Race

Moving time?

Once again, as happens every year about this time, the calendar has rolled over to February. Once again, as happens every year about this time, some people (usually, though not always, people of color) start doing things to commemorate Black History Month. And, once again, as happens every year about this time, skeptical souls start making quips about how it makes sense that black folks would be given the shortest, coldest month of the year to call their own.

Now the original rationales for using February as the time to honor black contributions to the US undo some of the truths to be found in all those wry jokes. The fact that a black man started the tradition — and that he picked February because it’s the month when both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass were born — messes a bit with the fact that February really would have been the perfect “separate but equal” month for white America to parcel out as a token gesture to black America. Perhaps more to the point, back in 1926, when the whole thing started (and when it was only a week), it’s not as if there were exactly legions of white Americans who were actively looking to find even a day of the year — much less a week or a month — to pay homage to black people. If the choice had really been white America’s back then (and perhaps even now), I’m pretty sure that there would have been no debate at all about when to pay tribute to black America, since that tribute simply would not have been forthcoming at all.

But that’s not what led me to fire up the blogging machinery tonight.

No, what occurred to me as I was reading yet another one of those “of course, we got the shortest month” commentaries was that there’s no good reason why Black History Month simply has to stay tied to February. Sure, it’s been that way for almost a century now, but it’s not as if that’s dictated by law. There are no major holidays that would need to be moved that would disrupt the rhythm of school calendars or banks. No annual BHM sale days that would destroy the economy if they were shifted to some other time of year. No government agency charged with overseeing holidays from whom permission would need to be secured. BHM isn’t the sort of tradition, after all, that exists because of any formal mandate from the proverbial Powers That Be — no more so than clearly arbitrary “holidays” like National Sushi Day or National Drink Beer Day — and it’s only “stuck” in February because that’s where it began.

To put it a different way, if we don’t like the fact that BHM is in a short, cold month, then let’s just move it. Who’s going to stop us? It would probably be pretty amusing — and telling — to watch people try to prevent such a thing from happening. I am suddenly flashing on Fox News pundits trying to claim that the very future of the nation would somehow be imperiled if black folks were given positive public recognition during any month of the year besides February.

And if we want a long, hot month, there are some pretty good choices there. The easy one to take would be August. There’s certainly no major holiday then to compete with BHM — or even a minor one. It’s got 31 days, and it’s plenty warm, so there could be lots of picnics and parades and other such festivities.

But I think the far better choice would be July, which — like August — gives us 31 steamy, sultry days to work with. But it also puts BHM and Independence Day right on top of each other. And if part of the point of BHM is to celebrate the centrality of black contributions to the nation, then when better to do that than when the nation itself is being celebrated so heartily?

It takes Q to Django?

[Wasn't it roughly this time last year when I said I was going to be better about blogging in 2012? Oh, yeah. It was. Hmm. Well, let's try this again. Maybe it'll stick this time.]

I rang out the old year yesterday by taking in Django Unchained, the latest from ultra-violence-loving director Quentin Tarantino. I’m still processing the experience, so these are merely some quick, fragmentary reflections. Ask me again tomorrow, and maybe they’ll have shifted. Also, there may be a few spoilers below. If you haven’t seen the film, and you want to do so without knowing too much more, then you may not want to read past the first bullet point.

django poster

  • Spike Lee has done a curious two-step around the film. On the one hand, he doesn’t want to talk about it publicly. On the other hand, he’s made very public statements claiming that film is “disrespectful to [his] ancestors.” More problematically, he’s done so while also saying that he has no intention of seeing the film. Lee, of course, isn’t obligated to see any film he doesn’t want to see. Nor is he obligated to like (or respect) either Tarantino or his films. At the same time, it’s a bit disheartening to see him condemn the film so thoroughly without having seen it — not the least because Lee’s been on the receiving end of plenty of that sort of blind, knee-jerk condemnation himself. And Lee has wandered into some exceptionally murky waters himself with respect to ugly representations of black people on the big screen (cf. Bamboozled — which, to be clear, is a pretty brilliant piece of work . . . but Lee’s deliberately over-the-top depiction of blackface minstrelsy produced its own fair share of squirming audiences.) To be sure, I can respect Lee’s desire not to see the film. But there’s a big difference between saying, “I don’t really like Tarantino’s films, so I have no need to see this one” and slapping this particular film down unseen because of its content and tone.
  • Now if you’re one of those people who doesn’t like Tarantino’s movies because they’re too violent, too bloody, or too gruesome, then you won’t like Django any better. The body count here is high (and not just because, at 165 minutes, there’s lots of time to pile up the corpses), and few (if any) of the deaths are exactly “clean.” That said, the film dives deep into the heart of chattel slavery in the US . . . and that was an extraordinarily violent practice. Enough so that, even though Tarantino could have ramped the violence up without being historically inaccurate, he toned it down so that audiences could not be too traumatized to cheer the movie’s final denouement. Let that sink in for a second. A Quentin Tarantino movie (of all things!) is softer than the actual historical violence associated with slavery in this country. If you haven’t seen the movie, you might be tempted to think that this “kinder, gentler” vision of slavery only justifies Lee’s refusal to see the film. But since I have seen the film, I can assure you that it does absolutely nothing to make slavery look like a benevolent institution.
  • I’ve seen a handful of bloggers and critics who’ve criticized the movie for what it doesn’t do in terms of portraying racial solidarity between blacks or in terms of presenting even some tiny gesture towards collective rebellion. And there’s some truth to be found there. Django is not a selfless martyr, abandoning the path to freedom and wandering into certain death because he can’t bear to leave his brothers and sisters behind him in chains. Nor is he a new Nat Turner, helping to lead the fieldhands into open rebellion against white supremacy. His mission is purely personal (though not entirely selfish), and he is never distracted from it by even a moment of sympathetic solidarity for the obvious suffering of other black folk around him. But, you know, that’s okay by me. At least for now. Hollywood isn’t exactly overflowing with movies where the central characters are black and where pervasive, systemic, institutional racism is the primary target that must be destroyed. Of course, Django doesn’t take down the entire system, but Tarantino also doesn’t let us get away with thinking that that system was fundamentally a Good Thing that happened to be ruined by a tiny handful of wicked souls. What Django gives us is a vision of racism as a cancer that permeates the entirety of US society, top to bottom, and that’s an extraordinarily rare thing for Hollywood to do, even in an historical setting. I can live with Django, the fictional man, getting to live out his personal revenge fantasy and ride off into the night with his one true love . . . because Django, the movie, doesn’t let audiences pretend that slavery was really just some sort of pleasant Gone With the Wind costume drama after all.

October notable nine

As before, these are in no particular order . . . except for #1.

  1. Mocha. Given the unhappy prognosis for her long-term health back in March, she stays at the top of this list for every month she remains on this side of the topsoil. The past week or so, she’s actually seemed a bit perkier. And the slow, perpetual nose bleeds that had made my living room floor look like it had been decorated by Jackson Pollock with a one-dimension palette have slowed down as well. If she’s still with us this time next month, I’ll have had to go back to the vet twice to re-renew the prescription for her meds. And, given how she seems to be faring right now, I’m not gonna be surprised if I have to do that.
  2. A long delayed fall. We knew it couldn’t last. And it didn’t. We saw our first snow flurries of the season here in Minneapolis last week. But earlier in the month, we were still rocking temps in the 80s. Not just fleetingly, but for several days at a stretch. Patio dining was still feasible — and comfortable — more than halfway into the month. And when those sorts of days aren’t likely to roll around again until April, every little extension of the summer is a glorious thing.
  3. Lake Wine and Cheese. Newly opened, and a short four-block walk from my house . . . and with a marvelous selection of craft beers and microbrews. If I didn’t have a fridge full of beer I brewed myself, this place would tempt me to part with a bit more of my take-home pay than would be wise.
  4. Town Hall Brewery‘s Fresh Hop. Speaking of places where I spend money on beer, it’s tough to top the stuff THB brews and pours on a regular basis. But it’s extra tough to top their Fresh Hop: a once-a-year, get-it-while-supplies-last batch of hopped-up ale made, just as the name implies, with hops picked fresh off the vine . . . or at least as fresh as possible, given that the vines in question are still 1000 miles or so to the west.
  5. Washington, 17, Philadelphia 12; Washington 16, Green Bay 13; Washington 17, Chicago 14. On a day when my lifelong football allegiance were sorely tested (i.e., the day when, for the second year in a row, my team lost to the otherwise woeful Lions), I need to remind myself that we had a winning record for October, that two of our three wins came against teams that made the playoffs last season, and that the season is still far from over.
  6. Teaching via IM. Once every year or two, I’ll have a moment when I think I know what I’m going to do in the classroom that day . . . and then, at the last second, some wild idea pops into my head for something totally weird that I should do instead. I can’t predict or control those flashes of inspiration, but I’ve learned to trust them. ‘Cause they often wind up working much, much better than whatever I’d originally had planned. This time around, the course was “New Telecommunication Media” and one of the two readings on tap was from Shayla Thiel-Stern‘s book on adolescent girls and instant messaging. And I’d been prepared to lead the group in our usual conversation about the issues raised by the readings for the day — until I realized that it would be far more productive, at least with respect to one of the topics at hand, to hold our discussion using IM. Or at least a primitive, pre-digital version of IM, where our entire conversation took place using the whiteboard at the front of the room. It took my students a little while to warm up to the idea . . . but, eventually, we had 3-4 separate threads running on the board at once, and we were able to have a much smarter, much more embodied discussion of the material at hand than we ever would have if I’d stuck with my original lesson plan.
  7. So You Want to Get a PhD in the Humanities. Yes, it’s one of those videos that has already been around the world about 40 times, thanks to Facebook and listservs and such. But that doesn’t make it any less funny. Or sad. Or true.
  8. Chastity Brown @ the Kitty Cat Klub. This show was already down as a “must-list” for this month’s Notable Nine, and I figured I’d be able to find some suitably representative performance already online to give folks who’ve never had the pleasure a sense of what went down at the KCK on Oct 16. But, o frabjous day! Callooh! Callay! I found a clip from that very show. Enjoy.
  9. Paul Beatty reads Slumberland. A last-second addition to this month’s list. But that’s because I only became aware of this video in the last hour or so. If you haven’t read Slumberland yourself, run (do not walk) to your nearest independent bookstore, buy a copy, and stay up all night to finish it. While you’re at it, do the same with his first novel, The White Boy Shuffle. But if your nearest independent bookstore is closed at the time you’re actually reading these words, you can whet your appetite by watching the video below.

Unfortunate headline juxtapositions

Courtesy of cnn.com

Origin of the species?


Catching up on a backlog of unread items in my RSS reader, I came across a nice one from the Feminist Law Professor blog about “Smile on a Stick”: a “useful solution” for women who are repeatedly being told to smile by the men in their lives. The blog entry in question included the leftmost portion of the image above along with a link to the online vendor where you could buy your very own portable smile. When I saw the original post, I’ll admit that one of the first things I wondered was whether this particular novelty item came in other skintones, and I was happily surprised to see that there was at least a small range of other options available . . .

. . . until I saw the labels for them, that is. Just when did “original” become another way to say “white”? And shouldn’t people of color get to hide their expressions behind a cardboard frown too?

Monday lameness: The too-little-too-late edition

Why I chose to make Monday my “regular” blog posting day, I’m not sure.  It’s my long teaching day this semester, and several of those long days will be made longer by various meetings that are scheduled to happen in between my morning class and my afternoon seminar.  Not to mention the obligatory (for me, even if not always for anyone else) post-seminar retreat to the local brewpub for a bite to eat and a pint (or two) to drink.  Just when did I think that blogging would happen in all that?  I don’t know.  I simply don’t know.

Anywho . . . last Monday’s post never happened because Monday Night Football demanded my attention.  My team (who shall remain nameless here, seeing as how they have the most heinous and offensive nickname in all of professional sports) was playing, and when one lives 1100 miles away from one’s team’s homebase (and the guarantee of weekly TV opportunities), one doesn’t let a MNF appearance by one’s team slide by.  The blog, I’m afraid, suffered as a result.  But I did come away from the experience knowing, for the first time in my life, someone I could turn to should I ever want to place a bet with a bookie.  Not to mention a bar where “buying” shots for the bartender seems to mean that you and he and half the staff all drink for free.  So it wasn’t a total loss.

Less pretty — and something closer to a total loss (at least to this point) — is the AFSCME strike at the U, which officially ended last Friday . . . but only because the striking workers couldn’t afford to stay away from steady (if still inadequate) paychecks as long as the administration could afford to hold out.  There’s much more to say here, but I’m still feeling far too angry about it all to get it down cleanly.

Monday randomness: Debut edition

Let’s kickstart this blog a bit, shall we? And let’s try doing so with a recurring quick-hit approach that will (hopefully) goad me to drop a fresh chunk of prose here at least once a week.

  1. A few folks have inquired about the long-promised but not-yet-delivered intellectual property tale. And I’d love to say that this has reached a point of resolution that would allow me to share it here. But, alas, the denouement that was afoot in April got postponed . . . and has since been deferred . . . and may still be a few weeks away from achieving sufficient closure to go public with the tale. But I haven’t forgotten. Promise. (Truly curious parties can always contact me off-blog for further details.)
  2. I keep meaning to write a more detailed post about the Cultural Studies Now conference — even though Ted Striphas has already proclaimed that my previous tease of a post fulfilled that duty. There’s more to say than that, I think, but it’s been a hectic month since London, and the fast approaching semester only adds to the frenzy. But this story, too, will be shared.
  3. The latest entry in my personal lifelong struggle with institutional “check one box only” approaches to racial identification came last week, when the University noted that it did not have a formal race/ethnicity code connected to my personnel file . . . and asked me to fill out this form. I was particularly amused by the last two lines:

    The University may acquire this information by visual survey. This may, however, result in the collection of erroneous information.

    I have fantasies of the University sending teams of ethnographers — all trained in the subtle art of “visual survey” with respect to racial identification — into the field to suss out the “truth” about folks such as myself who “fail” to shoehorn ourselves into a single box. And I want to be a fly on the wall for the deliberations that result from different team members deciding that different visual cues are the key to answering the question “correctly.” “Sure, his skin’s pink enough,” someone will say, “but those aren’t a white man’s lips.”

Moving, marriage, mixedness

Margaret and I closed on the new house yesterday. And, of course, this has required a range of formal encounters with a host of different bureaucracies. Utility companies. Insurance companies. Title companies. And then some. In the process, we’ve been amazed and amused at the number of different ways our identities — especially Margaret’s — have been magically transformed by the default assumptions of different institutions. To wit:

  • Our insurance company knows that we’re not married. At least not to each other. In spite of the fact that the friendly agent we dealt with asked about our marital status so that he could process the policy accurately, the final paperwork showed up . . . and Margaret was listed as “Mrs.” More curious, though, is that her last name remained the same, so she’s evidently now married — by an astonishing coincidence — to some other member of the Werry clan.
  • Margaret handled most of the calls for fresh utility accounts on the new place, since all but one of the utility accounts on the old place are in her name — and her name only. When she called the gas company and gave them the new address, though, she found that she’d already been “disappeared”: when the previous owners of the new house made arrangements to close their account, the gas company automatically put the new owner’s name into their system. And, though both Margaret and I would have shown up on any formal records of the then-still-pending transaction, the gas account for the new house was already set up solely in my name. Perhaps the gas company figured I was so enraged by Margaret marrying someone else that they assumed I’d already kicked her out.
  • As we were signing up for thirty years of debt yesterday (and so I am no longer unencumbered), we hit the part of the paperwork where the government asks for racial/ethnic identifiers so that it can (ostensibly) make sure that fair housing laws aren’t being violated. And though no one at any point prior to this had asked either of us to self-identify along these lines, we were both listed as “White.” And only “White.” As I added the other relevant X’s to this form, I said something about how this new (to them) information had better not do anything to mess up the deal.* To her credit, the closing agent sounded genuinely horrified and disturbed at the very thought that such a thing could happen to anyone.

Meanwhile, the house remains lovely. But evidently, I’m now a single white male. And Margaret has been lucky enough to find a new husband who already had her last name. I do hope she’s happy. Maybe the gas company can tell me where she and Mr. Werry are now living.

*In Seeing a Color-Blind Future, Patricia J. Williams writes about a real estate transaction coming to a screaming halt the moment she corrected the same mistake on her paperwork.

Prelude to a . . . waitasec. What was the question again?

[Possible mild spoilers ahead, depending on just how sensitive you are to these things.]

Just came home from seeing The Departed at the glorious second-run theatre around the corner. And it was, in all sorts of ways, classic Scorsese: it’s not a film for folks who flinch at a little blood (’cause there’s more than just a little to be found here), but it’s sharp and engaging and taut . . . and it’s tough to make a 151-minute film seem taut.

Still, as I walked home from the theatre, I found myself wondering about the film’s opening moments, which feature footage of white-vs.-black violence from the Boston busing furor of the 1970s, with a voiceover from Jack Nicholson’s character, Frank Costello:

I don’t want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me. Years ago we had the church. That was only a way of saying — we had each other. The Knights of Columbus were real head-breakers; true guineas. They took over their piece of the city. Twenty years after an Irishman couldn’t get a fucking job, we had the presidency. May he rest in peace. That’s what the niggers don’t realize. If I got one thing against the black chappies, it’s this — no one gives it to you. You have to take it.

And then, after that, except for one brief line (also in the opening few minutes) from Matt Damon’s character, blackness effectively disappears from the movie as a subject of any significance. There are no scenes where Boston’s Irish mob tangles with crosstown black crime bosses, no visible racial tensions involving the movie’s lone black police officer, no further utterances of the N-word from Costello (or anyone else): for the last 145 minutes or so of the film, it’s simply a white man’s world, and no one else really matters much.

Which, to my mind, makes that opening speech and the accompanying footage all the more disturbing. Maybe the idea was to convince us that Costello is a cold-hearted bastard — except that Costello is also clearly supposed to be (and is) charming and charismatic (while still being a brutal crimelord) . . . and there are enough early scenes of Costello behaving like a violent badass to render any opening “tough guy” speech unnecessary to establish his credentials as such. So those initial words and images feel much more gratuitous than anything else: an excuse to have the biggest star in the movie drop the N-bomb and accuse black folks of being lazy, and to recirculate old images of rocks being thrown at (presumably) “lazy” black schoolchildren. And then, having done that, we can sweep all the blackness that’s just been invoked back under the rug and get on with the “real” business of watching six white men (Baldwin and Damon and DiCaprio and Nicholson and Sheen and Wahlberg) rack up an impressive body count to determine which of them is the real Alpha Male of All Boston.

Long time . . .

. . . since I last set fingers to keyboard with active blogging in mind. The first couple of weeks of the semester have kicked my ass more than I expected.

And, if my visit to the Science Museum of Minnesota’s new exhibit on race is any indication, it’ll be a long, long time before we get to a place in this country where we can routinely have sane conversations about race. That’s not a knock on the exhibit, mind you, which is very smartly done (though I’ll admit that I’d have been happier if Ward Connerly hadn’t been accorded even the minor “expert” commentator role he was given in a couple of places), but some of the visitor feedback — of both the live and the recorded variety — was unsettling.

The section of the exhibit on racialized sports mascots, for instance, included an album of visitor comments . . . that was all the more disturbing because I suspect the curators filter out some of the more heinous responses they’ve received. The comments from pre-teen children were all very sweet in their open-minded desire to treat other people with respect and kindness, but they weren’t enough to offset the multiple comments from (alleged) adults about “whining” Native Americans who should “get over it already” and stop complaining about team names like “Redskins.”

I also watched the female half of a twentysomething white couple interact with a computerized questionnaire that attempts to assess people’s beliefs about the connections between national and racial identities. Asked to decide which of about two dozen nationalities were “white” or “non-white,” she confidently decided that Britons and Canadians were white, but every other nation on the list was non-white. And she did so at a speed that suggested she didn’t even bother to need to read the list: if she didn’t recognize the name of a nation right away, she didn’t even bother with the “not sure” option — she just pressed the “non-white” button and moved on. Even granting that the questionnaire is set up so as to encourage such sloppy thinking — I’m not sure there’s a nation on the list that can safely be said to be mono-racial, either by its own standards or by those currently in play in the US — the ease with which this woman divided the world up into “people like me” and “people not like me” was frightening. After she was done, she turned to her date/boyfriend/husband and (in a complete misreading what of the screen was actually telling her) proudly proclaimed that she’d “gotten them all right.”

It’s possible, of course, that I was simply caught off guard because the students in my “Media, Race, and Identity” course this semester have been surprisingly game when it comes to these sorts of issues. Not perfect — by any means — but I don’t think too many of us (myself included) have perfect conversations about race and racism: it’s way too fraught a terrain for that to be the rule. But they’ve been an impressively earnest and open-minded group — all the more so given that we’re only two weeks into the semester. And I can’t recall ever teaching these issues in the past without there being at least a small (but vocal) undercurrent of self-interested resistance to the conversation somewhere in the group. I’ve got my fingers crossed (though I should probably know better) that the rest of the semester will run so smoothly.

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