Wednesday, May 31, 2006

A Tale of Two Songs

Keeping with this “Intellectual Chocolate” theme, I’m reluctant to invoke Du Bois unnecessarily, but I have no other words to articulate this but to say that I am wrestling with a minor bout of “double-consciousness.” You see I have two guilty pleasures occupying my mind these days and I am not sure how either of one is contributing to making my life or the world a better place. Unless of course making me and I presume other folks happy can count toward making the world better.

These two guilty pleasures are both musical and each channel sides of me that at my advanced age I sometimes wonder if its best kept hidden. The first song is Chamillionaire’s “Ridin Dirty.” It’s the first rap song that I have heard in a while where I could truly say that I get it. “Ridin Dirty” does not have any of the bells and whistles that tend to attract me to rap music these days (e.g. sick production that completely overshadows weak lyrical skills or intricate word place that has me feeling myself each time I figure out one of the puns). The production and lyrics are tight, but what makes this song stand out for me is that it tells a tale that I could easily relate to as a black man—the seemingly never ending mission of cops to catch black men “ridin dirty.”

Call it what you will racial profiling, racism or police harassment, but it does very little to accomplish its goals of stopping criminals. Instead it creates another terrain in which black men could be suspicious of police officers. In full disclosure I have never been pulled over by a cop while driving, but that has not made me any more comfortable whenever they were within range and I was driving because I was always mindful of the hassle that might ensue if I were to get pulled over. I always wondered if my suspicions about them, might give them a reason to stop me—and causing an unnecessary disturbance for both parties. That was until I was pulled over once, not while driving mind you, but while riding my bike in my Brooklyn neighborhood.

My girlfriend at the time and I were on our way back from a Sunday afternoon bike ride through Prospect park and Park Slope. We had just about around the corner from her apartment so I hopped on the sidewalk in anticipation of my ensuing dismount. At which point I was stopped by two members of NYPD. At first I was told that I was stopped because riding a bike on the sidewalk is illegal in New York (a law that I had heard of, but which seems rarely ever enforced and more applicable to congested Manhattan streets then this barren Brooklyn one). Nonetheless I conceded to this fact and told the officer that my girlfriend lives around the corner and I hopped on the sidewalk because I was jumping off of it in a second, at which point one of the officers says that he thinks they should run a check on me. “Are you serious?” I ask him—totally surprised by this development. “Yes. We are serious,” the officer replies.

At this point my girlfriend has caught up and vouches to the fact that she lives just around the corner—but now the officers’ story has changed to “there’s been an unidentified black man” snatching purses as he rides by on the sidewalk and they want to check on whether I have any “outstanding warrants.” While thumbing through my wallet/pockets for my driver’s license I come across my Yale ID—which I produce for the officers first (since they only asked for an ID. I gave them an ID) and then when I come across my license I give it to them. “Uh, You’re a student at Yale,” the officer who has the Yale ID in his hand asks. “yes, I am in fact a Ph.D. candidate there,” I reply.

The other one who has my driver’s license looks stunned and trying to regroup himself asks “why do you have a Queens address on your license?”

“I grew up in Queens and since that license has yet to expire and I do not currently own a car—I haven’t had a reason to update the address.”

Meanwhile the other officer holding the Yale ID is still stunned, “wow you go to Yale!” he declares while turning over the ID to his partner.

His partner stares at the ID for a few moments, looking at me and the picture to make sure it is in fact the same person and that the name matches up with that on the driver’s license—seeing that they are one in the same he proceeds to inform me that they are going to let me off with a warning this time, and that for future reference I need to be careful about riding on the sidewalk, and tells my girlfriend to be wary of the purse snatcher.

It’s still not clear to me how I actually violated any laws necessitated me getting stopped and receiving a warning—but I do know that these officers were intent on making me feel like a suspect and worse so one in a “crime” that was not even remotely connected to why I was stopped. If this can happen to me on a bike—then I need not imagine what happens when they stop men in cars, which are larger and therefore offer officers more space to “search.”

So when I hear Chamillionaire’s “Ridin Dirty,” I feel as I immediately get it, there’s no need to wonder whether or not he has had this experience, because I have had it and just as the song suggests these incidents are less about whether the person stopped is innocent or guilty of a crime, but that citizens and officers have been resigned to taking part in a cat and mouse game that benefits no one.

Switching gears, this second song, Shakira’s “Hips Don’t Lie,” has just been stuck in my head ever since I heard in Jamaica last weekend and I wanted to implant it someone else’s head. I have a few stories to tell about this song, such as how it prompted an impromptu belly dancing lesson from a friend at a party that I attended a few weeks ago. Or the one about me begging the DJ to play it at a friend’s BBQ this Saturday…but those stories are neither here nor there. The song is infectious on its own and you are probably best served by listening to it for yourselves and creating your own “hips don’t lie” memories.

Now how does this contribute to my double-consciousness while I’m very content in my life as a professor, and am drawn to explicating the real life connections between a song like “Ridin Dirty,” another part of me believes that I was born to dance…and maybe even to belly dance. While Shakira’s hips don’t lie, I wonder whether or not I am living one and that I may in fact be the Haitian Michael Flatley…the lord of the dance…the belly dance.

These questions are not going to be answered with one blog entry, so while I plug along writing my books and articles and teaching the good fight, I’m also going to keep on practicing my hip drops and waiting on that coin belt a friend promised me….

Now if if the song does not stick in your head—hopefully that image will.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Intellectual Chocolate

The other day I unveiled a new persona, Intellectual Chocolate, and as usual many of my friends thought it was insane. Of course those who got the Coming to America reference were grateful for an opportunity to wax poetic about that ingenious piece of cinema. Along with Eddie and Arsenio the film featured late eighties heavyweights like John Amos, Louie Anderson, Vanessa Bell Calloway and James Earl Jones, as well as a cameo by some dude named Samuel L. Jackson. This list does not even include folks like Garcelle Beauvais, Cuba Gooding Jr, Frankie Faison and Eriq La Salle, all of whom also became household names. (Now if you don't know who Frankie Faison is, then you need to get on amazon/netflix or whatever and cop the first three seasons of The Wire.)

There's another reason why intellectual chocolate came to life; if you ever get a chance try checking out Hazel Carby's book Race Men. Of particular concern here is chapter 1 where she discusses the intense valorization of W.E.B. Du Bois by certain black male scholars. Thinking back to Carby's argument in that book, brought to mind an Easter present that I have been incubating in my fridge.

When these two visions were combined with the sweet memories of days long gone where Coming to America was a vhs staple--a new figure was born--Intellectual Chocolate.

I don't know what will become of Intellectual Chocolate but in the meantime all that I can say is "How sweet it is"

Friday, May 26, 2006

Haitian American Day Parade

Haitian American Day Parade
Sunday May 28th, 2006
Presented by The Haitian American Day Parade Committee

Parade Begins at Nostrand Avenue and Empire Blvd and Proceeds to Foster Avenue

For More Information Call 718-434-9250

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Katherine Dunham/ "A Place in the Sun"

"A Place in the Sun"
by Stevie Wonder

Like a long lonely stream
I keep runnin' towards a dream
Movin' on, movin' on
Like a branch on a tree
I keep reachin' to be free
Movin' on, movin' on

'Cause there's a place in the sun

Where there's hope for ev'ryone
Where my poor restless heart's gotta run
There's a place in the sun
And before my life is done
Got to find me a place in the sun

Like an old dusty road
I get weary from the load
Movin' on, movin' on
Like this tired troubled earth
I've been rollin' since my birth
Movin' on, movin' on

There's a place in the sun
Where there's hope for ev'ryone
Where my poor restless heart's gotta run
There's a place in the sun
And before my life is done
Got to find me a place in the sun

You know when times are bad
And you're feeling sad
I want you to always remember

Yes, there's a place in the sun
Where there's hope for ev'ryone
Where my poor restless heart's gotta run
There's a place in the sun
Where there's hope for ev'ryone
Where my poor restless heart's gotta run
There's a place in the sun
Where there's hope for ev'ryone...

Dr. Dunham speaking on Shango; courtesy of Shango 123 via youtube

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

New Exhibit: Through Our Eyes

This exhibit goes up on Thursday May 25th and runs through June 18th at the Riverside Church. Check out The Brotherhood/Sister Sol website for more information on the exhibit and other events.

Through Our Eyes

May 25th - June 18th

The Riverside Church
91 Claremont Avenue b/w 120th and 122nd Streets

1 to 116gh Street or 1,2, or 3 to 125th Street
M-104, M-4 or M-5 to 120th or 122nd Streets

Admission is Free

For More Information Call 212 283 7044

Monday, May 15, 2006


By "The Eldest Daughter of Deborah W. Brown"

"Simile: A figure of speech in which two essentially unlike things are compared, often in a phrase introduced by like or as. " -- Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Stevie Wonder's "As" – it's like a quasi ode to the simile. It's also the song where Stevie tracks the infinite nature of his love by painting a picture of what "always" looks like. "Always" is coterminous with events like "the day that 8x8x8 is 4" and "the day that you are me and I am you." It is that last line in particular that reminds me of my mother.

The day when I am like my mother.

I was a relatively outgoing, eighties-ninties girl, who strived to keep up with the times, had long and straight relaxed hair, loved hip-hop, R&B, and McDonalds, read books about Nancy Drew, and was of course, always up on the latest fashion trends. I was really smart, but unlike my mother, I was cool. I was an apple.

She was an orange. With her shyness and quiet demeanor my mother does not fit the typical "strong black woman" image. In fact, if you tried to apply it to her, it would consume her size two, overly sweet, chocolate frame. To the teenaged me, she was a nerdy woman, who was way too good at math, science, and computers, worried way too much about my sister and me, told ridiculously corny jokes ( e.g. last month she reminded her friends that it was brown pi
g month . . . don't ask), read these really "weird" books on religion and black history, always wanted to eat healthy food like whole wheat bread and brown rice, who played Beethoven and Bach on the piano; a woman whose hair went from Jherri curl to afro, and who never quite grasped the concept that green, purple, red and sky blue should never make an appearance on one's body at the same time.

So I would cringe at any comparison of myself to . . . her. My fear: even the most innocent of comparisons might open the door for other, more insidious comparisons – if we looked alike, then next thing you know, folks will say that we dress alike. (The horror!) Or that we have the same sense of humor (The insult!). And the more they said it, the more likely I might actually become like her. As her…

As I type this up, running my hair through my fro, with my Nancy Drew books long packed away, and my Betty Crocker Healthy Food cook book on the shelf next to my book, "A Case for Faith", a computer science and engineering degrees under my belt, about a decade older than my teenage self, I wish I could remember the moment – if there is in fact only one – in which I realized who I was becoming like. As. Who my mother was. Is. . . . Behind the mismatched colors and shy disposition is a strong black woman. Strong because with her taste for both Beethoven and naptural hair, she defies typicality. And strong because she is comfortable being a unique version of strong. And strong because she insisted on loving me when I was too cool to want to be anything like her.

But she is. A woman who I want to be like. A woman who I want to be as. She is "the certainty of the earth's path around the sun" as I am "loving her always." [FN1] Thanks, Stevie.

Love Light in Flight

Love Light in Flight
By Cameo Brown

As I sit here on Saturday, May 13, 2006, celebrating the birth of Steveland Hardaway Judkins, a.k.a. Stevie Wonder, I am also listening to my mother singing background on “Love Light in Flight” from the Woman in Red soundtrack, and patiently awaiting my birthday, which is tomorrow, Sunday, May 14, 2006 – Mother’s Day! Yes, I was born on Mother’s Day (Sunday, May 14, 1978) to Antoinette Dimple Brown, a woman whose voice is as angelic as her spirit.

I have always relished in the fact that I was born on such a special day, a gift to my mother who had lost her own only a couple of years before to breast cancer. It is so eerie how the universe has a way of aligning the stars just right and placing just the right people in your life. If I remember correctly, Stevie contributed the beautiful red blanket that covered my grandmother’s casket, and he is also the one who later sent my mother to Seth Riggs (an amazing vocal coach). I have heard stories my whole life about “Stevie” - the recording sessions and his humorous disposition. In fact, I have met him a few times and even tutored his daughter once!

Music, lyric and song have been central to my development as a young woman. My mother’s gift – her voice – and her undying love for music have made a huge impact on my life. She has always encouraged me to think critically about artistic expression and its relationship to others. The combination of instruments (drums, voice, horns, etc.) with lyrics that speak of the human condition in all of its complexity is magical! I give thanks to my mother for being an example of how a human being can use one’s voice to inspire and enlighten, to bring joy to the hearts of others.

Growing up, much of what I heard in my household (if it wasn’t in fact my mother) was Stevie Wonder. Of course, “Love Light in Flight” will always remind me of my mother because her voice rings through the background! In terms of lyrics, “As” most closely resembles the way that I feel about her – unconditional, almost indescribable love! Stevie couldn’t have said it better. BUT, the song that really reminds me of my mom is “Creepin,” mostly because Minnie Ripperton is singing background with Stevie and my mother absolutely loves her – sounds a lot like her in fact.

This time of year is always special, a reminder of what is truly important – Love and Creativity.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

"I Just Called to Say I Love You"

I Just Called to Say I Love You
By M.F. Baker

Last night I called my mom since I hadn’t talked to her in a week or two. She was in the midst of writing and illustrating a children’s book, papers strewn around the living room, no one home to bother her. Neither her husband nor any of her four adult children around to disturb her creativity; allowing her to bask in a rare luxury. She recently got a mini grant from the elementary school she teaches kindergarten at to create this book, the school my three younger siblings and I attended.

“Tell me what’s going on in New York” she says. “Well,” I say, “work is simmering down and I’m looking forward to the summer, oh and I’m going to Miami for a meeting in a couple of weeks....I’m gonna try to visit Uncle Peter while I’m down there.” In a worried tone, she says “Be careful down there, it’s a big city.”

My response, “Mom, New York is a big city.” We burst into laughter at the absurdity of her constant worrying. Then she brings up a sobering story about how my younger sister’s dorm-mate’s little sister had recently been found burnt to a crisp in a nearby park. “It’s like that story about I.... she says. Didn’t you know her older sister?” Yes, I thought. “It’s just scary that two of my daughters know the older sisters of two young girls that have been brutally murdered,” she says. We sat on the phone in silence for a little bit, each of us reflecting on the insane world we live in.

I changed the subject, “I’m going to a Stevie Wonder party this weekend.” I chose this non sequitur because I knew the halcyon response it would generate. Without fail, every time I mention Stevie she says, “You know I saw him perform when he was 12 and I was in the 8th grade? He came to Cincinnati and performed during this hay-ride we were on.” A hay-ride? I thought, how 1960’s middle-America, “You mean he performed in a barn?”

“Yeah”, she said, “I remember him playing the harmonica. It was crazy because we were practically the same age, but he was this rising star.” I asked her if she remembers any of the songs he sang/played. We burst into laughter again, realizing that the likelihood of her remembering anything more about the event than she had already shared was unfathomable. Thirty-plus years of smoking weed will do that to you, I guess. My mom doesn’t remember much, including the time of day I was born, but she remembers when Stevie played harmonica in a barn in Cincinnati.

Despite her early exposure to the man, I didn’t grow up listening to Stevie. She married my Jamaican father and
reggae was the music of my childhood. Dennis Brown, Peter Tosh, Freddy McGregor, Bunny Wailer and of course the rising star of my childhood, Bob Marley. It wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I was exposed to the range of Stevie’s music. Peers introduced me to his music, the music they grew up listening too with their mothers and fathers.

The one Stevie Wonder song that resonates with me most from my childhood and that reminds me of my parents when we lived in Jamaica before moving to Boston is “I Just Called to Say I Love You.” It was one of the countless "songs from foreign" (said with jamaican accent) reggae artists would claim f
or themselves using their Caribbean beats, melodies and rhythms to orchestrate their own reggae remake.

On mother’s day, or better yet, whenever the moment strikes you, don’t forget to call just to say “I love you.”

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Happy Birthday

Happy Birthday
By Wardell Franklin

My mother’s record collection contained a variety of classical, jazz, Latin, and 1960s and ‘70s rock LPs. She also had smattering of R&B and soul albums. Aretha Franklin was far and away her favorite, although she was also very fond of Roberta Flack. There were also two Stevie Wonder records nestled into the small shelves beneath the stereo system in the room that was once the dining room but became my mother’s home office when I was about nine or ten. One of the records was Stevie’s colossal 3LP Anthology. It had a striking double gatefold pink cover and the six sides of music encased within offered an incredible introduction to Stevie’s early catalogue. The songs were hummable and sing-along-able, and ranged from the electricity of “Fingertips” and “Workout, Stevie, Workout” to the soothing reassurances of “My Cherie Amour” and “Blowin’ In The Wind.” I spent a lot of time with those records.

But I spent as much – if not more – time with the other Stevie LP my mother owned, Hotter Than July. I was drawn in (again) by the cover art, as well as by the more contemporary sound of the album. And while I had only vaguest sense of the politics embedded in “Master Blaster (Jammin’)” – “Peace has come to Zimbabwe…” – I could nod my head and sing or dance along with many of the songs. However, it was the final song on the album that grabbed a hold of me and refused to let go.

In 1984 I was a little bi-racial black boy trying to untangle the complicated and confusing webs of race and identity while being raised by my white mother in a multi-ethnic, but still predominantly white, environment.
My West African father was little more than an apparition who lived an ocean away and who passed through my life once a year or so. My mother did her best to help me find my way – taking me to concerts and poetry readings and restaurants that would expose me to black culture and to my Nigerian heritage. I often resisted her efforts, as little boys (and brooding teenagers) are wont to do. There was much that I had to figure out on my own and my mother, to her credit, supported me and allowed me the space to do so.

Among the long list of things I had to figure out was why Martin Luther King, Jr. – the quintessential figure of peace, goodwill, and harmony I had been learning about since I started school – had been murdered and, moreover, why most of my peers were so nonchalant about the holiday that honored him. Stevie’s tribute, “Happy Birthday,” lifted me up and comforted me. I would sometimes sit by my mother’s record player and play it over and over and over again. There was a certain somberness, or at least seriousness, in Stevie’s monologue in the middle of the song that spoke to my own racial questioning and longing and occasional sadness as I tried to figure out exactly what kind of world I was growing up in. But this was always mitigated by the pure joy of the chorus and it was this unbridled celebration and hopefulness that I latched on to and which transfixed me.

Sometimes I remember those moments listening to “Happy Birthday,” reflecting on King and his vision and its relationship to me as solitary ones. Just me. By myself. Alone. But when I really think back, I realize that I was not alone. My mother was there. Sometimes literally, like when she would take me to a King Day service at a local college or a downtown church, or when she would just come into my room to check on me. Just as often, however, she was with me figuratively, supporting me as I traveled on my journey. For that, and for introducing me to the magical world of Stevie Wonder, I am forever grateful.

My Cherie Amour

My Cherie Amour

by The Nighshift Chronicler

My cherie amour, lovely as a summer day. My cherie amour, distant as the milky way. My cherie amour, pretty little one that I adore, you're the only girl my heart beats for,how I wish that you were mine.

Stevie Wonder

I was blessed to have more than one Mama growing up. Because my parents emigrated to the NY while I was still a baby leaving me behind in Haiti under the supervision of my aunts and grandparents, it was not until I was five that I actually realized that my mom was my mother. Up until then the three women who you see pictured here, along with my grandmother who I’ll talk about in another post, were Mamas to me.

To this day whenever I go visit my aunt B.—the one kneeling—she never fails to remind me that she used to change my diapers, take me to the doctor for shots and nurse me back to health whenever I got sick. When she closes out her stories she walks over and either gives me a kiss on the cheek or a pulls me along for a hug before proceeding to tell me, “you’re my first son. You know that right?”

The answer is always yes.

I had gotten accustomed to Aunt B’s ritual by the time I went back to Haiti with her in 1990 for my first visit since leaving in 1981. So I guess I should not have been surprised when the other two aunts pictured here, Zizi on the left and Rosa on the right, told the very same stories that I had been hearing aunt B tell for years. And just like Aunt B. each time one of them finished telling one of their stories she also reminded me that I was her first son.

What I remember about growing up with my aunts however has nothing to do with coughing up anything and except for the time I fell asleep with a wad of gum in my mouth and woke up the next morning with gum matted throughout my hair and a pillow stuck to my head, I rarely ever recall crying in their presence. My memories are of them standing me onto my grandparent’s porch and proceeding to use me as a stand in to practice their imagined dances with the boys that used to battle for their attention after school.

At first they’d place me on the top step and stand on the pact on the right side of the stair case to dance with me. But as I grew they had to put me a step lower and it took more of an effort for them to snap me off the staircase at the end of our dance and sprint across the courtyard with me in their arms, tickling me and passing me along from one to another like a little cherubic baton.

But while danced, I played the role of Jean-Pierre, Jacques or whoever they decided was their intended suitor. Each aunt would take turns dancing with me—or rather dance as they held my arms, thrusting themselves into spins, all the while smiling at me as if I was the one leading our tango. After a while I couldn’t hold hands any longer and would get really excited, clapping merrily as they started dancing in a circle with each other, poking me in the belly after every three pirouettes or so—all four of us becoming more animated as the musicians on the little transistor radio really got into their song. Sometimes I got so excited hopping up and down, forever teetering on falling off and sacrificing a tooth to the tooth fairy.

Maybe it was because I never fell off that step no matter how close that I got to the ledge that made those moments seem so exciting, and had me hoping that they would never end.

It was probably because of the dances that I fell in love with Stevie’s “My Cherie Amour.” That song reminds me of those moments on the porch steps with my aunt-Mamas, being called Cherie, being loved. “My Cherie Amour” reminds me of when love was playful, instead of painful, when it was about dancing, teetering on the edge but never falling and being tickled in the end by the whole experience.

“My Cherie Amour” reminds me of these three women, my aunt-Mamas who rather than give up their youth to take care of me, instead decided to share it—spoil me with sweets—wads of gum that went to my head rather than mutating into cavities. These three aunt-Mamas made magic out of miracles and a believer out of me.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Easy Going Evening/My Mama's Song

This weekend the Nightshift Chronicles will celebrate two very special days: the first is the birthday of Steveland Hardaway Judkins, a.k.a Stevie Wonder, which falls on May 13th. And second is Mother's Day, which is being honored on Sunday May 14, 2006. Since the stars have perfectly aligned these two holidays on our calendars, I thought I should do my best to make sure that are acknowledged to the utmost degree. Therefore, I’m proud to announce the first annual Nightshift Chronicles Mama's Week.

In honor of Mamas Week, I am asking the good folks out there reading to submit a testimonial about the Stevie Wonder song that best speaks to your relationship with/reflections on/memories of/feelings for your mama or mamas (since many of us have women and in some cases men in our lives who have played that role). Over the course of the week, I will turn over the front page of The Nightshift Chronicles to your testimonials about Mama written in the key of Stevie. Feel free to email pictures that compliment your testimonial as well, and of course, don't forget to tell mama.

Easy Going Evening

by The Nightshift Chronicler

My mom cooks like Stevie Wonder makes music. She channels the spirits of our ancestors via her recipes that are scrawled on a worn composition notebook; the pages that were once white now range from onion yellow to potato brown around some edges. Her meals nourish my family. Mama's white rice and with navy bean sauce avec lambi et plus banane peze ease away dad's hunger pangs for days long gone in his native Haiti. Her fried chicken with collared greens, mashed potatoes and gravy were at times the best stewards that my brother had as we sought to fit in with our African-American classmates. Whenever she made that meal, which she learned to make in the states, my brother and I had something to talk about with the other kids at school the next day; for once our mama cooked something they could understand—something many of them also loved.

Yes, my mama's cooking is like Stevie's music. Her pots are her tableau for conjuring up the bouillon of expressions that we have come to refer to black as black music...Stevie's music...

When she cooks she likes to carry out her own tunes out loud. Sometimes she sings. Sometimes she hums. It’s the humming which I enjoy most and which reminds me of Stevie’s “Easy Going Evening.” I love it when Mama hums because it always appears as if she is trailing off somewhere else. At times I imagine her drifting off to Haiti, thinking about to when she and dad were teenagers and they’d spend their Saturday afternoons at the “cinema,” or maybe she’s journeying off to a space at I don’t know about. One of the many spaces that women learn to keep from their kids and husbands so as to not give all of themselves away in trying to make other people happy.

During these moments she’d hum in a falsetto about an octave higher than the chords coming out of the harmonica on “Easy Going Evening.” As she plucked one carrot after another out of the pot to peel it, the discarded layers dropping into a bowl initiating a brown-orange hail storm inside the kitchen sink. In perfect time with the strokes she was leveling on the carrot she’d hum a medley of her favorite songs. One song that almost always made it into this medley was “Amazing Grace,” a song that she picked up by watching Ray Charles perform on tv. Where there normally vocals in the song Mama inserted her trademark movements; she’d cock her head back; she’d wipe her brow with her forearm, and my favorite—and this is the only time she’d was guaranteed to leave her spell to say something—she’d pivot to the left and then lean back on her right leg, place her right wrist on her hip and look in my direction, suck her teeth and say “if I had a daughter she could be peeling these carrots for me so that I get started with the rest of the meal.” This was my cue to drop what I was doing: reading/watching television/doing another chore to relieve her of the peeling so that she could tend to the rest of the meal.

And as I started with the peeling, taking over the reigns of the hale-storm, Mama would go back to humming—go back to that place that she only knew existed—go back to her song.

Friday, May 05, 2006

One More Try

Normally I'd be talking about Biggie with a tag line like that, but......

For those jaspora looking for something else to do besides checking out Carimi on a Friday night...why not make the trek to the east vill to check out this premiere by paisyen Patrick Ulysse

"One More Try"

Friday May 5th, 2006.

FUNDRAISER/PREMIERE OF "ONE MORE TRY", a short romantic comedy
The Pioneer Movie Theater
155 East 3rd Street
(between Avenues A and B, but closer to A)
New York, New York 10009
Only Two shows:

6:45pm and 7:45pm

Mezanmi please be on time as seats are limited
Donations between $10 and $10,000

"One More Try" features Macc Plaise and Chantal Tuffet.

PS After party at Star 64
64 East 1st Street

bet. 2nd and 3rd Avenues closer to 1st Avenue
from 8:30 pm to 11 pm

Please forward to all.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Akeelah and the Bee

Before the customary discussion about how another “good” film marketed toward African Americans/featuring African Americans went unsupported at theatres gets underway, I would like to encourage people to check out Akeelah and the Bee this weekend. I got a chance to see it on Sunday and it was a really enjoyable film. What struck me about it is how the writers tried bringing the adage “it takes a village to raise a child” to life. Rather than letting the young protagonist become overwhelmed by her burgeoning success—Akeelah and the Beeshows us there is another option. The film captured very well the heavy price for success that young African-Americans are sometimes expected to pay when suddenly thrust in front of cameras/microphones and distracted from being able maintain the sense of order and discipline in our lives that made the success possible in the first place.

Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett do well in this film, but admittedly these are roles that both actors could pull off with their eyes closed. The young woman Keke Palmer is the true star (as well as a dead ringer for a pre-teen Angela Bassett). Palmer does an excellent job of being nerdy/silly/confident/vulnerable—in a word—she performs the frailty of strength that childhood embodies really well. Not to be outdone are J.R. Villarreal, who plays Javier another one of the spelling bee contestants who quickly befriends Akeelah, and Sahara Garey (Georgia) Akeelah’s best friend in her South Central neighborhood. Villareal and Garey help anchor Palmer in the two worlds she has to navigate.

It’s a great film to not only take your kids/younger siblings/mentees to see, but also one to really sit down and talk with them over whether they understand what happened on screen. The lessons imparted in Akeelah and the Bee will also resonate with adults seeking to revive their connections to their communities and a younger generation that is not as foreign or as “insolent” as adults often presume.

After checking out Akeelah and the Bee make a date to watch 2002’s Spellbound, the documentary from which it draws its inspiration, if you have not seen it.

And again, if you do not check out Akeelah and the Bee while its in theatres you are exponentially increasing the likelihood that you will have to engage/suffer another discussion about lack of support for positive images of African-Americans within the next month.

Also, if you check it out, leave a comment so that I could know what you thought about it--this way I'll know whether to keep future movie recommendations to myself.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

For Where Are We Marching?

Each time I attend a march I am always left feeling a bit empty and wondering what was/will be the tangible impact of that day’s actions. This feeling has increased over the years as the not only the number of causes to march for has increased, but so has the efficiency of these marches.

Take for example yesterday’s rally in Union Square renouncing the unfair immigration legislation being considered by the senate. When people left Union Square and started marching toward city hall it seemed so natural, flawless that I could not help wonder if there was something wrong with that flawlessness. The streets were cleared, no one was literally stepping on anyone else’s toes (a fact that I realized when my friend pointed out to how clean her sneakers had remained during the entire rally) and everyone knew where we were going, as if we were all on a walk home. Yesterday’s march and many marches in New York City over the past two and half years have reminded me of my walk home during the blackout of 2003.

As I made my way to Brooklyn from Manhattan I was in awe of how huge the crowd traveling along with me: “is this that what subway employees see everyday?”—I remember asking myself as we made our way through downtown Manhattan and over the Brooklyn Bridge. Like the black out, most NYC marches follow a similar pattern (1) massive crowds walking south in Manhattan toward Brooklyn or city hall, (2) people incredibly orderly more so than on an average subway commute where there’s a lot more pushing, shoving and disregard for personal space, (3) both the gritty and glossy images that many associate with NYC are subsumed by the mundaneness (for a lack of a better word) of most New Yorkers in comfortable shoes, backpacks and t-shirts gathering together trying to prove a point.

However what the blackout proved though, is that it was once the throngs made it back to the outer boroughs that New Yorkers really defined themselves; scores of people held impromptu barbecues so that their food would not go to waste and neighbors, many people who were normally too busy or too introverted to interact with each other were suddenly found sharing food goods and stories on fronts lawns and building roofs. Other than the occasional block party, that was the only day I ever saw the residents on my block barbecuing because on any other given day in New York it would seem absurd for those living in our buildings to gather out front hovering over a grill as if we lived in some suburban enclave.

I wonder if its possible to cultivate a similar form of spontaneity and sense of community after a rally, especially now that rallies and marches have become somewhat uniformed in NYC (and I imagine the same is happening in Chicago/DC and Los Angeles) a way for the momentum to extend to the outer boroughs. I wonder if New Yorkers are capable of being as kind and cordial with our neighbors in large group settings without the banners of a cause or being ushered by police, and whether we are capable of opening ourselves up like we did during the black out.

I ask these questions in the aftermath of the immigration rallies because I do not want to lose the momentum of solidarity. After years of watching immigrants of all different hues ant nationalities being accused of everything from bringing AIDS and other infectious diseases to this country—most notably Haitians and those from Sub-Saharan Africa—to being vilified as terrorists—I think the challenge is less about showing government that immigrants are important to America—but it should be to remind ourselves to never forget that our fellow US residents, regardless of what stationery they have saying that they have a right to be here, have rights that need to be respected. Yes we can speak nostalgically about Irish, Italians and Jewish immigration (quite honestly I find it a bit troubling that people tend to speak of these groups emigrating to the US only in the past tense as if they are not still making their ways to these shores), but American citizens need to become more proactive in calling for economic and security agendas that are set apart from spurious actions/claims by members of a supposed “axis of evil” and “illegal immigrants.”

The throngs of people coming to the shores and across the borders of the US are not arriving like pariahs in the night to steal American babies, jobs and livelihoods—in fact one can make an argument that Americans are more guilty of these actions abroad than immigrants to the US—what they are coming here to do is take part in a project that is a little over two centuries old. America never was and never will be America and that is precisely the beauty of America. This nation is a work in progress—there’s an imagined end goal—AMERICA—but that end is still very far off. If Americans have lost sight of this fact then it is not the fault of the multitudes who come in from abroad to lend a hand, but rather shows how culpable those who call themselves Americans have become at outsourcing the future and integrity of this country to those aliens that we call politicians. In a country that has gone through one acknowledged major period of Reconstruction and countless other periods where it has had to reassess its priorities—one should consider the legality of but with a few exceptions (emphasis on the few) the make up of our elected officials/representatives has barely changed in the last hundred years in terms of class, ethnicity and race. It’s paradoxical to consider that this nation has had a father and son elected president before it has elected a woman, an Afican-Asian-Latino-or-Native American.

Going back to my earlier point about marches, in the same way rallies have become streamlined, efficient so have all of our other means of civic/participation and engagement. Even when we are seeking to disrupt the system these days we seem to be acting in accordance with the system. Yesterday’s march was a success because it brought out hundreds of thousands of people all across the country in support of immigrant rights but sooner or later we are all going to have to realize that the question may not be exactly for what are we marching, and instead, for where are we marching?

Monday, May 01, 2006

Smoke Signals Part Deux

This morning I woke up reminding myself to remind myself not to forget to go to the Immigration Rally taking place this afternoon at Union Square. I had to do all this reminding because my mind has been somewhat overextended of late and I have missed taking part in some events/actions because they slipped my mind.

Anyway, looking at today’s NY Times and come across this article about a woman accused of defrauding Garifuna and other immigrant communities in New York. It appears that the accused, Maria Elena Maximo, started out offering immigration support, computer and job assistance to Caribbean immigrants in the Bronx. The article alleges that Maximo gradually began defrauding some of her clients and/or improperly filing their papers with the INS.

There are probably a dozen stories like this written every year, and it clearly points out to one of the countless difficulties that immigrants face when trying to adapt to or securing residency in the United States. Unfamiliar with the language and laws of this country, and eagerly wanting to stay in the United States, immigrants often turn to people like Ms. Maximo to help them maneuver through the legal system. Members of immigrant communities in the US often end up turning over their life savings—and sometimes going into debt to pay for such services. Therefore when Americans are quoted as saying that immigrants are taking jobs that “we don’t want,” it’s not because they are desperate for money, but they are often desperate to make use of any opportunity to acquire something that some Americans take for granted, their citizenship. If you’d ask most Americans, like many immigrants there’s at least one other country that they’d like to, or be open to spending part of their lives, be it the “old world” (e.g. England, France, Ireland or Italy). I do not mean take for granted in the pejorative sense, simply that there’s a basic human instinct to live someplace new, different—maybe even exotic—but we only like to grant or concede that impulse to those who can afford the lifestyle. In a sense it’s ok for rich celebrities to travel the world as they choose, butchering languages, and presumably naively offending natives as they parody their customs, but for some reason it is inexcusable for hard working natives of other countries to come to the united states and adopt the otherwise ballyhooed ethos know as the “American work ethic.”

We all know that what ms. Maximo is accused of doing is wrong—we should also know that sympathy are not the only emotions to be extended to our brothers and sisters from different shores, or as in the case of “Mexican immigrants,” people who are repatriating territories that not too long ago was theirs. We should also know that people like Ms. Maximo are byproducts of a system that needs to be reevaluated and overhauled. Spending time trying to catch “illegals” and prosecuting people who are ‘illegally helping illegals’ shows how (1) outdated immigration policy is in this country, and (2) how absurd the legal framework for categorizing immigration “offenses” is in the United States. In my estimation the United States would have a more effective immigration policy if it improved its relationship with the world, and became a model citizen in multi-national organizations like the United Nations and the World Bank, rather than one of the many bad seeds trying to bear fruit.

There was another reason why ms Maximo’s story caught my attention. For the past few months I have been collaborating with a friend trying to develop a project that is part ethnomusicology, part cultural history of the Garifuna.

She’s hit roadblock after roadblock in trying to develop her project—but as far as I can tell once she hits her stride what she produces should be nothing short of amazing and will be one of the things that people have to revisit in the libraries for years on end. In the time that I have known her, I’ve heard about her attending countless events showcasing the talent brewing amidst the NY Garifuna community and seen her own attempts at getting her project out in the open for more support.

However it was not until today’s article in the Times that I saw a major paper cover something happening in the New York Garifuna community. And as if Maximo’s story is not tragic enough, her ascent is connected directly to the Happy Land massacre of 1990 in which scores of people died trying to get out of a club that erupted in flames. The reporters are doing their jobs and writers in pointing out that this same community that was literally burned in 1990, is now being burned, albeit figuratively, by one of their own—a person in whom they had invested their hopes and dreams.

Ironically, my friend’s hope and dream is to reverse this trend—change the narrative arc of the Garifuna from tragedy to triumph—from a dying past to a very alive and living future—so that the next time we see smoke emitting from their midst the world will know how to read their signals.