Thursday, September 27, 2007

Looking at Locks and Links

I realized this past weekend that I have the privilege of a black perch – a position from which to see a range of black people. My wife and I went to a wedding this weekend in New York. The groom is an old and close friend of ours. He is an MIT grad and the wedding was populated with black MIT and Harvard alum. The migratory pattern of black birds like these are such that a host of us flew west to Stanford and Berkeley as well. So there we were, a slew of black people with the best education the country has to offer.

In this group of people there were no locks, it was a cuff-link crowd at a cuff-link venue in the Bowery in lower Manhattan. Many of the brothers were immaculately groomed with short professional afros or low cuts edged with laser precision. The women also brought out the sartorial big guns. A few even had on the same dress, which looked like one that Kimora Simmons might wear.

The conversation canvas of snippets yielded an interesting picture of this group. It consisted of Microsoft professionals, neurosurgeons, private equity big leaguers, corporate executives, high end management consultants and venture capitalists. The concern for the proverbial “community” was at the level of continents and regions. “We’re placing particular emphasis on investments in the Caribbean basin.” “We’re trying to strengthen capital markets in West Africa.” “We’re dealing with closing the epidemiological divide.”

When I paused to absorb the circumstance, it was fascinating. Here was a group of young black people impeccably educated whose influence is slowly gaining strength and sending long wave shocks out into the world. It is a group that is seldom talked about and certainly rarely seen together in the same place. It was amazing to see and even more humbling to be a part of.

Last year around the same time my wife and I went to another friend’s wedding in California. The difference in the venue reflected the difference in the people. It was held in the Berkeley Botanical Gardens at an outdoor alter in a Redwood grove. There, there were not only locks, but locks that were laced with cowry shells. There was a sister with a small tattoo of Che Guevara on her back. There were several people dressed in African clothing and several others who were grads of the Nation of Islam and alum of the Five Percenters.

The conversation canvas there presented a picture of street level activists for whom community meant the people that can be seen and touched whose lives are obviously connected to their own. There were teachers, Freedom School workers, youth program coordinators, social councilors, artists of all sorts and old sages from the Black Panther Party. “I’m trying to get some of these brothers to recognize the beauty in themselves.” “At the Freedom Schools, we try to teach these kids that our community is either going to flourish or perish, but whatever it does, it will do it as a community.”

At that wedding too, I had to pause and appreciate the significance and the beauty of the group of people. It is a group that is more visible than the cuff-links set, but its influence is quiet and steadily growing. It was also amazing to see and humbling to be a part of.

From locks to links, the parties at both of these weddings went well into the wee hours of the morning; they were dark, hot, full of reminiscing, full of love and most importantly full of hope.


Friday, September 14, 2007

The Utility of Mirrors

I recently went to a screening of the documentary, The Price of Sugar. It is about the slave-like working conditions of Haitian cane cutters in the Dominican Republic. According to the film, which chronicles the advocacy work of Father Bill Hartley, there are thousands of Haitians who are brought into the Dominican Republic to cut sugar cane every year. They are brought in by a Dominican sugar company and stripped of their Haitian papers and never given Dominican papers. They exist essentially as stateless people and are forced to work and live in horrific conditions that are reminiscent of slavery. The film also spends considerable time showing the anger and hostile attitude of Dominicans towards the Haitians. Their vitriol was laced with racist venom as they decried the “Haitianizing of the Dominican Republic.” It was an emotionally difficult film to watch as it showed malnourished children and black people cutting cane barefoot with severed fingers and limbs and all manner of awful disease and dysfunction. During the scenes where they showed the protests of the Dominicans against the Haitians you could feel the anger of the audience and their mounting scorn towards them.

The audience at the screening was a very cultured set of predominantly black people with a number of the academic street conscious crew too. The high end set had ornately arranged dread-locks and were adorned with golden Egyptian scarabs on their hands that poked out from expensive looking cuff-linked French cuff shirts. The street conscious brethren and sistren were crowned with their black, gold and green tams, bathed in Egyptian musk and carried their signature weathered leather satchels with two heavy books that contain the “knowledge.”

What was striking about the public discussion that followed the film was the combination of a sense of victimization among black people and anger directed towards the Dominicans. There was a lot made of the negative consequences of “globalism” and the detrimental effects it has had on African people throughout the centuries. The scorn directed at the Dominicans was palpable. Members of the audience scolded the Dominicans in the film for looking down on the Haitians as being “blacker and poorer” than them, while failing to see the mutuality of their collective plight. That idea seemed to capture the attitude of the audience.

What was interesting about the dialogue is that we failed to look into the mirror that was presented to us. The Dominicans in the film are us. The attitude that black Americans have largely adopted towards Hispanic immigrants is identical to that adopted by the Dominicans towards the Haitians. The analogy is almost perfect. The working and living conditions of many Hispanic immigrants in the United States are atrocious and largely unknown to black people. We don’t really know where they live and what they are subject to in their working lives. Hispanics are broadly viewed as lower down on the totem pole of respectability than we are. We tend to see their limited proficiency in English as an indication of limited intelligence. We don’t understand the difficultly of having families split between countries. Our instincts probably hint to us that they are not, in general, living comfortable and peaceful lives; however, that hasn’t muted our resentment. Many black people have taken the side of conservative white people who decry that America is for Americans and we have to resist the “Browning of America.” We tend to view Hispanics as “browner and poorer” than we are and therefore we derive some distorted sense of self-importance by denigrating them. Essentially, we fail to see the mutuality of our collective plights.

This small screening made it abundantly clear that in the absence of critical thought, mirrors are useless.


Monday, September 10, 2007

Damn This Imagery

I woke up this morning and saw a picture on the cover of the New York Times of an obviously African black woman lying on the ground. There is one little bird, standing by the corner of the sheet, looking at her as if to say that everything is not going to be alright. To confirm the message of the picture the article begins by describing the woman’s condition.

Mrs. Sesay was sick. She had breast cancer in a form that Western doctors rarely see anymore – the tumor had burst through her skin, looking like a putrid head of cauliflower weeping small amounts of blood at its edges. (Donald G. McNeil Jr., NYT. 10 September 2007. Drugs Banned, World's Poor Suffer in Pain.)

I found the expression of disgust at the grossness of the description and the sadness of the situation stuck on my face. Even as I write this now it has returned. This woman’s face could be my grandmother’s face. There are several women in my family and my wife’s that resemble her. What bothers me most is the constant reinforcement of the link between a face like hers – that is reflected in us - and intolerable pain. The title of the article is, “…World’s Poor Suffer in Pain.” I look at this picture and my face contorts. I won’t speak of what it does to my heart, but the imagery is damning. I would be deceiving myself if I did not think that the connection between images of black people and bad things in general were not being quietly sewn together in my psyche. When you skip onto page A12 you find the following picture of a woman holding her young son who had been burned with boiling water.

The point of the article was to say that families like her’s, poor black people, cannot even get morphine to ease their pain. We are then left to imagine what it must be like to have a 2 or 3 year old child, as I do, and have her be burned with scalding hot water all over her body and not be able to offer her anything for the pain. I do not underestimate the quiet and incremental contribution to the relationship between black people and pain that this article has made in me. The imagery is so powerful that it must be having an effect.

This morning’s story comes on the heals of a local news story last night about a set of young black boys that vandalized a daycare center. They broke into the building and just destroyed it. My wife had tears in her eyes as she watched it. I could only imagine that she was thinking about how could our children, black children, become so mean. They poured paint over the computers for the children, broke the tables and threw the little chairs all over the place. They even defecated and smeared their feces on the walls and windows and urinated on the toys. The image associated with this was a meeting of the children’s parents – a room full of black women crying and wondering what evil had befallen them and what they would do with their children while the center recovered from the damage.

That whole story is in the context of an incessant barrage of pictures of ridiculous looking young black boys as legislation is being discussed in Georgia to criminalize the way they wear their pants. The image of black boys with sagging pants, unkempt clothes and foul behavior is another that is being steadily driven into our psyche. It is making it hard to distinguish between the images and the full story.

Reality is what it is – but damn this imagery. Had those boys not done what they did, there would be no story. There would be no association between them, their image and such reprehensible behavior. Similarly, the convergence of western exploitation and domestic corruption in Africa is real. The world’s poor are suffering. That lady did not lie down on the ground to pose for the picture, she lay down to die.

The images of us are tilted so heavily in the direction of things bad that it is hard to find balance. It is becoming difficult for me to pit the positive imagery of my personal experience against the wave of negative images that I am confronted with and still expect not be deeply wounded.