The Mute World (Politics & Society)

In Black and White: A Discussion About Perceptions of Race Relations

Wikimedia Commons

Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In keeping with my Black History Month theme, and my own reflections about when I first began to understand the significance of race and race relations in America, I decided to compare my thoughts and realizations with those of some of my white friends. No discussion on race and race relations can be complete if it is one-sided, and I think that many people understand that most feelings about race and relations are taught and/or learned, whether directly or indirectly.

Of course, I also understand that there are many more races than just Black and white, but I think that for much of American history that struggle has been a predominant one. Also, for right now, mainly for simplicity purposes, I didn’t interview all of my friends of other races. I was curious about whether and how white families talk to their children about race, relations, and racism, and thankfully, a few of my friends were brave, gracious, and open enough to share their thoughts and recollections with me.

Interestingly, one of my friends was around the same age that I was–six or seven–when she first realized that she was white. Like me, she also realized it after reading a book. “I was reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and my mom sat me down to have a conversation with me about the book,” my friend told me. “[My mom] was very serious, and she [told me], ‘there is one word in that book that is very, very bad, and I never want you to say it to anyone, ever. You would get in a lot of trouble if you said it at school.'”

My friend’s mom wouldn’t tell her what the word was, only that it “start[ed] with an ‘n'” and my friend eventually figured it out. She had grown up in a predominantly white and middle-class neighborhood and gone to school with mostly white children. Before that time, her primary interactions with kids of other races came through friends of her parents or participation in local sports organizations. She remembers being confused by the sudden warning that “there were ways to talk about race that were wrong and offensive.”  Just as I had in the moment before I looked at the back of my hand after reading the Martin Luther King book, she had previously viewed race as “something that existed in a neutral sense,” but not something that was “capable of having good or bad connotations.”

She said her parents had always taught her and her sister to “treat others as we wanted to be treated, not to judge anyone for being different, and not to make fun of anyone for any reason.” She remembers her parents always having a visible distaste for excessive wealth and injustice, avoiding membership at country clubs that had refused to admit African Americans until forced to do so in the early 1990s and ridiculing “elite social scene” events. While she doesn’t remember “many direct conversations about race” as a child, they did have discussions about privilege, “but usually privilege in an economic sense.”

Also like me, as my friend got older she began to be more cognizant of racial tensions. She recalled that the few African American students in her middle school tended to eat lunch together in a section of the cafeteria that her classmates nicknamed “Little Africa.” She explained that such comments made her “uncomfortable” and “didn’t mesh with the values [her] parents had taught [her].”

Another incident took place in high school when a group of students in the International Baccalaureate (IB) program that she was in (which was only about 10% African American) decided to dress up “in baggy jeans, white t-shirts, gold chains, and other “ghetto outfits” to mimic the students on the “traditional” academic track after the traditional students dressed up like “nerds.” She said that while she “knew  that this episode highlighted some of the tensions at the school between different groups of students,” she “did not give it much critical thought” at the time.

“I thought that it was enough that I was in an environment that was diverse, and even if there were racial tensions within that environment, I was doing my part to broaden my horizons by simply existing in a space different than the one I had grown up in,” she said. “Now I wish I had talked to some of the traditional students about what this high school was like from their perspective, but at the time I didn’t feel like I knew how to do that.”

She says that it was not until she got to college that she “learned that [she] could listen to and participate in conversations about race. She says that that “small step has helped [her] learn more and confront [her] own misconceptions more, because [she] can have honest conversations with people and push [herself] to look critically at [her] own ways of thinking.

Another friend of mine said that if there was a distinct moment when he realized that he was white, he was “too young to remember.” His parents were Italian immigrants who came to the United States in the 1980s and “continue[d] to identify as Italians as opposed to Americans or whites.” He also grew up in an Italian immigrant community and spoke Italian at home.

He admits that both of his parents “didn’t like Black folks” when he was growing up. He remembers his mother telling him not to date Black girls when he was in elementary school and not having a reason when he inquired about why. He said his father had also been robbed at gunpoint by a Black person shortly after he arrived in the United States. As a result, his father tended to avoid Black people.

He says he was fortunate to have good teachers who “tore apart racist ideas.” He describes himself as being “pretty outspoken about race” from a young age, arguing with his parents about it whenever they said racist things, and he has continued to do so with other people because he thinks it’s important. More than the significance of race per se, he believes that “historical modes of economic relations over-determine our individual social relations.”

My friends’ recollections about what they were taught and have learned about race has helped me to realize a few things:

1. The importance of media, education, and communication. If you’ve ever read this blog, you know that I love to rattle on and on about media and the critical messages that we consume and that others send. I think that it is much more than an interesting coincidence that my friend and I both became aware of the significance of race at around the same age by reading books. Fortunately, we were becoming aware of our differences in a somewhat more “intellectual” medium where it was presented in an already edited and filtered way that was designed to be broken down further and discussed, but I cannot help but to think about the children who are formulating ideas about race and race relations through television, music, and other forms of media that are not being monitored or discussed.

I also found it interesting that, at least based on what they told me, neither one of my friends’ parents really delved into reasons or explanations for warnings and/or opinions about race or race relations. For example, while my friend described her mom’s attempt to prepare her for the upcoming appearance of the “n” word in Huckleberry Finn and told her that she could “get in trouble” if she used it, she did not explain why the word was problematic or the history of the word. Granted, she might have done so at a later time, but I am always curious about the way in which white children are taught about history and race relations.

As I mentioned in my previous post, images and stories about Black leaders and history were prominent in my household growing up. Before I even understood the negative connotations of Blackness, I knew the positive ones. It was almost as if my parents were building me up before society could attempt to tear me down in any way. They were compensating for the gaps that they knew would be missing from my schooling, but which they knew would be crucial to my complete life education. When it comes to white children, we know that Martin Luther King gets a lot of attention in schools, but who and what else does? And what role does that play in shaping how white people grow up understanding racial tensions and race relations?

2. The importance of engagement and not just exposure. Just as my friend quickly learned that it was not enough to just be in a diverse school and do her part to be exposed to people of other races, people of other races cannot just exist in one another’s midst without truly engaging with one another. We can’t learn from one another that way. Impoliteness is not acceptable, but fear and political correctness helps no one. As my friend noted, we have to call one another out when we see and hear things that are wrong. As a Black person who has attended schools where I have been both the majority and the minority, I know that it not enough to just be present, we have to interact. That is the only way we come to truly understand one another and to challenge stereotypes.

3. My own generally monolithic views of whiteness. While I am very aware of the vastness of and the differences among the Black Diaspora, I tend to think of white people as one cultural entity. I was surprised to realize that when my friend explained that his parents were Italian immigrants. I never think of “whiteness,” whatever that is, as being composed of different nationalities and cultures. After growing up and also largely associating different races with wealth disparities, I am just now truly wrapping my head around the concept that not all white people are wealthy. Now, I have another realization to confront.

4. The pros and cons of inflating the connection between economics and race relations. Truthfully, I think many people are simply more comfortable addressing issues of injustice along class and economic lines than along racial and/or cultural ones. I think it sounds better to say that we need to help the poor than it does to say that we need to be tolerant of one another’s differences. I absolutely agree that there is a major connection between social relations and economics and class, but I also know that even wealthy Black people still suffer from many of the societal challenges that come with Blackness. In response to a question about what he wishes other less progressive people would realize, one of my friends said that “we’re really not that different at all.” In theory, I understand that. We are all human. We are all more alike than we are different. Yet, I would really like for society to get to a point where it embraces the fact that we are all different and that that’s what makes us beautiful. Culture is important. Culture is necessary. It can be prevalent without being threatening or divisive.

Standard
Self-Mutilation (Creative Expressions)

A Poem On Trayvon Martin’s Would-Be Birthday and the Day After the 15th Anniversary of the Killing of Amadou Diallo

21 shots

He never got to take

Surrounded by friends in a bar on his 21st birthday

That never came

Will never come

41 shots

He never got to take

His wallet out of his pocket

Before he was shot down with no

Courtesy

Professionalism

or Respect

And CPR couldn’t save him

From the neighborhood watch

That saw his hoodie

But missed his childhood

Feared his manhood

That he never got to see

Will never get to see

Did he ever get to eat his Skittles?

Was he munching on them on the way home?

Or did he decide to wait?

Wait!

Wait!

Don’t shoot!

It’s a wallet.

Not a gun

This is somebody’s son

Sabrina

Kiatou

Mother.

Mother of the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world

If there is no justice,

Just iced tea.

What is it worth?

How much is the price of peace

Of mind?

Of knowing that you can walk home

Or stand in your lobby

Safely

Blackly.

Free from the stigma of being a former “Colored” boy

Who considers living life–to the fullest

When Trayvon’s rainbow Skittles

And everything in Amadou’s wallet weren’t enough?

Standard
The Mute World (Politics & Society)

Way Black When: A Remembrance

As you may know, February is Black History Month. I’ve decided to devote my posts this month to telling stories about race and race relations in the U.S. from the perspective of millennials (that’s what people seem to like to call me and other people in my age group.) Last week’s post sparked an idea, and I’d just like to develop it more and see where it goes.

Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

I remember the first day I realized that I was Black. I was six years old, and I was reading a children’s book about Dr. Martin Luther King. I don’t remember if I was in school or if it was a book that I was reading at home. I don’t remember the name of the book or the name of the author. I just remember getting to a part in the story where a young Dr. King is heartbroken after his childhood friend tells him that they can no longer play together because the friend is white and Dr. King is Black. (I have no idea whether this actually happened to Dr. King, but I remember this part of the story in that particular book.) The book described the confusion that Dr. King felt after being told this because he didn’t understand why the color of his skin should keep him from playing with his friend.

In that moment, I looked at my hand. It was closer to the color of the young Dr. King than it was to his white friend in the picture.

Initially, I was confused too. I knew my colors and I couldn’t help but notice that the shade of my skin did not match the color of my grandmother’s big leather Bible, the turf at recess, the crayon in my 64-box set, or any of the other things that I had come to identify as “black.”

“Black?” I thought. “Brown, definitely, but not Black.”

My distinction wasn’t coming from a place of self-hatred or disdain, as so many people have come to identify associations of shades of “blackness” and complexion. It was rooted in the innocence of childhood literalism and curiosity. That’s why it always amazes me when people say things like, “kids don’t see color.”

“What do you mean kids don’t see color?” I always think. “We teach kids colors! Most kids even have a favorite color.” The identification of colors is one of the fundamental building blocks of learning. We teach kids to group, categorize, and label things all the time.

Kids may not instantaneously know the socio-political significance of race, but experiments like the 1947 doll study (replicated  in 2010 on CNN with the same results) show that many kids figure that out at an early age–even when they don’t realize what they’ve internalized or why. So, with that in mind, many people should actually be surprised that I was as old as six when I realized that I was Black.

This doesn’t mean that that was the first time I’d been told that I was Black, it just means that it was the first time that I realized it. It was the first time that I understood that, to some people, and often structurally in society, my “Blackness” was a bad thing.

I was raised in a very “Afrocentric” household. I had black dolls. I read children’s books by Jamaica Kincaid with little black girl protagonists. Names like Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman, Wilma Rudolph, Garrett A. Morgan, and Charles Drew, with heroic stories of achievement to match, floated around constantly. I understood that people like me had done great things.

If anything, Dr. King’s childhood rejection didn’t comport with what I had been raised to believe about Blackness up until that point. I knew that Harriet Tubman had been a slave and I understood that that was a horrible thing (and even that many other people who looked like me had suffered the same fate). However, the emphasis of those stories had always been on the magnitude of our triumph in spite of this, and not on the struggle.

So, if anything, that realization while reading the book about Dr. King was more like an “oh-that’s-what-they-meant-by-Black” rather than an “oh- snap-I’m-Black? (as in, you mean I’m not white?)” moment. Even in the melting pot, which many people view as New York City, neighborhood class lines are often organized along racial lines. So, everyone in my neighborhood was Black. At the time, pretty much everyone I went to school with was Black too. So, Black wasn’t a revelation; it was my reality.

Of course, I wasn’t oblivious to the presence of people of other races. My teachers, in particular, were all white. I subconsciously associated whiteness with authority. White people were my teachers, principals, police officers (except for the few Black ones my mother knew), doctors, politicians, and most people who reported the news. I didn’t quite understand why they tended to be in these positions and I didn’t necessarily think about why many of the Black people I knew weren’t. It was just the way it was. We were just different. I couldn’t understand the appeal of Friends (which, thanks to reruns, is actually now one of my favorite shows), but I loved Living Single. It was that simple.

Ironically, within the next several years, I quickly started to wonder about the reasons for the apparent discrepancy–not so much because of what I was being told, but because of things that were happening and what I was seeing. We all know that the world gets realer as you get older. Little by little, I began to lose my security blanket of childhood innocence, as if I had been wriggling too much in my sleep.

For me, one such incident that snatched at that blanket was the NYPD attack on Abner Louima. At seven years old, I had no idea what sodomy was, but I understood: black man, white cops, severe beating, Brooklyn. I saw the pictures, the protests, the news reports and could feel the anger of the adults around me.

A few years after that, Amadou Diallo was shot and killed by the NYPD. By that time, I was older and I still understood: black man, white cops, 41 shots (wow, that’s a lot), unarmed, “a wallet is not a gun,” and acquittal. And again I saw the rallies and the news reports, and again I could feel the anger of the people around me. Later on, the pattern, which by that time I had learned was not a new one, continued: Timothy Stansbury, Sean Bell, the list goes on…

Around the same time, but possibly before that, I got the universal “you’re-Black-so-you-have-to-be-twice-as-good” speech. I honestly don’t remember the reason for or the context of my being given that speech at the time because I had had the “twice as good” mentality for as long as I could remember, and it had nothing to do with my being Black. I was just ambitious. But the mentality became different when it was put in a historical context. Suddenly, I had the ancestors on my back and I could not let them down. Now I understand that they are actually the ones who carry me.

By the time I took my first ride from lower Manhattan all the way Uptown and watched as the neighborhoods gradually changed outside of my window, I was curious. I could no longer just accept things as just the way things were. I wanted to know why they were that way. I visited a school on the Upper East Side–not a college or a graduate school, just a school–that had a fireplace in the classroom and a spiraling staircase. I understood that I was still in New York City, but I felt that I was literally and figuratively a long way from home. I understood that very few of the people who went to this school looked like me and that if I wanted to come to this school, I would need to get a scholarship. And I started to understand that we lived in different worlds that were deeper than Friends v. Living Single.

A friend of mine who comes from a multi-racial family told me that growing up his “Black side” of the family would talk about numerous injustices committed against them by whites and that it was in stark contrast to the way his “white side” of the family was. He said that that dichotomy was a big help to him in terms of learning that one can’t fully be judged by the color of his skin. For me, it has never really been about judgment or skin color as much as it has been about access and self-determination.

Of course, now I understand that white does not necessarily equal rich and powerful, but I didn’t always understand that. I did understand that Black seemed to mean less likely to be rich and powerful and more likely to be poor, uneducated, criminalized, and even killed. It was a realization that didn’t fit in with the stories and feelings of pride and greatness that had been instilled in me. It still doesn’t. It hopefully never will.

But I also know that Black history, present, and future are all bigger and better than that. So, this month especially, as we used to say in my spoken word circles, I hope to “go in and get free,” to pay homage to those stories by telling our stories and working to create new ones.

Standard
The Mute World (Politics & Society)

The Privilege to be “Candid”

Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

When I was in college, one of my friends did a semester exchange at Columbia. When she returned to campus, I asked her how her learning experience there compared to her experience at our university. As some of you might know, I went to Howard University, which is a historically black college (HBCU). With all of the constant debate surrounding the merits and relevance of HBCUs, I asked her if she had felt that Columbia’s curriculum had been more rigorous or difficult and if she’d felt that she had learned more.

“Not really,” I remember her telling me. “If anything, I feel like they are still debating the existence of issues that we (at Howard) already acknowledge and are trying to figure out how to solve.

Over the past year and a half that I’ve spent at an “Ivy League” law school, that conversation has come to my mind many times as I sat in numerous classes and went to events where I was forced to listen to “intellectual”  back and forth around controversial topics. “I can’t believe we are still talking about this,” I would think. Or better yet, I can’t believe the superficial way in which we are talking about it. What can we do about it? What are we doing about it?”

One of today’s controversial topics of choice was affirmative action. In just a year and a half at this institution, I have already had more “discussions” about affirmative action than I can stand–not counting all of the years I had to hear about it before I even got here. And understand, this is not a post about affirmative action, because, guess what: I don’t want to know nor do I care what you think about it. Really, I don’t. Many of you don’t like it: I get that. I only ask that you stop subjecting me to your feelings about it.

Some people might argue that discussion is essential to forthcoming action. I disagree. I don’t think that a bunch of (mostly not “of color,” urban, or poor) legal scholars sitting around in a room pontificating about the constitutionality of a policy that many people in the room can’t stand is doing anything to address educational disparities in urban and/or poor communities of color. I’m not even convinced that educational disparity is the main issue, but I digress… However, I do know that little third-grade Charlie, whom many people feel so comfortable talking about but have never met, probably doesn’t care about whether or not the Supreme Court used “strict scrutiny” to analyze a case that might affect his future.

One scholar argued that affirmative action actually inhibits the educational experience because diversity discourages “candor.”

“Wow, that’s really funny,” I thought. “You’re sitting here saying my presence discourages candor while you proceed to tell me all of the reasons why I don’t deserve to be here. And even though you don’t think I deserve to be here, you’re not interested in investing in educational opportunities for me or people like me to succeed elsewhere. Okay, great…So, what exactly are you holding back?”

Am I supposed to be grateful that my classmates haven’t forced my peers and I to walk around wearing “AA” on our foreheads?

During a Constitutional Law class last year as we discussed affirmative action, someone argued that the policy had a negative effect on the experience of minority students because, whether or not they said it to our faces, behind our backs, everyone said we were affirmative action targets anyway. Well dang, there goes that darn diversity destroying your opportunity to be candid and tell me to my face that you don’t think I deserve to be here…until we have a forum, a guest speaker, or God-forbid a Con Law class, that is. As we both sit in these halls of intellectual privilege, I would hate for you to be deprived of your right to point out my community’s flaws because we all know that you get a commission, sense of pride, vindication….”Wait, hold up? What exactly do you get from it?”

“What do I get from it?”

“What does third-grade Charlie get from it?”

Wait, wait, wait. Maybe I’m being too superficial. Maybe we get perspective from it. Maybe we’ve changed some people’s minds, made them understand. Still, somehow, I doubt that because this is the  fifty-leventh time that we’ve discussed it and I’m still hearing the same arguments and I still get that you don’t like it.

What if I said that I don’t like it either? What if I said that I’m not the begging type, and I don’t want to be anywhere that I’m not wanted? What if I said that my friend was right and that I’m not surprised that we can’t come up with solutions to these problems because in 2014 you’re still debating the validity of the connection between poverty and educational performance? What if I said that I don’t feel like debating my intelligence, worth, capabilities, identity, or my culture and that I don’t have to? What if I refused to? What if I realized that no one else ever has to do that? What if you did too?

I know that not everyone will understand this. Not everyone will understand why I get so worked up about this. They’ll think I’m defensive or sensitive, and they won’t get that this is not about my personal offense. I’m a pretty self-reflective person who is able to admit my insecurities–and I promise you that this is not one of them. I know exactly who I am and what I’m capable of, with or without mainstream metrics of achievement. Rather, it offends me that certain people think that it’s okay to tell other people what they think their place and/or problem is: the rich telling the poor, New Yorkers telling Texans, etc. Who is anyone to do that? What do they know? It’s a presumptuous audacity with which I will never be comfortable.

As I contemplated the argument about the relationship between diversity and candor, I thought about my experience at Howard, where we were able to have a wide variety of discussions on controversial topics and to speak with a freedom and sense of community and understanding that I only now fully appreciate and greatly miss. While I found myself shocked at some of my classmates’ values and opinions, it was there that I truly learned that diversity had to do with a lot more than skin color. I honestly don’t think that we felt comfortable discussing things because the majority of us were African American. I think we were able to talk because most of us came from similar positions (in the eyes of society, if not in class distinctions) and had a genuine interest in wanting to see things change and improve. We all had something to gain from the progressive motion of the universe.

So, that’s how I know that candor does not come from homogeneity, it comes from privilege–feelings of freedom, security, justification, and confidence. Worse than that, oftentimes candor has no purpose. Someone gets to say something just because it’s on his mind, regardless of its accuracy, relevance, or tangible or emotional effect–that’s what some people confuse as their First Amendment right. It’s the difference between being able to discuss solutions to problems and being forced to listen to diatribes of cultural superiority couched in legalese. Unfortunately, I have come to the realization that not everyone gets to be candid because some people have more to lose than others.

Standard
The Muse (Art & Culture)

And the Academy Award Goes To…Someone Who Can Actually Accept It

Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In the wake of last weekend’s Golden Globes and today’s announcement of the Academy Award nominees (among which much to my dismay neither Fruitvale Station nor Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom were included, but I digress) I felt the need to discuss Hollywood’s problems with public speaking.

As I watched the Golden Globes on Sunday, I found myself annoyed by the winners’ continuously subpar acceptance speeches. First, please understand that this is not a post about grammar, eloquence, etiquette, or anything like that. I don’t expect, and I don’t think anyone else expects, for award show speeches to be comparable to The Gettysburg Address. And I don’t really care if the winners dance the jig, trip and fall, or bring fifty people on stage with them. I don’t even really need or expect to be moved or inspired in any particular way. I just ask that if they are going to make an acceptance speech that they actually say something.

As I G-chatted back and forth with my friend on Sunday night as we watched the Golden Globes, the dysfunction and repetitive empty monotony was killing me. “Oh my God, if one more person gets up here and says how shocked they are and how they don’t have anything prepared, I’m going to scream,” I said to myself, to my friend on G-chat, and out loud to  my television.

Whenever I hear someone say how shocked they are to win–except in certain circumstances–I’m immediately doubtful. “Are you really shocked?” I ask myself and the so-called “shocked” winner. Just by virtue of the fact that you were nominated, you knew that there was at least some possibility that you were going to win. No matter how slim you thought your chances of actually winning were, at most award shows, with approximately five nominees per category, there is at least a 20 percent chance that you will win. That means that there is a 20 percent chance that you will have to get on stage and make a speech. You might be incredibly honored, but are you really shocked?

Sure those are not the best odds in the world. But the Golden Globe fairy doesn’t just sneak up behind you in your seat as you’re minding your business, drinking your wine, and watching the show and say, “Surprise! You win! No go talk.”  That is no slim margin. There’s no excuse for not having “anything prepared.” And if you’re Jennifer Lawrence, current Hollywood “it girl,” are you really shocked? I mean, really? I wasn’t–even if you weren’t my first choice.

I understand that some people may think it’s arrogant or presumptuous to prepare anything because they do not actually know whether they are going to win, no matter the margin of possibility. However, unless you are the type of person who can adequately wing it if your name happens to be called, preparation does not undermine humility. False modesty isn’t cute either, especially when it’s followed up by no words. If anything, I think it’s arrogant to assume that the audience and the viewers want to watch 50 people say how shocked and unprepared they are and try to hold their liquor, or whatever else for three hours, no matter how much we like your outfit and especially with no musical or other form of distraction or entertainment (at least in the case of the Golden Globes). In the proverbial words of Sweet Brown, “ain’t nobody got time for that.”

Why not put some thoughts together just in case the odds play out in your favor? Write some names down on a piece of paper. Jot down a little outline: thank God (if that’s your preference), your family, friends, agent/manager/lawyers/business people, cast/crew, the Academy and/or whatever other agency voted for you to win, and the fans. Good night. Feel free to find a nice inspirational quote to stick in there for decoration if you want. Then, walk off stage. Boom.

I also understand that emotions and nerves are involved, so even the person who jots down names on a piece of paper might forget it. All the calm and decorum in the world can go out of the window when that moment hits. Of course, I have never won an award of that magnitude and I cannot predict how I would react in these people’s shoes. Public speaking is one of many people’s biggest fears. I get that. However, I think you can be emotional and still somewhat articulate. Again, by articulate, I don’t mean grammar or eloquence, I mean the ability to convey a logical thought.    At the very least, everyone should not get on stage and say how unprepared they are. Nominees need to work it out amongst themselves before the show and leave the “I’m-so-unprepareds” to a three person minimum.  If worse comes to worse and you win and you don’t know what to say, you’re actors/performers/entertainers: fake it till you make it.

And here’s another solution: if you really don’t have anything to say, don’t say anything. Merritt Wever hit the nail on the head with her Emmy speech when she said, “Thank you so much. I gotta go. Bye.” That’s all it takes. All I’m saying is don’t stand on the stage and have us watch you fumbling and bumbling and  saying “oh my God” over and over again until the music starts playing. That doesn’t take 30 seconds or a minute or however long they give you to speak.

I’ve even thought about the possibility of having an option to waive acceptance speeches. Just as they would have the presenters accept someone’s award on his behalf if he wasn’t present, they should give the winners an option to opt out if acceptance speeches aren’t their thing or if they don’t have anything to say.

No one likes excessive formality, but the laxness of these sorts of presentations has gotten out of hand. As a kid, I was fortunate to spend a lot of time on stages, in the arts, and learning speaking and self-presentation skills. In a choir that I was a part of as a teen, we had this exercise that we had to do called “Say Your Name.” That meant that when it was our turn, we had to “turn our lights on” (smile, stand up straight, etc., not fidget, etc.) and introduce ourselves. Before we could even start singing, we had to learn how to just “be” on stage and in the public eye. So, it bothers me to have to watch people who have actively sought and been given a stage trip all over themselves on it. I know they have communications and public relations people.

Thankfully, the 9th grader who introduced President Obama recently did a much better job than all of the award winners at the Golden Globes, but other young people watching the Golden Globes might not be as skilled. And no, this isn’t just another “celebrities are role models” pitch (because if you read this blog, you already know how I feel about that). This is about the importance of not wasting a platform. No, I don’t believe that everyone has to be a master public speaker or perfectly poised (because I’m not and probably never will be), but I believe that if you have the ability to speak, you have to use it. If you are fortunate enough to be given an opportunity and a platform to speak, you really have to use it. If you have an audience, do something worth watching–even if it isn’t necessarily “unique” or memorable.  A speech is not just a potential award show disaster. It is a real privilege that not everyone has.

Standard
Mutations (Reflections on Life)

What If There Is No Love Story?

Image Courtesy of Dreamstime.com

Image Courtesy of Dreamstime.com

“Be careful. Trust, but verify.”

Those were my mother’s words of advice when I asked her about dating and how to go about choosing a husband. (In the future. No one have a coronary.) We were sitting in the kitchen discussing Wendy Williams’ opinions on celebrity relationship gossip (and laughing about how she’s made a huge living doing it) when the conversation turned to more relatable relationships.

“That’s it?” I asked. I was somewhat disappointed. We didn’t really do this girl talk thing very often and I was excited to see where this road might lead. Neither one of us is particularly known for having a lack of strong opinions on an array of subjects, and I was expecting something more along the lines of her typical matter-of-fact mixture of brutal honesty, comedy, and wisdom.

“Yeah,” she said, continuing to face the counter, with her back turned away from me, slicing away at raw chicken cutlets.

I decided to fish some more.

“How did you and daddy start dating?” I asked.

My parents got divorced when I was about 7 or 8. So, I remember how it ended, but I was curious about how it had begun. I knew that my parents had met at work and had gotten married the year before I was born, but that was pretty much the extent of my knowledge. My mother basically repeated that refrain.

“Yeah, I know that,” I said. “But how did you start dating? Did he ask you out? Were you friends for a while? Did you talk at work?”

“I guess so. Honestly, I don’t really remember. That was more than 20 years ago at this point,” was all I got in return.

It was like rushing down to open your gifts on Christmas morning as a kid and unwrapping a handkerchief.

“You don’t remember how you began dating the man you married? The father of your only child?” I thought.

You might remember that I’ve told you about a fellow writer friend of mine whose blog I admire. Well, right now she’s in the middle of writing this amazing dating series in which she recounts many of her relationships and dating experiences and the lessons she’s learned from them along the way. (After you finish reading this, go check her series out. You won’t be sorry.) In these recollections, she describes everything from the first words the guy spoke to her to the melody her heart played when he walked away.

Granted, she is much younger than my mother and her encounters did not take place as long ago. My mom is also not a writer so she may not capture and catalog events and emotions in quite the same way that we do. Still, she was a woman with a catalog of her own and I was having a hard time believing that these were the extent of her memories and impressions of her early relationship with my father.

So I continued. “Well, what did you like about him? Did you think he was cute?”

“Yeah, I thought he was a pretty good-looking guy,” she offered, with the nonchalance of a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese added to a plate of fettuccine alfredo. “He had gone to school, was working, building a career, wasn’t running the streets, didn’t smoke or drink or anything like that.”

I remember when I used to try to get my mom’s permission to let me go somewhere or do something, particularly as a teenager. “Please?” I would beg. “I’m an excellent student. I do my chores, I don’t smoke, drink, or do drugs. I don’t have any children. I’m a good kid.”

She would give me a complex look mixed with amusement (at my sad attempt at negotiation) and indifference. “And?” she would say. “You want a reward for doing what you’re supposed to do? For not doing what you’re not supposed to do anyway?”

That is exactly the look I gave her as she listed her reasons for deciding to date my father. On the surface, it was a good list: education (check), job (check), no addictions (check), a lack of a criminal record (check), and kinda cute (maybe a check plus). I’m grateful that she managed to check those things off her list because I know that not everyone manages to do even that much. But I was concerned with more than just the surface.

Because I’m not entirely obtuse, it occurred to me that this might have been a sore subject for her. After all, how many people like talking about their former feelings for their ex-husband? But I didn’t get the feeling that she was holding back or being sensitive. As I thought back on her advice about how I should conduct my own search for a husband (“Be careful. Trust, but verify.”), I realized that that just might be her approach to relationships: practical. And in a world where so much of the information that we’re fed about relationships isn’t wise or practical, I think that practicality is absolutely necessary.

But I wanted to know if he had used a corny pick-up line. I wanted to know if she’d immediately liked his accent or was intrigued by his thoughts about Kant when he told her he’d studied philosophy. I wanted to know if he’d called when he said he would when she gave him her number or if she’d waited by the phone in anticipation (but knowing my mother,  it probably wasn’t the latter).  I wanted to know if she’d loved him. If she’d felt that he loved her.

I didn’t react the way that I’ve seen and heard that most children react to the news of their parents getting divorced. I wasn’t devastated. I remember getting a speech about them splitting up but that I should be sure to note that that didn’t affect their love for me (like something straight out of a TV movie). I wasn’t really fazed at the time. “Okay, okay,” I remember thinking. “Can I go watch Arthur now?” As you can probably tell from this post, I didn’t have any grand images or visions about my parents’ great love for one another that was suddenly ending. My mom had always been my main caregiver, and well, parent, and my main concern was that I’d be staying with her. For some reason, I had been aware of what custody battles were from watching TV. As soon as I was assured that there wasn’t going to be one of those, I was good. Honestly.

And right now, today, in my early twenties, I’m still not devastated. I realize that, in many cases, divorce is necessary and it was necessary for my parents. Yet, right now, today, and sitting at that kitchen table in my early twenties, I wanted to know that I had been the product of love. Because I remember how it ended, and even how it was, but I don’t know how it began.

Maybe it was never butterflies and horse-and-carriage rides through Central Park. I’m not that naive. Maybe nothing is.

Or maybe it was just what she said it was. And nothing more. And maybe that was love. Maybe it wasn’t.

I think of all the children who are products of affairs, one-night stands, broken condoms, or rape, and I wonder if it really matters. I wonder if I’m asking for too much. I wonder how I’ll know what to ask for if I don’t know what it looks like.

What if there is no love story? What if just we, as the children of our parents, as mere vessels of existence, are the stories, and that’s it? What if it’s up to us to write whatever other stories we’d like to read, even if it’s just from our imaginations?

I guess all we can really do is to be careful. Trust, but verify.

Standard
Mutations (Reflections on Life)

Lessons From My Younger Self: On Looking Back in Order To Move Forward

Photo Courtesy Of Wikimedia Commons

Photo Courtesy Of Wikimedia Commons

I recently found a box of my old notebooks, writing folders, and diaries. In it, I found entries and drafts of poems that I had written ranging from when I was as young as thirteen years old to when I was a sophomore in college. I’d come across scribbles of a first draft of a poem that I’d eventually ended up performing and marvel at how much the piece had ultimately changed. I’d shudder at the clever turn of a phrase or at the intensity of my own long-forgotten or purposefully tucked away emotion and think, “I wrote that? Wow.” or “Ughhhh, why in the world did I write that?” As I looked through them, I could feel the nostalgia running through my bloodstream. It wasn’t so much nostalgia for those times, as much as it was nostalgia for the girl I used to be: creative, innovative, bold.  I realized that I miss me.

Anyone who knows the current me may be a bit confused. Maybe they would still describe me as “creative, innovative, and bold.” But it’s not the same. I’m not who I used to be. For so many years, I’ve been on this path of “achievement”: school, school again, and soon my profession. And I’ve always been on this path, but it didn’t always take up as much of me. Or maybe it used to seem more compatible with my other interests.

I recently told a fellow writer friend of mine that I admired how open she was with the readers on her blog. I told her I was always wary of what and how much to share because of all the warnings I’ve heard about professionalism and how your social media presence can affect your career. But I never really thought about the impact that my career would have on my artistry, and in turn, my identity. I’ve written before about my difficulties balancing these different areas of my life, but this year I’ve resolved to actually do something about it.

Reading through my old diaries and notebooks also showed me change that I’m satisfied with. I saw the names of people who had taken up pages and pages in my diary, people to whom I haven’t spoken in years. Some of this distance happened by choice; some of it happened with time and circumstance. My mom has always told me that “people come into your life for a reason and for a season,” and I realized that she was right. Some people who used to be fixtures in my daily life were now names in an old record, and I was okay with that.

Not everything was different though. I saw names that I’d previously written about who are still fixtures in my life, some who had previously been more supporting characters and who over time had moved into more central roles. In a diary entry from when I was 15, I reflected on how much I loved The Diary of Anne Frank (which is still one of my all-time favorite books) and how much I could relate to many of Anne’s teenage sentiments. I quoted the following line from the book as a refrain that I had felt was applicable to my own life, “They keep telling me I should talk less, mind my own business, and be more modest, but I seem doomed to failure.”

“I thought that was just me,” I had written in response.

I laughed out loud as I read that line again recently.

“Some things never change,” I thought.

I also read an entry where I complained about me reaching out to people more than they reached out to me. To this day, I’m still trying to find the right balance between reaching and the respect and reciprocity that I expect and deserve.

This free-write from my teen-something self reflects the self-assuredness (with a little creative bravado thrown in) that I was beginning to develop at that point (can you tell that the theme was writing?):

I speed past on a shiny soliloquy

Thoughts transporting me through my day so fast that all you see is punctuation

There are no periods in my world

Just commas, colons, semi-colons, exclamation points, and question marks

Syllables for speed bumps

I don’t see the signs–I make them

Then ignore them

What are traffic laws to a New Yorker?

I write the rage on the road you walk on

Radiant, radical run-ons with no end in sight

My poetic license can never be suspended

I have the write of way every day–every block’s mine

I blow my horn at inaudible decibel levels 

So you never hear me coming

But the impact’s always lethal

So don’t get hit

Cause I don’t yield to pedestrians

Wowww. Aren’t you glad I’m not a teen anymore? I am.

Much of that girl that still resonates with me. She has grown, matured, gained some finesse. This year is about figuring out how to make that girl and the young professional woman forming in my mirror compatible. As I continue to find my way through this maze called adulthood, I hope to find a way to merge the things I miss with the things I must do.

Standard