Monday, September 14, 2009

Kanye and Serena, Please have as much class as you have money

Heavy sigh... This has not been a stellar weekend. Not only did I not feel well on Saturday evening,, but today I've been assailed by the stench of stinky celebrity behavior. Jeez. My mother often said that you can't buy class. That may be so, but I am pursuing a career in teaching people how to have uncommon courtesy which may leave the door open to cultivating some class.

What is class? It is knowing when to swallow your tongue and remain quiet especially when it is not to your advantage to express your opinion. Right, Serena? By opening her mouth at an inauspicious time, Ms. Williams lost the game and the respect of many fans, even if just for a day or two. And while cursing at the judge may not diminish her skills on the court, it does diminish her as a person. I will give credit where credit is due. Ms. Williams has come a long way since her first days in the public spotlight. She acknowledges her temper and concedes that it is something she continues to work on, and unlike Congressman Joe Wilson, Ms. Williams apology was sincere and unequivocal. She doesn't strike me as a serial offender.

Kanye West is another story. This brother needs some serious anger management counseling. Dude, what were you thinking to diss Taylor Swift and complain about her winning an award for which you had no stake? May I be so bold as to ask you to sit your butt down, be quiet and enjoy the program. How embarrassing to be asked not just to leave the stage, BUT TO LEAVE THE BUILDING!!!! Dude, I say again, my face is red for you. His continual outburst about who is deserving reeks of inferiority. Not that I don't think he's talented, but he must not think so. And if he believes that the music industry is biased against African American accomplishments, the way to rectify that is not to go up on stage, inebriated, loud and bitter. Mr. West has done nothing but instill further belief in destructive black stereotypes and perhaps even implanted new ones in younger generations who may not have had such baggage until witnessing his predictable tirades.

I live in a city where crime is horrendous in both number and form. I firmly believe that violence stems from the lack of self restraint which is a pillar of civility. Instead of always telling it like it is, we need to sometimes bit our tongues and let moments speak for themselves.

So Mr. West or Ms. Williams, Joe Wilson or any other celebrity who needs help, just drop me a post and I'll be happy to assist you personally with developing some civility and class.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Street Cred

Allow me to let you in on one of my pet peeves. People who cross in the middle of the street instead of at the crosswalk AND take their time doing it. Young black men seem to have embraced this as a form of self-entertainment. When this urban phenomenon occurs, I find myself muttering, “Do you have so little power that you get off by daring me to run over you,” then I realize the answer to that question is, more than likely, yes.

Baltimore has one of the highest dropout rates in the country with only 34 percent of all students graduating. For black males in our city the figure is even more depressing – a mere 31% according to The Schott 50 State Report on Public Education for Black Males, 2008 edition.

And if knowledge is power, then it’s no wonder that these young men are grasping for some degree of influence in the most disruptive ways. The bigger question is why are our young people giving their power away by not completing school?

The reasons are myriad, from not being prepared for a rigorous learning environment to being bored by traditional class material. At the risk of alienating some good parents out there, I place the bulk of the blame on the families of these young men. Having a kid is hard – that’s why I never had any. I knew the commitment involved, both financial and emotional, just wasn’t for me, and I credit my parents for raising me with a sense of self-awareness so I knew how to make choices that were right for me. My parents also instilled the importance of an education and being able to communicate and navigate in the larger world.

When I think of the experiences my parents exposed me to in a time just after the civil rights movement, I am amazed. They always managed to allow a full helping of fun along with plenty of opportunities to learn and expand our horizons. I remember just as many trips to the newly integrated Gwynn Oak amusement park as there were trips to the Smithsonian or the Walters Art Gallery. And while all of my parents’ children haven’t turned out to be exceptional citizens, at least we know they did everything in their power to give us the tools we needed to succeed.

With many of our youth coming from homes that take no interest in their development, where education is not revered, and where the street life is promoted, it’s simple to see why so many young people make poor decisions. They have had no example set for them. How many of their parents gave birth in their teen years and are themselves high school dropouts? Probably quite a few. How many of these parents were prepared for instilling discipline that must go hand-in-hand with being a parent? My guess is not many. And how many young people grow up in a house like Namond's from The Wire? One is too many. With parents like De’Londa, a kid doesn’t stand a chance.

When young people are not required to exercise their brain, they will exercise their muscle. They will “represent” and show what little control they have over their lives, ironically, by living a life that is completely out of control. Those same young men who dare me to run over them in the middle of the street are the same ones I see on the street in areas known for drug activity. While I’d like to believe they are there trying to change things, I know that they are there advancing their street cred which leads straight to a deadend.

For real street cred, check out Alfred H. Foxx, Jr. Director of Baltimore City Department of Transportation. Mr. Foxx is responsible for overseeing over 2000 miles of roadways, 3600 miles of sidewalks, curbs and gutters, 72,000 street lights and 250,000 traffic and informational signs.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

What Color Black Are You?

Last week we delved a little, a very little, into the concept of living in a post-racial society. Now that would suppose that up until now we’ve been living in a racial society. Uh, yeah. I just spent an hour earlier today watching The History Channel’s documentary on Nazis in America. This documentary revealed that the most active and violent phase of this racist group was in the mid to late 1990s. That’s 10years ago!

When we think of the racism, bigotry and prejudice that African Americans have suffered we automatically think of it coming at the hands of whites – which it did. But the long arm of racism is truly far-reaching. The habit of equating the color of one’s skin with the worthiness of one’s character still affects us in the black community. Unfortunately many of us have adopted and perpetuated this dysfunctional behavior. So in answer to Kate K's question, yes, we do have intra-racial prejudice in the black community.

One of my favorite radio programs is the Michael Baisden show. In addition to playing adult contemporary music, this syndicated show addresses serious issues that affect us all. In addition to the show, there’s a companion website where there are a myriad of discussion groups that tackle all sorts of topics from the heinous to the hilarious. Last week one of the website members posted a question about beauty and the discussion quickly went to childhood experiences of some members being told family and friends that they weren’t pretty because they were “too black.” It was truly painful to read the hurt that was so evident in that post. If you conduct a Google search on light skinned black people, you'll get a ton of websites dedicated to this color phenomenon.

When I was growing up in the 70s, I had two friends, a brother and sister, who were very fair with straight (what we used to call “good”) hair. Their parents were well-educated, and considering they were parents, they were actually fun. They never got upset when we had water fights inside the house using the kitchen spray nozzle or played Jackson Five records over and over again. What I later discovered was these fabulous people were what I call “colorists.” They did not mind their children having friends who were dark-skinned, but as we grew older it became apparent that they did not want their children romantically involved with anyone darker than a paper bag – the standard test for color conscious black people. My friends’ older sister eloped with a dark-skinned man and for years she was persona non grata. She was eventually let back in the fold.

Now don’t think colorism is a one-sided prejudice. My own experience as a teenager was marked by bullies in junior high school who disliked me because I “talked like a white girl.” Once, when I was about 10-years-old, I was assaulted at a city fair by two teens who didn’t like me because I was light. And I cannot possibly count the number of times I was dismissed on sight because I happened to have a light complexion. The assumption was always that I thought I was cute or better because I was light-skinned.

I was lucky enough to have been raised by parents who taught us to select our friends based on their character and not their color. However, that being said I do have to defend or at least explain the mindset of a colorist. It all goes back to slavery.

Back in the day of forced servitude in this country, slave owners often placed their slaves with lighter complexions in household positions as cooks, personal maids and footmen. These slave owners used their European standards of beauty to select the most appealing slaves to serve the family. Sometimes that service went beyond the kitchen and parlor, and into the bedroom. Those light skinned slaves had to come from somewhere!

Needless to say the dark skinned slaves were relegated to the fields. This divide between house slaves and field slaves, light skinned blacks and their darker brothers and sisters survived slavery. Subsequent generations found that the lighter your skin the more opportunities you might be presented so many African American families sought to keep their hues light and bright as a method of survival. They knew the larger society would be harsher on a darker child. What a sad commentary on our society.

As part of the generation that benefited from the civil rights movement, I can say that I have experienced few cases of OVERT racism from white America. I guess it’s to our credit as a society that at least we’ve instilled in our collective culture that being a racist is not socially acceptable. However my encounters with overt colorism from my own people have been numerous. I still get an occasional sideways glance, but I just smile and keep my mind and heart open.

Note: Be aware that some of my people pronounce the term light (or dark)skinned as "skin-ded."

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Message in the Media

In celebration of writing my blog consistently for over a month now, I’ve decided to lighten things up a bit while still discussing some pertinent issues.

During President Obama’s campaign, and since his ascendancy to the Office of President, I keep hearing the phrase post-racial. The first time I heard this phrase mentioned as a synonym for “a black man is now president, the United States is no longer racist. I think we can put that discussion to rest and move on,” I laughed. Out loud. A lot. I think only people who are not black could make that statement. A large number of people in this country are still racists, still don’t know anything about black people or what they do “know” they get from stereotypes. Even now some are plotting ways to undermine our current president merely because he is black. Not exactly the way to be post-racial, people.

Anyway, my fabulous boyfriend alerted me to a new show that aired this week on TLC. He knows that as a former Director of Program Development for a local production company, I spent my days pitching TV show concepts to major cable networks. He thought I’d really enjoy TLC’s latest – Guess Who’s Coming Over. This show is Wife Swap meets Black and White (remember that short-lived show on Fox Reality?). And while I give the show kudos for addressing the topic of racism, ignorance, bigotry and prejudice, I feel the show does what we’ve done for hundreds of years in this country – it glosses over the hard stuff. In the first episode a young, black urban young man meets a country redneck. I was proud that the brother kept his cool when the Mr. Git ‘er Done got on his nerves, but I also feel like some outstanding opportunities for honest, open and yes, difficult dialogue were missed. I kept wanting the show to dig a little deeper and get a little grittier – not sensational, just make everyone involved do more hard work. But hey, it’s a start. It’s funny, the whole time I pitched TV shows, I was told some of my concepts were too “earnest” now I’m seeing that at least Guess Who’s Coming Over could be a bit more real instead of Reality TV.

Speaking of real… The next item gives me hope for America. Please tell me you have seen the YouTube video for The Red House furniture store. This is one of the greatest commercials of all time. It is honest. It is funny and it makes a great point. Black people and white people buy furniture. LOL.

So in the spirit of this week’s post – take someone of another race to lunch and commit to having an open, honest and productive discussion about race in America.

See you next week!

Oh, I’m curious. Why is there no content on TLC’s Guess Who’s Coming Over page?

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Stop the Baby Mama Drama

Over time, I’ve realized how lucky I’ve been. Among my many blessings of health, intelligence and an appearance I can work with, I also count the fact that I came from an in tact family. I lived a very middle class, black family upbringing. I had everything I ever wanted except a horse and a swimming pool. And I didn’t get the pool because my mother felt my brother was too irresponsible and our house would become the neighborhood hangout. Because my parents worked so hard, they relished their time at home with family.

My parents weren’t doctors or lawyers like on The Cosby Show. They were just government workers who did well at their jobs and took care of their kids – of which I was number five of five. My mom was a supervisor for Social Security and my dad worked for the Post Office.

Some of my fondest memories are of my dad singing to me when I was little. It wasn’t until I was about 10 years old that I realized my dad couldn’t sing a lick! Needless to say, that didn’t matter to me in the least. What did matter was that we were loved. My parents provided a stable home environment where we learned values, discipline and quite frankly, who we are.

My dad was just as particular as my mom in having us behave “like we had some home training.” If my father had lived, he would be appalled by the crudeness that passes for social interaction nowadays. And I remind you, my dad was a mechanic for the post office, not a professor or some other lofty professional, but he was a firm believer in conducting yourself with dignity and class.

Recent controversial statistics from the Center for Disease Control show that 70 percent of black children are born to unwed/single mothers. And as much as I praised P Diddy a few blog entries ago for encouraging young men to kick it up a notch in their fashion sense, I’m going to have to call this brother out for perpetuating the stereotypical view of the young black man in another area – as a disseminator of seed, a baby daddy instead of a father, a dad. Yes, the man has money and can certainly take care of his children financially (once he claims them), but what kind of moral compass is Diddy setting for his children? No doubt they will be able to take care of themselves if he is successful in instilling his entrepreneurial drive, but how is that possible when you have six children (One he adopted – long story. Look it up.) by three different baby mamas, and last time I checked none of his children lived with him? What kind of real impact can he have in building the character of his children? And speaking of having an influence on young people… Diddy has me so torn. He’s now selling a tee shirt that is quite vulgar even though the sentiment might be in the right place. I won’t reveal the content of the tee shirt as I refuse to drive traffic to it.

And another thing that I have to question is how could a man feel that that many women are worthy of mothering his children. I also hope there is some serious STD testing going on before these relationships are consummated. Geez! From what I’ve gathered from the Internet, admittedly not always correct, but Kim Porter and Sarah Chapman were sharing Diddy more or less. Check out the ages of his twin daughters with Kim Porter and the daughter he produced with Sarah Chapman.

I know we as black people can look at how the institution of slavery has damaged the black family by separating mothers and fathers from children all in the interest of profit. But it is 2009 and we continue to enslave ourselves while thinking we are free to live anyway we wish. Yes, we have the right to impregnate multiple women (or be impregnated multiple times by different men), but is it right? As that old saying goes, “Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.” We cannot repair the destruction that slavery has reaped upon our people and our families by embracing and continuing the abhorent behaviors that induced it. One would hope that those of us who are lucky enough to have the ears and eyes of the world upon us would use the opportunity not just to make money (NOTHING wrong with that at all) but to also lift people and make a positive difference in how they live their lives. Come on, people! Let's get our act together. If you are grown enough to lay down and produce these innocent babies then be grown enough to be responsible and offer them a solid home foundation, direction, discipline and love. I guess I'm an altruist.

There is not a day that goes by that I don’t think of my dad. I’ll admit it. I was a Daddy’s Girl. I also cannot imagine my life without the intimate and supportive relationships I have with my siblings – especially when one of us has screwed up. I just wish more of our youngsters knew that feeling of family, of having a committed man in the home to help direct them in becoming the best people they can be.

In loving memory of George Weldon Pinder

Thursday, April 23, 2009

On Ebonics and Phonics

Naw wha sayin’? It’s a phrase you’ll hear my people utter in every rap group interview or music show acceptance speech ever to hit the air waves. It’s the black version of “um.” But the simple fact is, no, most of us don’t know what the users of this phrase are saying because:

Usually they haven’t said a damn thing
What they have said is inarticulate, garbled, lacking in syntax, and grammar
What they are speaking is Ebonics

Ebonics is defined as a nonstandard form of American English characteristically spoken by African Americans in the United States. The Urban Dictionary offers a few more definitions and some pretty lively (and salty) examples like, "Yo G, you frontin me?" "He workin'." "Don't be tellin' me dat I can't talk good cuz I speak ebonics."- and “Why you all up in my grill yo?

When I was thinking of a title for this piece I toyed with “It’s Not White, It’s Right.” That’s what my sister, a high school principal, tells her students. They and a lot of African Americans have a thing about speaking English correctly as they consider it a submission to white culture – a culture they were excluded from for centuries by way of slavery and segregation. I get that. TOTALLY. Ebonics is black America’s way of verbally flipping the bird to white America.

I may shock some people with the following confession, but I actually love Ebonics. It is both its own kind of poetry and descriptive prose. There is much about black language that is decidedly cool. It has influenced American culture in ways not imagined a few hundred years ago. It has a permanent place in pop culture. Millions of Americans across the country were saying “Whazzup,” using “izzle” as a suffix and calling their best friend “Home Boy” or “Yo.” Oh, and I cannot forget the ubiquitous “bling.” I applaud these creative additions to our language. It keeps the English language dynamic and just plain fun.

However, there comes a time when one must move on and develop skills that will catapult one to that pinnacle where dreams, goals and drive meet. One of those skills is learning to talk to a broader audience by speaking “standard” English.

I recently attended a live broadcast of a local radio show. The topic was how Baltimore might benefit from the stimulus package. The show host and his producers included a youth activist on the panel. While I give my young brother major props (uh, that’s ‘hood slang or Ebonics for kudos) for working in his community to fight for the recognition of the state of young people in our city, he completely blew his opportunity to attract and engage a larger audience in his cause. He was completely unprepared to talk to people outside of his peer group and have them understand his points. Others on the panel stepped in to make his points for him. You could see them wincing and clamoring to dive in to help this brother float in an unfamiliar sea of listeners who did not reside in the ‘hood.

From my academic studies in communications, I’ve learned not to block out the message because of the messenger, but there are many who will not give someone they perceive as inarticulate a chance to drive their points home, and that is a shame. It’s also the truth.

Learning standard English is not just a challenge for some black folk. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of television, film and radio personalities who have needed to drop a regional accent whether it was a Southern, Midwestern or Boston tonality, in order to progress their careers. Fran Drescher comes to mind. Yes, she’s made a career from her accent but when she wants to be taken seriously, the accent is all but gone.

Most upwardly mobile blacks will tell you that they are bi-lingual. We are able to speak Ebonics when with friends and family, but when we step outside the familial embrace of our neighborhoods, we know how to talk the “talk.” Being in the communications business as a producer and writer, I know the importance of being able to sway people of all walks of life with language that motivates them to do what you want or need them to do. Trust me, I would never have been hired as a writer and producer if I had spoken like a yo-ski – and I mean that term affectionately.

Back in the old days (when I was a kid umpteen years ago) school systems taught phonics where one learned to associate letters with their sound values. I remember learning the different sounds each letter can represent like the “a” in “cat” as opposed to the “a” in “cave” or the “c” in “cave” versus the “c” in “certainly.” In short, I learned how to read and talk. My parents were STICKLERS for proper pronunciation, enunciation and grammar. With the expectations of my parents and the instruction of my teachers, I am proud to say that I feel comfortable speaking before anyone and during my varied career I’ve had to – from former Secretary of State Alexander Haig to visiting dignitaries from other countries to urban teens.

So I’m definitely not saying to forgo Ebonics. It is a colorful (pardon the pun) part of American English. What I am saying is that those who only speak Ebonics would do well to study the outstanding oratory skills of great speakers like Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Barack Obama. Because a little skinny, bi-racial kid – the grandson of a goat herder – learned to move the masses by making language an art, and became the leader of the free world.

...the human mind has not achieved anything greater than the ability to share feelings and thoughts through language.
-James Earl Jones

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Fashion Sense and Nonsense

Since last week, I’ve received a couple of questions regarding my people and fashion. Margaret wanted to know about the baggy pants epidemic. So here we go…

Just as African Americans come in a range of colors, our sense of style spans the fashion spectrum. Our cultural heritage is one that is steeped in adornment and ornamentation. One look at some Central and South African traditional fashions and you’ll know where the 70’s fashion fad of leaving your Afro pick in your ‘fro came from. Since the 1960s several oppressed cultures in the U.S. have made fashion statements in an effort to claim a new identity that shunned the status quo. Women burned their bras, young people adopted jeans as a uniform and black people embraced influences from our African ancestors.

As much as I’m not a fan of the Afro pick as hair adornment craze, I at least understand where it comes from. The baggy pants issue is a whole different thing – at least to me. The current style goes beyond baggie pants. Folks who adopt this style are literally showing their asses.

The Detroit Institute of Arts in describing its African collection states:

In many traditional African societies, personal appearance can indicate much about a person’s identity — including social status, economic status, occupation, and heritage.

Visual symbols or styles in clothing, hairstyles, skin markings, and jewelry are a language that can communicate messages, much like words.

How true.

Now the story goes that the baggy pants stem from prison culture and that for many African American youths, it is a badge of dubious honor to adopt this look. It labels you as tough, as a thug, as hard. Ironically, the rumor now going around is that the sagging pants did start in prison but it was a sign for male prisoners to show their availability for sex with other male prisoners. Somehow I don’t think this is the message these hard brothers want to convey. But whatever message they are attempting to convey, the one I’m getting is that they are participating in a form of self-retardation. Case (or cases) in point…

My mother told me of a young man she witnessed attempting to board a city bus. As he reached for the railing to navigate the stairs, his pants fell down. He was not wearing underwear. And last summer I was walking to an area movie theater when a young man in his late teens or early 20s walked by me dressed in baggy pants. His pants appeared to be fastened below his bum with the crotch reaching somewhere between knees and calves. As he ambled his way down the street, hitching up his pants every few steps, he began to run (I have no idea why. He may have been running for a bus or realized he was late for an appointment) and as he ran, he needed to hold up his pants with one hand. His progress was slow – in more ways than one.

When your fashion sense impedes your ability to function you are participating in nonsense. It didn’t take me long to realize that wearing high heels and walking to the train and metro stations weren’t going to work. I bought a pair of flats for my commute and wore my heels only in a professional setting. In the crime ridden streets of Baltimore, it’s not far fetched to believe that these young men, or ones similarly dressed, may one day have to run for their lives. I’m afraid their pants will be the death of them.

Needless to say, that the legions of black teens (and other races as well) who embrace this style don't have the last say in the annals of fashion. There are some refreshing voices coming out of the sartorial closet.

For killer fashions to emulate take a look at NeYo , Sean John or Kenyatte Nelson . In case you haven’t heard of Kenyatte Nelson, he was named Esquire Magazine’s Best Dressed Real Man. Check out his spread in the March 2009 edition of Esquire. Kenyatte has his dad to thank for his fashion sense. “He said that if you're a book and your clothes are the cover, you should dress like a New York Times best seller."

I take my hat off to all my African American brothers who are presenting themselves as best sellers instead of comic books. Well done.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Uh, no. We aren't all alike

Some years ago while watching a documentary on PBS, I suddenly became offended. As I watched a scene depicting black people in worship, it occurred to me that every representation I’d seen on TV of black folk in church involved hand clapping, a shouting minister, several Amens and a soulful, yet inarticulate, sound expressing the affirmative that consist of the word “well” drawn out to about seven syllables. While I know several people who do worship this way, some in my own though not immediate family, I do not myself worship this way.

I was raised in an Episcopal church (not AME, just plain old Episcopal) which is very much like a Catholic service except there’s no third party arbitration byway of a priest. An Episcopalian’s sins are strictly between himself and God. An Episcopal priest is there to tell you what page of the hymnal to turn to and to give you something to think about without scaring you to death. My earliest memories include being swathed in sandalwood incense and being soothed by the dulcet tones of Gregorian chanting. This is in complete contrast with the experience I had when I spent the summer with my favorite cousin in Pennsylvania. Her parents were Baptists and going to church there was, for me, like viewing a disturbing thriller. I was on the edge of my seat. I watched wide-eyed the stirring delivery of the reverend as he inflamed the congregation and moved them to “get the Holy Ghost.” I remember watching in fascination as women dressed in white, like nurses complete with those little folded triangle hats that nurses don’t wear anymore, came to the aid of the overwhelmed by fanning them with cardboard faces of Jesus. It was truly theatrical, and I couldn’t wait to leave.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying one particular form of worship is better than the next – in fact, I don’t go to church at all anymore. I don’t even consider myself a Christian (more on this in a minute). What I am trying to say is not all black people worship the same way. As I watched that documentary, it planted the seed for this blog. My people, black people, African Americans are a varied and heterogenous group. We aren’t all the same. We have different upbringings, different life experiences, different religions (I made up my own belief system), different political views. We don’t all like Tyler Perry movies though it might be safe to say we all do love Tyler Perry and his amazing story.

With this blog, I hope that more people will come to appreciate the many facets of the African American community. I encourage you to send me your questions and I will do my best to answer them honestly and in good humor or to get indignant if I need to. So consider this your place to find out all you ever wanted to know about black people but were afraid to ask.