Monday, January 30, 2012

Red Tails - My Take

Opening weekend, I hightailed it to the movie theater to see Red Tails—the fictionalized account of the infamous Tuskegee Airmen. As a lover of stories that demonstrate the ability to not only transcend, but also transform one’s circumstances even in the face of severe adversity, I was excited about seeing the movie. But I left the theater muddling through a mixture of emotions; I liked it, but I didn’t love it. I wanted more than I got.

From watching an interview with George Lucas, the executive producer, I know that he wanted to create a work that honored American, particularly African-American heroes, but the light-hearted nature of the film watered down the trials and tribulations of men who were fighting two wars: one abroad and one at home. These brave men (and women) were up against an enemy who believed in racial superiority while fighting for a country that promoted its own brand of racial subjugation through its segregated military forces. Lucas said he didn’t want the men to be viewed as victims, but a more in-depth look into their lives would have made them even bigger Victors, not Victims.

Because Red Tails is a war movie, the interracial storyline was unnecessary and unbelievable. If any woman’s story should have been told it should have been that of Mary McLeod Bethune using her friendship with then first lady Eleanor Roosevelt to solicit support from President Franklin D. Roosevelt to create training programs for Black pilots. Instead we get the philandering, angry, rebellious soldier who finds love in the arms of an Italian woman hanging laundry on a rooftop that he saw from his plane even though neither of them speaks the other’s language. Maybe Lucas, who is in an interracial relationship wanted us to believe in the symbolic gesture of love conquering all and maybe it does . . . but not in this movie.

And while I’m on the subject of women, where were the Black women? You mean to tell me there were no mothers, wives or daughters waiting at home? There was a reference made to a wife and child of the missing solider in the film, so why not show a scene where she’s home longing for a letter that doesn’t come. That would have been more realistic. Red Tails paints a positive picture of Black men at a time when their vilification and /or victimization are an integral part of the daily news cycle. I get it. But you cannot uplift the image of the African-American man by stepping on the neck of African-American woman. To not show even one Black woman continues to negate our history in this country.

There is no History without Her story, and there is no one way of looking at history. It is not His Story—the story of White America. As a nation, we have to move beyond thinking of stories like the Tuskegee Airmen as Black history. Black history is American History and we need to get that into our heads. The fact that Lucas felt like he needed to make a plea for people to come out and support the film is a poor reflection on American culture in this pretend place of post-racialness that promotes the idea that mainstream America is White America. A movie with an all white cast is mainstream, but a movie that features people of color is put in an ethnic box as if it will only appeal to people of that ethnicity. A few years ago, a two-fer film was released: Our Family Wedding a comedy that was aimed at African Americans and Latinos about what happens when an African American marries a Latino. Even the film, Something New about a Black woman dating a White man was marketed to Black moviegoers. Why in 2012 does mainstream still equal White people? Where does that leave the rest of us?

I have seen so many good films done by various artists of color that play to very small audiences. I am constantly disappointed by the lack of support for films that may feature non-white actors, but nevertheless tell beautiful stories that are universal in their appeal. Isn’t that where we’re supposed to be headed down the path of diversity toward accepting and embracing each others' differences?

Despite some of my disappointment with the film, I am still glad that I went. I have two great nephews—6 and 15. And when the six-year old was having animated discussion with his older cousin about the film, and later the fifteen-year old and I talk about the film on the way home, I know that they know a little bit more about their history in this country than they did before they went, and for that I am grateful. In this age of finger-tip research, I believe that the conversation of Red Tails and the Tuskegee Airmen is one that will continue for some time. Any opportunity to fill in the blanks or color in history that has been whited out is one that is victorious for us all.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Cold Vs Snow

Slipping and sliding my way home on the unplowed streets of Chicago while holding on to the steering wheel like a pair of panties with the elastic missing, I am convinced that Cold is hands-down better than Snow. So, sit back and listen and let my words show that Cold truly is better than Snow.

On snowy days, you might as well be married to the snow brush. And don't expect to get any where in a rush. Because if you're not cleanning off your car 10 times a day, you're somewhere stuck on the express way.

You can get around cold weather by dressing in layers, but there is no maneuvering around snow thanks to the mayor. Traffic comes to a halt, especially on the southside where it seems like we can't get any salt. And once you get moving, it'll be just your luck to turn down a side street and get stuck.

Another thing I detest about white stuff, is the people walking down the middle of the street raising ruckus. You already feel like you're driving through an obstacle course, and here comes the street walkers begging for you to hit them and get some extra points.

I know cold ain't nothing nice, especially when your body feels like a block of human ice. But once you get inside where it's warm, your body will thaw out to its norm whereas it takes days for snow to go away.

So when it's all said and done, unless you're a kid, snow's no fun. Cold is uncomfortable, but the streets remain the same. Give me Cold over Snow any day.

Monday, January 2, 2012

When Black is a Bad Thing

“Act your age, not your color.”
Old saying in the African-American community.

I clearly remember hearing older Black people warning those of thought to be acting out to “act our age and not our color.” And though I found it odd even as a child, I never questioned the adults who uttered these words that have stuck in my psyche all these years. It has taken time to grapple with and come to some understanding of the meaning of a statement that was meant as an admonishment against inappropriate behavior, but was actually a thinly disguised veil for yet another layer of self-loathing that so many of us African Americans find ourselves so tightly wrapped in it that we don’t even realize we’re choking on it.

This article hit the proverbial nail on the head about being “too black” whatever that is, which is opposite of not being “black enough.” In my forty something years of blackness, I have yet to learn what is the exact degree of blackness needed to simply just be who we are with no apologizes to the rest of the world.

We have gone from colored to Negro to Black to Afro American to African American, from the ghetto as a place to a state of mind. But through it all, the painful truth is we have always been the niggers of American society I don’t care how much we try to run away from it. We’ve tried burying it, and calling it the N word. But what America believes about us in this pretend age of post racialism, we also own. Ouch! That hurts. But we live with it.

I know black people who will tell you point blank how much they hate niggers following the whole Chris Rock, there’s-a-difference-between-Blacks and niggers routine. And although I wanted to slide under the table when my friend explained his I-hate-niggers philosophy to our white co-workers, I felt the same feelings of animosity wash over me when I woke up in the middle of the night to hear my car alarm going off and I saw the shattered glass of the passenger side of my car window. In that moment I hated Them who had violated Me.

The duality that W.E.B. DuBois spoke of so many years ago is true today. I have fought valiantly with the duality of my existence, and I am not always clear on who the victor is as I look for oneness in the many reflections of what it means to be Black in America. I have been the woman in this article—acting my age and not my color--because to act Black was to discredit the race. Even though, at the time, I understood it to be “being raised right.”

I grew up on the idea of speaking “proper” English and I had a “snobbish” attitude about it looking down my nose at those who did not speak the King’s English. In my early years as a teacher, I noticed that my students consistently made the same grammatical errors, and my perplexity sent me on a journey to find out why. What I learned about African-American English Vernacular (AAEV), was life changing. Contrary to rumors about Ebonics, we are a bi-lingual people. And so I accept that I have a mother tongue as well as a second learned language. And while I am fine with it, it doesn’t sit well with some of my family, friends or colleagues. It’s a constant battle to reconcile two tongues and be ok with it in front of non-black people.

Once I wanted to strangle a friend of mine in heated debated about the validity of AAEV. Although he acknowledged that it existed, and that he and his wife spoke it, it was adamant about his children not speaking it which was stupid because they live in to house with him and so they will absorb it as he did. I thought that his public denouncement of AAEV gave others permission to continue to devalue our culture.

Another time an upper middle class friend of mine, the daughter of a doctor back in the day when the title meant something, was irritated by my use of the vernacular “ax” in the front of a White woman. First of all, my sister drilled “ask” into my head as a child and I can remember a White woman remarking that I was the only Black person she ever heard actually say ask with a “k” sound and not an “x” sound. So, I was usually conscious of articulating the “k” sound, But I guess on that day during our three person wring group—the two of us and the instructor--I took off my educated cap and slipped into the comfort of the vernacular and committed the unthinkable.

It’s been years since the incident, but I can still feel the sting of her comment not because I said in front of a White woman but because I embarrassed a Black woman in front of a White woman.

I am a teacher. I am a writer. I love words. I love language and I have grown to appreciate all of its varieties and I try to teach it that way. Language is constantly changing and evolving just as we are as people.

And language is only one obstacle to learning to love and not loath who we are as African-American people. Everything we do is under the microscope. As a child, I loved the TV show The Monkeys, and my nieces and I often monkey walked down the street. One year we went on a cruise, and it was Kerokee night. I wanted to do the Monkeys, but my niece refused. She said she would not give white people permission to call us apes when that’s what they thought of us anyway. I know people who won’t eat watermelon or bananas in the presence of non-white people. The list goes on as to what we won’t do to identify with being “too black” which translates into “ghetto” which translates into “niggerish”—non of which any self-respecting African American would want to be associated with.

It has taken time to be comfortable in my skin—all aspects of it. I’ve reached a place where I don’t care what others think because if a person is prejudiced or bigoted in any way, my actions will not change the feelings in their heart. So, when a foot-stomping, head bobbing, finger-snapping song comes on while I’m driving, I like to turn the radio up and sing and dance along. And for those who find my behavior deplorable because it feeds the beast—the stereotype of the singin’/dancin’ happy, but clueless Negro, I make no apologies for “neither acting my age nor my color.” I’m not tiptoeing around stereotypes; I’m living my life out loud.