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.