Friday, May 16, 2008

Black and Tan Fantasy: A Review of "The Visitor"

Is it possible to exoticize a member of your own racial group? After catching a screening of “The Visitor” recently, I found myself wondering if this were possible. The Tom McCarthy film is about a dispirited academic who returns to the apartment he shared with his late wife to find a couple living there made up of a Senegalese woman, played by Danai Gurira, and a Syrian man, played by Haaz Sleiman.

At its core, the movie is about how the professor, who is white and nearing retirement, is rejuvenated by his encounter with the young, immigrant couple. But the professor’s personal growth was not at all my focus as I watched “The Visitor.” I was too taken with Gurira, with watching the beautiful, intricate jewelry that hung from her ears and the colorful garments that made her Snickers-colored skin look all the richer, to make the professor’s metamorphosis my first priority.

Watching “The Visitor” I was reminded of a scene from Toni Morrison’s novel Tar Baby. A light-skinned black model named Jadine is stunned by an African woman she sees while grocery shopping. She thinks:

“The vision itself was a woman much too tall. Under her long canary yellow dress Jadine knew there was too much hip, too much bust…, so why was she and everybody else in the store transfixed? The height? The skin like tar against the canary yellow dress...? She would deny it now, but along with everybody else in the market, Jadine gasped…Just a quick snatch of breath before that woman’s woman—that mother/sister/she; that unphotographable beauty—took it all away.”

Unlike Jadine, I’m not going to deny that I was mesmerized by “the vision” of a beautiful African woman, despite being African myself (I have a Nigerian father and an African American mother). After watching “The Visitor,” I’m still trying to process exactly why I had this reaction, and so far I’m pretty sure it’s due to a combination of factors. Firstly, I was struck by the simple appearance of an African woman in a film set in the West. It’s rare to see Africans on the silver screen in a setting outside of Africa, let alone see them not play characters who are victimized by war, AIDS or another atrocity. And even in films set in Africa, the women are usually relegated to the role of wife and, thus, never allowed full character development.

“The Visitor” turns this dynamic on its head to a degree. Yes, Zainab, the character Gurira plays, is a significant other. The movie mostly chronicles her love for her boyfriend, Tarek, but Zainab is developed in the sense that the audience knows about her passion—fashion—that she is introverted and cautious, yet capable of reaching out, that she’s not the type to bite her tongue when her boyfriend grates on her nerves and that she is annoyed by the customers who buy jewelry from her but have no clue about her homeland.

And while Zainab is a significant other, it’s important to note that she’s not a wife, but a love interest. The fact that she’s portrayed as sexually desirable is subversive simply because, as Morrison notes in Tar Baby, African women, mother/sister/she women, the genuine article, if you will, is not supposed to be desired. Such women are supposed to be “unphotographable.” So, yes, seeing the dark-skinned Gurira, with less than an inch of hair on her head, portrayed as anyone’s love interest, especially the love interest of a non-African man, challenges all sorts of cultural norms.

Interestingly enough, though, McCarthy doesn’t make a huge deal of the interracial romance between Zainab and Tarek, both of whom are Muslims. The most attention given to the interracial pairing is during a scene in which Tarek’s mother meets Zainab for the first time and is surprised that she is black and “very black” at that, but that is all. The mother’s only objection, and it is an implied objection, about Zainab’s relationship with her son is that the two were living together, a religious no-no. Overall, the characters’ Muslim background and immigrant status seem to outweigh their racial differences. And, in a post-9/11 world, a world in which the fact that Barack Obama’s estranged father was born into a Muslim family is a liability, it’s definitely refreshing to see Muslims shown as three-dimensional, loving people. It’s also refreshing to see McCarthy challenge the trend of depicting interracial couples as if they are exclusively made up of one white and one non-white person.

That said, “The Visitor” is by no means perfect. A cogent argument can be made that its immigrant characters function solely to bring about the white professor’s personal transformation. But the ground the film breaks throughout more than compensates for this. So, if you haven’t already, catch a screening of “The Visitor.”

Thursday, April 24, 2008

I'm Colson Whitehead's Newest Convert

I love me some Colson Whitehead! Okay, so that's not quite true. I never read any Whitehead until today when the New York Times ran an editorial of his called "Visible Man," a shout out to Ellison's Invisible Man. The piece pretty much wraps up everything I've wanted to say about the "elite" charges leveled against Sen. Barack Obama.

I knew the accusations of elitism were factually wrong. For one, Obama attended a private high school on scholarship and was raised, in part, in a single-parent home, but Whitehead goes beyond the facts of the matter to shed light on the insidious origins of the elite claims.

In a nutshell, to say that those blacks who managed to get a college degree and pave out a career in the face of racist psychological warfare designed to convince us that we should be dead, unwed, on welfare, strung out or in jail got where we are because we're black is absof__kinglutely ridiculous!

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Goodbye "South of Nowhere": A Tribute

In late 2005, I was visiting my Aunt Joan in Chicago. The visit pretty much entailed me trying to avoid the cold and, thus, spending much time with her remote in hand, flipping through the gazillion channels offered by her Satellite provider. One day I stumbled across a network called The N and was thrilled to find out that the MTV subsidiary ran repeats of shows like “Degrassi Junior High” and “My So-Called Life.”

As I relived my youth by watching The N, I discovered a new show the network was promoting called “South of Nowhere.” I was instantly hooked. Now, I’m bummed to find out that The N is canceling the show, which is in its third season. “SoN,” as it is called by fans, was groundbreaking in many ways. It chronicled a high school girl’s budding awareness that she is a lesbian and the reactions that her classmates and conservative Catholic family have to that realization. Yes, the girl, Spencer Carlin, is hot and her love interest is even hotter, but the relationship they have isn’t depicted in an exploitative way. My only real criticism of the relationship is that the actresses don’t have much onscreen chemistry.

As Spencer begins to accept her sexual identity, her adopted black brother, Clay, struggles with his racial identity. I loved that the adoptee character wasn’t added to be gimmicky, i.e. Natalie Portman’s brother in “Garden State” and the black, deaf, gay love interest of a character in “The Family Stone.” Instead, there’s genuine exploration of how growing up in a white family shaped Clay’s perceptions of race, which make him vulnerable as a black teen in Los Angeles (the Carlins are Ohio transplants), and the stereotypes that he has of other blacks, like his street-savvy classmate Sean Miller.

I admit that while watching the show I fell a bit in love with Sean (hey, in real life he’s in his late 20s). But I digress. Sean is a character rarely seen on film and television. He’s a black, inner-city youth who can effortlessly dissect Poe’s “Tell-tale Heart” and spends his free time watching Wong Kar-wai films. He can be a bit intimidating at first but, as others get to know him, they find that he is sensitive, listens well and gives great advice. Oh, and did I mention that this guy regularly attends church with his grandmother? We just don’t find these kinds of young African American characters depicted on television—three dimensional, well-read and nonconformist.

Clay’s love interest, Chelsea, the first black girl he’s ever dated, is just as unconventional of a black Hollywood character. She’s covered in tattoos, has a bohemian style and is bent on going abroad to study art.

Even the head cheerleader at the school is not what one would expect. Rather than being a skinny blonde, she’s a shapely Latina named Madison. Portrayed as unbearably bitchy at first, Madison’s character deepens as the series progresses.

While there’s more development of characters like Madison in the second and third seasons of “SoN,” the show took a turn for the worst in that its plotlines began to mirror those of prototypical teenage dramas. The characters all begin to sleep with each other. Long-lost relatives emerge from nowhere. There’s an unexpected pregnancy and two unexpected deaths, one of which results in a character finding herself filthy rich.

Due to these storylines, not to mention sometimes underwhelming acting, I realize that maybe it was time for “SoN” to retire before its original, groundbreaking vision was tainted. Still, I’ll miss seeing how the show’s characters grow. If you like, view an episode of “SoN” here.

Monday, April 14, 2008

It's Baaack: Sweet Valley High Redux

Years ago my mother was an avid reader of the Harlequin Romance series, while I read what some would view as the young adult version of those books—Sweet Valley High. From about fourth through sixth grade, I was obsessed with the central characters of the series, a pair of blond, blue-eyed Southern California twins named Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield. Now, I’ve learned that the books, first published about 25 years ago, are back. The series has been updated to include references to contemporary technology, such as email, the Internet and cell phones. But the most controversial change is that the Wakefield sisters will now be a Size 4 instead of a Size 6. The downsizing of the girls’ much touted tan frames has sparked debates on, as well as at the Dairi Burger site, a blog named after fictitious Sweet Valley’s favorite teen hotspot.

I’ve been unsettled to read comments from visitors to these sites who say that the Sweet Valley series is to blame for their development of eating disorders. The readers say that the books ingrained in them the notion that Size 6 was the ideal. This isn’t surprising because, in each book in the series, the twins’ size and height (5 feet 6) are emphasized. What I’ve forgotten in adulthood, however, is that the books actually contain character after character with dietary habits that fall under the umbrella of bulimia or anorexia. One mother’s use of diet pills during pregnancy is responsible for her daughter being born deaf. And characters constantly criticize each other for doing things like eating full plates of food or looking fat in their jeans. Those who aren’t thin are almost always viewed as being impaired, if not downright sub-human.

Wrote one visitor to the Dairi Burger Web site:

“Here I was, thinking I was the only one who developed an eating disorder after reading SVH. This is fucking hilarious!”

From reading the site’s revisionist retellings of the books, not only does the Sweet Valley High series promote dysfunctional eating, they are also filled with episodes of attempted rape and sexual abuse that are completely forgotten about later. As if that weren’t enough, the books are filled with classist/racist/heterosexist rhetoric.

“I don’t know how she can date him,” a character says about a classmate who is dating a Latino student. “He’s so ethnic and working class.”

WTF? I know that Sweet Valley High got its start in the 1980s, but I’m still shocked that this line made it past the editors.

Later, the series explores the romantic relationship of the twins’ older brother, Steven, and the one black girl in town. In the end, however, Steven and the girl decide that there is no real chemistry between them and ultimately end up—where society dictates they should be—with their own “kinds.” Seems they were only together to make a social statement. What an enlightening commentary on why people enter interracial relationships. They do so to rebel, not because they actually care about each other.

In addition to the lone black girl in town, there is a Latina who passes for white. So ashamed is she of her Mexican heritage that she tells her white friends that her grandmother is her cleaning lady. This sounds like it was lifted straight out of the 1959 film “Imitation of Life.” Anyway, the character ends up revealing her heritage after she is forced to speak Spanish in a life or death situation. Not to worry, though, her friends tell her that they will overlook the fact that she’s a Mexican.

The treatment of sexual orientation in the Sweet Valley series isn’t much better than the treatment of race, as the blogger over at Dairi Burger observes with delicious snarkiness.

“Enid’s cousin Jake comes to visit, and everybody loves him, and Jess and Lila try to get with him. And Tom plays tennis with him and when he is with him, he feels warm and fuzzy …down there. Alas, Jake is GAY!!!! I didn’t think that gays existed in Sweet Valley. Or were allowed to set foot in the town. Enid is a big ol’ homophobe when Jake tells her and Tom gets all weird when he finds out because BAM! suddenly he realizes he is gay.”

God knows what effect this drivel, albeit very entertaining drivel, had on my 10-year-old brain. But the question now isn’t so much about those of us who survived Sweet Valley High when we were little, it's about the tween girls who will find themselves subject to its messages this time around. Can we expect a new crop of girls to take up bingeing and purging after their initiation into the series, where Size 4 is now the standard of beauty? And how will the new generation of readers counteract the suggestions about the superiority of blue eyes, that it’s only natural for guys to want to date rape their attractive classmates and that anyone who is queer or of color is destined for a life in the margins? Seems to me these books need to contain updates that address more than technological advances. They also need to reflect the advances that have been made in the realms of race, class and gender.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Remembering Brandon Bruce Lee (February 1, 1965-March 31, 1993) 15 Years Later

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”- Matthew 5:4

Today marks the 15th anniversary of Brandon Lee’s death. If you recall, Lee died while filming “The Crow” in Wilmington, N.C. During a scene in which his character, Eric Draven, was supposed to be shot and killed, Lee himself met his demise when a prop gun that was supposed to fire blanks discharged the tip of a .44 caliber bullet, due to a mishap involving a dummy cartridge. The bullet pierced Lee’s abdomen and damaged his internal organs, eventually settling in his spine. Despite surgery to save him, Lee died of internal injuries, blood loss and heart failure.

Following Lee’s tragic and senseless death, Edward R. Pressman, co-producer of “The Crow,” told Entertainment Weekly that he hoped the loss of Lee would become “less interesting than the movie itself. The point is not to remind people of the tragedy.”

Fifteen years later, however, it’s impossible to watch “The Crow” without being reminded of Lee’s death. For one, the tragedy changed the direction of the film—about a rock musician who rises from the dead to avenge his murder and his fiancée’s with help from a crow.

“It became about how you deal with grief,” film makeup artist Lance Anderson told Entertainment Weekly after Lee’s death. “What happens when someone you love is taken from you? How do you incorporate that into your life?"

Ernie Hudson, Lee’s costar, agreed. He told Entertainment Weekly that the film shifted from being a dark, vengeful tale into “a really nice, beautiful love story” following Lee’s death.

The tenderness that can be found in an otherwise dark film—more than two dozen murders take place amidst a dreary, industrial setting—isn’t the only reason Lee’s death comes to mind. There’s also the fact that Lee’s life so mirrored his character’s. Like Eric Draven, Lee was supposed to wed just days after the fatal mishap.

James O’Barr, creator of “The Crow” comic book the film was based on, noted this parallel in an interview. “And the fact that he was about to get married, and the fact that his fiancée, Eliza, was with him all the time, that perfected that image of Eric and Shelly I had in the book,” O’Barr said.

More than anything, though, it is Lee’s breakthrough performance in the film that seemingly most upsets fans about his death because we’ll never get to know how his acting would have advanced. I’ve watched a few of Lee’s earlier films—“Legacy of Rage,” “Showdown in Little Tokyo” and “Rapid Fire.” In none of these films do we get even a glimmer of the talent that Lee exhibits in “The Crow.” In Hong Kong film “Legacy of Rage,” we get a cute, boyish Brandon, but, because of the film’s poor quality and the fact that his voice is dubbed, it’s difficult for the viewer to get a real sense of Lee in the film. In “Showdown in Little Tokyo,” a gratuitously violent and misogynistic film, Lee is limited to being Dolph Lundgren’s sidekick. He’s on the sidelines as Lundgren saves the day and gets the girl. As if that weren’t emasculating enough, Lee’s character actually has to compliment Lundgren on the size of his manhood. “In Rapid Fire,” Lee is somewhat redeemed. It is he who gets the girl and saves the day, showing flashes of charisma. Unfortunately, his acting in the film is pretty cardboard.

In “The Crow” that changes for the Emerson College theater major. Unlike his earlier films, “The Crow” is in no way dependent on martial arts and is a step up from conventional vengeance tales in that it is filled with literary references—from the Bible to Paradise Lost to "The Raven." There’s also a wonderful soundtrack and poignant score.

“I think Brandon would have been very, very proud of the movie. He is so good in this,” Hudson told Entertainment Weekly. “All of the (qualities) he had as a person come through.”

O’Barr credits Lee’s performance in the film with giving him a career boost. “Eventually I had to accept that Brandon was a huge part of my success because he was so faithful to the character—so much to the point that now I can’t even picture anyone else in that role,” O’Barr told an interviewer. “I guess that says a lot for his performance and his impact on me.”

The reason “The Crow” has had a cult following since its 1994 release is because Lee manages to give a performance in which he is at points mad, heartbroken, comical and enraged, sometimes simultaneously. He gives one-word responses that are devastatingly bittersweet, such as when Sarah, a little girl his character is friends with, asks if he is a clown and he answers, “Sometimes.” In that very brief instance, the viewer feels Eric Draven’s humor and sadness, alike. There are many moments in which Lee says nothing at all but gets his point across, such as when a group of children, donning makeup similar to what his character wears, passes by, and he laughs in a maniacal manner that somehow manages to highlight Eric Draven’s loneliness as well. “The Crow” is filled with such moments, which, remarkably, don’t appear staged. It feels, as his costar Ernie Hudson hinted at, that we’re getting the authentic Brandon Lee in the film.

My only theory as to why Lee excelled so at playing a grief-stricken avenger is that he had experienced the loss of his father, martial arts icon Bruce Lee, at a young age. Based on interviews Lee gave, the loss left him both heartbroken and furious. Lee’s impending marriage to Eliza Hutton also allowed him to experiment with how crazed he would feel if a group of thugs raped and murdered his fiancée, he said in interviews.

Because he so masterfully channeled his life experiences, “The Crow” is a touching study in grief. And, yet, it goes beyond grief. The end of the film suggests that love survives even death, just as Brandon Lee’s brilliant work has survived him in death, comforting one group of mournful filmgoers after another.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Separate But (Un)Equal in Israel

When former President Jimmy Carter released his book Palestine Peace, Not Apartheid, there was public outcry about his decision to use the word “apartheid” in relationship to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. I wonder if now some of his detractors will change their views on the subject. That’s because the Supreme Court of Israel has backed a two-tier road system for Israelis and Palestinians, leading the Association for Civil Rights there to say that the policy constitutes apartheid.

The New York Times quoted Limor Yehuda, who argued the recent case for the civil rights association on behalf of six Palestinian villages, the paper reported.

“There is already a separate legal system in the territories for Israelis and Palestinians,” Yehuda was quoted in the Times as saying. “With the approval of separate roads, if it becomes a widespread policy, then the word for it will be ‘apartheid.’ ”

The road that has prompted the two-tier highway idea is Highway 443, a thoroughfare to Jerusalem. Mostly built on private, Palestinian land, the highway is now almost exclusively used for Israelis due to security reasons. In recent years, Israelis traveling on the road have been the victims of drive-by shootings and stone-throwing attacks by Palestinians, according to the Israeli government.

But Israel and its supporters bristle at the notion that a two-tier road system would constitute apartheid. Meanwhile, Palestinians complain that lack of access to the road adversely affects their quality of life, making them feel caged. Read the story in full here.

Friday, March 28, 2008

L.A. Times Explores Gang Violence, Sort of

The ghetto sucks.

This should have been the title of a Los Angeles Times article printed today called “Living with Staggering Violence in South L.A.” because that’s just about the only point it makes.

The article was written in light of a shooting that happened just over a month ago at a bus stop at the intersection of Vernon and Central. It involved a 24-year-old man police have identified as a Four Trey Crip opening fire on two men climbing off of a bus. Only, the man missed his targets and ended up shooting eight bystanders, five of whom were schoolchildren.

No one was killed in the shooting but, in its wake, the reporter said that residents expect little to change. After a round of community meetings, more police patrolling the streets and calls for jobs programs, after-school programs and the like, attention to gang crime will fade and a new bout of violence will begin, wrote the reporter.

The problem with the article, though, is that it, too, offers no solutions. There’s no examination of previous efforts to curb gang violence and why they didn’t work. There’s no interviews with lawmakers about what their plans are to tackle the problem.

Instead, we get one stereotype after another about life in South Central.

Exhibit A: Today, South-Central is synonymous with urban blight.
Exhibit B: Much of the community is now a transient, threadbare tapestry of people whose common thread is poverty.

After uttering the same stereotypes we have heard about South Central for decades, the reporter goes on to quote neighborhood residents who are fed up with life in the hood, but the remarks they make are just as tired as his observations. A beauty salon owner is sick of painting over graffiti, and a pastor calls for a return to old-fashioned values. “You have people who live next door to somebody and don’t even know their names,” he says. “People have no respect anymore.”

Another resident says that the answer to life in South Central is to keep on going. “The strong survive,” he says. That cliché may be true, but it, like the article as whole, offers no guidance for stemming violence in the community.

To pad this relatively hollow article with some meat, the reporter writes a two paragraph history of South Central. Its gist? South L.A. didn’t always suck. The neighborhood was once a cultural epicenter—filled with restaurants, hotels and music centers—the left coast version of Harlem during its renaissance, the reporter writes. Thrown in with that history is a brief description of area gangs and the turfs they control.

And that’s all.

At the end of the article, all we really know is that life in South Central is tough, has been tough and will continue to be so. Despite providing very little new information about gang violence in South Central and proposed strategies to combat the problem, “Living with Staggering Violence in South L.A.” is one of the most read articles on the Times’ Web site today.

The article’s popularity brings to mind a blog entry Christian Lander of the Web site “Stuff White People Like” wrote on the topic of awareness. He believes awareness is the “process of making other people aware of problems, and then magically someone else, like the government, will fix it.”

In this case, we have an article with no fixes that describes a problem no one has fixed. What was the point?

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Con Man Dupes L.A. Times about Diddy’s Involvement in 1994 Tupac Shakur Shooting

Hoaxes happen. First, it was Riverhead Books, which published a gang memoir earlier this month that turned out to be entirely false. Now, the Los Angeles Times is under fire for writing an article based on fraudulent documents that tied Sean “Diddy” Combs to the 1994 shooting of Tupac Shakur.

The Smoking Gun reports that James Sabatino (pictured), a 31-year-old prison inmate it describes as “a wildly impulsive, overweight white kid from Florida” gave the L.A. Times fabricated FBI reports that linked associates of Combs to the non-fatal shooting of Shakur outside of a recording studio near Times Square. Two years later, the rapper would die after being targeted in yet another ambush.

The article tying Combs to the shooting appeared on the L.A. Times’ Web site March 17 and in print on March 19. The Smoking Gun found that the fabricated documents contained numerous misspellings, such as “makeing” and “durring” and phrases and acronyms that the FBI doesn’t use.

Sabatino—a convicted felon doing time in a Pennsylvania penitentiary said to have posed as a corporate executive, written bad checks and conned companies out of money, merchandise and gifts—presented himself to the Times as a hip-hop manager who did business with Combs, Shakur, Busta Rhymes and Christopher Wallace, aka the Notorious B.I.G., and had ties to Death Row Records mogul Marion “Suge” Knight, according to the Smoking Gun. Sabatino has also claimed that he was the son of a mafisoso. Turns out, he was just a rap fan with an insatiable need for attention.

Russ Stanton, the new editor at the L.A. Times, is now investigating the paper’s disputed article, written by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chuck Philips. Philips has admitted to never having heard of Sabatino during his years of reporting on the murders of both Shakur and Wallace, according to the New York Times. The reporter also claimed that he was motivated to write the story because of his own research and not because of the informant.

A lawyer for Combs has demanded that the L.A. Times print a retraction, and Combs himself called the claims that he was involved in the shooting lies.

The Little Art-house Film That Could

“Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days” has earned $1 million in the U.S., despite playing on only 44 screens here. The limited release isn’t the only obstacle the film has overcome. For one, the film is about abortion. It’s set in communist Romania and has subtitles, to boot. As puts it, “4-3-2” really is the little art-house film that could.

If you haven’t seen it yet, please do so. This film goes against the grain of U.S. film and television about unplanned pregnancies in which abortion is a choice that characters rarely make. Instead, protagonists in the grips of unplanned pregnancies tend to miscarry, give the child up for adoption or decide to keep it. This stands in stark contrast to the reality that in 2005, the most recent year for which stats are available, 1.2 million abortions were performed in the U.S.

Most women who have abortions in this country do so because they lack the financial means to raise a child. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 57 percent of women who terminate pregnancies in the U.S. are low-income. And more than 60 percent of such women are already mothers.

In “4-3-2, ” the viewer learns little about the pregnant character’s background, but we are given enough information to know that she had a humble upbringing and that a child would likely keep her fixed in that predicament, while the university degree she’s pursuing would likely help her transcend it.

Until societies change to a degree in which women from all economic backgrounds are a) given the resources they need to prevent becoming pregnant and b) given the resources they need to raise a child, abortion will arguably continue to be the answer for large numbers of the poor and pregnant.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Jeremiah Wright and Jonathan Edwards

I began last Sunday as I have most Sundays for the past several months. I watched “Meet the Press” and “The Chris Matthews Show” to get political insiders’ viewpoints on the latest developments in the presidential campaign. This past Sunday the controversial speeches made by Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama’s former pastor, predictably became a conversational focal point. I listened to various political reporters call Wright’s comments “strange” and characterize them as far from mainstream.

I haven’t heard Wright’s speeches in their entirety. But from watching the clip featured on NBC’s Sunday morning political shows, I gathered that the pastor was ultimately taking Americans to task for assuming the role of victim after 9/11 when this nation has so victimized those both inside and outside of its borders. Is this any more critical of a point than “A People’s History of the United States” author Howard Zinn makes in that book, a leftist tome for sure but mainstream enough to be referenced in cinematic darling “Good Will Hunting.”

Then, I thought maybe the title of the pastor’s sermon was to blame for the controversy. He did dub it “God Damn America,” after all. I admit that when I first heard the title I bristled. After reflecting, however, I thought there was something familiar about it. The title sounded like something 18th century preacher Jonathan Edwards (pictured) might have said in arguably the most famous sermon ever, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Like Wright does in “God Damn America,” in “Sinners,” Edwards continually speaks of divine justice and emphasizes how all of us are in danger of going to hell because of our countless misdeeds.

So, if American preachers have long spouted sermons that focus on damnation, why is Wright’s title so controversial? Is America so inflamed with hubris that it can’t bear to fathom the idea that 9/11, Katrina or any other tragedy to occur on this soil was a karmic wakeup call? Personally, I’ve never thought of any of these incidences as such, but I’m not offended by the suggestion. I know that, before 9/11, many Americans were guilty of behaving as if this country was isolated, as if what happened here existed in a vacuum and had no global ramifications. I know that, before Katrina, the racial and socioeconomic stratification of New Orleans and other cities was simply accepted as the way things are. In light of this, I don’t believe that Wright went out on a limb by questioning America’s positioning of itself as victim.

Arguably the most far out comment I’ve read that Wright made is that AIDS was engineered by the government to afflict the oppressed masses. Considering that the U.S. government performed experiments on black men that ended with them dying from syphilis, that medical officials here sterilized Puerto Rican, Native American black and mentally ill women in this country without their consent and that Native Americans were intentionally given smallpox-infested blankets to bring about their demise, is it that bizarre that a black man who came of age during Jim Crow might believe that AIDS was a government manufactured disease?

Why then have those in the media behaved as if Wright is a nut of the highest order? Is it because of his animated style of preaching, rooted firmly in the black oral tradition? If so, I would suggest anyone who’s never been to a black church to make a visit. You’ll find any number of preachers employing this same style, be they preaching about America’s predicament or saving souls.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve visited Trinity United Church of Christ. The church is a source of tension between my mother and my aunt because the former believes it is a church for the bourgeois and questions my aunt’s motivations for going there. Trinity is a church where the who’s who of black Chicago goes to see and be seen. Wright, as is slowly being reported, has even made appearances at the White House. His preaching and reputation, alike, have attracted the black middle class, upper middle class and elite. In many ways Trinity is so mainstream that I can’t help but to believe that when Wright was indicting America, he was also indicting the privileged members of his church or, rather, in the tradition of Jonathan Edwards, inviting them to conduct a spiritual cleansing once and for all, lest they never receive another chance to crawl out from the rubble.

Update: Not everyone in the media finds the Rev. Wright's sermons to be bizarre. I just read an article on called "Rev. Jeremiah Wright Isn't the Problem" that makes points similar to the ones I made here, albeit much more elaborately and eloquently.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Good News for Audio Science Clayton and Every Other Person with a Bizarro Name

“Excuse me, is your name Rachel?”

A few years ago, I was at a movie theater in El Paso, Tex., when one of the employees there stopped me to pose this question.

I shook my head “no” and went on my way. I doubt the majority of Americans would have even remembered this exchange, but, to me, this moment was significant. “Me?” I remember thinking. “Could I be a Rachel?”

I wondered how much simpler life would be if I was named Rachel instead of Nadra. My name has always been a sore spot for me. In second grade or so, I came home from school one day and told my mother that I’d had it with my name. As soon as I was of age, I would change it.

My mother, who has the perfectly common name of Abby, didn’t challenge me on this. She seemed to sense that I could not be dissuaded from changing my name. The problem was that I never came up with an alternative moniker for myself, so I continued to be Nadra until, at some point, it just fit.

Still, I can’t help but to consider my name a nuisance of sorts. In my line of work—journalism—I have to introduce myself to people on a regular basis. This means that I have to spell my name to strangers on a regular basis. Often, they still get it wrong. I’ve gotten three emails this week in which my name was misspelled. In the two I received in the past 24 hours, one person referred to me as Nadre, totally ignoring the correct spelling of my name visible in the addressee line of the email. Another person addressed me as Karen. I’m assuming this is because Karen is somewhat similar to my last name, Kareem. And, in an email I received in the beginning of the week, I was called my favorite, Nada, which means “nothing” in Spanish.

The fact that my name is so often butchered makes me feel like nothing to an extent. It’s as if my odd name renders me invisible. When people decide to call me whatever is most convenient for them, rather than what my parents chose to call me at birth, they are, in effect, erasing me.

Then, there are the mispronunciations. I am frequently called Nay-druh (my name is pronounced “Nah-druh”) or Naa-dra, as in gonad-ra. Others are bent on making my name more complicated than it is, calling me Nadria, for example. But the ultimate rejection is when someone simply refuses to bother saying my name, rendering it unpronounceable. If my name was, say, Nagheenanajar, as in the character Samir’s last name from “Office Space,” I could understand. But the fact that it is five letters and two syllables and that pretty much anyone who can pronounce the name Sandra can pronounce my name, makes this claim a bit hard to swallow.

I also have to deal with the fact that my name is politically charged due to its Arabic origin. Nadra means “rare” in the language, and Kareem means “generous.” In a post-9/11 world, I’ve had people offer their sympathies to me for having such a name. Others respond to it with curiosity. They’re excited by the possibility that they’ve encountered a real live Muslim. And, in church, I’ve, on occasion, been eyed with suspicion. “Your name’s Kareem,” a fellow churchgoer rather snidely asked me. “Are you a Muslim?”

When I explained that, no, I wasn’t, but my father was, her reaction was mixed. She seemed relieved that I wasn’t a Muslim but dismayed that my father was. I seriously believe she was wondering why I wasn’t praying for his soul at that moment.

In short, these experiences collectively have made me wonder again and again if life would be somehow better for me with a different name. The New York Times recently printed an article—“A Boy Named Sue, and a Theory of Names”—about this very subject. The title alludes to Johnny Cash’s song “A Boy Name Sue,” which posited that someone with an odd name could grow up to be relatively well adjusted.

Today, there’s evidence that Cash may have been right, writer John Marion Tierney said. Tierney cited a book called “Bad Baby Names,” by Michael Sherrod and Matthew Rayback, in which the authors interviewed people with names such as Mary Christmas, River Jordan, Rasp Berry and Happy Day. Oddly enough, none of them were traumatized by the names. Even more surprising was that they weren’t teased much for having such unusual monikers.

For the article, Tierney interviewed a developmental psychologist at George Mason University named Dr. Martin Ford. “Names only have a significant influence when that is the only thing you know about the person,” Dr. Ford told Tierney. “Add a picture, and the impact of the name recedes. Add information about personality, motivation and ability, and the impact of the name shrinks to minimal significance.”

This leads me to the question: Have I been making too much of my name? Maybe life, or my personality, wouldn’t be much different if I were named Rachel or something just as common.

So why do celebrities such as gorgeous actress/DJ Shannyn Sossamon (pictured) give their children names like Audio Science? According to Sherrod, today it’s all about individuality. And, yes, people have responded to my name with genuine interest because it is so uncommon. My name has earned me more compliments than I can remember. Because it is very common in the Muslim country of Pakistan, each Pakistani I meet automatically seems to feel a kinship with me. A Pakistani coworker of my mother even brought me back traditional clothes from the country, and, at the time, she hadn’t even met me! Repeatedly, I find that those familiar with my name are extremely excited to meet me, to tell me about its origins and its Arabic pronunciation, as well as about its male counterpart, Nadir, or longer female version, Nadira. (Think Indira Gandhi).

These are some of the perks of having a rare name, I guess. I’m grateful that the New York Times article has given me more of a reason to dwell on the positives of my name rather than to continue viewing it as a source of frustration. As for my own children—if I have them, that is—I’m not likely to name them something as far out as Audio Science, but I don’t want them to have a name as common as, say, Melissa or as trendy, as, say, Madison. My thinking is that they’d do best with something in-between.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Return of John and Margaret Cho!

Once upon a time I worked as a television and film extra on a semi-regular basis. I mostly appeared on WB shows—“Charmed,” “Roswell” and “Felicity,” to name a few. I was in school at the time and it just so happened that I often found myself playing students. But in November 2001, I accepted a gig, not to appear in a classroom but to appear in a faux hospital waiting room on the “ER” set. I’m not a fan of the show, so I only remember a handful of details about that experience. But two stand out in particular.

It was almost a couple of months to the day after 9/11, and an American Airlines flight bound for the Dominican Republic crashed shortly after taking off from JFK International Airport in Queens. The news made everyone antsy, as we weren’t sure if the plane had crashed due to mechanical failure or because a terrorist had caused it do go down. It turned out that the plane crashed due to a combination of pilot error and mechanical failure.

Still anxiety-ridden over the news of the plane crash, I left the “ER” set to take a break. As I stood on a stoop on the Warner Brothers lot in Burbank, I saw three actors walk out of the neighboring set. I recognized them from a very crass, very unfunny show called “Off Centre.”

For some reason, I ended up locking eyes with one of the actors. Our gazes fixed on each other, but it wasn’t a flirtatious exchange. I remember thinking how much the character that particular actor played annoyed me. Because I so disliked the character, in that moment, I found it difficult to separate the character from the man. Accordingly, I kind of scowled/shrugged at him as if to ask, “What are you looking at?” and he finally turned away. How I wish I could revisit that moment. I had no idea then that in three years I’d develop a soft spot for the actor—John Cho—after seeing his performance in “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle,” the sequel to which, “Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay,” is now playing the festival circuit and will soon have a theatrical release.

While “Off Centre” and “Harold & Kumar” are arguably designed for the same audience—Maxim magazine readers and “American Pie” fans—the former was simply crass, but the latter was crass, funny, cute and groundbreaking, to boot! That’s right “Harold & Kumar,” a film about two weed-lovin’ friends who go on an adventure after a case of the munchies has them jonesin’ for “White Castle,” is groundbreaking.

I’m not the only one with this opinion. In the “Slanted Screen,” a documentary about the history of Asian men in Hollywood, “Harold & Kumar” was highlighted as one of the few films that have portrayed this group against type. The film challenges all sorts of myths about Asian American men—mainly, that they’re asexual, passive, number crunchin’ nerds. In addition to giving us a three-dimensional portrait of two Asian American protagonists, one of Korean descent and the other of Indian, the film stands out for pairing Cho with a Latina love interest. The film also offers an internal critique of films such as “Sixteen Candles,” which featured a character called Long Duk Dong, up there with Mr. Yunioshi from “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” as one of the most unflattering portrayals of an Asian man on celluloid.

Cho’s Harold Lee is the antithesis of Dong in every way—tender, vulnerable and a little neurotic but ultimately willing to stand up for himself and follow his heart. There’s also great chemistry between Harold and his polar opposite Kumar, played by Kal Penn.

The movie is by no means perfect. Some parts require a total suspension of belief, others are chock full of juvenile potty humor and others, still, contain stereotypes of their own. Overall, though, “Harold & Kumar” deftly uses comedy to deconstruct myths about Asian American men. That said, if the sequel is even half as good as the original, I’ll be the first to line up at the theater.

As if the release of the new “Harold & Kumar” movie weren’t enough to make my head spin, I also had the good fortune of learning today that Margaret Cho has gotten her own reality show on VH-1. This is the first time she’ll be appearing on a television series since her ill-fated and much talked-about show “All-American Girl” was cancelled more than a dozen years ago. I’m excited that this time around Margaret will have some creative control in the series in which she’ll star. Oddly enough, I’ve also had an encounter with Margaret Cho, no relation to John, by the way.

Several years ago, when “I’m the One that I Want” was playing in a West L.A. theater, Margaret was actually in line breaking off people’s ticket stubs as they entered. I was taken aback by her beauty, stylishness and reserve, alike.

This weekend, thanks to my boyfriend, I’ll be seeing Ms. Cho in San Francisco. I’m betting that her new TV series will find its way into her routine.

Here’s to her return and John’s. And if you’d like to see these two in a film together, check out “Bam Bam and Celeste.” I haven’t had a chance to catch that flick yet myself, but the presence of the two Chos make it a must-see for me.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Another One Bites the Dust: Part 3

Turns out, not only did Margaret Seltzer fabricate her life story in Love and Consequences, she also plagiarized--and from the work of Sherman Alexie, one of my all-time favorite authors.

When I found out that Seltzer had posed as a biracial Native American, I wondered what Alexie would think. He's written and spoken extensively about white writers who co-opt, what they believe is, the Native American experience by posing as Indians.

In 2006, Mr. Alexie discovered that a writer who went by the name of Nasdijj was appropriating, not just the experiences of any Native but of Alexie himself. Doing so made Nasdijj the recipient of numerous accolades and praise from the literati. And if imitation is the highest form of flattery, Sherman Alexie has been flattered once again.

Apparently, Margaret Seltzer plagiarized from Alexie's autobiographical novel Reservation Blues. L.A. Weekly writer Matthew Fleischer has more about the controversy, including reaction from Alexie, here.

Lastly, NPR has a great feature about the history of literary frauds.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Another One Bites the Dust: Part 2

A half-black/half-Korean 25-year-old virgin struggles to connect with her mother, who became pregnant with her while working as a prostitute on a segregated American military base in Korea.

This is the crux of the Book of Dead Birds by Gayle Brandeis. While it sounds sensationalistic, it isn’t. The book has been hailed by Barbara Kingsolver, Toni Morrison and Maxine Hong Kingston and is an admitted work of fiction. To boot, the author didn’t change her life story to sell more copies of it. She’s neither black nor Korean with no ties to the sex trade. Brandeis (pictured below) was simply inspired to write the novel after watching a documentary on the plight of Korean prostitutes on American military bases.

Unlike the books written by authors who embellish their life stories to garner more press and, thus, more sales, the Book of Dead Birds isn’t filled with graphic details of the sex trade or any other underworld. Because of this, the Korean prostitute character isn’t further exploited.

Overall, the Book of Dead Birds is a quiet, lyrical novel that chooses not to pelt readers with a laundry list of its characters’ sufferings. Instead, the novel rewards readers by exploring the healing process, not only of protagonist Ava Sing Lo but of the birds she aids on the Salton Sea, where thousands of birds died from exposure to agricultural run-off.

Initially, Brandeis said that she felt uncomfortable writing about characters with backgrounds so different from hers. Compare this to writers such as Margaret Seltzer and Nasdijj who were willing to claim membership to ethnic minority groups they didn’t belong to just to capitalize on their appeal. Because the two main characters Brandeis dreamed up simply wouldn’t drift from her consciousness, the author ultimately dove into their tales, choosing to use her imagination, conduct research and consult a wide network of people to craft an authentic narrative.

The Book of Dead Birds went on to win Kingsolver’s Bellwether Prize for Fiction, which supports socially responsible literature. While Gayle Brandeis is certainly not a household name, she’s proof that a quiet tale can be more dignified than the fantastic, grisly ones that seem to be all the rage as of late.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Another One Bites the Dust: Part 1

A half-white/half-Native American girl raised in a black foster family in South Central L.A. becomes a drug runner for the Bloods.

A drug addict with a middle-class upbringing ventures in and out of jail and rehab but is so determined to kick his habit after his girlfriend’s suicide he undergoes dental surgery with no anesthesia.

The young, uneducated son of a Virginia prostitute grows up to be an HIV-infected hustler but finds refuge in the written word.

What does each of these scenarios have in common? Turns out, none of them are true. But that didn’t stop writers Margaret Seltzer, James Frey and Laura Albert, respectively, from passing them off as their life stories to make a killing in the publishing industry.

After her “memoir” Love and Consequences was published, Margaret Seltzer aka Margaret B. Jones is the latest writer to be exposed as a fraud. Seltzer was scheduled to speak today at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena, but that reading and those to follow have been canceled by her publisher, Riverhead Books. To boot, all copies of the book have been recalled because Seltzer was neither a foster child nor a drug runner. Moreover, she is entirely white, grew up in the posh Los Angeles suburb of Sherman Oaks and graduated from a private, Episcopal high school.

While Seltzer totally fabricated her life story, James Frey, a former Oprah’s Book Club endorsee, exaggerated his personal history in bestseller A Million Little Pieces. To up his street cred, he lied about doing time. He also fudged the details of his girlfriend’s death, not to mention the particulars of that now infamous root canal.

But it was Laura Albert who told the most outrageous and egregious lies. While she published fiction, the personal narrative she manufactured to promote her work was intimately tied to the themes it explored—sexual exploitation, hustling and child abuse. What’s more is that Albert, who took on the pseudonym J.T. Leroy, claimed to be a man and a very young one, at that. Because of this lie, the author shunned interviews and public appearances, but celebrities such as Winona Ryder did readings on Leroy’s behalf, while esteemed authors Dave Eggers and Michael Chabon gave Leroy professional writing advice.

When Albert was exposed as the real Leroy in late 2005, the publishing industry was stunned. Editors, writers and Leroy’s celebrity advocates said they felt betrayed. In 2006, when James Frey’s lies came to light, history repeated itself. Now, with the exposure of Margaret Seltzer as a fraud, the industry again insists that nothing could have been done to prevent a liar’s words from making it into print.

I’m not buying it. I’ve worked as a researcher/fact-checker before, and, while I know it would be too time consuming to verify every detail in a book, I doubt it would take a significant amount of time to confirm that the major facets of a book are true. Because of this, I don’t believe that the publishing industry is once again an unwitting victim of fraud. On the contrary, I believe the publishing industry is a victim of its own greed and sensationalistic appetite. Each of the books I’ve mentioned here is filled with explicit descriptions of worlds that most Americans don’t know about firsthand—gang warfare and the sex and drug trades, namely. In an effort to make thousands upon thousands of dollars, the publishing industry rushes to print tomes to sate a society that has become increasingly voyeuristic. In the era of reality television, the publishing industry has forsaken true but non-flashy stories of uplift to print these wildest of memoirs. And the public eats it up. Why?

I’ve never read the works of Seltzer, Frey or Albert. I can’t say this is because I won’t tolerate sensationalism. I love true crime stories as much as the average American and routinely visit celebrity gossip Web sites. I simply didn’t read the works because I’d never heard of Seltzer and Albert until they were exposed as frauds. And, as much as Oprah had backed Frey, I was turned off by his gritty story of drug recovery. As I’ve matured, I realize that it’s possible to know too much about matters I’d do best remaining ignorant of. Why do I need to know the excruciating details of what the body endures during drug withdrawal or the vile sex acts a child is forced to perform by the depraved adults around him? If these stories had been true, I would wonder if the writers were being exploited by our simple but inexplicable need to know.

I’m not sure why Americans have such morbid curiosity, but I believe that we’d learn the most from quiet tales of hardship than from spectacular tales of adversity. No one in publishing would likely give a writer a six-figure deal for a quiet tale, though. And until that day comes, you can bet that the industry will continue to be rocked by more scandals brought on by fabrication, hyperbole and outright plagiarism.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The End of Isms

Normally, I find New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd to be spot on, but, after reading her editorial today, I was left feeling flabbergasted.

In the editorial “Duel of Historical Guilts,” Dowd makes the following statements:

People will have to choose which of America’s sins are greater, and which stain will have to be removed first. Is misogyny worse than racism, or is racism worse than misogyny? As it turns out, making history is actually a way of being imprisoned by history. It’s all about the past. Will America’s racial past be expunged or America’s sexist past be expunged?

Dowd makes these comments in regards to whether or not Sen. Obama or Sen. Clinton will win the presidential election. My concern is that Dowd is under the impression that a win by either of the two would somehow wipe out America’s racist and sexist past. Why does Dowd believe that misogyny will evaporate with Hillary Clinton as President or that racism will evaporate with Barack Obama in the role? There is no doubt in my mind that, while women may make some advances under a Hillary Clinton administration, they will continue to earn less than men do, bear the brunt of domestic tasks, be sexually victimized and continue to struggle for reproductive rights. There is no doubt in my mind that black men will continue to make up the largest percentage of imprisoned Americans, die at younger ages than most other groups do, continue to be victimized by violence and be left behind in our schools. There is no doubt that women of color will continue to find themselves on the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, earning less than black men and white women, alike, while confronting the same issues they do.

I wholeheartedly embrace Barack Obama’s message of hope, but I also strive to remain rooted in reality. A win for either a white woman or a black man will not mark the end of “isms” in this country. These constructs have been in place for hundreds of years and cannot be undone by the election of one groundbreaking candidate. Despite this, I worry that others will espouse Dowd’s view in light of a Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton election. If such an election transpires, will women and those of color be told to “shut it” when they complain about the very real gender and racial constructs that they encounter in this country?

I also find Dowd’s column problematic because, for the umpteenth time, the public is being asked to choose. Which is worse: misogyny or racism? How about neither? How about we acknowledge that they are interconnected? Men are affected by misogyny and whites are affected by racism, whether or not they recognize this.

By suggesting otherwise, Dowd is engaging in what some have nicknamed the “Oppression Olympics.” Most often, I’ve witnessed the Oppression Olympics play out when slavery and the Holocaust are discussed. Those in support of the Holocaust cite the fact that 6 million Jews were exterminated. In response, those in support of slavery cite that 10 million Africans lost their lives in the Middle Passage alone. But those I admire most, such as Night author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, refuse to partake in the Oppression Olympics. He has argued that it is not conducive to healing to attempt to measure who’s suffered most. What’s important is that we have survived and that we heal.

As suffering goes, though, Hillary Clinton is a complicated symbol for women because she is so entrenched in the establishment. I do acknowledge, however, that she has been a victim of misogyny. She’s been criticized for her physical appearance, for appearing to be cold rather than nurturing, for being power-hungry. And, while I’m none too happy that she won Ohio and Texas, I find it problematic that, before these critical wins, so many newspaper columnists urged her to drop out of the Democratic race when she trailed Sen. Obama by a marginal percentage. Would a man in a close race be told to drop out? This certainly wasn’t the case for Huckabee, who had no chance of winning the Republican nomination but pressed on until yesterday.

Obama, on the other hand, is a complicated male symbol because of his blackness. Since he rose to prominence, he has been sexualized in a manner in which white men aren’t. Mitt Romney is known for being strikingly handsome. One political commentator even nicknamed him “Ken,” as in Barbie’s significant other, but Romney has never been sexualized in the same way that Obama has. I’ve seen television skits in which Obama has been portrayed as a Mandingo warrior who sexually arouses Hillary Clinton. I’ve seen pictures of Obama in his swim trunks circulate the Internet. I’ve witnessed Obama surface as the object of a “Will & Grace” character’s wet dream. Obama himself seems to be hyper aware of how he has been sexualized. Recently, he refused to divulge whether he wears boxers or briefs, dismissing the question as humiliating.

Obama illustrates more than any candidate how much race and sex are entangled. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, illustrates through the sheer amount of power she has alone, that all women aren’t victims by default. Together, they make the case that we should not vote for them as symbols. A vote for Sen. Obama isn’t necessarily a vote for blacks or a vote against women. The fact is, in contrast to Dowd’s remarks, that Obama has never campaigned on the basis that he symbolizes black progress. He’s campaigned on the basis that he symbolizes hope.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Susan Faludi Referenced My Writing!

Writing is a solitary business. Everyone knows that. In fact, even when I write for publication, I can't help but to wonder if anyone's reading. Turns out, when I worked for the El Paso Times in West Texas, someone was reading--Susan Faludi!

Yes, you read that correctly. I found out this afternoon that the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Backlash cited one of my articles in the Terror Dream, her latest book. I've yet to read it, but, from what I can surmise, the book examines how the events of 9/11 reshaped America culturally, particularly with regard to women.

The article she referenced of mine is called "Army Gear." A short, quirky piece with lines that make me cringe, "Army Gear" explores the connection between fashion and war.

Apparently, Faludi devotes an entire section of her book to pop culture and terror, and my article, which came out March 26, 2003, is mentioned there. Read it in full below, if you like.


For years, camouflage, combat boots and more have drifted in and out of designer collections. With the war in Iraq, military-inspired pieces are becoming more in demand.

Just hours before the United States would strike Iraq March 19, the Guess online store sold out of its cargo cadet pants.

At the Guess store in Cielo Vista Mall, sales representative Mariaelena Delgado said she suspected the war might draw people to military fashions.

This was the case with Gulf War veteran and Eastsider Ron Groves. While demonstrating to show his support for American troops, Groves donned a military jacket he had last worn while leaving Saudi Arabia 13 years ago.

Groves said he disapproves of people who never served in the Armed Forces wearing military apparel but does not object to military-inspired outfits, noting that there are some “pretty camouflage” designs available.

With her DKNY line, available at Dillard’s, designer Donna Karan is taking military chic to new heights. Check out Karan’s combat dress, a cotton twill strapless concoction that a bold high-school girl might wear to prom. The DKNY line also includes a combat-washed crepe jacket and a combat-shrunken jacket.

With its men’s canvas messenger bag, Old Navy is peddling military chic to guys. “Military surplus-style for your action-packed days!” Old Navy says of the bag on its Web site. In addition to a flap and numerous pockets, the bag comes “with army-style numbers and letters and metallic dog tag on adjustable strap.”

Of course, people in search of authentic military gear can shop at Army-surplus stores like Eagle Military, where owner Ron Williams said that basic brown T-shirts have sold out in the past few weeks. Also popular have been boonie hats, desert fatigues, desert boots, khakis, duct tape and gas masks.

El Paso Community College student Esmeralda Rodriguez said that she has seen a few people wearing camouflage and “pants with a lot of pockets and zippers.” As the war progresses, she expects to see more people doing so.

But Alonso Torres demonstrates that sometimes fashion is more about convenience than making a statement.

Asked why he recently wore a camouflage jacket, Torres explained, “I thought it would rain and this (jacket) has a hood.”

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Back to Black

"You told us all along that we had to call ourselves black because of this so-called one drop. Now that we don't have to anymore, we choose to. Because black is beautiful. Because black is not a burden, but a privilege." –Danzy Senna "Mulatto Millennium"

With the release of her debut album, Amy Winehouse decided to go back to black. Now, in a guest column for the New York Times, K.A. Dilday makes a case for doing the same. An ex-pat living in Britain, Dilday—who, unlike Winehouse actually is black—argues that it's high time we do away with the term African American.

I, for one, am in total agreement. It's not that I find African American to be an offensive term. I use it myself. It's that I find the label to be problematic, inauthentic and just plain confusing at times.

For instance, why should blacks, such as my father, who know their country of origin, call themselves African American? What's more is that, while blacks in the U.S. are of African descent, they are not culturally African in the same way that, say, Asian Americans are. They speak no native language, have no relatives (that they know of) in the Old World and share few cultural practices with Africans. All things considered, the term African American has never rung true for me.

I'm not building the case for going back to black simply on why I find the term African American to be problematic. I'm also building the case on what I find to be so wonderful about the term black.

For years, black was something that nobody wanted to be. This well-known rhyme says it all: "If you're white, you're right. If you're brown, stick around. If you're black, stay back."

So off-putting was the term black that many of my race clung to the term "colored," long after it passed its prime. Thus, when the Black Panthers and other groups embraced the term black, it was truly a radical act. The "Black is Beautiful" movement took off, encouraging us to take pride in our hair, skin color and other physical features. The feelings of shame that the term black had once invoked began to fall away.

Now that African American is the standard term for us, I fear that black will once again be associated with shame. That's because, oftentimes, when whites use the term in my presence, they behave as if they've said something wrong, as if black is a four-letter word. I want to tell them that it's okay. I like being called black. It's a lovely term, a historically powerful term.

But the history of black isn't the only reason I prefer it. There's also the fact, as Dilday points out, that black is a more unifying term than African American is. Black unites me to all people in the African Diaspora, be they from Cameroon, Cuba, England, Jamaica or Brazil. The term also unites me to those individuals who aren't part of the African Diaspora, such as the Aborigines of Australia, the Maori of New Zealand and the dark-skinned of the Indian sub-continent and Pacific Islands. They, too, are known as black.

And, now, I’m ready to heed Dilday’s call and join them once and for all.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Culture Crash

“Issues of gender, class, nation, race, religion and sexuality all meet, and sometimes crash, at the intersection.”
-Ella Shohat, Talking Visions

I’ve only seen the film “Crash” once. But one viewing was all it took for me to realize how much I disliked the 2005 Academy Award winner for best picture. While the acting was spot on, I found the narrative to be contrived and sensationalistic and the characters to be so self-involved that they bordered on autistic. To boot, the film seemed to reinforce many of the stereotypes it seemingly sets out to counteract.

Despite my strong feelings against the film, I admit that I’ve had moments in which the Los Angeles portrayed in “Crash” surfaces. In this Los Angeles, it’s not just every man for himself, but every minority group for itself also.

I most recently felt myself being sucked into the Los Angeles of “Crash” about a week ago, when a middle-aged white gay man I know (I’ll call him Paul) approached me to bemoan the fact that an employee at a hotel we’d just visited didn’t speak a word of English. There was no venom in his tone, just exasperation that this particular employee couldn’t direct him to the bathroom because he lacked the language ability to do so.

In response, I shrugged my shoulders, but our young Chicana acquaintance (I’ll call her Liberty) chipped in, “What’s wrong with that?”

That’s when things began to get uncomfortable. Paul started to fidget in place, perhaps realizing that his remark wasn’t just an observation of sorts but a judgment or, better yet, a complaint that extended beyond the hotel worker and to entire groups of people. The complaint’s underlying message? “I’m sick of these people inconveniencing me by not speaking English.”

In response to Liberty’s question, Paul stammered out, “Nothing.” And to diffuse the tension in the air, I asked Paul if he knew any Spanish. He didn’t need to know a whole phrase, I assured him, but useful words. Had he known the Spanish word for bathroom, for example, the man would have done what he could have to help him, I said.

I know that some will argue otherwise, that this is America and everyone here needs to speak English, but that’s a debate I’ll save for another time. Suffice it to say now that I believe that the bridge goes both ways. America did not start out with an official language and considering that the country’s global competitors produce citizens that are often quadrilingual, it would behoove us to have some familiarity with other languages.

Liberty agreed with me that knowing a word or two of Spanish would have likely helped Paul out, that the hotel worker wasn’t somehow conspiring against him by not speaking English. Then, suddenly, the conversation took an unexpected turn.

“Yeah, you try speaking Chinese,” Liberty told Paul, proceeding to lapse into sentences of ching-chongery that would have boiled the blood of the blogger over at

After unleashing one ching-chong after another, Liberty started to imitate an Asian nail manicurist. “I do yo nail fo five dollah,” she said in her best broken English.

By this time Paul had lost interest in the conversation, but my eyes began to bulge in surprise that Liberty could have gone from correcting Paul for being culturally insensitive only to exhibit behavior that was arguably more so.

Is the Los Angeles depicted in “Crash” not so far off the mark, after all? Yet, it was in this city and not my native, notoriously segregated Chicago that I learned, as critic Ella Shohat posits, “genders, sexualities, races, classes, nations, and even continents exist not as hermetically sealed entities but rather as parts of a permeable interwoven relationality.”

What to make of it then when scenarios such as the one above occur here? Is ethnocentrism responsible or is ignorance, othering or plain old hypocrisy? I’m not sure. What I do know is that I didn’t call Liberty on her behavior. And, by doing so, by giving into a mixture of apathy and a desire not to ruffle any more feathers that day, I missed out on the opportunity to crash not in a way that would result in cultural divisiveness but in a way that may have resulted in cultural connection.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Beyond the Politics of Abortion: "Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days"*

It’s tempting to file away “Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days” as an issue movie. But Cristian Mingui’s film about two college women’s attempt to illegally terminate a pregnancy stretches beyond abortion. Set in the communist Romania of 1987, “4-3-2” never gives any indication as to whether abortion should be legal. Instead, using the procedure as a focal point, the film paints concise but intricate psychological portraits of its key players.

Unpredictably, the expectant Gabita is not the film’s protagonist; her friend Otilia fills that role. Gabita, in fact, is not even a trustworthy character, a quality to which the film’s title pays homage. Helpless, irresponsible and manipulative, she stands in contrast with the heroines of films such as “Juno” and “Knocked Up.” Mingui’ s film also varies from recent American films about unplanned pregnancies in that it offers no information about how Gabita came to be pregnant. There’s no drunken miscommunication about condoms or sexual initiation on sofa chairs á la “Knocked Up” or “Juno,” respectively. The absence of a back story robs the viewer of the opportunity to make a sexist judgment of sorts, to designate Gabita as either a good girl whose limited sexual activity landed her in a quagmire or a promiscuous bad girl who got what she deserved. That said, there’s indeed judgment of Gabita’s pregnancy—from her directly. When abortionist Mr. Bebe hints that she and Otilia will have to have sex with him before he performs the procedure, Gabita says that the guilty have to pay.

Yet, it is Otilia who arguably pays the most. Because Gabita is too irresponsible to even bother securing a hotel room for the abortion, we see a desperate Otilia haggle with and lie to the personnel of two different hotels to obtain a room. We see Otilia secure the funds needed for the abortion and her first meeting with Mr. Bebe, a meeting for which Gabita should have been present but declined to show. Despite these acts of devotion to Gabita, it appears that Gabita lies to Otilia about what exactly needed to be sacrificed to make the abortion happen. As it turns out, Otilia is the first of the women to sexually service Bebe. A scene in which she washes her vagina and brushes her teeth indicates exactly what she had to part with to aid Gabita in her quest.

“4-3-2” makes a point of portraying vaginas on screen. There are full frontal nude scenes involving both Otilia and Gabita, but vaginas in the film are not fodder for entertainment, as they are for the group of geeks in “Knocked Up.” Rather, they and, by extension, women’s bodies are purely functional. To remove any hint of eroticism, no other parts of the female anatomy are shown on screen, sans an anonymous backside in a shower scene. The intention not to eroticize is stressed when Otilia changes shirts with her breasts turned away from the viewer. The result is that it is all the more unsettling when vaginas are depicted, be it when they are being cleansed or penetrated.

Also unsettling is that it is Otilia’s responsibility to discard the aborted fetus, a crime that could land her in prison for years. The scene in which she first catches sight of the fetus is the closest “4-3-2” comes to making an indictment of abortion. It is the first fictional feature film (that I know of, anyway) to depict an aborted fetus. Initially, the viewer watches Otilia’s reaction to the fetus, a mixture of wonderment and horror on her face. Then, the viewer is allowed a look. The camera lingers long enough to reveal that Gabita was so far along in her pregnancy that the fetus resembles not a sort of sea creature but a very tiny baby covered in a bloody, applesauce-like goo.

It is as memorable of a scene as Hitchcock’s close up of Janet Leigh’s lifeless eye in “Psycho.” But it is one that Otilia is determined to forget. She tells Gabita that they are never to discuss the events of that night again. Even if that promise is kept, there is little doubt that Otilia will relive those events for years to come.

The question that remains at the end of the film is what motivated Otilia to play such a large role in Gabita’s quest for an abortion. In a callous move, Otilia leaves Gabita in the hotel room alone during the abortion to attend a birthday dinner for her boyfriend’s mother. Once there, she tells her boyfriend that she has been helping Gabita get an abortion and explains that she could count on Gabita to do the same if the roles were reversed. Given how irresponsible Gabita is, this is doubtful.

So, what is Otilia’s motivation? Is it that, as is revealed mostly during the birthday dinner, that she has a rural, lower class background and knows that an unplanned pregnancy would derail her one opportunity to transcend it? Is this why she goes to such lengths for Gabita? Or is that Otilia’s maternal exhibitions make her ripe for martyrdom?

The viewer can’t be sure, and this is one of the reasons why “4-3-2” works. As in life, the characters can’t be boxed into tidy little packages. Precisely because of their complexities and flaws, we ache when they do.

*Contains spoilers

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

On All Fronts: Black Women and the Vote

Throughout the primaries much has been made about where black female voters stand. There have been endless debates about whether race trumps sex, cringe-worthy interviews of black women in beauty salons and old wounds reopened between white feminists and black feminists. Now that Sen. Obama has won his tenth consecutive contest, it’s safe to say that the overwhelming majority of black women have opted to vote for him rather than his white female competitor. This has led some to conclude that black women are more invested in their race than in their sex.

For weeks now I’ve been questioning myself about where my loyalties lie. Am I rooting for Obama primarily because he could be the first U.S. president of African descent? I believe that Obama’s blackness is only part of the equation for me. I am drawn to him because, like me and countless other post-Baby Boomer African Americans, his blackness has been called into question simply because of his upbringing. The Illinois senator has blacks and whites, alike, in his family. He grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia rather than on the mean streets of the inner city or in the rural, poverty-stricken South as the black leaders before him did. His father wasn’t American but Kenyan and raised in the Muslim tradition rather than in the Christian faith. When, in 2006, I first heard the charges that Sen. Obama was not authentically black because of the circumstances of his birth, a maternal feeling rose inside of me. I wanted to protect him. How many similar charges had I heard leveled against myself and others simply because our narratives diverged from the ones America has come to most commonly link with blacks? Why was it that those blacks who told tales infused with poverty, violence and virulent racism were the only among us considered to be authentically black, especially when large numbers of African Americans don’t have such tales to tell? It seemed a strange kind of racism to suggest that those of us fortunate enough to enjoy the fruits of Martin Luther King’s dream were somehow non-black.

So, all in all, it wasn’t Obama himself that drew me to him but his detractors. In support of the senator, I began to read excerpts from his speeches and track his appearances, ultimately attending a rally of his in South Central Los Angeles. The location was a strategic move to boost his black cred. Also strategic was the senator’s decision to grant his sole interview during this visit to Los Angeles’ most prominent black newspaper, the L.A. Sentinel. At the rally, during which Obama spoke with a distinctly black cadence, he made sure to draw attention to those in the audience from Occidental College, the school that he attended for two years before transferring to Columbia and my alma mater. Occidental isn’t the only place my path has crossed Obama’s. When I was a child and Obama was a young community organizer on Chicago’s South Side, we both attended Trinity United Church of Christ. Two years ago, I was most impressed when the senator stressed to liberals how important it was that they include matters of faith in their political discourse.

Of course, none of what I have in common with Sen. Obama—a college, a church, a city, African Muslim heritage—indicates that he would make a good commander-in-chief. However, when his rival’s platform varies little from his—the exceptions being their positions on the Iraq war and the discrepancies in their health care plans—the personal easily becomes political.

While I personally connect with Obama in several ways, it is more difficult for me to connect with Sen. Clinton on such a level. We are women from Illinois. That essentially sums up what I have in common with her. In recent days, Clinton has tried to align herself with regular working folk by suggesting that she, too, works the night shift. The suggestion rang false to me, the black daughter, niece and cousin of such folk. While I can connect with the Erin Brockovichs of this country, I am hard pressed to pinpoint what I have in common with white women of Sen. Clinton’s ilk, those who have led privileged lives because of their husbands’ accomplishments. None of the editorials I read about the predicament of black women in this election have mentioned how white female privilege figures into the votes that black women cast. Then, I happened upon an essay by Melissa Harris-Lacewell, which addressed this issue with flair.

“Black women voters are rejecting Hillary Clinton because her ascendance is not a liberating symbol,” Harris-Lacewell writes. “Throughout history, privileged white women, attached at the hip to their husband’s power and influence, have been complicit in black women’s oppression.”

Harris-Lacewell goes on to remark that black women who choose not to vote for Clinton aren’t ignoring gender issues. Black feminist identity politics is complex, she asserts. “It is not about letting brothers handle the race stuff or about letting white women dominate the gender stuff. The black women’s fight is on all fronts,” she said.

Thus, black women resist male leaders who attempt to silence them or white women who desire the allegiance of black women without acknowledging racism. In short, Harris-Lacewell concludes, “They will not be drawn into any simple allegiance that refuses to account [for] their full humanity and citizenship.”

While I’m not arguing that Hillary Clinton has oppressed black women, in recent weeks, she and her husband have alienated blacks with comments that belied an undeniable racial callousness. I gave Sen. Clinton a pass when she said that it took President Lyndon Johnson to realize Martin Luther King’s dream. However, when she was criticized for the remark and blamed the controversy on Obama playing “the race card,” she began to lose me. Sen. Clinton may be privileged enough to invoke “the gender card”—announcing in debate after debate how having a female president constitutes change—but Obama does not have the privilege of playing “the race card,” for fear of turning off non-black voters. Obama, in fact, has been criticized for not discussing race enough. Accordingly, he did not initiate the commentary on Hillary Clinton’s Martin Luther King gaffe. Newspaper columnists, on the other hand, did.

Weeks after that remark Sen. Clinton and her husband would continue to come under fire for trying to paint Obama as “the black candidate” rather than a president for the people. Hillary Clinton also was dismissive of the fact that the black electorate of Louisiana and the Potomac Primary voted overwhelmingly for Sen. Obama. She implied that it was a given that black females and males, alike, would vote for Obama, that race indeed trumps gender.

In this instance Sen. Clinton not only perpetuated a kind of stereotype but downplayed Sen. Obama’s personal appeal. She suggested that there was nothing unique about the Illinois senator that made African Americans rally around him, that we have only done so because of a shared ancestry. If that were the case, wouldn’t we have rallied around past black presidential candidates with the same amount of zeal? Dismissing the black electorate on those grounds certainly doesn’t earn Sen. Clinton any points with blacks. In fact, she has so alienated the African American community that many have vowed not to vote at all if she is the Democratic nominee.

And why should they? Until white women navigate race in a way that is as just as meaningful as the way they navigate gender, they shouldn’t count on the support of women, or men, of color.