Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Political Race? How Does this Respectable Negro Relate to Woody Allen?

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?
Ultimately, what is blackness? How do/does/could a working class black kid find resonance and shared experience with a white ethnic kid like Woody Allen (who grew up many decades before)? How is the black experience depicted as such a narrow thing in the popular imagination that experiences such as the above are all too often put on the margins as somehow being inauthentic?

So many questions that I could not resist asking.


gordon gartrelle said...

I really thought this was going to be about Allen's (in)ability to write black characters and/or his possibly fetishistic admiration for black ballers and jazz musicians...Chitlins and Gefilte Fish stuff. But this works too.

Cobb said...

..the other day, i saw a video with steven speilberg talking about the first time he saw 'lawrence of arabia' and then he started talking, very casually but animatedly about his experiences at the movies when he was a kid.

that same day, i found out that guy ritchie is making a documentary about bruce lee and ll cool j is one of the interviewees.

so i started thinking about how it was that i came to be watching bruce lee movies and what it meant to me.. and it turned out to be a story about summer school in 1974.

i could talk for 90 minutes about summer school in 1974 - it was the first time that i as a black kid of 13 years old went to school with white kids.

so i'm going to make those kinds of videos, as if i were as important as speilberg and my childhood memories are worth watching video about.

if i don't do it. it won't get done.

chaunceydevega said...

@Gordon-let's get on the second installment of that project when you are ready. shall we call it dradels (sp?) and pigs feet?

@Cobb--I second you on doing your own stories. For those unconventional we have to make sure our voice is known as being equally authentic.