I don’t even eat oatmeal

ever.

I have nothing against it, but it’s just not part of my daily diet. When I hear about it, it sounds good, and the people I know who eat it seem happier and healthier than the people who don’t, but it’s such an ugly food (regardless of the amount of cinnamon and raisins used to decorate it), that I’ve never given it a try.

The closest thing to oatmeal that I’ve eaten is Cream of Wheat. I used to eat it as a little person. In fact, I developed a strange obsession with it, an obsession so strange that a doctor once wrote the following in my medical records: “Mother concerned. Child refuses to eat anything except for oatmeal and grape Kool-aid.”

Cream of Wheat. Not oatmeal.

So, when the lady who works behind the counter of one of my favorite cafes looked me straight in the eye and said, “Oatmeal!” I had no idea what she meant. I hadn’t ordered oatmeal. I had ordered a small, skim milk cappuccino, and was enjoying it while reading an obscure novel by an even more obscure novelist. No oatmeal.

I was able to break away from her oddly intense stare and get back to my book, but she kept saying at me: Oatmeal! Oatmeal! OATMEAL! Then she exchanged “oatmeal” with another word that, given the circumstance, I found quite puzzling: “Mecca. Mecca. MEEEEECCA!”

It occurred to me, only in passing, that I might be part of some hidden camera caper. Or, I thought, perhaps I was being hazed. I’ve only lived her a few months, so I’m still learning about the place. Perhaps shouting random nouns at the new girl is part of what it means to live in Clinton Hill.

Oatmeal!
Mecca
Oatmeal
Oatmeal
MECCA!

Mecca? Was this a special kind of Islamic oatmeal? Was it a password?

Or a safe word?

The cafe was not busy and hadn’t been since I arrived, so the shouting of these two words was a bit jarring. Oatmeal. Mecca. Oatmeal.

People began to stare at me. I started to get nervous and thought that maybe I should say something as my continuing to read seemed to be driving the woman behind the counter into a kind of frenzy.

Then a woman walked in.
A moment of silence.
Counterlady says, “Mecca. Oatmeal” once more, and it all becomes clear.

It made perfect sense because we looked exactly alike–despite a 50 pound weight difference, a difference in shirts (her was white while mine was red with NEWPORT, RHODE ISLAND emblazoned on the front), a difference in pants (style, color, fit), and a difference in head gear (a brightly colored scarf vs….nothing). It made perfect sense, despite the fact that I hadn’t responded to the Oatmeal/Mecca chant. And I wear glasses. And the other woman didn’t.

I know what you’re thinking, “Tricia, the cafe was busy.” It wasn’t. Not at all.

And I don’t eat oatmeal…ever

Read this and pass it on…

Smart, insightful, and heartbreaking at once:

The Recession’s Racial Divide
By Barbara Ehrenreich and Dedrick Muhammad

WHAT do you get when you combine the worst economic downturn since the Depression with the first black president? A surge of white racial resentment, loosely disguised as a populist revolt. An article on the Fox News Web site has put forth the theory that health reform is a stealth version of reparations for slavery: whites will foot the bill and, by some undisclosed mechanism, blacks will get all the care. President Obama, in such fantasies, is a dictator and, in one image circulated among the anti-tax, anti-health reform “tea parties,” he is depicted as a befeathered African witch doctor with little tusks coming out of his nostrils. When you’re going down, as the white middle class has been doing for several years now, it’s all too easy to imagine that it’s because someone else is climbing up over your back.

The whole column is worth reading…and passing on…especially in any circle frequented by so-called independents.

Beyonce vs. Aretha? vs Dyson vs. West?

If anyone told me that I’d ever see Michael Eric Dyson offering his imitation of Beyonce, I would have taken them straight to the nearest mental institution. But here he is in an energetic “debate” with Cornel West (aka the coolest black man walking the planet) about who is better. I wish I’d seen Tavis Smiley’s announcement about his movie on HuffingtonPost earlier because the movie (“Stand”) looks interesting:

Thoughts on Michelle Obama I

It’s a relief that the focus on Michelle Obama had broadened, just a bit, from her magnificent wardrobe to the projects she has embarked on as FLOTUS.

FLOTUS. I love the sound of that because it brings to mind two lovely words: the word “flow” and the image of the lotus flower. I only have a passing understanding of the different cultural significances of the lotus flower, but I have a pretty clear sense of what “flow” looks like. I don’t think I can define it but, like art, I know it when I see it, and she’s got it. Those of us who supported Obama during the Democratic Primary and the general election have seen it all along. It’s evident in the way she moves, the easy rhythm of her speech, and the values that she has stayed true to all along the way—family, community, service.

The press succumbed, as it so easily does, to the Republican’s caricature of her, gladly discussing her as a liability and depicting her as a version of black womanhood America is comfortable with dismissing and/or dissing—dark, angry, and unfeminine. And then they were shocked and stunned to discover a woman they still can’t really define.

While the focus on her wardrobe seems silly, I can understand why it has played out this way. To put it simply, the media do not have the language, the lexicon, or the rhetoric to report on a woman like Michelle Obama. She’s like a unicorn but more rare because she doesn’t even exist in American, or international, legends. Think about it. Can you name one famous black woman who is not an entertainer who is like Michelle Obama?

You might be tempted to compare her to the women of the Civil Rights Movement because she is already a historic figure, but she is not like Sojourner Truth, Rosa Parks, or Shirley Chisholm. She is certainly no Angela Davis or Fannie Lou Hamer. She is more their descendent than a figure cut from the same mold. She is no Oprah. And she is no Condoleeza Rice and not just because the two women have different political leanings. She’s not like either woman because she easily wears a mantle that neither woman has taken on—mother and wife.

This is, in itself, a radical thing for a public black female figure, and it’s a thing that the mainstream media simply can’t understand. They also have not quite yet figured out how to report on why she has charmed the majority of the nation. This is, in part, because doing so would require them to say the kinds of things that many white Americans simply don’t want to hear—for to discuss Michelle Obama in real terms is also to discuss the mistreatment of black women by all the different parts of this country.

She takes on this tricky problem fearlessly, though I’ve noticed she does so by speaking very little about the present. When she refers to her ancestry as a descendent of slaves, her very presence in the position of our first lady affirms that “ancestry” can be seen as “ancient” and “history.” At the same time, she exhorts young people to think about and plan for the future. She wants them to be what she has so successfully been throughout her life—a strategist, someone who can see the forest for the trees and who does not let herself get distracted by the small things in a culture that has a habit of cordoning people off from their ambitions.

Her strategy seems to be acknowledge the struggles of the past, work hard in the present, plan for the future.

I don’t mean to make Michelle Obama out to be larger than life, but she is. She’s actually a larger figure than her husband. As my friend Johnny said the day after the election, the miracle is not that Americans elected an African-American man to be president but that they accepted a black woman as their first lady.

When it comes to her, I’ve done little more than watch her and, at times, emulate her style. I’m inspired by her and comforted by her presence because she is unbreakable proof that black women can be more things than the media portrays us as being. But I’m still trying to find the language, the lexicon, the rhetoric to describe this unicorn of a woman. Thankfully, there is plenty of time, and she’s giving us plenty of good material to think about.

Regarding brown people in Newport…or the (supposed) lack thereof

After noting the lack of brown people in the town in my post yesterday, they started showing up all over the place—in cars, on skateboards, and in restaurants. Maybe Wednesday is a special day that I don’t know about. I was reminded of my favorite moment in the most recent film version of “Hairspray” when Tracy Turnblad announces, “I wish everyday was Negro Day!”

100 Days: A View from Canada

I am very pleased to have a post from a good friend from the North. We talk politics, clothes, and pop culture, and I promised her that if she wrote about the President, I’d put together my thoughts about the First Lady. She finished first…

I didn’t watch the U.S. Presidential election coverage on November 4th, 2008. I couldn’t. In fact, I was on a complete, self-imposed, media blackout that day. As a Black woman, that may seem shocking. But, the dream of an African-American becoming President of the most powerful nation on earth was too overwhelming, too tantalizing, too impossible for me to take the risk of watching that dream not become a reality. After all, this election came on the heels of not one, but two elections that took place under, shall I say, “suspicious circumstances.” That, coupled with the vitriol and hatred being spewed by Obama’s detractors, made choosing not to watch the election coverage a no-brainer. Of course, on November 5th, 2008, I watched every online video of that historic moment that I could find!

Fast-forward to 100 days later, and I feel as though I am in a dream. I’m not African-American – an important distinction that I’ll elaborate upon in a minute – but the fact that Barack Hussein Obama, an African-American man, is President of the United States of America is incredible to me. The fact that, by any thinking person’s standards (so, yes, Rush, Ann, and all your “sheeple,” this does not include you), he is doing a great job with what is – as my colleague Nicole would say – a “hot mess,” leaves me in awe… even though I’m not at all surprised. The fact that leaders around the world appreciate and respect him (even my own country’s Prime Minister, Stephen Harper who, if he turned out to be a borderline sociopath, I also would not be surprised) fills me with such hope for a better political and socio-economic future for our world.

And, as someone who makes a living from researching and analyzing the intricacies of race and racism, the fact that the whole world wants to claim Obama blows my mind. Everyone…from the Trinidadians


…to the Irish

The fact that countries the world over want to claim Obama is, to me, the most telling thing about the power of his presidency. Here’s why:

As I said above, I’m Black, and not African-American. (If asked, I would identify as Canadian. If pressed, as so frequently happens, I would identify as Caribbean-Canadian.) This needs explicit mentioning because too often “African-American” is used as a catch-all term for everyone who is Black, or who appears to be so. In my view, this is mostly due to the fact that the United States’ biggest global export is their culture: their norms, values, and terms of reference. This is problematic for many reasons, but mostly because it ignores the diversity within the African Diaspora, thereby denying the specific historical, political and socio-cultural experiences of people of African descent. It sends the message that all Black people look the same, think the same, live the same, act the same… in short, are the same. Newsflash, world: we aren’t (and never have been. This explains, for example, the existence of Black Republicans).

What ties Black people together is a shared history and experience of systemic racial discrimination and oppression.

This is why, when I saw that PowerPoint presentation of the racial history of African-Americans, set to Sam Cooke’s “Change Gon’ Come,”* I could relate to it, but not identify with it: I have no actual lived experience of those events–and neither do my parents and grandparents, because their experiences with oppression took place in the Caribbean, which is a different racialiazed context than the U.S. This idea of “relating to”, but not “identifying with” is key, because it goes a long way to explaining why so many people around the world endorsed Obama, and effectively claimed him for their own.

Since he doesn’t fit neatly into conventional categories of racial difference– born to a Black African man and a White American woman; raised by a White American mother and grandparents; spent his formative years in “exotic,” non-mainstream U.S. locales; identifies as African-American–Barack Obama, himself, becomes a catch-all: in this case, for everyone’s racial hopes and desires (or, fears and horrors, but that’s a conversation for a different post). People of colour relate to him because they know that he has faced racism, yet his success signifies an end to it. White people relate to him because he gives them hope that maybe – just maybe – they’ll finally get to stop worrying and feeling guilty about racism, because his success signifies an end to it. I get that. I really, really do. I also want, more than anything, to live in a world that’s free from racism, and other forms of discrimination and oppression.

But, the significant thing about the Obama presidency is not that it’s going to usher in this post-racial utopia that we’re all envisioning: it’s that it won’t.

It won’t, unless we decide to make it happen. It won’t, unless we are brave enough to start having those difficult and painful, yet honest, conversations about how we are all complicit in maintaining racism. It won’t, unless we acknowledge that racism is connected to, and supports, the other “-isms.” And, it won’t, unless we refuse to continue making excuses for, or otherwise covering up, racism when we witness and/or experience it, in all its myriad forms.

The real power of the Obama presidency is that we now have a common point of reference from which to begin.

*

Dominique is a Canadian researcher who focuses on equity and social justice in education. So, she knows that terms like “Black”, “White”, “African-American”, etc. are not neutral and shouldn’t be used uncritically. She’s hoping you’ll cut her some slack, though, because she was trying to keep her post short.

I’m just sayin’

I have wanted to write about Michelle Obama since the Democratic primaries death march, but I find that I have more feelings than thoughts about her. I feel a lot of things, but my thoughts are all garbled. I’ve suspected I’m not alone in this, suspected that my friend Johnny is right when he says the real shock is not that America elected a black man as president but that they elected a black woman to be its first lady and that because of this no one knows what the hell to do with her. Oh sure, she’s all over the news and blogs, but these are reactions to her rather than reflections on what she means to this country–all parts of it.

My suspicions about this curious silence were confirmed when I attended a conference at CUNY Graduate Center today. The conference, “Black Women and the Radical Tradition,” was a day-long series of talks, presentations, and lectures about, well… the title is pretty obvious. It was flawed in certain ways, but I did learn interesting things about black women’s history in different political struggles, made a few new friends, and had a perfectly lovely visit with a friend over tea and scones at Alice’s Tea Cup. What I did not hear from anyone, all day, was any word or observation about Michelle Obama. I heard a lot about her husband but not a thing about her. It was like she didn’t exist. I was sitting half a row away from Angela Davis and wanted to say, “pssst; what did you think of that New Yorker Cover? That’s your afro, right?” But I didn’t. I did ask her, during the Q&A after one of her talks, about Proposition 8 but not about Michelle.

Could it be because she’s not radical in the way these women might recognize? Looking at all the different ways that hair can be “natural” at the conference, I couldn’t quite imagine Michelle Obama there (my favorite hairdo was the huge afro on a super skinny young woman; she looked like a black q-tip…adorable!). But she is a revolutionary figure and her ability to walk the fine line of being first-mom without turning into first-mammy is pretty impressive. I think it’s because she’s a woman. Davis made an interesting observation. When Condoleeza Rice was named secretary of state, there was no breathless moment for the “black community.”* Now this might be because of her politics, but Davis didn’t seem to think so, and I don’t either.

I’m sure in the years ahead people will have much to say about Michelle Obama’s true radicalness (not the racist crap the right is calling radical), but the silence about her today was very loud. I’m just sayin’…

*I know the black community is a construct that lets certain parts of the country think we’re more alike than different, but it’s useful shorthand from time to time.

A bit of poetry

I’ve started working on two big projects that I’ve been circling for way too long, a book about the academy and a study of the nineteenth-century novel and its connection to disease and healing. Every fear of writing I have hovers below the surface, causing (sometimes literally) my hands to shake as I take hold of pen and paper. The only thing for the fear of writing is to face it, so face it I do–mostly by fooling myself into the myth that I’m not actually writing. I tell myself that I’m just “jotting down” a few sentences. At other times, my friend Karen infuses me with her own intellectual fearlessness, and I find I’m drawn, almost against my will, to my desk.

When I get too scared, Lucille Clifton’s poetry pops into my head as an invitation and a scolding that if she, who had so much less than I do now, could find the courage to write (and to write poetry!) I can too. Here is the poem that came to me during one of my writing sessions today:

won’t you celebrate with me
by Lucille Clifton

won’t you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.

When I can see my writing as a celebration of the writers who live on the edge of Jane Austen’s shadow or the academy’s struggle with what is written and unwritten, then it’s not so scary…and is even a little exciting.

Monkey Business; or, Why the “New York Post” Cartoon is a Good Thing

Okay, it’s not actually a good thing. Depicting the author of President Obama’s stimulus package as a chimpanzee shot for assaulting a white woman is not a good thing. Regardless of who authored the bill, it’s HIS bill and it’s not okay to compare black people to monkeys, chimpanzees, apes, or gorillas. It wasn’t okay to do it to the Jews. Or the Irish. It’s just not okay. And it makes me wonder who was in the room when the decision was made. Seriously. Who thought this was a good idea? I mean this isn’t like saying something offensive on television without thinking. Someone sat down and drew that cartoon and someone else put it on the page. And yet a third person proofed the page! That’s at least three people. Come on!

And like The New Yorker, the The New York Post initially refused to acknowledge that freedom of the press does not mean that the press has pure motives. It’s not as if the cultural biases that infect us all magically disappear once one puts on the hat of journalist.

I’m not at all surprised at the denial and confusion. No one ever thinks they’ve committed a racist act. Even racists don’t call themselves racists with any earnestness. It’s also not surprising that for every person who gets it, there is at least one person who is offended by those who are offended.

But I’m telling you it’s a good thing. For far too long, far too many people have been able to wander around thinking that racism is a problem of the past, and the election of the first black president sent a vocal segment of society into denial: “See! Racism is over. If they just work hard, black people can do anything!”* The Myth of Meritocracy reigns. Pollyanna rules! Of course anyone paying attention knows that it will take more than the a month of a black president and his perfect black family to rid the world of bigotry.

In fact, their presence in the White House is causing the opposite effect in certain corners of the country. I think of it as a kind of Racial Turrets Syndrome (RTS) that plagues those who have studiously avoided any genuine conversation (or confrontation) about race. The more they’ve been in denial, the more apt they are to release CDs like “Barack the Magic Negro.” The only way for this to be cured is for it to come out. Sunlight really is the best disinfectant. These outbursts force us to have conversations about difficult subjects and serve as indicators of how far we have, and haven’t, come since we elected Mr. Obama. It allows us to have an open, if sometimes messy, debate about a topic many of us would like to avoid.

The trick is to actually have the conversation. Those who “get it” don’t get to feel smug (because trust me, even if you “get” this, you’ve missed something else) and must learn to explain without preaching, to put ourselves in the shoes of the other person and explain our point of view without demonizing the person who is on the other side of the conversation. Those who find themselves criticized need to take a deep breath and open their minds to the idea that even good people make comments or gestures that are offensive.

The other reason this is a good thing is because it might finally help people learn how to apologize. The New York Post has shown us the wrong way:

It was meant to mock an ineptly written federal stimulus bill.

Period.

But it has been taken as something else — as a depiction of President Obama, as a thinly veiled expression of racism.

This most certainly was not its intent; to those who were offended by the image, we apologize.

In the first place, apologies should not be offered defiantly. Secondly, intent is a given in our culture; even those who intend to offend get to say they meant no offense. The New York Post should have simply said the piece was careless and did not recognize the power of such imagery and then apologized for being sloppy and, yes, racist. It happens, and the sooner the offenders own it and learn from it, the better off everyone will be.

Now just because a thing is called racist does not make it so. I actually felt very sorry for the poor cable anchor who used the term “Colored People” when talking about the NAACP. “Colored People” is dated, but the organization is called The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People!” He apologized, but he didn’t need to–at least that’s what I think. Maybe you think something different. Perhaps the NAACP should change its name. It’s a thing we can chat about. See how that works?

*It’s worth noting that some of the people making this claim are black people.

Do the Right Thing

I haven’t seen “Push: Based on the Novel by Sapphire,” but I’m going to. And if you’ve ever complained about the poor quality of American movies you should too. If you’re sick of “10 Things He Just Not That Into American Pie is New in Town,” then you have an obligation to, every once in a while, see a film that gets to you a bit by showing you the world of the kind of person you’ve probably never met—in this case an overweight, African-American teenager abused by both her mother and father.

I know. Tough sell, right? Everyone knows. This is not a feel-good-luck-at-us-we-elected-Obama-movie. It’s going to be hard. But give it a chance. With three big awards from this year’s Sundance Film Festival, it has an impressive resume.

And, yes, you should see it because black films have a tough time making it to screen or being taken seriously when they do. Tyler Perry had to BUILD HIS OWN STUDIO to make sure he could make movies, and his films are huge blockbuster hits (seriously, his movies are regularly at the top of the box office, though they are regularly showing on fewer screens than “mainstream” movies).

I know what you’re thinking, “Tricia, I can’t relate to that story” and “life is hard enough; I go to the movies to escape.” But you don’t. You see movies about tough subjects all the time. Ricky Gervais was the wise-jester when he told Kate Winslet to do a Holocaust film in order to win major awards. He was right. And you do like movies with black people—namely anything starring Will Smith (and who can blame you?).

This is not that kind of film. It’s also not a Saturday night movie. Go to a Saturday matinee. And then plan to have a glass of wine in a lovely bar or, if your me, a proper cream tea. Who knows, your “escape” could make you more compassionate, more aware, more thankful for where you are. Supporting compelling storytelling is your responsibility as a movie goer (okay, so sometimes I get preachy. Sue me!)

Do the right thing.

When it comes out, go see it. And then tell me about it. And (maybe) I’ll treat you to “IronBatSpiderMan XI.”