Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Five Pounds of Grits

Still looking for that special gift this holiday season? Cephus and Reesie to the rescue.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Pardon me, Brother

Dear President NeO,

Although I appreciate you finally using your pardoning power after all this time, I don't think carefully considered my earlier post, Top Five Black Men That Need Pardons. Instead you pardoned somebody for "mutilation of coins" (?). That's okay. We knew that we would have to wait a while for you to bring some food out the backdoor of the big house, but it's been two years now and we must all deal with the harsh reality that if you don't send these pardons through now, before the Presidential election season really starts to heat up on January 1st (!), then they're not going to happen. Here's an updated list:

5. Remy Ma

They told Reminisce Mackie to Lean Back in the belly of the beast for shooting a close acquaintance after a bout of heavy drinking. Word to Dick Cheney.

Sorry, Remy. The "Four Loko" defense only works for Rethugs
4. Michael Vick

Have you seen this brother throw the football lately? Who would have thought that Michael Vick would be more popular than you, NeO? If The Michael Vick Experience ends with a Super Bowl, you might actually pick up a few percentage points by giving out this pardon. Don't worry, Bo is nothing if not a pragmatist.

I'm tired of defending you, Mr. President.
 3. Shyne

Well, he's out now. I mean he's free, not that he's got an album out. Swell guy though.

2. Kwame Kilpatrick

I can see the wisdom with this one. If you were going to issue Kwame a pardon, you might want to wait until his ignance reaches it's peak. That way you don't have to double pardon him later. Although Mr. Kilpatrick has been a marvel, a phenom of ignance if you will, you have to believe that he has yet untapped reserves. There's a Marion Barry in you yet, KK.

Maybe it's time to call in that Rick Ross collabo.
1. Clarence Thomas

I'm with you on this one, NeO. Not only is it impossible to pardon someone from their own mental incarceration, even if you did, we both know Ichellemay would go up side your head. Get your, girl, CT. She's really not helping your case with the phone calls.

Don't be playing on my phone.

And while you're at it...


They got the Daywalker, NeO! You know Deacon Frost is somewhere laughing his ass off. Forget about North Korea. What about the world wide vampire conspiracy to suck our blood using pointy fangs and a Constitutionally illegitimate tax code?

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Elbows: A Meditation

Mr. President, I feel your pain. I've seen pictures of you on the news, holding your swollen lip like a piece of sour candy. The image will undoubtedly be more fodder for the tragic narrative they have been waiting to apply to your presidency. After the mid-term elections, it's obvious that you're not perfect like you tried to make us believe. You aren't strong enough. You're not tough enough. You can be beaten. In Jim Demint's words, you can be "broken". In your own words, you can be "shallacked".

Note to Pres. NeO: Find another word to describe defeats. Despite its etymology, 
"shellack" sounds like something a slave master does to a slave.  *No KuntaKente*
Mr. President, I knew this day would come. Ever since they said that you were not only a regular hooper, but in fact a baller. Ever since the summer of '08 when I saw you sink the most clutch three pointer in the history of politics during a visit to troops in Kuwait.

Did McCain ever really have a chance?

Ever since I saw you out-shoot the University of Connecticut Huskies women's basketball team in the White House backyard during their post-national championship visit. The same team that has won 80 straight basketball games (and counting). I knew this day would come.

Ever since I saw you dismantle former all-American Clark Kellog during a "friendly" game of POTUS, I knew this day would come.

I guarantee you Clark missed a couple of those shots on purpose, 
but only because he didn't know he was going to lose. You can't give me that kind of room. Indeed.

The game, and its adherents, often leave marks that can't be concealed. I knew the day would come when evidence of your hoop life would be writ large across your flesh for all to see. On this day the people you are charged to lead would read these marks and create new meanings, meanings that you couldn't control. Meanings that speak to your frailty (humanity?). I knew this because whether you're President of the United States or a high school English teacher, if you get bruised up, you about to get talked about.

Mr. Shakur got socked in the eye, y'all! Dang, Mr. Shakur, you got lit up! I told Mr. Shakur he better have my money! Why they have to hit you all in the eye like that, Mr. Shakur? It was like, bink! [mimic slow-motion punch to eye,then punch-drunk-stagger around classroom]

I have heard it all.

But basketball is a passport for me. My face and complexion always raise more questions than they answer when people see me. I'm hard to place. I have to spend more time explaining myself, where I came from, why I'm here. The truth of my story is too complicated for people to grasp in a short time, so seeing me play basketball offers a Cliff Notes version of my identity.

My students have often had a similarly difficult time placing me, and that's why I try to let them know who I am by getting on the court. As soon as I start working somewhere, whether it's Minneapolis, or Baltimore, or Chicago, I play. Basketball is part of my teaching philosophy. 

It's amazing how much extra effort you can get from a student in the classroom if you can take them to the hole and finish with your left. The court gives your students insight into who you are as a person. My students learn that my jump shot is often shaky, that the hardest shots for me are the easiest, and that I have a tendency to curse myself when I'm frustrated. But they also learn that I don't neglect my defensive responsibilities, I'm not afraid of contact, and I'm more likely to praise a teammate than criticize one.  

When I get the opportunity to play students, I try to show that my fetish for hard work is not limited to the classroom. That I'm not just a teacher that believes in them because I don't have anything else to believe in. That I can operate on multiple levels. That I will block your shot if it's weak.


More than anything it allows for a coaching relationship that's different than the classroom. When you play basketball with students, you literally have to work together to score points. In a real way it makes all of the success and challenges communal. The things I encourage my students to do on the court are the same things I ask them to do in the classroom: Stay focused. Keep your eyes open for your teammates. Don't be afraid to shoot. Keep hustling!

But as you demonstrate your ability to operate in multiple realms, you also are subject to the norms of those realms. On the court the teacher can be physically challenged without consequence. Sometimes these challenges result in injuries for said teacher.

In Baltimore, during an after school game, I got an inadvertent headbutt from a student. This caused a nasty cut above the eye brow, that required a few stitches. That wouldn't have been terrible if this hadn't been the same week I met the parents of my then girlfriend (future Mrs. Knowitall!) for the first time. Awkward, to say the least.

About a month later, a student pushed me in the back during a layup. I caught my feet, but not before I turned and slammed the back of my hand into a brick wall. I finished the game, but my hand swelled up like a balloon. This was in the salad days of my barely existent Americorps medical benefits, so under the wise advice of my roommates (If you can move it, it can't be broke!) I didn't seek immediate medical treatment.

Misstra Knowitall stupidity quiz #4080

After I shattered my hand, I:

A. Attempted to bind my wounded ring finger to my middle finger for stability.
B. Created a makeshift splint out of a popsicle stick and some medical tape.
C. Played basketball again, a couple times, despite the sharp pain in my still swollen hand.
D. All of the above.

If you chose D then you obviously know how dumb I can be about basketball injuries. By the time I went to the doctor, they told me that my hand had already healed--crookedly, of course. I'm lucky that my backroom orthopdeiatrics didn't leave me with a hook hand. However, the rest of my born days my ring finger will tuck shyly beneath its sturdier brother.

I read a brilliant essay by the poet Ross Gay where he talked about the "visionary" elbow of a student taking out his teeth during a basketball drill. Ross considered the elbow not as an instrument of revenge or turpitude, but as an expressor of primal possibility. The elbow as teller of survival stories. The elbow as speaker of those magical words: here's how my story goes.

I don't drive through a lane of sharp-boned, loose-limbed children like I used to. I have to admit a sort of perverse pride in being able to endure injury. Even if you've never read Don Sabo's classic essay, Patriarchy, Pigskin, and Pain, you realize that somebody who continues to play pickup basketball with a broken hand has issues. As I've gotten older, I have realized that I don't need to shatter bones to help children. I've learned to be a better teacher in the classroom so I don't have so much to prove on the court.

I have also realized I have told more of my story on the court than I have story left to tell. My knees sing sermons as they bend, and the day when my story is more appropriately told outside the confines of the court's white lines, rather than within them, grows closer by the day. But that's okay. Now I'm more focused on helping the young people I teach tell their own stories. Teach the benefits of being active, rather than passive, participants in their own destinies.

The President finds himself in a similar position. In his autobiography he talked about the ways that basketball helped shape not only his identity, but the way that people perceived him. As petty as it sounds, if he didn't have a reliable jump shot, there would be very real questions about whether he was a Black man or not.  But he's also getting older. He's probably in excellent shape, but years wear you down, especially when compounded by the stress of the job. Although both Bubba and Dubya came running into the presidency, they both left with a limp.
Big Daddy Cane

So our President's days as baller-in-chief are certainly numbered. But like I said, that's not the worst thing in the world. You enjoy it while it lasts, then you move on and help the next ones out.

In the comments to one of the news reports of NeO's injury, a reader speculated about whether the man who busted the President's lip would ever be asked back to the White House game. Maybe Obama would hold a grudge and ban him from the court. Those comments show a profound misunderstanding about the heart of a baller. Seeing the President holding his lip, seething, it's clear to me what's on his mind:  

Let's run that back.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Well aren't you Miss Information?

In case you're wondering, Misstra Knowitall would like to be Nathan Spewman when he grows up.

Part I

Part II

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Profound Insights of Viagra Online

I have seen the coming of our computer overlords, and they have posted comments to my blog.

As you might imagine, blogging can be tough to regularly maintain, especially when you put a lot of time and effort into writing a piece and don't get much response. You can use Google Analytics to look up data on people who visit your site, but it's hard not to be discouraged by the deafening sound of crickets after you press "publish post". That's why it's cool when readers take the time to comment on a post. Whether the comment is informed or not, it's always nice to see that someone out there thought enough of you and your writing to give some kind of response.

And that's where my friend  Viagra Online comes in. Back when I first started blogging, I would get comments on posts that were basically like email spam. Just a few words, they would direct you to a link where your computer would download the latest digital VD, infecting your operating system and giving your hard drive the digital drip. Blogger got smarter after awhile and made up that annoying Rorschach test thingy which required you to correctly interpret a series of words and numbers to leave a comment. That worked for awhile, but then a couple weeks back I noticed a comment on an older post, Five Pearls of Incredible Hulk Wisdom:

The lesson this movie left us with was impacting. I really find the true meaning of the movie, or at least I guess so.  

The syntax was a little tortured, and the misuse of "impact" made me cringe, and the insight wasn't much of an insight, but at least someone was reading my stuff, even if they seemed only semi-literate. I smiled and all the work seemed somehow worthwhile.

But then I noticed the author: Viagra Online. My heart fell and I chided myself for being such an easy mark for a dumb computer. I promised myself to never again let my enthusiasm for post comments blind me to  Viagra Online's deceptions.

A couple months later I got an interesting comment to my post about the connection between Rick James and Neil Young:

In 1965 a great deal of things were going on, I was a kid by then, so I couldn't notice any about music or the popular bands at the moment like Rick James and Neil Young Buy Viagra Cheap Viagra.

This comment threw me for a loop because although Viagra Online was obviously still fixated on luring me with the promise of cheap Viagra, I couldn't help but be touched by its endearing reflection on growing up in the topsy-turvy sixties. At some point during its daily spamming, Viagra Online  had read something that had touched its binary soul, and caused reflection. It was almost enough to make me consider visiting the poison link, just as a gesture of reciprocation (not for the cheap Viagra).

A couple days later Viagra Online visited my site again, this time reading a post on Funk artist Pedro Bell:

I have always thought that funky issues are cool, indeed. However, I am pretty impressed to see how did you managed to organize your several ideas in such a great way, then thanks a lot for sharing this matter

I had to stop myself from replying to this comment. I wasn't sure what was happening, but I seemed to be witnessing the dawning of intelligent consciousness in a spam computer. Not only that, but a spam computer that thought funky issues were cool. And a computer that was impressed with how I organized ideas! It dawned on me that with all this talk about how technology will shape our lives, maybe writers won't even need human readers anymore. Maybe instead of trying to get 1,000 human fans to read and support me as a writer, maybe I can get a 1,000 computers to visit my blog and say nice (although inane) things about me. Instead of a book tour, I could just let Viagra Online spam my next book to millions.

I was feeling pretty good about our relationship until I got a comment a couple weeks later on my post about John Mayer and his KKK member. The writer posted as "Anonymous" but I recognized the voice:

Thanks for sharing this, it's pretty cool to know about it. By the this handsome guys turns me on to visit Viagra Pharmacy to enjoy with my husband. 

My old friend Viagra Online was posting again, but had decided to leave its name off the comment. There was the familiar friendly tone, but I could see right through its vague reference to my post as being "pretty cool to know about." For a moment I thought the reference to "handsome guys turns me on" might be some kind of compliment, but that seemed highly unlikely. The bastard had not read a single word.

The final straw came later that day when I noticed another comment from "Anonymous" on my post about the re-ascension of the Light Skinned Brother:

Most of this brunette guys are pretty handsome, in fact I just loved black mans they are different to the others. They turn me on to visit Viagra Pharmacy to enjoy with my husband. 

Not only did this comment show a profound lack of understanding for what I was writing, I was also troubled by the possibility that my new friend Viagra Online might be a racist. What exactly does it mean that "black mans they are different to the others"? And the confession that they "turn me on", what's that about? And now Viagra Online was married? Having a spam computer readership was supposed to make things more simple, but now I felt more confused and alone (and unread) then ever. I racked my brain to think of a clever Facebook status update that might capture the absurdity of the situation, but I couldn't come up with anything. 
I Just Loved Black Mans

 And maybe that's the point. Maybe that's how the computers will do it. They'll separate us into our own digital enclaves and then get us hooked on their vague, positive affirmations. And before we know it we'll all be clicking our way to an oblivion of Viagra Online.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Undercover Others

Out of all the older people gathered in the school library to hear me talk about how I was going to be supervising them, this Black woman was most clearly trying to distinguish herself as not a fuddy duddy. Her short hair was immaculately styled. Her eyebrows were impeccably plucked and thinly penciled to her brow. Her ears sagged with gems. She wore a purple and rose-red jumpsuit, satin soft. The thickness of her lenses could never undermine the stylishness of her gold frames. Her smile was church-pleasant as I offered my hand to shake.

This was my first official foray into the purgatory of public school education. After kicking around Minneapolis for a couple of years as a journalist/strip mall clerk/Notary Public extraordinaire, I signed up for Americorps Vista. Back then I was shocked by the events of 9/11, but I was even more shocked at the world that was being formed in its aftermath. I remember being in a park near my house, shooting baskets with some shorties when it struck me that this was just the beginning of a lot of suffering. That these youngsters would be growing up in a new type of world. Although I felt sadness for the people who lost their lives in the Towers, I couldn't help but dread the deaths yet to come. Prodigy of Mobb Deep described it perfectly on Survival of the Fittest, There's a war going on outside, no man is safe from. So instead of joining the military, I signed up as an Americorps VISTA in Baltimore Maryland. I worked in a school as a programs coordinator. One of the programs brought retired seniors in to tutor elementary school students. I acted as site supervisor, which mostly involved a lot of paperwork. I hadn't had much experience, but I always enjoyed talking to older people. They tend to be wise, and willing to candidly share that wisdom.The word "wisdom" is, of course, at times open to interpretation.

Her hand shake was soft and firm. Her teeth bright.
"Hi, my name is Abdel," I said.
"What did you say?" she said. Her hand flinched back to her ear, like she had been suddenly struck deaf.
I'm used to people clowning with my name. White people usually just have a pronunciation issue. In Minnesota people heard either "Ed" or "Bill" when I told them my name was Abdel. They didn't have the linguistic palette to hear what I was saying, so I often had to repeat the pronunciation. Having a name like mine requires one to have a sense of humor, but sometimes it's a struggle.
"It's Ab-del," I said to the woman, trying my best to reassure the anxiety I saw brewing in her eyes.
"Abdel?" she said, her voice quivering. "What are you, some MUSLIM?"

For the record, I am not a Muslim. Even though my name is Arabic for "servant of Allah," no one in my family is Muslim [not that there's anything wrong with that!] and I have never actually been inside a mosque. My name, Abdel Shakur, is a product of two non-conformist individuals who wanted me to have a unique name that would signal a new age in both of their families. So they gave me the last name of Black liberation icon Assata Shakur. If I was a girl, I would have been named Assata Shakur, and probably would appear at the top of every government no-fly list ever. So, my name is an expression of belief on the part of my parents, just not in the way you might think. 

I couldn't tell if the library had gotten colder or whether it was just perspiration cooling my skin. We stood in the aftermath of her question, standing close, both confused. I thought at first that she was joking, but I could see that the fear and disgust curling within the folds of her face was genuine. It made me sad because I got the sense that I was always going to be an Other to this woman, no matter what I said. Despite my wanting to build a sense of connection with this woman, I was destined to only be a young man of indistinct nationality with a terrorist name. I smiled broadly and tried my best to change the subject.

That incident comes to mind as we witness the NeO narrative enter an ominous phase. Before your eyes you are seeing our first Black President transformed into the Other. First there was doubt about his origin. Then doubt about his Blackness. Now it's about his god.

I guess I'm not surprised. In 2008, Barack used his special mulatto powers to bend himself into whatever hopeful shapes people could imagine. It's called passing--duh, our people invented it. Even as he stood taking that oath, supported by throngs, I knew it would get bad. Every president is destined to reach a point in their presidency where they are unpopular. Everything has a season, politics are no different.

Despite his seeming transcendence, one of the primary tenets of race still remain: a white man's cold is a Black man's flu.
My father often notes that a Black man's negatives are easier to exploit than a White man's. In our culture, very few of the narratives about Black men don't end in some kind of depravity. Michael Dukakis lost the presidency because of one of those narratives. Barack is essentially his own Willie Horton.

Now, it's important to say that I count myself among those disappointed in the NeO presidency thus far. Health care was a major victory, but we thought 2008 would mark a turning point in the battle against the complete corporatization of our political and economic systems. We had the crazy dream of keeping the wizards of finance from actually going ahead and selling our country away. But day by day it becomes more clear that the bill of sale was given a long time ago. Our President has become merely a delivery man in a messiah uniform. I still love the brother and find inspiration in his intelligence, strength, and swag, but I realize the jig (so to speak) is up. In the words of Biggie, things done changed.

Despite my disillusionment, I realize the consequences of abandoning a prominent and controversial Black man during a time of strife. Black people on the whole were ambivalent about Martin and Malcolm at the time of their deaths. Everybody loves them now, but as their narratives were shaped by powerful unseen forces, Black people had mixed feelings. First, Malcolm was too militant. Later, Martin was not militant enough. Both died much less popular than they had been previously.

And let me also be clear: I'm not suggesting we issue the "R-Kelly Pass" for Barack. You know, the pass that makes a prominent Black man morally immune to any kind of scrutiny in the eyes of Black folks? Those who claim to be our advocates need to not be our pimps, no matter how much swag they have. NeO promised us a lot and has not delivered like he said he would. Although not recognized as such, civil liberties is one of the most important Black issues in this country. Historically, we have bore the brunt of the coercive power of American government. At one time we were actually owned by our government, so there is no bigger priority than Never Again. And our President knows this. And yet after almost 20 months in office, it's still not clear how the Obama presidency is indistinct from the Bush presidency on the issue of civil liberties. And that sucks.

But this thing about him being a Muslim is inexcusable. This brother is being setup. He is being called "tyrant," "traitor, "criminal," "alien". If you put the word "Black" in front of any of those words, you start to see the danger that is brewing.

A lot of people doubted the wisdom of the president's remarks regarding the so called "Ground Zero Mosque". People said he wasn't involved in the controversy until he propelled himself into the debate, but they're wrong. The controversy has been ginned up to get people to reset their consciousness back in time to 2001. In the ruins of the towers, Bush waved his bullhorn and told everyone that we wouldn't forget the events of 9/11, but he really meant we wouldn't forget what we felt that day: fear and anger.

NeO realized that the intolerance being shown in the political discourse was not disconnected to his own political fate. NeO and Tinkerbell have one thing in common: their existence is dependent on our ability to believe in the fantastic. Whatever you want to say about him, our President doesn't draw his power by catering to the baser instincts of his constituents. He's no fearmongerer and he's too intellectually proud to become one. Contrary to popular belief, NeO didn't invent the idea of hope, he's just the most gifted manipulator of it in American political history. If he's going to be a two-term president, he's going to have to get people hoping again. That's why the mosque is important.

I felt a lot of pride when I first read his comments :

As a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country. And that includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in Lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances. This is America. And our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country and that they will not be treated differently by their government is essential to who we are. The writ of the Founders must endure.

The message underlying the speech is quite simple: We are a nation of laws. One of those laws prevents discrimination based on religion. You can't discriminate. End of story. Nothing really controversial there, but in desperate times even the idea of religious freedom becomes controversial. But NeO knows that he couldn't stand on the sidelines on this one. He made a beautiful and very clear statement about what he believed. And then he equivocated. And equivocated about his equivocation. And then he just stopped talking about it.

There's a part of this narrative that NeO has very little control over. If America is determined to erode all of its civil rights, than there is only so much he can do, especially considering the state of the economy. But whatever he does, he shouldn't equivocate. If he wants us to believe again, he's got to show us that he's willing to take slings and arrows for greater purposes besides political expediency. It probably won't get him a second term, but it's probably the only way he'll be able to leave that big White House not haunted by his own presidency.

And we can't afford the luxuries of bitterness and apathy. We have to realize the need to speak out for those outside of our communities who are being Othered. Whether it is about gender, sexual orientation, race, religion, or national origin, we've got to fight for the civil rights of everyone in our society, even if they have a name that's scary or hard to pronounce. Second term or not, if we don't take up these fights, we'll lose the only thing that can save us: hope.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Archie Bell and the Drells

We all need to tighten up. 

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Snatching the Pebble: From Writing to Publication

Have you read our submission guidelines, Little Grasshopper?

I'm teaching a class on literary publishing at the Martha's Vineyard Institute for Creative Writing this week (side note: yeah, Martha's Vineyard!). I'm going to write more about what I'm doing later, but I thought I would share some literary links that I found helpful. Check them out. (If you know of any others, please feel free to put them in the comments section)
  • Exhaustive list of literary magazines, their response times, percent of work rejected, and percentage of personal responses they give. Very helpful and continually updated.
  • 1,000 Fans. This article is all about the idea that all an artist needs to “quit their day job” and write full time for a living is 1,000 fans. Basically, it’s about creating a network of people interested and willing to pay for your work. Must read.
  • Literary Journal Rankings. This author ranks a wide range of journals. Ranking journals is kind of a rank concept, but it helps to have a sense of the reputation of the place you’re submitting.
  • They have an excellent listing of literary magazines, all of which are reviewed. This helps out a lot to give you a sense of the work that journals are looking for. Their blog is also a good resource for finding out about what’s going on. Keeping your eye out for contests and special issues is a good way to increase your chances of publication.
  • Literary journal blogs. This is a good way to find out the latest about what’s going on at a literary journal. Ninth Letter, Indiana Review :) , Third Coast, and a gazillion others use blogs to let writers know about current events at the journal.
  • Author blogs. Neil Gaiman has probably the most popular author blog. Tayari Jones provides an excellent example of how to create a community around your writing. Joy Harjo also has a pretty cool blog.
  • Nathan Bransford is a literary agent with a lot of helpful advice, from writing query letters, to finding an agent, to publicizing your book once it’s published.

And here's Jim Carrey's take on snatching the pebble. Seems appropriate for writers.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Peep Game: Inception

Things I noticed about Inception:

1. There were no Black people in this movie.

2. This wasn't one of those movies where the absence of Black people really got on my nerves. Chris Nolan is a great writer and he just so happens to not feature a lot of Black people in his films. Why does everything have to be so political these days anyways? I voted for Obama, okay!

3. Is it just me or isn't the idea of inception, basically implanting an idea in someone's mind and having them unconsciously make it their own, isn't this the basis of any healthy committed relationship?

Now hold on a second. I know what you're thinking.

It ain't like that. This type of inception has to go both ways. Both partners have to be able to influence each other without explicitly telling the other one what to do all the time. And even more importantly, there has to be trust that the other partner is trying to help that person become the best person they can (and want) to become. That's how you get to that Michelle/Barack Fist Bump Status.

This also requires you to not ruin all that good influencing work by constantly putting your influence in the other person's face all the time too. At the very least give them some time to enjoy their successes before you let them know how much they owe you.

4. Who cares if the whole thing was a dream? I'm sorry, did I say that? I know somebody just closed the Misstraknowitall tab right then. But really, on a storytelling tip, would it really matter if it was a dream or not? Would we really look at any of the characters, or the changes they went through, any differently?

Inception was just a big puzzle. There wasn't some underlying statement about human consciousness or the morality of transmitting ideas or about the imprisonment of women inside male "projections" of femininity. All of those issues/ideas could have been wrestled with, but in the end it was just a really cool Rubics cube.

I was shocked to hear the movie theater erupt in a pained groans as the film ended right before Leo's top stopped spinning. I assumed that the last scene represented reality. More importantly, I would be pretty disappointed if it didn't turn out to be reality. Otherwise it would seem like some half-assed M. Night Shamalayan move.

5. With all due respect to observations #1 and #2 in this post, can I get a Color Check on Marion Cotillard? Me thinks she looks a little bit like a egroNay? Pardon my Swine Latin, I just don't want to mess up the sister's career. If this got out, next thing you know she's battling Gabriel Union for a role in the new Tyler Perry film, "He's NOT my baby Daddy," starring Malik Yoba.

I've researched her background and haven't come up with anything just yet, but something has my "mula-dar" tingling, so I know I'm on to something. Plus, according to her Wiki page, she was awarded the African American Film Critics Association Award for Best Actress in 2007. (We weren't that post-racial in 2007 were we? It's hard to keep track.)

You sure that's not pronounced "Mari'On?"

Anyways, whatever she is, she was the best thing about that movie, which is a high compliment. Her character, ironically,was the most human and complete out of everyone in the film. In fact, the saddest moment for me was when Leo dismissed her as a figment of his own imagination. That broke my heart.

6. And no, Chris Nolan didn't invent the idea of inception. Break it down, Goldie.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


About ten years ago I had a transformative experience at the Hurston/Wright writer's conference in Washington, DC. At the time I was on the fence about the whole writing thing, although I was encouraged by novelist Alexs Pate, who I met at the University of Minnesota. I knew that there were writers of color out there working, but I just didn't know any of them. Alexs was teaching a fiction workshop at Hurston-Wright and told me that I needed to come through. Boy was he right. (BTW: he's got a new book, In the Heart of the Beat: The Poetry of Rap. It's dope. Review forthcoming)

Portrait of the Misstra as a young Knowitall, w/Alexs Pate
In DC I found a vibrant community of writers who were talented and serious about their work. I ended up meeting some incredible people who I still keep up with to this day (I even got to work with a couple of them when I was at Indiana Review). More importantly, I finally found an audience that I felt could critique my work without critiquing my cultural context. In my previous experiences it was hard for me to figure out whether the feedback I received in workshops, whether positive or negative, was because of the merits of my work or because people were unfamiliar with the type of story I was trying to tell, or why I was trying to tell it. The experience was a revelation.

VONA gots Fyre!
I had a similar experience last week at the VONA writer's conference in San Francisco. The conference is one of the oldest and largest venues for writer's of color from all across the country to get together and work on their craft. Diem Jones, the former Parliament Funkadelic cover photographer, (who was featured in the Indiana Review Funk issue) runs the show, so you know things are funky. The workshops are taught by heavies like Junot Diaz, Chris Abani, Ruth Forman, Willie Perdomo, Evelina Galang, and Tayari Jones, but the best thing about the experience was the amazing community of writers who keep coming back. There's nothing like being able to sit around and just talk about writing with people who share your experience. The feedback I got from Evelina Galang was quite helpful and my workshop mates gave me a lot of great energy to keep me writing. If you haven't attended, you need to start making next year's plans now.

My new favorite coffee shop all-time: Coffee for the People
All writers, regardless of color, have to take the time to invest in their art. We display our values by the way we employ our resources. Time and money are our greatest resources, so if we don't spend either on our writing, how can we credibly say we care about our art?

My new favorite bus bench all-time: Haight and Ashbury

Which leads me to my next pitch...

On July 25th, yours truly will be teaching a writing workshop at the Martha's Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing. The class I'm teaching, called "Publish Before You Perish" is going to be informative, fun, and of course, funky. Check it.

Oh, and here's Ruth Forman and Willie Perdomo reading at this year's faculty reading. Do yourself a favor and watch both.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

What is done can't be undone, son.

Splice is not a new story. It's all about the consequences for those whose vanity and arrogance lead them to play God. We've seen it before. What's troubling is the terrible punishment Splice imagines for its female Frankenstein.

**Word of warning, if you haven't seen Splice, don't read further because I'm about to spoil the hell out of it.***

Splice acts like it's concerned with a lot of different moral issues surrounding genetics, but it basically boils down to a gruesome parable about how female fascination with vanity leads to rape.

You have two scientists, Clive and Elsa, who are in love and also the top genetic "morphologists" in their field. They are paid by a corporation to design life forms that synthesize proteins. The life forms are composed of genetic material from cows, horses, pigs, etc. Once they have matured fully, these synthesized organisms produce proteins that that can be sold by the corporation. The creatures are hideous, but they make dough, so everybody's happy.

Dear Adrien Brody, we still ain't cool. We ain't forgot about Halle Berry.
Billy Bob wasn't enough for y'all, huh? Signed, All Black Men.
Except for the woman. Elsa wants to take the logical (to her) next step and create a hybrid using parts of human DNA. Clive doesn't think it's such a good idea, but is helpless before her feminine wiles. Before you know it, they shake the tree of knowledge and out comes the future.

The future, a creature named Dren, looks like a walking penis for the first half of the movie, so I guess I should have been known that something was up.


Earlier it was revealed that Clive wanted to have a baby "conventionally" but Elsa said she didn't want to have to give birth. "Maybe when we figure out male pregnancy," she jokes. In the mad scientist stories we're used to (hint: Frankenstein is a man) the creation of the monster is motivated by the character's vanity, but this vanity is of the intellectual nature. The man wants to be able to out-think God. Elsa, on the other hand, is just concerned with creating without increasing her dress size. "Is this even about science?" pleads Clive. Uh, nooo.

Throughout the movie, we see pictures of Elsa staring at herself in the mirror or staring at pictures of herself with her mother when she was younger. She even teaches Dren to look in the mirror and to embrace her "feminine" gender by putting on makeup and wearing jewelry. She does too good a job because Dren starts exhibiting her own symptoms of vanity.

One of the most interesting things about the movie is that as Dren becomes more and more human in appearance, her mother becomes less and less humane. After a nasty confrontation with Dren, Elsa's vanity and arrogance push her off the deep end, and she cuts Dren's stinger off. Unfortunately, she later learns that the stinger doubles as a youknowwhat.

And Clive ends up sexing Dren for some reason, which is just about the weirdest thing I've ever seen in a movie. Maury to the millionth power. Although it's disturbing, at least it still feels new. I can't name too many science fiction movies that so embody the Electra complex. But, just when you think you're going to get something new, Dren dies and becomes a dude.

And for what the movie was trying to do, this is the only way it could have ended. The Frankenstein story always requires a punishment for the foolish scientists. In this case, the male scientist is punished with death because he bit the apple, but the female scientist requires a punishment that Dren isn't capable of.

'sup, girl?

Dren as a dude is bigger, faster, and stronger. For some reason he can also talk, although he obviously wasn't Hooked on Monster Phonics because all he can say to Elsa is "inside you."*

Which brings us to the end. It's too bad that a movie which opens up so many possibilities in terms of looking at gender ends up settling for a lot of cliches with frightening implications. The woman looks in the mirror, falls in love with what she sees and is punished. Elsa loses the man she loves, her career, and ends up being impregnated by a monster.

In the end I just ended up feeling bad for Elsa. Too bad she wasn't born male, maybe then she would have been lucky enough to die like a man.

*Side note: BARF

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Can You Get to That?

Maggot Brain has a special place in my heart as being one of those songs that has the power to make you feel as if your life has changed after a single listen. Even if it hasn't, the song, with it's wailing, somber, playful, celestial guitar solos, offers you the chance to alter your consciousness.

Ironically, the first time I heard it I was in a state of altered consciousness. I had just laid down on my little futon couch, in my little shoebox apartment. In those days I kept the incense blazing constantly, so the air was heavy with sandalwood. I had forgotten to cut off my stereo, and hadn't really noticed until George Clinton boomed from the speakers, announcing in a solemn voice that Mother Earth was pregnant for the THIRD time. As if that wasn't bad enough: Because y'all have knocked her up.

Groggy or not, I knew I needed to hear what kind of song could uphold an intro like that.

The Bill Cosby Alphabet

The guy on the left needs a little help.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

We Gone Have Rocks This Big Tonight!

One time my dad and I were watching the local news about a huge drug bust in Oakland public housing. Police laid out the seized drugs, guns, and money like trinkets at a garage sale. There was talk of the "street value" of the contraband and local "community leaders" were consulted about the impact of the arrests. However, as the reporter made his final remarks, a group of young men clamored behind him to make their own comment. "We gone have rocks this big tonight!" one of them yelled out. Ahh, another seminal moment in the effort to set Black progress back a couple hundred years.

"Move token back to 1864. Do not Collect $200."

Needless to say, me and my dad still think it's hilarious to yell that out as loud as possible. However, it wasn't until the recent Gulf oil spill disaster that I truly understood what that kid meant.

First, I should say that the BP disaster has bummed me out. The feeling is similar to the aftermath of 9/11, when the totality and brutality of the disaster is just so great that it's hard to find words. I kept starting posts and not knowing where to go with them. I stopped watching the news to avoid images of ruined beaches and storks covered in tar.


There's no comparing the loss of human life during 9/11, but at least the events of that disaster were confined to that day. This spill doesn't seem anywhere close to stopping. The relief wells are supposed to stop the thing, but what happens if that doesn't work? (Am I the only one who is not comforted by the fact that the best solution we have to a drilling disaster is...more drilling?) Even if it does work, it will be months before they are up and running and by that time, millions and millions more gallons of oil will coat the gulf.

9/11 was a bit more accessible because it had a cast of villains that were easy to identify, and bomb. We know the major players in this disaster, BP and Haliburton, but you unfortunately can't bomb a corporatoin. Which brings me to sadness that has become the NeObama administration.

NeObama was supposed to defy the rules of the Matrix. He did it somewhat effectively with health care, but no matter how many bullets he dodges or digital baddies he highkicks, he can't get around the fact that his power is contained within a machine, and that machine is powered by siphoning the heat of newborns.

Hang in there, baby.

In other words, although the Executive branch is more powerful than it's ever been, our President (for whatever reason) seems to have little power to act on his own accord. He can frown and cuss and wag his finger, but there is very little the president can do. It's hard to shake the feeling that he's in the same position as his predecessor, stuck reading The Pet Goat while larger forces determine our fates.

Some would say that NeO has sold out, or that the whole hope thing was a big deception, but that's hard for me to believe. I think a lot of people are upset because NeO convinced us to not only believe in him, but to believe that the presidency would be the sight of revolutionary economic and social change. That has been proven false. Maybe I'm naive, but although I have lost faith in the presidency as an institution, I still believe in the man who inhabits it.

However, there's no getting around that the oil and war interests still run the show. If 9/11 couldn't cause a meaningful rethinking of our energy policy, is it feasible to think that that a few thousand oily birds are going to change things?

Which brings us to "We gone have rocks this big tonight." I first took the young man's usage of the word "have" to mean "smoke." In other words, it doesn't matter how many drug raids you have, you can't keep us from smoking rocks. But now I realize that I was off. What he was actually doing was a form of defiant advertising. He wasn't saying he was going to be smoking rocks, but rather he was going to be selling rocks, no matter what the police did. He wanted everyone to know that business was going to continue as usual. In fact, he probably gained a couple customers who might have otherwise been dissuaded by the bust.

That attitude is no different than a corporation like Haliburton, which caused the spill. No matter what anybody says, they are making their money, and will continue to make their money.

By the way, does anybody else think it's strange that this particular corporation has been at the center of every major catastrophe that's befallen this country in the last ten years? The Bush presidency, Iraq, Afghanistan, Katrina, Gulf spill, etc.

If this corporation was a person, they would be a definite candidate for the "No Fly" list. At what point do we decide that it's in our country's interest for a company to just not exist? It may sound silly, but can we install a death penalty for corporations?

Until we do take serious action to reign in these bad acting corporations, and their overwhelming influence, we're all going to be sitting ducks until the next disaster.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Marvin Isley

I just read that Marvin Isley, bass player for the Isley Brothers, died today. While this is sad news, especially since the brother was only 56, it does provide a fantastic opportunity to highlight one of my favorite funk/rock albums of all time, 3+3. 

After leaving Motown and starting their own label, T-Neck records, the Isley Brothers added two guitar playing little brothers, Marvin and Ernie, and their pianoman cousin Chris Jasper. The Isley's had been making hits since the late fifties, but the youthful funk of their younger siblings made 3+3 something special.
Doubt it? Check out "Who's That Lady" and peep Ernie's soaring Hendrix-inspired* guitar riffs being perfectly balanced by Marvin's funky bass lines. Trust me, you need this album in your life.


*It's not widely known that Jimi Hendrix actually played with the Isley's back in the day before he hit it big in rock. From Rickey Vincent's Funk: The Music, The People, and The Rhythm of the One:

Hendrix wound up in Harlem in late 1963 looking for lead guitarist gigs in an R&B act. He was picked up when Ronnie Isley went to the Palm Cafe looking for a lead guitarist for an upcoming Isley Brothers tour of Bermuda.
Hendrix thrived in the Isley Brothers band, performing his wild stage show, licking the air, biting his guitar, wearing loud bandanas, and getting the most out of his solos. He made $30 a night and didn't complain. 

Check him out on the group's mid-60 release, Testify Parts 1+2.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Standardized Teaching

The death of the book (as we know it) will hasten the death of the teacher (as we know it).

Book, man

At my current school, and many others like it, I have been told to instruct and assess with a careful eye towards "replicating the standardized testing environment."

The thinking is simple: if you want kids to do well on an assessment, then you make sure you teach them so they can know how to do the things you're going to ask them to do on the test. And you practice in those conditions, over and over.

And then it occurred to me the other day that we surprisingly still do standardized testing with paper books. The grading is all scanned in, but there are more inefficiencies in the system. Why kill all those trees? Why not have the kids just take tests on the computer?

That question may take a few more years to resolve logistically, but very soon computer testing will become standard. And that shouldn't really seem like a big deal until you think about how we "replicate the standardized testing environment." If you are going to be assessed in a digital environment, wouldn't you want your learning to be in the same realm?

And if learning is based mostly in the digital environment, what role does that leave for the teacher? The teacher who battles for the attention of students who are progressively more emotionally invested in their consumptive technologies?

Not much.

My students are generally on their best behavior when they have a computer in front of them. They don't disrupt, they don't talk loudly, they keep their hands to themselves (thank God, finally!).

Of course that doesn't ensure effective instruction, or even actual learning. If we're trying to socialize competent, productive members of society, you need a human leading the instruction. Otherwise, the results will be less than ideal.

But that doesn't mean people won't try to use alternate methods, particularly in lean economic times. Human teachers are expensive, in terms of investment of time and money, and wouldn't it make sense to invest more in software (as it were), as opposed to hardware? If you had a program that could show the same test results as a human, wouldn't you hire the program? Some might even say it would be immoral to do anything less. Again, that's taking for granted that learning is only worthwhile if it can be represented by a number.

Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not opposed to numerical assessment of student learning. When you're trying to teach someone a piece of information, the most important question is not one the pupil asks, but the question a teacher asks to check for understanding.

The problem with this new approach to education is less in the principal, but more in the practice. Mahatma Ghandi's philosophy of non-violence is well known, but less attention is devoted to his reservations and distrust of technology. He uses the introduction of trains to India and the virulence of British colonialism as an example. Ghandi says it wasn't trains themselves that were evil, but they were transporters of evil across large distances. The rapid movement of goods was a catalyst for exploitation. Can anyone say cotton gin?

Student performance scores represent a technology that can tell us a lot about how to instruct our children. But it can also be used to transport the evil of greed. Once education is completely corporatized, and once the test performance of children is tied to profit, that's when the evil will be most easily transported. That's when schools will close and open like fast food franchises. That's when caring professionals will be cast out like "obsolete" autoworkers. That's when a generation of students will be taught to value test performance over knowledge.

But we're not there quite yet. We have to be willing to weather the storms of active minds, without relying on electronic pacifiers. We have to work to ensure the careers of educators are not determined merely by test data, but the activation of student thinking and learning. That's why we need to craft an educational philosophy informed, but not enslaved by data.