Sunday, January 10, 2010
Two quick thoughts. One, I did not know that Paul Mooney has a new book out. He is a true original and gift to American arts so please check his newest project. Two, folks are catching up to the obvious truth that I laid bare here...one day, in the not too far future, we will be able to talk openly about Tiger Woods and his particular predilection:
Thursday, January 7, 2010
It seems that the rest of the world finally caught up with We Are Respectable Negroes. A question: the host of The Griot got his chance to shine, when is Rachel Maddow going to give us our 5 seconds of fame?
Note: I occasionally crosspost over at Open Salon.com. This piece is one of the featured Editor's Choices today, so please chime in on the conversation there as well.
For the uninitiated, this blog is called We are Respectable Negroes. Not surprisingly, our choice of the word "Negro" in the title of this project has been the subject of quite a few emails by visitors to this site. Some readers have responded viscerally: we must be self-hating because only those black folk who despise themselves would ever name themselves such a "foul" word. Other readers found our choice of name refreshing and snarky--an ironic twist and wink at those folks who "get" our politics. Ironically, in reviewing the visitor logs to this site "Negroes" has also gotten us the attention of white nationalists and others of their ilk--apparently "Negro" is one of their catch all phrases for those of us who also identify as black or African-American.
I have never done a proper post on the logic behind my choice of the name We Are Respectable Negroes for this blog. I always felt that We Are Respectable Negroes worked best as a MacGuffan of sorts--one does not really need to know how or why my fellow bloggers and I chose the name to get the intent behind it. Ultimately, the "Negroes" in We Are Respectable Negroes is what you all make of it.
However, in lieu of the census controversy I will break kayfabe for a moment. For me, there is a certain dignity in the word "Negro"--a historical anachronism that signals to a bygone (and in many ways nostalgia-born) era of black respectability. As some have said far better than I, there is something to be said for imaging oneself as a colored gentlemen, with a "Kaiser Bill" mustache, rendering our musings on the politics of the day from the comfort of our sitting rooms. The problem though--as reality is so often inconvenient when counterpoised against fantasy--is that while I may fancy myself a Negro gentlemen, in the white gaze of that epoch I would be anything but free and equal. I must ask: Would I be willing to make that bargain?
It seems that the Census Bureau's decision to float "Negro" as a new/old category for the 2010 survey is not afforded the freedom of ambiguous intentions that we are allowed here.
Expectedly, the Census Department's exploration of whether to broaden the racial categories on our national survey to include a term to describe black folk that many had resigned to the dustbin of history has met with no small amount of upset. Because African Americans were for so long denied the right to name ourselves, our naming practices are laden with political weight. In this journey, we have gone from "Colored" to "Negro" to "Black" and "African American." Black folk reserve the right to our own naming. Individuals also reserve the right to name themselves (which is the logic behind including "Negro" on the census as many older black folk still identify as such).
In total, what is a name? What does it mean? What does it signal to others and to ourselves?
My late grandmother identified as "Negro" or "colored." While a product of The Jim Crow South, she never let white supremacy break her. To my face, I have been called "black" by white people with as much venom, hostility, and vindictive rage as I expect would accompany said persons calling me a "nigger" (for example listen to how Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Pat Buchanan, O'Reilly, Coulter, et al. utter "black" or "African American" during their screeds against Barack Obama). I have also been called "colored" by a white man--he was Irish-American--who was for all intents and purposes my adopted grandfather. He was a profoundly positive influence on my life and I respected him far more than most people I have ever met. By extension, we cannot forget that there were likely many a white ally who described us as "colored" or "Negro" all the while risking their lives in the service of the Black Freedom Struggle.
If I had to make a bargain, I would trade "Black" or "African American" for "Negro" in a second if it gained us better schools, fewer broken homes, a growth in income and wealth, a greater sense of personal responsibility among our youth for their deeds, and REAL racial uplift and progress that went beyond merely having more brown faces in (real) high places. And not to be forgotten, I would trade "nigga" for "Negro" in a millisecond if it would raise the level of respect held by many in the black community for themselves and towards one another. I can only speak for myself, but I suspect that many black Americans would rather be called "Negro" with love, than "Black" with hatred and disdain.
Where do you, our respectable negro friends and family stand on this issue? Are you Black, colored, coloured, negro, "American," or some combination either thereof or heretofore unnamed? Is the Census Bureau out of bounds on this issue? Being provocative: don't Black folks have bigger fish to fry, both proverbially and literally, than engaging in another distracting debate on what we should be labeled? Being really provocative (and playful) shouldn't black folks be careful on this one? If we make Negro a cool word again, are white folks going to just take it back from us?
Monday, January 4, 2010
I am no longer capable of being shocked into silence by the year which my New England Patriots have been having. Maybe we are the little engine that could? But I am not holding my breath. One thought though: Wes Welker is a great player hurt in a meaningless game against a hapless foe in the weekend prior to a wildcard game. Why Bill? Why?
In Bill we trust? Perhaps, but not as much as in seasons past
Courtesy of George King at Sports Illustrated:
NEW YORK -- Now that was a weird day. Sad with the devastating knee injury to one of the real poster children for everything that is good about the NFL, Wes Welker. Flummoxing with the total collapse of the Giants and Broncos. Maddening with starters sitting to some degree in six of the games involving playoff contenders ... and the weirdo Colts deciding that individual records are important a week after deciding 19-0 wasn't. Strangely undramatic for a Week 17, with only two win-and-get-in games, neither of which was any good -- the Ravens handling the Raiders with slight difficulty and the Jets handling the Bengals with none.
Eeriest part of the day: Houston safety Bernard Pollard landing on Welker after he had blown out his ACL and MCL early in Patriots-Texans and fallen to the ground in agony. This was 16 months after Pollard, then with Kansas City, had dove into Tom Brady's knee, shredding ligaments.
"I heard Wes yell out, the same way I heard Tom yell out,'' Pollard told me last night. "It was the same yell. It was terrible. He went down right in front of me. I saw his knee buckle, then I fell on him, and when he went down, I said, 'Just my luck.' ''
What are the odds of the same defender being at the epicenter of the temporary demise of two true New England heroes?...
Sunday, January 3, 2010
Sunday Afternoon Thinking Project: Internet Tricknology--Is Jay Z's Video "On To The Next One" Satanic? Is Jay to the Z a Member of the Illuminati?
I don't know if Hova worships the dark prince, but this is one hell of a video.
I am a connoiseurr of conspiracy theories (I am very excited about Jesse the Body Ventura's new series by the way). As Gordon goofs on me often, I still do not believe that NASA went to the moon...or alternatively we arrived there and were told to leave. I also don't by the official story about 9/11. But, the idea that On to the Next One is full of satanic/Illuminati/Masonic imagery (the imprecise, and in some ways contradictory nature of the claims give away their thinness) does not sound persuasive to my ear.
Second random question: for those in the know, given his success maybe The Boule recruited Sean Carter after his rise to elite celebrity status?
Now, that is not to say that some interesting work cannot be done in analyzing these visuals. Personal note: start making notes on the video to write an article on the politics of its aesthetic conventions. What do you all see in this video? What is the symbolism? I see a combination of black and white surrealism, Rorschach test imagery, a wink to said character in Watchmen, and no small amount of borrowing from my queen J-Lo's underappreciated classic The Cell.
Is the following annotation of the video correct? Send in your detailed commentaries. I would love to feature the best one, and perhaps there is a prize in it for you critical sorts counting down the days until your winter vacation ends.
Friday, January 1, 2010
This post goes out to all those sad souls who were dragged unwillingly to New Year's Eve church services as children....
Our church is the church of hope and joy. One only has to laugh, smile, and enjoy life to be a member of our flock. We are the Church of Respectable Negroes. Non-denominational. Pig worshippers (the pulled pork or Cubano pork sandwich is our Eucharist). Hedonists. In all seriousness, and whatever God you may (or may not) worship we send you the best of wishes for this upcoming year.
If you need some fellowship this evening we bring forth four options for your reflection. Which church will you join?
Oh behold the one and only Bishop Don Magic Juan:
Hell, I need some more money this year. Do you? How can anyone possibly hate on Reverend Ike's sense of style?
Tut, Lord of Grapes and God of Junk, do you hear our prayers? We are all junkists who practice junk each and every day, each in our own way:
We are also racially inclusive and progressive. In the immortal example provided by Akeem the African Dream, blackness is a state of mind and soul, not skin color, phenotype, or place of birth:
Update: Well damn! Courtesy of our commenter Jacked Up Jazz suggested a clip that I missed! Although I was watching Joe Joe Dancer last night I must admit I have never seen this clip...
If you all have any other suggestions send them on--
Drink and be merry!
Wednesday, December 30, 2009
When I go out to work for the day, I leave NPR on to scare away the ign't burglars. I am playing the odds as the voice of Terry Gross scares away most people. Those who proceed are simply gluttons for punishment and Lord have mercy on their souls.
Today, I came in from work and NPR was playing the best interviews of 2009 from its great series, Fresh Air. One of these interviews featured Woody Allen--one of America's preeminent actors and directors. In this exchange with Terry Gross, Woody Allen shared so many wonderful details of his childhood that I couldn't help but smile.
Yes, I could relate. Yes, unlike Allen in some decades past in New York I grew up in the 1970's as a working class black kid. Nevertheless, I could get where Allen was coming from. How many of our experiences transcend racial boundaries? Why is it so hard to communicate these shared experiences in order to find common ground? In the age of Obama, would it still be surprising to many that the experiences described by Woody Allen may be more common than not across lines of race, ethnicity, and class? Who knows? Maybe the story here is all about class and ethnicity as opposed to race...Historically, why has whiteness worked to separate these folks from a common experience, as opposed to bringing them together? Are the wages of whiteness that great?
In relating to Allen's remembrances of childhood, I too could relate to how:
My dad would come home with money won from playing Lotto, "the numbers" or any of the other games of chance that he excelled at (sort of like James in Good Times). During these rare moments it was indeed Christmas in July.
As Woody Allen also shares:
- I would go with my dad to meet my uncle while he did collections in one of the seediest bars in New Haven, Connecticut. I thought it was great fun hanging out in what was a virtual speakeasy--at the time I just thought it was a dark restaurant that had overly sweet ginger ale out of the tap. Like Woody, there were so many adventures to be had for a respectable young negro--if he knew where to find them.
- Ill gotten goods: I loved it when dad, or on occasion mom, would bring home some fenced swag purchased at "discount." To this day, my mom still wears the diamond ring purchased from a crackhead who fenced jewelry at Macy's department store.
- I too ate dinner alone. By contrast, Woody Allen read comics. I also watched TBS and enjoyed the gastronomic pleasures that could only come from watching Mama's Family, Good Times, Sanford and Son, The Jeffersons and Godzilla movies each weekday from 5pm-8pm. Like Woody Allen, I wasn't exiled. No, I actually enjoyed my quiet time. I would like to cultivate this peace in my children.
- We were not an Af-Am version of The Waltons, Leave it to Beaver, or The Brady Bunch. On a good day, me and my family were far closer to Roseanne than we ever were to The Cosby Show. Gordon and I often talk about the regional differences in what it meant to grow up black in America. We often return to the same question: How did blackness ever become so constrained? Who gets to decide what black authenticity is? What is at stake?
So many questions that I could not resist asking.
Monday, December 28, 2009
We All Can't Be 86 Year Old Sex Machines Caught in a Menage a Trois Plus One: Mr. Tiwari I Salute You
I couldn't resist, for this ghetto nerd and respectable negro the following story was too enticing. Mr. Tiwari, play on, player! And if you have any secrets to share on how you kept your game strong all these years by all means please email me.
Courtesy of the BBC:
The governor of the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh has returned to the capital Delhi after resigning following an alleged sex scandal.
ND Tiwari, who is also a leading Congress party member, resigned after a regional channel aired footage of him allegedly in bed with three women.
Mr Tiwari's office has denied the allegation, saying that the video had been doctored.
The 86-year-old Mr Tiwari has been a federal minister in past governments.
He resigned on "health grounds" on Saturday evening, his office said.
Opposition parties and women's right groups protested in the Andhra Pradesh capital, Hyderabad, after the footage allegedly showing Mr Tiwari in bed with three women was broadcast.
The channel reported that the women had been brought to Mr Tiwari by a woman who had allegedly been promised a mining lease by the former governor.
The channel said the woman had decided to "expose" Mr Tiwari as "he had not kept his promise".
"The news channel report is fabricated, false and malicious to tarnish the image of the governor," said a statement issued by an aide to the governor.
Mr Tiwari's resignation comes at a time when Andhra Pradesh has been rocked by protests over the federal government's decision to allow a new state in the Telangana region.
An estimated 35 million people will live in the new state.
Mr Tiwari is a top Congress party politician and has previously served as the chief minister of northern Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand states and as a federal minister.
We All Can't Be Michelle and Barack Obama: A Commodity Greater than Gold--Black Women Discuss the Near Impossibily of Finding a Good Black Man
I didn't know that I was so valued! Where are all of my queens hiding?
Whoa is the state of Black America when Steve Harvey is our resident expert on black relationships. I will have a guest this week (or perhaps next) who will be chiming in on the black marriage gap (sounds like the missile gap of the Cold War, no?). For now, some impulsive and less than well considered thoughts--that is my way of asking the women folk to not be too hard on a brother.
Who is to blame here? The brothers or the sisters? If you look at the out-marriage statistics, most people of all races (even Asian women who are the most likely to out-marry) marry within their own race. I have many female friends who often recite the "all the good black men are with white women" line. My response: most black people are dating each other. I submit that we only tend to notice those dating across the racial line because while increasingly common, those pairings remain relatively atypical.
More generally, how do we explain attraction and chemistry? In addition, how much do marriage markets play into this (i.e. the pool of available partners in a given social milieu given one's expectations and willingness to trade one trait for another--income, education, attraction, race, age, etc.)
What of these sisters' standards? Only men who are 6 feet tall? 50 requirements? The likely response from these (quite beautiful) women would be that white women don't settle, so why should they? My intuition: the grass is always greener on the other side. Based on my observations white men are often as raggedy as black men, and white women are not having that easy a time of it. Am I wrong?
Finally, are these sisters looking in the mirror and asking themselves, "is there something about me that is turning folks off?" In the immortal words of Michael Jackson should these women start with the man/woman/person in the mirror when looking to explain their situation? Being really provocative, are some of these women damaged goods? Is their "singledom" a function of a self-fulfilling prophecy where bad choices lead to more bad choices and negativity attracts negativity?
Friday, December 25, 2009
Hole in the Soul--The Tragic Lives of African American Actors in A Christmas Story Part 1: Percy Jones' Story
In keeping with our interviews with such notables as Jesse Jackson, Pat Buchanan, and the irrepressible Brother X-Squared, the We Are Respectable Negroes News Network (WARNNN) is proud to bring you the newest installment in our hard hitting special investigative series.
The movie A Christmas Story has become a new classic. Based upon a collection of short stories by Jean Shephard, what was once a niche movie has become a staple of the holiday season. A Christmas Story is genius in its simplicity: a young boy who only wants a Red Ryder BB gun, the machinations necessary to make this dream come true, and the adventures of an "all American" family as a date with Santa Claus approaches. It is of no small coincidence that A Christmas Story saw a rise in popularity during the Culture Wars of the 1980s--a moment of increasingly toxic and fractured politics. In many ways A Christmas Story is a salve for those heated debates about what America is--and what America is to become in the future. No doubt encouraged by this appeal to a simpler age of Norman Rockwellesque 1940s America (the film itself is set in nondescript Hammond, Indiana)--as well as 24 hour marathons on TNT and TBS--A Christmas Story has generated a huge following that has given birth to conventions, tours of the home featured in the film, and a cottage industry based upon A Christmas Story related memorabilia.
Every holiday season A Christmas Story brings so much joy to so many. What became of its actors? We know that some have been able to parlay their childhood success into some amount of fame as adults. We must ask: What happened to A Christmas Story's African-American actors and actresses? Seemingly lost to history, WARNNN has conducted an expansive search to bring the struggles of these actors to light. While these brave actors and actresses of color are forever linked to what is now an indispensable fixture in American popular culture, as is so often the case they have been denied the success, fame, and wealth earned by their white peers.
WARNNN brings you their story.
Almost invisible, the black characters in A Christmas Story are conspicuous by their absence as central characters. Present on the margins, muted both literally and figuratively, the African-American characters carry a heavy weight on their shoulders as embodiments of the role played by people of color in the American imagination: black Americans are rendered forever present through the fact of their exclusion from the master narrative.
A Christmas Story is set in pre-World War 2, 1940s Indiana, a time when legal segregation and white supremacy were still very much the rule of the land. Thus, A Christmas Story's exclusion of people of color in its vision of American suburban life is to be expected. Not to be denied, several black Americans responded to the casting call for A Christmas Story. They were determined that the presence of black Americans in this nostalgic vision of America's past be acknowledged. These pioneers would not be white washed out of history! However, what these actors would find would be no small amount of struggle...and experiences that would forever impact their lives in the decades to follow.
WARNNN had an extremely difficult time locating the black actors of A Christmas Story. They have seemingly been erased from any record of the film's production and distribution. It was only through a series of interviews with the film's cast, and a poignant confessional by Director Bob Clark (during which he expressed great sorrow at the treatment of African Americans in the film) that WARNNN was able to rediscover these heretofore lost tales of personal tragedy and triumph. There were four black actors in A Christmas Story. What follows is the first of 3 installments on their post A Christmas Story lives.
Percy Jones was the first actor that we were able to locate. Sadly, our ability to find Mr. Jones was made easier by his new identity--inmate number 203157 in Attica State Correctional Facility. While A Christmas Story is Americana come to life, Percy's life story is that of urban America gone wrong. Like so many young men of color caught up in the system, Mr. Jones (the oldest black actor in A Christmas Story) could not escape the sad mix of Hollywood fame, drugs, and the trauma he suffered while filming A Christmas Story.
We scheduled a meeting with Percy during a lazy after Sunday afternoon in November of 2009. Mr. Jones awaited us in the visitor's center. Since his arrest in 1989, he has been a model prisoner. Because of his exemplary status, the guards afforded him some degree of privacy as we were seated in a semi-private area in the corner of the main visitor's room. A tall man, now in his 50s, Percy has a hard earned dignity to his features. Sharply intelligent, yet understated and modest, Percy greets us warmly and with an exhalation of relief, "You came to talk about A Christmas Story? Do I have a story to tell you..."
We began by asking a simple question: How did you end up in Attica?
Percy looked down, "It was a random series of events that were simultaneously unavoidable. A Christmas Story gave me so much, but it also took much more than it gave. I simply couldn't avoid its clutches." He began to spin a story that was at one time utterly predictable, yet imminently fascinating. Percy continued, "I was a hustler, always was. I grew up in Cleveland in the late 1960s, I came of age in the 1970s after the riots. I was running with different gangs, you know all the Black Power groups that fell out with each other and lost the politics and picked up the guns. I got arrested a few times and had an epiphany. I had to get off the streets. I hooked up with my first high school girlfriend and started taking acting classes at the local community college."
At this point, Percy looked nervous and a bit saddened. He looked down to the shoulder of his orange jumpsuit and wiped a tear away from his eye. Percy continued, "the directors of the film were scouting local schools and colleges. They found me. It was immediate. They said they were making this Christmas movie and that I was perfect for a pivotal role. I immediately said yes. I didn't have a SAG card so I had to get one...the film subsidized it. I also got an advance. 1,000 dollars for my appearance. Man, I was so happy. I took my girl out, lord it was nice, we conceived Nichelle that night...she is my daughter. I got my mom a new tv. I brought my lady a necklace and I got a record player cassette player combo for my car. We were living large."
I asked the obvious question, one that often hints at the trouble awaiting Hollywood's newest stars, "did you sign a contract? What about residuals? What about back end money?" Percy looked up at me with heavy eyes, "come on brother, of course not! I didn't know about any of that stuff. So, I got to the set. It was supposed to be 3 days of filming. I thought this was my chance to break out, you know? To bring some dignity to the role I was playing. The wardrobe people walked up to me and sat me down for a fitting. Something wasn't right. I looked at the costumes and they had a black mask, and a striped shirt and some tight pants. I was like come on now, who the hell dresses like this!"
As viewers of A Christmas Story know, Percy is one of the members of the Black Bart gang that attacks Ralphie's home during the pivotal Red Rider BB gun fantasy. This is a key scene in the film that helps to set the stage for the near fetishistic power that Ralphie's Red Ryder BB gun holds over him that holiday season.
"I accepted the role as criminal as par for the course. You see I had a plan, I wasn't some lame who would get played. I was gonna make the role something special. I was gonna be James Cagney in Scarface. The world is mine! The director approached me and said that he wanted me to method act, to go to that dark place I lived in when I was on the streets. To really impute the role is what he called it. That was the beginning, that energy was always there, but I had suppressed it."
This is the moment where Percy's troubles began and A Christmas Story would exact a heavy toll on his well-being and life. Like a junkie remembering his first hit and retelling how he would relapse over and over again...from sobriety to and fro addiction...Percy's relationship with A Christmas Story was that of an unhealthy relationship, toxic, painful, and with an unavoidable ending.
"You see, the role didn't involve any speaking. Nothing at all. I was supposed to jump over this fence and get shot. Man it hurt so bad. They were slave drivers on the set. 3 days became 10 days became 15 days, on and on and on. I didn't know that the contract said they could do this. Of course, they threw me a little more money. But, I was internalizing the pain, you know what I mean? That little white kid kept shooting me with that BB gun. I kept dying over and over again. To add to the humiliation I was the first member of the gang shot. How humiliating. It hurt my soul."
I leaned forward and comforted Percy. His pain was so evident. I was curious, how did his costars feel about this treatment? Did he suffer alone? I carefully extended my hand to his shoulder and asked. "Chauncey, me and the other members of the gang...that is what we were called...were kept separated from the child actors on set. The directors wanted to create a sense of tension and menace about us. We were almost like real criminals. So, we would drink, use drugs...you had to use painkillers to keep doing those damned stunts, and would sleep with the prostitutes and groupies on the set."
Inevitably, the movie shoot would end and Percy Jones returned to the "real world." He would go from job to job. Percy even cut a rap album, "Rapping with A Christmas Story." Sadly, it never sold more than 1,000 units. He was unable to get consistent work in Hollywood on his own. Percy secured an agent but the relationship was not fruitful. Mr. Jones had long spent the 1,000 dollars he earned from his role in A Christmas Story. Nevertheless, A Christmas Story still beckoned to him.
"I would watch the movie every year as it became more and more popular. Each year, I would become more and more enraged. So full of anger. I hoped a check would come, something. Never. I did a little research. Did you know that I was never even in the Screen Actor's Guild? Nope. Those crooks gave me a fake id card so they could exploit me! All that I had was the costume from the movie. I tried to sell it at a pawn shop, but got no takers. This was before Ebay and the Internets. It started to beckon to me, almost talking to me at night. I would lay there in bed next to the wife and that costume would call me. Quite literally it would whisper to me, telling me to man up and get mine."
I knew the ending of the story, but had to ask the inevitable question.
"Brother Chauncey, I did it! They wanted me to be a thug, a criminal again. And I couldn't resist. I put on that damn outfit and mask and got me a gun. Sure as hell did. I went on a rampage. I robbed everybody I could find. I became like a real life version of Omar on the show The Wire. Hell, in Cleveland I was The Ghost of Christmas Past. I was the king and I was putting some coal in your damn stocking!"
In a sad end, Percy Jones explained how he was arrested on Christmas Day, some six months after his crime spree began. High on crack, exhausted, and sleeping on a dirty mattress in a cheap motel, Percy (still in costume) was taken down by the Cleveland police department's SWAT team. Percy Jones, the Black Bart stickup man, became an urban legend. I heard the rumors, the poetic irony of his story had long been on the tongues of folks in Cleveland, so I had to know if the details were true.
"Yup, the rumors were true. I never had a real gun. I used a Red Ryder BB gun--I sawed off the barrel--and robbed folks. They were so scared...my victims had no idea I was playing them. I got 50 years, can you imagine that? I would have actually been better off if I had been using a real burner, at least I could have fought off the cops."
Our time together had come to an end. The prison guard politely motioned towards us that we should end the interview. Percy leaned in, happy to have made a new friend. Yet, his countenance was heavy with thought and reflection..."Tell the people that I am not the only one. Go out and find the other brothers and sisters from A Christmas Story. Trust, I had it comparatively easy. Find the others, what they have gone through will blow your mind! We were struggling, trying to do the right thing for all of the black folk out there. But that damn movie just got us caught in its clutches! Maybe, just maybe, justice will be done if the truth is known."
In our next installment we bring you the story of Little Red Ryder, once an innocent young school child, now a fallen woman...
Happy holidays all. I am most certainly happier this year than I was one year past (fingers crossed...don't want to jinx it). I got something I will post later today after my video game playing, new computer assembling, movie going day.
Today, please do something nice for someone dear to you. Also, please do something nice for a stranger (my rule is 20 bucks to a random homeless person).
Peace and good will...
Wednesday, December 23, 2009
***I am very fortunate to have really smart friends. After seeing Avatar, I called my fellow sci-fi geek, expert in all things Star Wars to complain about the travesty that is Avatar. Bill the Lizard disagreed and offered what is a compelling take on Avatar--one that I had not considered, and that goes well beyond more narrow analyses that undercut Avatar as either an ode to white guilt or a cgi version of Dances with Wolves. For your consideration.***
To that end, James Cameron’s new movie Avatar is sparking a diverse debate across the internet. It is a testament to his abilities as a filmmaker that so many people can look at one work and bring to the table totally different ideas.
One such discussion is how Avatar handles race, or more specifically, how Avatar handles the racial “other.”
Annalee Newitz, editor of io9, states the following about the film: “Avatar is a fantasy about ceasing to be white, giving up the old human meatsack to join the blue people, but never losing white privilege.” She goes on to state: “Whites still get to be leaders of the natives - just in a kinder, gentler way than they would have in an old Flash Gordon flick or in Edgar Rice Burroughs' Mars novels.”
In a broad sense, I agree that Avatar touches on the subject of race in a very tangible way, and that at face value, it’s often hard to see Avatar as being anything more than just a retelling of Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves or John Boorman’s The Emerald Forest.
However, I disagree with Ms. Newitz’s assertion that this movie is just a classic white guilt fantasy. Avatar is not racist, nor is it a calculated example of a kinder gentler form of social imperialism.
What many people seem to forget is that Jake Sully, the main character, is established early on in the story as being both an ostracized and emasculated character. Thus, he does not fall into the classic white privilege archetype that you see in white guilt fantasy.
Jake Sully is emasculated in a literal sense because of a combination of physical injury, financial inadequacy and family tragedy. Not only is Jake Sully a Marine who cannot walk or fight, but more tragically he knows that there is a cure for his injury, but cannot afford it. Further, Jake’s closest relative, his twin brother, has been killed in a meaningless act of violence that Jake could not prevent, and now Jake is now forced to step forward into a position that he does not feel he is smart enough to handle.
Because of this, the Jake Sully we first meet is evocative of the character Jake Barnes from Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Like Barnes, I would not be surprised if Jake Sully is also suffering from some form of physical, as well as emotional emasculation. Impotence and incontinence are very common side effects with paraplegia, and since The Sun Also Rises deals specifically with the loss of optimism and innocence after a bloody war, I would suggest that there are a great many similar themes at play.
It’s clearly mentioned in the beginning of the movie that Jake Sully saw “some serious shit” in Venezuela, and James Cameron is an adept enough writer and director to pay attention to the details. Just because James Cameron doesn’t hit you over the head with hyper-melodramatic moments in regards to Jake Sully’s disabilities, it does not mean that these elements are not present in Avatar.
As a result, Jake Sully cannot be strictly viewed as the white man who never gave up “white privilege.” To say that Jake never gave up “white privilege” somehow infers that Jake had the privilege of racial entitlement and immunity before he joined the Avatar program. But, as already established in his back-story, if he ever had political, social, monetary or intellectual power, it is definitely not present at the beginning of the film.
This is not to say that Jake Sully, the character, is disillusioned or helpless – he’s not. In point of fact, Jake is determined to apply his knowledge and skills towards his own self-care and development. However, despite his desires to better himself and initially work within the confines of his own culture, he is still an “other” who at first is forced to operate outside of the two dominant spheres of influence at the Hell’s Gate facility on Pandora: the soldiers and the scientists.
As the story develops, we soon find Jake embracing his role within the Avatar program. While the scientists are slowly accepting him, it’s very apparent that Sully would rather immerse himself within the Na’vi culture through his interactions with Neytiri. The reasons for this are easily apparent: not only does the avatar body give Jake all of the things that he had physically lost, but also being with the Na’vi (and specifically Neytiri) emotionally completes him.
This notion of self-completion (in both a physical and an emotional sense) is very important to recognize in the narrative. For example, we begin to see evidence of Jake’s willingness to leave his old life behind by the fact that he stops eating, bathing or taking care of his human body. His old life, the life of a paraplegic and a type of now immediate a literal “other,” is rapidly becoming the unwelcome dream--and Sully’s ties to the Na’vi his new reality.
Furthermore, by deciding to become fully Na’vi at the end of the film, Jake makes a decision that is very similar to someone who may elect to have sex reassignment surgery. He is changing his outside in order to better fit what he knows is correct for him as an individual. Many people who have gender identity issues refuse to accept what is increasingly a dated notion of “medical normality,” that those in the “trans” community have a disorder. Here, gender is a social construct that is completely unrelated to biology. Similarly, while Jake Sully may be biologically human, it does not change the fact that he knows that he belongs with Neytiri, his life-mate.
In the end, it’s all about bringing your body into harmony with your perceptions of your own identity. I don’t think that it’s by accident that the Na’vi say “I love you” by saying “I see you.” Neytiri “sees” Jake, regardless of what form he’s in. When she saves Jake’s life at the end of the film, it’s easy to see the love in her eyes - despite the fact that she’s holding a small broken human who is all but helpless in her arms. Similarly, Jake “sees” her and loves her regardless of the fact that she’s not human. This is the dominant theme and meaning of Avatar.
As an important historical aside, I would also strongly suggest that Jake Sully is a Hugh Thompson, Jr.-like character. Hugh Thompson, Jr. was the US Army helicopter pilot who, along with his gunners, attempted to stop the My Lai Massacre in the village of Sơn Mỹ in 1968.
During the My Lai Massacre some 450 unarmed civilians were ruthlessly killed by about a dozen US soldiers, and Thompson, in an effort to stop what he saw as “pure premeditated murder,” threatened to shoot the US soldiers if they did not stop. In short, Thompson followed his moral center and fought against the atrocities that were being committed by his own countrymen. He did this regardless of the cost to himself.
Thompson received numerous death threats for his actions in Vietnam. He was also labeled as a “race traitor;” much like Jake Sully is in the film.
Thompson was then betrayed by his own government, by his commanders attempting to cover up the massacre, and 30 years later, while Thompson finally did receive recognition for his selfless act, he is quoted as saying in a 60 Minutes interview: “I mean, I wish I was a big enough man to say I forgive them, but I swear to God, I can't.”
Sometimes following your own moral center (like Thompson), while at the same time realizing who you are as an individual, is not “going native” as Annalee Newitz and others infer:
“Going native” is a racist and derogatory term from the 19th century imperial imagination. It is the idea that the indigenous population can corrupt a white person where they somehow ”lose themselves” to a “barbaric,” seductive, exotic culture. The indigenous population never corrupts Jake – in contrast Jake Sully is “completed” by the indigenous population and truly becomes a whole person by the end of the film.
Yes, Colonel Quaritch accuses Jake of “going native,” but that is because Quaritch is the racist (or more correctly the speciesist). It’s Quaritch who doesn’t care about the Na’vi, and it’s his employer, the RDA (Resources Development Administration) who feels that these people are merely implements, tools to be used for human expansion and progress.
Jake Sully understands that the Na’vi live according to their own traditional and tribal belief systems. All that Jake asks of the Na’vi is for them to judge him in the light of those beliefs. The fact that the Na’vi accept Jake so completely, enough to even follow him into battle, shows that the Na’vi view Sully based on his actions and merit. Ironically, the Na’vi “see Jake,” in a way that his own people are completely unable to.
Ultimately, while Annalee Newitz and others may see Jake Sully as that “white guy [who] manages to get himself accepted into a closed society of people of color and eventually becomes its most awesome member,” I would argue that she is missing the mark. Jake Sully already feels that the Na’vi are his family. Given his background prior to the climax of the movie, is it all that surprising that he would fight to protect them?
Tuesday, December 22, 2009
The 12 Days of Christmas: Barack Obama Shot Glasses, Action Figures, Cocoa Butter, and Bikini Line Bump Remover
The holiday season is upon us. I have some fun X-Mas related pieces forthcoming (volume 2 of my gift giving guide for ign't boys and girls should help with your last minute shopping). In the meantime, I am still out there hustling for the people. Following Obama's election, I asked you to send in your best/worst examples of the commodification of Barack Obama. Given that this is Obama's first Christmas in office, one would think that there would be many Obama bargains to be had. It seems that our local merchants in Chicago have certainly not disappointed. To that point, a recent trip to Walgreens revealed the following reviling O-man goodness (come on, talk about a sentence that is as smooth as wiping one's behind with silk!):
This is really poetic. Given that Obama's numbers are going into the tank, perhaps we/him/us need a drink to celebrate the end of the year. Alternatively, we can take a drink to celebrate the fact that the brother is still breathing, safe, and making history in a world where there are all too many nut jobs that would do him harm.
Kablamm! Boom! Pow! Sorry, just making my customary action figure noises. What adventures would you have with these fully articulated Obama action figures? Would Obama be a 24esque Shaft meets Matt Damon meets 007 superspy who comes to save Michelle Obama from the foul, lustful, frothing mouthed clutches of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck? Will you make a Christmas themed diorama that is a hyper accurate 1/16th scale version of the White House where the Obama action figures host an elaborate gala ball while some Motown Christmas music plays in the background?
How products are placed on the shelves at retail is neither coincidental nor accidental. Consultants, leveraging decades of data about shopping and consumption patterns, place products in such a way (at eye level for example, or on endcaps) as to promote impulse purchasing (ooh look I just have to have a Snuggy!), complementary purchases (peanut butter and jelly), and a sense of fun and pleasure (don't I feel better from spending the day out and about in the mall. I feel so alive!) from the shopping experience. Ultimately, in the eyes of the Mad Men of the world, we are nothing more than self-perpetuating happiness machines.
What does the placement of Obama related merchandise near the cocoa butter section of aisle 1 suggest? Do black folks love cocoa butter, where while grabbing a bottle of Palmer's said coloured person will also feel the impulse to share in Obama's victory?Is it more about race pride, linked fate, and feeling good about one's blackness? You know that sense of positive energy and connectedness that comes with getting a new haircut, putting on some cocoa butter, and then buying some commemorative Obama merchandise?
I am at a loss for this one. Is this some signal to our most prurient desires where tidying up one's girl parts (or boy parts) leads one to buy an Obama sweater, shot glass, or action figure? Is this part of a love ritual? Given that the Obamas are Black Camelot embodied, are regular black and brown folk roleplaying as Michelle and Obama? Is there some romance afoot? And what does the order of one's purchase of these Obama related goods tell us about the sexual magic to follow?
For example: if one buys the bikini zone bump stopper first, then the cocoa butter, then the shot glass and finally the action figures what freakiness is going down that night? I would suggest that said purchases suggest fixing up one's kitty, then lotioning up, putting on the lingerie (most likely from Cacique) filling up the shot glasses with some cognac as a lubricant for the evening's events, and placing the action figures on the end table as totems/fetishes to enhance sexual potency (you know dude is going hard that night and needs some superman strength).
What am I missing? In what order would you suggest these items be used? Do you have any photos to share of local Obama X-Mas madness from you 'hood?
Saturday, December 19, 2009
Avatar is An Ode to White Guilt or Avatar is Like a Beautiful Woman Who You Lose Interest in the Minute After You Sleep with Her
Avatar is a beautiful movie that is best suited as a premier display piece for home theater systems on the floor of Best Buy. It is an amazing technical accomplishment. Avatar's 3d effects are the stuff of imagination--truly redefining for the genre of action and sci-fi film. But as often is the failing of beautiful things, Avatar has nothing new to offer. In its synthetic story we have seen elements recycled--elements done far better elsewhere. Likewise, in reading the overly enthusiastic praise offered by professional critics, and observing how some in the audience cheered and looked wide eyed at Cameron's display of technical brilliance as though it were a thing never seen before, I smiled.
It was not a smile of condescension, what I like to call "geek contrariness" where folks just want to be "haters" as to appear smart and witty. No, I was thinking of Lloyd Bentsen, the 1992 Vice Presidential Democratic Candidate and his ownage of Dan Quayle in their debate. There Quayle alluded to JFK. Bentsen looked at the baby faced, dim witted candidate (a male Sara Palin before her reign of terror over the know-nothings and willfully ignorant Right-wing Populists) and smiled. He replied: Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.
In that spirit, I must proclaim the following: Avatar, I know Star Wars. I love Star Wars. Avatar, you are no Star Wars.
I will dispense with a more detailed review of the movie except to offer the following--read any review of the film Dances with Wolves and substitute Avatar for the latter. While Costner's epic is far more enjoyable (Wolves is an "A" film, Avatar is "C+" at best), the general review will read the same. As to avoid redundancy, I offer the following questions and observations:
1. How much white guilt and colonial fantasy is present in Avatar? White human guy can go and become an alien, return to his human body, expose the wickedness of his human brethren toward the noble savages, and then lead a revolt against the evil human corporate henchmen. Second thought: did anyone else catch the phrase "race traitor" flippantly thrown about in the film? Third thought: while I am ashamed to admit it, I love Colonel Quaritch's proclamation that, "We will blast a crater in their racial memory so deep they won't come within a thousand clicks of here ever again!" If I ever get into fisticuffs with an ign't again in my life, I am going to scream that phrase as I beat them into submission.
How many articles, critical essays, and reviews are going to be written just on that one element of the film--the colonial imagination--ten, twenty, thirty? How many are going to be worth reading? I am getting my outline ready as we speak.
2. Are the Na'Vi supposed to be Masai warriors? Tell me the resemblance is not uncanny. Easter egg: "Na'Vi" is "Native" minus "E.T." Cool move.
3. On the white guilt point, so the Na'Vi take into their community a representative of their enemies, who learns their culture in three months, mates with an heiress to the tribe's leadership, rises to lead all the Na'Vi peoples against the human invaders, and gives poor said aliens agency enough to fight back. Come on! Talk about the white man's burden redux.
4. I will concede that the Na'Vi got some soul with their fiber optic lovemaking and magic swaying to and fro under the mystical tree. In fact, the Na'Vi's music sounded like something off of a world music soundtrack one could buy at Starbucks. But for my dollar, I prefer the Ewok celebration at the end of Jedi:
5. Final music point: when will John Horner stop recycling music from Glory and Willow?
6. For a spot on deconstruction of white guilt in Avatar (she beat me to it) see Annalee Newitz's piece on the great site Io9.
7. How fitting is the following? The Marines have the following saying of which they are quite proud: "Join the Marines, Travel to Exotic Distant Lands, Meet Exotic People and Kill Them." Mate some Greenpeace ethos with the spirit of the above slogan and you have Avatar summed up quite nicely.
8. How many movies and classic sci-fi novels does Avatar unsuccessfully borrow from? I count the following: Forever War; Old Man War; Dune; District 9; Aliens; Dances with Wolves; A Man Called Horse; Final Fantasy; Last Samurai; Pocahontas; New World; Zulu; Tarzan; Ferngully; the Star Wars Trilogy. What did I miss, Captain Planet?
9. I am not hating on synthetic films--I love Tarantino for example. What is so troubling to me is how Cameron has such an eye for detail in this film and has created such a wondrous planet (the world of the Na'vi is so beautiful and well thought out, the lack of innovation in terms of narrative is made painfully obvious by comparison). Furthermore, the glowing errors of reasoning and exposition in other aspects of Avatar is a glaring oversight as well. This leads us to...
10. I am a gearhead, ghetto geek. In layman's terms this means I pay attention to military hardware, strategy, and tactics in my films. To point: did the mercs in Avatar graduate from a correspondence course? Why wouldn't they simply destroy the Na'Vi from orbit? Why would they bring in their capital ships within close range of their enemies? Thus, sacrificing all their advantages of firepower and technology? Some other thoughts. Why can't the military simply turn off what is basically an elaborate wi-fi connection between the operators and the avatars? Who would invest money in such a technology without including a kill switch?
Yes, it is a film. But, Cameron could give us a wink in the narrative to explain this error in reasoning. Was there something about the planet that demanded they come in close to fight it out with some dirty boxing?
11. Second gearhead point: so the humans can travel between stars, cover light years of distance, and master transferring human consciousness into a host body, but we can't make a type of transparent steel that can stop arrows and spears? Just thinking aloud...
12. I am not a hater. Colonel Quaritch is a badass. As proof of my allegiance to the Clan Quaritch, I will most certainly dress as our leader next Halloween.
13. Does Avatar take place in the same universe as Cameron's Aliens films?
14. On Quaritch again, the knife his mech pulled out was 10 kinds of awesome! Did anyone else notice the engraving on the blade? Was it a prize taken from a fallen Na'Vi warrior?
15. How great will Robotech be if shot using Cameron's 3d technology?
16. What did you love about the movie? What did you hate? Were you as disappointed as I was? Or have I lost the eyes and heart of my 12 year old self as demonstrated by my inability to appreciate the wondrous genius that is Avatar?
Thursday, December 17, 2009
Barack Obama's Post-Racial America: "The Heckler," Georgetown University's Newspaper Jokes About Lynchings and KKK Violence Against Black People
Enter the joyous rites of passage for college students everywhere: the annual ritual where undergraduates hold "ghetto" parties in blackface/dress up like "Mexicans" for "crossing the border parties"/or more generally act like racially myopic asses. Of course, no "offense" is ever intended. And of course, any folk who complain are being "overly sensitive." Over the years, I have witnessed events such as these as a college student (and activist), administrator, and instructor. Interestingly, the repeated note in the controversy surrounding these tasteless episodes is denial--"we didn't know any better! we didn't know that dressing up in blackface was offensive. I/We/Me/Us have black/brown/yellow/red friends. We can't possibly be racists."
Because intention is THE qualifier for racism, none of these good wholesome American "kids" ever mean any harm. My thought: how did the bar get set so low? When should intentionality enter into the equation for personal responsibility and culpability in these cases? My second thought: how can other people's kids get this most generous benefit of the doubt? Where the best of their intentions is always the default rule for assigning responsibility for any error or shortcoming in behavior or decision-making?
Ultimately, episodes where racial terrorism becomes somehow made into harmless humor and satire speaks to a deep myopia and willful ignorance about this country's history. Ironically, the purveyors of this tasteless claptrap are reconfigured as the real "victims," victims of "political correctness," "overly sensitive minorities and liberals," and reverse racism.
And of course these good white college kids wouldn't dare make allusions such as the following:
"In addition to the cross lighting, The Hoya drove the idea home by hanging dark, human-shaped piñatas from Dahlgren’s trees, representing the demons of the past. Georgetown President John J. DeGioia was on hand to witness the ceremony, and his young son was allowed to take a bat to the piñatas, which eventually gave way to a stream of crimson confetti and candy."
Nah. Good, white, college kids would never joke about the murder, debasement, and evisceration of many thousands of black people (and sometimes Jews, as well as Catholics) as they hung like strange fruit from many a tree, in the center of fairgrounds, or off of public monuments. Good white college kids would never print a newspaper article where domestic terrorism was made light of as the stuff of good fun and sport. Moreover, these same good, white, college kids would have the good sense to not make light of the whiteness of terror evoked by the robes of the KKK as the harmless "ghosts of Christmas past."
It would never happen, especially in the Age of Obama. Most importantly, the KKK and Jim Crow was sooooo long ago they doesn't really matter anymore--except to those crazy liberals and racial ambulance chasers who care about such things.
Critiquing the sense of entitlement necessary to find joy in another group's suffering (and to ask these students to reflect upon how racial violence against people of color has also damaged the White Soul) is simply to high a standard to hold. Thus, to call the editors and staff of The Georgetown Heckler to the carpet is both self-righteous and unfair to these good white kids who really meant not harm. Right?
DAHLGREN QUAD—After a challenging year during which Georgetown’s main newspaper saw a last-minute revocation of its independence from the University and extended fallout over its annual April Fool’s issue, The Hoya came together this Friday for its annual cross lighting.
Since the 1930s, the Christmas cross has stood next to Georgetown’s official Christmas tree and is meant to be a reminder of the religious importance of the holiday that the newspaper felt was already slipping from the cultural consciousness during the Roosevelt administration. The Hoya still uses the original green and red light-bulb-studded metal frame of the cross from the first cross lighting, but its wood body has had to be replaced every year since 1941 because faulty electrical wiring causes the wood to catch fire.
“I think we needed this tradition more than ever,” said Campus News Editor Marshall McKinley (SFS ’11). “Seeing our crappy little cross struggle to light up and then spark and catch on fire was the first time in a while we’ve been able to laugh.”
The event began Friday with the staff’s traditional procession under the dark of night from the Leavey Center, with everyone wearing the traditional costume of a flowing white robe, white hood, and white mask, portraying the “ghosts of Christmas past.”
“It’s a time to remember our great tradition, but it’s also a time to remember some of the darkness that hangs over our past,” Hoya Features Editor Emma Richards (COL ’12) said. “It feels cathartic to put on this white hood. It’s about us coming together as one and exterminating these dark figures of the past that seem to loom over us.”
Added Richards,” We’ve been slaving over this ceremony for weeks and it’s great to see it running so smoothly.”
In addition to the cross lighting, The Hoya drove the idea home by hanging dark, human-shaped piñatas from Dahlgren’s trees, representing the demons of the past.
Georgetown President John J. DeGioia was on hand to witness the ceremony, and his young son was allowed to take a bat to the piñatas, which eventually gave way to a stream of crimson confetti and candy.
One of the hooded figures, apparently new Editor-in-Chief Paul Buckley (COL ’11), gave a short speech to the crowd. “From now on we go forward free of the black marks on our past,” he said. “We stand here united in these pure white robes and realize we are now pure and whi—upright, standing on our feet as a newspaper once again.”
In one final act of symbolic ceremony, Buckley took off his robe and rubbed his face and arms in shoe polish. “I is the stupid dark demon that be hauntin’ you!” he yelled in a strange voice. “Be smart and independent and pure, young Hoya staffers!” He was clubbed to the ground with plastic bats.
Finally the huge burning cross was extinguished with a fire hose, but first the hose somehow malfunctioned and shot water at members of the Black Student Alliance who were walking back from a meeting, knocking them over and causing injuries.
Saturday, December 12, 2009
We are truly a society too sick to survive.
I may have desires to be an Internet celebrity. But to my credit, I have never cut a promo or commentary while in the bathtub. Why? Primarily, baths are disgusting and foul ventures. One sits in their own filth and is expected to somehow emerge cleansed. Yuck! the time for denial is over, baths are just nasty. As a corollary, I would rank the "romantic" bath with one's lover as only slightly more objectionable and disappointing than the hot lovemaking in the shower fantasy that so many of my lady friends have harbored--someone always ends up cold and I will be damned if it is going to be me. Given my hedonistic ways, if I would/have/will continue to reject sexing it up in the shower or bathtub--even with Sarita Choudhury, Bai Ling, Rihanna, or Rosario Dawson (although I would certainly watch these water nymphs bathe while reading poetry to them while perched on the commode as a precursor to an epic lovemaking session)--imagine how I feel about issuing edicts on the public happenings of the day while in the bathroom. Such deeds are simply uncivilized.
1. Is dude serious? Or is he an exhibitionist?
2. What's next? Blogging and podcasting while dropping a deuce?
3. Why is he from my adopted hometown of Chicago? Why?
4. Where is the shame Lord? Has shame simply left our society as a positive and moderating influence on human behavior?
5. Random geeky question: How would Jurgen Habermas or Walter Lippman analyze the above exercise in expanding the public sphere and communicative democracy?