My mother is white and my father was black. I am not alone in this. I grew up in the Bronx, New York City. Born in 1967. A relatively safe time and place for a brown girl of ambiguous ethnicity. As the mother of two little brown girls, I like to believe that race doesn't matter much. But the election of Barack Obama woke me up. Ignorance is everywhere. Race labels ring in my ears. They stick and they stain. Even when they fade. This is my rant, from “post-racial America”. Hoping to shed some light.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Charlottesville Reveal

I returned from Spain to discover my home in shambles.
Not the house in which I live, but the country I call home.
           
My husband, two daughters and I had spent twelve days abroad, to visit my grandfather’s homeland, a place that has always held my heart. When I’m there, something in the blood says, “This is you, and you are this.”  We went in celebration of my birthday, an extravagant and memory-making exercise in togetherness. Our plan: to break the cycle of our busy lives and broaden our collective point of view.

On the long plane ride home, my fourteen-year-old told me what her most vivid memory of our trip was.
            “There were those guys on the street in Barcelona, asking for money. Remember? They had three signs in front of their collection cans:
‘BEER’, ‘WEED’, ‘FUCKKK TRUMP’. That was cool,” she said.
            I remembered.  They were a dirty steam-punk brood, their primitively scribed display propped against the well-lit fa├žade of an H+M store on the crowded Rambla. Amidst the throngs of bustling tourists snapping photos, we’d paused to admire their aesthetic and their bold message. Those squatters’ signs beat out my daughter’s memories of flamenco dancers, medieval cathedrals, Belearic beaches and Gaudi’s mad sense of beauty; a peek at the inner workings of my American girl.

On the long plane ride home, I got lost in the words of a man who’d returned to America after a prolonged self-exile. His remove sharpened his perspective on what he called the American legend.  The book,  James Baldwin - The Last Interview and Other Conversations, spans twenty-five years of Baldwin’s revelatory visions of race, exile, homosexuality, American injustice, and the writing life.
            High above the Atlantic Ocean, our mobile news feeds silenced, my family and I were oblivious to the violence erupting on the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia. As white supremacists staged a hostile assault on Equality, Freedom, and Public Safety, Baldwin’s fifty-year-old insights defined our immediate state of American disgrace:
            “If one could accept the fact that no nation with twenty million black people in it for so long and with such a depth of involvement, that no nation under these circumstances can be called a white nation, this would be a great achievement, and it would change a great many things.” – James Baldwin, 1961

The moment connectivity resumed, a deluge of reports and reactions flooded in. By the time we reached the familiar comforts of the house we call home, we’d each curated our own synopsis of the day’s tragedies, including Mr. Trump’s incompetent response.
            My eleven-year-old spoke up. “Trump didn’t come out against the KKK! Even those Spanish street dudes knew what a jerk he is.
            “Yes,” I said. “Most of the world knows what a jerk he is.  And as Americans, it’s important that we voice our opposition. His version of America is not ours. He is not our president.”

It’s been four days since Charlottesville erupted. 
Donald Trump continues to flail and tweet and fuel the fire.
His failure to encourage peace and brotherhood is an outrage.
His failure to exhibit any semblance of morality or empathy is unconscionable.
His failure to defend the core principles of American justice is an act of treason.

FUCKKK TRUMP.

He has never been my president.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Communal Tears

Late last night, in the throes of my despair over the apparent outcome of our presidential election, I heard Van Jones say that it was a hard night to be a parent. A hard night to put our children to bed, hard to anticipate the morning's breakfast conversation.

I woke my children up gently this morning, with the upsetting news that Donald Trump would be our next president. They responded with exclamations like, "Oh no!" and "That sucks! NO!" because we've talked candidly about what we see as the dangers of a Trump presidency.

My thirteen-year-old was the first one dressed and the first to sit down to breakfast. She'd gotten a full night's sleep, unlike me and my three-hour nap. Before eating, she did her Instagram check-in. Then she frowned, scowled, and groaned loudly. "What is it?" I asked. "What are they saying?"
They being her vast community of middle-school-aged kids whose feeds she follows with religious zeal.

"My friends are all saying that now, when we pledge allegiance to the flag, we'll be pledging allegiance to a rapist."

I stopped myself from trying to debunk what she'd said. Really, I want her to oppose this president. I want her and her friends to be critical of his ugly, hateful manner. I want her social network to bond over this, and to mobilize against this.

I told her, "No, he is not what America stands for. He does not speak for us, and you do not have to pledge allegiance to anything you don't believe in. But know that America is full of potential goodness. Not the shit he spews."

Then I left the kitchen so she wouldn't have to watch me cry. My crying makes her really uncomfortable, and the day was so very young.

When I came back, she was done with her breakfast. I started to say, "You know, we have to get over ourselves, and our own upset. What's devastating about this is-"

"All of the immigrant families who are terrified of being deported." She finished it for me. My long list of fears can wait. We have friends, neighbors and classmates who surely woke up fearing for their lives.

The streets of our progressive Hudson Valley town are desolate today. It's gloomy and cold, raining down communal tears.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Hurt and Fear

(photo: AP)
I catch myself hiding my tears from my daughters this morning. The shooting death of Philando Castile, captured on video by his girlfriend (pictured) in the immediate gaze of her little daughter. The four-year-old assuring her mommy that she'll be OK as their beloved lies dying. Shot by a white police officer in front of their eyes.

I'm crying for that little brown girl, and all the brown people whose trust or respect or faith in "white people" is eroding. I'm crying for all of us who have to live in this climate of distrust, mistrust, hatred, as if "white people" were a tangible distinction. My white mother is not the enemy. My white husband is not the enemy. My family and friends are not the enemy. They are people who care deeply about making a positive change. They are active in their caring, apparent in daily life.

There are decent police officers in this country. But when they see their brothers shot down in the line of duty, as they did last night in Dallas, their hurt and fear will tempt them to act indecently. Violence begets violence and the spiral spins.

I am hurt and fearful. Trying to protect my mixed-race children from the feelings I can hardly bear.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

What Would Muhammad Ali Do?

This past Saturday, I was especially grateful to the New York Times' editorial staff for compiling an in-depth, special-edition-insert tribute to Muhammad Ali. My children had heard me blather on about his Greatness all week long, but the photos and detailed chronology of his achievements made him real for my girls, who are too young to have known him. It also gave me the opportunity to re-live those magic moments from my childhood, when Ali was a real-world super hero.

On Sunday afternoon, that newspaper insert was still on my kitchen counter when my husband informed me of the mass killings in Orlando: A Muslim man had opened fire on a crowded dance floor in a gay nightclub, murdering 49 strangers and wounding 53 more. He said he did it in the name of the radicalized Islamic State.

It was too soon for publication of the victim's portraits or the lists of their names. From my kitchen in New York, they were 49 unknowable souls. The faces that came to mind were those of my gay friends; and my Muslim friends; and the countless dance floor crowds I've been a part of. Through my tears, I saw the face of a young Muhammad Ali and recalled the soundbite I'd heard more than once that previous week, of his refusal to kill innocent brown people who'd done nothing to him. In the name of Islam, he dedicated his life to peace and brotherhood.

If only he could lift us out of this.






Thursday, March 31, 2016

Mommy's Checking Boxes

Last year, around Thanksgiving, I decided to apply to graduate school. I could see that my daughters, ages ten and twelve, had entered a less needy phase of life, and I felt ready for my own new phase. So I braced myself, recalling the last time I’d toiled over college applications, circa 1984. This time, I was deeply grateful for the technological tools that ease the process. Filling out all those forms, and writing and revising all those essays, without having to load up my mother’s IBM Selectric with carbon paper and triplicate forms! No need for Wite-Out! Hallelujah! Even my Letters of Recommendation were processed electronically.

On each school’s application, I found that the “Ethnicity” boxes were new and improved, too. 
Some had a “multiracial” box, equipped with a drop-down menu of “specifics”.  Some encouraged, “list all that apply”, with an extra field in which to enumerate the ingredients of “Other”.  Even without the old discomfort of having to single out my blackness, I still felt a queasy Affirmative Action twinge. Would my exoticism boost my acceptance chances? And if it did, was that a bad thing?

In the months I spent waiting for acceptance letters, our family life took an unexpected turn. 
For reasons I won’t disclose here (saving it for a future post), my husband and I found ourselves looking for a new school for our ten-year-old daughter. We threw ourselves into a past-all-deadlines dash to find her a sixth grade slot for the 2016-17 year.  And once again, I was checking boxes.

The thing about my daughter is, her looks don’t disclose her black heritage.  
Her skin is “peachy” like her father’s. I’ve been told she looks Israeli, which complies with her genealogical makeup: five of her eight great-grandparents were Russian Jews. Her hair is smooth and wavy with no trace of curl or kink. No spirals. Nada. 

I checked the “multiracial” boxes on her school applications, same as mine. 
It’s who she is, and how she identifies. I’ve heard her defend her blackness with a hint of defiance. I felt it too, as I filled out her forms. And I couldn’t help but wonder how much longer these statistics would matter: how many more dilute generations will bother to claim a measurable mix?

The good news is that my girl had a great classroom visit at a school filled with children of every imaginable color.  She fit right in, and reported having made a few new friends in that one, short day. A much-needed reassurance that, for the next three years, she will thrive in that new community: Accepted.




Thursday, January 7, 2016

Imagine: Race is Over

It's a new year.
An election year. The end of an era. Soon we will stop being America With It's First Black President. It's a messy ending, marked by what many are calling the New Civil Rights Movement.


I was born during the "old" Civil Rights movement.
I was a black child, raised by a white mother, at a time when no one denied that race mattered. Remnants of Jim Crow were rampant in the South. School desegregation was a bold, new concept. My parents and their peers believed that change was happening, and that it would last.

Progress has been arguably slow.
In the meantime, some scholars deem race an artificial construct. But it's been the basis of prejudice and subjugation here in America since the appearance of the first settlers. It's been at the core of hundreds of years of socio-political-economic imbalance. Race is an age-old system of labels, and in order to disable the system, we have to subvert the semantics.

By the end of 2015, I felt totally overwhelmed by all the talk about race, my own included.
As the holiday season approached, I decided I needed a moment of silence. I opted to stay quiet, and just listen. I've been watching the Supreme Court shake out an affirmative action battle in Texas. I've tracked "White Debt" with Eula Biss, and #BlackLivesMatter with Charles M. Blow and Roxane Gay. I've discussed police training methods with a Maryland-based expert who happens to be my sister. I've been taking it all in, without taking sides. I don't feel personally insulted or offended, nor am I living in daily fear for my wellbeing.

But I do worry about this election.
I am stunned to hear kingpins of the Republican party use hate-speech to rally support. It's top-tier intolerance, anti-American blasphemy. It has to stop.

Back to semantics.
I have the privilege (yes, that word) of being able to say "I'm mixed"; I get to be something other than Black or White. Removing the race labels doesn't change who I am; but because I'm both instead of either, it takes me out of the struggle. I'm not on one side - cue Joni Mitchell - I'm on both sides.

In this new year, I want to recommend that we lose the labels.
Use qualifiers like "My parents come from (fill in the blank)."

See how it feels to just be.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Top 2 Summer Reads: Loving Day, and Oreo


As August wound down, I had big plans to write up a Summer Reading List report. That was my September goal, because summertime is reading season, and I read a lot of good books. I  surrender to my summer reality: that any creative impulse that dares to surface between June 15 and September 7 is summarily overwhelmed by the needs and wants of my children.  Life generates a lot of good material, but the time to jot it down eludes me. So instead of struggling to get a few good words onto the page, I settle for the next best thing: other people's writing.




Now, October's end is here.The school year is in full swing; Halloween costumes have been successfully planned, pinned, and sewn; the last garden veggies have been harvested; the first frosty blades of grass have been spotted. I realize it's late to be offering up a Summer Reading List report. The longer I wait, the less excited I am to tackle the beast. I am daunted by the mighty stack of titles on my desk. So I begin with my two favorite books of the summer - no, the YEAR. They are absolutely amazing fabulous brilliant books, and they happen to share the general themes of my writing and my life:

#1. Loving Day, by Mat Johnson (2015)

and

#2. Oreo, by Fran Ross (1974, reprinted 2015)

Both are novels, each depicting the strained parent/child relations of a mixed race protagonist seeking familial acceptance and clarity of self. Johnson's story is very twenty-first century, set in urban Philadelphia. Oreo also begins in Philadelphia, but is rich with details of the New York City of my childhood. Both stories are based in familiar realities that stretch into startling weirdness, with crazy characterizations of racial and societal stereotypes, comprising bold, intellectual satire.

I love a book that keeps me engaged and smiling, while reminding me, "this writer is really, really smart". I'm grateful that these two applied their talents to the under-represented genre I call:
cross-cultural autobiographical fiction.

Ms. Ross writes like the black godmother of Jeannette Winterson - A scary genius, she disguises the ancient myth of Theseus (which I never would have caught, if not for the great afterward by Harryette Mullen) into futuristic American folklore, featuring a brown teen-aged heroine who travails untoward horrors with superhuman cunning and wit. There are so many surprise turns in the plot, I had to backtrack a few times to catch my breath. That a young, afro-ed, woman writer committed the work of Oreo to the page and succeeded in finding a publisher, in 1974, is a miraculous gift. Thanks and praises to New Directions for bringing it back into the light.

Loving Day is about a father seeking his estranged daughter's trust and acceptance, while trying to reconcile his own father's legacy. Their journey includes a utopian multiracial commune that is hilarious, hopeful, and tragically unsustainable. Loyalty and love are tested, deformed, and mercifully survive. The writing is so good, you hate for it to end. The good news is, Mat Johnson has other books out there, which I'm about to read..

Oreo was way ahead of it's time, and as a recent re-print, has yet to catch on. Perhaps this has something to do with its fearless feminist message!?  But I recently read that Loving Day has been optioned for television.  So I'm spreading the good word about these two great reads, as I remain convinced of our stories' relevance and worth.


I'll eventually get to the rest of the stack, I promise.





Saturday, August 22, 2015

AFROPUNK - What?

My band, The Scene: that's me on the right.
Back in 1983, I was a 16-year-old black girl playing bass guitar in a rock band. We were a trio of mixed-race mutts, and we had gigs at CBGB’s, the Pyramid Club, Danceteria, et al. One of our favorite bands was the Bad Brains, a tripped-out black hardcore punk band from Washington, DC. My personal hero was Poly Styrene, the brown girl lead singer of the British punk band X-Ray Spex. I also loved Annabella of Bow-Wow-Wow, and Pauline Black of Selector. In fact, the whole Two-Tone Records scene was my musical lifeblood for years. I also listened to a lot of not-black music that was labeled “punk”: the Clash, Buzzcocks, Jam, Stiff Little Fingers, even the ubiquitous Sex Pistols, whom I appreciate more now than I did then. In college I veered toward a funkier sound, from Fishbone, the (old) Red Hot Chili Peppers, Boogie Down Productions and De La Soul, then spun back to the blown out guitars of the Sub-Pop and Matador record labels.

So I’m struggling with this tag AFROPUNK. Is it a style? A movement? Is it claiming to be something new? 

Yesterday morning, my go-to NPR station announced that it is “supported by the Afropunk Music Festival. For details, go to Afropunk.com.” So I did. And the festival, which runs this weekend in Brooklyn, NY – a doable drive from my house – looks like my kind of music-centric party. Big, loud, and super-multicultural. I’m even tempted to take my young, dainty daughters to witness the spectacle of all those amped up concertgoers letting their freak flags fly.

But one of my girls would undoubtedly ask, “What’s Afropunk?” And I’d have to explain to  them that, from what I understand, Afropunk started out as an empowerment movement for disenfranchised African-American youth (what, mommy?) but that it seems to have mutated into a branding tool, labeling something old as if it’s new. It reads like a marketing ploy, the coopting of a subterranean youth movement. AND I HATE THAT SHIT!

I suppose “Afropunk” implies that these artists are out of the norm, or anti-establishment, or super-bold in their uniqueness. You know, like James Baldwin and Angela Davis were for my parents' generation. Talk about afropunks.

I can appreciate the feel-good embrace of claiming all of that good music as “ours.” 
But I don’t dig the racial branding of music. Especially now. When we claim to be working toward the abolition of race labels.

Even the (mixed race) filmmaker James Spooner, who is credited with launching “Afro-Punk” into the vernacular, has his doubts about the festival and its commercial expansion. 

In a past life, I worked for a number of large music festivals in an administrative role. And I much prefer a transparent corporate branding of an arts festival to the for-profit mask of a revolutionary movement.

As far as this old fart is concerned, the marketing gurus should leave afro- and punk-rock alone, and come up with an authentically multicultural name for their festival - something that references this century.


Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Rachel Dolezal Turns White Privilege On Its Booty

Rachel Dolezal has left the headlines, but she won't leave  my brain.

My family and I refer to her as "the white black lady." We would have believed her claim to blackness had we met her. We know women who look a lot like her: a mixed brown girl, like my daughters and myself.

When her story broke, I wondered along with everyone else, "Why on earth would a white woman from Montana work so hard to pass as black?" Her commitment to the Spokane, WA chapter of the NAACP was clear and authentic, her achievements commendable. But why the costume? What drove her to abandon her own heritage, in the cause of working within the black community?

The blogosphere was bubbling with commentary about Rachel Dolezal's delusional blackness. The haters made farcical comparisons to Caitlin Jenner, and decreed the general "foolishness" of identity reassignment. My own reaction was one of sympathy, for her seemingly desperate need to define herself. The big question looms: Is racial identity determined by oneself, or by public perception?

Press reports detail her evangelical upbringing, her parents adopting black children, even a pending lawsuit in which her biological brother is accused of sexually abusing the adopted siblings. Her legal guardianship of one of her younger brothers begs even more questions about the family dynamic.

Having a black child, a black spouse, and black colleagues doesn't make you black.
Wearing a frizzy hair weave makes you an impersonator.
Getting caught fooling an entire community makes you a loathsome fraud. A target of satire.
Until a hate-driven massacre re-alligns our sights.

"Passing" is part of our human heritage, but the general consensus is that Rachel Dolezal's choice is ass-backward. White folks just don't try to pass for black! Stupid woman has her transitioning directions reversed! Passing has always been about escaping the marginalized classes, in pursuit of a thing we used to call Freedom. Now it's White Privilege.

The basis of white privilege is not knowing that urge to escape; not knowing the feeling of wishing for blue eyes and peachy skin; not understanding the dehumanizing effect of car brands and sports franchises named for American Indian tribes. It's living free of the fear that a racist stranger might attack you or your children.

I have trouble with the idea of White Privilege. It's a concept put upon us by the media, with indefinite  parameters and scope. Somehow Rachel Dolezal's story gives it context.

White privilege is so powerful and so deep, we can't comprehend Rachel Dolezal's motivations.
We reject the possibility that a grown white woman can admire African-American culture so deeply that she reassigns herself into it. We label her a nut and a freak, and we get on with our lives.




Thursday, May 14, 2015

William Zinsser, R.I.P.

(photo from WilliamZinsser.com)
William Zinsser was, by all accounts, a brilliant writing teacher. And because he wrote books on the subject, he will continue to be a brilliant writing teacher, even now that his physical body has died. It was just yesterday, May 13th, that he passed. I found out this morning, thanks to my husband's daily trolling of the New York Times headlines.


"I feel like I've spent a lot of nights in bed with that guy - well, you have, anyway," my husband said, alluding to the Zinsser standbys in my pile of nightstand books. His famous manual on the craft of writing nonfiction, On Writing Well, is my go-to handbook when the voices of self-doubt derail my writing intentions. It reminds me of the many good ways to proceed. And always leaves me grateful for his clarity and conviction.

I used to feel satisfied with my early writing, and resisted being taught. My writing voice was tight and sassy, and I liked the raw emotion in it. Like my music. In high school and college, I played bass guitar in a band without ever having taken a lesson. It was fun, full of youthful energy. Now that I've lost most of my punk rock badass attitude, I can admit that I play bass like someone who's never taken a lesson: limited, brimming with unrealized potential.

I appreciate the power of good writing. It's what I want to do. I've studied the craft with a number of inspiring teachers, and have workshopped my essays and manuscripts, always wanting to "go deeper" and improve. I can't count the times William Zinsser's name has come up during my writing education. Suffice it to say, his books are recommended often. By everyone.

I hope that Mister Zinsser rests in peace, as the impact of his legacy lives on and on.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Baltimore Sorrow



(photo: E!online.com)
Monday was the first day on the job for our new attorney general, Loretta Lynch.
As the first black woman to hold the position, she is facing the latest wave of riots – this time in Baltimore – protesting systemic racial and social injustice. Sandwiched between our (black) president and the (black female) mayor of Baltimore, she has her work cut out for her.

I wonder what goes through those three big brains, as they witness such potent expression of disillusionment by so many black Americans.

It can seem as if the past fifty years of civil rights progress was a trick.

Anger is everywhere.
Average citizens across the land are incensed that another black man, young Freddie Gray of Baltimore, MD, has died at the hands of police. The mayor of Baltimore, along with police officials and clergy, was angry that some protesters reacted with hostility and aggression. The rioting crowds are the raw embodiment of anger, bigger than their words can convey.

I scanned the morning paper, perched on the sunny front steps of my spacious ex-urban house. The birds broke the neighborhood quiet with their cheery wake-up songs, while I tried to imagine what all that hopelessness must feel like - a desperation that could push me to desecrate my own community? It would require blind rage like nothing I’ve known.

As harmful and counter-productive as the rioters’ actions are, they don’t incite my anger. Instead, I’m deeply saddened. Because in 2015 we are still a nation full of disenfranchised, angry people dying to be heard.