JUST MUSING: “Tattle-tale, tattle-tale, tattle-tale…”

Years ago in the bowels of the federal courthouse in Houston was situated a press room; manned by a number of press agencies: the Houston dailies (Chronicle and Post), United Press International (UPI), Associated Press (AP), radio stations, KPRC and KTRH, and whatever television station needing the space.  A place to make calls, collect data, to conduct interviews.  A few years prior to exiting the practice I happened upon the press room.  Appearing abandoned, no longer manned.   UPI no longer remained the same organization. The Houston Post ceased operations in 1995, after it was purchased by the Houston Chronicle.   KPRC and KTRH still existed, in different forms, more talk less reporting.  The current press landscape is exhibit 1 on the effect of new technologies and the changes in the media landscape – cell phone, internet, corporate consolidations and buyouts, bankruptcies and the formation of new, less substantial entities.

I was watching television recently when the question was asked of one of the participants, “have you ever been bullied.”  The person the question was posed seemed slightly embarrassed before answering, “Yes.”  My pause was shorter than his, answering before he did.  I too answered yes.

One definition of bullying is the “use of superior strength or influence to intimidate, typically to force him or her to do what one wants.”   If you are willing to accept this expansive definition of the word, I submit that most, if not all of us, have been bullied at one point in time in our lives.  If you have not – been bullied – you are a fortunate soul.  If you have, you start slightly more ahead in understanding the observations I make.

When in middle school and high school, I never worried about the physical form of bullying. I existed in a quasi-protective custodial world.  No, I wasn’t incapable of fighting, had plenty in elementary school, did not shy down from fights, and like most kids spent most of my time trying to make sense of the world, wondering what the future would bring.  I just didn’t have to fight.  Johnny Brown and Leon Dennis served as the protectorates.  Well-defined man-child(s), stronger than most, patrolling, protecting, never picking on others, making clear they were willing to fight if challenged, that the bullies had to go through them if they wanted to get to me.

I only saw one person challenge.  He – the bully – flew – actually took flight, flew – flying in one direction.  I walked away to take a shower – in the other direction – marveling at his, Robert’s, ability to fly.  Johnny took a seat, placed his thumb in his mouth, and removed his clothes, never bothering to worry whether Robert – he who defied gravity – would land, return or attempt to challenge him on his statement, “You have to go through me.”

Both Leon and Johnny skipped a step in puberty; moving from childhood to man-child status overnight, growing faster than most, obtaining their man’s weight and height in middle school, appearing out of place, but not.

Johnny was 6’0” – 6’1” man child, weighing 265, who was more than comfortable playing sports barefooted, sprinting, making a tackle, retreating to the sideline, resuming his thumb sucking.  No one dare teased.  No one dare teased.  No one dare teased.

Leon, 5’10” – 5”11”, 180/190 pounds, well-defined shoulders, expansive chest, flat-broad feet.  Strangely, Leon was defined more by his smile and laughter than is brawn.  He however still possessed the same aura of invisibility; warning off all comers, smiling while he did so, never ever having to lift a finger.

Johnny and Leon existed in the pre-steroid, supplement era, the era which only a few were man-sized.  Prior to the food manufacturers injecting cattle with growth-hormones, before McDonald’s became the dominate force over the American landscape, prior to the use of amphetamines, to a far greater extent in our food chain, than in our hospitals.  They existed in a period when the average height of an American man was 5’8”.  The United States Food and Drug Administration’s website is instructive:

Since the 1950s, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved a number of steroid hormone drugs for use in beef cattle and sheep, including natural estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, and their synthetic versions. These drugs increase the animals’ growth rate and the efficiency by which they convert the feed they eat into meat.

But I digress.

Bullying can also take on forms other than physical intimidation; psychological and intellectual bullying are just two examples.  This type of bullying is somewhat akin to a chameleon, changing colors, adapting, persisting; oft-time more destructive than physical bullying.  Acts designed to provide false data, littering the landscape with words of belittlement, causing others to view one as less worthy, unwelcomed.

I have always viewed the press, for the most part, in the same light as I have viewed Leon Dennis and Johnny Brown.  Initially, I was introduced to press room by the UPI reporter, Olive Talley; bringing light to cases, sharing with the public, making the courthouse less hostile.  Serving as a tattle-tale, reporting on matters others ignored.  On most occasions I never fully agreed with the tattle-tales, never fully disagreed.  Walking, running away, meeting deadlines; printing, broadcasting, telling, telling, telling was their roles.  No one ever fully likes a tattle-tale.

If you have a difficulty in following me, let me try it this way.  In most families, there is a hollow place reserved for the tattle-tale.  A role which can be filled by any of the family group members – the youngest, oldest or the middle children – doesn’t matter.  He/she is the person who reports back to the head of the family, telling of wrongdoing, faults, doing what we weren’t supposed to be doing.  This is my view of the press; they are our constitutionally protected tattle-tales.  You ask, what does this have to do with bullying?

The Committee to Protect Journalists reports the attacks on journalist and the press is at an all-time high.  Information from the Committee’s website:  Nigeria threatens journalist for not revealing sources; Thailand pressures two broadcast journalist off the air; Bangladesh journalist could face 14 years in prison for refuting rumor; Egyptian press advocates faces life in prison, Indian journalist, magazine face criminal complaint for investigative report;   Iranian journalist Issa Saharkhiz sentenced to three years in jail.  I think you get the point.  The Committee also reports that since 1992, 1208 journalists have been killed doing their jobs, 27 killed in 2016; 199 were imprisoned in 2015; 456 exiled since 2008.

The unfortunate part of any review of events around the world is to assume we are immune from the analysis.  In this country the recent attacks on journalist is just as disturbing.   Political candidates jeering at the press, pulling press passes, putting the press in press pens – acts designed to control the tattle-tale’s right to tell – on them, on us.

Ignoring the importance of the First Amendment, viewing journalists’ questions as being bothersome, blaming their faults on the press, refusing to answer the question, never calling press conferences, telling reporters to “shut up.”

So that you are clear, I have not always agreed with everything the press has written, the conduct of some reporters, or the conduct of certain entities.  My beliefs have been formed as being both a beneficiary of good reporting and from finding myself on the other side of the story.  Once disagreeing when quoted in the paper (an accurate quote), because the reporter agreed the comments were off-the-record.  Vehemently sickened when sitting in chambers and witnessing the federal judge tell a Houston Chronicle reporter what he was going to do in a case just beginning, before jury selection; shouting, bragging that a famed lawyer had met his match (the lawyer Joseph Jamail).   Leaving chambers and witnessing the same judge make good on his threats.  Not able to keep my mouth shut, telling Jamail, ultimately telling a Fifth Circuit investigator.  His Honor’s promise never made it to the paper.

Watching the worm turn, witnessing the same federal judge hold press conferences; placing stories in the local papers, for five years, expressing his disdain for a different lawyer (myself); seeking to destroy, destroying, waiting for public fight, using the press as his tool.  His Honor’s conduct again never made it to the paper, enabling abusive conduct, threatening the checks and balances necessary, ignoring all of us can be subjected to tyrannical conduct when the press fails its entrusted role.

I say all this to say, no, I have not agreed with everything the press has written about me.  I am far from a press enabler.  That is my point and the reason I muse.  It is not my role, the role of politicians, or any of us to suppress the guardians of the First Amendment.  The press with all its faults serves an important role of protecting us from them, us from ourselves, telling the story.

The press has a fundamental (read fundamental as meaning constitutional) right to report and should.  You, I, them (read them to mean, politicians) have a fundamental right to remain quiet, not talk, move off the stage, if we don’t want to talk.  Injecting “no comment”, refusing to return the call, invoking the Fifth is our right.  You, I, they (read they to mean again politicians), do not have a right to silence, intimidate and attempt to bully the press.  To do so lessens our rights and privileges, our constitutional reason for existing, threatening the fourth leg of the foundation of our society.

Oh, how I wish the press drop the objective part in writing, speaking, reporting for a moment.  Oh, how I wish they take the politicians up on the threats and embargo all their stories for a week, and reach a collective agreement to engage in a conspiracy of silence.  Ignore their the tweets, emails, and scoops – right and left – throw a hissy fit and refuse to show up and report.  Assign the reporters to human interest story instead, hold seminars on the First Amendment, informing the rest of us why reporting protects us from our stepping over the line, becoming a totalitarian society.

Call it Press Week if you may; take a break, to make a point.  Not showing, not reporting, leaving the pits empty, killing the electronic feed, mailing back all press passes with a simple, direct statement, “attacks against one of us, is an attack on the rest of us.”   Expecting to hear complaints, inquiries – why?  Directing the callers, emailers, tweeters, texters, and press secretaries to a diverse group of organizations (by way of example: the Committee to Protect Journalists, Society of Professional Journalists, National Association of Black Journalists, National Association of Hispanic Journalists, and Freedom Forum).  Surely, it will take more than one group to handle the anticipated fight for attention.  It takes a village doesn’t it?

Oh how I wish, the tattle-tales push away from the same-old-same-old, in order to underscore the importance of the right of a free press.  And after the collective boycott, the press should remain mindful; there will no apologies issued for past conduct.  There will however suddenly be a desire to hold press conferences.  The press pens will disappear, as will references to the dishonest press.  Press passes will be readily reissued, with no reference to being told to shut up, be quiet and write what we want you to write – at least for a year – until the next Annual Press Week.

Absolutely I recognize my wish is an impossibility, wistful thinking.  Tattle-tales are, because of their genetic makeup, incapable of participating in the conspiracy of silence.  They never do, always running to tell momma, daddy, telling on the rest of us, not able to keep their mouths shut, telling, telling, telling, getting the rest of us in trouble, as they should!

So I muse…

JUST MUSING: “The greatest show on earth” …Act 3

We had been having plumbing problems in the downstairs’ conference room for some time, a year or more.  The plumber assigned the problems to the city’s side, line failure.  “We’ve done all that we can do.  You need to call the city.”  We did call and when the city finished its examination of the line, a city worker pulled me to the side, admitting the problem was theirs.  “If the line breaks, the sewer will flow from roughly eight blocks down, into this line, terminating at this point.”

“Here?”

“Yes, here, the line is failing on the other side of your office and when it breaks the only place for the sewage to go is here.”

“Here?”

“Yes, here.”

“Are you going to fix it?”

His response was both shocking and telling.  Lowering his head, diverting his eyes, moving away while answering, “No, we will wait for the line to break and then address the problem.”  He entered his city issued truck, maneuvered around the pumping equipment, never acknowledging, as he drove away.  He didn’t drive into the sunset, he didn’t play the role of a television hero, going to get help; he was not the intervening soul who provides otherworldly wisdom – none of those – he just drove away, leaving me hanging, wondering what he meant by “when it breaks.”

“We will clean the line, there are no guarantees.  Tonight, a week, ten years from now, who knows?  We do know one thing, it will break.”

I didn’t possess the power or authority to dig up the city’s sewer line to make the repairs myself.  Those are powers not bestowed on an individual citizen; money, status, location may have made a difference in what the city was willing to do, shouldn’t be and surely wasn’t something I could exercise as my hero of lore turned the corner.  As a singular voice, I was incapable of causing him to return, to turn around, saying he made a mistake, “we will do the repairs.”  He drove away, leaving me standing in place wondering when I would be gifted with everyone else’s waste.   The system was broken.  There is nothing he could do about it, so it said.  There is nothing he was willing do about it, so he affirmed.  Just wait … just wait … just wait, it will break was his assessment, his solution.  And wait I did, hoping for ten years, praying for a lifetime.  I didn’t get the ten years.  I didn’t get a lifetime.

When I entered the conference room I spoke to Debbie as she neared completion of a brief to the appellate court.  Our conversation was no different than most of our late evening exchanges, sharing our day, addressing any emergencies, gossiping, then inquiring of the other whether help was needed on a particular project.  I moved around her to enter the restroom, brushing her right shoulder as I did so.   At this time, the conversation I had with the city’s supervisor had long recessed in the crevices of my mind – but not now – flowing upward and outward in a brown funnel, with great force, forcing the toilet seat backward, the seat seemingly riding the violent wave – bouncing, bouncing, bouncing.  The funnel struck the wall, situated two feet away, seemingly remaining intact as it flowed as a unified body unto the floor, immersing and coloring the carpet, creeping, moving as a united force, somewhat akin to gelatin, with bits of shredded coconut – everyone’s fecal waste for an eight block radius – upward, outward, downward.  My brain told me not to inhale, not to smell – standing in place I did, watching with amazement, if only for a nanosecond, a force I had never seen before – at least not in this form; uniformed, invading, forceful.

Scientists tell us the neurotransmitters for fear and excitement are essentially the same – I think that’s right – it matters not – I was now serotonin inspired, propelling a scream, still not breathing, still not smelling, while moonwalking backward, lifting one foot, then the next,  wishing I could fly and hover,  touching but not wanting to touch the floor, daring not to move forward as a force greater than I moved towards me, forgetting I needed to use the restroom, slamming the door too late, the invader now splashing and pushing on the underside, then seemingly reaching and removing my hand from the knob, pushing and opening the door, smiling and stinking at the same time.  Instead of slightly touching Debbie’s shoulder, I now grabbed both shoulders, pointing at the problem, describing the problem with two words, followed by an exclamation point attached, exhuming fears thought long buried, grabbing materials, moving backwards, never forward, escaping with the visions of the continual violent dumping taking place.

*             *                   *

In an article published by Aljazeera America [Most Americans don’t vote in elections. Here’s Why, June 27, 2015], an initial assessment of the health of The Greatest Show on Earth is provided.  “New U.S. Census data released on July 19 confirm what we already knew about American elections:  Voter turnout in the United States is among the lowest in the developed world.  Only 42 percent of Americans voted in the 2014 midterm elections, the lowest level of voter turnout since 1978.  And midterm voters tend to be older, whiter and richer than the general population.”

The problem however does not stop at voter participation.  Exclusion is just as telling.  The number of citizens disqualified from voting because of felony convictions now stands at roughly  5.85 million. A Sentencing Projects Report reveals some startling findings:

  • Rates of disenfranchisement vary dramatically by state due to broad variations in voting prohibitions. In six states – Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Virginia – more than 7 percent of the adult population is disenfranchised.
  • 1 of every 13 African Americans of voting age is disenfranchised, a rate more than        four times greater than non-African Americans.  Nearly 7.7 percent of the adult          African American population is disenfranchised compared to 1.8 percent of the non-  African American population.
  • African American disenfranchisement rates also vary significantly by state. In three    states – Florida (23 percent), Kentucky (22 percent), and Virginia (20 percent) – more  than one in five African Americans is disenfranchised.

The greatest areas of disenfranchisement takes place in the southern states, home to large African American populations (Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee, Virginia, Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas), in states in which there exists large Hispanic populations (Florida, Arizona, Nevada, Idaho) and/or in states where large Native American populations (American Indian/Alaskan Native) exists (North Dakota, Alaska).  History’s whisper tells us these truisms are not happenstance.

Absolutely there have been improvements – gone, all white primaries; gone, literacy tests; gone, secret ballots; gone, poll taxes – exiting stage right – then seemingly doubling around the back of the stage, down the steps to don new costumes, make-up, props – then reemerging – stage left – proclaiming to be a new act, a new show, new characters.

Indeed the show must go on – voter id laws, voter purges, and machines which can’t count, don’t’ count or don’t work.   A new script, attacking long-established cast members; whispering to us, its audience, telling us absence does make the heart grow fonder.

The show always goes on doesn’t it?  – Enduring without violence, for the most part; self-sustaining, however imperfect; inclusive, while still insisting upon excluding.  A union formed by revolution is the same union which never contemplated “others” as being beneficiaries of the union – an imperfect union indeed.

*             *                   *

I had options on the Day of Judgment, screaming, slamming the door, and moving away from our unexpected guest.  Debbie and I fled, hoping the courts would make sense out the anticipated motions to extend the time and our stranger than-life explanation of being unprepared.  “Things happen” – is that the idiom?

I also had additional options when the giver of the unexpected gift stopped the flow the next day.  Hauling, discarding, tearing, bleaching, wiping, smelling and insisting on a new toilet – even though the last act was only symbolic – then bleaching, wiping, smelling; over and over again.  Nearly eight months passed before we occupied the conference room again, quarantined, quartered off – bleaching, wiping, smelling.   Or is the idiom? – “Thing – happens.”

And even though individually I had options, collectively we don’t have the same options when it comes to voting and political participation.  We should never fool ourselves in believing we are a true democracy – that is not why I muse.  We should never ever attempt to convince ourselves that ours is a perfect union.  We should never allow The Greatest Show on Earth to continue on without addressing what we know is broken:  historical patterns of non-voting, barriers to voting, not counting every vote.  We will not have options if and when these historical truths flow upward, outward and downward, flowing uncontrollably, causing the union to cease, the citizenry to disbelieve, then divest, discarding as they flee.  The Greatest Show on Earth even repackaged, reinforced, sustaining itself by character changes, makeovers, and makeup will be no more; something predictable and foreseen, the same prediction the city supervisor gifted me with when he lowered his head and moved away.

JUST MUSING: “Mississippi goddam” …

One of the salt-of-the-earth lessons provided by our elders is that “there are times when you shouldn’t talk”: exercise silence, wait for the conversation to detour in another direction, pretend not to be concerned, practice the lost art of avoidance.  They preached – “oft-times you talk when you shouldn’t”:  unintentionally confessing, not shutting, closing, zipping, securing or cloistering the words spoken.  I pretended I heard.  I pretended I understood.

Years ago, when traveling from Houston with a friend (Bruce V. Griffiths), I failed to follow the truism, the advice, failing woefully.  I failed to pretend I didn’t hear his question; failed to gracefully detour the conversation, running through the obvious stop signs along the way.  Running, running, running, my mouth; confessing I earned extra money writing papers for nursing students.  Mine was not a created market, in that nursing students generally hated writing, and I didn’t mind writing.  I also believed researching the different subject matters would expand my knowledge base – “a willing buyer and meets willing seller” – the American way.  I ventured to the medical school’s library two to three nights a week.  The staff was always helpful, answering questions, helping to locate documents, papers, pulling master’s theses and doctoral dissertations when needed.

Bruce and I made the trip from Galveston to Houston – Houston to Galveston – daily.   Ours was the “Debating Society Held in a Honda Civic Automobile,” discussing, solving, arguing over every imaginable societal issue – followed by laughter, then scorn, before reverting back to laughter.  Bruce was a new lawyer, a graduate of University of Texas Law School, at the time forging a new law practice in the Houston legal community, while his wife attended the University of Texas’ Medical School.  I was in law school, while my wife attended the University of Texas’ School of Nursing.  After spending four and a half years sitting atop a motorcycle, Bruce’s offer to share the commute seemed attractive – so we did, so we did.

On the day of my violation of the truism, I was consumed, no, troubled, with the results of the last group of papers I had written.  A pattern was starting to develop, a life pattern I had seen before.   My turning inward was obvious, not wanting to participate in the last debate subject.  Glancing out and beyond, repelling Bruce’s attempts to scale the wall dividing us.

“Why are you so quiet?  What is wrong?”

His questions printed out, before my eyes, ticker tape fashion, rolling by slowly, not at all like the credits at the end of a movie, allowing sufficient time to read the question, more than adequate time to feign sleepiness, illness, even die.  I did neither, instead I straightened my posture, and told, flat-out told – ignored the blinking lights, the cries and screams, driving around the pedestrians screaming for me to stop.  I told on myself.

“My customer base is one-third white, one-third Hispanic, one-third black.  I have created a chart reflecting the white students are receiving across the board “A’s”, no lower than a B.  The Hispanic students, “B’s” and “C’s”, and the Black students, “C’s” and “D’s”, same author, me!  Same time spent on each paper!!  On the second set of papers, I spent more time on the Hispanic and black students than I did on the white student papers – same results!  Now tell me the difference, if it isn’t racism Bruce, what is?  Bias in the professional schools, Bruce! Not mathematically possible to justify, not by accident, not by chance, not a mistake!”

So I did.  Yes, I did.  Barreling ahead, letting the floodgate of words escape.    Confessing, confessing, confessing … moime …. Yes, I did.

“I want to sue.  I think I have standing.  I then want to call a press conference.  This is racism!” – Proclaiming, unwittingly confessing my own malfeasance, somewhat akin to the criminally accused complaining of not receiving his Miranda rights (right to remain silent), while holding the bloody knife (over the body), a picture perfect pose for the kind police officers as they enter the crime scene, with camera in hand.  When defending, you can only tell the client, “You took a good picture.”  But I digress.

Bruce nibbled on his lip, suppressing laughter, pulling on his beard, as if comforting himself, the conflicting emotions dancing on the head of life’s pin.  I continued my confession.  He continued to drive.  The more I confess, the more he stroked and nibbled.  The flat landscape of the Gulf Coast inched slowly across the landscape; the sun continued to bid her adieu, lazily dancing over the horizon, the ticker tape playing out in my head, then before my eyes, now slowed.   Bruce’s words followed, imploring me to “think about what you’re saying.”  Not disagreeing, laughing still, a muted laugh, causing me to laugh, causing me to realize the insaneness of my rant.  A well-intentioned rant, coupled with misplaced righteous, existing and stand side-by-side with my ethically challenged business model.  Please be sure, my confessions are not the reason I muse.  No, no, I confess my sins in order to provide an appropriate metaphor to discuss the strange and bewildering tentacles of racism, an oft-times hostile subject, which reaches and touches us all, far more than we realize.

*          *          *

In 1964, Nina Simone, the renowned singer, songwriter, and civil rights activists, released Mississippi Goddam. Albeit, the song was banned in much of the South, this did not mute Simone’s voice.   Mississippi Goddam was Simone’s response to the murder of Medgar Evers in Mississippi and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama.  A product of the segregated South, Simone explained her work best:

Nightclubs were dirty, making records was dirty, popular music was dirty and to mix all that with politics seemed senseless and demeaning.  And until songs like “Mississippi Goddam” just burst out of me, I had musical problems as well.  How can you take the memory of a man like Medgar Evers and reduce all that he was to three and a half minutes and a simple tune?  That was the musical side of it I shied away from; I didn’t like ‘protest music’ because a lot of it was so simple and unimaginative it stripped the dignity away from the people it was trying to celebrate.  But the Alabama church bombing and the murder of Medgar Evers stopped that argument and with “Mississippi Goddam,” I realized there was no turning back.

Thereafter Eunice Kathleen Waymon continued to challenge, publish and perform, leaving behind a trove of musical genius, spanning generations, before passing from this earth on April 23, 2003.  And again, Nina Simone is also not why I muse.  Please be patient while I detour slightly, before making sense out my madness.

Recently, controversy has arisen surrounding the selection of Zoe Saldaña as the lead in one of the films about Nina Simone’s life.  Saldaña is a native of Passaic, New Jersey, the daughter of a Dominican father and a Puerto Rican mother.  She also claims her Haitian and Lebanese roots.  Born Zoe Yadira Saldaña Nazario, an accomplished practitioner of her craft, suddenly finds herself in the middle of a historically constant and persistent racist debate normally conveyed in subtle code, asking, whether she is black enough.  The argument is a simple one, representing a continual play on the color line.  It goes something like this:  Saldaña skin is lighter than Simone’s.  The application of makeup is the same as playing the role in blackface.  Saldaña’s nose and lips are not as broad, not as full as Simone – so they, the producers, should have picked someone else.

An inherently racist attack, directed at the actress’ skin tone, as if disqualifying – not black enough.  I muse to say attack Saldaña for her acting, I am sure she has been criticized before.  Criticize the script, writers, or producers; there are few great scripts, writers, or producers in the industry.  Constructive criticism is as much a part of the art, as praise, helping an artist grow and develop.

The Encyclopedia of Race and Racism is a ready source for understanding my frustration.  The slave trade deposited Africans throughout this hemisphere.  The majority of the slaves were deposited in places other than the United States.  Brazil received 40.6 percent (land colonized by the Portuguese), the British receiving 29 percent, the Spaniards, 14.3 percent, the French, 12.0 percent, and the Dutch, 2.7 percent.   By way of example: “[t]he local population of the territory now known as Mexico estimated to be at least 4.5 million by the time of the Spanish Conquest.  African slaves arrived with the first Spaniards.  … Between 1500 and 1600, it is estimated that the number of blacks was double the number of whites in Mexico.”  This type of dichotomy played out in other locales:   Jamaica (British colony), Cuba (Spanish colony), Barbados (British colony), Panama (Spanish colony), Puerto Rico (Spanish colony), Danish West Indies (St. Thomas, St. John, St. Croix),  Trinidad and Tobago (changed hands between the British, French, Dutch, then back to the British), Turks and Caicos Islands (British colonies) and La Isla Espanola (later known as the Saint Dominique, then Haiti and Dominican Republic).

La Isla Espanola … was the wealthiest colony in the Caribbean.  It was considered the ‘Pearl of the Antilles,’ by the French.  By the end of the eighteenth century, more than 450,000 black slaves on the island produced half of the world’s sugar and coffee, plus indigo and cotton.”   This diaspora involved a diverse group of people subjected to enslavement, encompassing and including persons from Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Nigeria, Congo, Angola, Mozambique and Madagascar, enslaving 10.24 million people between 1650 and 1900.

So, with this understanding and background, criticism is being lodged against a person (Saldaña) of mixed heritage (as an aside, most of us are), because she is not black enough.  I muse to say the position taken represents the personification of racism.

One of those critics is the songstress/artist, India Arie.  Arie complained Saldaña’s casting is a missed opportunity, explaining that – the way the filmmakers made Saldaña look betrayed the late singer’s true beauty.  Arie then seems to caveat her remark, appearing to step back away from the bridge, clarifying – that arguing Saldaña isn’t “black enough” for the role is a “messy” way to frame a bigger issue.  I don’t know what her caveat means and whether it makes a difference.  I do know the more she talked, she confessed, failed to zip, secure, and cloister her words.   “When you look a certain way you get certain privileges; when you look another way you’re denied access to certain things, especially in her era,” Arie said. “So in the context of the politics of race in America and the politics of race in the entertainment industry in America, to make a movie about a person like that and cast an actress that has to wear blackface and a prosthetic nose is tone-deaf. To propagate that institutionalized racism that is historical in Hollywood in a movie about her is ironic in the worst possible way.”

*          *          *

In college I vividly remember a debate waging in the classroom posing the question whether blacks could be racist.  I readily answered yes, most of the others students answered no.  Those in opposition were probably right if the classic dictionary definition of racism is use: “usually involving the idea that one’s own race is superior and has the right to dominate others, or that a particular racial group is inferior to the others.”  The opposition posed their answer from the standpoint of looking outward, never looking inward.  I didn’t cloister my words, complaining loudly, protesting the question, inherently self-fulfilling – myth making.

Barrack Obama wasn’t black enough (when he ran for the Senate in Illinois).  Do we forget that during slavery there was a practice of bestowing greater privileges to slaves who were “blessed”/ “cursed” / “is what it is” – with lighter hues and tones?  When segregation was the law of the land, I remember sitting in classrooms divided along color lines, with the lighter-skin kids being accorded greater privileges, assigned to the advanced classes, deemed prettier; clearly behavior mimicking the dominant society.  The behavior was reinforced once integration occurred, whites stepping above, around, and over the lighter skin blacks in the privilege line, with the other of us, falling in place, based on skin color.  Maybe my complaint is not about racism.  Maybe I am using the wrong word, or phrase.  Maybe the proper description is misguided self-hate.

Actors and actresses have been known to put on weight to play a particular role.  The art form, if done right, allows us to see the best and worst, reveal traditions and customs, pimples and warts, love and hate.  Voice and cultural nuisances mastered, pleasing and stark images presented, a world in which we grow younger, older, darker, yellower, browner, … beiger … whiter, … peering into others’ worlds, crying, laughing, rejoicing – an art form practiced around the world.  The beauty can co-exist with the beast.

I muse to say the criticism of Zoe Saldaña playing Nina Simone is misplaced.  Of all the children of the Africa diaspora, the descendants claiming birth in the sovereign state of Dominican Republic, situated on the island of Hispaniola, as speakers of two, three, four tongues, the original subjects of the slavery holocaust, long before it was exported our shores,  cannot ever be considered – “not black enough.”  Saldaña’s skin being lighter shouldn’t matter, unless we want to continue placing ourselves in the same box built years ago to justify a shameful institution which cannot and should never be justified.  Saldaña’s placement in the role is not a stretch; the criticism lodged is very much so, a continuation of the same standards imposed upon us to exclude, and differentiate … Mississippi Goddam!

 

JUST MUSING: “THEY IS US, THEY IS US” …

I have always possessed a tormented relation with organized religion.  My feelings were openly discussed with my mother as early as middle school – in hindsight she provided incredible tolerance, understanding and guidance – her words were always accompanied by a smile and her blessings.  “You have been imbued with religion and the church, you will return.”  Because I am willing to admit my ambivalence, does not mean I swore against supporting others rights to worship.  Absolutely, I understood the importance of religion (a belief in something); this too was always part of the discussion. Sure, she always rolled her eyes when I started talking about the sun, moon and wind.  When contemplating a major in college, I considered a divinity degree; even the mere mentioned caused her to revisit the subject – the same guiding hand directing me elsewhere – “maybe not, maybe not” … “read, study, understand and appreciate … you have no intentions of using a divinity degree to provide for others….”   She was right again, I changed majors, continued studying, trying to understand – while always wanting never, ever, to infringe on another’s right to worship.

*          *          *

 David Savage worked for Los Angeles Times, and the last time I checked he still does.  His long-term assignment is reporting on matters before the United States Supreme Court.  Mr. Savage travelled to Galveston to meet the Doe clients, clients who sued under fictitious name(s) to protect their identities, anonymous.  Savage expressed he wanted to hear the clients’ story, and provide the Los Angeles Times’ audience, and reach, the backstory.  He related he understood the clients’ protecting their identities because of their living in a small town, still having school age children, and because of their concerns over the volatility of religion and faith.  For the uninformed, the Doe(s) were not conflicted with regards to organized religion.  They were not atheist, did not purport to be agnostic, questioning, questioning, questioning.  They were not of the belief that human existence just happened, with no explanation needed, nor did they assign human existence to luck, chance or magic.  The Doe families were of the Mormon and Catholic faiths.

Savage agreed to protect the clients’ identities, recognizing the Doe(s) had undertaken a challenge most would never undertake.  They challenged their local school district, and its board, for imposing religion in their public schools.  The school district, Sana Fe, is and remains a public school (meaning taxpayers dollars).  The dominant religion-sect was, and still remains, Southern Baptist.  Such was the setting, trying times, a challenge and one of our society’s most emotionally charged issues.  A challenge probably more aptly described by the venerable songstress, Roberta Flack, “Trying times what the world is talkin’ about.  You got confusion all over the land, yeah” – so it seemed.

Mr. Savage’s agreement to protect the clients’ identity however was with a caveat – he wanted the opportunity to ask them to make an exception for his paper and for him.  I explained that the Doe families had consistently refused others offers and that I didn’t believe their position was going to change.  With such an understanding, I agreed to allow the interview to happen.

The interview took place.  The Doe families, I believe enjoyed the interview, telling stories they were never able to tell the federal district judge (the backstory).  They got off their chest their understanding of the Constitution – there exists no religious test; that the public schools should stay out of religion and that they as parents should be allowed to provide their children religious training of their choice, not the school’s.  They were particularly galled the school district thought otherwise.  When the interview was drawing to a close, the reporter, of much repute, finally asked the question he wanted to ask early on but did not – “Whether they would trust him enough to expose their names to the public.”  Any sleep threatening my participation in the meeting disappeared at that point.  However, my awakening and anxieties were misplaced – the Doe parents well-understood how dangerous the issue was and with school-aged children, they were not about to expose their children to their decision to bring suit.  Their answer was the same, always a consistent one, “No.”

When Texas Monthly published a story indicating, inferring, artfully writing – that possibly one of the people they interviewed (and published pictures of in the story) was one of the Doe family members – the Doe(s) remained quiet, saying nothing.  I remember the family who appeared in Texas Monthly. The visited but abruptly fled when fear gripped them, compelling them to refuse to participate as plaintiffs.  After the lawsuit was filed, and won, the frustration of seeing their fifteen minutes of fame escape them was too much.

When the Hugh Hefner Foundation wanted to honor the Doe families for their courage, they had one stipulation – they, the Doe(s) had to reveal their identities. The Doe(s) settled instead for their principles, ignored the money and recognition and went back to raising their families.  The award was never forthcoming.  Television news shows, journals, and newspapers received the same consistent message – “no, thank you.” I have seen their children over the years and they have expressed to me their relief that their parents’ were able to protect them, while still protecting their faith – a message always delivered with a smile, a handshake – a hug.

I muse not because of the Doe families and surely not because of the results of the case.  The Supreme Court decided and hopefully the case will stand the test of time.  I muse because we as a society continue to make the same mistakes.  With the recent debate of religious-based admission into the United States, to the painting of an entire faith as terrorists, to candidates for public office forgetting they are seeking office in a Union formed without a religious-based test, to these same candidates fumbling over the tenets of their own faiths while condemning others, I can’t help but fume and still muse at the same time.

How dare them.  Yes, how dare them.  They can’t make the Constitution say Christians only – unless they rewrite it – or can they?   They wouldn’t dare repeal the Bill of Rights, or strip away our protections, the core of the document, prohibiting “Congress making no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” – they wouldn’t, couldn’t, do that, would they?  They wouldn’t dare pass laws providing for religious-based admissions into the United States – no, no, no – that’s not possible, is it?  Have these folks ever played dominoes? – “What goes around comes around!”  Wait, that’s not how it goes… “A count (points) ignored will always come back around!”  Wait, wait, wait… that is not a good analogy, please bear with me a little longer.

I muse because anything is possible.  We, as a society, are a resourceful people, capable of doing great things if done as a collective whole, meaning we, as a society, are also capable to doing collectively bad if the rest of us don’t recognize they is us and unless we fight to protect our/theirs/others individual freedoms, then we are doomed to allow them to do anything they wish.

When a local Mormon group came bearing their book of faith, after the Doe(s)’ victory, they extended an invitation to visit their house of worship – I waited for them to ask me to reveal who brought the lawsuit – they never did.  I visited, accepting the congratulations on behalf of the Doe(s) even though I well understood the Mormon’s historical view of blacks (a view now discarded).   When a local Muslim group came bearing their book of faith, no invitation to visit followed, just a profound thank you and a request I deliver their love and appreciation to my forever silent clients.  No, none of the Doe family members were Muslim, but they were (“I’m Muslim, but not”).  Only one of the families was of the Mormon faith, they too are Muslims, but not.  Both families probably remembered history’s tale, one time subjecting both faiths to the same frightening rhetoric as their Muslim brethren, exclusionary policies and hostilities, threatening their very existence, all coupled with potential and actual violence.  Their faiths are long past having to prove their humanity – why should Muslims be required to do so.

Hypocrisy is also what I protested as a child – something my mother did encourage, providing her blessings to my insanity.  So I muse – for holding any of us to an impossible standard is fundamentally unfair.  If we ignore these historical lessons – they (they, which the Constitution says is us) – do win.

A Happy New Year it is…