Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Public Speaking Do's and Don'ts Number #1 When In Wisconsin in February

When in Wisconsin in February:

DO realize that it might be colder outside than in a deep freezer.

DO bring winter boots with you.  They can even be adorable (picture to be posted soon).

DON'T act surprised when you go for a pleasant mid-day stroll and get frostbite on your ears.  Okay, according to the Mayo Clinic, what I had was probably Frost Nip, but saying I had Frost Bite sounds way more dramatic.

DO retell your Wisconsin stories using dramatic overstatements like "Frost Bite" as opposed to "Frost Nip," because 1) you will sound like an adventurer, even if you were just trying to find a Starbucks and 2) future venues will know that you're willing to die for the cause.

DO tell all of the lovely people you meet (most of whom will be hard to see because they'll be covered in layer upon layer of fabrics created in a lab to withstand the coldest temperatures) that you'd be happy to return to Wisconsin to share the story with more people, as long as it's in July.

DO realize that many of Wisconsin's towns are connected by land and nothing else.  I just completed six talks in four days in four cities and there isn't a greyhound or train that travels between them.  At first I thought I could rent a car, then realized that if it was snowing and I rented a car - well, I am from California, so basically it wasn't going to happen.

DO Remember to thank the amazing people who made it all worthwhile.  Most of the venues were kind enough to drive me all over the state (note the use of dramatic overstatement) in order to make it to my events.  THANK YOU Melanie, William, Marvette, Dorothea, Josephine, and the sweet ladies (whose names I don't even know) who drove me back to my hotel tonight.  All of these wonderful people endured  my presence in their warm vehicles for hours on end so that I could share my grandfather's story.

Even though you were colder than Alaska in February (and I know because I was in Alaska last February) I LOVE YOU, Wisconsin.  Remember, "Ya Gotta Keep That Smile"!!!

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Kanye West and the Race Problem

The other day I saw a news story about something called Bound 3, a spoof on Kanye West's Bound 2 music video.  Bound 3 features James Franco and Seth Rogen acting out the parts of Kanye and his girlfriend, Kim Kardashian.  The video had me in stitches.  What cracked me up most, what was seriously hilarious, were the lyrics coming out of Franco's mouth.

He talks about how he is tired and the girl in the song must be tired as well because apparently they've been hurt in love, etc.  At one point Franco sings: "I'm tired, you're tired...Jesus wept."  And then puts his arms out to the sides as if he is on a cross.  I laughed so hard that I almost peed my pants.

I decided to check out West's original video to see which parts Franco and Rogen had grossly exaggerated. To my complete and utter shock, the answer was: none.  Every body movement was the same and the lyrics were the same.  I started Googling  "lyrics Bound 2" because I was sure that something must be wrong with my computer.  Maybe Kanye's video was up but Franco's singing was in the background?

No, those were the real lyrics.  At one point, West actually says, "I want to f--- you on the sink and then give you something to drink."  Also, for no apparent reason other than maybe needing a rhyme, he says, while rubbing his head "Got a fresh cut straight out the salon b----." If you don't believe me, Google the lyrics for yourself.  Also....Here's a side-by-side version of the two videos.

I honestly, sincerely could not believe how Kanye West could take himself seriously.  Then, I theorized that maybe reporters act captivated when he talks and so he believes that he is some sort of genius, a prophet, Shakespeare no less.  In case you don't want to follow those links, all of these are things he's said about himself.  Then, I thought that maybe he is surrounded by assistants and handlers who are impressed with his money and good looks and he reads that as them being in awe of his "theories."

That's the conclusion I came to.  Ultimately, I didn't care, I had some really good laughs that night.  He won't be the first or the last person to be polluted by celebrity.  I didn't think anymore about it, until I read "In Defense of Kanye West," an article by Rawiya Kameir.

I think one of the people who commented put it best when they said that calling every criticism of a black male "racist" dilutes the term.  I am a black woman who makes a living writing and speaking about issues of race, class, and privilege.  This is my wheelhouse and Kameir, you got it wrong.  Your heart is in the right place, but with this article you are hurting the movement, hindering progress, giving people an excuse to keep the phrase "playing the race card" in our vernacular.

Being racially sensitive is not about giving blacks a pass to act idiotically.  The bar of logic, sanity, art, genius, or anything else doesn't get lowered for us because our ancestors were slaves.  Being able to take criticism and respond to it point-by-point is what it means to be grown up.  It's what it means to be in the arena, to be a businessman, to be equal.  That's what we wanted, right, equality?

It's okay if some people think West is a genius.  They can love his music.  They can even believe that he is a radical, a visionary.  Historically, when someone has gone way outside of the box there have always been those, and will always be those, who laugh at them, ridicule them, call them crazy.  So, if you believe that Kanye West is some sort of musical messiah, go for it, but don't call me a racist for thinking he is nothing more than comic relief.

Kameir, if you need a Kanye-related soap box to stand on, why don't you theorize about the reasons why Bound 2 uses the phrase "b----" four times.  As a woman, that is something I do have a problem with.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Facing My Fears

Only a few people in the United States (I think the number might be 2) hold a degree in library science AND have a genealogy certificate.  I spent my morning with one of these experts today.

There are details about my grandfather's life that I need to confirm.  One of the possibilities is mind-boggling and amazing, but unlikely.  One of the others is downright scary.  It's kind of the 11th hour.  I've known that I need to nail down these pieces for some time now.  I have to finish this book, ideally by the end of the year, so I'm running out of time.  I won't to go to print without diligently completing my research.

People have memories.  I've relied on those memories to construct a story, a story that's been painful to bear at times, but that has redefined my entire life.  But I'm making a public statement in the form of a book and I can't do that without knowing for sure that every stone has been turned over.  But I feel so afraid.

A few summers ago I was in Mississippi and I was learning things about my grandfather.  Even though he'd been dead for 38 years he was still a volatile figure.  People (both black and white) still loved or hated him.

How can you hate someone whose been dead for 38 years?  There were people who couldn't wait to come out of the woodwork to share their stories about what a horrible man he was.  I was devastated.  Looking back I don't know why.  Nobody is perfect.  But somehow I had let myself believe that his excellence would rub off on me, that he would shine bright from the beyond and that I'd be able to feel his rays warming me when I needed him most.

When people shared those negative things about him two years ago I was shattered.  I remember being in Greenwood and having to remind  myself to walk, to exhale, because all I wanted to do was curl up in a dusty cotton field and waste away.  My tongue felt heavy on the rough of my mouth, my palms were sweaty, lips shaking.  I'd worked so hard to construct a hero and he was being torn down, in part, because of my own research.

I'm kind of in that place again, only in some ways it's worse.  Now I'm not just up against people's memories, but facts.  It's a good thing.  I have an incredibly talented and generous woman helping me.  But I'm still afraid.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

A Delta Discussion

I've been working hard to bring Greenwood to life on the page, and it's working.  I have an amazing research assistant who tirelessly scours digital archives and reaches out to professors in an effort to get the most accurate data we can.  The more that I learn about Greenwood in the 1960s, the more amazed I am.  There's so much about what happened in that small town that sheds light on how regular, everyday people could seemingly ignore systematic, sustained societal racism.

When the documentary about my grandfather premiered in New York City in April, 2012, someone from the audience asked how I would respond to black Christians who hate homosexuals.  He seemed to feel that it was hypocritical for blacks to talk about the oppression of yesterday if they were actively engaged in oppressing homosexuals today.  I agreed with him, but then I explained that every group has their jihad.  Every group has that subset of extremists.  Just because a person is a member of a group, doesn't mean that they represent all of the other members of that group, or that they agree with every idea that comes from that group.

In towns like Greenwood, there were men and women who made it their mission to maintain a segregated state.  What blows me away is the lengths that they went to in order to achieve their goals.  Very, very, very few books talk about this, but there was a newsletter called "A Delta Discussion" that was distributed door to door.  The newsletter was filled with dire predictions about what would happen if the schools were integrated.  They included stories from far off communities that had tried to integrate and then had incidents of violence.  These newsletters also included the names of white store owners who were enforcing the Civil Rights Act, by allowing blacks to patronize their establishments.  Whites were encouraged to stop going to these stores all together.

It's important to remember that Greenwood was a small town, surrounded by plantations.  Most whites in Greenwood had known the other whites in Greenwood for all of their lives.  These relationships had been establishments generations before the civil rights movement came along.  Most whites had grown up with a distorted view of blacks.  They were too close to it to question it.  Then people from the outside (from the Northern states) began to question how Southern blacks were being treated.  Those questions were challenged, not by strangers, but by the neighbors.  Whites who were racist in Greenwood had an enormous amount of influence over other whites because of the familiarity between the two groups.  

Imagine having someone come into your town for a visit and tell you that your wife is unhappy in your marriage.  Your friends tell you not to listen to this stranger.  They can all but prove to you that your wife is happy  Your wife is silent.  Most blacks over the age of 25 were relatively silent on civil rights until the tide started to turn.  Pretending that things weren't as bad for blacks as Northern whites were describing was pretty simple to do.

The efforts to maintain segregation became a complex, intricate, and expertly executed campaign.  The campaign struck people where they would feel it the most.  The average Greenwood citizen was made to believe that if they let integration occur that they would lose their children.  Their children would marry blacks who, according to the campaign were beast-like illiterates.  Many believed that blacks were more sexual than whites.  Why did they believe these things?  Do you believe the earth is round?  How do you know?  Have you personally conducted science experiments to prove it or do you just know because that's what someone in authority told you?

Obviously, I don't support or condone racism or people who ignore racism.  But if I seek only to distance myself from the "white Southerner" and lump then all in with Byron De La Beckwith, then I'm missing an opportunity to learn an important lesson about human nature.  I've forced myself to really ponder whether or not I would have the eyes to see past the rhetoric and see the oppression of the people around me if I was a white middle class person living in Greenwood in the 1960s.

What I know is that Booker Wright provided that opportunity for many Greenwood whites.  He did something that removed their blinders.  And for that, I am thankful.