Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Cuddles on the Side

I haven't been posting lately because I made the decision that I have GOT to finish this book.  I've spent the last five months planning and working on structure and waiting for feedback.  I was beginning to feel like the heartbeat of the story was slipping away from me.

So, everyday I try to write at least five (but some days I get in 10) new pages and I send them to an amazing friend who sends back line item edits and she lets me know when certain sections make absolutely no sense.  On any given day I may have 10 new pages to write, 10 pages to edit from the first round of notes, and more pages to edit from the second round of notes.

This friend is moving across the country in a few weeks and I know that she's working through the night to help me.  There are no words for my gratitude.

Thankfully, some solid readers are coming out of the woodwork - people who embrace this work, get it, and like the friend mentioned above are willing to find space in their own busy lives to read my stuff and get me some feedback.  I don't know how people write entire books on their own.  It's like getting lost in a maze, sometimes, I just need a fresh set of eyes to help me see what is obviously not working and what is amazingly possible

I can say with certainty that there will be a solid draft of this book by the end of summer.  I'm trying to maintain my sanity by keeping up with my fitness so that the joy of reaching my goal isn't overshadowed by feeling like I have to get back in shape again. But when I'm tired and I know that I'll be at Starbucks before the early rising Arizona sun comes up, all that I want is a mug of rich, hot chocolate with added half-and-half.  For now when I feel that way I'm grabbing my running shoes and squeezing in a few miles, but who knows before this is done I might be grabbing my sandals and heading to the Safeway by my house because they have the best chocolate glazed donuts in the world.  Seriously.  They are the absolute best.

Needless to say, I am exhausted and bone tired.  Today I was trying to confirm the content of an interview I'd transcribed months ago and every time I leaned in close to listen I was interrupted by something like this:

"Mom, look I found an inchworm.  It's feet are sticky.  Would you like to hold it."

"That's so neat, that the feet are sticky, but no, sweetheart, Mommy doesn't want to hold your inchworm."

It takes me a few seconds to find my place again and capture my rhythm and then:

"Mom, if you want to hold my inchworm let me know because he sure is wiggly."

"Thanks, babe.  If I decide to hold him I'll let you know."

This goes on until finally I am holding a yucky inchworm in my palm.  I try to hand it back to my smiling child who is delighted to be teaching his squirmy mommy how to hold bugs.  "You can hold it for longer if you want mom."

"Thanks, babe."

Monday, May 14, 2012

On Affirmative Action

In Greenwood, many blacks lived on plantations as sharecroppers.  They lived on the property for free in homes that often didn't have running water or indoor plumbing.  Most of these homes had crooked walls, tin roofs and wooden floors with planks spaced so far apart you could see the ground below.  The deal was that you picked cotton from the time the sun came up until it went down.  Your children, your pets, your everything accompanied you to the fields.

My paternal grandmother was a single mom for a number of years.  This put her in a tough spot because most plantation owners required a man to be in the house. They also often required all of the males, as young as five years old, to pick cotton. This meant that as recently as the 1950's, many black boys in the South were not allowed to go to school for part of the year because they had to work the fields.

In 1972, my father was playing football at Norfolk State University when his stepfather died.  His mother, who was still living in Greenwood at the time, was forced to leave her plantation because there was no longer a man in the house. 1972. 1972.  Most people think that the plantation society that defined the South during slave times was over the minute an emancipation was signed.

The story of my family is the story of a system that lingered long past the headlines.

Do I think that black kids today should get a leg up because their ancestors, (not hundreds of years ago, but yesterday) couldn't read stories to their own children because they missed school and were barely literate?  I don't know.  What I do know is that anyone who wants to shout from the rooftops about what blacks do and do not deserve had better make sure that they know a little history, not just headlines.

Friday, May 4, 2012

A Trayvon Martin World

When Raymond De Felitta and I were doing the Q&A's after screenings of "Booker's Place: A Mississippi Story" in New York, we were often asked about whether or not we think things have changed in Greenwood.

When Frank went down to Greenwood in 1965 he had to first consult with the FBI. He had trouble pulling together a crew who would be willing to go down there with him.  Greenwood wasn't the safest place for people who were perceived to be pro-integration.  When we took our crew down there in the summer of 2011, the townspeople and local officials couldn't have been more helpful.

I think it's easy, especially as a black woman with young black sons, to feel angry and frustrated about how much farther the world needs to go in terms of race relations.  The mere idea that someone would automatically feel threatened when they see a black boy in a hoodie walking down the street is sad and scary at the same time.

Nevertheless, I know that I must embrace and proclaim all the change that has taken place.  This week is the 20 year anniversary of the LA Riots sparked by the Rodney King verdict.  I will never forget watching that footage and feeling fear.  Fear that I or someone I loved would one day be in the wrong place at the wrong time and that the authorities, the ones sent to protect us, would harm us.

For years I feared the police.  After awhile that fear kind of ebbed away.  Then I moved to Arizona.  I have a friend, a black woman who has four kids and is married to a man who looks and dresses a lot like Tupac Shakir.  He works in the music industry and drives luxury cars.  More than once their family has been pulled over and forced to sit on the side of the road while cops search their car for drugs. Clearly, we still have a ways to go.

But, here's the ray of hope.  When Trayvon Martin was killed, it wasn't just Al Sharpton raising his voice and asking whether or not the crime could have had something to do with race.  Whites, Blacks, Mexicans and people from all walks of life thought the story sounded fishy.  As a nation, we were collectively bothered by the idea that the only thing suspicious about this young boy was his color and his hoodie.

To be clear, whether or not George Zimmerman failed to value Trayvon Martin's life because of the color of his skin is something that I don't have the answer to.  The investigation is ongoing and I will hold back my judgement until all that can be known is known.  However, I am delighted that the chorus of people claiming that something smelled foul was a multi-colored chorus.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Theatrical Release

It looks like Tribeca is bringing "Booker's Place: A Mississippi Story" to a few more cities.  So far it's in New York, New Orleans, Detroit, and Philadelphia. YEAH!  I'll try to keep you guys posted about the other cities where you might be able to see it in theaters.

Thank you to everyone for all of your support of this film!

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

It's Complicated

Greenwood, Mississippi is still largely segregated.  Blacks live on the south side of the river and whites live north of it.  More and more blacks are moving to the white side of town, while many of the whites are moving out of town altogether.  The public schools in Greenwood are about 98% black because most of the white kids go to private schools.

When I went to Greenwood this past summer I expected to feel tension between myself and the white residents I would meet there.  Part of my goal in going was to confront and maybe even deconstruct "the racist".

What happened when I went to Greenwood surprised me and left me feeling conflicted.  Time and time again the white people from Greenwood including those I met in passing, those I interviewed, and those who helped with research wanted nothing less than an opportunity to embrace me.  Some of them felt intense warmth towards me because they had so dearly loved Booker Wright.  Others seemed to be trying to grasp at yet one more opportunity to clean up the image of the archetypal white Southerner.

The time I spent with them has left me in a strange position.  I sometimes find myself defending the white Southerner, trying to free them from the guilt that seems to be passed from generation to generation like an unwanted family heirloom.

I grew up in California and like a lot of people who haven't spent significant amounts of time in the South, the idea that some towns may still be segregated seems like absolute nonsense to me.  I know that most major cities have "bad" parts of town where it's not uncommon for economically depressed people of color to live. That's not what's going on in Greenwood.  Regardless of economics, whites and blacks live mostly apart.

From an outsiders vantage point it appears that whites and blacks are in a simple and seemingly sophomoric stand off that just needs to be done away with.  The idea that a town could have a white side and a black side in 2012 is deplorable to me.

But what if it was you?  Would you take your kids with ivory white skin and clear blue eyes and move them to the black side of town where the roads are so torn up they look like they haven't been serviced in years?  Would you move your kids to a school district in which many of the high school students struggle to read at a second grade level?  Would you move your family to the side of town where most of your city's crimes are committed?

Maybe you would.  I don't know if I could do it.

Many people feel called to change the world in some small way.  They might feed the homeless, take in foster care children, champion causes like autism or childhood obesity.  Clearly many Southerners, white and black, have not chosen to make unifying the races a central theme of their lives.  Does that make them bad people?  Does that make them racists?

If a white person lives in the South does that automatically mean that they need to make solving the race conundrum their sole aim?  Maybe the answer is yes. Maybe being white and Southern automatically means that one is shackled with that responsibility like it or not.  Either they work and work for racial unity or they are held responsible for racial disunity.

I wrestle with wondering whether or not this is fair.  But I also think that if everyone turns a blind eye to the problems in their own communities then the world will never progress.  In the 1960's many whites in Greenwood lived as though they were oblivious to the civil rights movement happening around them.  Booker Wright's words brought the harsh reality of it home to them.  He made them so uncomfortable that they could no longer deny just how unhappy their blacks were.

Maybe that's why so many of the whites are moving out of Greenwood.  Maybe they don't know how to fix the problem, but they also don't want to be reminded of it any longer.

In the midst of this confusing and frustrating situation there is hope.  I met many white Mississippians who are trying to do all that they can to bring Greenwood back together one conversation at a time.