January 30, 2010

He Forgot the President was Black

President Obama's State of the Union Address on Wednesday, January 27th was nothing short of rhetorical genius.  When President Obama speaks, he has the ear of the entire global community.

Chris Matthews of NBC News shared his thoughts with the world via live commentary immediately following the Address.  What he said has sparked a bit of controversy:
"I was trying to think about who he was tonight. It's interesting: he is post-racial, by all appearances. I forgot he was black tonight for an hour. You know, he's gone a long way to become a leader of this country, and passed so much history, in just a year or two. I mean, it's something we don't even think about. I was watching, I said, wait a minute, he's an African-American guy in front of a bunch of other white people. And here he is president of the United States and we've completely forgotten that tonight — completely forgotten it. I think it was in the scope of his discussion. It was so broad-ranging, so in tune with so many problems, of aspects, and aspects of American life that you don't think in terms of the old tribalism, the old ethnicity. It was astounding in that regard. A very subtle fact. It's so hard to talk about. Maybe I shouldn't talk about it, but I am. I thought it was profound that way."

I'm certain any reasonably intelligent person, Black or white, knows what Matthews was trying to say.  He believes that the election of President Obama and the content and quality of the man, Barack Obama, has transcended race, has catapulted the U.S. into a "post-racial" era.  I do not take issue with Matthews' sentiments.  I watched the video feed of his commentary, and he appeared genuinely proud of President Obama and genuinely proud of American society for choosing such a man as its Chief Executive.  However, I argue that the election of Barack Obama as the first African American president of the United States is not a transcendence of race, but rather a transgression of race.  I further assert that the 2008 Presidential election has not nor could not undo 250 years of white racism.

Many Academics fervently differentiate the notion of "transcending" race and the notion of "transgressing" race.  To transcend a thing is to go beyond its range or "limits".  To "transgress" a thing is to go beyond its "boundaries".  It may be a matter of semantics, but we "literary" types take semantics quite seriously.  When Chris Matthews said that Mr. Obama is "post-racial by all appearances", and that he "forgot that he was black," he conflated Obama's blackness with the notion of race itself, implying that blackness is something one needs to transcend and make invisible.  It is not blackness that limits, rather the notion of race that limits.  Blackness, or Africanness, predates the socially constructed concept of race.  In other words, black people who love being black don't want others to "forget that they are black."  They do not want whites to "see past" their blackness as if it were some great albatross or a gigantic scarlet letter on their chests.  They do not want to be invisible, rather they want their blackness to be a part of the reason they are loved.  After all, black people aren't expected to "forget that white people are white," nor given accolades for doing so.  Therefore, Barack Obama has not transcended race.  He has transgressed race, for he has gone beyond its boundaries.  Furthermore, as long as President Obama continues to receive unprecedented numbers of racialized death threats, and has the most Secret Service protection of any President in history, we cannot yet stake any claim to a post-racial America.

January 20, 2010

Letter to Obama, My President

President Obama took the inaugural oath one year ago today.  Those who supported him worldwide felt so much awe, triumph, and hope one year ago, yet today many are disillusioned, worried, and impatient. If the 10% national unemployment rate isn't disheartening enough, the latest million dollar bonuses in the banking industry, the stalled health care bill, and the election of a Republican to fill the late Ted Kennedy's Senate seat are enough to dash the last vestiges of hope any of us may have had for real change.

Here I sit, melancholy and subdued.   If I could write a letter to my president, Barack Obama, it would go something like this:

Mr President:

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too:
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can dream---and not make dreams your master;
If you can think---and not make thoughts your aim,
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same:.
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build'em up with worn-out tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings,
And never breathe a word about your loss:
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on!"

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings---nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much:
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And---which is more---you'll be a Man, my son! 

-Rudyard Kipling

Yes, if I could, I would forward Kipling's perennial words to President Obama with a note in my own prose saying, "We are counting on you not to fail.  We need you to change the course of history in an irrevocable extraordinary way.  You must not falter.  You are the hope and the dream of the slave."

January 16, 2010

Yèle Haiti

As we are all well aware by now, Tuesday evening, January 12, 2010, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake devastated Haiti, leaving the country in ruins with an unquantifiable death toll of possibly more than 50,000.

My heart is so full... I weep for Haiti almost daily....

When I awoke to the horrific news on Wednesday morning, I immediately thought of my Haitian friend and colleague, Brenda.  I picked up the phone to call her, but as I was listening to the reports on public radio, I began to weep again.  The journalists were trying to reconnect an aid worker in Haiti and his girlfriend here in the U.S.  Apparently the two lost communication during the quake.  Through her relief to find her boyfriend alive, the young woman discovered that her youngest relative, a 15-month old niece, had been killed in the disaster.  At this moment, I crumbled into sobs, unable to finish my phone call...  I pictured my 15-month old, chubby baby terrified and dying in my arms.  I sobbed uncontrollably all the way to work.

When I finally saw Brenda later that day, her eyes were red from a night of misery.  She told me that her parents were in Haiti on vacation, and that, aside from two siblings who lived here in the states, her entire family still lived in Haiti.  With that, we embraced, each fearing the worst.

Finally, after two long and miserable days, unable to reach the American Embassy and no word from anyone, Brenda received a phone call from her stepfather on Friday morning.  Everyone was alive.  Everyone was homeless, but everyone was alive!  They had somehow made it to the Dominican Republic.

Although Brenda's long nightmare had ended, so many hundreds of thousands would not experience this  relief, this peace, this blessing.

Thousands will not be afforded a proper burial either because those who would bury them are also in need of burying or because the dead bodies are now unidentifiable.  Thousands of Haitians living in the West will search for their families for desperately long periods of time before pronouncing them dead. Thousands of Haitians will join a new diaspora and become refugees yet again. Thousands of children have become orphans overnight.  And a country of almost 10 million living below the poverty line have become even more destitute and marginalized than before the Earthquake of 2010.

I can only weep, pray, and donate.  Please join me.  http://www.yele.org

January 09, 2010

Anti-Socially Social

We have traded land lines for cell phones.  We would rather send text messages on those phones than talk on them. We can't remember how to address an envelope or how much a stamp costs because we send email every 1.5 seconds (I don't know - I made that up).  We send e-cards and evites for everything except weddings.  This short list of the technological advances negates physical or audible contact with another warm-blooded human.  Is the cost of our technological age so high that we have been left socially bankrupt?

People that were born before 1968 usually bring some perspective to our post-millennium dependence on technology and all of its devices.  During the holidays, my mother and my husband's grandmother were both rather appalled by their grandchildren's and great grandchildren's preoccupation with ipods, laptops, PSPs, Nintendo DSi, cell phones, etc., etc.  I, however, was born after 1968, and I have been a part of the rise of Microsoft and MacIntosh, as well as every other technological advancement since the personal computer.  As such, I raised an apathetic eyebrow to my mother's and grand mother's disapproval.  When they complained that my children's heads stayed so buried in "their gadgets" and "games" that they had become antisocial, dare I say, I defended my misanthropic children.  "This is what children their age do," I said.  Since my husband and I require that our children bury themselves in their studies during the school year, I felt defensive at my elders' disapprobation.  "These children work very hard," I thought.  "They made the honor roll two quarters in a row for crying out loud!  The least we can do is let them fry their brains on a game called 'Death Row' all winter break!"  And then I listened to what I was thinking...

Who was I kidding?  My children's behavior was antisocial (and I should probably rethink "Death Row").  But none of us-born-after-1968-people are innocent in all of this.  How many hours have I logged on Facebook this week?  I could get independently wealthy on the number of texts and emails I send in a day.  To add insult to injury, our 15 month old son watches "The Bee Movie" on his father's touch screen phone.  At the breakfast table, he watches Nick Jr. from my Macbook over his bowl of Cheerios.  He points the DVD remote at the DVD and actually presses "play".  Sad, I know.  It starts early.

Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, and the like, were created under the guise of "social networking".  But how social are they really?  You have 551 Facebook friends, yet you go home to your cat to eat dinner alone in front of the latest episode of "Heroes".  You "tweet" about the ice cream sandwiches at Whole Foods that you just ate alone in your car on the way home.  
Haven't we all become Anti-Socially Social?

January 07, 2010

Black, African American, or Negro

The United States Census has always been mired in controversy, particularly with regard to race. We shouldn't, however, be surprised by this fact, as America's history is irrevocably bound to the legacy of slavery. Yes, I said it, SLAVERY. Since there is a "national amnesia", as Toni Morrison contends, about slavery, Americans are always shocked, disappointed, and or incredulous when issues of race, racism, white supremacy, or racial marginalization rears their ugly heads.

So here we are again. Question #9 of the 2010 Census asks the interviewee to select his/her race. The box allocated for persons of

African decent reads: "Black, African American, or Negro". As a caveat, there is a box at the end of the listed racial categories in which the interviewee can write in "Some other race". Hmmm....I'm going to offend my Black, African American, or Negro" brethren and sisteren (yes i know i just made that up), because I do not see this category as an affront to my blackness and/or Afrocentrism. Actually, I would feel obliged to write in "Colored" as well. After all, I was born in 1970 in Mobile, Alabama, and my birth certificate tells the world that I am "Colored". Yes, no lie. I ordered it just last year. However, as a scholar of African American literature and American culture, I see all of these racial signifiers that mark and label black bodies as cultural artifacts.

In my own writing, as the cynic and iconoclast that I am, often times, I use all of the signifiers strung together as a kind of contextualizing timeline. If we erase our history, we erase our present and our future. Dare I quote myself, a practice that I find a bit egoistic. Ok, what the heck. This excerpt appears in my Master's Thesis:

So, what are we to do with this legacy that we have inherited? We must have ample time to heal slavery’s wounds. In a roundtable discussion about this issue of transgenerational haunting, a black woman once asked me, “How do you propose we heal these long-standing, often times, unconscious wounds?” I answered saying, “We must first be allowed to speak the unspeakable.” For so long, the notion of slavery has been compartmentalized into a time period that many of us refer to as – “slavery times”. We speak of this “time” as if we can truly identify its beginning, its end, and as if our entire society is not haunted by its legacy. For black folks, there seems to be a kind of shame attached to owning slavery. For whites, there is the ever abiding denial and disavowal of the depth of its brutality and inhumanity. As Morrison charges, no one wants to remember, but we must remember. We must be forever cognizant of our embittered past. Other traumatized groups are encouraged to remember, encouraged to testify. The desire to bury the painful legacy of slavery is what keeps our society wounded and in a constant state of racial regression. African Americans must be proud, not only of our current successes and transgressions, but we must also be proud that we survived the unconscionable brutality of the middle passage, the 246 years of slavery, and the 143 years of Jim Crowism. All of this is our history. All of this is our present. As trauma studies teaches us, until the trauma is reconciled, traumatized groups will continue to repeat and relive traumas. Black women’s bodies continue to be a site of trauma. In order to heal those bodies, in order to love those bodies, we must understand and claim the legacy they carry.

Therefore, the 2010 Census question simply makes visible a legacy of struggle for Black, African American, and Negro identity that should be illuminated rather than hidden in shame. If we erase pejorative and sometimes painful terms like "Negro" and "Colored", then we erase all the history those terms carry: the Civil Rights Movement, anti-lynching legislation, Brown v. Board of Education, Plessy v. Ferguson, The Civil War, slavery and the transatlantic slave trade. Yes, we wish that these events had not forever changed the course of history, marginalizing black bodies for centuries; however, they remain a matter of record. All history must be told. All of the voices must be heard. If not, we simply have books of creative non-fiction.

January 03, 2010

New Year! New Decade!

Happy New Year all!

I finally decided to join the world of blogging. I suppose I took so long to join the ranks of the cyber writers, ranters, and confessionals because I didn't want to be in their ranks. I am determined to shape this blog so that it is less narcissistic, less diaryish and more about poesy and prose as its title claims. Although I don't really engage in the proverbial "New Year's resolution", I do vow each year to be better, live better, do more, learn more than I did the year before. So in that vain, I have decided to "be the change I wish to see" in all aspects of my world. Since I have included this blog in my world, it will be a source of enlightenment and inspiration to my students, friends, and family.

I look forward to a happy and prosperous New Year.