Monday, August 28, 2006

"There Was No Freedom, But At Least There Was Security."

In a recent interview with National Public Radio’s Phillip Reeves, an Iraqi, Shiite Muslim, dispirited by the deaths of Iraqi citizens allegedly at the hands of U.S. Marines, revealed a sentiment that may be in the hearts of many Iraqis. He said that under Saddam Hussein’s regime, “There was no freedom, but at least there was security, and we lived better.” As an African American, descendent from enslaved Africans who survived for generations with the hope that one day they would again be free, it is hard to fathom that there is anything greater than liberty and independence. But, look up independence, liberty and freedom in the dictionary, and it also means self-rule, self-government, and self-sufficiency. We want to be able to do what we want, when we want, however we want, but when we say we want freedom; do we understand what it is we are asking for? Freedom means accepting responsibility for our lives, our security, our children, our future, our whole existence and that of our compatriots. So as the U.S. mesmerizes the Iraqi government with the idea of autonomy, and the Iraqi citizens appear even more isolated and bewildered as when Hussein was in charge, are they really free? And, when we considered the limitations of our own freewill, are we?

The controversial, 1974, two-volume work by economic historians and scientists, Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman titled, Time on the Cross, suggests that not only did slaves in the American South live better than did many industrial workers in the North, but they worked less, were better fed and were whipped only occasionally. Now while Fogel and Engerman’s work is an economic analysis of this peculiar institution, which is a particularly stark contrast to the quest for American independence, what stands out like a sore thumb is the suggestion that somehow black people in America had it pretty good as slaves. But, it doesn't matter how well off we may have was slavery, Damn it!

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Defense for Andrew Young

I don’t know about you, but, I grew up in a neighborhood that, although it was not as bad as it has become since I’ve moved away, it still was not nearly as rosy as Wisteria Lane. Before we were “urban contemporary”, we were “the Northside” or “Southside”.

“Where you from?”
“Walnut Park.”

For the most part, these neighborhoods were beginning to integrate in the early to mid-sixties and most if not all of the neighborhood stores (we used to call them Confectionaries) were owned by someone, or someone’s parents who had freely immigrated from somewhere else. In my neighborhood there was Finnigers, whose owners were not surprisingly German, being that my area, Walnut Park, was a popular residential destination for Germans in the late 1800s. And, there was Union Market, whose proprietors were Jewish. As a child, I didn’t think very much about who the owners were. In the early sixties it was not uncommon to see Caucasians minding a store or running a business. Not since those days have I heard anybody’s mother tell them,

“Baby, run up to de corner store and get Mama a halfa stick ‘o butter for my pie.”


“Mr. Finniger, can I get fifty cent wortha boloney.”

Or, hogshead cheese, and a stale box of vanilla wafers, ten cent sodas, or the classic,

“Go get Uncle Petey five cigarettes from Union Market. Make that three. And, a coupla matches.”

And, it was only as I began to grow older, more perceptive and often having traveled or socialized to some of those previously mentioned neighborhoods that I, my friends and family would sometimes jokingly testify about regularly observing rodents in some of these fine establishments. It was a known fact, and perhaps sadly accepted, that in some of these local grocers that bread, out of date long before we learned what those colorful little twist ties were for, sat for weeks on the shelves until…well Hell, until somebody who didn’t have a car to go way across town to a supermarket, bought it.

Even now, as an adult, I am conscious when I step into neighborhood convenience stores or gas stations or beauty supply shops or Dunkin Donuts. It’s not just me. I know eyes follow my every move. I have been followed through isles. I have had change casually tossed on the counter to me. I have been overcharged. I have been ignored. I have been treated with disdain. I wouldn’t dare buy vegetables or bread. I don’t eat meat, but if I did, humph.

African-Americans are the poster children for racism. We can sniff it out like a bomb search dog. Racism is not the same thing as recognizing that the men who hijacked the airplanes on September 11th were of Arab descent. Racism is using that information to suggest that all Arabs are terrorists, and as a result, restrict the movements of every Arab, or detain as many Arabs as you can, or hate all Arabs and not let them learn to read, or go to school, or get a job, or live in your neighborhoods and eat at your lunch counters. The mistake Andrew Young made was that he was Andrew Young; civil rights icon, former Atlanta mayor, former U.S. Ambassador. Had he been Percy Washington in Chicago, no one would’ve blinked an eye. Did Andrew Young say he didn’t like Jews, Koreans or Arabs because of the color of their skin? Did he say something, or make an accusation that at some time or another was not true? And, while we understand that not all people from other places who find themselves earning a living in our neighborhoods are bad people, the truth is that we’ve all been in that grocery store with the stale bread and the wilted vegetables. That ain’t racism. That’s just the truth.

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Monday, August 21, 2006

Open-ended Discovery

On this excursion to see if this thing inside me is real, I am tiptoeing,

almost child-like as I am coming to realize how threadbare I must become as I

submit to words; past, present and in the ether. Literature is a fast

moving vehicle, upon which I will have to grasp hold of tightly, but with my

eyes dilated, and my mouth opened wide, sucking in every dimension of theory,

its metaphors, its adjectives and dangling participles. Lurking somewhere

in all of this exploration and query are my own words and expressions being

remembered, rediscovered, and created. They are sometimes frightful and sad.

Sometimes they are ambitious. And, sometimes they are nonsensical.

They are serious and lopsided and full of micro waved, popcorn induced ideas

about spirituality. They are riding on warm, brackish ripples of

apprehension and testimony. Yet, they are uniquely my own and

unapologetic. I own this. I own them, and they me.

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Saturday, August 19, 2006

The AJC Decatur Book Festival

As I have already made a commitment to visit relatives for the Labor Day weekend, I will regrettably miss the Atlanta Constitution and Journal Decatur Book Festival. The roster of authors will include some I'd love to hear Tayari Jones, Arriana Huffington, Pearl Cleage, David Bottoms, Natasha Trethewey and Edward P. Jones! Blood...Literature? Not an easy choice...

My Full-Time Literature Journey Begins

By design, I feel I am being moved toward the literature and history of America written during the mid19th century. Part of that, I am certain, is due in part of the school’s curriculum. That I’ve had to take a history class documenting our country’s past up until the Civil War was no accident. And, that I’ve signed up for two American literature classes, one of which is modern, with my gutsy, Southern, blond advisor was calculated. Refreshing, her classes don’t just focus on the dead, white men of our literary past, but seems to incorporate at least the African, Latin, Native and feminine aspects of our American canon.

Last night I begin reading assignments in a collection published by the Houghton Mifflin Company called The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Volume C, Late Nineteenth Century 1865-1910. This collection includes works by Zora Neale Hurston, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, José Martí, Sarah Winnemucca, and Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton.

I read a short story by Charles W. Chestnutt, The Wife of His Youth, which is the story of a light-skinned, black man, Mr. Ryder, who has escaped his African past by becoming the upstanding representative of a group of equally light-skinned, African-Americans, nicknamed the Blue Veins by the darker-skinned blacks. The purpose of the Blue Veins was “to establish and maintain correct social standards among a people whose social condition presented almost unlimited room for improvement.” After twenty-five years, Mr. Ryder comes literally face-to-face with his slave past, as both of his masks confront one another in the mirror.

As with The Bondwoman’s Narrative and The Known World, Chestnutt appears to confront the duality of existence among African-Americans finding their way out of slavery and poverty, which they seem to have to achieve by denying the very essence of who they are. There is a view of the construction of the Black Middle-Class that needs to be revisited to better understand and confront the masks we currently don and the complex relationship African-Americans has with itself, which is rooted in the complicated institution of slavery.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Books? Bring It On

Why couldn’t I have been this excited about school as a kid? The semester begins next week, and I decided to beat the rush by getting my books ahead of time. As much as I love academia, I am convinced that it is a racket, a hustle. Why else would I have three different anthologies for English classes, three different volumes for Spanish, and three different books for the same Math class? Even if the school keeps the same publisher, the edition changes every year, if not semester. But, for the English major, it just means adding more literature references to my personal library. And, this year I must say I have some books on my reading list that I can’t wait to explore.

First, I have to read Black Boy by Richard Wright for two of my classes. This is a book that I read many years ago, and although its been a while, and I don’t quite remember it, I’m looking forward to reading it again. Then there’s Autobiography for My Mother by Jamaica Kincaid, whom I’ve never read but always wanted to. There’s also Everyday Use by Alice Walker. Consider now, these are American and Modern American literature classes, not African American. I’m also taking a Post Colonial Lit class with a reading list that includes Clear Light of Day by Indian author Anita Desai, Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie and Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. Now throw in some Willa Cather, Nella Larsen, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Mary Mccarthy, Andrea Levy and Kathrine Anne Porter, and I’ve got a lot of reading to do, mon!

Finally, fun reading during the school year.

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Saturday, August 12, 2006

Looking 4 Literature On Vacation

On a recent impromptu holiday, I wondered how I could turn this quickie, two-day vacation to Savannah, Georgia into something literary; you know, for the blog. I mostly wanted to take photographs of cemeteries, majestic colonial mansions and moss-covered trees, but surely there was something that I could relate to literature and writing during my stay, save for the renovated riverfront, its cobblestones, and the city market on the banks of the river where at one time, more than just vegetables were sold.

I’ve seen quaint little bed and breakfasts on travel shows and have always imagined that it would be a dreamlike experience. I chose Savannah’s Bed and Breakfast Inn, a colonial townhouse, which is located at the northern edge of the historic downtown district. It is surrounded by the otherworldly landscape that only a swamp could produce. A few blocks in every direction reveal yet another neighborhood square: Lafayette, Chatham, Monterrey, Pulaski, Oglethorpe, and so on. There was no elevator, so we climbed a narrow, wooden staircase to our third floor room. Walls lined with Victorian portraiture and clipper ships felt authentic, and me and my beloved tried to guess what they would be worth on the Antique Road Show. Our four-poster bed needed a ladder, and we were high enough from the street that we heard relatively little noise.

Staying in a bed and breakfast is an intimate and unruffled encounter. It feels like you’re staying with relatives minus, well, relatives. Breakfast is served in a dinning room that feels like your grandmother’s dinning room, and there was a veranda with a sleepy, tiger-striped cat, whose name I neglected to inquire about. There is a pleasant absence of the concrete, geometric uniformity of a hotel chain. No unruly children wandering, unattended through the corridors. Oh, and in case you forgot you were in Georgia, everyday at four p.m., glasses of iced, sweet tea was served with lemon poppy seed pound cake, or zucchini bread, or sugar cookies.

There is a saying, or a bible verse, or maybe my Aunt Fannie said it once. It is something like, ‘that which you seek is causing you to seek’. Well, being the only tenants with dreadlocks, I decided to break the awkward, racial ice and ask where our other guests were from. There were two, stylish gentlemen from France, although they didn’t say what part. A couple who had been there a week and were about to leave were from Italy. There was an older couple, from Buford, Georgia, who didn’t engage us until after we’d run into them twice at African-American historical tours. And, then a young, Australian lady, who was traveling alone, came to the table. She was an English teacher of high school students in London. Her worn copy of Teaching Stone to Talk by Annie Dillard was a give away. We briefly discussed our English studies lineage, talked about what we were reading, and exchanged book lists. I gave her The Known World, Bellocq’s Ophelia, The Farming of Bones, and The Bondwoman’s Narrative. She gave me The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kinston, a poet named Ruby Ginibi, My Place by Sally Morgan, and the plays of Thomson Highway. In a place I chose randomly I met a fellow traveler who shared a love of reading and discussing literature. Well, now I felt like I belonged. Later, we toured the Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum. Gilbert served as pastor of the historic First African Baptist Church of Savannah, reorganized the Savannah Branch of the NAACP in 1942, and served as its president for eight years. He was a nationally known orator and playwright, producing passion plays throughout the country.

Having had my literary itch scratched, we retired to another vacation favorite: the beach.

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Friday, August 11, 2006

Been Tagged!

My friend CFM tagged me today for a book meme. It is a survey that asks you about books you've read. I think I am supposed to answer the questions and then tag five more people (although I really am going to have to think hard about five more people), but here goes. I am supposed to tell:

One book that changed your life.
One book that you’ve read more than once.
One book you’d want on a desert island.
One book that made you laugh.One book that made you cry.
One book that you wish had been written.
One book that you wish had never been written.
One book you’re currently reading.
One book you’ve been meaning to read.

[Not necessarily in this order]

One book that changed my life.
This is the book that made me know that when I look in the mirror and feel that I am gazing at the vehicle that propels me through this place we call earth, life, dimenision, etc., I'm not crazy. It helped me to understand (although I've known for a long time), that I'm not just this physcial expression called a body. I've read it twice; I've listened to the tape many times, I'll probably read and listen again. I think it's the most important work Chopra has done. Met him once at a book signing, and got his autograph, but I was too nervous to try to hold a conversation. He tells really beautiful stories about his grandaughter.

One book that I’ve read more than once.
There are a few, but not only have I read Garp more than once, I've read several of John Irving's novels more than once, and I've seen the movie adaptations. I'm still trying to figure out why I relate so well to the stories this white man tells. Maybe its because his characters are so complex, out of the ordinary but lovable. Maybe its because they seem to be the odd man out in so many situations (like I feel very often). I dunno. But, whatever it is, I've read nearly all (with the exception of Setting Free the Bears and Son of the Circus), of his books. They are fun, engaging and escapism to the highest degree.

One book I’d want on a desert island.
Besides a book about how to get myself off of a deserted island, it would almost certainly be something by Alice Walker. Like Irving, I've read a lot of her work. One book that I don't think got it's props was The Temple of My Familiar. This was a beautiful story that continued the blood line of Celie from The Color Purple. It's been a while since I've read it, but I got a first edition, hardcover for ten bucks off of one of those tables with the books that a bookstore is trying to get rid of. Great investment.

One book that made me cry.
Okay, so some of these questions I have to think a little harder about, so they may not come in the order they were given. A few books have brought tears to my eyes, but the most recent one is The Farming of Bones. I think I love Edwidge Danticant. Her writing is simple and eloquent in a way, Hell in every way, that most young writers are not. In the way that an old soul uses few words (and a lot of time) to get a across a point that changes your life. In the way that the ocean just naturally seem to extract the stress and worry from your body (even if you don't get in the water). Her writing feels as though the person dissolves and the artist emerges, mysteriously and graciously.

One book that made me laugh.
The autobiography of Miles Davis with Quincy Troupe. This is an interesting cat, but I think he was hilarious in the way that only Miles can tell his own poignant stories. Maybe not knee slapping funny, but peculiar and authentic. There are several others, but this one off the top of my head.

One book I’ve been meaning to read.
Again, there are many, but most recently I heard a re-broadcasted interview with Gloria Naylor about her recent novel, 1996, which is an account of the events which led to her experience as an object of close scrutiny by the government....Hmmmm, sounds intriguing.

One book I'm currently reading.
The Known World by Edward P. Jones. Some might say justanotherslavestory, but revealing in the attitudes of blacks toward other blacks and how we perceived and achieved our middle-class-dom in 19th century, pre-Civil war America.

One book that I wish had been written?
One that would truly teach us to live together peacefully, without all the drama that makes us want to kill each other....sounds sappy, huh? SIGH, oh well, maybe one day.

One book that I wish had never been written?
Other than the really neat stories, somehow I think we would've been better off without this one...and a few other religious documents too. Maybe if God had just marketed it as though it was just another book the world wouldn't be so crazy...but, already I've said too much.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Speaking Without Fainting

I have this idea that one day I will have to read my work in front of a lot of people…or, maybe I’ll have to introduce someone who will read their work in front of a lot of people. Nevertheless, I want to be able to perform this task without feeling faint, having to suddenly go the restroom, or trembling. So, I joined Toastmasters International with the hope that I can gain some confidence when speaking before an audience.

Today I gave my first speech, which was basically the post On Risk Taking and Anxiety. I was originally supposed to give it a month ago, but I chickened out and postponed it until I got up my Umnph. Still I felt faint, had to suddenly go to the restroom, and was shaking so bad I really had to make a conscious effort to hide it. The first speech, which is called the Icebreaker, is supposed to be the easiest because you talk about the subject you know best; yourself. But, for me this will probably be the most difficult because it is about myself. Being in Toastmasters is kind of like growing up in the church and you had to recite your first Easter speech. No matter how horrible you were, people clapped and cheered; because they wanted you to feel comfortable. They wanted you to gain the confidence to keep trying until you got it right. You could have one ponytail undone, the other one sticking straight up in the air, and a finger up your nose, but people encouraged you. That’s what being in Toastmasters is like. It gives you opportunities to speak before people and to take on roles that develop leadership ability. You receive honest and constructive encouragement and criticism, and you practice being a speaker and a leader until you get it right.

This was just my first speech and everyone was very supportive, but I intend to go back and keep trying until I know I nailed it. And, next time, I’ll try to keep my finger out of my nose.

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