Sunday, December 27, 2009

and they say "these are our heroes"...

"Let's hear it, one for the coons on UPN 9 and WB
Who 'Yes Massa' on TV, what ever happened to Wheezy?
The Red Fox's? Never got Emmy's but were real to me
Let's hear it, two for the spooks who do cartwheels
'Cause they said they played they parts well
Now they claim caviar, hate that oxtail
Lambda Sigma Phi badge on lapel
Whitey always tell him, "Ooh, he speak so well"
Are you the one we look to, the decent Negro?
The acceptable Negro -- hell nah
But they say, "These are our heroes"...

Since 1998, Tiger Woods has taken over the role of the world’s most popular and widely-recognized recognized athlete, amassing earnings of more than $1Billion USD since turning professional in 1996. However, while Mr. Woods may enjoy worldwide name recognition, he has always maintained a detached relationship with the general public, rarely allowing his thoughts or opinions to deviate from the corporate image carved out for him by agents and handlers. After Tiger Woods won the Masters Tournament, in 1996, the 21-year-old golf phenom was touted as the Great Black Hope, the putter-wielding equivalent of Martin Luther King Jr. Pundits waxed poetic about the cosmic social significance of Woods' feat. Coinciding with the 50th anniversary celebrations of Jackie Robinson's breaking of baseball's color line, Woods' coronation as the Black Prince of the Country Club gave America a chance to engage in its favorite ritual, the recitation of warm racial platitudes. While blacks celebrated the triumph of one of their own in a lily-white sport, whites wiped away tears and congratulated themselves on their remarkable progress.

And then Tiger Woods said he wasn't actually "black" at all -- he was "Cablinasian", a term of self-definition he completely made up. Woods made his remarks on "Oprah," when asked if it bothered him to be called an African-American. "It does," he said. "Growing up, I came up with this name: I'm a 'Cablinasian.'" As in Caucasian-black-Indian-Asian. Woods has a Black/Native American/White father and a Thai/Chinese mother. "I'm just who I am," Woods told Oprah Winfrey, "whoever you see in front of you." Woods' remarks infuriated many African Americans including Colin Powell who, responding to Woods' comments stated that "In America, which I love from the depths of my heart and soul, when you look like me, you're black".

Yes, Tiger Woods is a brand name. Woods is certainly the world's greatest golfer and arguably the world's greatest athlete, the head of Tiger Inc., a celebrity without parallel with the money that comes with that. Only lately has the negative fallout from his secret infidelity begun to hit home: lost corporate sponsors, a stunning golf career on hold, and most of all, a marriage and family in jeopardy. His media image is inflated beyond his real self. Commercially, he has become less than he really is.

A cardboard representative on primetime television ads always dressed in Nike sportswear, holding a bottle of Gatorade and shaving with a Gillette razor. These are banal activities. Tiger took every bit of the money his image delivered. And not to sound too cliché: but with great rewards come great responsibility. That's the deal. You can't have one without the other. You can't have your image beamed relentlessly into everyone's living room, magazine, airport lounge and then expect people not to be intrigued with your life. But more troubling than the mere reality of existing in the public domain solely as a corporate characature is the lack of any relevant opinion or political stance in anything relevant in any sociopolitical realm. And Tiger Woods is certainly not the only athlete not to take a marked social stance on important global issues. When presented with the opportunity during the 2008 Beijing Olympics to comment upon China-Sudan relations, in which China supplies the Sudanese government with money and weapons ans China, in turn, imports Sudanese oil, Lebron James chose to remain silent.

Sure, big-name athletes always have endorsed products since Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle. Wheaties boxes have features athletes for decades. But in his groundbreaking shoe deal with Nike, Michael Jordan became the first true athletic corporate figure.

In 1980s, when asked about his thoughts on the Senatorial race in his home state of North Carolina that featured a black democratic mayor from Charlotte named Harvey Gantt, whom was an acquiantance, Jordan offered: “Republicans buy sneakers, too”. To stand for nothing in society, to function as a blank slate, a mere tabula rusa for corporate interests, has severe consequences when the behavior of athletes runs counter to their Madison Avenue image. Little is known about the thoughts, views and opinions of an individual like Tiger Woods so it is hard to be sympathetic to an individual who has maintained such as inhumanely distant façade during his professional career. His very public fall from grace has been the only semblance of non-scripted behavior in his entire public life.

Woods’ exile may last three months or it may last three years. But one thing is certain: Unlike the 24-hour wall-to-wall sleaze that’s dominated the airwaves since the initial revelations of Woods’ infidelity, this is actual news. After 14 years of being protected by the press, the Tiger has become carrion. And now, the greatest golfer in history is walking away. Unwillingly or unable to relate to his fans or the general public en masse, while shilling product after product in hopes of getting this very same public to buy merchandise, Tiger Woods has elicited less sympathy, while simultaneously being abandoned by some of his corporate sponsors and the media.

The jury is out on whether Tiger’s retreat makes him more sympathetic. But years from now when we look back at this saga, I hope we remember that Woods didn’t choose to leave golf until his sponsors left him. Woods announced his departure on Dec. 11. He hadn’t been on a prime time commercial since Nov. 29, three days after the accident, according to the Nielson Company. The “global consulting company” Accenture dropped him from the homepage of their Web site. AT&T told him not to call. Gillette similarly has severed ties. Nearly every part of Tiger Woods Inc. sized up his moment of desperate need and, instead of offering solidarity and support, ran for cover, except for Nike whose Nike Golf sales and Tiger Woods branded apparel are almost entirely dependent on him.
Tiger’s partnership with the habitual toxic waste dumpers Chevron and the financial criminals in Dubai deserves far more scrutiny from the sports press than it’s received (none). Then there was the Philippines. As detailed in the documentary “The Golf War,” the Filipino government, in conjunction with the military and developers, attempted in the late '90s to remove thousands of peasants from their land, known as Hacienda Looc, to build a golf course. They resisted and three movement leaders ended up dead. Where was Woods? He was brought in by the government to play in an exhibition match and sell golf (though not explicitly the course), all for an undisclosed fee. The government called it “The Day of the Tiger”.

“The Golf War” filmmakers show clips of Woods saying to kids, “I want all of you to learn and grow from this experience. Invariably you’re gonna learn life, gonna learn about life because golf is a microcosm of life.” "I reach out each and every day with my foundation," Woods said. "We don't focus on golf, because that's not the sole purpose of life. Life is not about hitting a high draw and a high fade. It's about being a better person each and every day and helping others. That's what life is all about. Is golf a part of people's lives? Yes, it's part of my life. But it's not the end of all things in my life."

He can be politically correct all he wants. But we're talking about golf, which he can directly influence. And the fact remains, there's fewer people of color playing golf at the highest level than when he started. Duke University anthropologist Orin Starn notes that "People have talked about this idea of Barack Obama as the so-called 'Magic Negro,' as a sort of black man who's expected to fix everything and to make everybody feel good about themselves with a magic wand to eliminate and make disappear the problems of racism, and poverty and conflict in America...And I think there's been this idea that Tiger should somehow be a kind of 'Magic Negro' for the PGA Tour, and that he should lift up his wand and somehow make golf into a more diverse and inclusive sport. I don't think this should be on him, at least exclusively". It's a shame that the person who can do the most to bridge the gap says, 'I made it. Now you make it,'" Payton says. "Instead he could say, 'Well this is what my daddy taught me. These are the drills. There are people that can be motivated to be Tiger Woods with a little help and encouragement from him. The people you idolize and emulate can have the greatest influence on what you're doing.

My father has taught me few things in life, partly due to his absence and partly due to his incoherence at times when speaking but I remember telling me "if you stand for nothing, you will fall for anything". I also remember hearing this in a song as well, probably Khujo from Goodie Mob, or maybe my mom said it, who knows. Point being, that a man with seemingly great amounts of influence, all the money in the world, and social power has chosen to not stand for anything. Nothing. Not even the wrong things. Let me take that back- all people know of Mr. Woods is that he can hit a golf ball, has two kids and a wife and cheats on her. That's it. And for that, I do not pity his fall from grace. There is something shallow in people who remain silent to remain beholdent to corporate partnerships while already possessing all the money in the world.

Of course, the well-off want to maintain the status quo because, quite frankly, the status quo is working for them. But then stay the hell off of the tv's and magazines hawking products no one needs like some sort of prostitute. MJ or Tiger Woods doesn't give a damn that excessive drinking of gatorade can cause damage to kidneys or that their products continue to be made in sweatshops. But I can deal with that, I fly on planes made by companies such as Boeing and Airbus that manufacture weapons that kill people half a world away. We are all guilty of buying and associating with products and brands have questionable ties in a global economy (Mercedes-Benz and Nazis, American/English multinational banks and the Slave Trade). But in a global society that is rapidly becoming divided upon class lines (whether a disproportionate number of higher class people also have a disproportionately similar skin tone and ethnic heritage) these global figures have the means to empower children who look similar to them even though their experiences and cultues may be different. So while Tiger has neglected the underprivledged youth that may revere him, his corporate sponsors who have crafted and molded his Tiger persona have abandoned him. Every corporate icon thinks their moment in the spotlight will last forever.

I am a marketer by education, my whole training was to create an image associated with a brand or product, out of nothing if need be. Marketing is high-class prostitution, go out there make me money and I will pay you a percentage what you bring in to the company. They can create new Tigers out of the most timid sheep. Black stripes on mocha-colored skin that often resembled Nike swooshes and shareholder stock options. Although shaped by Madison Avenue wolves since a youth, the wolfpack is now predictably abandoning its own (weakened) progeny. It is wolves' nature, what else could you expect? How is the public supposed to embrace a 'Cablinasian' that has fallen from grace? I don't know. He has handlers and agents and image consultants. There's real life to worry about, Nigerians and airlines, a country that is too indebted to provide people with health care but apparently can spare the loose change to launch campaigns in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Pakistan simultaneously. Plus, am more of a Pelé soccer fan anyway.

Friday, December 18, 2009

peau noire, masques blancs...

“Out of the blackest part of my soul, across the zebra striping of my mind, surges this desire to be suddenly white. I wish to be acknowledged not as black but as white" ~Frantz Fanon

Dedicado a Sammy Sosa:

From the leaders of early slave revolts on to W.E.B. Dubois, Carter G. Woodson, Malcolm X and Frantz Fanon, we have been passionately informed that the most devastating impact of the White man has been psychological. In their writings and speeches, they consistently cautioned us that,

“The key to the White man’s power and the major strategy used by him to remain dominant in the global power struggle of the modern world, has been in his uncanny ability to influence other people’s minds (cultures), and how they live and relate to one another”.

I am constantly reminded by interacting with different and travelling that the upper-class in Haiti teach their child French, not Kreyol, Puerto Rican elites send their children to Madrid or New York, not San Juan or Ponce, with it's distinctive tone and pronunciation of Spanish. Artists like Yinka Sinobare, of Nigerian descent, whose work critiques Victorian era British decadence and imperial policy, yet proudly an accept awards such as Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) and display it prominently after their name.

The intellectual assaults or the psychic violence aimed at controlling Black minds has surprisingly been well documented from at least 1829 when David Walker's "Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World" was first published in Boston. In the book "The Psychology of Blacks: An African Centered Perspective", authors Parham, White and Ajamu state that “The most daunting challenge that we face as African American people is not White supremacy ideology but a need for collective mental liberation". This is not to say that lives are not enriched by the collective cross-cultural exchange that has occurred in our era of Globalization.

However, when only one culture, when only one system of governance, language, "way of life", and customs are championed as the ultimate hegemonic prototype, you defeat the very diversity that is made possible by such as fluid, global exchange of ideas and thoughts. When you have predominantly one race, culture, or background in the seats of power, where one dialect or manner of dress is afforded a superior social power, the result is a denial of individuals outside of this power paradigm disavowing their own culture, their own history, their own phenotypical realities, to sometime dramatic effect.

Nigger, Coon, Jigaboo, Buck, Darkie, Pickaninny, Jezebel, Mammy, Aunt Jemima, Sambo, Buckwheat, and Uncle Tom are all powerful examples of negative racial stereotypes imposed on the psyche of African descended people from the outside. No other American group has suffered as many racial epithets as have Blacks generally. Whether in America, Brasil, or even Iraqi (yes, Iraq, there is an African-Iraqi population, read more about it, here) So who or what can honestly heal our deeply inflicted psychological scars? Who can really pay “reparations” on the Souls of Black Folk? Now, individuals like Sammy Sosa and the late Michael Jackson can do whatever they want to themselves. Companies like Vichy of Switzerland and Nivea of Germany can sell their Whitening products with advertisements such as the one below, toting the benefits of "whiteness" but unfortunately the schisms created by the systematic "lessing of" the beauty of the "other" leads to tragic consequences.

This problem is also prevalent in Latin America. For example, Brazil has the largest black population outside of the African continent at 90 million, which amounts to roughly half of its people. Yet, despite their conspicuous presence in society, black Brazilians face discrimination, poverty, and lower education and health standards than whites. According to a "racial atlas" created by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Federal University of Minas Gerais, 65 percent of the poor and 70 percent of the extremely poor in Brazil are of African descent.

In the Dominican Republic, Sammy Sosa's country of origin, people are overwhelmingly black: 90 percent have African ancestry, according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Yet only 11 percent identify themselves as black. And as UN experts found, there is "a profound and entrenched problem of racism and discrimination against such groups as Haitians, Dominicans of Haitian descent, and more generally against blacks within Dominican society". Such problems surfaced in the early 20th century, when Rafael Leónidas Trujillo took over as dictator in the Dominican Republic and, despite his grandmother being Haitian, systematically killed, it is estimated over 20,000 Haitians in the Dominican Republic. He is also known to have bleached his skin (and wear platform shoes-but that is neither here nor there).

A strong anti-Haitian sentiment is rooted in the country's history. Haiti is a former colonizer of the Dominican Republic, as was Spain. Yet, Dominicans only celebrate their independence from Haiti. The government has engaged in mass deportations of Haitians and at present citizenship is denied to Dominican-born children of so-called "illegal" Haitian immigrants. But a large reason for this hatred of Haitians is a denial of Dominicans' own African origin. Simply put, sometimes it is difficult to stare at oneself in the mirror. For years, under the Hispanidad movement, the government of the Dominican Republic emphasized the nation's white, Spanish and Catholic heritage, and conveniently left out the black part.

The Dominican Republic is a nation whose hairdressers are known for their hair-straightening prowess and most Dominican women get their hair straightened. Although dark folks are the overwhelming majority, black skin, wide noses and 'pelo malo' (bad hair) do not fit the standard of beauty. So, hair relaxers and skin whiteners are in, and people will call themselves a number of things, such as Indian, burned Indian, Moreno and cinnamon - anything but negro (the Spanish word), or black. This is what years of submerging your culture will do. It is only through a combination of strategic humility and strategic pursuit of self-interest in a determined effort to raise black people’s development — individually and collectively — that our millennium-old image problem will be addressed. It means recognising that we are in a hole (literally and perceptually) and then using any means necessary to climb out.

So what, some would argue. Sammy Sosa wants to whiten his skin and some folks want a tan. The problem with using tanning as a counter-argument to whitening is that it is a false dichotomy. If one was to assume that skin whitening and bleaching are merely exercises in cosmetics he or she would be spot-on. But skin whitening is mainly about power, as even its defenders citing "age-old traditions" explicitly concede; by this I mean the relative power of white skin in a world still dominated economically, politically and culturally by European and American frameworks of assumption of what constitutes progress, success and beauty. Even though both artificial and natural skin-tanning are growing in popularity in Asia and elsewhere (while studying in Japan, there is a youth culture called 'ganguro', which literally means 'black skin' and hyper tanning salons but black race is exoticized in Japan in a very distinct manner, more akin to France and the 1920s with Josephine Baker than to the American system, in Japan the cultural differences between the Chinese and Japanese is a more apt comparison.

In his 1903 literary masterpiece, The Souls of Black Folk, Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois made his case for the idea of a dual or “double consciousness” existing with the collective psyche of Africans in America. This false consciousness that Dr. Dubois wrote about really speaks to the confusion and ambivalence that Black folks experience every day in America as they search and struggle for their own meaningful sense of historical and cultural identity. Indeed the latter struggle and the problem of “The Color Line” are still with us in America more than a century later though no means only a localized phenomenon. Certainly, the U.S. is not immune from this color-coded mentality.

African-Americans historically internalized racism by pitting light-skinned blacks against dark-skinned ones, and using paper bag tests for admission to exclusive clubs. Black newspapers and magazines in the 1920s through the 1960s often featured advertisements for skin bleaching creams. Typically, with promises of "lighter, brighter skin," these ads blatantly associated white skin with beauty and success, and depicted dark skin as ugly. Meanwhile, people of color in America still fight against the Madison Avenue standard of beauty, which usually takes the form of a malnourished white blond fashion model with slight facial features.

The once dark-complexioned, undeniably African-looking Sosa now looks more like Ricky Ricardo from "I Love Lucy". As the late Nigerian activist and musician Fela Kuti would have said, it appears that Sosa is guilty of having a "colonial mentality". Throughout the African diaspora, black people internalized the racism they experienced under slavery and colonial rule. Bad habits are hard to break, and there is still self-hatred among black and colored people today. Sammy Sosa and others must realize that try as you might, you cannot bleach out your history.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Munachi (to love)...

Dedicated to a heart, which for better or worse has spent much time traveling the valleys and peaks of the Andes in search of it's missing piece, learning along the way the limits of language in expressing any type of emotion worth having...

To the hills I went looking for you
because it was there I saw you first
you were playing with the wind
perhaps waiting for me.

There I found you,
and in that same place I lost you,
jealousy kills,
now what will become of me?

To the hill I return,
intending to see you once more,
and if this time I find you,
I will never let you go...


And same poem in Quechua...

Ucsha urcuman mashcancapac rircani
chaipi canta ricsishcamanta
huairahuan pucllashpa carcanqui
ñucata shuyanacuimantachari

Chaipi tuparircani, cuitsacu,
chaipillatac chincachircani
imamantachari, huarmicu,
¿cunanca imashi tucusha?

Ucsha urcuman ticrani, huarmicu,
cutin tuparisha yuyashpa
canta chaipi tuparishpaca, huarmicu,
ña na canta saquishachu

Thursday, November 26, 2009

but did they bother to leave a tip?...

In 1621, the Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Indians shared an autumn harvest feast which is acknowledged today as one of the first Thanksgiving celebrations in the American colonies. This harvest meal has become a symbol of cooperation and interaction between English colonists and Native Americans. Although this feast is considered by many to the very first Thanksgiving celebration, it was actually in keeping with a long tradition of celebrating the harvest and giving thanks for a successful bounty of crops. Native American groups throughout the Americas, including the Pueblo, Cherokee, Creek and many others organized harvest festivals, ceremonial dances, and other celebrations of thanks for centuries before the arrival of Europeans in North America.

The colonists didn’t even call the day Thanksgiving. To them, a "thanksgiving" was a religious holiday in which they would go to church and thank God for a specific event, such as the winning of a battle or landing on terra firma after months at sea. On such a religious day, the types of recreational activities that the pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians participated in during the 1621 harvest feast – dancing, singing secular songs, playing games – wouldn’t have been allowed. The feast was a secular celebration, so it never would have been considered a thanksgiving in the pilgrims minds. During the next fifteen years, additional epidemics, most of which we know to have been smallpox, struck repeatedly. Europeans caught smallpox and the other maladies, to be sure, but most recovered, including, in a later century, the "heavily pockmarked George Washington". Indians usually died.

In his "History of Plymouth Plantation," five-time governor of the [Massachusetts] colony, William Bradford, reported that the colonists went hungry for years because they refused to work in the fields, preferring instead to steal. Bradford recalled for posterity that the colony was riddled with "corruption and discontent". The crops were small because "much was stolen both by night and day, before it became scarce eatable".

Today we consider that event our "First Thanksgiving," but the holiday that we celebrate today is actually a combination of two different and long-standing holidays that were celebrated by various cultures around the world: the harvest-home festival or feast that was celebrated when the main crops were harvested; and a formal day of thanksgiving, which could be declared for any occasion. Various "days of thanksgiving" were declared at various times in the New World, ranging from a day set aside by Francisco Vasquez de Coronado in 1541, to a day honoring the arrival of supply ships in Jamestown, Virginia in 1610. So, competing claims for the "first Thanksgiving" have arisen.

What is beyond debate is the fact that the Pilgrims did not introduce the Native Americans to the tradition; Eastern Indians had observed autumnal harvest celebrations for centuries. Thanksgiving's modern celebration dates back only to 1863; not until the 1890s did the Pilgrims get included in the tradition; no one even called them "Pilgrims" until the 1870s. Plymouth Rock achieved ichnographic status only in the nineteenth century, when some enterprising residents of the town moved it down to the water so its significance as the "holy soil" the Pilgrims first touched might seem more plausible. The Rock has become a shrine, the Mayflower Compact a sacred text, and our textbooks play the same function as the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, teaching us the rudiments of the civil religion of Thanksgiving.

Indians are marginalized in this civic ritual. Our archetypal image of the first Thanksgiving portrays the groaning boards in the woods, with the Pilgrims in their starched Sunday best and the almost-naked Indian guests. Thanksgiving silliness reaches some sort of zenith in the handouts that school children have carried home for decades, with captions like, "They served pumpkins and turkeys and corn and squash. The Indians had never seen such a feast! However, the Pilgrims had literally never seen "such a feast", since all foods mentioned are exclusively indigenous to the Americas and had been provided by [or with the aid of] the local tribe.

To most of the Pilgrims and Europeans, the Natives were heathens, savages, treacherous, and Satanic. Upon seeing thousands of dead Natives, the Governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop, called the plague “miraculous.” In 1634, he wrote to a friend in Engl

But for the natives in these parts, God hath so pursued them, as for 300 miles space the greatest part of them are swept away by the small pox which still continues among them. So as God hath thereby cleared our title to this place, those who remain in these parts, being in all not fifty, have put themselves under our protect…

The ugly truth is that many Pilgrims were thankful and grateful that the Native population was decreasing. Even worse, there was the Pequot Massacre in 1637, which started after the colonists found a murdered white man in his boat. Ninety armed settlers burned a Native village, along with their crops, and then demanded the Natives to turn in the murderers. When the Natives refused, a massacre followed.

Captain John Mason and his colonist army surrounded a fortified Pequot village and reportedly shouted: “We must burn them! Such a dreadful terror let the Almighty fall upon their spirits that they would flee from us and run into the very flames. Thus did the Lord Judge the heathen, filling the place with dead bodies”. The surviving Pequot were hunted and slain.

The Governor of Plymouth, William Bradford, further elaborates:

Those that escaped the fire were slain with the sword; some hewed to pieces, others run through with their rapiers, so that they were quickly dispatched and very few escaped. It was conceived they thus destroyed about 400 at this time. It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fire…horrible was the stink and scent thereof, but the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice, and they gave the prayers thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them.

Perhaps most disturbingly, it is strongly argued by many historians that the Pequot Massacre led to the “Thanksgiving” festivities. The day after the massacre, the aforementioned Governor Massachusetts Bay Colony declared: “A day of Thanksgiving, thanking God that they had eliminated over 700 men, women and children.” It was signed into law that, “This day forth shall be a day of celebration and thanksgiving for subduing the Pequots.”

As human beings, I do feel that it’s important for us to approach history with honesty and sensitivity. Perhaps some of you as you set down to dine with your families today do not believe this history is relevant to you, but I would strongly argue that a history that is not inclusive is a dangerously racist and prejudice one. Yes, we should spend time with our families and Loved ones, and yes, we should be grateful and thankful for all that we have, but not at the expense of ignoring an entire race of people, their culture, and their history. The fact that history textbooks and schools try to glorify the Pilgrims while omitting significant facts about the Natives represents that there is a lot to improve in the United States. Let us not become blinded by super-patriotism or blowout sales of “Black Friday.” Let us give some thought to the Native people, learn from their struggles, and embolden ourselves to stand up against racism and genocide in all forms.

Origin myths do not come cheaply. To solely glorify the Pilgrims is dangerous. The genial omissions and false details our texts use to retail the Pilgrim legend promote Anglocentrism, which only handicaps us when dealing with all those whose culture is not distinctively Anglo. Surely, in history, "truth should be held sacred, at whatever cost."

They [Natives] deserve your attention...and your thanks!

Monday, November 23, 2009

she's so "precious"...

Nothing quite prepares you for the rough-cut diamond that is the movie "Precious." A rare blend of pure entertainment and dark social commentary, this shockingly raw, surprisingly irreverent and absolutely unforgettable story of an obese, illiterate, pregnant black Harlem teen circa 1987 is one that you hope will not be dismissed as too difficult, because it should not be missed. Bleak, depressing, and shockingly brutal, Precious is the "feel-bad/feel-good" movie of the year. It's a film designed to pummel you with a situation that would send most humans into a weeping fetal position but to then show you that the power to overcome is greater than the tendency to withdraw one's self and die.

Sure the movie may be criticized social pornography at its worst, festering in racial self-loathing and oblivious to an economic system that routinely neglects its neediest and most vulnerable. Making those inbred white trash screen caricatures look like family values filmmaking at its finest in comparison. While certain to reinforce white prejudices related to African-American criminality, ghetto mothers as conniving, evil and violent welfare cheats, and habitual eating disorder fast food binges as sources of bad bodies and bad behavior alike. For all the darkness seen in this film it's astonishing the amount of light that is seen at the end, even though the unsettling nature of it all was still with me as the credits began to roll. Sidibe created a character so believable, she not only manages to earn the compassion of the characters in the film, but also those in the audience. It's a truly masterful performance in a film "Precious" is not an easy movie to watch, but it is an important one and one of the best films of the year (indeed of recent memory).

After watching the movie, I began to ask myself, "What are norms?" What can be considered a "normal" family life? The average social institution and relationships are intimately grounded in a pervasive economy of negotiation and discourse of power, which shape relations between people at all levels in a society. This idea of normalization is pervasive in our society: e.g., national standards for educational programs, for medical practice, for industrial processes and products. The movie provoked some research into the causes, sources, and possible solution to chronic, generational poverty and dysfunction, especially since many of the scenes in the movie were filmed in my neighborhood of Harlem.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan's 1965 study, "The Negro Family" offered the argument that "the Negro family in the Urban ghetto was crumbling." This fed into other emerging contemporary ideas: such as the "culture of poverty" hypothesis. Accordingly, the culturally available and politically opportune way of explaining poverty was convincing: the poor were poor because they made bad decisions and lacked the motivation which would get them good jobs (assuming, as always that there are good jobs to be had!). The proposed solution was to reshape the poor, perhaps with programs that provide "values" education, along with the right mix of incentives and penalties which would promote "marital stability" and strong development of the familial unit.

According to the definition of relative poverty, the poor are those who lack what is needed by most Americans to live decently because they earn less than half of the nation's median income. By this standard, around 20 percent of Americans live in poverty, and this has been the case for at least the past 40 years. Of these 20 percent, 60 percent are from the working class poor. Black children have a higher chance of experiencing poverty during their childhood (79%), compared to White children (31%).

Minority women, particularly African American and Hispanic, are twice as likely to delay or have no prenatal care (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2000). Troubled pregnancies expose unborn fetuses to the potential for birth defects, low birth weight, and premature delivery that can lead to lifelong cognitive, social and behavioral problems. By the age of 4, the average child of lower socioeconomic status on welfare might have had 144,000 fewer encouragements than middle-class children and 560,000 less than upper-class children and 84,000 more discouragements of their behavior than middle-class children and 100,000 more than upper-class children.

The effects of poverty are serious. Children who grow up in poverty suffer more persistent, frequent, and severe health problems than do children who grow up under better financial circumstances. Children raised in poverty tend to miss school more often because of illness. These children also have a much higher rate of accidents than do other children, and they are twice as likely to have impaired vision and hearing, iron deficiency anemia, and higher than normal levels of lead in the blood, which can impair brain function.

While strides have been made in a post-Civil Rights society, no single initiative has been able to break the fundamental correlation between poor families, impoverished communities, and low academic achievement that disproportionately affects minorities. More than forty years later, a Black child in the United States still lack a fair and equitable opportunity to live in decent housing, learn within adequate educational systems, and to prosper and excel socioeconomically. Measures taken further along the educational path to equalize the achievements of minorities, such as college enrollment quotas, achieve only small-scale affects and ignore the multitude of disadvantaged children who have failed to reach this point. As such, these policies disregard the long-term intergenerational effects of having one’s life choices limited by race.

A number of those in the Black middle class originally benefitted from War on Poverty initiatives themselves and were able to achieve a degree of social advancement and mobility. It has been posited that as neighborhood income increases, test scores and behavior improve significantly for white children but not for black children. However, those who are able to acquire the knowledge and skills that could influence and motivate the next generation of children moved away and left those less competent isolated in communities riddled with drugs, crime, unemployment and despair. A 1997 study in Chicago found that 79 percent of black middle-class households in Chicago live within four blocks where a third or more of the population is poor, compared to only 36 percent of white middle-class households.

Equal access to education is unmistakably one of the most important elements in aiding to lift those who can take advantage of such measures out of economic dependency and social mobility. Family circumstances that undercut cognitive skills such as poverty, high unemployment among family members, inadequate nourishment, overcrowded and unsafe environments, and violence continue to be present throughout many urban neighborhoods. During his presidential campaign, Mr. Obama pledged to establish a Presidential Early Learning Council to coordinate federal, state and local policies to quadruple financing for Early Head Start, provide federal challenge grants for states to use for early care and education programs, and expand home visiting programs for low-income mothers. These measures emphasize improving quality, not just reaching more children. Students at risk for the biological or social effects of poverty are also more likely to attend schools with reduced educational resources and fewer opportunities for quality instruction. The $787 billion economic stimulus package passed recently by Congress has provided an increase in funding for programs aimed at young children. Head Start and Early Head Start will receive $2.1 billion over two years, and the child-care grant program will receive $2 billion over two years. Additionally, the $10 billion Mr. Obama has pledged for early childhood education would amount to the largest new federal initiative for young children since Head Start began in 1965.

In a nation with a per capita GDP above the poverty line for a family of four, it is appalling that almost 3 million people work full time, year-round and are poor, and that more than 12 million American children are living in poverty. Lyndon Johnson proposed to fight poverty "because it is right, because it is wise." In a land of vast wealth, twice as rich as America in the 1960s, can today's leaders to rise to the occasion?

Friday, November 20, 2009

low-level shit...

“To be a poor man is hard, but to be a poor race in a land of dollars
is the very bottom of hardships.”
~ W.E.B. DuBois

We live in a world where 20 percent of the population uses 80 percent of its resources, where upward of 1 billion people live on $1 a day or less, where 16,000 children die daily from malnutrition and where the people of sub-Saharan Africa, the globe's poorest region, spend $25,000 every minute servicing their massive debt to the rich countries of the North. All those markers of extreme poverty have gotten dramatically worse since the 1980s; despite rapid technological and agricultural progress in the developed world, the number of people suffering from chronic, absolute (as opposed to relative) poverty and malnutrition has roughly doubled in the past 40 years. There are places I have seen in Brooklyn, L.A., Harlem, or Chicago that look as "third world" as anything I have witnessed in Bangkok, Cairo or Rio.

Out of all my 27 years living in New York City, in El Barrio and Harlem, I have prided myself on never having been robbed, mugged or stuck-up.

I have had knives pulled on me...
I have had guns flashed on me...
I've been spat at, punched in the face and somehow people have never manage to get my wallet, money, or in one case, my Jordans.

In any of the other countries I have been to I have seen people pickpocketed, robbed, beat-up and beat-down (with metal chairs) but I have managed to avoid such misfortune despite having the habit of taking random walks into different neighborhoods with the help of maps or a destination. I truly believe that New York breeds a particular type of street knowledge that is universal and allows one to analyze situations before they occur and avoid becoming a victim. It also helps that at one point during my youth I was briefly a stick-up kid in El barrio until I saw that this was a temporary solution to a larger problem and more profound needs.

What I "needed" in my youth was quite frankly money, because from an early age, literally when we first realize as kids that our parents can only obtained toys and candy with this "thing" called "money", we identify it as a means of obtaining our material desires. As young adults we begin to associate money with social mobility and status and the objects we can obtain with it as a means to define our worth. Even as a child I knew that the "power" that local neighborhood drug dealer had did not garner the same respect or the same power in any other context besides local neighborhood politics. Obviously long-lasting change in my socioeconomic status and social mobility would have to be achieved by other means.

Years later I find myself in Chicago visiting one of my dearest friends to network and politic with her in the Second City for a couple of days. A couple of spots we hit up include J-Bar, which is a lounge located in the upscale James Hotel and patronized largely by well-off minority clientele and
Funk Lounge, which is more "hood" with a vibe of a strip club (it has poles), though it is open until 4am on the weekdays.

Last night I found myself at Funk Lounge posted up against the bar, watching my homegirl's purse and coat while she networked. I was busy on facebook, text messaging, emailing and doing a hundred others things besides listening to the music and checking for women. I wasn't worried, I had my black trench on with True Religion jeans on so I knew there was no way anyone could get to my wallet unless they cut a hole thru my jacket and jeans.

While looking 4 the "Halle Berrys", the "Mo'Niques" graviate towards my ass instead...some girl just reached 3rd base w/ me against my will in Chicago...
-a random tweet of mine from 19 November 2009

Sometime around 3am his heavy set woman walks up to me to dance while am text messaging on my phone. I cut her a smile and continue to ignore her.

When she gets close, I pull away;
When she grabs my pants, I push her away;
When she grabs my dick, I elbow her.

I tell her am with my girl and go reach for my friend who is standing behind this woman though she is oblivious to what is going on. As I walk away the girl sticks her hands in my pockets and tries to grope me while my friend laughs thinking I am enjoying it, encouraging me to dance with her. In the process, the girl pulled out my money clip from my pocket, an empty money clip, minus a £20 British Pound, because in the struggle my American money slipped off of it. Do girls really go to clubs and damn near give dude's handjobs to locate and then remove money out of there pockets? Grown women? Come on, really? And then you have to leave the club before the person realizes it. So do you make a night of it? Just continuously club-hop until you get enough to keep your cellphone on and your rent paid? Like F. Scott Fitzgerald said, "You can stroke people with words" love, I woulda gotten you a drink and sent you home in a cab like a lady if you would played your cards right, maybe even a meal with the happy ending you were attempting to give me.

You can't be mad when misfortune hits. I hope she enjoys the money clip filled with a foreign currency note. I mean I did get turned on a little bit by the whole event. That being said, I hope she realizes that you can't make a career out of such low-level shit. Women possess the power to manipulate men in far greater ways than literally digging through their pockets. If I have learned anything from my business degree is that there more insidious ways of acquiring lasting wealth. Ways of gaming the system to gain influence and then using your newfound power to change the rules to your benefit (re: NYC Mayor Bloomberg). Exactly how different are these scenarios? Compare any nickel-and-dime scheme to the fraud perpetuated on Wall Street and you visualize the difference in scale that I am talking about. You can quite literally rob and deceive and have people pay you for the pleasure of being relieved on their money and belongings. If your going to hustle than be the best at it. Go all in! What that woman lacks in foresight can never be found in the pockets of men.

Friday, November 06, 2009

embracing life...

When I turned 25 back in 2007, there were only two people that I saw that entire day whom were unrelated to me. A quarter-century of life was very personal for me and I chose to spend the day reflecting and meditating, wearing a new outfit and treating myself to lunch at Jean-georges' Mercer Kitchen. However, a few weeks before my birthday I got the idea that it would be cool to meet up with the doctor that delivered me back in the 1982. So I got his information from my mom and then googled him and found out that he now had a private practice close to the hospital where I was born.

So on that day, the 17th of June, 2007 I went to his office, walked in and asked to see him, the receptionist looked very confused and hesitated to call the doctor to the front of the office. But he came out and I shook his hand and thanked him. Told him it was my birthday and twenty-five years prior he had been the first face I most likely saw upon my entrance into this world. Surprisingly, he offered me five minutes to sit and talk to him. He said he had never had a child come and visit him this far along their life path and thank him. We spoke for a while and I was leaving I asked him if he remember the details of my birth (he did not), then I asked, "Is there some sort of reaction common to all children as they are born, what is their most common "first reaction" to birth"?

His response: the first human gesture is the embrace.

After coming into the world, at the beginning of their days, babies wave their arms as if seeking someone. He then added:

Other doctors, who work with people who have already lived their lives, say that the aged, at the end of their days, die trying to raise their arms. Reaching out to their loved ones, or if they don't have any near them, they simply reach out to anyone. They lunge out towards the living as death pulls them in the opposite direction.

I have had the misfortune of seeing people in my family die, quite literally in front of me. I saw my grandfather breath his last breathe as cancer consumed him. He died with my grandmother and his sister embracing him, he too weak to move, that is everything except his eyes. His eyes told his whole story, "they said continue without me, I have carried this family as far as I could, sorry for my untimely exit". My great-grandmother, unable to speak after a debilitating stroke, told me (in spanish) to find a woman who can cook me arroz con salchicha like she could, her kitchen had been ordered closed forever by God. She never walked again but she could move half her body and gesture, and with that one arm she gave tighter hugs that some people could give with six.

And that's it, that's all, no matter how hard we strive or how many words we pile on. Everything comes down to this: between two flutterings, with no more explanation, the voyage occurs...

Thursday, November 05, 2009

a little prince in harlem...

I grew up as a little prince in an old-school extended family, with multiple generations under one roof, where I was the only male. My Great-Grandmother, Grandmother, Mom, and two aunts were all my queens in our little tenth-floor, 3 bedroom kingdom in the El Barrio sky. Around 1989, things fell apart. Mom was 25 and decided she wanted to live her youth to the fullest and go clubbing, grandma moved out, titi gave up on men and was always at her girlfriend's place in the Bronx, so it was me and the eldest watching cartoons and novelas in spanish. She went to bed early and sometimes my mom didn't come home at all, although she always kissed me on the forehead before heading out the door. I never did quite understand why I took showers and dressed into pajamas whereas she did the same and put on dresses and heels and went outside. What do people do at night? You can't play basketball. You can barely see things. Adult life seemed so complicated from the perspective of a 9 year old.

Fast forward 18 years:

Grandma is still in Florida; Great-Grandma is 10 years passed; my mom is in North Carolina, still dances but has given up the clubs, one aunt had breast cancer and the other is healthy. Healthy that is until two days ago.

As time passes I am constantly reminded of their mortality as their generation slowly slips away. Am an adult now, and my world has grown far beyond the borders of my childhood. I am an artist and a graduate student. In the past 3 months I have done photo shoots in Paris, had meetings in London, and went out to Munich for Oktoberfest with eight of my closest (girl)friends. But I define home as 5 square blocks in the middle of the island of Manhattan where my family lives scattered throughout El Barrio. Not so much the actual structures of NYC subsidized housing but my family themselves. They are my living, breathing homes. Residences that are never in danger of foreclosure or denying me a hug because I was short on the rent on the first of the month.

So when I landed this Sunday in JFK after another flight out of the country I turned on my phone and was greeted by text messages and voicemails from family. A stroke: sketchy details, conflicting reports as to which hospital in the city, the condition of my aunt. One of my homes was in danger, perhaps the strongest home I have left. See this particular aunt is a warrior, her spine is composed of spear points. She has never put up with any sh*t from her husbands, boyfriends, family, children, or friends. Her will was indomitable but the cemeteries of the world are filled with women (and men) just like this. She will overcome this. Her body will bear the scars of this battle. And who knows, they may be some other malady lurking, undiscovered, that will offer one final coup de grâce.

But seeing her lying there I could see her struggles, the struggle to simply speak coherently, to move one half of her body, however even surrounded by family she was clearly leading the charge in this battle. From all the tears in the room (curiously absent from her own face) you would think the roles were reserved. After my hospital visit I was left with more questions than answers but no matter the outcome of her recent health issue, no matter where I may be in this world, whether in Harlem, NYC or Haarlem, The Netherlands my aunts can be assured that their little prince has never stopped defending the family castle...

She will overcome this. that I can assure her of...

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

she got that good hair...

In the documentary Good Hair, co-writer/producer Chris Rock has a marvelous timely subject all to himself. The easy jokes we've all heard at comedy clubs about a black woman's hair being untouchable are brushed aside: Rock gets to the matter's center by asking men what it's like not to have the intimacy to touch a lover's hair. The numbers are surprising and overwhelming. African-Americans comprise only 12 percent of the national population, yet they purchase 80 percent of the country's hair care products. Rock likens this passion to an addiction, one he peruses with equal parts humor and seriousness. Although the documentary's presentation is cut from the well-worn Morgan Spurlock cloth, Rock's wit and cunning insight enlivens even the most mundane tableaus, including an over-reliance on talking-head interviews with such celebrities as Nia Long, Maya Angelou, Ice-T, the Rev. Al Sharpton and many others.

While the film's format is familiar, Rock benefits by delving into subject matter foreign to many viewers. Yes, Spike Lee once staged an inspired song-and-dance routine in School Daze, in which rival female African-American groups debated "Good or Bad Hair." But Rock goes much further, visiting beauty salons, barbershops and hair industry conventions to examine the economic and intimacy dilemmas wrought by black women's hair obsession. He spends much time researching the perils of traditional, common hair-straightening treatments and reveals the shocking expense of hair "relaxing" and extensions. He travels to India to track down the source for most African-American hair weaves. He even tosses in a bit of intrigue by following four teams vying to win the annual Bronner Bros. Hair Battle Royale in Atlanta.

In the documentary we are told that "you never touch a black woman's hair, or with women who happily hand over a thousand bucks (or more) for a complicated weave, all because hair is a vital component of how they view and assess themselves". "Our self-esteem is wrapped up in it,'' admits actress Tracie Thoms (who sticks with a natural curly look). "A woman's hair is her glory,'' adds Maya Angelou. And that trick of image and syntax has even working-class women spending a fortune on expensive weaves that can't be touched, fondled or wetted, or have sodium hydroxide rubbed into children's scalps to get them on "the creamy crack" -- relaxers -- pretty much from birth.

Most consumers are misled about the deleterious effects of hair weaves. After extended or prolonged usage of the hair-weave process (six mouths or better) most weave clients will experience a degeneration of their texture. Once the hairline fades or the hair texture thins, the client is more susceptible to continue wearing the weave to hide her imperfections and to maintain an image. Sadly, this is another form of bamboozlement that has plagued the black beauty industry for years. Black women have suffered through some of the worst product launches I’ve seen in the last 25 years. The No-lye and Gel relaxer kits, Rio products, permanent colors and high alkaline shampoos, etc. In some respect, the local beauty supply store has turned into a chemical waste dump.

Hair is a very tangible form of self expression, of how we feel about ourselves, and how we want to be perceived." Sharpton says in the film, we happily “comb our oppression” and spend thousands of dollars on anti-curling agents from hot combs to chemical relaxers—both of which could serve as a weapon if need be. Al Sharpton, who wouldn’t dare trade his own perm for anything or anyone at anytime, regardless of the weight of social acceptance. There is no parallel in human history where a people have been subjected to similar mutilation
of body mind and soul.

In 1933, Harvard trained Ph.D, Carter G. Woodson wrote his classic text, The Miseducation of the Negro in which he offered a critical historical analysis of the effects of a Eurocentric/hegemonic education on the minds of Black students informed both Black and White readers that “the Negro’s mind” had been brought under the control of his oppressor, and that when you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions. Dr. Woodson furthermore penned the following statement regarding Black student mis-education, “To handicap a student for life by teaching him that his Black face is a curse and that his struggle to change his condition is hopeless, is the worst kind of lynching. It kills one’s aspirations and dooms him to vagabondage and crime.”

And, after all, in a country with standards so untrustworthy, a country that makes heroes of so many criminal mediocrities, a country unable to face why so many of the non-White are in prison, or on the needle, or standing, futureless, in the streets—it may very well be that both children, and their elders, have concluded that they have nothing whatever to learn from the people of a country that has managed to learn so little. I think history, media, politics, and everytyhing under the sun has influenced black culture and beliefs. Blacks are suffering from some poor self worth, values and beliefs these days. Some of us are doing anything to fit in to make life easier for ourselves, not realizing that if we hold what is true to us, we will prosper and grow.