Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Race Talk; What might your children say?





A wonderful friend, whom I love more than I could ever explain in this piece, posted this cool video of children analyzing a Cheerios commercial portraying a mixed-race family.

Although the commercial is kind of old now, it is quite brilliant. However, that it was the first Cheerios commercial to depict a mixed-race family, reveals an ugly reality about our country.

As it were, my friend isn't Black, although she is a freaking awesome mother to two incredibly gifted, biracial children! In fact, she is a super-soul sister (and I mean that as inoffensively possible).

Often my friend and I differ in our positions as to how and when race should be discussed (We've had a few ugly banters on Facebook). But we understand that our lenses are very different, and I respect hers, as she does mine, particularly because they are both based on some real hard-core, life experiences; they reflect our truths!

Anyway, in the video, there is a (seemingly) diverse cross-section of kids -- all under 14-years-old -- who were observed and recorded while watching this commercial. (I say seeming because I don't believe it to have been as diverse as it could have.)

Based on what we see in the video, the kids adore the commercial, responding with comments like, "They seem like a normal family," and "Nice," "Fun!"

But not one of the children mentioned race. Not one.



This phenomenon touched my friend deeply, and, to be honest, it touched me and millions of others, too. I mean, what if it were such that our children could really endeavor to experience lives free of racism? What lives they would have! But, that simply isn't the case today, and I believe that continuing to position race as a taboo subject between white and Black people is more harmful than not.

The interviewer went on to inform the children that thousands of people were angry about the commercial, and the kids' scrunched up faces, tight eyes, and pouty lips, were dead give-aways to the confusion and disappointment they ostensibly felt toward...well...the haters.


Yet, they seemingly remained clueless to the mixed-race of the family depicted in the commercial.

Finally, the interviewer informed each child that the thousands of angry people were only angry because the dad was a black man, and the mom a white woman.


The. Kids. Went. In.

The eldest girl, 12-year-old Olivia, who happened to be white, was flooded with emotions, resisting the notion that race should ever matter, especially in matters of the heart.

And the most charismatic child, a portly, brilliant, ray of sunshine, Morgan, got all Oprah on the interviewer and the haters, dropping wisdom like Erykah Badu, explaining that "some people just fall in love like that...I don't know why they get mad at that."

But, most revealing was when 13-year-old Darius, a Black young man, interjected his personal encounters with racism into the conversation, saying, "I have some friends that [be] racist just to be funny. So, just because they do that, I do it right back. 'I don't find it funny. They think it's funny because I'm the minority.'"


Darius' comments, obviously, struck a nerve in me, for I saw them as worthy of further exploration. But somehow, the creators of this video, the Fine Brothers, in my opinion, missed the significance of them, treating them as if they were just like all the others.

But, they weren't like all of the others, and presented a very compelling argument for the need to have guided race talks with our youth, led by a diverse group of moderators, teachers, parents, and leaders.

In fact, Darius was the only kid who admitted to consciously experiencing racism. And in all fairness to the Fine Brothers, perhaps they simply didn't have the points of reference to find Darius' story worth expounding upon.

Moreover, although the Fine Brothers do a fine job of engaging a very specific group of young Americans in a very specific discussion around race, it is clear that this group was comprised mostly of children endowed with the luxury of seeing beyond race.

But in reality, many American children aren't as fortunate. They face tough racial situations daily, as Darius described in his interview.

Although we were all likely born oblivious to racial differences, (even hitler and Willie Lynch weren't born racist), something happens to most of us, inclining us to begin seeing, and often considering, race. And in way too many instances, Black people come out with the broken toothpick,



leaving Black parents the daunting task of teaching our children the safest ways to respond to race-driven danger. Being profiled as a white youth, frankly, means something very different than being profiled as a Black youth.

For instance, when Trayvon Martin was murdered, and his killer set free, Black and white people, generally, perceived the incident very differently -- whites, relating to Zimmerman's alleged fear of Black boys, and Blacks worried that every Black boy in a hoodie could now be a symbol of fear, and could be murdered without recourse, again leaving Black parents the task of giving our sons that extra "once-overs" to ensure that their gear won't be too intimidating to the people are afraid of them.

Similar can be said about the incident involving the murder of 24-year-old Jonathan Ferrell, a Black man who, in his search for help, was killed by a white officer who perceived him as a criminal rather than a college-educated citizen in need of help.


As the father of a Black son, am I to encourage my son to long for the "gray" or "beige" world, or rather, to be embrace his complexion and culture with insurmountable pride? I chose the latter, and, in my own opinion, for very good reason:

The simple and most disappointing truth (based on my own experiences) about the race talk in America is the unwillingness of individuals to come to terms with the fact that their lenses aren't the only lenses through-which people experience race; these folk, white and black, ultimately imposing their personal race experiences on people who have had completely different ones.

Case-in-point, this week Justice Clarence Thomas said that America is more race-conscious  than it had been when he was being raised, noting that although he

was "the first black in Savannah, Georgia to attend an all white school," it was on rare occasion that 'he' encountered racism; as if his being the first Black student at the school had nothing to do with racism. REALLY, CLARENCE?? 


"Rarely did the issue of race come up," Thomas said. "Everybody is [too] sensitive."

Thomas' comments imply that because the issue of race didn't come up for him, that it shouldn't come up for others. But what of the thousands of Blacks for whom race did come up -- where people of his (and my mother's) age, as children, were spat upon and beaten; tortured and lynched, simply because they were black?

But I want my son to feel comfortable discussing race. I want him to be as secure starting conversations with, "As a Black man," as he is hearing his white friends starting conversations with, "As a white woman."  

I wonder how the Fine Brothers' video would have differed had the pool of children been expanded to include more children who have endured tough racial experiences, both white and Black. Although I believe very deeply in the value of the perspectives expressed in this video, I also believe that a more diverse group of children would have reflected a more accurate reality, rendering transparent data critical toward truly achieving the kind of awareness that changes the world, and the world, indeed, needs to be changed. Right?

After writing this piece, I recorded my son's response to the same Cheerios commercial. Click here to see it. His response was exactly what I expected. Seeing race ain't necessarily being racist.

Friday, January 3, 2014

I Act Like This Because I Love You; Soliciting the Best from Ourselves and Our Loved Ones




Photograph by Derrick Watkins 
www.dwphotographyandcreative.com
all rights reserved


It is by no stretch of the imagination that I am so delusional as to believe that I am “better” than any other human being on earth, for believing so would contradict my fundamental belief that we are all made of or by God, or that we all make God; however one chooses to perceive it, if he or she believes similarly. 

And, believing that God has intentionally made us all with no respect of person to simply and perpetually express its likeness, quickens me with consciousness of the divine equity of our contributions toward humanity, bringing a stinging woe to the man or woman of such ignorance as to perceive himself, his thoughts, or his contributions as…well…

better…

Photograph by Derrick Watkins 
www.dwphotographyandcreative.com
all rights reserved


It is also not by any stretch of the imagination, that I, a proud, and sometimes ornery, unreasonable Black man of innovative thoughts and inspired artistic ability, have ever claimed my vision to be “the” vision of the Black man, neither of “the people”.  To do so would marginalize our vastness, and I simply do not wish to do that, but I assure each of you, beyond any shadow of even the remotest doubt, that I am 1 billion percent sure, as you should be, that my talents are God-given, and quite necessary toward raising the consciousness of human-kind about the impetuous beauty within this, the COLLECTIVE Black experience. 

Photograph by Derrick Watkins 
www.dwphotographyandcreative.com
all rights reserved


And, because, like yours, my skin has survived the gift of the kiss of the Sun, my vision, also like yours and any other Black-skinned human – gay or straight (or someplace along that spectrum), Religious or not, wealthy or struggling, troubled or strong-minded – is inextricably, and undeniably a critical part of the collective vision for Blacks in this land, which was once strange to us…

Including my son…

And his daughters, which will surely live one day…

And for their sons, whom will one day, proudly, call me “great grandfather”.


Photograph by Derrick Watkins 
www.dwphotographyandcreative.com
all rights reserved


So, on occasion, I may take great pleasure in wrestling against, Son of Baldwin, knit-picking his presumptions, negating his philosophies, and challenging his logic; but these things, not to disparage his incomparable contributions to our the world, but to sharpen his tool, as he sharpens mine with the same love, high-expectation and honor we both can muster.

And, on other occasion, when after Darin presents an amazing piece with nearly 100 Black and Brown faces singing and playing violas, the timpani, the bass, woodwinds and brass, I dare to tell him how fine the show was as vigorously as I dare to encourage him, “Give the people more of yourself, Beloved Brother,” this not to diminish his matchless preservation of our culture, but to ensure him that I know him, and that I, selfishly, want him to repeatedly give his “most best," that it may inspire those among us, not only to love and respect music, but all that they may be inspired to manifest themselves, repeatedly!


Photograph by Derrick Watkins 
www.dwphotographyandcreative.com
all rights reserved



And on occasion, when my dearest sisters Meredith and Carolyn, whom I love as much as the rise of The Son each morning, when they make profound statements about culture, God, and misogyny, I search for holes to slither into, wherein I shall fight tooth and nail to dissect their arguments; this not to show that I am smarter than they, but rather "because" they are two of the smartest persons I know; this also because I know my role in their lives as the iron to their iron.

And, oh, how I love, with every cell in my body, to have discussions with George Blake, The Great, who truly is the smartest person I know. How I love those rare occasions upon which I am righter than he, or whereby he must say, “Ah, you make a great point, dearest brother.” 



Photograph by Derrick Watkins 
www.dwphotographyandcreative.com
all rights reserved



I must admit that hearing those words from this genius brother of mine makes me dance like David. And perhaps it is the God within and around him, which inclines such behavior from me. None-the-less, we fight, not with insults nor with blame, but rather with exuberant expectation and fiery accountability. (I never go to him unless I want the unadulterated truth.)

And towards my sister, who knows me best; towards her I stand face to face, eye to eye, soul to soul, presenting myself as her transparent mirror of sorts,  saying, “Take my good, and let it be yours, but take my bad, and incinerate it to ash, lest you repeat my mistakes. But why waste such precious earth time, when I’ve already done so for us both?”



Photograph by Derrick Watkins 
www.dwphotographyandcreative.com
all rights reserved



Finally, within my own home, where I live among two ardent artists, prodigious thinkers, and strategic fighters, my son and my partner, I question everything, not to be wicked or rapacious, but because I know their value; because I love them enough to demand the best as I see it; and because I know them to be more than merely the best in our home, community, city, and state, but moreover, because I am damn sure of them to be the best in the world.

What disservices we force upon our brethren when we manage our love so loosely as to ignore accountability toward producing their personal best all the time. How much better would we all be, by now, with an army of truth-speakers in our ears, chanting, "You can and you must do better. You can and you must do better. You can and you must..."


Photograph by Derrick Watkins 
www.dwphotographyandcreative.com
all rights reserved



How gravely we stifle the black and brown youth of our country when we accept the black and brown adults’ mediocrity as the best we have, when it is not even the best they have. I'm guilty of the same, and in this iteration of my life, shall not rest easily until after I have given all that I have...

Like James Baldwin...

Like Zora Neal...

Like Billie Holiday and Dr. King...

Or like Malcolm X and The Honorable Elijah Muhammad, Thurgood Marshall and Barbara Jordan, Slave Girl Judah and Mother Harriet Tubman, and Dr. Nathan Carter and Nina Simone. 

What disserve to ourselves do we impose when we are unwilling to hear the truth of how others "perceive" our behaviors or beliefs, as if listening will kill us. 

And so it is with great humility that I assure you that I do not know everything. And with equal humility and great pride that I proclaim that I do, indeed, know some things; and for those things I am eternally grateful for. 



    

Monday, December 9, 2013

I Hate Selfies; Especially Taking Them!





I hate taking selfies. Doing so is the worst thing I’ve ever endeavored; worse than trying to look cool in a club while being 40; worse than deciding, against the disapproving cries of family and friends, that nothing will stop you from wearing that ole pair of pants you bought from Banana Republic last year—you know the ones that give you a muffin top…and you’re a man? (No, “I had a baby,” or “I’m on my period,” excuses for you, Sir! Man up, yo! Man up!)

Taking selfies makes you look for your most attractive side, which is a grim reminder that all of your sides are no longer "good". And that loss you feel(for those of us who believe that we ONCE, indeed, were attractive) is tragic. And depressing. And, ugh… just ugh!
So, it’s selfie time, because I’m thinking, “Eh, I kinda look…uh…cute right now?” Incessantly, I search my home for the best lighting, looking for sun beams through the window or that dear shadow that may cast a tree branch across my face—everyone knows that selfies using flashes totally suck.

But I can’t find good natural lighting inside, so (of course), I use the flash, which makes my nose look like two noses (and hair has the freaking nerve to grow out of my nose. NO!  NOT THE NOSTRILS, which produce lengthy gray hairs--the actual nose.

 
Of course, now, I have to change shirts, because I’m going outside, and it’s, uh, chilly. I stand on my front porch (I happen to live on a main street), and drivers-by sniggle and grin a little as they notice me failing repeatedly at capturing that perfect selfie.  But shamefully, this un-epic epic gets worse.



Now, the light is too revealing, and the way I’m standing makes me look as if I have man-boobs and a lazy eye!  So (of course), I turn to one of my sides and snap away. and with great hope, I think to myself, “That was it! I know it was,” Only have my bubble of surety shattered with a review of the pic; yup, LET THERE BE a ring of chalk around his lips and a teensy piece of cold resting in the corner of my eye.

I clean up, lotion down and try again, confronting the following insecurities:

  • Damn, I look fat.

  • Ooh, I look sad.

  • Is that how I look?

  • When did I get bags under my eyes? 
  • You mean my hair will “never” grow back?

  • WHY ARE MY NOSE HAIRS THAT LONG???!!!




Selfies suck, and whenever I see them, I know that my FaceBook friends likely faced the same challenges I did in capturing my "good" selfie. 

Now, this is the worse part; the implication in taking a selfie at all is that on this moment, in this outfit, we thought we looked pretty darn amazing and wanted to prove to the world that we still got “it”. 

But, the epic-fail in this notion is the horrible reality that “If this pic get less than 10 likes, I must destroy it and fight depression. So, I hate taking selfies!

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Why Don Lemon's Quick-Fix-List was an Epic Failure and Culturally Irresponsible

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Recently, Don Lemon, in my opinion, crossed the cultural responsibility line when he used video footage from Bill O'reilly's sarcastic soliloquy of problems with Black males to support his own presumptuous, uninformed quick-fix-list toward solving Black America's problems. And although many of Bill's observations, on paper, were sound, like Don's, they lacked the substance required to reveal the complexity of Black America's "whole movie," rather than just a few clips of "the bad parts".

Don's and Bill's lists inexcusably omitted undeniable historical and ongoing unethical practices imposed upon Black and Brown men at the hands of self-proclaimed blue-bloods, in an effort to feed the fire of hate they inherited from their grandfathers; this resulting in a tricky collective superiority complex now exposing itself like an army of streaking pedophiles on a playground.

Most unfortunate in this sad, but true reality is that Don's perspective rendered the real problem unrecognizable to way too many, educated, high-achieving Black people. And if “we” are unwilling to acknowledge the truth, why should anyone else?

Obviously, many Blacks suffered very deeply through America's inhumane practices toward her Black and brown children, adopting poor self images and practices, which they subsequently passed down through their offspring in a cancerous cycle (often referred to as generational curses). Many of our strongest ancestors were beaten and frightened into submission, such that they dare not utter “Black Power!” for fear of family members being killed. And many of our would-have-been elders were killed long before they had time to deposit the lessons that may have changed our trajectory toward "collective" Black achievement.

Don, in under five minutes, did what no other single man could do in 600 years; presented five quick-fixes, descending from least to most important, that black people should "think about" doing to "fix" the Black "problem":

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Fifth on Don's quick-fix-list was, "Pull up your pants...nobody wants to see your butt crack!"  And he said as if he'd found an Easter egg hidden in a place so outrageously obvious, all of the other children simply walked pass it.

Lemon explained that this “sagging” trend came from prison culture, ultimately representing roles in homosexual sex.

However, Don doesn't present "sagging" as a stupid trend, but rather as an ignorant ploy responsible for 20% of the destruction of the Black race. To me, this kind of thinking is far more damaging than the stupid trend itself. For, you see, it deflects attention from the deep-rooted issues of profiling, racism, and classism practiced in this country against young, black males by Black and white people alike.  

Moreover, I wonder…What is the relationship between Black "problems" and this stupid trend? In fact, I know some pretty accomplished saggers—doctors, lawyers, artists, teachers, police officers, and yup, I even know some journalist who have sagged during their youth. Hell, some of them still do! But, I don't know many racist saggers. Elitist saggers. I've never seen a mass murderer sagging. Crazier than that, I've seen serial killers, molesters, drug king pens, and even Trayvon Martin's murderer in beautiful, high-quality, open-casket-sharp suits, silk ties and Gucci shoes.

Oh yeah, and Don, as much as I hate the trend, I've never, ever seen any saggers' butt cracks. Not once. Where the heck were you, brother???

Fourth on Don's list is use of the word "nigger".  The real fact, like it or not, is that black people are split down the middle on use of this word. Hell, in my own house, we are split down the middle! It ails me that those so tired of this word feel so comfortable ignoring those who feel differently than they.

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Personally, I choose not to shield my son and other young males in my family from the word, mostly because I never want it to carry as much weight in their lives as it did in mine, my parents', and my grandparents' lives.

See, I grew up in Baltimore, MD, which, in my youth, was very racist. Being called "nigger" by a white person absolutely broke my heart and shredded my confidence; brought me to tears and left me searching for a sound explanation for why white people had so much power over Black folks. Needless to say, I would never find that explanation, because it will just never make sense. EVER. It so happens that I am father of an amazing 12-year-old son who understands quite deeply that his family is absolutely against sagging. But, he also knows it's because we see it as a stupid trend that in a sorted kind of way, represents rebellion.

Today, "nigger" means nothing to me and it won't to my son, especially not when one of his football heroes Riley Cooper, is caught on camera making references to "niggers"; or his grandma's favorite television chef Paula Deen admits using "nigger," and wants to reenact slavery for a "Good Ole" southern party.

Perhaps because Don is not a father to a black boy, he can't understand why so many black men extract the power from "nigger".  Whatever the case, his suggestion, while meritorious in general, is short-sighted in that it identifies only a condition that grew out of the mother problem—RACISM. But he never mentions that big problem.

Don's third "fixer" was to "Respect where you live," and I couldn't agree more with him that we should respect our neighborhoods more.  But this dude Don lost me when he said, "I've lived in several predominantly white neighborhoods...I rarely, if ever, witnessed people littering.”

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He went on to explain with the conviction of Job that now that he lives in Harlem, NY, everyday he sees adults and children "...dropping their trash on the ground when a garbage can is just feet away."

Clearly, the white neighborhoods Don lived in were not poor, socially challenged ones, for had they been, he would have seen white folks doing dropping trash too. I’m offended that Don presents trashy neighborhoods as a Black problem when it is so much deeper than that.  

Don's second fixer was, "Finish school. You wanna break the cycle of poverty?" He asks. "Stop telling kids they're 'acting white' because they got to school, or they speak proper English."

I studied journalism at Morgan State University, and one thing I ABHOR is when people misuse the term “proper English” for “standard English"; there is a difference.
Proper English, in my world, is the most effective English to successful communicate a message.

The bigger issue is that Don ignores is the failure of the schools districts across America to maintain the interest of our Black children by teaching from curricula that rarely considers their experience as Black children in America; he ignores the thousands of Black and brown students forced to drop out of school to earn money to help the family; he ignores the kids who are afraid to go to school for fear of being bullied; Don ignores the thousands of undiagnosed learning disabilities leaving many black and brown (and white) kids feeling plain old stupid; he ignores the thousands of children whose home lives leave them so stressed out enough to take it out on other kids or to drop out; finally, Don ignores the annual new initiatives schools adopt, resulting in a dwindling number of Black teachers hired to teach black children—teachers who share and celebrate their experiences.

And, believe it or not, Don's number one "fixer" is to stop having babies without being married first. And while for people who believe in marriage this may be a very valid point, is it the number one problem in the Black community? Is it fair, then, to conclude that based on Don's list of "fixers," most of the problems in the Black community would disappear if people stopped having babies without be married?

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So, my mother had both my sister and I without being married. And although I must admit that things were really tough at times, my sister and I turned out pretty great, often experiencing less emotional struggles than our friends with married parents. When I was nine, my mother started dating an amazing man named Horace, and they were together for 15 years before they finally got married. But, in Don’s assessment, these 15 years of consistent love weren’t good enough. They should have been married.

There were scores of other kids in the same situation throughout my community; live-in dads, but parents remained single (On the books). There were also scores of kids with married parents whose homes were abusive or parents were addicted to drugs.  While my responses are not intended to minimize the value of being raised with married parents, they are indeed intended to point out the naïveté with which Don cockily presented the his quick-fix list for Black America's "problems".

Developing effective action items toward solving Black America's problems depend largely upon the lens through which one views America, and one's willingness to acknowledge both the obvious and intangible impact America's institution of racism has had on Black people; despite the level of profundity with which they've experienced it personally.

Don's proposed quick-fix-list of action items fail to acknowledge the disenfranchisement imposed upon blacks in every aspect of life.

At what point do Black individuals who seemingly transcend the hurdles of destruction see that their disconnectivity is as big a part of the problem as the judgment of non-Black people. And while I am 100% sure that Don's intentions were good, I would encourage consider the following:

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Engage the people living the experience before discussing the solutions to problems specific to the experience. Perhaps, then, Don may learn that his solutions would merely serve as generic Bandaids on wounds requiring surgery and stitches; nurturing and therapy toward healing and reconciliation.

Perhaps then, Don's solutions would have included diverse curricula that consider each individual's strengths. Maybe it would have included affordable housing and affordable healthy foods. Perhaps it would have included mental health programs. Perhaps he could have including affordable education for average students. Maybe it would be helpful if all organizations, families and universities that had or benefited from slaves, or that operated under racist and classist practices to give back money to the people who were taken advantage of and stolen from.

In closing, I have two questions for Don:

What did it feel like those times you stood on The Avenues of The Americas dressed in your Armani suit and Prada shoes, hailing a cab only to be ignored because your were black?

And, as my dear friend Olive (who happens to be white) recently asked, "But what should white people do?"

Friday, June 28, 2013

What Do You Teach Your Sons About Black Girls?



photo by Derrick Watkins, all rights reserved
Now, I know that this conversation is generally relegated to the confines of The Black Kitchen, and sometimes even staff eating areas in our workplaces when "ain't no white folks around".

And likely, it unfolds in that same intense, rhaspy whisper Mother Harriet must have used during her tedious sojourns along the Underground Railroad.

"Hush, nah. Hush. Ah thanks Ah hear'um a-coming!" 

But I move to address its topic right here; Right now. No shade, but...
What do you teach your sons about black girls?

And before I begin, let the record show that I am well aware that my perspective is mine and mine alone, derived from a wealth of exposure through a broad spectrum of life experiences; some good and some not so much. Let it further be known that I am not opposed to interracial love, dating, yada, yada, yada. Nor do I presume to be an expert on this subject. However, let the conscious of us stipulate the following;

--The entertainment industry has historically practiced unkindness toward people of color through marginalized, exaggerated portrayals of us; particularly those of black women.

--Allowing those one-dimensional portrayals of people of color profoundly damages perceptions of us around the world.

--Changing this has everything to do with black people.

photo by Derrick Watkins, all rights reserved
So, as magazine covers and billboards "from California to  the New York Island" disproportionately feature blonde-haired, blue-eyed, waify white girls as the conventional standard of beauty, what do you teach your sons about beauty?

And when "People Magazine" chooses a mere 10 among billions of humans as the world's most beautiful, none of whom are usually distinguishably ethnic (this alone often implying that  no one who looks like his mother, aunties and sisters are supremely beautiful), what do you teach your sons about  perceptions of conventional beauty?

Many of our sons have dreams of becoming professional athletes or celebrities, nearly worshiping their potential predecessors as perfect heroes who can do no wrong. As our sons patterning their lives after these cats--a disproportionate many of whom ONLY date white girls--what say you to your black sons about wanting 'only' to date white girls? What say you in response to your sons' mounting difficulties (where such applies) finding beauty in natural, average black girls?

With dominant media portrayal of black girls and women dangerously conveying images of loud, violent, emotionally unstable, vindictive, backstabbing villains; and white girls and women as educated, emotionally needy, ambitious, beautiful, "damsel-in-distress, committed, sexy "wives,"  what do you teach your sons about the difference between the portrayal of black and white girls and women on television and on the big screen?

photo by Derrick Watkins, all rights reserved
And with a disproportionate  number of popular songs and corresponding music videos conveying slighted messages that  black women are unworthy of fidelity and marriage, and should be passed around to pleasure the crew, what do you teach your sons about respecting and admiring black girls when so much of what they hear, memorize and sing about black women is so negative?

With so many black women and girls routinely sewing European, Asian, and South American hair onto the very crowns God created just for them, what do you teach your black sons about natural, black hair textures?

As a man, I've been privy to many conversations among brethren proclaiming, "ENOUGH," in response to this alleged cycle of attitudes, controlling personalities and emotionalism they sometimes perceive, but other times truly experience in their dealings with black women.

Even three of my own family members, all males under 18,  proudly proclaimed their preferences for white girls, citing  ghetto behavior among black girls and  nice hair among white girls  as reasons behind their switches.

photo by Derrick Watkins, all rights reserved
"Why you 'only' like white girls, dude?" I asked a 14-year-old family member, whose response was simply, "Because they have great hair."

"GREAT HAIR?!! HUH?"

My partner and I sat the boys down and began the very frank and necessary conversation about black girls and the charge of black men as a great force affirming their beauty and worth as often as possible.

I reminded my son how beautiful his own mother is. And although she and I can barely stomach the sight of each other, my job as a father is to ensure that he remembers her as his first love; his original introduction to Beautiful!

But how do I begin to effectively address the "great hair" debate, given that it is so infrequent nowadays that black boys and men "experience" natural black hair as , well, normal and beautiful?

photo by Derrick Watkins, all rights reserved
Surely the above statement is not intended to ignore the armies of sistas around the nation committed to rocking natural hair. Nor is it to imply that black women who wear weaves and perms are somehow less black. It is, however to stand firm in the undeniable need to balance damaging media images and messages with ones of natural, average-sized women as equal in beauty to women deemed conventionally hot!

The fact is that the average black girl and woman are often omitted from the "beauty" spectrum, even at the hands of those who once saw their own mothers--most of whom were average women--as the prettiest women in the world.

Even black magazines have been found to have altered ethnic features to appear more European, conveying false perceptions of beauty that our young ladies attempt to achieve. 

It's undeniable that black people in America have had the most troubling starting point in this country, and an intentionally treacherous terrain to navigate toward complete, collective self-love. It is, too, undeniable that our sojourn in America  has profoundly impacted our self-perception and self-worth such that we encounter conflicting perceptions of beautiful, even among people who look like us.

Ultimately, Dear Family, "much" rests on what we teach our boys about our love, our history,  our beauty and their roles in the greater black experience; for often it is them who black girls want to find them beautiful.

 
photo by Derrick Watkins, all rights reserved


So, teach your sons that black girls deserve respect and are incredibly strong; that their love for their children is unmatchable and that they're the most resilient among all humans! 

Teach them that brown skin has been kissed by The Sun and that their curves run like rivers through red, clay hills. 

Teach them that black girls are brilliant and overflowing with love, although sometimes a little guarded.

But most importantly, teach your sons that black girls and women were chosen and designed by The Creator to be black girls--and that's BEAUTIFUL!

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Perils of Dads with Pre-Teen Boys



At the risk of sounding presumptuous and narcissistic, I gotta admit that I'm a pretty smart guy. I mean, sure I've made plenty of dumb decisions, mortifying my mother and sister, and even placing myself dead-smack in the direct path of eminent danger. Like the time I put one hand in a sink full of water, and placed the other on the washing machine while it was running. WARNING--NEVER TRY THIS.

But I'm nearly 43 now! Times back then were quite different. Hell, back in my day (why can I say this now? WHY??),  kids' biggest source of gut-wrenching shame was disappointing the adults in our lives.

I mean, to hear the words, "Now you know, YOU know better," or even worse, "You ought to be ashamed of yourself," coming from a mom, dad, grandparent or any other adult in our families could crumble the marble facade of the hardest brother.

So, now my own son of 12 years, 120 pounds and 5'6" has the nerve to be basking in the explosive metamorphosis of puberty before my very eyes and ears. And the nose, God Yes, the nose! Help'meh, Lawd!

Now I can handle the mirror madness; I mean he does have my crowd-paralyzing good looks, which, of course, I had to tone down so that Tyson and Boris could get their pieces of the pie. No, seriously, I was kind of hot! 

I can handle the exasperated exhales in response to simple questions like, "How was your day, son? You hungry?"

I can handle the hourly flexing episodes to show me how defined his abs are becoming.

"You see'em, Dad? Yeah, son, they coming in! I got a two-pack," he gloats. I hurdle my urges to say, "What abs, dude? WHAT ABS? Oh "those" are abs? I thought that was dirt from you skipping baths for two days! (or that make-up Mariah Carey used to pretend she had abs, lol.)

But, instead, I simply respond, "Yup, I see them. Drink more water and cut out that candy and you gon' be killing it! And don't ever call me 'son' again, son. I earn this title." 

This, of course, is because I love him more than any word could describe, and because I want him to know that whatever he wants, he already has!

I can take the occasional skipping of a bath or brushing of teeth, even. Just don't have dirty fingernails; I hate dirty nails! No matter how clean you are, dirty nails ALWAYS make you look, uh, dirty.

What I'm having difficulty navigating, though, are those senseless lies (like I'm dumb as a mailbox), and the pubescent boy-brain (think of Theo Huxtable, that's all)!

Argh! Pubescent boy-brain sucks!

Like that time when the dude with the wrinkled scalp walked in front of our car on Pennsylvania Avenue. My son's jaw dropped, and I knew right away that his mouth was in labor and about to deliver a comment worthy of those annoying "SMHs" on Facebook. He crumbled his brow, and out it came; "Dad, is that his brain?"

After a blank stare that kept me at the green light long enough to get a few honks, I thought to myself, "You mean that skin with the hair growing out it? That brown stuff covering his cranium? HIS SCALP, SON??? No, that's just a wrinkled scalp."

Or that time he cut that patch of hair out of his head. Why? Why would you do that?

Or like last night!

I woke up at 3 am to pee. (It's becoming nearly impossible to hold it now that I'm in my 40s. Even have to keep a bottle or cup in the car. Darn shame.) I walked to the bathroom, where we have black and white tiled flooring; yup, the kind that will kill you if you fall on it.

I'm barefoot, so as I step on the marble rectangle separating the hallway and the bathroom, my foot slides a little.


I kneel down to rub my finger across the marble to find that it is covered in oil; BABY OIL! I go into the hallway, and notice footprints of baby oil leading from the bathroom to "his" bedroom.

Like any crazy, black dad, I thought, "What the hell?"

Then I think some more, and it hits me, "This clown tried to prank me!"

Hell, I've seen Pranked and Prank My Momma! I've even seen it with him! A better prank for me is jumping out of the closet, and I don't even like that nonsense. But he was trying to "get me!"

My nerves were rattled, and I wanted to wake him up immediately.

Dilemma: Do I wake him or let him sleep and discuss this before school. This was a hard one, because I was pissed!

In my head I saw vivid, painful images of myself falling and cracking my back, being forced to wear one of those scoliosis casts I successfully avoided throughout my youth.

I saw my partner slipping, breaking his neck and being forced to wear that white thing around his neck; the black folks had to wear when we pretended to be hurt in car accidents, hitting therapy for 8 weeks for a measly $3,000.

I let him sleep, but when he awoke. I saw fire!

Our house rule is that we own our actions with no grudges. Take the consequence with honor and do better going forward. The conversation was as follows:

Me: Wake up, Son. Time for school. And we need to discuss the oil. Son, sup with the oil?

Son: Uhhhh...

Me: Son, do-not-lie! Why did you do it?

Son: Uhhhh...

Me: WHY?!

Son: Uhhh...I don't know. 
(He notices my eyes bulging out of my head.) 
Because I wanted to?

Me: Oh, hell naw! Boy, you better come stronger than that, because that one is gonna get us all put away.

What is the reason??

Son: That is it?

Me: Really? So you tried to hurt me? Did you try to make me fall? DID YOU TRY TO PRANK ME???

Son: (with a shocked look on his face and tears in his eyes-he had mastered this, so I wasn't buying it.) That is the reason. I didn't try to hurt y'all.

Me: Okay! I'm dumb! HELLO NEIGHBORS. WAKE UP! I'M DUMB! You stand your butt right here and DO NOT move until you can give me a legitimate reason.

(He stands there for 20 minutes with the Theo Huxtable face.)

Son: Dad?

Me: What, boy?

Son: I put oil on the floor because I was pushing Harpo (Our Yorkie-pooh) across the floor and I wanted him to slide.

Me: Huh? You were sliding the dog across the bathroom floor?

Son: Yes. I wasn't trying to hurt you.

Me:
(Blank stare)


Uhhhhh...

Son, you could have just told me that. Next time, clean up that damn oil.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Jason Collins; Not LIke Those Other Gay People

 
Photo, courtesy of Derrick Watkins. All rights reserved.

y of him was on the campus of Morgan State University, circa 1995. He wore shoulder-length, braided extensions, colorful shirts and blue jeans, usually cinched with a thin belt. I remember how happy he seemed, and I remember how much I hated him for it.

And his creative spirit and brilliant ideas, those made me hate him too. He had "sugar in his tank," and his self-acceptance sickened me to the point of taunting him.

He'd glide over the bridge where the popular students congregated to pick up, be picked up, or simply to be seen. Dudes from New York, Baltimore, and DC, hawk spat vulgarity in his direction, while female students hid their mouths behind their hands in efforts to somehow disengage, and I never defended him even though we were of the same flock.

Purposefully, he just kept on keeping on, moving forward seemingly shielded from all judgment; never a whence of hurt, nor a single explanation as to why he was who he was; unaffected, leaving a trail of surety like fresh lavender behind him.

This experience, though nearly 20 years old, resurfaced in my mind a few weeks back when the very jersey of manhood, as we desire to believe it to be, had, yet again, become unwoven at the seams from a tender tug on another of its inconspicuously hanging strings.
Professional basketball player Jason Collins, announced through Sports Illustrated, "I'm a 34-year-old NBA center, I'm Black, and I'm gay."

In a single moment, one man's journey toward self-actualization as a black, gay man had rattled the very foundation of "manhood" for many straight folks, likely causing brow-raising paranoia in locker rooms; likely inclining some straight males to wade in the possibility that Jason may merely be one of many having infiltrated their exclusive bands of brothers bound by the kind of athleticism sworn, on The Book of Leviticus, to be reserved for straight dudes.

Surely professional athletes couldn't be gay while actively playing, right? I mean, we had two, black NFL players, Wade Davis and Kwame Harris, that came out "after" leaving professional football, both sharing stories of inner-turmoil from denying themselves; both wishing they had done so sooner; both facing resentment. One even facing public taunts by a former teammate.

But as news of the Jason’s "coming out" spread, a unique, seemingly exclusive phenomenon became manifest, one that will surely make considering owning one’s reality much easier for other (black, male) professional athletes in the immediate and distant future. A Tsunami of support towards his decision to openly admit that he will likely spend the rest of his life loving another man flooded the states, transcending race, superseding social status, and even penetrating sexual orientation.

First Lady Michelle Obama tweeted that she was proud of Jason, writing, "We have your back."

Kobe Bryant, even after having aggressively used "gay" as a negative taunt toward a referee during a 2011 game (for which he was fined $100, 000), tweeted words of support to Jason, ironically encouraging him not to suffocate because of the ignorance of others. 


Photo, courtesy of Derrick Watkins. All rights reserved.
But the cream in my coffee was that the head honcho, President Barak Obama himself, took the time to personally call Jason. "I told him I couldn't be prouder of him," POTUS told reporters during a press conference.


Now, I'm no hater, but here is where I become conflicted. I genuinely admire Jason's courageous decision to love himself out loud, embracing his race—which is still important, even in 2013—and his sexuality. Like many, I relate to the difficulty we face in navigating life’s “tedious journey” as men loving men (and women loving women). It took me forever to believe that I was gay, and years longer to accept it. Hell, some of us (yup, I did too) have even attempted or succeeded suicide, believing that heaven had to be a better place than our icy  homes, unpredictable work places, and even in our damning places of worship.

In many circles, particularly black, religious ones, we were taught at early ages that “gay” was the very worst thing we could ever "choose" to be, like it was really a choice. And like we all got $25,000 and a 2013 Altima for "choosing" to be gay.  We were encouraged to lay our burdens at the altar—right between murder and adultery—trusting Jesus for deliverance, while enduring churchy side-eyes and whispers of disgust. Even our gay pastors, that "hanged" in clubs or with their partners in other cities during the weekends, wouldn't admit that they are gay, despite weekly teachings that God ordered our steps and knew us before we were formed in our mother's wombs.

So, as Jason's story unfolded, garnering insurmountable support and catapulting him to hero status among men, women, and children, I remained conflicted in my spirit.

On one hand, I believed his public proclamation to be integral towards dispelling myths that all gay dudes are one-dimensional, sexually irresponsible males desiring to be gorgeous females that lip-sync Whitney Houston songs or that we long to convert straight dudes into queers.

One the other hand, The Jason Experience reveals a sad and ugly reality that, in my opinion, perpetuates marginalization towards the strongest, most under-celebrated population of gays; a group of gays even discriminated against among other gays; feminine males, masculine females, and transgenders.

I wonder if Jason were a professional dancer, would the world’s response have been so charged up.

What if he had "come out" as transgender or as a flaming queen; would Kobe have tweeted the same words of encouragement?

I can't help but believe that Jason's masculinity and profession made accepting his sexuality “safe” for many of his supporters, including the gay ones. That's certainly not to imply that he didn't deserve it, because indeed he did, but for some reason, gays and straights alike, find openly gay, comfortable or flamboyant queers difficult to “accept”. I know, because I have a history of doing so myself.

Living a self-actualized, gay life just ain't a new phenomenon, as conveyed in the opening anecdote about my college friend (who has since become one of my very best friends, despite my poor treatment to him). As such, embracing Jason's cushioned public reception without acknowledging the countless brothers and sisters who, before him, trudged America’s most volatile avenues, roads, aisles, alleys, schools, and other dwellings, enduring undeserved taunts and beat downs rather than living unauthentic lives, is something “I” simply do not feel comfortable doing.

Photo, courtesy of Derrick Watkins. All rights reserved.
I must acknowledge those gay Christians whose unshakeable commitment to The Creator yields them powerful enough to sift through poisonous messages of condemnation to discover lessons for them and their families; these brothers and sisters get no supportive tweets.

What about the rising crusade of youth using YouTube and other social media as platforms to self-actualize as young, gay people before the world, risking personal safety, judgment from peers and family, and humiliation, all in the name of self-acceptance. These young, braves don’t get celebrated on The Oprah show; they just don’t.

Finally, let’s consider the thousands of gay parents that have been forced into ugly custody battles, lasting years on end, just to prove that they didn’t somehow become bad parents on the day they finally decided to accept their nature as gay people; There are no parades for them. 
 
Jason Collins’  "coming out" is undeniably an added profundity in the fight for (black) gay self-acceptance, but so are the efforts of the mighty bands of black, gay brothers and sisters that pioneered this journey; those having chartered frontiers for brothers like Jason to follow toward their personal freedoms. Many of them even sacrificed their lives and families in the process, and they never received such accolades.

Daily, there are teenage boys and girls bullied at school or disowned by their families JUST because they are gay. But something within them simply will not allow them to deny themselves; and they too are pioneers.

In my humblest opinion and with absolute respect for Jason, America’s outcry of support of him is safer than supporting a full-fledged, flamboyant, gay brother. Jason; HE’S NOT LIKE THOSE OTHER GAY PEOPLE.

So today, I submit this article to serve as a universal high-five to all human beings choosing or considering choosing to love everything about themselves out loud, not giving a damn what the public thinks.

I submit this, too, as a personal apology to every gay young person I shunned or ignored because of my own shame and insecurity, rendering myself unable to affirm your greatness or to be your example, I am so sorry.  

…to GB, who later became the first openly gay, non-Greek affiliated title holder at our school; who never took my lashings out personally and knew me more than I new myself, “You Are My Friend!”

I know that despite how much I hated acknowledging my attraction toward men, and despite the lashings out I committed against gay people during my insecure youth, I am who I am because of their efforts and love. I recognize how powerful gay frontiersmen (including women) of all cultures are to the universal embrace of all of humanity as self appointed martyrs when it was less easy to be so than it is today.

Those frontiersmen are the original heroes, making Jason’s journey a little less tedious.

So, congratulations to Jason, Kwame Harris, Frank Ocean, Wade Davis for finding the strength to love your entire selves out loud!

But, the most special thanks to you; James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Alice Walker, Don Lemon, Meshell Ndegegeocello, Essex Hemphill, Wanda Sykes, Bishop Carl Bean, Rupaul Andre Charles, Alvin Ailey, E. Lynn Harris, Keith Boykin, Tim-m West, Carlton Smith, Angela Davis, Uni-Q Mical, and the millions of nameless gay folks deciding every day that all life is worth living to its fullest!