Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Bill Maher's Wackness Illuminates America's Lingering Race Problem

I wanted to start with an examination of language and language acquisition and how we cannot contain what's in the unconscious; but, I re-examined my premise that Bill Maher's words were not purposeful.  But I watched the pitiful scene repeatedly to try to assess his intent.  I decided he was purposeful.  Following is how I followed that line of interrogation, starting with the permission he granted himself as well as the idea that language is alive and informing on multiple levels.  A revisiting of our beloved James Baldwin, as well as my own grounding drove this turn:

Malcolm X opens his Message To the Grassroots speech in a heterogenous room in Detroit, 1964.  A year before his assassination in Harlem's Audubon Ballroom:

We all agree tonight, all of the speakers have agreed, that America has a serious problem.
Not only does America have a very serious problem, but our people have a very serious
problem.  ... America's problem is us. ... She (my emphasis) doesn't want us here.

A live cut of that speech opens the 1989 hip-hop classic, "Self -Destruction".  The song, including bars from MC Lyte, Chuck D, Doug E. Fresh, Heavy D (d. 2011), Miss Melodie (d. 2014), Kool Moe Dee, Flava Flav (living-dead) was a product of KRS-One's Stop the Violence Movement.  The song represented a powerful coming together, agreement over the presence of a problem.  Something was amiss, we were watching our brothers and sisters suffer, and we wanted solution.

The video is perfection, reflecting the time: herring bones, asymmetrical ash blond perms, leather LV sweatsuits, African medallions, and a seemingly appropriate response to what appeared to be a devolving condition in black communities throughout the nation.  All of us did the best we could with the information we had. We knew something had changed and we wanted it to stop, we wanted the jobless dope dealers and growing crack addicted population to "Just Say No" --echoing the sentiment coming out of the White House and the mural on the wall behind Heavy D as Crack and high powered weapons had entered our communities.  The video's tone is reflective yet, condemnatory.  It is moralizing.  It is also historically asymmetrical.  An extension of the inaccuracies fed us by a white supremacist media, informed by white supremacist academics and policy makers who had convinced us that our problems were rooted in our inability to mimic the lie of American spiritual uprightness.  American spiritual uprightness is a lie.  That is clear.  And the jobless dope dealer was just as American as those gunslinging fur, oil and slave traders who not only plundered and raped this land from under the Native peoples here, but raped, murdered and plotted their way through their relationships with indigenous people across the globe.  White men, working their very black magic, initiated crack into our communities and blamed us for what it did to us.

We bought the gaslight in the 1980s and 90s.  Malcolm X, a religious convert, bought it before then. Booker T Washington and hundreds of others of us, as well as our leadership bought it before then.  Now, I do not disagree that America has/had a serious problem; but, I do disagree that America doesn't want us here.  Without us, America has no idea who she is.  White America needs a nightmare shadow to reflect its dream of whiteness back unto itself.  That nightmare is the nigger.  And the nigger of the American imagination is the most profound lie in history.  Innocuous whiteness is a profound lie times two.  As long as America refuses to face itself, apologize, remit owed dues and repent, that nigger lie will surface, resurface like water beneath oil, through slips of the mind and tongue.  But Bill Maher didn't really slip.  He slipped up.

Maher's not easy to figure:

Twin Towers fell and he lost his late night show because he questioned American foreign policy.  He's an atheist.  He's anti-Christian but more anti-Muslim.  He's white. He loves Nas and has described hip hop artists as Shakespearean poets.  He advocates for pot and once argued that referring to Obama as "Kenyan" was white code "nigger".  (That didn't make big news.)

A white man with a thing for black women dressed as porn stars (including rap world's infamous, Superheat).  A white man with a fetish.

Image result for bill maher and super head

A white man focused on the dimly lit areas of everyone else's psyches while avoiding, yet speaking his own his own.  Time, hubris and opportunity have their way with us all.

And Bill Maher is a complicated product of the country that raised him.

He's spoke as a white man who believes in his own righteousness and the freedom to express that as he pleases.  His jokingly referring to himself as a "house nigga" is an expression of his wealthy white male arrogance coupled with a lingering American fetishizing of blackness.  It says so much. The black man, he wishes to be.  The black woman he wishes to own, in all sorts of white ways.

Black folks know it.  White folks tell and act out every lie they can to avoid it.  Every unexamined truth contained in one's unconscious extends itself into the wider world harming anyone threatening the illumination of that truth.  To paraphrase James Baldwin, until America faces it's own carnality, it will never be free.  America projects its own shadow self upon the so-called nigger.  And black folk are not that.  We now have no confusion about that.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

The Split: Grieving Bill Cosby, then Heathcliff Huxtable

I turned my whole bedroom over.  "I found you, you old African!" I shouted like James Earle Jones as Alex Haley in Roots, the Next Generations.  Alex Haley had found his Kunta Kinte after listening bent, for over a day, to a griot chronicle the history of his tribe in Jufure.  A teenaged Kunta Kinte had wandered off from his village to hustle up material for a drum and was never seen or heard from again, except in the stories handed to Haley by his deliberate black ancestors.  Roots, both the book and the miniseries, were derived from Haley's genealogical dig into his past.

I had found my old iPhone cord.  And while my discovery weighs little against Haley's epiphany, that interjection flies out of my mouth at moments of jubilant uncovering.  This one made me dance inside; that cord connected me to my old music list--the one I'd accumulated over the last seven years.  I had grown sick of the repeating handful of songs on this better buy android.  Like the building of my book collection, the music on the phone grew over the years.  It shows I cared enough to stop and pay attention, maybe fall in love with another human being's art.  Eight times out of ten I can't remember when I stopped.  But I hold on to the art and nod to its creator.  

Unlike books, songs transport me right back there because they backdropped and recorded much of what I forget or eventually will have forgotten.  They document the thickness of a particular moment.  The songs open themselves randomly and I am surprised over and over, by what each reveals.  So good-bye to the deadening android reboot of Aaliyah's songbook--I was juiced.

The phone charged quick and I hit 580 happy, bumping in my head and my seat to songs I had forgotten but thirsted for over the last two months. I rolled down the window at the break and waited.  Thum, thathumpthumthumthunnuhnuhmmmm ....  I caught a feeling.  That Staples Singer eicheck kicked out and I nearly lost my mind, scrunched my face up like something funky had let loose in the car.

Sometimes the rain ... let's do it again.  Let's do it in the morning ...

Them Africans had me grooving.  Grooving and weaving.  Snapping my fingers ... then remembering, associative flashes:  bell bottoms, turtle necks, Watts festivals, red black and green window stickers, raised fists, red-tinted afros, homecoming parades, buttery laughter, ... and relax ...

Then came a marked and sudden grief.

My eyes began to well up, over something gone.

I couldn't return to where I'd been; Pops Staples' bass line had eased out of my body, what I had not known was there.

So, westward I rode, seven miles into East Oakland.  It was time to let that grief have its way with me.

The past came alive and the unconscious senses of a gone time nursed the hungers of the present.

The song, "Let Do It Again", led the soundtrack to the movie, Let's Do it Again (1975), starring Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitier.  Aunt Butch had dropped my brother, Toure, my cousin Keesha and me in downtown Pine Bluff to watch the movie.  And though the theatre's gone, I've since lost my brother and don't see my cousin often, this surprising grief, I discovered by the end of my ride, can be traced directly to the Bill Cosby in that movie.

The scruffy beard Bill Cosby.  The Bill Cosby wearing ill-fitting orange three-pieced-suits and beanies with bouncy balls on top -- like my dad used to wear.  Fat Albert Bill Cosby.  The half cool brother walking in the room, slapping everybody five, talking jazzy and with his fingers.  The same Cosby who had also starred with Sidney Poitier, Denise Nicols, Flip Wilson, Harry Belafonte, Richard Pryor and a long long list of other 1970s black film stars, in one of my all-time favorites, Uptown Saturday Night.  Even as a child, I knew Uptown Saturday Night was the better film of the two. Major clue:  Jimmy "JJ" Walker played a key role in Let's Do It Again.  But in Uptown Saturday Night, characters like Silky Slim and Geechie Dan Beaufort stood between everyday working cat, Poitier, and his winning ticket.  He'd hit the number big!  Cosby came in as the faux shady sidekick to encourage straight-man Poitier to hit the streets and get his money.  No spoilers, the drama kicks off at Madame Zenobia's.

To be continued ...

Part II

Madame Zenobia's is, for lack of a better correlative, a speakeasy.  It's a mysterious club, set on the outskirts of town; and, one needs a pass to enter the back door, the seat of the real action.  Poitier and Cosby are not traditional patrons to the club and gain entrance only after some trickery, including not telling their wives about their intended night out.  It is cave of sorts.  An adventure into the darker --and no less fun -- recesses of the black experience. 

In the cave, Poitier and Cosby are entranced by flesh-bearing women, open gambling tables and shadowy strongmen, whose power they no doubt envy.  In the midst of their cave play, both men are robbed along with all Zenobia's other patrons who are made to strip down to their underwear by a masked, debonair thief.  The grace of this film lies in its depiction of a range of human identities.  Uninhibited storytelling. 

It layers morality and interrogates reality in a way that black folk can identify as authentic to their experience.  Characters spring from the working classes, the street-hustling classes, the political classes.  More importantly, all the classes interact with each other.  Genuine decent guy Poitier is morally challenged by his fall:  his betrayal of his wife, his titillation in the cave.  This is the story of us that we recognize.  What do we do after we fall?  What do we do when confronted with our need for economic relief?  What do we do when victimized by our own?  This is a story written by and about a free black people.  Free, in the sense that they are not writing back to Empire.  Empire is subordinate.  Oh it's present, but it is quiet enough to signify a black wholeness.    

Agency in the face of oppression is power.  In this case, that power aligns with the sense that we are not the problem.  We are not pathological.  We are not a problem people who inherently need to be fixed.  Although America has since its inception cast black folks in the role of shadow, we know better.  America denies reality and projects its shadow self upon us:  its thievery,  its violence, its deceit, its entitlement -- its rapes.  

Instead of stepping into the cave and confronting its own unholy self, America projects its un-holiness upon black folk.  And we consistently get caught up in answering the projection.  But there are moments in history, moments in our story where an untainted voice arises and sings our song without imposition of self-doubting restraint.  A song so sure of its holy imperfection, it is completely free and resonates with an audience recognizing itself.   

It says, "We are complete and imperfect and look at this story."  

The Bill Cosby in Uptown Saturday Night represented that voice.  Hat to the side --  

But then, the split.  

That scruffy-bearded Bill Cosby, endearing to me, my brother, and my cousin, would later morph to inscrutability as he transitioned from a 1970s familiar into a 1980s popular culture icon.  

I realized in the car that day that I needed to grieve both of Cosby's personae.  The earlier one hurt.  The latter felt ceremonial, like attending the funeral of somebody I never really knew.  No heart in that. I said goodbye to this Heathcliff Huxtable character -- a man I wanted not to see as inauthentic, over-compensating, class conscious, and elitist.  Although I, like so much of America, enjoyed my Thursday nights with the Cosbys, I also felt a tinge of something shaming beneath the show's surface.    A shaming that disallowed the characters to speak in their real voices.  Claire and Theo Huxtable's forced enunciations and obviously corrective micro-managing of every aspect of that show felt light and not white -- but like an answer to the American battle between black and white.  I could not have said so during that time, however, because I believed then, as a naive student at Spelman College (during the time of Reagan) that most of black and poor peoples' problems resulted from poor decision making.  As I learned more, lived more and questioned more, I began to develop a distaste for Heathcliff Huxtable.  Especially, as I saw how much we were not allowed to speak out of concern for what others might think.  After Cosby publicly chastised Lisa Bonet over her role in Angel Heart, the sense of something not right increased.   And the shaming escalated the last two seasons of the show when Cousin Pam, the blacker cousin, moved in with the Cosbys (1990-1992).  

Cousin Pam and her crew fulfilled every stereotype of working class and poor black folk imaginable:  they spoke in broken English and lacked focus or goals or restraint.  They knew nothing about anything and no wonder they couldn't succeed.  

Like so many of us, reared by the shadow-avoidant America, Cosby had blamed the poor and working classes on their apparent lack of social mobility. The more time passed, the more virulent his attacks. I would argue, the more his own personal predatory shadow dogged him, the more he pointed his finger at America's scapegoat -- black folk, especially poor black folk.    

By 2016, the man we'd earlier loved and later at least admired as a proud race man, would enrage us twice:  first, over his moralizing harangue of poor black folk in his NAACP Pound Cake speech; and second, over his admitted penchant for drugging women with the intention of raping them.  Over forty women have claimed that Bill Cosby drugged and raped them.  He has not admitted to any of the charges.  

Admittedly, when Hannibal Buress finally spilled that man-sanctioned tea, I was not surprised.  I had long suspected something false in Cosby.  I had long ago lost favor for Cosby because within his later work, I saw an underlying, consistent response to Empire.  While we can acknowledge his admirable efforts at exposing America to the black bourgeois, Cosby's work also expressed an unstated belief in an Empire that lies and steals and murders and rapes and was at the moment he hit his peak, doing its best to destroy us.  And more egregiously, I saw no struggle against its systems.  I instead, I saw a denial of black folks' value outside the mimicking of Empire's mores. A canned and didactic presentation dis-reflective of the reality black folks were confronting as we witness the ravaging of our institutions and an escalation in the numbers of us killed, drug addicted, incarcerated and abandoned by our countryfolk.  I saw an acceptance.  I saw a flat analysis and an elevation of respectability politics.  And respectability politics perpetuates a schizophrenic battle between shadow and light.  If you folks would just behave ...  Hold yourselves up in dignity and be treated respectfully.  Denial. Denial. Denial.  

In The Archetypes and Collective Unconscious, Carl Jung suggests that "the shadow personifies everything that the subject refuses to acknowledge about himself." Jung adds that as long as these projections remain unexamined, ... the shadow expresses itself by exerting power over others.  The shadow behavior is rationalized by the ego made drunk by its own finger-pointing. I do not know why Bill Cosby would want to drug women.  I don't know why he'd want to rape women; but in the story of him and all the women he's reportedly hurt so deviously, we might, dare look at the ugliness to find a hint of instruction.  

The action in Uptown Saturday Night climaxes in a church.  Flip Wilson plays a shady preacher, repeating the lines, "Loose lips, sink ships."  Silky Slim and the entire gang squirm in the pews as if confronted by their own prior misdeeds.  The plot is framed by images of Evil and Good, neither clean nor clear--but muddled and unresolved and fascinating.  There are no good black people or bad black people.  Right or wrong.  Just people living as best and reasonably as they deem necessary.

If we are to ever live free, individually, collectively, creatively, we must walk into the cave and reconcile ourselves with whatever we find. And there's so much to find when we're not responding to Empire.

The beauty of the film Moonlight lies not only in its cinematography, but in its subtlety, in its honesty.  A young black boy, confused and abused over his homosexuality, finds comfort and assurance through his relationship with a drug dealer--who admits he sells drugs--and his wife.  A flawed black man, responds to the child with attention and acceptance.  The Empire is on all their backs, yet their humanity prevails because they deny nothing.  


Sunday, March 26, 2017

Let Me Help You With That: a Love Story


God bless that Sunday:  no more than two minutes after I’d slopped the last cake of mud from my rubber garden slippers and dumped them into the washer, my husband announced he had an 8 pm date with a promising new lover.  The sound hammered at the lining in my chest.  A similar swish/thud, swish/thud pulsed from my ears, which had turned red, I know, though by this time in our marriage, I had trained myself never to allow him to observe the slightest flinch in me.

He said it and slid past me, the scent of wet tobacco coughed from the tattered pockets of his silly professor’s blazer and turned my stomach upon itself.  His words cut into my skin, like a razor’s slip:  the actual depth became more clear in the seconds after his odor left the room.

Earlier in our story, I’d been discoverable to him.  That had cost me.  He used that part of me he knew he owned to twist me whichever way he chose.  Nine years of my life I’d lost to that vulnerability.  Shifting at his critiques.  Responding to what he said I lacked:  energy, autonomy, vivaciousness.  He added that I had no depth of femininity.  The kind of femininity that engenders dedication.  He’d said something similar, earlier and I had fought it.  I worked.

The returned spring sunlight made it easy.  Committed and bright, I had stumbled through a few capoeira classes to build my stamina (though it was always he who collapsed after six minutes of mediocre love-making that hadn’t felt lovely for at least nine years now).  I paid forty dollars for the new Capoeira whites that that limber and muscled, Danilo, had insisted I buy.  “Anything for you, Danilo.”

Under Danilo’s command, I tumbled and sweat like an air conditioner for three weeks, 6:30 to 8:00 pm, pepping up each time Danilo announced my progress to the class.  I doubtless favored a grandmother sloth, following the circle’s Portuguese chants … and to what end?  Our love-making progressed to nine minutes, then within a week, back to six.

I next volunteered to suffer the social lash: sipped black coffee half of three whip-cold nights in a Berkeley chat group for research widows.  The coffee burned every sweet and salty sensor from my tongue -- me nodding through petty Berkeley gossip— bobble heading, startled to more droll topics – (imagine an exhausted airline pilot’s eyes opened at two thousand feet and just before the crash, screaming, “You lackaluster bitches are killing me!”)

I had wanted this marriage.

I indulged him.  I held on.  We both did, ostensibly.  And now he, unsatisfied, whiffed past me and announced his desire to openly stray from our marriage bed; he had a date.  He wanted a reaction from me.

I felt that familiar sensation: the nerves in my stomach began to dance heavy into my lower bowels and I imagined that bum dog of his shitting all over the burnt ceramic of the mud room floor, standing upright, then spackling it all about the cracks in his sinister face.  But the dog didn’t shit the one time I needed him to.

My outward resistance to my husband’s abuse:  my calm, my disregard, my stoic replies—I had once judged as pitifully reactive, cowardly and survivalist—would in fact, soon emerge as my greatest strength.  I would always win with him.  My victory, alas, would be him admitting my superiority.  I would prove it.

First, I summoned my angels, whom I had yet to properly name.  (I’m chewing on Cordelia and Eddie).  Friends really.  Dears to me.  They would watch over me. Direct my action.  Keep me from running into the street or from grabbing a blade from the wood block in the kitchen.

 … Drop your shoulders, Cordelia said.  Eddie, her half-brother, insisted I turn my chin.  Lean to the right.  Nod inward slowly.  Up down drop, once.  Part lips slightly, flatten eyes, speak without excitement.  Drop a bomb:  “Let me know if it works out.  I might be able to help you find someone.”

My stoicism hit its apex.  Give him nothing.  Make him wonder over you.  Make him puzzle his decisions, his waistline, his speech.

He wouldn’t believe me.  But, I meant it.  I would help him.  After the initial chill, I realized I no longer minded.  I had thought about it increasingly as I knew he had no way of finding a decent woman on his own.

I had recently come to know that I had been his last best effort.  It took a regrettable amount of time for me to awaken.  He was old now.  And the charm of wit and an agile mind – which compensated for the knot atop his bald red dome –would no longer work as it had on me.

First, his mind was more placid now, lazy.  No pop to it.  And he repeated himself:  Whitman ruined America.  He fell into himself and stayed there … Tell me more Professor Nothing New.

And over the years, I had met two of the others.  I immediately sensed who they were.  At two separate department panels, like automatons, they both handed me drinks and cheese, (as if in homage to him, they stared in my eyes with wonder).  I recoiled from both, sickened by their gullibility.  Idiots. This is his game.  Corduroy blazers and wine and obscure implausible assertions to the unwitting dilettante.  I had been that TA, but stations above these two.  He is old now.  He can no longer corner the taut-figured, engaging TA I had been.  I, at least, married him before his big run.  When his ideas were fresh.  My discernment abilities were growing.

I didn’t know who he’d set aside for this night’s date but Cordelia and Eddie had prompted me to toss it across the mud room portal, “Let me know how you succeed."  Had he not heard me?  "I am committed to your happiness.”

“Wonderful.  Wonderful,” he said.

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