Last Saturday I left my home in bumblef*ck Virginia to participate in the March on Washington Anniversary festivities in DC. I didn’t really know what to expect, outside of there being lots and lots of my people out in the streets, marching for justice and jobs and other important social issues. And while I knew there would be vendors out selling commemorative tchotchkes, I didn’t expect what I saw down on the Mall – a cornucopia of Whittey Hutton-esque memorabilia that was both baffling and hilarious and something I knew my Granny would buy in a heartbeat. Most of the stuff sought to artistically connect the social justice past of African American history with pressing current events. Was it successful? I’ll let you be the judge.
Ah-ring-king-King…Martin had a DREAM!
This is a Photoshop gem…Martin, at the original March on Washington, conveniently wearing a hoodie. In the middle of August In DC. Oh, ok. I get the desire to tie Dr. King to pertinent social issues of the day, but c’mon yo.
Aww dats ca-yute.
The copy on this reads: Rosa sat so Martin could walk; Barack ran so our children could fly. So sweet. Did you catch diabeetus yet?
Yo. Why is this a head mountain? Creeeeeepyyyyyyy.
“Did you hear Kendrick’s Control verse?”
Martin and Barack, just chillin’.
A bag made from the Obama family portrait every black government worker has in their cubicle.
the bottom ones.
Actually, this t-shirt is pretty dope.
We The People…wanna know why his chin is so long.
Some of this merchandise was slightly irregular, like the facial proportions on this weird Barack Obama/Declaration of Independence mashup.
The struggle is serious business, but WHY ARE THEY ALL SCOWLING?!?! Also, don’t stone me for this, but why is Oprah included in this painting? I know she got money, but…?
strike a (thinking black man) pose!
The March Anniversary hustle was no joke. I was *almost* convinced to buy a t-shirt, just to wear around the house. Did you see any other cool stuff at the Wednesday march? Did you buy any? Share!
You know how it goes on Showtime at The Apollo. Some hopeful performer ambles onstage and rubs on the stump of the Tree of Hope for good luck. She then awkwardly banters with the host for a quick minute, before stepping to center stage to sing her song/play her horn/let her light shine. The Apollo audiences are legendarily unforgiving — Lauryn Hill was booed offstage before she was Lauryn Hill — but one tried-and-true safeguard from jeering is to perform a well-known gospel song. The singer is essentially daring folks to hate on someone magnifyin’ Da Lawd; the audience almost never opts to do so, regardless of the performer’s execution. Solid renditions or hot-ass messes, it don’t matter. The only reaction the audience is left with is polite, respectful applause.
I couldn’t help but think of that bluff-calling while I watched The Butler, the new Lee Daniels movie that opens today about a black White House butler who waits on every president from Eisenhower to Reagan. The Butler is the latest entry into a movie genre that includes this year’s solid, forgettable 42 and last year’s toweringly shitty Red Tails — they’re dutiful, like $30-million, full-life, book reports, with star-studded casts. Few of these films are actually good, but they are Good For Us, and the word of mouth around them sounds a lot like entreaties to eat our vegetables. That makes it hard to criticize them without seeming like kind of a dick.
Forest Whitaker plays Cecil Gaines, a man who flees the brutality of the South and ends up as a member of the White House’s house staff. (The movie is fictional, but it’s based on the life of a real man named Eugene Allen, who was a White House butler under 8 presidents). Gaines, as played by Whitaker and imagined by director Lee Daniels, doesn’t seem to have any personality traits besides an inexhaustible reservoir of dignity. He works hard, he keeps his nose clean. His wife, Gloria, played by Oprah Winfrey, is much feistier and gets juicier lines, but she’s shoddily imagined, too; Gloria’s lonely and has a drinking problem (and an implied affair with Terrance Howard, an indiginity that might be worse than her drinking problem) until she doesn’t anymore. Gaines serves a parade of commanders in chief — Dwight Eisenhower (Robin Williams), John F. Kennedy (James Marsden), Lyndon Johnson (Liev Schrieber), Richard Nixon (John Cusack), and Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman) — who are all given exactly one personality trait and who are all just coincidentally mulling over America’s racial crises with their senior staffs when Gaines walks in to the Oval Office to pour tea or clear the table. Daniels gives one of those heavy-handed Hollywood winks to the audience for each president — Gloria asks Cecil, who is reading about an illness in a medical book, whether someone in the White House has Addison’s disease — and every president oddly regards Cecil with great trust and respect even though he never does much besides nod at them while they ruminate out loud.
The tension in the movie is generated from Cecil’s rocky relationship with his son, Louis, played by David Oyelowo, who is apparently required by law to be in every movie that comes out these days. (That’s not a bad thing; dude is a reliably strong actor.) Whereas Cecil doesn’t make waves, his son, who is going away to college, wants to be an active participant in the civil rights movement. The rift between them is the thing that feels consistently right in the movie, but Daniels, as he’s wont to do, puts way too fine a point on it. Louis isn’t just active — he’s seemingly a key part of every chapter of the black rights struggle from the late ‘50s on. He sits in at Southern lunch counters, becomes a Freedom Rider, helps found a chapter of the Black Panthers, and protests for Mandela’s release from prison. Somewhere in there, Louis becomes a close associate of Martin Luther King — this dude is like some righteous-ass Forrest Gump — who tells him that domestics like his father are important agents in the struggle for black equality and “subversives without even knowing it.” As my colleague Hansi Lo Wang said, it’s kind of cheating to put the movie’s ostensible raison d’etre explicitly into the mouth of Martin Luther King; it imbues that intriguing argument with weight and gravity even though it isn’t ever really explored in the movie. More singing gospel at the Apollo, I guess.
The Butler isn’t objectionable, really. The performances almost paper over some occasionally noisome dialogue, and the scenes in which the civil rights workers are beseiged by racists are genuinely intense. But it also feels like kind of by-the-numbers and unambitious. “Positivity” still carries a lot of weight in our considerations of black popular culture, and sometimes to its detriment. And I’m not sure that perfunctory correctives like this one — the Negro as a noble cipher — aren’t dehumanizing and limiting in their own ways.
A Taliban soldier captured during one of the patrols I was on in Afghanistan.
Men being stop and questioned by the NYPD.
When a judge ruled yesterday that New York City’s police policy referred to as Stop & Frisk violated the constitutional rights of minorities it brought to light the issue of how people within a community relate to those tasked with policing it.
When I was a soldier I was trained in, and witness to, large-scale policing of a populated area. Much like cops on a beat, soldiers in Afghanistan would patrol a certain area of operations and interact with the people there.
When my platoon would roll into a town, we would cordon off certain streets, we would stop and talk to anyone entering or leaving the town. We tried to get as much information as possible on the people living there and what Taliban activity, if any, there was in the area.
If this meant physically stopping someone, making them sit on the ground while we questioned them about what knowledge they had, so be it. That’s what we did, whether it was village elders, shop merchants, farmers, ect. Anyone we came into contact with was a potential source of intelligence.
NYC cops have essentially the same mindset. Find out as much information as possible about the area you’re patrolling. Stopping as many people as possible and questioning them makes logical sense if the objective is to gather as much human intelligence as possible.
Which is sound strategy, if you’re entirely willing to disregard the feelings and dignity [not to mention civil rights] of the people who’re tasked with protecting, treating them only as statistics to flash around during campaign season while simultaneously eroding whatever trust that community might have had in you.
This was the fatal flaw in the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, thinking you can subdue a populace and befriend it at the same time. The mindset of using average citizens as unwilling tools in the war on drugs or gangs or graffiti or other crime is sprang from the same mindset of using the military to roll into a foreign country with tanks and bombs and have the local populace throw their support behind you just because you call yourself the good guy.
The difference is, eventually soldiers get pulled out of a war. They can go home to their families and the local population can go back to doing whatever it was doing before the war.
Cops stay on the beat in those communities forever. And with the growing number of Afghanistan and Iraq veterans joining the ranks of the NYPD as well as other police forces, the military mindset of treating everyone like a potential suspect or threat will only increase as the number of returning combat vets swell the ranks of police forces around the country.
That might be a contributing factor to communities where members feel they can’t walk freely down the streets without being used as an unwilling informant or suspected of being a criminal.
To them, their community is not a community being served and protected by its police force – it’s a community being occupied by it.
They might crack smiles but ain’t a damn thing funny.
Perhaps Biggie and Jigga could trade bars without spoiling your favorite television shows, but we can’t. Not that we spoil everything–we’re admirably vague about the course (if not the culmination) of season one. But otherwise be warned that the below contains spoilers of Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black, which T. and Charity watched in marathon shifts, like hopeless fiends on a delicious bender. At your own peril, please do read on.
Netflix series are becoming my entertainment Krispy Kremes: I think I’ll just consume one at a time, but then I end up gorging on three or four and feeling guilty afterwards, yet satisfied. First it was Breaking Bad, then House of Cards, and now Orange is the New Black.
Behold, a premise:
Snared by an expiring drug conspiracy charge, nice white lady Piper Chapman gets sent up for a bid in federal prison, where she fears for her decency and fiends for a mere dollop of cocoa butter. Tampon McMuffins are served, with bloody vengeance.
I was hooked by the second episode. Crazy Eyes had just expressed her interest in Piper by sharing her headphones and then coincidentally caressing her inner thigh to let Piper know that she now had a prison boo. That was the point where I went from:
“This show is aight.”
“EHRMAGAWD MUST WATCH ALL OF THE EPISODES”.
So many prison boos. The fact that we’re even joking about lock-up cuddle buddies is our telegraphing that Orange isn’t, you know, Oz. The ladies get off; the ladies get by.
I was prepared to like Orange about as much as I’m primed to enjoy a complementary Boston Cream or a Meek Mill mixtape. I was not prepared, however, to bawl alone at 5am while inadvertently strangling a box of Triscuits as I begrudged a ‘buffering’ bar. Seriously, what kind of comedy dare flood your homeboy over here with tears?
How do you distill the greatness of a show that you’ve seen in a marathon session into a brief write-up? It’s hard.
For one, I really liked the show’s use of flashbacks to show how the ladies ended up in prison. It humanizes their experiences and the myriad paths that led them to prison. It also powerfully illustrated why one ought not mess with Ms. Claudette. SAK PASSE!
The flashbacks are crucial, both creatively and (I’d argue) culturally. Gripes about stereotype abuse and exoticism have lately emerged in criticism of the show, but it’s the flashbacks that chiefly undermine the presumption that the women who are holed up in Litchfield are cast merely as types–as “the kind of people” that one will conjure when one thinks of prison. Forgoing vast shame and leaden grace, Orange’s hallmark proficiency is its animating how variously, wonderfully wrecked human beings can be.
While Litchfield isn’t the most glamorous setting we might wish upon these sisters, I’m thankful that Orange is proudly brown, with an emphasis on ‘proudly’. Anyone who’s viscerally ashamed of, say, Taystee, or Diaz, or Janae, or Sophia is, I think, underreading these portrayals. Much as the many narrative trajectories upend Piper’s perception of threats and comforts, showrunner Jenji Kohan challenges the audience to understand, e.g., Taystee not as Big Loudmouth Black Chick, but as a woman who’s been routinely failed by a civil framework that isn’t much interested in how she landed before its courts in the first place.
All to say, these characters are savory reductions. Piper, Alex, Red, Sam Healy, Officer Mendez—the paced evaporation of their facades and careful reveal of their animating anxieties are payoffs of patient, masterful storytelling. Healy is a waddling testament to the caution that, nope, No one expects the Spanish Inquisition.
Back to Mendez for a sec, because God this man is sooooooo bad—but soooooo good. I imagine that Officer Mendez smells of upper lip, smoke and Stetson cologne. The relish with which Pablo Schrieber plays this role makes Officer Mendez such a great villain. He deserves an Emmy.
In contrast, Alex Vause’s charisma is enough to convince me to fly to overseas in a terrible blonde wig and shoulder pads, just so I can be locked in women’s prison with her. Though she’s kind of a prick, and I’m not really sure I trust her. But that’s what makes her alluring to both the audience and Piper. Also, the Piper-Alex chemistry is way more believable than the Piper-Larry chemistry.
As far as paramours go, I mostly loathe Alex. I prefer Larry’s sheepish brooding to Alex’s ever-wavering Daria / Holly Robinson shtick. She’s too often a clang, deployed to make Piper act beyond the bounds of her character–though of course Piper’s core struggle is discerning who, exactly, she is.
In any case, while Alex throws a few screwdrivers into Piper’s life, collateral damage is done to the emotional logic of the plot. Chiefly, that Piper and Alex’s chapel tryst yields a bizarre and implausible aftermath. Throughout the episode that follows, Piper isn’t particularly vexed by having just cheated on her fiancé, which made me wonder whether the show takes lesbian sex somehow less seriously than it regards heterosexual love. i.e., if Piper had instead jumped a dude (somehow) in that chapel, would we really be expected to play along with the charade of Piper proceeding as if her transgression weren’t immediately remarkable?
Yet I’m steering us into the weeds here. T., reel us back.
Everyone is interesting to me—except Piper. For now. Ten or eleven episodes in, I realized that everyone else was meatier, curvier, more alive than our protagonist. Maybe that was something the writers did on purpose, maybe not, but it seems like Piper is supposed to be a representation of what a ‘normal’ person would be like in prison. She remains fairly normal until the point that she cusses Healy out in solitary—SHIT, she took that man’s dignity.
The last scene of the series, I think, is where we see Piper get real. Really real. Viciously real. Will she ever get out of prison after that? And is it wrong that I was woofing it up like I was at an Arsenio Hall taping when she beat the brakes off that girl?
Piper’s our lead and chief vantage, but more often than not, Chef Red is the center of narrative gravity, as much as Red’s kitchen is the nerve center of prison society. Honestly, I’m glad that we’re thus spared from endless thumbing of Piper’s navel.
Exemplary of Piper’s worst tendencies is the ‘WAC Pack’ episode, in which the prison’s demographic blocs elect delegates to lobby Sam Healy for better living conditions, variously defined. Dawning earnest and high-minded, Piper urges recommissioning of the prison’s GED program and restoration of the jogging track out in the yard. From an audience perspective, we perhaps admire Piper’s clamoring: The college-educated white girl is the only delegate who’s inspired to fight for something greater than free donuts. But we already know that Piper wants the GED program and the outdoor track because these are resources in which she, individually, is desperately interested. She’s advocating for herself, incapable of considering that only two inmates in the entire prison will derive any joy or sanity from running those lonesome laps.
I think Pennsatucky was right: Piper Chapman needs a friend…in Jesus.
A few more things before I sign off:
- The representation of black and brown women in this series deserves its own separate analysis. We’ll get back to this, I hope, maybe in a later, specifically dedicated post.
- The rapidly maturing puppy love of Daya and Officer Bennett is both heartwarming and frustrating. I yelled “DON’T DO IT, RECONSIDER!!!” every time I saw them on screen together.
- The hardest scene for me to watch was when Crazy Eyes heard what Piper thought of her via Larry’s faux-‘This American Life’ interview. I cried.
- Trivia: The actor who portrays Red is Captain Janeway from Star Trek: Voyager! Pablo Schrieber is Liev Schrieber’s half-brother! The Haitian and Russian accents on Red and Claudette are terrible!
OK, LIGHTS OUT.
I think Crazy Eyes landed the heaviest line of the season, that plaintive ding of naiveté when she dared to ask Piper, “Why does everyone call me Crazy Eyes?” That unanswered silence plucked my heart offbeat for the rest of the episode.
You know, what most surprises me about Orange is all of the love. It’s not romantic love in all cases, but there’s an overarching treatment of the show’s characters as chipped hearts on the long, idle mend. Just as The Wire coddles its dope boys, Orange cherishes the wily inmates of Litchfield Women’s Correctional. Even Piper, who’s a bit of a dick.
What’s funny is that our initially sympathy for Piper rests in the commiseration that Piper doesn’t really deserve to be in prison—rather, that she doesn’t deserve to be surrounded by so much filth and menace and crude rehabilitation. But ultimately, it’s Piper who proves to be the monstrosity, and it’s all of Litchfield that’s sanded her to an unexpectedly rotten core.
By the end of season one, we’re not inclined to like Piper. We’re not inviting her to our bootleg Scrabble matches, nor do we share our headphones with her pale ungrateful ass. But we’re definitely rooting for her to suck it up, sort her life, and maybe do something with that hair. It took until the final two episodes of the season, but I finally give a shit about Piper Chapman. In a stall with no door, I pray that she one day squats at ease.
Have you ever been to a Wu-Tang concert? Everyone should have a translator, subtitles or something.
Image from allthingsharlem.com
Over at Huffington Post, Romany Malco seems to have taken a page from Bill Cosby’s forever in-progress book, How to Completely Miss Every Point Ever Made About Race in the US and Blame Racism on Black Youth Instead. According to Malco, things like the criminalization of black bodies aren’t responsible for antiblack violence. That would be too obvious, and besides, we need to deal with the bigger issues of Education, Values, and Lack of Introspection before we can address racism. But in the meantime, you know what we can talk about? How cursing, twerking, weave-wearing, and designer clothes are the reasons black people die. From Malco:
I believe we lost that trial for Trayvon long before he was killed. Trayvon was doomed the moment ignorance became synonymous with young black America. We lost that case by using media outlets (music, movies, social media, etc.) as vehicles to perpetuate the same negative images and social issues that destroyed the black community in the first place. When we went on record glorifying violent crime and when we voted for a president we never thought to hold accountable. When we signed on to do reality shows that fed into the media’s stereotypes of black men, we ingrained an image of Trayvon Martin so overwhelming that who he actually may have been didn’t matter anymore.
In other words, black people put Trayvon Martin in danger of a fatal act of vigilantism through their choices to live and be seen. Black people should never be in reality shows, or vote for presidents, or tweet. We should know that each of us speaks for us all, and that we cannot be diverse, complex, independent individuals. The killing of Trayvon Martin ultimately falls on the shoulders of “the black community,” and has naught to do with his gunman’s aspiration to be a part of law enforcement, or with multiple cities’ publicly discriminatory stop-and-frisk programs, or with the fact that black people have been getting murdered for existing since long before the advent of mass media.
If we really wanted to ensure Trayvon Martin’s killing was not in vain, we’d stop perpetuating negative images that are now synonymous with black men in America. We’d stop rapping about selling drugs and killing niggas. The next time we saw a man beating a woman, we’d call for help or break it up, but one thing we would not do is stand by with our cellphones out — yelling WORLDSTAR! Instead of rewarding kids for memorization, we’d reward them for independent and critical thinking.
Because if we all started rapping about our favorite shows on Nickelodeon, people would see we are nice and a black teenager walking in the rain wouldn’t be perceived as a threat, right? If only we would never talk about drugs, or use technology, or send our children to public schools, black people wouldn’t be killed, guys?! Somebody send this guy some butter, because he is really on a roll.
We’d spend less time subconsciously repeating lyrics about death and murder and more time understanding why we are so willing to twerk to songs that bemean women and boast of having things we cannot afford. We’d set examples of self-love for our youth by honoring our own hair, skin and eye color. We’d stop spending money on designer gear that we should be spending on our physical and psychological health. We’d seek information outside the corporate owned-media that manipulates us. We’d stop letting television babysit our kids and we’d quit regurgitating pundits we haven’t come up with on our own.
Basically, black people, stop living if you are going to insist on making your own decisions! Stop the “racism outcry” if you are not going to lead the life of a noble and sacrificial race. You have the nerve to dance? You don’t own your house, and you dare to buy a car? You haven’t been to the gym, but you’ve got a new TV?! Don’t you know that your only hope for survival as a breathing black person in this country depends on you consistently proving your innocence?
Malco’s narrative may seem marginally not-complete-bullshit at first glance: he mentions the need for “critical thinking,” and rails quite emphatically against “corporate-owned media.” To be sure — though his analysis is all hot air, no balloon — he does at least gesture toward issues of sensationalism, violence against women, and the race to accumulate capital. This is all frustratingly undeveloped, however, and buried beneath the oppressively thick, godawful layers of choice-policing and respectability politics. Malco’s view implies that stereotypes perpetuated by black people are the reason for the violence against them. It eschews analyses of historical, structural, state-sanctioned and extralegal racist violence, in favor of a trope that leans on personal responsibility. … Because history started sixty years ago, and in that time, any harm done to black people has been due to their moral shortcomings.
As I attempt to, once and for all, push the poisonous thinking of the Negro Community Police out of my brain, I want to draw a page from Malco’s book and “address young black people specifically.” I want to ask that we think about what we should not have to sacrifice in order to be seen and treated as whole human beings. It seems to me that we should not have to sacrifice our power to move our bodies and our mouths in public, make music we enjoy, participate in politics, engage with popular media, adorn ourselves. We should not have to sacrifice our power to grieve, or to protest, or to show concern over multiple issues at once. We should be able to be weed-smoking, tattoo-having, god-doubting, pants-sagging, piercing-clad, grill-sporting, unmarried individuals if we want to — without having to worry that we will be presumed monolithic, followed, frisked, or shot because of it. We should be able to be, and to choose, and to affirm who we are, always and without shame. Because when it comes to fighting for your entire life, there is no compromise. Now let us twerk.
Treating our hungry toddler to his favorite meal during a four-hour car ride seemed a pretty easy task: Any decent small town off the Saw Mill Parkway had to have a pizza joint, right? So it was that we found ourselves at a spare storefront restaurant in Mount Kisco a few weeks ago.
It was all good until my husband went for seconds and was quite obviously ignored at the counter, waiting while the owner served a group that had entered after he stepped up. When he finally got his slice and came back to the table, our son was shyly babbling with the kid in the neighboring booth, who we learned was the same age, 20 months. The owner appeared again – a petite, middle-age woman whose overdone makeup made my pores cry out in the sweltering heat – and swooped in to fuss over the other child, loudly offering him a special dessert, out of nowhere. She swept past us to pick him up and bring him behind the counter, where a sugar-dusted cookie was handed over with great flourish. Our son she seemed determined not to see.
This is probably a good time to mention that I’m black, and my husband is white. He posited, sotto voce, that this was behind the owner’s antics, saying, “I don’t think it’s intentional.” I think he meant it to be comforting, but as my son happily munched his pizza, all I could think of was getting out of there. Just for good measure, the owner caught my eye with a steely look and a gave me a curt, “Do you need anything else?”
To be clear: This is about as benign a racist encounter as you can get, not really even worthy to be retold, except … that’s the whole problem with racism: It doesn’t always pair with ill intent. It’s not just a problem of “evil” people. It doesn’t show itself merely in the use of slurs or violence.
I would counter, in fact, that in an era when Barack Obama can be elected president — twice — but studies still show that people of color are treated differently, from hiring and homebuying to policing, racism is often more underground, imperceptible, and even unintentional than ever.
Case in point, from one of the big news stories of the day: A new study by the Urban Institute on “Stand Your Ground” laws — now infamous after the killing of Trayvon Martin last year — found that the killings of black people by whites were more likely to be considered justified than the killings of white people by blacks. There’s no racism written into the law, of course, but the enforcement of it ultimately rests with fallible, less-than-objective human beings.
On a less inflammatory topic, a recent study by the Department of Housing and Urban Development found that people of color were shown fewer homes than their white counterparts with the same credentials — and were less likely to get discounts on their rents. But get this: All the customers said they felt that they had been treated fairly and courteously. It’s quite possible that the real estate agents’ unequal treatment was unintentional. And that’s why this ingrained, subtle prejudice is so slippery: If you don’t know your actions are tainted by racism – or that someone else’s are, for that matter – how can you possibly fix it?
So much of today’s racism is like this: under the surface, shifting our interactions without our realizing. Is it preferable to the days of lynching and poll taxes? Sure. But sitting in that pizza parlor as reality dawned on me, I went from solemn sadness to a breathless terror for my oblivious, innocent 20-month-old. The rifts that separate us, that bring us to judgment based on something none of us can control – they don’t spare him now, and they won’t spare him when he’s a young black man instead of an adorable, racially ambiguous toddler. It might mean hurt feelings during grade-school recess, a lost job opportunity, or fewer housing options, yes. But the real point — the real punch in the gut to a new mother of color — is that this is the same racism that transforms a gangly teenager out for snacks into a threat, and then a corpse.