Monthly Archives: June 2012

Why care? Because if you don’t, you still lose.

“I work hard. Why do I have to pay for other people’s misfortunes? Why must my hard-earned tax dollars go to support lazy leaches who have only themselves to blame for their lot in life?”

“Why should I care?”

In last week’s Great Society post, I tried to answer this question. The reason you should care, in short, is because it’s the right thing to do. But for those who need a better reason, consider the incentive. Without social safety nets (like social security, medicare/Medicaid) that all of our tax dollars pay for, individuals fall further behind the socioeconomic curve and are wedged more deeply between the cracks. This is relevant because people left to their own devices to survive don’t simply disappear from society. You still have to deal with them.

Individuals who don’t have health coverage that show up to receive emergency care, will receive care and somebody still has to pay for it. People who don’t have enough money for adequate food and housing still gotta eat, and still need shelter. And someone will pay for it.  Through the normal channels or the alternative ones, someone has to pay for it. Self preservation is a universal value. Thus, if you choke off folks’ access to a better life, they’ll find another way to take opportunity. Both the French and American Revolutions proved that people won’t stand to be ruled indefinitely by aristocrats and elites who look out for their social class alone.  We can choose to participate on the front end, like civilized people who’ve learned the lessons of history, or we can wait for revolution to persuade us.

I know some Americans yearn for an existance that mirrors a 19th or 20th century one, where folks engage each other on Sunday at church or once a week at the general store. You could connect to your fellow Americans on your terms because it was likely that the patch of land you lived on was sufficient to your survival. Well, friends, that reality no longer exists. There are more than 300 million Americans; you can’t escape us.  And you can’t escape the fact that our fates are connected.

When face to face with the decision to save lives vs. teaching a lesson in personal responsibility, saving lives is more important. The lesson can wait.  Great societies prosper when they acknowledge the value in cooperation; the value in each other; the value in helping each other.  And you don’t stop helping folks because a few are ungrateful for it.  And you don’t stop helping folks because your method of dissemination is flawed.    You make it better, you make it work with what you’ve got.  This ‘me and mine’ only approach has been, on almost every occasion, disastrous. Remember that failing to heed the lessons of the past dooms us to repeating them.

So why should you care?  Because it’s in our best interest for you to.  Our best interest – yours and mine.  And because if you don’t, we all lose.  We all do, you included.


Fantasyland

Fantasyland is where suspension of reality is reality. Whether you engage it – pop its g-string and tip it, or you dream it – seeing Idris Elba’s face giving you the business, instead of that bamma, Clyde, that you married, Fantasyland is your mind’s playground. Where wonderment can freely roam.

I was at a drag show recently and there may be no greater suspension of reality anywhere than that which exists at drag shows. Make no mistake about it, drag queens are dudes in dresses and makeup. Wearing heels and purses and sequins and things. But drag is also art, creativity, courage, and skill. You have to respect the work that goes into beating one’s face the way these queens do.

Ms. Jujubee, Ms. Kenya Michaels, Ms. Nina Flowers

I’ve seen linebacker-built queens move with remarkable poise and grace in absurdly high heels .  I’ve even seen them drop into a split and pop it like a stripper with ease and precision. Drag queens are masterful at pushing the boundaries to create their perfect illusion. And the experience is especially dope if they have a personality dazzling enough to really pull it off.

I think what’s most fascinating to me about drag culture is folks’ reactions to drag performances – which sort of represents the success or failure of the queen’s illusion. My granny says the eyes never lie, and she’s right. What happens with fans at a drag show is the same thing that happens with fans at a concert – how, in my their fantasy, I they pretend that Beyoncé’s really singing ‘Speechless‘ to me them and me them only. The shoulders sway from side to side and the eyes are locked, all hazy and shit. Before you know it, it’s happened. You’re under her spell.

To me, there’s something deliciously intriguing about drag because no one studies women (for non-sexual purposes) like gay men and drag queens.  See the documentary film, Paris is Burning, if you don’t believe me.  It tells the story of drag and ball culture in the New York City’s Black and Latino LGBT communities during the late 1980s.  You can watch the entire film using the link above, and you really should.  The culture  and characters are so engrossing, you feel like you’ve gained insight into a whole other world.  In one ball scene, the emcee advises emphatically, “It is a KNOWN FACT, that a woman do carry an evening bag at dinnertime.”  How could you deny yourself this pleasure?  Go on and watch.  And the next time you see a professional queen lip syncing for her life to a Beyoncé tune, understand that only Beyoncé herself could do Bey better.

At drag shows, I also love watching folks stalk the stage, and stride up with their stack of ones in hand, ready to make it rain on a queen for being so fucking fierce. They think they got all the power, but soon find themselves up close and realize she’s this stunning projection of masculinity and femininity at the same time – stunning, maybe in the way women are.  But stunning, definitely, in the way a work of art can be.  In any case, the eyes are locked, and before they know it, they’re under her spell. The queen looks em in the eye, takes their lil ones, strokes the hand a bit. And keeps it movin. The power has been transferred.  The illusion was successful.

I suppose this magic is what all great performers hope to achieve – the ability to suspend reality and forge some connection in Fantasyland.  Or, perhaps, to be able to make the fantasy real and tangible for a moment.

Or maybe it’s enough just to wanna have a good time.  Whatever the case, Fantasyland allows you that freedom.  You get the green light to go ahead and go in.


Great Society

After watching President Obama’s Ohio Speech on the Economy last week, I structured my Black Politics lecture around the contributions and obstructions of federalism – the union of state and federal power – to the “African-American quest for universal freedom.” In that context, we discussed four episodes in our nation’s history which speak to the expansion of federal power, and the utility of “Big Government.” They are: Reconstruction, The Great Depression and the Great Recession, and the Civil Rights Era.

Reconstruction was the first national effort at not only physical, structural renewal, it also was an attempt to redefine society – to no longer affirm the institution of slavery, and the indignity of human bondage. Whatever your feelings about Abraham Lincoln’s motives in supporting abolition, the decision to go to war over it required courage. Lincoln’s efforts stated firmly that the United States is, and not that the United States are. We were one nation committed to a singular destiny – namely, life, liberty, the pursuit of prosperity and happiness for all Americans.

The expansion of Federal power via FDR’s New Deal programs following The Great Depression signaled that government took seriously its social contract with the consented. It would indeed work for the people.

As in the Great Recession, which began somewhere around 2007, and from which the U.S. economy hasn’t completely emerged, the expansion of federal power after the Great Depression served to protect the people against thrill-seeking investors’ risky financial decisions. In the event that great risk did not result in great reward, and instead, exploded into calamitous, wide-ranging collateral damage, only the federal government had the economic fluidity and the moral imperative to lead the rescue.

The moral imperative to do what’s right for most people is what defines the role of government and distinguishes it from the private sector. Thus, during times of national economic crisis, “relief” from steadily rising unemployment and poverty is proffered by the only entity with the power and financial liquidity to do so – government. Social welfare programs like the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the stimulus of 2009 (formally known as the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act) helped save the nation’s economy not from calamity and disaster, but from deepening calamity and disaster. I know that nuance doesn’t play well politically, but sometimes the best answer to “are things better?” is, in all honesty, “things are better than they could have been.”

And then there’s the matter of reform. Neither the Great Depression nor the Great Recession happened as a result of private industry’s concern for common folks. Business – corporations – have as their primary aim increasing the proportion of profit to loss, by any means necessary. The banking industry, through subprime mortgage lending and credit derivatives, exploited the natural aspirations of the American people. The prevailing narrative purports that home ownership is a critical component of achieving the American dream. The industry capitalized on our inability to discern wants and real needs. And for that, we share partial responsibility in the global financial collapse. It’s like this: the haughty aspirations of the American peopled had poisoned the well. And the banks saw an opportunity to capitalize on that thirst – selling back to us water from the poisoned well, an American dream that had an expiration date on it.

It was no problem for banks to approve loans for folks with credit scores of 500 and below because when or if they defaulted on the loan, the bank had already made its share of profit from the fees associated with having scores more applicants and approvals. The industry knew the game was rigged against the consumer, so it insulated itself against the potential fallout. In other words, if the house of cards ever fell, those responsible for brokering the shitty deals would get away relatively unscathed. If the consumer defaulted, the bank had already split up the risk a hundred ways, all across the globe.

FDR’s New Deal programs and President Obama’s Wall Street Reforms were government answers to private industry’s on again /off again relationship with public exploitation. Government gives a shit about you because that’s its job. Corporations make money; that’s their job. Government-imposed regulations on business practices are used to remind business that people are more than just dollar signs. It’s the caveat to caveat emptor – buyer beware; seller be fair. (dope. I just made that up…)

Be fair. This brings me to the Civil Rights era and Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society. Think, for two seconds, about what a “great society” looks like, how it functions, what it’s priorities are. The Civil Rights Act, Medicare and Medicaid, and the Head Start Program, among many others, made proclamations about who Americans are, and what we value. We decided we didn’t like the idea that minorities bore unequal treatment in our society, we weren’t comfortable with the idea that our elderly and underprivileged should simply limp away, out of sight and out of mind. And we understood that education – as early as possible and as much as possible, offered opportunity and advancement to the individual, to her community, and to society at large.

Great societies recognize the connection between the individual, the community, and society. And government’s role is to ensure that society’s rules of operation are reasonable and fair, such that the individual is able to flourish, and give back. That’s the positive feedback loop. It works the same in reverse. Now that we get to view President Obama and Governor Romney side by side, I see one candidate who understands that vision, and one who does not.

There’s a quote I love that goes: to the hammer, every problem’s a nail. For me, Governor Romney and the Tea Party Republican Party embody this perspective, constructing every solution from the position of privilege. Don’t raise taxes on millionaires who can afford it, and don’t dare regulate business, removing the hard-on it has for risk and exploitation given an opportunity. No, no. Instead, cut spending on services for people who need them most. Reduce or eliminate funding for programs in education, the arts, infrastructure, and science and research – all aspects of society that make it, well, great.

So I guess the question going forward isn’t who you’ll vote for in November. It’s bigger than that. It’s more like, what kind of society do you want to live in? Raise kids in? Grow old in? What values do you honor? Who advocates a “great” society for all of us, and whose position is summed up this way: “great society for me and my cohorts and we’ll make it great for you. Trust me.” Once you answer those questions, who to vote for in November becomes a no-brainer.


Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? Me, Kinda.

I’m teaching a Black Politics course this summer, and I’m using Toure’s Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? What it Means to Be Black Now as the primary textbook. Initially, I planned to take the traditional route – lecturing from works by the usual suspects: Manning Marable, Michael Dawson, Cornel West. But I decided in the end that I wanted to discuss race in a contemporary way, and Toure’s work allows me that freedom.

My class starts like Toure’s book does, with questions about the nature of identity. What exactly is Blackness in 2012? 50 years ago, varying shades of brown skin were sufficient determinations. If you couldn’t pass a brown paper bag test, then you were Black enough to experience the struggle, and on some level, you probably knew it personally. It was that – the struggle, the trauma narrative – of the Black American experience that was the rallying cry of Black Americans.

In 2012, however, with a biracial President of the United States who has chosen to identify culturally as Black, what now is the rallying cry? What now is the reason to rally for the race? Toure’s book argues that Blackness is multifaceted. Struggle, trauma, oppression, and racism are no longer qualifying characteristics of living while Black in America. Scholar and Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates explains it this way: if there are 40 million Black Americans, then there are 40 million ways to be Black. Thus, poor, oppressed, and powerless is but one reality of Blackness. There are 40 million other ways to “do” it.

Last week, I asked my class to write a short paper about the way(s) they express Blackness. I wondered if it was fair for me to have the same expectation of my non-Black students. But I figured, fuck it. Writing the paper required all of them to soul search. They’d have figure out for themselves what it means to be Black and how they, as individuals, fit into that narrative. It’s an opportunity to process through a different prism.

In the beginning of Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness, Touré lists his interview questions. There are some good ones designed to move the windmills of your mind and to jump-start dialogue. Touré asks: What does being Black mean to you? Does being Black mean something different today than it did 40 years ago? Would you feel comfortable eating fried chicken or watermelon around white people? My students and I talk about these questions, and we try to answer them too. I’ve noticed that the younger ones always respond in post-Black, individualistic ways. And the older students often answer from a collective perspective.

It always starts this way though. No one likes to admit that they still subscribe to a trauma narrative about the Black American experience. That they still wear “the struggle,” and are still caught up in it. Post-Blackness gives folks license to slough off that trauma, and move on. In a way, it’s like a second Emancipation Proclamation. This time though, Blacks are liberated from an imposed responsibility for advancing the race. You get to just “do you,” without worrying about whether it helps or hurts Us-at-large. “Us” is not your priority; you are. Post-Blackness allows Blackness to be embraced in a continuum, where Clarence Thomas-types can be at one end and Angela Davis-types can be at the other. And it’s all the same. Angela Davis hasn’t kept it real, and Clarence Thomas hasn’t sold out. Each of them performs Blackness in their own way, and each expression of Blackness is as legitimate, and as authentic as the other.

Post-Blackness represents the freedom to be an individual. To that end, it’s possible no one embodies the Post-Black pathology ideology quite like Dave Chappelle. “Chappelle Show” was absolutely fearless in the way it handled the social and cultural constructions of race in America. The third chapter of Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness is titled “The Rise and Fall of a Post-Black King”. In it, Touré presents several of Chappelle’s most hilarious, most provocative, and most brilliant comedy sketches cum social commentaries on race. But they’re so much better in video. See for yourself.

The Niggar Family

Frontline – Clayton Bigsby, Black White Supremacist

These sketches worked because they made it seem like we could actually be evolved and mature in discussing race – so conscious, as it were, that we could even be irreverent about it.

Roots Outtakes

But alas, as I mentioned, Chapter 3 of ‘Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness’ is titled “The Rise and Fall of a Post-Black King.” Remember, Dave Chappelle walked away from “Chappelle’s Show” and away from his $50 million contract with Comedy Central because he felt like folks no longer laughed with him. Whereas initially, the point was to be funny and if somewhere along the way, a sentient message about race relations emerged, that was even better. But in the end, Chappelle felt more responsibility than that. In other words, the irreverence for Blackness that Post-Blackness encourages and excuses is cool until it’s not – that is, honestly, until white folks laugh a little too hard at depictions of slavery, or get too comfortable misunderstanding nigga/nigger. “You start to realize that these sketches, in the wrong hands, are dangerous.”

The history of race relations in America makes discussions of race slippery and uncomfortable. Being able to laugh about it certainly lightens things up, but the sore still festers if we really aren’t yet evolved and mature enough to also recognize the blues of it all.

The blues of the Black American experience are still palpable for a good number of folks because, although some of us have managed to exorcise ourselves from the charge of race consciousness by standing proudly as Post-Black, the world in which we live, unfortunately, isn’t so evolved.

Clever. Renege is spelled differently, but I’m sure they already knew that.

Post-Blackness, in the wrong hands, is also dangerous. And in the Trayvon Martin case, I think Touré saw that too.