Thursday, July 29, 2010

What Happened to the Cosby's? - Accountability in Narrative

Friday night, mid-march, 1991; do you know where your child was? Of course you do; chances are you probably know where you were as well. In what us 80's babies like to refer to as 'the good old days', we were all sitting in front of the television waiting eagerly for the phenomenon that was ABC's "T.G.I.F.". For years ABC controlled the cable audience with their Friday night sitcoms, and dominated the water cooler and lunch-line discussions on Monday.

Tuesday night, however, belonged to a man named Cliff Huxtable, his wife Clair, and their children Sandra, Denise, Vanessa, Theo, and Rudy. The Huxtable's, an upper-middle class Black family that lived in a Brownstone in New York City, were a staple for successful family programming. The household was headed by successful, college-educated parents, who were raising a colorful spectrum of children in front of our eyes. "The Cosby Show" was a beacon of positivity for the Black community. It did not harp on the race of the characters, nor did it ignore the cultural importance of several African American customs. We were welcomed into the home of the Huxtables, not as observers of a cache ritual-like black upbringing, but as guests in an All-American home. The show enjoyed a wide and diverse audience because every one could relate to the stories presented.

Now, some people may argue that 'The Cosby Show' was anything but radical in its approach to Black visibility, but noting the cultural atmosphere at the height of the show's popularity, and compared to the (excuse me) shit that we allow on TV today, one could argue that the Huxtables were the epitome of "Black Power".

"The Cosby Show" did more than entertain us, it brought black people into white homes, on a weekly basis. It showed America that we weren't all crack fiends and welfare mothers. It placed the idea into young black minds that they could grow up to become doctors and lawyers. It showed every family that we all encounter the same things in life, and made us laugh as an extra incentive. Even in times when sensitive issues needed to be addressed, it tackled them so eloquently with a sprinkle of humor, and always delivered a happy ending. The show's success paved the way for other families to enter our living room, families like the Banks's, the Cooper's, and the Winslow's.

I believe that these TV families have fallen into a similar abyss as did the leverage gained from the civil rights movement; once more black folks started to become the Cosby's, we forgot why they were needed in the first place. We have fallen into a complacency, the severity of which may signal the evanescence of our culture as we know it. Forgive me for the alarmist syntax, but by not acknowledging our own narrative, we are allowing the absorption of our culture and community into an appropriated mainstream caricature of who we used to be. The civil rights movement, the Cosby's, and Black Power are becoming afterthoughts, antiquated manifestations of things we "used to need" but no longer require because we are so "accepted and evolved". It is similar to the ideas described in my earlier blog, "The Ebb", we are getting our forty acres and moving them right to suburbia. We are too busy maintaining our status and outward appearances that we're missing what's going on around us.

An examination of the causes behind this cultural deterioration can be traced all the way back to slavery. Because we were stripped of our or customs, languages, and families, the foundation of Black culture is a wayward hybrid of slave-owner indoctrination and piecemeal African tradition. Like other cultures, we suffer the ills of the "-isms" as well as intra-cultural stigmatization based on things like skin tone or hair texture. Therefore, it would seem that the natural progression of Black culture would be that of the mainstream ideal. It is that progression that has contributed to our decline.

Black people are ultimately responsible for structuring our own narrative. I liken my argument to an analogy I call "the neighborhood garden". In a neighborhood garden, every individual is responsible for his own crop, but everyone is responsible for the whole garden's welfare. The soil may not be the most fertile, the bugs and animals may nibble away at the leaves, the rain may not come and the sun may not shine, but if the crops do not grow, the people will go hungry. They cannot change the soil, so they surround their crops with better fertilizer. They cannot stop the bugs from flying over or animals from prowling around, so they arm their crops with repellent. They cannot control the rain but they can water when conditions aren't favorable, and they can't control when the sun will shine but they can provide their own light and warmth in the darkness. Since everyone's crop is important, letting one suffer will undoubtedly jeopardize the whole supply. If one neighbor is missing the tools with which to successfully cultivate his crop, his neighbor provides those tools, and shows him how to use them. Operating in this capacity yields abundance and satiety for all.

The Black community, our community, is that garden, only we are starving. Our crops are held to the ground with shallow roots, grasping for a small notion of wholesome fertilizer, and shriveled up in the artificial lights. We care more about our own crop than our neighbors, we water it with impurities, fixating on it so that we don't account for the welfare of the rest of the garden, and thus, we all go hungry.

So where is the Miracle Grow solution, you say? It's not that simple. Like a smart young man suggested in his blog earlier this week, we have to acknowledge and become accountable for the existence of structural inequalities in our society. We have to define our own narrative by digging our hands in the dirt, planting worthwhile seeds and facilitating their healthy cultivation. We must stop accepting cheap, mediocre, and often insulting images of ourselves in the media. We need more "Cosby Show" and less "Meet the Browns", more Talib Kweli and less Soulja Boy. We need to take responsibility for our own actions and lives. If the welfare system is one of entrapment for our community, we must help our neighbors out of it. The status quo will perpetuate unless we challenge it. We need to address the stigmas that prevent our culture from flourishing and that starts with encouraging the revival of the Black family unit. We need to reexamine the time when there were mothers and fathers instead of baby mamas and baby daddies. We need to demand the right to an education and if we cannot obtain it we must teach ourselves.

Our ancestors taught themselves to read in a time where it was punishable by death; because of their collective bravery, we have access to free education and many other incredible opportunities. It's like we have the tools, the water, a hot lamp, and a bag of fertilizer and we still can't seem to grow a plant.

In its inception, the solution is simple: until we start digging, we will continue to go hungry.

Friday, July 23, 2010

From 'Yes We Can' to 'Maybe Tomorrow'

Dear Mr. President,

I'm a 24 year old Washingtonian of the DC variety, and I'm writing you to address the issues I feel are a threat to our society as we know it. Sounds drastic huh? Well, you know what they say to all writers, "Catch them in the first sentence". But I digress. . .

The memory of Election Day 2008 is still fresh in my mind. My 13 year-old sister and I were walking the streets of Northern Virginia, in the rain, knocking on doors to make sure people were voting. Once I dropped her off, I went downtown to await the results. I will never forget the moment Keith Olbermann, whom we all were watching, declared victory, nor the dancing and celebrating in the streets that followed.

Before that, we spent many a weekend door-knocking and phone-banking trying to get Virginia to turn blue. It wasn't the first time in my life that I felt empowered, but it was the first time that I felt like my actions played a part in national history.

Mr. President, that fire from your campaign is being lost among the youth, myself included. For all the accomplishments you have made, I am incredibly proud of you. You and your administration have made historic leaps into the future with health reform, financial reform, hate crimes, middle-class tax breaks, etc. etc. If you were a CEO of a private firm, your company would be trying to sign you on for a lifetime. The problem is, no one knows about it. There are a few of us who actually read and try to have conversations about the extraordinary start your administration has gotten off to, but it all seems in vain because you aren't talking about it enough. Instead you are letting the outlandish Tea Party and the conservative media make you out to be the worst thing that ever happened to this country. This may sound harsh but I liken it to an abusive relationship. We're all trying to pretend we don't see the bruises thinking they'll go away, meanwhile they're getting darker and more severe and we're too busy focusing on the maybes in the future to challenge the injuries of the present. How do you expect us to fight for you if you won't fight for yourself?

Don't get me wrong, I applaud the democrats for the incredible victories, but while they were in the halls of congress getting stuff done, your administration and the DNC were slacking on getting the right message to the people. You can't expect everyone to scour the earth for the real story or just magically agree with you, you have to meet people where they are. With all due respect Sir, you of all people should know that as a former community organizer. You are doing everything you promised to do in your campaign with expediency and yet your approval ratings are low. We need democratic leadership if we're going to recover from the ridiculousness that was the Bush administration but November is right around the corner and the republicans are up a few points. It's like we're at half-time and the coach is saying, "Uh, you know, do what you can I guess". I realize you can't control everything but that's why you're the head man, so you can delegate to folks who are supposed to handle the rest.

I also realize that some of the responsibility lies with us as citizens, we have become poisoned by complacency and apathy. We have allowed our media to become a cheap sham of real news reporting, we have allowed technology to appropriate the art of conversation, and some of us have forgotten who are allies are. Some of that complacency, though, is because we have had to stand by and watch each one of your agendas come under attack with no rebuttal. What happened to ""? The republicans and the tea baggers destroyed the public option, they destroyed ACORN, and now with this Sherrod situation, it seems like whatever the conservative media says, your administration is going along with just to avoid further conflict. They're the minority for a reason, Americans wanted something different than the status quo. Personally, I think the Tea Party is just a disguised racist/classist supremacist movement but they have every right to say whatever they want, just like the democrats have the right to call them on their lies. Why aren't we countering? Any good businessman knows that making the product is only 20% of the mix, selling it is the other 80%. We're not selling it Mr. President.

With regards to other policies on the agenda that haven't passed yet, specifically Don't Ask Don't Tell, are we not passing this for fear of tackling the taboo? Mr. President, I'm a black, gay, female; my whole life is one big taboo. If I were afraid of not being PC enough I would never leave my house. Now, I'm not for anyone chaining themselves to the White House gates or stopping traffic but you have to admit they have a point. Brave men and women are being kicked out of the military on a daily basis for what? We need all the people we can get and the folks who are being kicked out are serving a country that doesn't even recognize them as equals. What is the reward for their selfless bravery? Dishonorable discharge for being gay? What is wrong with issuing a stop-loss to at least halt the firings until DADT is repealed? I'm trying hard to understand why this has not happened.

We all have work to do; we have made huge strides so far but I strongly feel our progress is in jeopardy if we do not keep the democrats in office. It's clear that the republicans are only interested in being a barrier to your policies; they just voted against a bill for jobs that would help the small businesses they claim to be fighting for. They are dead set against "Cap and Trade" which was a republican campaign strong-point until you liked it. I know I don't have to tell you this; you know more of what's going on than the American people will ever know. But you said yourself that you wanted to stay connected to those of us on the ground; I'm here to tell you, the ground is a bit shaky from where I'm standing. I sincerely hope that you and the democrats can take control of the message you're sending to the people and you can do it by November. Although many of us feel disenfranchised, please know that we will still fight to get you and the democrats re-elected, if nothing more than for the fear of the alternative.

I guess what I'm trying to say is, just let me know when you're "fired up and ready to go" again.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Ebb

I have written blogs before about the lack of civility and humanity in our world today; but in the wake of the current political and social climate, I find it important to address similar issues. This blog will be directed solely at the Black community.

There seems to be an ebb in the flow of progress for black people. It's like Obama was elected president and we decided we had been delivered to the promised land. Meanwhile the achievement gap is getting wider, teenage pregnancy is up, and so are hate crimes. Now I don't pretend to be the "Yoda" of Black empowerment. I'm a twenty-something, I don't pretend to know everything about the world. The following points are just my perspective on the here and now.

1. We have not made it the promised land
Martin Luther King's Dream wasn't fulfilled with President Obama's election; albeit a huge step forward, we are not out of the woods. When a black man or woman is elected president and no one bats an eyelid, we will have reached the promised land. A lot of things in this world need to change for that to happen. It's like the episode of Family Guy where Cleveland is playing the "Civil Rights" board game. When asked how you win, Cleveland replies, "You never win, you just do a little better every time." Sophomoric as it may be, the context of that quote is sacrosanct.

2. Get over it
There will always, ALWAYS be institutionalized racism, so what? We hold ourselves back the most via internal self-hatred and shame. We get a little money, leave the ghetto and then are all of a sudden "too good". We sit in our big houses and drive our fancy cars and think we've gotten somewhere. We segregate ourselves from our brothers and sisters because their skin is lighter or darker than ours. We look down our noses at movies like "Precious" because they "portray black people in a negative light". Well guess what? Stories like "Precious" are a reality for some people; highlighting those stories raises consciousness. What kills me is the same people who turn down their nose at "Precious" are in the next theater giggling at "Next Day Air". We complain about Blacks being portrayed poorly in Hollywood and at the same time throw our money behind "Madea Goes to Jail" instead of "Miracle at St. Anna". Same goes with other art forms; we complain about Hip Hop degrading our women but we're the first in line for Lil' Wayne and Soulja Boy's concert. Meanwhile, hip hop artists who are actually saying something are regarded as "indie" and swept to the back. We reward mediocrity and it has to stop.

3. Retire the N-word
I does us no good. I don't care if you're "chillin' wit your boys" or cursing out another black person. The word has no place in our vocabulary. We are not "taking the word back" nor are we taking its power by calling each other by it; we are taking our own power, it is self-hatred no matter how you try to spin it. If the word were powerless, white people could walk around spewing the N-word whenever they pleased and Al Sharpton could retire his cape. It still strikes a nerve and is therefore still a powerful tool and representation of the structural inequality in this country.

4. GET OVER IT - Had to use it twice
We will never correct structural inequalities by pointing fingers. At some point we have to take personal responsibility for ourselves. More often than not, I'm the first person to cite the effects of institutionalized racism and classism on lower-income communities. There's the culture of poverty theory, prison industrial complex, education inequalities, and outright discrimination, true. However, no matter how bad the circumstances, we all have a choice. This "blame the white man" routine only goes so far. Our history is satiated with ordinary people who made a way out of no way, who managed to educate themselves while they were still slaves, who worked the skin off their knuckles so that their children could have a better life. My grandmother never graduated high school. She never got to see the inside of an integrated school. She worked so that her younger sisters and brothers didn't have to, so that they could graduate high school, something she would never experience. Come on folks, people bled on the streets, were attacked by dogs, water hoses and billy clubs so that our tomorrows would not look like their yesterdays and we are squabbling our opportunity.

5. Acknowledge your Worth
Our history is American History. This country was built on our backs. Remember, we had to create our culture from scratch. Our names, religions, and languages were stripped from us, leaving us to define ourselves by "master's standards". And yet, we managed to congregate, and solidify a culture, "Black", that has served as the judge and jury on what is "in" and what is "out". We created jazz, blues, and rock & roll, we were rapping before anyone knew what rap was. On the scientific level, Black people are credited with some of the most significant technological and medical advancements in this country. This lesson won't be taught in school, but that doesn't stop parents from instilling a sense of pride and responsibility in their children.

6. A Pyramid is Stronger than a single block
We must stop beating each other down and start building each other up. We see one person start to make moves and become successful and we're ready to tear them down or mitigate their accomplishments by inserting some qualifier that makes it less significant. I must admit, I had that mentality before I knew better. I was quick to judge former Secy of State Rice before I realized that she was inadvertently opening a door for me. While I can't support her policies, I had to change my tune on supporting her as a black woman. We are not on the bottom because some of us are on the top.
That works both ways with those of us who have "made it". Progress is insignificant unless you're doing something to pull your culture with it. Other cultures immigrate here, they stay together, they pool their resources and they invest their money. They work hard and as a result they all prosper. Their kids may not have the best shoes or clothes but they eat well, have a roof over their heads, and family to guide them. They go to good schools and take care of their elders. I'm sorry, but if you live in the projects your kid should not have the new pair of Jordans every time they come out, nor should they be playing video games on their PS3 while sitting on the floor because you don't have a couch. We get a little bit of money and we're ready to put it on display while other people invest. We spend money on the wrong things. We're so concerned with fakin' it til we make it that we'll spend ourselves out of the opportunity to ever eventually accomplish anything.

7. Stop Splitting hairs with the LGBT Community
Homosexuality is not the new black, but it's also not a fabricated struggle. For years, decades even, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people have been a significant part of Black culture. They are teachers, lawyers, pastors, choir directors, stylists, etc. They are no more or less worthy of inclusion and affirmation than heterosexuals are. "Injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere." There was no subtext in Martin Luther King Jr's quote that said "except the gays". By dividing ourselves from their civil rights struggle, we are depleting our allies and alienating our fellow citizens. Being LGBT and Black is not an easy river to wade. You still have to deal with the racism that heterosexual blacks do, and on top of that, deal with the misogyny and homophobia from your own community. Furthermore, as an oppressed group ourselves, we should be the last to scapegoat and ostracize another group for our problems. Gay people are not breaking up our families, we are.

8. The Village is in ashes
Back when I was growing up, people knew their neighbors. If you were outside playing and did something you weren't supposed to do, you were corrected by whatever neighbor happened to be watching. If you did something really wrong, your mother knew by the time she got home, your grandmother had already reprimanded you, and your father gave you a third helping when he arrived. Kids had respect for their elders and parents were involved in their child's life. I'm not going to say my parents were perfect, but they raised me to value myself, respect my elders and everyone else regardless of our differences. They taught me to think for myself, to speak up and to ask questions. They weren't the only ones who shaped who I am. I had a neighborhood full of people, a big family, an invaluable grandmother, and teachers and school officials who cared enough to make sure I was on the right track. That's what we need to get back to. There was a time when everyone spoke to each other, now it's like pulling teeth to get people to say hello, even my next-door neighbors. It truly does take a village to raise a child. Parents are a big part of their kids outlook of the world.

These problems are not only prevalent in our communities, I'm sure many of them affect society as a whole. That being said, I channel my mother in what she always used to say, "I'm not [their] parent, I'm not worried about them; I'm your parent; I'm worried about you.". Before we step out there demanding acknowledgment, perhaps we should work on acknowledging each other and fixing our own problems to make us stronger as a people. Solidarity goes hand in hand with power, we will remain powerless as long as we're standing on the top of the hill alone.