea. (Again. Note to self: see above assessment of BET.)

Then, shockingly (no irony), BET (and Drake) later issued an apology, saying that the performance was in bad taste. What’s this? BET has standards? Since when?
Apparently, they were grateful for the uproar, because it helps make them a better network. An annoying blip on the “coonery is entertaining” screen, I’m sure. Of course, BET has never let on that such performances were ok, have they? But I guess their apology is good. They slapped themselves on the wrist, and no one had to bother BHO. (Do you think they watched the show at the White House?)

The other day my dad picked up my sister and me from the airport. On the way to the hotel, we listened to some random station playing 90’s black music. Arrested Development’s “Tennessee” was followed by Black Box’ “Everybody, Everybody.” I was 12 again, but this time, I didn’t take for granted that examples of two somewhat distinct genres of black music could follow each other. I sat and wondered what happened. My local radio station used to sound like that. BET used to look and sound like that.

I’m not even interested in respectability. I’m interested in respect. I’m interested in diversity. I’d be less frustrated by the idea of Weezy et. al. wanting to sleep with every girl in the world, if it wasn’t always “countered” by “Supermanning h**s.” Can you imagine Speech [of Arrested Development] on today's version of BET?

Can you imagine Michael Jackson—if he were being honest and not gracious—even wanting to be on BET?

No. So I guess I shouldn't have imagined a semi-decent tribute. My bad.

**To be clear, the Tubman/Vesey lines aren’t jokes dissing enslaved blacks, or making assessments about their mentality. (In fact, I probably have a different, prouder view of slavery than many. The joke/point is about risking one’s life for folks only to see, a couple hundred years later, some of the descendants of some of those folks acting a fool on cable.

02 July 2009

Black Man in the Mirror

Any of the following jargon can essentially be boiled down to this: I love Michael Joseph Jackson. Always have. Always will. I don’t dance, but I know how to moonwalk. (Don’t ask. I won’t do it for you. You’ll just have to ask my mama or one of the homies if you don’t believe me.) My favorite song of all time is “Human Nature.” Off the Wall is better than Thriller. “Smooth Criminal”—the 9-minute version with the orgy in the middle, not the radio edit—is the greatest music video ever made. I’ve watched Moonwalker more times than I’ve seen Back to the Future, Please, Hammer, Don’t Hurt ‘Em, and Coming to America (80’s babies stand up!), which is to say a lot—I’m talking bailout money numbers. I love the Gloved One so much that this post was supposed to be up Tuesday, but his death made me feel like I had, indeed, been struck by a smooth criminal. Forget Annie. Summer, are you ok? These are my mourning pages. I’ll try not to bloviate.

In many ways Michael Jackson crystallizes blackness. Totally wacko, right? I don’t think so. As I remember Michael Jackson, I am recalling just how black he was—and I am not referring exclusively to his (last) name, or his marriages to white women. Though I don’t find blackness simple, this statement is no effort to oversimplify Jackson or his life. Obviously, he was a deeply complicated man—such complexities need a dissertation, not a blog entry—and there are plenty of people who have and will (continue to) discuss the ostensibly less-than-stellar aspects of his very public existence, especially the last 15 years—in between ads for Woody Allen’s new movie, of course. But what I do want to do is give tribute to the way he continued to be a part of a larger black community and cultural tradition, even as he became increasingly isolated from it (and the rest of the world).

Joe and Katherine Jackson, Michael’s parents were, like umpteen other Negroes of that generation, born in the South. Joe, part of that second wave of black migration north, left Alabama at the beginning of the United States’ involvement in World War II, first relocating to Oakland, CA, then eventually settling in northwest Indiana. There, he met Katherine, who as a toddler had emigrated from Arkansas to the same area. Northwest Indiana, comprised of a cluster of smallish cities with factories for vertebrae, attracted scores of Katherine and Joe Jacksons with its manufacturing jobs and seemingly less overt discrimination. Joe worked for U.S. Steel in Gary while Katherine stayed home with kids; it would take a couple of decades and the factories to bail before we really saw just how tenuous this version of the effort towards black “normalcy” was. But that’s another story. Don’t let The Music Man fool you. Gary, Indiana, about thirty miles east of Chicago—the heart of black publishing (one of the last interviews MJ gave was to Ebony)—is one of the blackest towns you’ll (n)ever visit. The Jacksons grew up there, and as different as they were, they were part of a working-class black Gary community that wept and repped hard for Michael when he passed. After all, 2300 Jackson Street isn’t just the title of a song.

Joe and Katherine’s kids are my parents’ age; Michael was just a few days older than my mom. As a kid growing up in Fort Wayne, Indiana (in the northeast corner of the state), I knew several kids with fathers (why always fathers, I don’t know) from Gary, each of them with a Jackson story to tell: memories of the Jacksons performing at a talent show at Roosevelt, or of how small the house was, or of Joe Jackson’s, um, disciplinary ways. I know how pre-crack Black communities like Gary’s worked; I never doubted the memories.

I can neither fully appreciate nor share the enthusiasm my mother shows as she limns her memories of The Jackson 5ive. But I know one thing: before everything else, Michael and his brothers were black teens idols. Their stardom was cultivated in local black talent shows and on the stage of the Miss Black America Pageant. It was a performance during Amateur Night at Harlem’s famed Apollo Theater that led to the brothers signing with Motown, where they quickly became the centerpiece of the company that was so instrumental in distributing black music to the white masses. For years, they were the face of Right On magazine and Soul Train regulars (the only place where lip-syncing is totally acceptable).

And I know that even as a solo artist, Michael, despite his apparent eccentricities, continued to fit into the larger context of black cultural production and the black experience in America. By the time I was old enough to develop my own healthy obsession with Michael Jackson, he had already integrated MTV (that’s where I met him), and compelled the channel to air the videos of other black artists. As much as he adored Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, Michael was the embodiment of so many black artists who had prepared the world for him: Little Richard, Sammy Davis, Jr., Jackie Wilson, and of course, James Brown. His 70s ‘do landed him a space in the Hall of Afros next to Angela Davis and Don Cornelius. He taught us things: activator is flammable. Michael Jackson was magic (not in the Bagger Vance sense); the sidewalk LIT UP for him. With a unique and often duplicated fashion sense, MJ subtly reminded us that blackness is nearly always the conduit of the cool.

Even as his skin lightened and the opportunity to make jokes about his blackness increased, Michael Jackson’s life and work reflected a commitment to the same community from which his increasing stardom distanced him. He not only co-wrote “We Are the World,” he gave millions of dollars to the United Negro College Fund, the NAACP, and for sickle-cell research. He worked with auteurs Spike Lee and John Singleton. Before the advent of the ankh tattoo era, before neo-soul, Eddie Murphy and Iman played the pharaoh and queen of the Egyptian kingdom in Michael Jackson’s video, “Remember the Time.” (Peace and blessings.)

Perhaps nothing spoke to Michael’s blackness more than the way he’d been treated by the media, especially during the decade and a half before his death. As easily as they deify Elvis, the media seem to have difficulty understanding the convoluted nature of the Jackson saga. They interpret Joe Jackson’s emotional disconnectedness as unacceptable and bizarre rather than, perhaps, a symptom of more complex, deeper issues. (After all, the elder Jackson does come from a group of people who have not always benefited from connecting emotionally to their children. That said, reppin’ your new record company is bogus.) They concentrate on Joe Jackson’s child abuse rather than offer a more nuanced claim: that, despite how problematic it and he were, Joe Jackson was willing to do nearly anything to get his children out of Gary, Indiana.

Even as they continue to “honor” MJ, the media cannot help but address the scandals that plagued his later life. The way the public obsessed over and scrutinized his sexuality, including the charges of sexual abuse, was a constant reminder of his blackness, as if sex and crime are the only ways one can understand a black man.

Above all, it was tragic, but fitting that he died of cardiac arrest at fifty. Had it not been for that mysterious, off-screen car accident, that’s how (damn, damn, damn) James Evans would have died. Jackson died on the brink of giving even more to a world that didn’t give him much to begin with. And what is blacker than giving your body until it is no longer useful? Gone too soon.

So yes, for me, Jackson’s life both symbolizes and helps illuminate and appreciate a certain trajectory of blackness in this country. It is the way I’ve begun to understand the significance of a person who is in many ways beyond words. In life and death, he was and continues to be so complicated that many of us who desire to go beyond simplistic explanations are relegated to speechlessness or fragments. But we seek to understand him, nonetheless. He deserves that much. It’s the least we can give to someone whose (black) genius has touched so many of us so deeply. We are all accomplices in his death. Yes, there is blood on the dance floor. But there is also blood on our hands.

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