Saturday, January 31, 2009

Michael Steele for President

Michael Steele is chairman of the Republican National Convention, but I have a funny feeling. Part of me wants to be happy for a brother doing good, but the rest of me wants to barf. I always had a (distant) feeling that their would be a Black president (never this early of course), but I thought the person would probably be somebody like Michael Steele. That didn't give me a good feeling.

I'm hoping that he will be able Republicans to try to not step so hard when they walk over the backs of the poor and colored. I'm not ready to assess the size of my hope, I just know that I have some hope.


I have the feeling that his ascension is more placement than a revolution.

And that has me thinking. The language and possibility of politics has fundamentally changed over the last two or so years. The Republicans would have never picked Sarah Palin if it wasn't for Hillary Clinton. By the end of the general election, they were having Sarah Palin shout out Hillary like that was her dead homey or something. Now the Republican candidate proudly declares herself a feminist. Whatever it takes.

So, my thesis: Michael Steele and Sarah Palin are the bizarro Obama and Clinton.

Think about it. Obama and Clinton had to face doubts at every turn and had to scratch and fight for every inch they got. No one gave them a chane. But they got so good at it that they made it look easy. They are serious people who are among the greatest minds of their generation (especially Barack, sorry!). They were the first female and Black male candidates with a legitimate shot of winning the presidency. And they ran in the same year. Sometimes I think we forget how dope that was. I feel blessed to have witnessed it, even in its more painful moments.

And, on the other hand you have two candidtes who are somewhat (ahem) less distinguished.

***Excuse the digression, but: If Sarah Palin was smart, she would get some work boots and a pick axe and go save someone from somewhere. She needs to not be on the news whining about an election that people are ready to forget about anyway. The wrinkles caused by her overexposure are getting a little scary to look at. Sniff. You smell that? It reminds me of something. Oh, yeah, desperation.***

Michael Steele, seems like an empty suit. A product placement. Less profound than Steadman Graham. And he works for them. He represents the interests of the White overclass. For me that goes to the heart of his lack of credibility. But we'll see.

The Black Snob has an excellent profile of him in a column from the 2008 election that is a little more balanced. Definitely worth reading.

So when I thought this country would finally make the decision to elect a Black man for president, I figured it would have to be someone I didn't respect. Thank God I was wrong.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Misstra Knowitall: Efficient

When I was in school, I always wondered what teachers did on those mysterious "staff development" days. What the heck does a teacher need to develop anyway, right? How to boss kids around better? How to give out detentions and keep us from doing what we want to do? How to write on chalkboards? Now that I'm a teacher myself and can see teaching as a profession instead of just something someone is, I look forward (most of the time) to staff development days as a way to improve my craft.

At our last professional development meeting, we took a S.E.L.F. profile, which helps you understand your working style. You take a 30 question survey and it puts you into one of four working styles: Social, Efficient, Loyal, or Factual.

If you've got a second, you should try it. The purpose, as it was explained to me, was to find your strengths as a team member and to also find out what parts of your personality tend to surface when you are stressed. In a school that's important because if you haven't noticed, kids will stress you the hell out. And so will adults, by the way.

But if you're more aware of your tendencies than you can be more conscious to the reasons that you are reacting to stress the way you are. You can also be more aware of why people around you are acting the way they are. They're not doing that just to get on my nerves, they're just...

a Social.

a Factual

a loyal

an efficient

And yes, I am an Efficient. That means that according to my profile, I am: practical, orderly (my wife laughs), very direct, self-determined, organized (Quiet woman!), traditional (not sure what that means), goal-oriented (check), dependable (I am a Taurus), economical (sure), ambitious (yup).

My profile also says that when stressed, I can be: dogmatic (dang), stubborn (See: Taurus), rigid (whatsoever do you mean?), unapproachable (really?), distant (huh?), critical (Well, that's just stupid), insensitive (if you want to feel that way, fine.)

According to the profile, the character from Seinfeld most like the E is Elaine. I guess I could see that.

So, I would like to take this time to apologize to all my Socials (I know y'all just want to have fun), Loyals (It's okay to be sensitive), and Factuals (You are not dull!) if I ever let my E tendencies treat you badly, I was just trying to get the job done.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Let's Roll!

I knew it was going to be a special day when I saw them wheel Dick Cheney out in a wheelchair. Apparently the Vice President strained his back shredding files moving boxes, but could there have a better visual metaphor for the crippled, corrupt morals of the former administration?

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

We built it, now we live in it

Today my school celebrated the inauguration by watching from the pews in the large, beautiful church next door. It's hard to describe the energy that coursed through the building as Obama took the oath and made his speech. Often times as a teacher you find yourself monitoring the experience of your students at the expense of your own experience. You want to make sure they understand the significance of whatever it is you put in front of them and learn the "lesson" you're trying to teach. You want to make sure that the kids "get something out of it," no matter what "it" is. This puts you in a weird position because often times you don't get to experience "it" yourself.

But that wasn't what happened today. The kids around me cheered at every opportunity and booed during all the right moments (I had to stifle a tear when someone said Rick Warren looked like a walrus). The result was that I could be a fellow participant in the moment, rather than an interpreter or instructor. That felt good.

During all the latest hype about Obama, I've had some cynical thoughts about the way that power works and how true change has never come that easy. There's got to be a trap her, right? I guess it's comparable to the feeling I had when I was in 9th grade and Mandela was freed from prison and elected president of South Africa. But, come to think of it, that worked out pretty well. Not perfectly, but pretty daggone well.

Well, the truth is that Obama is bound to disappoint us on some level. Our expectations are too high, too undefined, too too. He's a flawed man and his policies will be similarly flawed. He's raised a lot of money, made a lot of promises, become beholden to a lot of interests to get where he's gotten to.

But even if his whole presidency is a flop and (God forbid!) people even pine for the good old days of W, something has changed today. Today I sat with hundreds of children as they watched a Black man take the oath of office to be president--something that seemed impossible just a few years ago. Today these children saw a sense of possibility that was not there yesterday. And a sense of possibility is one of the most powerful things you can ever release into the world. Whatever is to come, no one knows, but today was a good day.

Update: As if all the overpowering symbolism of the day wasn't enough, peep the stained glass windows of the church:

And if you're wondering, that is a slaveship inside the body of Christ. Deep.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Wisdom of Jericho Brown (Part 2 of 2)

Jericho Brown's got a new book of poetry out, Please, which is so funky and beautiful it hurts. One of the featured poems, "All That Crawls Beneath Me," was in last summer's Indiana Review Funk feature. Jericho drops some more knowledge on you.

1. What is your favorite Donny Hathaway song?

I've been listening to the "You Are My Heaven" duet with Roberta Flack as this is something I've been thinking about a good deal lately in the midst of reading and re-reading Ed Pavlic's Winners Have Yet to Be Announced.

Right now, I'm pretty sure that Hathaway's voice is somehow the saddest--yes, even sadder than Phyllis Hyman. Hyman manages sass and grit in upbeat disco numbers; Hathaway, on the other hand, takes a lyric like "I won't let them take you away" in a song as light as "You Are My Heaven" and focuses on the fear of actually being left alone. Something in his voice seems to see the awful in even the sweetest of expressions. A good example is the way in which Lalah Hathaway, his daughter, manages to fully mimic him in her version of "For All We Know" (The Song Lives On with Joe Sample) save for the tragedy in his version. It wasn't until I heard her version that I realized that the song was about trying to get some and using a really lame line to make it happen. In contrast, I always thought the song was about the real possibility of death arriving before the opportunity to make love when I listened to the late Hathaway sing it.

Hathaway is special. More than that, I believe he was at once conscious and unconscious of how special he and his voice is. We can't say that about Aretha Franklin: she knows good and well what she's doing every song, every God damned note.

But none of that answers what you asked me. While growing up, my favorite was “Song for You” because the piano in it always made me cry. No matter how many times I heard the bridge, I couldn’t get myself ready for it. It’s one of those songs that put my childhood in slow motion. I mean that literally. I thought it was some kind of magic. I could play that song and people who only knew how to yell would start whispering.

Donny Hathaway - A song for you
Uploaded by benedictinelight. - Music videos, artist interviews, concerts and more.

Lately, though, it’s been “For All We Know” because it’s really good for foreplay.

2. Funkier: Neck bones or Candied Yams?

Neckbones. Yams are too sweet.

3. What are you reading?

George Oppen and the really good unpublished manuscripts of Dwayne Betts, Jennifer Chapis, Deniz Perin, and Sasha West. It’s a great show. You gotta see it.

4. What advice would you offer a writer whose considering an MFA?

Go to the University of New Orleans. It’s the only MFA in town.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Wisdom of Jericho Brown (Part 1 of 2)

If you ain't heard, Jericho Brown's got a new book of poetry out, Please, which is so funky and beautiful it hurts. One of the featured poems, "All That Crawls Beneath Me," was in last summer's Indiana Review Funk feature. I mentioned that my mom liked the poem and he said he would send her a copy. And you know what? He actually did it! The man is a gentleman and a scholar (and an amazing poet). He was gracious enough to bless us with some wisdom.

1. I'm sorry, I'm still tripping: can you believe we got a brother in the White house?

Yes. I believe that anything one visualizes consistently becomes reality. President Obama and his family and his supporters just started saying “what if” so much that the ifs became for them, for us, a series of constant thoughts and images. Collective thought is the baddest motherfucker out there.

The Obama campaign concerned itself with his and his family’s image in a way that had even his opponents seeing him as winner. That’s why the early endorsement from Oprah Winfrey, a person who seems incapable of losing, was so important. The trick to winning anything is to have your opponent think of you and see you as the winner. Even the most racist people in this nation couldn’t stop thinking about Obama actually being the President of the United States. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton never had this problem/benefit because everyone was never thinking of them at one time while they ran.

I believe it, but I was still wild with surprise when I saw newscasters on every channel saying it.

2. I saw this story about Obama criticizing his own debate performance during the Democratic primary and he said that he had a "certain ambivalence" that served him well as a writer, but hurt him as a candidate because in the world of politics ambivalence is read as weakness. You worked as a speech writer for the Mayor of New Orleans (would that be Ray Nagin?) in your previous life. How big is the difference in writing for the world of politics versus the world of literature?

I served the City of New Orleans for four years working for Mayor Marc H. Morial, who is now President and CEO of the National Urban League. He’s an amazing leader who made his love for that city absolutely contagious. He is also a major role model for me as my fraternity brother and the man willing to take a chance on me and give me my first job right out of college. (The word “give” is supremely important here, considering the desperate shape I was in.)

Marc H. Morial and somebody's baby daddy.
At the end of Mayor Morial’s second term, I worked for a little more than half a year for Mayor Nagin. I wanted to stay with Mayor Nagin but got accepted in the Ph.D. program at the University of Houston and had to make a decision. That’s why I’m Dr. Brown, and you’re a lot more fun.

A speechwriter goes into each speech knowing the message and figuring the best way to communicate the message as he goes. A poet figures ways of communicating and wonders if he has a message. I prefer the latter life because it gives me a chance to question beliefs that I myself hold dear. There is no room for such questions when working to drive a message home.

3. Funkier: Diana Ross or Beyoncé playing Diana Ross in Dreamgirls?

This is an unfair question as Beyoncé only has a few scenes against Ross’ fifty year career.

Beyon did some really good imitations of Ross and of what Ross means to people in Dreamgirls. Of course, funk is anything but imitation, right?

Besides, Diana Ross has had more hair and has worn more orange. She’s probably the only person in the world who can boast getting laid by Gene Simmons, Berry Gordy, and Smokey Robinson. Smart girl if you ask me. Funk indeed.

4. In the description of your new book, Please, it says that the work is "the album playing in the background of the history and culture that surround African American/male identity and sexuality." Many of the pioneers of funk played with or subverted traditional notions of identity and sexuality. James Brown had his hot pants, George Clinton had his costumes, Rick James also had his hot pants, and Prince--well, Prince is Prince. Is funk a part of this identity/sexuality dynamic on the Please "album"?

Hmm…here’s page 59:

Why I Cannot Leave You

You bring home the food. I’m your hungry man,
Captive damsel dragged by the hair from her favorite
Streetlight to the trap of your tower, hollow ice box,
No magnets with things-to-do. No rules. It wouldn’t
Be fair—you bring home the food—you can’t read
Or write. I pace, check the window for my hunter. You
Bring home food and toss it onto the card table.
My teeth barely miss my fingertips—I rip
Into the bag. You like to kiss me, my mouth
Packed with the fastest franchise you could find, animal
Blood at each lip. Say carnivore, and I kiss back. I eat
My meat rare. You bare your sharpest grin. Bum
I say I love, you’re my place to stay. We’re against the law.
No one keeps me big as you. Fatten me, sweet ogre.
Get me some meat. Bring home food. Feed.

5. Finish this sentence: Roaches are...

On the wall
We don’t need no Raid
Let the motherfuckers crawl

Stay tuned for part II

Times are tough

You need more Roberta Flack in your life.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Ain't No Sunshine

I think the thing that I like most about Bill Withers is no matter what the song, this is a man who knows how to tell a story. He's like Stevie Wonder in that way.

Whether it's the story of a small coal mining town holding together during hard times ("Lean on Me")

or a man driven to depression by the prospect of a missing love ("Ain't No Sunshine")

or a jealous lover driven to paranoia ("Who is He and What is He to You?"),

there's always a narrative. The writing is thoughtful, true, and beautifully haunting. And don't even start on the voice. Bill Withers could sing the ingredients from a bag of Doritos and make it soulful.

One of my favorite Withers songs is "I'm Her Daddy" which appears on his first album, Just As I Am. It's important to note that at the time of this recording, Withers was no spring chicken. He had served in the military as a mechanic for nearly a decade before he gave the music business a shot. The album was produced by the very funky Booker T. Jones, of Booker T. and the MGs, who told Withers to simply, "do what you do, and do it good."

"I'm Her Daddy" is all about a man confronting the former lover who never told him he had a six year old daughter. Withers has a way of taking heartbreak and making it feel so bad that it feels good. By the time he gets to the "I'm Her Daddy" part in the song, you want to cry for the father's loss, but you can't smile at the depth of his love. And how many songs have you heard where a Black man sings so powerfully about the love of a daughter he has never met?

It looks like they're making a movie about Withers' life, called Still Bill. The teaser looks excellent and I hope it gets widely released. It's interesting because Withers says he is content to remain out of the spotlight, besides writing the occasional song, but beneath the surface there also seems to be a bit of uneasiness (or dare I say fear?) about how he'll be remembered. People ask him to sing or when he's going on tour again and he plays it off as a joke. The clip ends with Cornel West stumping Withers by asking him what he thinks his musical legacy will be.

Not known for his sensitivity

It reminds me of an anecdote I read in an old news story about James Brown. The great Fred Wesley was talking about how much of a jerk the Godfather of Soul was being to the other acts he was touring with and how he wouldn't stop riding Withers, telling him how bad a singer he was. Brown was known for his cruelty and ego, so it's not that surprising he would say something stupid like that, but I bet that wasn't so easy for Withers to brush off. And even if it was, it must have been hard for Withers to shake the feeling of being an outsider in the music business. He came to it at an older age, his sound wasn't easy to classify, and he talked about stuff that was real.

I'm not sure what it is, but whatever is keeping him from coming back, I wish he would get over it because I know there are a people (including myself) who would give just about anything to see him perform again.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

You are what you browse

I have this (irrational?) fear that someday after I die I'm going to get to the pearly gates and St. Peter will be sitting there waiting to render judgment upon my soul. But instead of looking at all of my past deeds, he'll have the browsing history of my whole life up on a huge flat screen monitor and he'll go through every sinful, nasty, sick, depraved, immoral website I have ever visited.

But no matter how sordid my past may be, I will be able to look him in the eye and say that I never clicked on the link that advertised the new "hot" Sarah Palin calendar that's for sale. Will you be able to say the same on Judgment Day?

We're a buncha' maverick Vikings!