Posts to highlight.
I can’t believe it’s been so long since I’ve posted. I left the country the morning after Michael Brown was killed and only heard bits and pieces with my jet lagged mind over in Europe. I still haven’t got my head around what went on in Ferguson and continues to happen. And I’m back home now in Los Angeles observing a strange media era that resembles the seventies in a way with ethnically based TV shows like Goldbergs, Black-ish, and the upcoming The McCarthys touted on billboards all over town. Then I’m spending a lot of time in public elementary schools (part of a job that I don’t talk of much, but is becoming a larger, more impactful part of my life) observing a huge diversity of socioeconomic class and cultures, sometimes fretting over difficulties I see. But what got me this morning was catching up on the Sunday LA Times and reading this article on a film called, Dear White People, by filmmaker Justin Simien.
Here’s the passage that raised my hackles:
part of what has also set “Dear White People” apart is the distinctive diversity of influences behind it. Although Simien has been sure to acknowledge leading African American predecessors such as Spike Lee or John Singleton — he introduced an academy screening of Lee’s debut, “She’s Gotta Have It,” in Los Angeles over the summer — he has also made references to filmmakers Wes Anderson, Stanley Kubrick, Ingmar Bergman, Fritz Lang and a host of others.
The article goes on to talk about how African-American millennials aren’t just influenced by black culture:
“I think the difference in our generation, the sort of African American millennial, is we were not only influenced by black culture, we just weren’t,” said producer Lena Waithe…
First, it’s just insulting for the writer to posit that a people which encompasses 14% of the US population, rich as “its” cultural expression may be, would only be influenced by what was produced by that minority. Secondly, it’s sad that an artist would get seduced into such an oppositional statement as Ms. Waithe’s claim. (But I fully understand how something can come across as much more simple minded in an out of context quote.)
The affliction of racism gets into us all as it limits our thinking an tries to explain what’s always been there as new. Sorry for that rather generic statement.
White People, progress is not in applauding people or yourself for stepping out of a box that was imaginary in the first place.
I’m looking forward to seeing the film. And I hope it reflects a richness that the LA Times writer or editor failed to truly reflect.
(And hopefully now that my hackles have raised, more writing will come!)
I sat down with a cup of coffee this afternoon to listen to the latest Radiolab podcast. As it plays, recent photos stream across the TV monitor of my blended family, my colleagues and collaborators. These are random shots of life. We’re at my Filipino/Italian nephew’s birthday. I see snaps of my nonagenarian friend, Lennie Bluett, who’d informed Clark Gable on the set of “Gone with the Wind” that there were segregated toilets on the set in Culver City, embracing Angela Davis the activist and educator at the memorial of my good friend Leo Branton, the lawyer who delivered the closing argument leading to her acquittal in 1972. I see the rhythm section from a recent recording session. I see my friends Ossie and Haize performing with me. I see photos from my friend Aimee’s visit with her baby Echo and more mixed babies in a mixed community. I see a photo of me meeting Grace Lee Boggs. It’s just so beautiful.
And then I hear this. It breaks my heart. OK, it’s an Appalachian story, so prejudge that as you may (though probably not a good idea…). It’s about a mother and two daughters, all “apparently white,” though two identify as black and one emphatically does not.
Listen. I’ll write more later. I have to run out to Inglewood to meet my white mother at her black best friend’s home for Sunday dinner. I’m so grateful for the nourishment I’ve received from this community. It’s helped me transcend experiences I’ve had that resonate with this story.
When my girlfriend showed me this yesterday, I admit to thinking, “Wow, they’ve really done it!” It’s not the first commercial to show interracial families or visibly mixed kids. But something in the quiet, direct dialogue, the clear relationships, and familial care in this really got me. I hate to even spoil it for you by describing how the kid’s concern for her father totally hit home for me. So watch it now before I wax melancholic:
Sure, the little girl is over the top on the cuteness scale. (She’s a throwback to Shirley Temple: overwhelmingly sweet, though watching that creative mind turning is irresistible.) But what I’m feeling are the conversations overheard – or in which she’s been included – about the higher risk of heart disease for blacks, especially men. I remember the strange feeling I had wondering why my dad was more likely to have high blood pressure and heart disease than my mom. Would he develop sickle-cell anemia? Why do only black people get that?
I’m not surprised by the hateful comments that forced General Mills to shut down comments on the YouTube post. I’m glad that some people are. That’s collective evidence of some change.
What inspires me is that there was even a choice made to use an intact, thoughtful family who is unambiguously mixed to sell cereal. Sure, it wasn’t as big of a “Julia Moment” for me as when I heard candidate Obama talk about the feelings of bias in his own home with his own blood relatives five years ago. But it was pretty stunning to see the portrayal of a normal family, not cast as exotic or comic relief where normal life problems are examined and racial particularities are an implied fact of life.
On the day we as a nation celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, I’m thinking about how I spent his actual birthday on Sunday. My white Atlanta-born girlfriend – a woman who was in her mother’s womb as she made sandwiches for black families coming to ATL for MLK’s funeral – and I rolled out of bed and hurried out to All Saint’s Episcopal Church in Pasadena for a talk on King and the transformative God. The lecture wasn’t as promised, but rather the speaker, the African-American Episcopal priest, Stephanie Spellers, spoke on “radical welcoming,” welcoming “the other” into your community, uncomfortably adapting to them rather than asking them to conform to your rules alone. She spoke while needling us that the Episcopal Church is the whitest and richest church in the US.
We left later church service – where this Hawaiian-born, Irvine-raised mulatto knew the more of the Negro spirituals being sung than his ATL-bred partner – for lunch with my Filipina ex-stepmother. She is the head of what I call my extended Southern California family; especially now that no close relatives of my nuclear family are on this coast.
At Full House Seafood in Chinatown, we celebrated the 71st birthday of the 12th of 13 children with at least four generations present. I get a little confused, but I know my four-year-old step-nephew is the uncle of the five-year-old son of my ex-stepmom’s niece’s daughter. The eldest present were the 6th child of the 13 and her white ex-military husband. The youngest was the wisest-looking one-year-old I’ve ever seen who had clear designs on my woman.
My Italian/Filipino-American step nephew chased me around with poppers for a few minutes before we shopped in Chinatown for a bamboo steamer for my mother to take back to her small town in New Hampshire. Leaving Chinatown we saw the stirrings of a potential fight between a middle-aged Latino homeless-looking man and a young tattooed Aryan-looking man. After some face-on-face hateful speech, they both eventually walked away. I don’t advise getting into the face of an angry Aryan on a Sunday in Chinatown.
We drove back to our place on the busy road in a beautiful canyon for a short break.
A couple hours later we headed down to the Leimert Park area to Bryant Temple AME Church to hear the wonderful singer, Dwight Trible do a Martin Luther King celebration concert. We arrived late, so I listened behind the window while my girlfriend went to the restroom. From where I stood I could see my reflection in the pane and a woman who would not look away from me. I don’t know if she was mentally disturbed or just disturbed by me, but looking at her face and my pale reflection made me feel extremely white even as I listened to a dreadlocked woman quote and discuss my favorite speech – the “Mountain Top” speech.
We finally took our seats.
The crowd and the band were diverse, though I often find myself scanning for cultural tourists when I’m in a majority black setting, especially a church where so many members are dressed formally. I wonder if I am with my multi-culti hippie crew when I roll in and play music or support my friends onstage.
So to bring it back to the unsuspected start: this is the radical welcome and its partner, the radical seeker. As a biracial person in an era when claiming both is an option, you have no choice but to participate in a dynamic where your existence makes some uncomfortable. If you choose to claim your whole self and ancestry, you necessarily have to put yourself in positions where you will feel uncomfortable, perhaps a cultural tourist.
The woman may have stared at me, but the community embraced me at Bryant Temple AME.
I awkwardly sit in my extended Southern California family; I even remember horrible things being said in the home my father shared with my stepmother when they were together. But we continue to show up for each other, welcoming each other into our lives easing awkwardness with familiarity and love.
I know there’s a special excitement when I show up at All Saints because I’m young and darker than a lot of the congregation. But we’re getting to know each other better all the time.
My girlfriend and I were back home by eight. We had dinner with leftovers from the crazy chicken en Español. We watched a British sci-fi television series and danced around the living room to music from a melancholy Scottish band. I felt myself radically welcoming her. It’s in relationships, political, community, and personal that we create community from chaos.