Monday, December 10, 2012

Why? CNN's "Black in America" and NPR's "State of the Re:Union" Offer Up a Potpourri of Tragic Mulattoes Before a National Audience

Again, thanks to you good folks who contributed to our donation drive. I appreciate all of you. If things continue for a week or so, I will be going home to see Mama DeVega. After kids, Starbucks, and Black Peter, if you have a dollar or two, throw it in to support your favorite respectable negro troublemaker blogger during our first annual fundraising drive.

Something to start the week.
Watching CNN, and listening to NPR on Sunday night, reminded me that Imitation of Life was not just a movie or a play; for many of us, such stories of racial identity, confusion, denial, and shame are all too real.

CNN's special on colorism and mixed race identity went as expected. It profiled many maladjusted young black people who would fail any brown paper bag test, yet have an almost pathological obsession with wanting to be white. I was laughing at the TV screen during the show because these brown complected black folks, who desperately want to "pass," would have been better suited for a skit on Chappelle's Show, than discussing matters of "race" and "culture" on national television.

As an antidote to such tragic mulattoes, Soledad O'Brien's Black in America special also profiled some well-adjusted black people who understand that race is a fiction. Despite the "race" of their not black parent, they understand that the one drop rule prevails in the United States, and these individuals gain strength and grounding from their identities as Black Americans. 

By comparison, NPR's State of the Re:Union ran a much more powerful and important show on Sunday night. All aspects of the sad and twisted American obsession with race, and how it has damaged all of us, were on clear display there.  

There is a cruel and plain truth which ties CNN's "Black in America", and NPR's "Pike County, Ohio: As Black as We Wish to Be", together. 

Being "black" is a social, economic, political, and social liability in the United States. Blackness is fetishized, desired, coveted, and wanted by non-whites. But, no one really wants to be black. Why should they? If one is assessing life chances, wealth, social stigma, risk, danger, and the added stress and anxiety that comes with being a black American--or another person of color (to varying degrees)--who would opt in to such an arrangement?

The young tragic mulattoes on CNN understand this fact. The black people who can pass for white in Pike County, Ohio certainly understand this fact: there, one of them even states that being black in America is too difficult, and who would want to be such a thing? 

Thus, a provocative question: would any "rational" actor choose to be black (or not white) in America? Would a self-interested, utility maximizing person, with complete information, choose such a racial identity? Are those black people who dare to pass for white--their cowardice being noted--just doing the "smart" and "rational" thing? Should they be condemned for such a "logical" and pragmatic decision? Are those who cannot cross over just envious of those who can?

A story.

When I was about nine years old, me and a friend, both of us black were wandering around the neighborhood in-between bouts of mischief--throwing rocks at cars, setting fires, chasing girls around the neighborhood with dog poop on a stick--and would fill these moments with the types of profound, deep, and intellectual conversations befitting young "men" of our age. 

I asked my friend,  "would he choose to be white?" 

My friend meditated for a moment on the question and said "no" because he would not know how to act. We went back and forth a bit more, reasoning as 9 year old boys do about the ways of the world. Our conclusion was that being black gave us more character and courage than the white kids had because we had to work harder for the same things. Black people were also pretty tough given all the stuff that had been done to us, and we were still here trying to do the right thing. The answer seemed right at the time.

He was cool people. I found out years later that he either died, became homeless, ended up on drugs, got killed because of some gang business and a woman, or some combination of all those things. Either way he was gone. 

His brother got the "bug" from heroine, what we now call AIDS, and died. His mom was on drugs too when we were kids. I didn't realize that at the time. She was nice too and then passed on. Their house was filthy. I never said anything because he was my friend, and I was raised to respect people who were good to you and let you in their house. 

He liked to eat at my house for dinner. Now I realize why my mother and father always invited him over. I think that one time I caught my father, who was homeless as a kid, secretly giving him some money during one time when he was looking especially  raggedy and dirty. I buy homeless people food and give them money during the holidays. I probably got that habit from my dad.

As an adult, I now also realize why my mom would make sure that my friend got invited to my birthday parties, or bought him sodas or ice cream when she and I would go for our nightly walk, and he happened to always just show up spontaneously. When you are bit older and wiser you realize things that childhood innocence protected you from.

My friend and his family also had a great and nice dog named Sport. He was a big German Shepherd who would playfully fight with my dog Bandit. It was all the type of rough housing that dogs who live a few houses away tend to do. Neither got hurt. Their tails wagged the whole time, and then they licked each other's faces and came back to play the next day. One day my friend and his family were all gone. 

My mom always regretted that they didn't give Sport to us to keep. We worried that he was abandoned and/or put down. We would have taken care of him. He was a good dog. I know that Bandit would not have minded--he was magnanimous and regal that way. 

Even in those seemingly race neutral moments, I also remember my parents saying that we as black folks should try to do right by each other. That even included our pets. 

This was not a claim that we should not do right by our white brothers and sisters in the human family. I think it was something more basic about imagined kinship, respectability, shared identity, and the power of those types of connections for black people, historically.

The language was never explicitly used in such a way at the time; but, now that I have such a vocabulary, it seems to make sense.

Looking back, I reason that like most children, my friend and I had internalized what our parents and role-models had taught us about what it meant to be black in America.

I know that I am not alone in having had similar conversations about race.

Were those of us who had such exchanges just noble fools? Or should our answer have been "hell yes" to the prospect of choosing to be white in America? Would the path be that much easier? 


Daddy Squeeze Me! said...

I did not like when the children on the Soledad special said, "I do not want to be dark black because it's ugly." That was an ouch for me because I am trying to figure out just how they come to form that. I mean I have a dark skinned young niece who has expressed some of those same feelings towards her lighter cousins. I really blame kids media such as Disney Channel and Nickelodeon for these shows with mostly young white starring actors and actresses looking overly made up and in all the latest styles. I think they form it from figuring that if none of the beautiful ones look like them, then they must some how be too ugly to have possess such things. Most of the children's shows are super duper white. There is usually a black kid every few shows, but he or she is typically sassy black girl or hippy hopper cool black boy that raps on the side. It's just shameful that there is hardly no escape for them.

nomad said...

It's a shame that it has to be that way but I don't think of any black that can and chooses to pass for white are cowards. They are pragmatic.

"Being "black" is a social, economic, political, and social liability in the United States." Never has the condition of blacks in America been explained more concisely. Who would choose to live with a liability if they don't have to?

The question of whether you would want to be black or white is like asking if you'd want to be you are someone else. It's not the white skin that black deniers want. The white skin is the symbol of what we all want. They have simply conflated the symbol with the thing that it represents. They think they want to be white. But they really don't. They want what white people have. The freedom to not be discriminated against for something as arbitrary as skin color. It is a completely meaningless valuation factor; and yet it is the supreme one in this society. It's like judging and choosing a car not on its actual performance capabilities. Rating them and pricing them according to their color scheme disregarding whether were Geos or Porsches.

No, I could never say, I wanted to be white. Even if I was capable of passing (before the 20th C it would have been a different story). Too many familial and cultural connections. But it would be a pragmatic choice, not an act of cowardice. What I would say is I want what white people have. Freedom from discrimination against my paint job.

CNu said...

Looking back, I reason that like most children, my friend and I had internalized what our parents and role-models had taught us about what it meant to be black in America.

That first black speaker of the house must be from somewhere around Pike county Ohio...,

But seriously, I took the little boy to the barber shop on Saturday afternoon to get his head tightened up for the holiday season. He has his barber's phone number, and she treats him like a little king. Typically we go in so early in the morning that we never see anybody but his barber, but being that it was late in the day, the shop was full and Mme. Phyllis herself was holding court.

Barber shop conversation being what it is, the subject of Tyler Perry came up, specifically Tyler Perry as Alex Cross and Phyllis decided to put me on the spot by asking my opinion. I responded that I don't watch anything under the Tyler Perry imprimatur EVER - and that in my occasionally humble opinion, Tyler Perry sets black folk back about 100 years, so no Medea, no Alex Cross, no chitlin-circuit Tyler Perry anything - I'm not interested.

You'da thunk I had said Jesus was a mushroom.

Phyllis was genuinely upset with me, and said point blank, "you barely black anyway, so how you qualified to know" - to which the regal octogenarian woman in her chair getting her snow white afro shaped high and tight into a crown smiled at me broadly and winked.

I laughed, being a gentleman, (and having to set an example for my son) and elected not to go in on Phyllis jherri curl or spitefully quipping on her "blacker-than-thou" bona fides - I simply stated that my preferences ran to an older school model of dignified deportment and behavior. That I was more in the Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Calvin Lockhart school of black masculine deportment.

At that point, one of the younger brothers in the shop thundered "They call me Mr. Tibbs!", cracking everybody up, and turning the intraracial thermostat back down to its appropriate levity setting.

The old lady who clearly approved of my disdain for Tyler Perry said, "see, somebody raised that boy correctly" and he affirmed that he watched movies with his grandmother.

CNu said...


The old lady's daughter decided she'd take a swipe at defending Tyler Perry, but prefaced that with the assertion "pay her no heed, she's senile" - which frankly was both rude and outlandish.

Old lady denied that she was senile, and asserted, "I'm just selective and tired of stupid!!!" - things were heating up all over again.

My son was enrapt, eyes big as saucers watching grown folks talk.

The defense/justification of Tyler Perry began and ended with "he's better than the gangsta rappers, he's creating jobs for black folk in Atlanta, white folks go to Medea movies and eat that stuff up with a spoon".

Chuckling, I replied that the fact of "white folks eating that stuff up makes it no different than gangsta rap, that in fact, gangsta rap and chitlin circuit share something in common inasmuch as both depict black folks in a less than flattering light and so it's almost to be expected that white folks will eat that stuff up. Unlike gangsta rap which is a Madison Ave. monopoly production, Tyler Perry has full editorial control over his work product and could/should do better. The monopolist moneymakers on Madison Ave. who contrived and maintain gangsta are no friends to black folks, and in his own stereotype selling way, by catering to those tastes, Tyler Perry is no friend to black folks either."

I could tell that I hadn't won either Mme. Phyllis or her 60-something contemporary over with my argument, but the octogenarian lady and the two young men in the barbershop (one a barber and one a customer) were nodding in vigorous agreement with my position.

My son's barber stayed diplomatically out of it, not wanting to come between me and her boss Mme. Phyllis.

At this point, we all agreed to disagree and conversation turned to last week's Kansas City chief murder-suicide.

All-in-all, I thought my son was exposed to an interesting and mildly entertaining vignette of what it still means to be black in America.

A. Ominous said...

A) Wait. You dissed TP in a BARBER SHOP? Fearless shit indeed!

B) Re: Sidney and Harry and Calvin and Bill and Nishelle, et al: I always thought the must nuanced/dignified/admirable presentation of Black in mainstream media belonged to a guy who came *after* that: Tim Reid... esp. in "Frank's Place". The humanely-ironic intelligence of Tim's character in that series was beautiful... and never (to my knowledge) repeated.

But that TP/Barbershop debacle points to something that has bothered me from the beginning: the materialist/bourgeois ceiling on Black aspiration. There are finer things than money and deeper metrics of Success than number-of-piles of same... the lack of a Black Avant Garde (worth speaking of) is tied to this lower-to-middle-brow obsession with Bling. And today's Avant Garde is tomorrow's paradigm shift. Where is Ours? Despite our funky reputation, we are often some Conservative Muthas.

A. Ominous said...

erratum: "most"

CNu said...

Other than to glancingly catch a couple episodes, (I remember "To miss New Orleans") I was young and single and loved to mingle entirely too much to have followed any series during Frank's Place's run.

There are finer things than money and deeper metrics of Success than number-of-piles of same... the lack of a Black Avant Garde (worth speaking of) is tied to this lower-to-middle-brow obsession with Bling.

Are there any other factors you consider germaine to the demise of cultures of competence?

See, the death of Dave Brubeck last week put me onto this little ditty right'chere, followed in close succession by my man Spence's pithier Marsalian take on the same.

I also came across a documentary about God which got me to recalling things my mother (a classicly trained pianist/baptist church trained organist who lived in Toledo during this era) had said about his holy name.

99.99% of my frown, and wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold disdain (mischaracterized as anti-black racism) is rooted in despair at the extent to which black popular culture no longer aspires to mastery - and is instead supersaturated with trifling mediocrity - which ersatz activity is now accepted as somehow masterful!!!

A. Ominous said...

"I was young and single and loved to mingle entirely too much to have followed any series during Frank's Place's run."

I had some spectacular "in-house" _____ (pictures available by request) at that time so we'd sometimes catch things as diverse as "Frank's Place" and "The Wonder Years". This was still a few years before the idiot box went flying out my window.

"Are there any other factors you consider germaine to the demise of cultures of competence?"

Oh sure, but I'm thinking beyond competence or even mastery, here... I'm thinking about glorious, heroic experiments in worldview-extending "failure"! And the Successes that eventually (inevitably) accrue from that kind of gratuitous curiosity and trailblazing.

The culture of Culture is dead along with Brubeck. The fastbuck culture of porno and violence took over and, as ever, the canaries (or heckles and jeckles) in the coal mine are hardest hit first.

I can't even convince well-educated, upper-middle-class White Liberals of long acquaintance to reevaluate their values (did any issue other than The Economy mean *anything* to them, this last "election"?)... how would I try with people who've never read a book, played a musical instrument or stepped inside a museum?

RE: the Gaga problem: I blame 1) drum machines and 2) ProTools.

A. Ominous said...

this here the shit been curlin' my toes of late

A. Ominous said...

One more off piste riff: my favorite available version of it, after the guys had aged a bit into the fame of the tune… Desmond swatting the notes away from his axe with Olympian disdain!

CNu said...

Doubtless savored in all it's unredacted analog perfection?

Ludwig-muhphuggin-Van...., I just loaded up a bunch of ludwig van on my boy's Android phone and tablet - explaining to him all the while that digital audio-reproduction sucks - but that anything beats that drivel he listens to online (with one guilty exception) - anyway -

try'na find a perfect mix of offline content to seed onto several hundred tablets I'll be issuing for a one-to-one pilot project I'm directing next semester.

I want the kids to listen to some good music whilst they read some good books under the covers at night - with or without a connection to the Internet.

You know what, I'ma tap into some of the deep resources available in the community and see if I can get some collaborators willing to spend some time with the chirrens in the context of making the device a seductive mobile window into a cultivated alternate reality.

A. Ominous said...

1) if only it were analog... my golden age turntable pleads in a fading voice from its perch on the armoire but I avert my gaze and hurry by on the way to the underwear

2) licensed content or bootleg? (laugh)

3) Either way, I approve

A. Ominous said...

MMF very interesting

A. Ominous said...

RE: Ludwig and suchlike: here’s something to tune the Offsprung in to! (did we talk about this already? I am, after all, senile ‘n shit)

A. Ominous said...

[Yipes, CnU... I see you've got your very own racist troll on your blog, too; funny that only the super-articulate bloggers of color seem to attract them]

CNu said...

This an entirely new one on me magne, thanks!

A. Ominous said...

happy to spread the woid!

CNu said...

I see you've got your very own racist troll on your blog, too


I fired his putrid old raisin yesterday. Gonna have to go and find me a new poster child for unrepentant knuckledragging.

nomad said...

"Frank's Place". Forgot all about that. Best black TV show of all times.

A. Ominous said...

good stuff

A. Ominous said...

even better stuff

A. Ominous said...

even better stuff 2

nomad said...

Just peeped some of it.
"Tough is being poor in the hood"!!!
Brother not lyin.

Tim Reid said...

I've often wondered what the culture of Black America would look like on TV today if Frank's Place had been allowed to continue for 3 or 4 years. I am
deeply saddened by the level of mediocrity that is delivered daily to our digitally enhanced receiving devices.
It's as if we have allowed the racial essences to be sucked out from within our souls. The incredible history of one of the greatest surviving cultures the world has ever known has been reduced to an urban caricature that bears little resemblance to what centuries of freedom fighters hoped we would become.
Frankly, I am ashamed, and I spend many awakened hours trying to improve my character and those over whom I may have a measure of influence. It's the kind of thing Frank Parish would have done.

nomad said...

You're kidding right? If not I want your autograph. Who's Frank Parish?

chaunceydevega said...

@TimReid. Are you THE Tim Reid? If so this is a small world and your work was/is much appreciated. We do need to chat if this is the case as I do not want such a wonderful opportunity to go by unfulfilled and not acted upon.

A. Ominous said...

I can confirm that this is, indeed, THE real Tim Reid, ya'll!

@Tim Reid:

I loved Frank Parish in 1987 and I caught him on YouTube in a ten-minute clip last night and I loved him even more (knowing what we all now know). Was it a struggle creating and maintaining one of the few (if not only) non-caricature Black characters in mainstream media?

nomad said...

Ooohhhh. Parrish was his last name! Silly me.

nomad said...

"Frankly". (chuckle)

Anonymous said...

All mixed race blacks and blacks in general need to start discussing real issues in the black community not this antebellum crap. The sexual slave and human trafficking crisis in america. Ban Rhianna from TV. Bust illegal sex crime brothels in Raleigh North Carolina. Bust the black pimps that abduct ,lure, and sell black women into sex slavery. WAKE UP BLACK NATION.