Monday, April 17, 2017

No More Mr. Nice Guy

Two years ago I was at a function celebrating excellence. I was there with family to support my daughter who had placed third in poetry writing and received an honorable mention in classical music. It was one of those swanky blackish affairs with black suits, fake smiles, and small talk. But I was beaming with pride and making idle chatter to a couple seated at our table when an acquaintance of mine walked up.

We exchanged pleasantries and he acknowledged my wife and other daughters with a smile and nod before turning back to me and asking "All girls? You going to keep trying until you get a boy?" He said it in a jovial way that was meant to be an ice-breaker as much as any off-handed misogynist comment could. Well it was safe to say the ice was broken. His question, as they use to say, took me there. This was my daughter's day, so congratulations should have been in order. She was being honored for excellence. The same daughter who played Varsity tennis, and was lining up auditions for a Viola scholarship. But no congratulations came from him so I planted my feet, squared up, and asked "What do you mean?"

The couple I had been previously talking to looked away. I was mad. Mad at myself more than anything. What signals had I sent to let this man know he could come at me like that?  What had I done to make him think I'd be cool with him devaluing my daughters so casually?

But I already knew the answer. I had heard similar comments before and just smiled and said "I'm good." I had previously allowed these misogynist statements to pass as a segue to more relevant topics like football and politics. And in doing so I failed as a father. And as a man. I have been entrusted with the task of raising black girls, and there is nothing more honorable.  And for those who don't have the opportunity to raise black daughters I feel sorry for you. There is no other segment of the population that is as selfless, as brave, as loyal as black women. And I have a front row seat of seeing how this magic happens and I am in awe. These girls are amazing. And watching them find their way as they realize their magic is like watching miracles happen.

How in grade school they have to develop coping mechanisms as they are challenged early and often with racism and misogyny. How sometimes they come home dejected because a student or teacher tried to knock them down a peg and put them in their place. My wife and I have had to go to their schools, because even though our daughters had the test scores and grades, the Administration didn't think the Advanced program was a good fit for them.

Black Girls are subject to this type of dismissive behavior daily from students and adults. And it wears on them as the defense mechanisms they need to deal with these issues are still developing. They cry or lash out when the burden becomes too heavy. Then the magic starts to happen. They get in high school and start to realize their self-worth. Their value. And teachers and other students aren't ready. Black girls have had to deal with more than their peers and they emerge from that baptism of fire forever changed. They've adapted a toughness. A maturity. A confidence all from a reservoir of strength that most of their peers didn't know existed, and might not find until later in life, if at all. And that's where that magic comes from. They know how the world sees them but they don't care and world has a tough time reconciling that. It's not a coincidence that Black Women are the most educated demographic. The trial and tribulations of their younger years more than prepared them for the challenges of Academia. And that they voted overwhelmingly against Orange Julius in the last presidential election showed a wisdom and foresight that every other segment lacked and is now regretting.
My acquaintance squirmed as I waited for an answer. He squirmed, laughed, and looked away. I didn't laugh. I didn't look away. I thought about how my other daughter got the lead in the school play. She was so proud. And afterwards we went out for ice-cream. And before we crossed the street she grabbed my hand. My heart jumped. This is fatherhood. This is raising black daughters and being a witness to magic. She talked and laughed as she ate her ice-cream. About how she crushed her solo. How there was a casting party this weekend she had to go to. How much she liked math. I just nodded and smiled. The lump in my throat wouldn't allow me to speak. Couldn't even finish my ice-cream. So now I seethed as I looked at this man trying to steal my daughter’s joy. Trying to reduce her value based on an XX chromosome.  My primary responsibility as a father is as a protector. And black girls needed that more than most at a young age because they have to contend with so much. I felt as if I had fallen short of that responsibility.

The table became quiet, so I repeated myself. "I said what do you mean?" He sized me up with a nervous smile and a question in his eye. I've seen that look before. It happens when someone underestimates you and doesn't realize it until it's too late.  He needed an exit to save face. I wouldn't give him one.

Other tables were noticing now. I waited. Finally he said "Didn't mean nuthin by it. Y'all have a nice day." He then turned and left. The other couple avoided eye contact with me as I sat back down. My wife nodded. But as I watched my daughter get lined up on stage I noticed my other daughters were looking at me. They had a mischievous grin. An 'I got your back' grin. It dissipated the tension and made me laugh. After this awards ceremony with over cooked chicken we were getting ice-cream on the way home. And I made a promise to myself that when it came to my daughters I was done being Mr. Nice Guy.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Black People Harry Potter Won't Save You

Black People Harry Potter won't save you. But let's start at the beginning: anyone demanding JK Rowling and other popular writers be more inclusive, more diverse in their works needs to step away from the keyboard and chill. I know the layer of obfuscation and anonymity that the Internet allows emboldens keyboard warriors who in turn become intoxicated with virtual muscle when challenging the establishment. Especially when that muscle moves the needle and goes viral like #OscarsSoWhite. But that's what so addictive and dangerous about social media. Being able to say anything to anyone at anytime feeds a cottage industry of trolls who live for it and will tear down everything just because they can. Like the Joker in Batman some men just want to see the world burn.
And while social media activism can provide value like shining a light on racial and gender disparities in Hollywood, people in the movie industry will tell you that one of the biggest things you can do to effect change, is go see movies on opening night. In short: fund the change you want. Besides, all that activism and the publishing industry is still predominately white at every level. And a large percentage of the chatter can best be described as begging for a white savior to, well, you know, come save you. Confused? How is demanding a white writer or company be more diverse in their art to make you feel better about purchasing their wares not begging for a white savior to rescue you? Or,  at the very least, assuage your guilt? Oh, you trippen off my use of the term 'white savior'?  Does 'accountable' work better for you? Regardless, please explain how you can demand that the establishment address your pleas while you offer nothing in return is not like the Tarzan trope?  I'll wait...
Still trippen? The Tarzan thing hurt your feelings? You think I'm hating on your boo JK Rowling? I'm not. JK Rowling is a great writer and, from what I've read about her, an even better person (she is also hilarious on twitter). So don't get it twisted. This is about readers screaming for diversity while ignoring diverse books because they're not big enough or part of the establishment, ie JK Rowling or Suzanne Collins. And I know the argument, that it's a waste of energy to support and make demands of said writers because they aren't as big as JK Rowling, so they don't have the same social and cultural impact. That thinking ensures that those writers won't ever be as big or have the cultural impact of a JK Rowling. It's nonsensical circular logic.
Oh wait, the problem is you're not familiar with any diverse fantasy or science fiction books? I got you! Go to Twitter and search hashtags #WeNeedDiverseBooks or #DiverseBookBloggers. Those hashtags optimize social media activism by doing two things: increasing visibility on the disparity of diverse books in the publishing industry and promoting diverse talent. You're welcome. And for the record, no one is above criticism, least of all JK. But my biggest beefs with her books - next to that troubling going back in time sequence - was why Harry and crew were never able to morph into animals like their parents. His mother and father could turn into a deer/doe and even Pettigrew could turn into a rat. Which brings to mind another inconsistency: why Pettigrew never showed up on the map? I mean this dude is in the house, in the school, but nada? And yeah it would be cool if Harry had an afro and Hermione afro puffs.

Also the hashtag #IfHogwartsWasAnHBCU was why the Internet was invented. But for the most part I'm good with the books. What I'm not good with is people constantly chirping and making demands of big time authors for more diversity while they look past less established writers who publish diverse books. And there is something else: a weird conflicting dichotomy in the black community where people will enthusiastically support black writers on social media but won't purchase their work because they consider it substandard. And if the Potter books are the bar which black folks require black authors to clear, why don't they have the same requirement for white authors? Am I bitter? I hope not. But I do get frustrated at times when I see convos about there not being enough books with diverse protagonist or black girl heroes. I feel like Horshack from Welcome Back Kotter watching those convos.

I'm sure that this is how a lot of less established writers feel. And for writers who do write diverse books, the equation is simple: if you want diverse books then vote with your dollars. They carry more weight than your tweets. But me and my writer friends are in this for the long haul. So when y'all get tired of waiting for that Harry Potter train to come save you and whisk you away to a diverse Hogwarts where the sorting hat is your grandma's church hat and they serve shrimp and grits for breakfast, we'll be here. Diverse books and all... 

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Preview of Shots Fired

We live in troubled times. A spoiled man child has been coronated to the most powerful position in the world. Special interest owns our politicians who in turn give scant attention to the people they are elected to serve. Our planet is warming at an alarming rate, our urban schools are suffering from neglect and profiteering and our infrastructure is crumbling. And the people are left voiceless as they see no escape and no help coming. But the one thing that make this assault on our sensibilities bearable is art. Art is our friend, our lover, our confidante, our teacher. It raises our consciousness, promotes community, and inspires us. In short, it makes us more human. Enter Shots Fired.

“Shots Fired” is the latest joint from Executive Producers and Writers Gina Prince-Bythewood and Reggie Rock Bythewood. It deconstructs two separate police shootings of unarmed kids, one white one black. Already tense racial tensions are further inflamed after the mayor calls in the DOJ to investigate the shooting of the white kid.  I had the pleasure of screening the first episode and I wasnt ready. Watching it I felt the same rage and helplessness I felt after the deaths of Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, and Sandra Bland. So many over the years its hard not to become desensitized. And if the first episode is any indication “Shots Fired” honors our fallen brothers and sisters. It also shows the insular and circle-the-wagon culture of the police. The striking visuals and reality of a mostly white police force policing mostly black bodies. The distrust and fear of communities of color against those chosen to protect them. A hint of the prison industrial complex that needs and more and more black bodies to maintain profitably. “Shots Fired” handles all this deftly while also managing to differentiate between being anti-police and anti-justice. Thanks to great writing and incredible performances “Shots Fired” delivers.

There are so many standout performances to choose from, lets start with Aisha Hinds’ dominating performance as Rev. Janae James. The vulnerability and strength of Jill Hennessys Alicia Carr. Mack Wilds brilliance in playing a frustrated and abandoned officer trying to balance two worlds and left with no home or community. But this series will rise or fall on the performances of Sanaa Lathan and
Stephan James. Its in good hands. Sanaa plays a damaged and at times self-destructive Investigator who is as beautiful as she is intimidating. And Sanaa is at the top of her game. She looks at home throwing down shots with the good ol' boys, showing a tenderness as a mother that grounds her, and displaying a sexual confidence and swagger that makes me blush. Stephan plays opposite her and anyone who has played sports is already familiar with him. Hes the Quarterback of the football team who got a 36 on his ACTs. The arrogant overachiever who thinks hes the smartest guy in the room. Stephan nails it by showing some self-doubt and humbleness in his self-reflective moments that hints at his character’s arc. And when they’re on screen together playing mental chess games with each other they are magnetic and it is must-see TV.

“Shots Fired” is the latest piece in a new tapestry that challenges the status quo and shows an imperfect nation falling short of its promises to its more vulnerable citizens. Mr. Bythewood had the TALK with his grandfather and remnants of that talk is seen when Detective Ashe(Sanaa Lathan) is stopped by the police. Her badge and status dont protect her. There are levels to privilege and the police that stopped Det. Ashe let her know she is confused if she thinks otherwise. Thats the talk every black parent has with their child. Mrs. Bythewood who is the mother of two sons leaves her imprint as well. You feel it as Shameeka gazes at her son while he studies or walks him to the bus stop demanding a kiss. Her life is controlled by a fear that is every parents worst nightmare. And Mrs. Bythewood’s involvement in this project should come as no surprise. Black women are leading the way in todays movement be it Michelle Alexanders The New Jim Crow, Ava DuVernays 13TH, and now “Shots Fired”. But if you have been paying attention (see the demographic breakdown of the latest presidential election) black women ‘showing the way’ is nothing new. And that a lot of black womens contributions may have been invisible or gone unnoticed during the Civil Rights movement says more about who is writing the history books than anything else.  But make no mistake, the movement of today is being led by black women on all fronts and they are no longer hidden figures. Do yourself a favor, watch “Shots Fired” this spring and join the movement.  Stay Woke.

 You can catch “Shots Fired” starting March 22nd on your local Fox Station.