Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Help

Looking back, I should have followed my initial black feminist inclination to skip out on seeing a Tyler Perry approved film about race and gender in America. I feared that The Help would follow the trite “white person saves poor black person/people” storyline that characterizes too many Hollywood films. Ultimately, I realized that it wasn’t fair for me to critique a film that I had never seen before. Given that truth, I went against my gut. I caved in to the voices around me that were describing in the film in a neutral or even positive light and walked into Regal Cinema in DC Chinatown and took a seat.

The vast majority of movie goers in the theater that Friday night were white women, the target audience for the film. The trail of trailers shown before the film set the stage for the film itself. My friend described the previews as a sign that we were entering “romantic comedy Hell”. Lol.

Once the film began, I braced myself to see a white person rescue seemingly powerless black people from their miserable existence. Instead, I witnessed a 23 year old white woman, Skeeter, chronicle the stories of her own black maid and those belonging to her friends. As heroine of the story, she bravely picked up a pen and wrote down the stories of the oppressed domestic workers in Jackson, Mississippi during Jim Crow. Perhaps a full on rescue would have been too much for a genteel young white woman of those times.

The black maids in the story were literate; however, they did not write their own stories. Instead, they spoke them to Skeeter, a white woman half their age, so that she could document them. Skeeter’s motivation to share the black women’s stories was born in her pity for her own black mammy from childhood, who was suddenly fired after 30 years of hard work because of an unwritten rule in wealthy white ladies superficial social club culture.

Looking intently at the screen, I patiently waited for a plot turn that included an act of serious resistance by one or many of the black maids. I thought that maybe the black women would stand up for their rights as workers and go on strike or maybe they would start a letter writing campaign to their state legislators. After all, acts of civil disobedience were central to the civil rights movement. Much to my dismay, the most powerful act of resistance involved a maid baking a pie for her white boss lady.

Once I heard about the lawsuit initiated by Ablene Cooper, the maid whose story inspired the book from which the movie originated, I became even more remorseful for buying tickets to this movie. The black woman who told this story is not receiving her fair share of the royalties gained from either the book or the movie. Cooper’s painful story has been appropriated to generate profits that she may never see.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Rhee’s New Advocacy Group

News headlines pointing out that Waiting for Superman was not nominated for one of tonight's Academy Awards combined with the media frenzy surrounding Michelle Rhee's new advocacy group have directed my attention back to the education reform debate. On Friday night, I had a few friends over for vegan chili and a discussion of Waiting for Superman and we came to the unanimous conclusion that the film unduly glorified Rhee and grossly oversimplified our nation's education dilemma.

In Waiting for Superman, Guggenheim frames the discussion on education reform around a fictional mutual exclusivity of the interests of children and adults as if changes that benefit teachers cannot also help students. Rhee's new advocacy group, Students First, also subscribes to this philosophy and seeks to limit the power of teachers unions and strip teachers of job protections like tenure. Through Students First, Rhee intends to raise a billion dollars to counter the political clout of teachers unions, which contribute heavily to the Democratic Party at the national level.

During her stint as Chancellor of DC public schools, Rhee gained notoriety for firing a record number of teachers. 75 of these 1,000 teachers have recently had their jobs reinstated and were granted back-pay following a finding that Rhee never provided a reason for their termination. Also, IMPACT, the method Rhee used to measure teacher job performance in DC, has been strongly criticized as unfair. Student test scores were one of the central components of the measure and it's not clear if standardized test scores can be directly linked teacher performance. The American Federation of Teachers recommends using a different termination process that values peer input.

As teachers and other public employees are fighting to keep their collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin and around the nation, Rhee is busy gathering the resources necessary to impede their progress. Students First is a thinly veiled vehicle designed to support right-wing education reforms that place educators under the knife on the operating table of government budget cuts.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Kinkaid School Recognized Nationally for Intolerance

On one hand, I'm sorry to see my alma mater's dirty laundry being aired in clear view of the nation via mainstream media outlets like the Houston Chronicle, Gawker and Texas Monthly; but on the other hand, I'm hoping this spotlight will prompt the school to make some changes that are long overdue. Since this topic hits so close to home for me, I'll go ahead and go old school by making the personal political in this post. As a Kinkaid School alum who attended from 1991-1998, I'll say that I was not at all surprised to read that a wealthy Kinkaid parent wrote a letter expressing concern that the school was beginning to welcome LGBT teachers and students into the community. Likewise, I wasn't shocked to learn that this parent was powerful enough to draw national attention to this matter.

In 2008 against the advice of many close friends, I attended my 10 year reunion only to experience the same ostracism that characterized the seven academic years I spent at Kinkaid. Although I tried to be social with the crowd of my classmates, only three of them were bold enough to engage in conversation with me and one was the kid-now-man who called me a n*gger in the 7th grade. (Perhaps he felt remorse for his comments as a child and wanted to make amends.) Although the discrimination I felt in this instance was mostly related to my race, I remember experiencing similar acts of discrimination based on my sexual orientation throughout high school. Ten of my friends and I were listed on a "lesbian list" that a bully placed in all of our lockers in order to humiliate us in the 11th grade. Formal dances had an unwritten hetero-only policy and gay slurs were not even viewed as inappropriate.

My experience was back in the 90's, but there have been some efforts made in recent years to make the school's environment more accepting for all people in the Kinkaid community. A diversity initiative and club to fight hate were begun under Principal Mickey Saltman's leadership. And more importantly, gay friendly teachers were permitted to place rainbow stickers outside their classrooms to indicate safe spaces for LGBT students as long as the sponsor's name, "Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network", was removed.

Sadly, it appears that a lot of this progress has been lost as a result of one parent's crusade to stop the school from following a so-called "liberal agenda" that accepts all people. Principal Saltman has been forced out and so have a dozen great faculty and staff who not only excelled in their professions, but who also gave a beacon of hope to severely marginalized students like me.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Zimmerman’s "The Arabian Nights"

If you'd like a magical escape from the politics, war and social change in the news about the Arab world, Mary Zimmerman's Arabian Nights is the theatrical production for you. Set in ancient Baghdad with subplots in Cairo and around the Middle-East, Arabian Nights presents a glimpse into Islamic life that is so creatively nuanced that it couldn't be replicated in one's wildest dreams. This unique piece of art was clearly crafted by an expert director and playwright. I was fortunate enough to see this play last night courtesy of the discount ticket program at Arena stage, but Zimmerman's latest artistic masterpiece will be playing in DC through February 20th. (I'd recommend getting tickets as soon as possible because word of mouth travels quickly about these performances and they are more likely to be sold out towards the end of the show's run.)

The plot is built around the story of a young woman who uses storytelling to escape her tragic fate. Over the course of the almost three hour long play, the desperate protagonist draws upon her superb and mesmerizing storytelling skills to captivate her would-be murder and by consequence, the audience too. Her stories are humorous, imaginative and bold. At times, the stories mirror the themes of the main plot, creating parallel representations of love, betrayal and revenge.

Despite its seemingly solemn subject matter, it is actually quite a humorous performance to watch. I laughed consistently throughout the evening as characters tried to trash-talk their way out of trouble in various scenes. The script is delightfully sprinkled with easy puns and sharp wit. Best of all, Arabian Nights provides an imaginative escape without the special effects and frills of Hollywood cinema. Viewers are encouraged to use their own minds and actively participate in forming their own visual image of the play.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

DC Chinese New Year Parade

This past Sunday, a good friend alerted me about the Chinese New Year Parade that was taking place in DC's Chinatown just in time for me hop on the train and catch the parade from start to finish. It was a lovely winter day with plenty of unobstructed sunlight and highs in the upper 40's. The weather was so nice that I even took off my overcoat at one point during the parade because I was too hot! The parade spectators consisted of a diverse mix of families with small children, groups of teenagers and adults.

The parade got off to a noisy an exciting start as a group dressed in traditional Chinese garb led the parade while popping firecrackers on the street. (I'm pretty sure they had a special permit, so don't get any ideas about setting off fireworks in the city). Following the first group were a series of marchers and performers including dragon dancers, Chinese animal characters, Kung Fu artists and some seemingly unrelated groups including a high school band that lacked props or decorations related to the parade theme. 2011 is the Year of the Rabbit on the Chinese lunar-solar calendar and the New Year celebration lasts for 15 days, from new moon to full moon, beginning Feb 3, 2011.

Unfortunately, this parade, much like DC Chinatown itself, paled in comparison to parades in cities with larger and more established Asian-American populations. Don't get me wrong though, because I think the few contingents that were in the parade were well planned and neatly presented. However, I do hope to see this parade evolving into a larger, more widely-attended parade like the Capital Pride parade over time. This growth will undoubtedly happen as word of mouth about this great reason to get outdoors, absorb some Vitamin D and experience a cultural event on a winter day travels around town.

Monday, February 7, 2011

H.R. 358, The Protect Life Act

As if it weren't enough to attempt to limit women's access to abortion care in the case of rape (HR 3), House Republicans are also trying to block women from receiving abortions as treatment for life-threatening medical emergencies. HR 358, The Protect Life Act, was introduced by Rep. Joe Pitts on January 20, 2011 as an amendment to the new health care law. This bill would allow doctors and hospitals to refuse to treat pregnant women who arrive in emergency rooms with serious health concerns if such treatment involved terminating a pregnancy. And to make matters worse, hospitals would no longer be required to refer women to another hospital that offers the care needed to save their lives. Essentially, HR 358 would make it legal to leave a woman to die rather than terminate her pregnancy.

Needless to say, pregnant women and women who plan to become pregnant should be extremely concerned about this initiative since they could be denied life-saving emergency care during pregnancy. The so called "Protect Life Act" fails to do just that, protect life. The measure would neglect the lives of women who are pregnant and experiencing a serious health crisis in the interest of preserving the life of a fetus.

I wonder if Rep. Pitts were a woman would he would still support denying women abortion care in their last minutes of life or in the case of rape. It wouldn't make much sense for a woman to stand against her right to an abortion if her life were at risk, would it? Well, apparently it does for some women. These restrictions are a great idea in the minds of several Republican women, including Rep. Michelle Bachmann, who are cosponsoring both HR 3 and HR 358. Perhaps they are not concerned about the harms of these pieces of legislation because the women forced to carry their rapist's child and those left to die are likely to be poor. After all, the scope of these bills can only include hospitals and insurance plans that receive federal funding for programs like Medicaid.

Finally, I'll leave a word to those who are on the fence on this issue: making abortion illegal or cost prohibitive doesn't make it go away. Think back to the back alley abortion scene in Tyler Perry's For Colored Girls or talk to women who witnessed the nature of abortion before Roe v. Wade.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Nicki Minaj’s Rise to Fame

I would like to begin this post by commending Nicki Minaj for successfully climbing to the top of the success ladder in a male dominated industry. Female rappers have always been few and far between, but the void has been even greater in recent years. Minaj is the first female hip-hop artist to top the industry charts since 2002 and she's reached this point entirely through her own merit. Born in Trinidad and moving to Queens with her family as a child, Minaj faced numerous obstacles growing up but still managed to graduate from a high school specializing in performing and visual arts. Not afraid to compete with male emcees, Minaj released a series of mix-tapes proving her lyrical rhyming expertise and was soon discovered and signed to Young Money Entertainment and then Cash Money Records. Her first major album, Pink Friday, debuted at number two on the charts and went platinum within a month of its release in 2010. As the only female rapper in mainstream media, Minaj's conspicuous position has made her a target for both praise and criticism.

Many argue that Minaj's lyrics and image do not make her a positive role model for young girls. Like a majority of top record-selling male artists, Minaj's lyrics involve sexually and otherwise explicit language and themes. It seems to me that Minaj has been placed in a hot seat simply for being a woman. Yes, I am aware that some critics are consistent in their critiques of the corruption rampant in mainstream hip-hop, however Minaj is getting an undue amount of attention for talking openly about sex while male artists with similarly offensive lyrics are not held to the same standard. Also, Minaj has come under fire for challenging the heteronormativity that characterizes hip-hop and even once suggesting that there will be a widely revered openly gay male emcee in the near future. Reporters have interrogated Minaj about her own sexual orientation because of LGBT storylines that appear in her rhymes, but she does not allow herself to be boxed in and proudly rejects applying labels to her sexual identity.

At my age, I realize I'm a little detached from the pulse of popular culture, but I do find her music as good as, if not better than that of her peers. However, I must add that I think hip-hop could do better and the industry would benefit from a toppling of its upside-down reward structure that places the most positive and creative artists at the bottom while highlighting offensive artists with trite lyrics at the top. I'm happy to see Minaj paving the way for women in rap, but I can't help but feel nostalgic for the music of great pioneers like Mc Lyte, Queen Latifah, Lauryn Hill and even Lil Kim. (The only reason I mention the Queen Bee here is because she was unique for her time and created the "Black Barbie Multicolored Hair" image that Minaj prouldy promotes.)