Archived Posts from this Category
Archived Posts from this Category
Once again, as happens every year about this time, the calendar has rolled over to February. Once again, as happens every year about this time, some people (usually, though not always, people of color) start doing things to commemorate Black History Month. And, once again, as happens every year about this time, skeptical souls start making quips about how it makes sense that black folks would be given the shortest, coldest month of the year to call their own.
Now the original rationales for using February as the time to honor black contributions to the US undo some of the truths to be found in all those wry jokes. The fact that a black man started the tradition — and that he picked February because it’s the month when both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass were born — messes a bit with the fact that February really would have been the perfect “separate but equal” month for white America to parcel out as a token gesture to black America. Perhaps more to the point, back in 1926, when the whole thing started (and when it was only a week), it’s not as if there were exactly legions of white Americans who were actively looking to find even a day of the year — much less a week or a month — to pay homage to black people. If the choice had really been white America’s back then (and perhaps even now), I’m pretty sure that there would have been no debate at all about when to pay tribute to black America, since that tribute simply would not have been forthcoming at all.
But that’s not what led me to fire up the blogging machinery tonight.
No, what occurred to me as I was reading yet another one of those “of course, we got the shortest month” commentaries was that there’s no good reason why Black History Month simply has to stay tied to February. Sure, it’s been that way for almost a century now, but it’s not as if that’s dictated by law. There are no major holidays that would need to be moved that would disrupt the rhythm of school calendars or banks. No annual BHM sale days that would destroy the economy if they were shifted to some other time of year. No government agency charged with overseeing holidays from whom permission would need to be secured. BHM isn’t the sort of tradition, after all, that exists because of any formal mandate from the proverbial Powers That Be — no more so than clearly arbitrary “holidays” like National Sushi Day or National Drink Beer Day — and it’s only “stuck” in February because that’s where it began.
To put it a different way, if we don’t like the fact that BHM is in a short, cold month, then let’s just move it. Who’s going to stop us? It would probably be pretty amusing — and telling — to watch people try to prevent such a thing from happening. I am suddenly flashing on Fox News pundits trying to claim that the very future of the nation would somehow be imperiled if black folks were given positive public recognition during any month of the year besides February.
And if we want a long, hot month, there are some pretty good choices there. The easy one to take would be August. There’s certainly no major holiday then to compete with BHM — or even a minor one. It’s got 31 days, and it’s plenty warm, so there could be lots of picnics and parades and other such festivities.
But I think the far better choice would be July, which — like August — gives us 31 steamy, sultry days to work with. But it also puts BHM and Independence Day right on top of each other. And if part of the point of BHM is to celebrate the centrality of black contributions to the nation, then when better to do that than when the nation itself is being celebrated so heartily?
[Wasn't it roughly this time last year when I said I was going to be better about blogging in 2012? Oh, yeah. It was. Hmm. Well, let's try this again. Maybe it'll stick this time.]
I rang out the old year yesterday by taking in Django Unchained, the latest from ultra-violence-loving director Quentin Tarantino. I’m still processing the experience, so these are merely some quick, fragmentary reflections. Ask me again tomorrow, and maybe they’ll have shifted. Also, there may be a few spoilers below. If you haven’t seen the film, and you want to do so without knowing too much more, then you may not want to read past the first bullet point.
As before, these are in no particular order . . . except for #1.
Catching up on a backlog of unread items in my RSS reader, I came across a nice one from the Feminist Law Professor blog about “Smile on a Stick”: a “useful solution” for women who are repeatedly being told to smile by the men in their lives. The blog entry in question included the leftmost portion of the image above along with a link to the online vendor where you could buy your very own portable smile. When I saw the original post, I’ll admit that one of the first things I wondered was whether this particular novelty item came in other skintones, and I was happily surprised to see that there was at least a small range of other options available . . .
. . . until I saw the labels for them, that is. Just when did “original” become another way to say “white”? And shouldn’t people of color get to hide their expressions behind a cardboard frown too?
Why I chose to make Monday my “regular” blog posting day, I’m not sure. It’s my long teaching day this semester, and several of those long days will be made longer by various meetings that are scheduled to happen in between my morning class and my afternoon seminar. Not to mention the obligatory (for me, even if not always for anyone else) post-seminar retreat to the local brewpub for a bite to eat and a pint (or two) to drink. Just when did I think that blogging would happen in all that? I don’t know. I simply don’t know.
Anywho . . . last Monday’s post never happened because Monday Night Football demanded my attention. My team (who shall remain nameless here, seeing as how they have the most heinous and offensive nickname in all of professional sports) was playing, and when one lives 1100 miles away from one’s team’s homebase (and the guarantee of weekly TV opportunities), one doesn’t let a MNF appearance by one’s team slide by. The blog, I’m afraid, suffered as a result. But I did come away from the experience knowing, for the first time in my life, someone I could turn to should I ever want to place a bet with a bookie. Not to mention a bar where “buying” shots for the bartender seems to mean that you and he and half the staff all drink for free. So it wasn’t a total loss.
Less pretty — and something closer to a total loss (at least to this point) — is the AFSCME strike at the U, which officially ended last Friday . . . but only because the striking workers couldn’t afford to stay away from steady (if still inadequate) paychecks as long as the administration could afford to hold out. There’s much more to say here, but I’m still feeling far too angry about it all to get it down cleanly.
Let’s kickstart this blog a bit, shall we? And let’s try doing so with a recurring quick-hit approach that will (hopefully) goad me to drop a fresh chunk of prose here at least once a week.
The University may acquire this information by visual survey. This may, however, result in the collection of erroneous information.
I have fantasies of the University sending teams of ethnographers — all trained in the subtle art of “visual survey” with respect to racial identification — into the field to suss out the “truth” about folks such as myself who “fail” to shoehorn ourselves into a single box. And I want to be a fly on the wall for the deliberations that result from different team members deciding that different visual cues are the key to answering the question “correctly.” “Sure, his skin’s pink enough,” someone will say, “but those aren’t a white man’s lips.”
Margaret and I closed on the new house yesterday. And, of course, this has required a range of formal encounters with a host of different bureaucracies. Utility companies. Insurance companies. Title companies. And then some. In the process, we’ve been amazed and amused at the number of different ways our identities — especially Margaret’s — have been magically transformed by the default assumptions of different institutions. To wit:
Meanwhile, the house remains lovely. But evidently, I’m now a single white male. And Margaret has been lucky enough to find a new husband who already had her last name. I do hope she’s happy. Maybe the gas company can tell me where she and Mr. Werry are now living.
*In Seeing a Color-Blind Future, Patricia J. Williams writes about a real estate transaction coming to a screaming halt the moment she corrected the same mistake on her paperwork.
[Possible mild spoilers ahead, depending on just how sensitive you are to these things.]
Just came home from seeing The Departed at the glorious second-run theatre around the corner. And it was, in all sorts of ways, classic Scorsese: it’s not a film for folks who flinch at a little blood (’cause there’s more than just a little to be found here), but it’s sharp and engaging and taut . . . and it’s tough to make a 151-minute film seem taut.
Still, as I walked home from the theatre, I found myself wondering about the film’s opening moments, which feature footage of white-vs.-black violence from the Boston busing furor of the 1970s, with a voiceover from Jack Nicholson’s character, Frank Costello:
I don’t want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me. Years ago we had the church. That was only a way of saying — we had each other. The Knights of Columbus were real head-breakers; true guineas. They took over their piece of the city. Twenty years after an Irishman couldn’t get a fucking job, we had the presidency. May he rest in peace. That’s what the niggers don’t realize. If I got one thing against the black chappies, it’s this — no one gives it to you. You have to take it.
And then, after that, except for one brief line (also in the opening few minutes) from Matt Damon’s character, blackness effectively disappears from the movie as a subject of any significance. There are no scenes where Boston’s Irish mob tangles with crosstown black crime bosses, no visible racial tensions involving the movie’s lone black police officer, no further utterances of the N-word from Costello (or anyone else): for the last 145 minutes or so of the film, it’s simply a white man’s world, and no one else really matters much.
Which, to my mind, makes that opening speech and the accompanying footage all the more disturbing. Maybe the idea was to convince us that Costello is a cold-hearted bastard — except that Costello is also clearly supposed to be (and is) charming and charismatic (while still being a brutal crimelord) . . . and there are enough early scenes of Costello behaving like a violent badass to render any opening “tough guy” speech unnecessary to establish his credentials as such. So those initial words and images feel much more gratuitous than anything else: an excuse to have the biggest star in the movie drop the N-bomb and accuse black folks of being lazy, and to recirculate old images of rocks being thrown at (presumably) “lazy” black schoolchildren. And then, having done that, we can sweep all the blackness that’s just been invoked back under the rug and get on with the “real” business of watching six white men (Baldwin and Damon and DiCaprio and Nicholson and Sheen and Wahlberg) rack up an impressive body count to determine which of them is the real Alpha Male of All Boston.
. . . since I last set fingers to keyboard with active blogging in mind. The first couple of weeks of the semester have kicked my ass more than I expected.
And, if my visit to the Science Museum of Minnesota’s new exhibit on race is any indication, it’ll be a long, long time before we get to a place in this country where we can routinely have sane conversations about race. That’s not a knock on the exhibit, mind you, which is very smartly done (though I’ll admit that I’d have been happier if Ward Connerly hadn’t been accorded even the minor “expert” commentator role he was given in a couple of places), but some of the visitor feedback — of both the live and the recorded variety — was unsettling.
The section of the exhibit on racialized sports mascots, for instance, included an album of visitor comments . . . that was all the more disturbing because I suspect the curators filter out some of the more heinous responses they’ve received. The comments from pre-teen children were all very sweet in their open-minded desire to treat other people with respect and kindness, but they weren’t enough to offset the multiple comments from (alleged) adults about “whining” Native Americans who should “get over it already” and stop complaining about team names like “Redskins.”
I also watched the female half of a twentysomething white couple interact with a computerized questionnaire that attempts to assess people’s beliefs about the connections between national and racial identities. Asked to decide which of about two dozen nationalities were “white” or “non-white,” she confidently decided that Britons and Canadians were white, but every other nation on the list was non-white. And she did so at a speed that suggested she didn’t even bother to need to read the list: if she didn’t recognize the name of a nation right away, she didn’t even bother with the “not sure” option — she just pressed the “non-white” button and moved on. Even granting that the questionnaire is set up so as to encourage such sloppy thinking — I’m not sure there’s a nation on the list that can safely be said to be mono-racial, either by its own standards or by those currently in play in the US — the ease with which this woman divided the world up into “people like me” and “people not like me” was frightening. After she was done, she turned to her date/boyfriend/husband and (in a complete misreading what of the screen was actually telling her) proudly proclaimed that she’d “gotten them all right.”
It’s possible, of course, that I was simply caught off guard because the students in my “Media, Race, and Identity” course this semester have been surprisingly game when it comes to these sorts of issues. Not perfect — by any means — but I don’t think too many of us (myself included) have perfect conversations about race and racism: it’s way too fraught a terrain for that to be the rule. But they’ve been an impressively earnest and open-minded group — all the more so given that we’re only two weeks into the semester. And I can’t recall ever teaching these issues in the past without there being at least a small (but vocal) undercurrent of self-interested resistance to the conversation somewhere in the group. I’ve got my fingers crossed (though I should probably know better) that the rest of the semester will run so smoothly.