Saturday, October 31, 2009

Yes, Another Snake Tale

I did not want to do another snake post; I have already visited and revisited that subject before. However, this time my hand has been forced. The other day we happened to step outside only to find another snake in the flowerbed next to the front door—a lot of snakes both literal and metaphorical have been showing up at my door lately—and I immediately sprung into action.

I did mention the incident to a few friends, but not because I wanted to brag on my snake killing prowess; I only mentioned it because I thought it was unusual to see a snake this late in the season. Usually by now they are off hibernating. But then my wife began telling her skewed version of the story to her friends and relatives and all over Facebook, and I thought I had better step in to reclaim my narrative.

It all began on this past Wednesday evening. There was nothing unusual about this Wednesday evening. I did get home from work a bit early. Anyway, my wife and I decided to go to the store to look at something she wanted me to see. But as we were stepping out the front door she looked down and suddenly said, “Is that a snake?”

I glanced down only to find a garter snake about two feet long just laying there massive black serpent of gargantuan proportions lurking, and ready to strike. Surprised, I quickly stepped back into the house wondering what to do next decisively went back into the house to retrieve my glasses from the table in the vestibule so that I might be able to clearly see the creature I was about to do battle with.

My wife said, “What are you running back into the house for?” “Only you can save us Max!” And she lead the way I lead the way as we retreated back backtracked through the house to the garage underground crime-fighting lair so that we might retrieve garden tools gargantuan sized snake killing implements. She chose a hoe crossbow, and I chose a shovel broadsword, and we returned to do battle.

Just as we stepped back outside the front door, the garter snake vile dragon like serpent seemed to sense our presence and began to crawl away hissing, reared up to its full height, prepared to take me on. I screamed ferociously yelled with valor, “He’s getting away. Get him! Get him!” “This vile creature doth seek to do battle. Stand back fair maiden, for what shall happenth next may forever haunteth thy dreams.”

At that time, my wife trapped him with her hoe, holding him to the ground shot him through with the crossbow, pinning him to the ground. She then yelled, “I’m holding him down. Just kill him with the shovel.” “He findeth himself trapped; now is the time to strike with your sword, brave lord. Be true in your aim for each swing of thy blade could be thy last!”

So I cautiously bravely stepped forward with all disregard for my safety, and took a half-hearted stab with my shovel swung my blade with all my might, and missed but my aim was not true. My wife then yelled, “Damn, Max, you got to get closer. Do you want to hold him with the hoe, and I kill him?” “Your aim was not true, my lord. You must strike again. Only you possesseth the strength to bring this creature to its end.”

So, I struck again, and the blow found its mark. But it was only a glancing blow and served only to wound the creature, and some nasty looking yellow stuff squirted out vile acid like yellow fluid did issue forth from the wound, causing me to cry out, “Oh, my God! What is that? That nasty looking stuff just got all over my new loafers!” “He hath covered me with his toxic blood, but I have been protected by my armor!”

And with that I swung again, and again, and again, each blow of my shovel sword finding its mark until the snake dragon like serpent lay dead from a thousand death blows, quivering in the throes of death. Then my wife uttered, “It’s about time. You took all that time to kill that thing. You were acting like you were scared.” “You have vanquished that foul beast sent forth from the pit of hell! And you did so with a valiance never witnessed before.”

So, this is the story, the true story, the exact narrative account. Do not believe what my wife might have told you over the phone or posted on Facebook. And let me go even further to remind you of the import of this event. Before when I have slain such creatures, it has been to protect my family. However, in this instance, had I failed in my endeavor, this creature would not have stopped with my family but would have wreaked havoc on the world; he could have shown up in your flowerbed next.

So, I am a hero, your hero. And my legend continues.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Far Better Men than I: My Vision for My Sons

I apologize for waiting so late to post today; however, it appears that someone has officially declared today “Let’s Pile on Max Day.” Some are trying hard to shake me from my usual aplomb, but all they have succeeded in doing is wasting my time and theirs. Days like this only make me stronger. Sometimes people are so miserable themselves that for someone to be so audacious as to be happy and content in their presence makes them even more miserable.

But I didn’t get to compose anything new, so I will just leave this piece that appeared as a guest post on the site Womanist Musings. And please, love yourself today and be a blessing to somebody.

I have been composing this narrative in my head for several weeks now. However, I always push it to the rear, lowering it in priority, until I look into the face of my fourteen year old son or until the phone rings and I see my oldest son’s number on the caller ID.
But I am lost for a way in; I simply do not know where to begin. But so that I might see this project through to completion, I’ll just jump in by positing this question: “What does it mean to be a man?”

Most of what I learned about being a man, I learned from the women in my life, ironically often in those spaces often relegated to women.

As I sat next to my grandmother watching her sew, she would lovingly question me and advise me. She would tell me what was expected of me. She would tell me how I should conduct myself.
As I helped my aunts clean by moving this piece or that piece of furniture so they could sweep or vacuum behind it, they would compliment me on my spirit. They told me I had a good spirit, a gentle spirit, a giving spirit. They warned me that people would want me to change. But they admonished me not to change. My aunts ensured me that the world needed more men with just those attributes.

And it was my mother who gave me the gift of reading and writing. I am not sure when I began to read, but from my earliest cognizance, books were there, and later she encouraged me to write despite my father insisting that I play outside with the other boys, despite my father insisting that all this “work and no play” would cause me to grow up weak and effeminate.

But she would gently rebuke him, and explain to him that what the world needed was more men who could think, who could reason; the world was populated with too many men who valued brawn over brains. And often he would respond with the question of what kind of man would I end up being if I stayed in the house under women all the time. But he would acquiesce nevertheless.

And watching him, listening to him, all the while the question hung in the back of my mind, “Just what does it mean to be a man?”

I am not saying that the men in my life did not have a huge influence over the person I have become, but while the lessons taught by the women in my life were more explicit, were more like a dialogue, the lessons taught by the men were more one-sided and sometimes contradictory. Often what they said was accompanied by a nod and a wink. Often I was confused when what they said conflicted with their actions. Perhaps, I was confused because their method of instruction left more questions than answers.

No experience is more demonstrative of this than that when I left home at the age of seventeen to enter the military.

I had finished high school, but because of my age, my parents had to sign for me which much to my surprise, they did. I am not certain why I made this decision; I had numerous other opportunities, to include a full ride college scholarship, I could have pursued. But I felt I had to do this. I felt I had to leave home to find myself as a man.

And on the eve of my departure, the male elders of my family—my surviving grandfather, my father, and a host of uncles—assembled to advise me and send me off. As they stood in a semi-circle with me sitting in a chair at the center, one by one they gave me advice, sought to inspire me, and bade me goodbye.

Before that moment when the first speaker spoke, I was unaware of the gravity of my decision. And by the time my favorite uncle, my mother’s youngest brother, rose to give the closing speech, tears of apprehension were streaming down my face. He closed his speech with the charge—I still remember it know as if it were yesterday—“In every and all things, be a man. Always be a man.”

Through tears I asked him, “What does it mean to be a man?” He looked to the faces in the crowd for an answer who all looked at my grandfather, the elder male present. My grandfather stood thoughtfully, pulled on his hat and told me that this was my journey; it was up to me to determine what it meant to be a man.

And with that piece of sage like wisdom the men filed pass me, each pausing to look me in my eyes, give me a firm handshake, a pat on the back. I returned the gesture, but what I really wanted, what I really needed was for one of them, any one of them, to put his arms around me and tell me it would be alright. And with that I set off to answer the question for myself.

Along the way I have made a good many mistakes. Along the way, I have hurt some people, and I have been hurt in return. Along the way, there have been many days when I have cheered in triumph and on others I have lowered my head in defeat. Many days I have sung out loud and with glee, “I shot the sheriff, and on a few others I have found myself singing “Sweet Jesus, please be my friend.”

And I have learned that I cannot define my manhood by my sexual prowess or the number of sexual partners I have. I cannot define my manhood by the power I am able to exert over people. I cannot define my manhood by the amount of money I make, the car I drive, the size of my house, or by what I possess.

But I can define my manhood by the number of lives I have touched, the number of lives I have made better. I can define my manhood by the look of love and respect I see in the eyes of my wife and children. But most of all I can define my manhood for myself and without any outside cultural and societal paradigms.

I am still learning. I am still evolving. However, I think I have the most basic understanding of this thing now. I think that I can finally offer my sons the definition, the vision of manhood that was denied me. But most of all I know that before they leave my house, I will put my arms around them, I will pull them tight to me, and I will let them know that it will all work out in the end; it will be alright. And then hope against all hope that someday they grow to be better men than I.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

When something like this happens, you must ask yourself, "Where were the adults?"

Psychologists have long observed and commented on a phenomenon in which an individual caught up in a large group of people absorbs the ethos of that group. If I might explain it further for the purposes of clarification, the excitement, the emotion, the raw electricity of the moment engulfs a crowd of people like a tidal wave, and an individual caught up in that crowd, no matter how meek or mild that individual might be, gets swept along right along with the crowd and often commits acts far outside the character and personality of the individual that he or she later regrets and cannot even offer explanation.

I mention this phenomenon because it has been the explanation most offered up to as a reason for the atrocity that occurred in Richmond, California*, this past weekend. In Richmond, for two hours on Saturday night following a school homecoming dance, a fifteen year old child was beaten, robbed and repeatedly raped by several suspects over a two hour period.

These details alone should be enough to make one pause for a moment in an effort to catch their breath even as their heart pounds within their chest in outrage. This should be enough to cause one to shake their head rapidly and violently to and fro in utter disbelief, but the story only worsens from here because this atrocity took place in front of an audience.

As the girl lay semi-conscious on a bench, on-lookers and passerby looked on without offering help or assistance or even reporting it. In fact, some laughed, some took pictures, and some even took the time to strip her of her jewelry. [Click here for original report.]

But the notion of the mob mentality is in no way sufficient as an explanation because implicit in that explanation is the notion that somehow those involved just got caught up in the moment and could not control themselves, and not only that, this explanation does not account for those who watched or who might have passed by without attempting to intervene or even get help.

However, I believe what is most telling in this incident is the fact that those who have been arrested or have been identified as involved thus far all range in age from 15 to 19. In other words, this is a case of young people victimizing young people. It seems as if those most threatening the safety of young people are not adults but young people themselves. And before we begin to make the old charge that young people today have lost their minds, I must ask you, “Where were the adults in all this?”

Maybe, just maybe, my childlike imagination gets the best of me sometimes, and maybe the images conjured up by my subconscious tend to sometimes be overly fantastical, but the image that comes most readily to mind is that image from the movie Dawn of the Dead in which the zombies roam the street in hordes, moving slowly and decidedly toward their next victim.

There used to be commercial that ran each night that posed the question, “It is ten o’clock. Do you know where your children are?” I suspect more and more the answer for a lot of parents would be no.

And I know this is being to sound like every other thing that I have written, but the point I continue to attempt to drive home is our responsibility as responsible adults for our kids, not just our biological children but all children. Any society or any culture or, better still, community is measured first and foremost by the condition of its children or by how well it cares for its young. And it follows from this incident that we are doing really poorly protecting our young people from themselves.

How can someone so young commit an act so heinous? How can someone so young be so callous as to stand and watch and/or even participate in a crime of this magnitude? Where were all the adults when this crime occured, and where were all the adults when their hearts began to harden?

I do not offer any apologies for the young men involved, and my heart goes out to the young girl and her family. However, allow me please just to make this point. This crime was committed by young people who were entrusted to the care of adults. But somewhere the process of childrearing fell through. Somewhere, perhaps, someone failed in their duties. But if we remain a community, it becomes incumbent on us to put into place the necessary measures to see that all our children, all our young people are cared for, even those that do not bear our name.

And perhaps you are doing as you are supposed to do. Perhaps you are loving and raising your children just as you have been charged to do. But what of those in our community raising themselves? What of those in our community not receiving the requisite nurturing or training? These are the ones who most constitute a direct threat to your own. These are the ones in which the mob mentality is a constant state of mind. And where are you in all this?

* When I originally made this post, a reader pointed out that erroneously reported the city as Oakland when it is in actuality Richmond, California; however, in my recall of the Bay Area, I mistakenly conflated the two areas.

Also of interest:

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

As much as we are loathe to admit it, Tyler Perry is the only one who can bring Colored Girls to the big screen

When sometime last month Tyler Perry got his hands on the rights to that classic of African American theater, Ntozake Shange’s 1975 play For Colored Girls who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf, an abrupt, audible, collective gasp could be heard throughout the African American community. At the time I intended to pen a few lines in response, but by the time I finished, the moment had passed.

However, on Sunday evening following Tyler Perry’s interview on 60 Minutes, I watched in bemusement and surprise as fierce and impassioned internecine rhetorical skirmishes broke out across the various social media as people chose sides for and against his particular version of entertainment.

But before I begin in earnest, allow me, please, to ask you a question. Why must black art always have a purpose? When did we get so uptight that we could no longer laugh at ourselves or with ourselves?

I’m no Tyler Perry fan. I don’t recall ever even seeing a Tyler Perry movie completely through. I look for certain elements like plot and character develop and a compelling narrative in movies, and these elements seem to be wholly absent from his work.

And recently on a slow Saturday afternoon, I watched episodes of his television shows, The House of Payne and Meet the Browns, and frankly I was not impressed. It just isn’t my brand of humor. However, would I call it coonery or buffoonery? I’m not sure I would go that far. It certainly toes the line, though.

However, what I readily recognize in the argument as to the relevancy and place of Perry’s work is a recapitulation of the whole low culture/high culture debate that has been playing itself out in the African American community for some time now.

It seems that a segment of the population has found its calling as the judge and jury of what constitutes credible and acceptable art, and anything that falls outside its narrow standards of what is and what is not acceptable is deemed coonery and buffoonery and summarily dismissed as unworthy.

But in examining these artistic artifacts, those self-appointed standard bearers do so with the same judgmental and jaundiced eye through which the wider cultural and societal community judges all African Americans as a whole. In other words, we simply recreate the terms of our own denigration for the purpose of enforcing some ever shifting standard of acceptability; shit usually roles downhill.

I am not quite certain why the work of those more skillful and able filmmakers and other artists, those considered serious thus acceptable artists, cannot exist in our community alongside the work of those artists that is considered less polished, less relevant, less acceptable.

If I have any wish, it would that those works falling in the former category either out number or equal the quantity of those works in the latter category so that some balance might be achieved in the positive and negative images of our community entering the mainstream society at large.

And as far as Tyler Perry bringing Ntozake Shange’s play to the big screen, before we begin to throw stones, let’s look at the whole situation with a critical eye. Allow me to deploy this analogy.

Remember the literary character of Uncle Tom? For years that character has been the symbol for acquiescence and capitulation to the whims of an oppressive and demeaning system. But when viewed critically it becomes plain that Uncle Tom used his position in the master’s house to ameliorate the suffering of his brethren in the fields.

And Booker T. Washington has long been reviled as someone who sold his people out by insisting that they cast down their lot where they stood and accept their lot in life as farmers and as craftsmen. And for this he was rewarded by the mainstream culture with an audience with the highest and most powerful government leaders and captains of industry who heaped money upon him to fund his various projects.

Now historical records show that Booker T. Washington used a greater part of the monetary support he received from rich and powerful patrons to provide opportunities for promising youth and secretly fund numerous and various back door efforts to achieve equality and civil rights.

In both cases, nothing appeared as it seemed. While both Uncle Tom and Booker T. Washington showed one public face that pleased their oppressors and earned the ire of black folk, in secret they used the privilege and influence gained to help in the uplift of their community. Could this also be what Tyler Perry hopes to achieve?

Now let me ask you this question. What African American in the entertainment or movie industry has the money or the clout to bring this play to the big screen? At this time, the only one other than Perry that comes to mind is Oprah, and Oprah is still gun shy after sinking so much money, emotion, and energy in bringing Beloved to the big screen only to have black folk stay at home. It is perhaps telling that rap mogul Master P’s I Got the Hook Up outperformed Oprah’s Beloved during the first weekends in which they were released.

So, Perry’s oeuvre of so-called coonery and buffoonery has put him in the unique position money wise and influence wise to bring a number of African American classic works such as Shange’s Colored Girls to the big screen. If it were not for him doing so, how much longer would we have to wait for someone to come along with the money and the clout and the will?

I would only hope that in doing so he would recognize his limitations as a film maker and bring in a team of professionals to do the heavy lifting.

Have Pen, Will Travel Once Again: Guest post at Womanist Musings

Again, I have an opportunity to guest post! And as I stated previously, since I began blogging not too long ago, I have been tremendously blessed to have met a number of more established bloggers who have helped me along. My site is still growing, but I would in no way be as far along as I am if it were not for those persons.

One of those more established bloggers I speak of is Renee at Womanist Musings. She has given me the opportunity to accompany the morning slot, so if you find the time in your busy schedule, please go over and check me out.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Joy Comes in the Morning [For a friend who is going through something]

Journey, journey, this is my journey. Where am I going? Where have we been? --African Proverb

“You can never step into the same river; for new waters are always flowing on to you.” --Heraclitus of Ephesus

Earlier this year, some time right after the year began, I found myself at one of the lowest points of my life. For a brief moment, just a moment, I lay down prostrate; I allowed myself to grieve. But then I got to my feet, shook myself off, and moved forward. And to encourage myself, I penned this short poem:

Joy Comes in the Morning

by Maxwell René Reddick

Often I’ve awaken to find myself

Completely lost within the darkness

Of a night of sorrow,

Completely sheathed in a darkness

So vast, so black, so utterly vile,

That it threatens to suffocate me,

And crush the very life breath from my being.

But I hold fast

And I wrap myself

In the cloak of my loved ones

To keep the cold at bay.

I soothe myself with pleasant memories

Of bright, warm noon days.

I bite my lip,

I clench my fists,

I fight back the sobs,

And I wait,

Patiently I wait—

For I know that joy, true joy

Always comes with the morning.

You know life is funny. By the time you think you have this whole thing figured out, you look to find that much of it is behind you. How many times have we said, “I wish I knew then, what I know now.” But such is the nature of life.

However, over the course of my life I have found that there will be good days, and there will be bad days. The trick is to control those things that you can control, and for those things you cannot, hold tight, pray hard, and know that when you come out on the other side, you come out as a new person—better, stronger, wiser.

And know that in those days between trial, between tribulation, live life to the fullest. Embrace each day for of all the gifts one might receive, the gift of life is the greatest. Learn what you can, love as you can because you will not pass this way again, and on this journey you cannot truly know where you are going without taking account of where you have been.

It will work out. It will get better. Be thankful for this lesson, and move forward with all deliberate haste. You have my undying affection and support; I am with you now, and I will be there for you on the other side.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Finally! Gil Scott-Heron returns with new music and tour

Finally, after all this time, Gil Scott-Heron is returning with new music. After being absent from the industry for years amid reports and rumors of disabling drug abuse and other destructive behavior, and after a few stints here and there behind bars, he has returned to announce the release of a new CD entitled I’m New Here which is due out in January 2010 on XL Records. In fact, the Gil Scott-Heron Facebook group recently sent this preview out to its members [Click here for video preview.]

After listening to the preview a few times which contains bits of new songs on the CD—“A.M.,” “I’m New Here,” “Me and the Devil,” and “I’ll Take Care of You”—it becomes plain that his physical voice has changed drastically. His once deep, rich, baritone sounds strained, abused; nevertheless, it seems to add another dimension to his work. His voice bespeaks, belies a narrative of pain and anguish—a search for self. It lends a certain authenticity, a certain authority to his poetics.

But however changed his physical voice, his artistic voice remains soundly intact. It remains honest and uncompromising, and reminds me how much we missed him during the eight years of the Bush administration. If any time we needed his honest, uncompromising critique, it was then.

Gil Scott-Heron has often spoken of his love of the blues. And I once heard a noted blues artist state that all true blues artists are flawed in some way. In fact, the blues artist went on to state, often the reason blues artists choose the blues as a medium of expression is simply because they are flawed, because they have been through something, and the blues becomes the medium most suited to articulating that pain.

It follows, then, that I’m New Here is perhaps an apt title. Perhaps, this is not Gil Scott-Heron’s comeback, his re-emergence, but the coming out party for a completely new individual. Gil Scott-Heron has been through something; he seems to be waging an on-going, pitted battle against himself, and finally he is winning. And he has returned, reborn, remade, all new, to share that experience with us.

For those of you living in the New York City area, Gil Scott-Heron will be playing at B.B. King’s Blues Club and Grill on November 4th. Also, following the album release, he will be embarking on a European tour.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Have Pen, Will Travel: Guest post at The Intersection of Madness and Reality

My good friend and partner in crime RiPPa asked me to drop him a guest post this evening, and it's up on his site now. So, take the time to go on over to The Intersection of Reality and Madness and check me out.

When I first started out blogging, he along with a handful of other established bloggers such as Eddie Blue Eyes over at [un]Common Sense, Kim at Kimistry 101, and Kenn at over at his eponymous site Kenn embraced me and urged me along, and for that I am eternally grateful and at their beck and call, so if you get some time, go over and show these sites some love as well.

It’s time to have “The Talk” with my son, but I have no idea what to say

Mocha Dad and E. Payne’s Makes Me Want to Holler are two blogs that I check with relative frequency. Both are “Daddy Blogs.” Mocha Dad’s children are much younger than my own, but it’s fun to laugh at and enjoy the experiences of a father going through what I have already been through. At that young age, children are so hilarious. Parenting seems like such a piece of cake. But then they become teenagers.

That is why I return frequently to E. Payne’s site. His son is about the same age as my youngest son, fourteen, and he seems to be going through some of the same issues that I am working through now with my own. A week or so ago he featured a story about having to have “The Talk” with his son, and his ineptitude in doing so entitled "The Worst Sex Talk Ever."

E. Payne used humor to illustrate his point, and I laughed along with him, but inside I squirmed. I was facing the prospect of having to have the same talk with my son. The whole “Talk” thing seems simple in theory; I know all about the birds and the bees. But in praxis it all seems to fall apart, especially when it catches you unprepared. And I found myself wholly unprepared for this one. The whole issue and imperative to have “The Talk,” not the parenthetical version you have when your children are young but the more serious one, seemed to emerge from nowhere.

Not too long ago, my son had no interest whatsoever in girls. Girls seemed to be the furthest thing from his mind. However, the clues that the fairer sex was entering his purview were subtle at first, but then it all came bursting into the open.

The first hint came in the form of an altering of his hygiene habits. Not too long ago we had to practically make him take a bath. But suddenly he has become the king of clean. In fact, we now have to get up a hour earlier just so we can get some hot water. Suddenly, out of the blue, he has begun to wake up each morning and take those long Hollywood showers, after which he sprays himself from head to toe with that foul smelling Axe stuff.

And this coincided with the reports from our well placed spy, our youngest daughter, that he and a young lady were actively flirting on the bus on the way home. And suddenly he didn’t want to be picked up from the bus stop, but expressed his preference to walk home. My wife and I found this curious because at the beginning of the school year, he had insisted on being picked up from the bus stop.

Again our well placed spy informed us that he and the young lady he had been flirting with had taken to walking home together and holding hands.

But the biggest shock came when we found he had changed his Facebook relationship status from “Who cares!” to “In a relationship with…” Immediately our defenses went up, and my wife began to hint that it was time for “The Talk.”

And even as I was absorbing this information, even as I was formulating what this talk would consist of, even as I was still getting my script together, he hit us with the one-two punch. He casually informed us that he and this young lady were planning on having a date. And in questioning him further about this so-called date and the particulars thereof, he informed us that his new “girlfriend” was sixteen, two years older than he, and she would be doing the driving. My wife responded rather loudly and indignantly, “I bet she will be doing the driving!”. Of course the car date was vetoed. We offered instead to take the two of them out to dinner with us and to the theater.

So, now I have to have “The Talk” with him. I plan to take him to a movie then have a late lunch. I have no idea yet what I will say, but I am sure the words will come. I was preparing an outline of the points I would need to hit, but I threw it away. It just seems best that talks like this come straight from the heart. It seemed like fatherhood was less complicated when he was younger and still had the luxury of believing in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Another crazy dream, this time involving Grace Jones. Can you interpret this for me?

Those readers who have been following this blog for a while now know that I practice very poor eating and sleeping habits. And when the two poor practices coincide, well I have very horrible, very bizarre dreams. For instance, when I eat pork or anything fried or spicy before I go to sleep, I usually end up having a nightmare. And when I eat fried spicy pork, the nightmares are just that much more terrifying.

But lately I have been having the same recurring nightmare or, perhaps, fantasy; I am unable to distinguish which of the two it is. This nightmare/fantasy involves me, a prehistoric landscape, Grace Jones, and sex.

Let me begin, though, by giving you some background information so that you might better understand the circumstance. When I was a young man and Grace Jones was in her prime, I had a huge celebrity crush on her. I thought that she could quite possibly be the sexiest woman alive. However, when I mentioned this to a group of my close friends, they laughed at me. In fact, they went far beyond just laughing. They ridiculed me until having been shamed so badly, I never mentioned Grace or my adolescent lust for her anymore.

Now fast forward to the present. Every time I eat something that I shouldn’t and then go to sleep, I keep having this recurring nightmare/fantasy. As I have stated, I have grown quite accustomed to this occurring, but never the same dream over and over again.

In this dream, I am strolling haplessly through this barren prehistoric landscape when out of nowhere Grace Jones suddenly appears dressed in primitive garb and clubs me over the head with this huge dinosaur bone, rendering me semi-conscious. She then drabs me back to a cave where for an unspecified amount of time, she makes crazy, unrestrained primordial love to me over and over again.

In my semi-conscious state, I cry for her to stop. I beg her to release me. I try to appeal to her sense of decently by telling her of my wife and children back at the cave. But she doesn’t stop. She just laughs and sneers and continues her assault upon my poor unwilling person.

Finally, she grows bored of me, and then carries me out of her cave and throws me atop a huge dung heap where I am finally eaten by a horde of tiny little dinosaurs. And then I awake. At first I would awake in a panic, all covered with sweat, but lately I have been waking up… Well, let’s just say I have been waking up a bit more excited than I should be after such a horrific dream.

I firmly believe that dreams carry with them some unconscious meaning, but I honestly do not know what to make of this one. I know what Freud would say. He would say simply that it is my long repressed desire for Grace Jones manifesting itself in my dreams. But this explanation seems a bit too simplistic.

And I tried to discuss it with my wife, but the whole thing just served to remind her that I had stained her nice, new chenille bedspread with hot sauce, and the stain won’t come out, so she went on a tirade. I mentioned it to my brother who insisted that it was my inner-freak trying to come out and suggested a guy only excursion to Mexico, but I declined that offer. If I do have an inner-freak, and that inner-freak just happens to burst out, I would certainly want my wife around. I don’t want some inner-freak I am not even aware of getting me into any trouble.

I even called my mother and father to talk to them about. You don't know how hard it was discussing a matter of such a nature with them, but I was desperate. However, each blamed the other’s side of the family for my depraved condition and offered to help me pray my way through this whole ordeal, but I declined.

I think that perhaps I am working a bit too hard. I fear that perhaps I am becoming a bit unhinged. But if I am going crazy, I wish to be the first to know. Can someone help me interpret this dream?

Thursday, October 22, 2009

If We Could Just Allow them to Dream: Poverty Is the Next and Most Urgent Battlefield

Photo credit: who is observing Blog Action Day
which is meant to bring about an awareness of poverty throughout the world

For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world… --Ephesians 6:12

I grew up smack dab in the middle of the ‘hood. But though poverty surrounded us, I don’t remember us to be poor. I remember there were times of boom and bust. I remember there were times when we had a lot. And there were times when we had very little. However, whether we were going through boom or bust, my mother endeavored to give us good gifts.

And of all the gifts she gave us, perhaps the greatest gift was the ability, the encouragement to dream, to imagine a future far beyond the confines of the inner city, to believe that anything in the world was possible. Though we were raised in the ‘hood, the ‘hood never became a part of us or defined us; it was simply the place where we resided for the moment until that day when our dreams came true.

But as I now work with kids from the inner city, the first thing I notice is their inability to dream, or the very limited scope of their dreams. The first thing I notice is the gleam missing from their eyes.

Yesterday, I alluded to a book I spent the weekend re-reading, Dr. Ruby Payne’s A Framework for Understanding Poverty. One of Dr. Payne’s central tenets of the book is the notion that poverty engenders a certain mindset. She writes that for those caught in a seemingly endless cycle of generational poverty, the very first casualty is the ability to imagine a future any greater than the present; all that matters is the here and now.

I mentioned this to a colleague, and he summed up her argument thusly: Those caught in an endless cycle of poverty have basically given up hope. They have surrendered themselves up to the vicissitudes and whims of circumstance, and in this pernicious cauldron of hopelessness, it is the children who suffer most. If the children cannot imagine a future greater than the present, then no future exists for these children.

Though we still haven’t overcome or solved the issue of race, our next and most urgent battleground is poverty and the effects thereof. But the problem with confronting problem the problem of poverty and its effects is our attitude toward those languishing within its tenacious, insidious grip.

We have been conditioned by the politics of meritocracy to believe that those who work hardest, those who make the necessary investment in self are those who rise highest. In other words, those who are successful have worked hard for that success and fully deserve it. And I too subscribe to this belief.

However, we often are not aware of what is implied by this argument. If we accept this argument, we also tacitly accept the notion that those who are not successful, those mired in poverty, do not work hard and deserve to be in the very position they are in. Even further, I have heard it stated that many of those living in poverty actually enjoy that way of life.

But this is for the most part untrue. Many of those living in poverty work very hard, perhaps harder than most, but having a limited set of skills, they find themselves working the hardest, most menial jobs for the least amount of pay. Many deplore the lives they are forced to lead but simply know of no other way. Many have just thrown their hands up and given up altogether.

But whatever the reason, whatever the situation our greatest concern should be the children. Perhaps we cannot reach many of the adults. Perhaps the effects of poverty, perhaps the mindset of poverty has set in, become entrenched in many of the adults; however, in the children there remains a glimmer of hope. Not only that, if we are successful in reaching the children, if we are successful in meeting the needs of the children, we can then get many of the adults to come to the fence.

Every person wants to give their children good gifts. Every person wants to pass on to the next generation those advantages that they did not have. The greatest gift we can give our children, the greatest advantage we can pass on to the next generation is the ability to dream, the encouragement to dream, to imagine a future greater than the present. In that way, we can actually offer them a future.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

You Cannot Change the Schools Until You Change the Community: Max Reddick’s Commonsense Argument for the Betterment of Minority Education

This weekend I ran across an interesting post over at Prometheus 6 which concerned minority education. The post centered around an article featured in The Washington Post, “Making the Grade Isn’t about Race: It’s about Parents,” written by a high school teacher in Alexandria Virginia.

The basic premise of the article is that the educational problems and failures of minority students is due, in the main, to the lack of parental involvement in their children’s education and, most specifically, the dearth of fathers and male role models in minority communities.

I have heard and read this argument ad nauseum, and let me say beforehand that I do not discount the writer’s premise altogether; there is some truth to that argument. However, that argument is wholly incomplete. The answer is more complex than that. The lack of parental involvement and the dearth of fathers and male role models are but symptoms of a greater problem that must be overcome if minority children are to take full advantage of the benefits of education—poverty and its effects.

In my opinion, based on my experience in and around education for the past fifteen years or so there are two main reasons minority children are having the problems they are having in schools. Each of these reasons is closely tied to the other: 1. More and more, schools are being called upon to perform functions that they are not equipped to handle, and 2. Governmental energies, emphasis and dollars are being mis-targeted.

At one time, many different institutions took responsibility for the rearing and education of children. Namely those institutions were the community at large, the church, and the family. However, as these institutions are either failing or falling down in their responsibilities, the functions of these institutions are being charged to the schools who are poorly equipped to handle them. Schools were barely able to meet the function of education, and now they are being asked to be agents of socialization, agents of discipline, mental health providers, childcare providers, and a myriad of other disparate functions. And among all these functions, the most basic function of education is pushed to the side.

To prove this next point, allow me please to use the Duval County Public School district here in Jacksonville, Florida, as an example. There are three high schools here which are predominantly and historically black. For the past several years these schools have led the county in every conceivable negative indicator. Duval County and the State of Florida first responded by threatening to close these schools down and bus the students to other schools who were performing up to standard. However, the because of the historical nature of these schools, the county and the state backed off.

So, the district and the state then responded by pumping absolutely obscene amounts of money into the schools. However, much to their chagrin, this did not work either. The schools continue to perform well below standard and continue to lead the county and some parts of the state in every conceivable negative indicator.

However, no one has thought to take a hard look at the communities from which the students attending these schools are arriving. In at least two of the schools, a good portion of the student population are from the housing projects and/or poverty stricken communities surrounding the schools located. In all the schools, the vast majority of the students are from families mired in poverty.

Poverty works to produce a certain unique mentality, a certain mindset. And this mentality, this mindset must be overcome if educational efforts are to be successful. A good study in this regards is Ruby Payne's A Framework for Understanding Poverty. But to get to the meat of my argument, the millions the county and state are pouring into these schools to no avail could be put to better use by working to alleviate the effects of poverty in the communities the students are arriving from. The millions could be used to revitalize the communities and provide opportunities for growth and development outside of school.

Also, keep in mind that old theory by psychologist Abraham Maslow which posits the notion that before an individual can perform at optimal levels, certain needs must first be meet beginning with the most basic physiological needs such food, followed closely by safety:

In other words, the negative indicators will never decrease until the mentality of the parents and students change and the community is able to insure that the most basic needs of its members are met. You can put the best resources in place, you can employ the best teachers, you can use the latest pedagogical methods, you can do whatever, but until those students come to school with their most basic needs met, having the correct mindset, able to imagine a future greater that the present, and willing and ready to learn, we are simply jousting with windmills.

And as a postscript, with the huge amounts of money to be made "reforming" dysfunctional schools, is there really an incentive to do so? If we find a working solution to "reform" our schools, a lot of people would stand to lose a lot of money. I cannot tell you how many paid consultants and experts are in the employ of the county and state for the purposes of improving education. Yet, the system does not seem to be moving forward. I would even be without a significant portion of my income; I have cashed more than a few of those consultant checks myself.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Ties that Bind: What Exactly Holds Black Folk Together as a Community?

“Still, one cannot make a world with simple atoms. There has to be a clinamen. There has to be an inclination or an inclining from one toward the other, or one by the other, or from one to the other. Community is at least the clinamen of the “individual.” -- Jean-Luc Nancy, The Inoperative Community

This one may run a little long. Please stick with me as I attempt to work my way through a question that I have not been able to answer with any degree of certainty. And it keeps nagging me, pulling at me, gnawing at my conscious.

Let me put the question to you as it was put to me. A few weeks ago I joined a good friend and a fellow community activist on his blog radio show, and he led off the show by asking me a question: “Does the African American community still exist?”

And then recently someone asked me to pen a few notes on community for a program, and as I set out to get my thoughts together, I ran a few ideas by my wife.

My wife is one of the smartest persons I know. And this fact constitutes a blessing and a curse. On this evening she decided to engage in a bit of Socratic questioning, and as usual, I found myself backed into a corner out of which I had to free myself. Allow me, please, to give you a glimpse at my dilemma.

I know that theoretically any community organizes itself around a common cause, a common goal that binds its members to each other. French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy defines this as element as the clinamen. But as such, the community is always working toward its undoing; once that cause, that goal has been achieved, then the need for community dissipates.

Now, I can locate the cause that bound the early African American community together. Made up of persons from disparate regions and tribes of African and speaking many different languages and dialects, these early members of the African American community organized themselves around the cause of gaining freedom. And this is important; the meaning of freedom in this instance is plain. Freedom meant freedom from chattel slavery.

However, in the years following emancipation, community members had to pull together once more, again in the cause of freedom. But in this instance, the meaning of freedom is not so clear.

Freedom, of course, meant freedom from discrimination, from oppressive conditions and entrance into mainstream society not as second class citizens but as equals; however, nothing existed to provide an adequate measuring device of this achievement. No finish line was established.

Thus, following the victories of the Civil Rights Movement, many members of the community took advantage of the new opportunities available, and many found their way outside the boundaries set for them.

Now the African American community cannot be defined by space; African Americans are spread out throughout the nation and throughout the world. In addition, race is too insignificant to continue to bind us together. And also, and most importantly, the degree of freedom achieved, the actual progress made depends for the most part on the political stance of the person who is asked.

So , let me ask you again: “Does the African American community still exist?” And if so, what is the cause—the clinamen—binding us one to the other?

The implications are clear. If we are yet a community, I am having hard time identifying those issues, beside those dealing specifically with race, that are unique to African Americans. However, in the same instance, if we have achieved the desired end, and we can finally declare the death of the African American community, then why do the negative indicators continue to dis-proportionately affect African Americans?

In other words, where are we now? Where are we going? And are we going together or as scattered individual atoms?

Monday, October 19, 2009

I Am Going to Build Me a Home: Finding a New Purpose

Forgive me if I speak in metaphors and allegories, but for some reason, this is how I have begun to view the world; this is how everything comes to me lately.

But every now and then I find myself having to step back, re-survey the landscape, get my bearings and begin anew. Right now, I am at that place.

I know it sounds rather cliché to say, but it seems like only yesterday that my two children left at home were only babies. Then, our goals were simple. We had only to raise these two children to adulthood while putting aside a little here and a little there to assure that they would be able to attend college.

For so long this is the end toward which we have been working. For so long this has been our purpose in life.

But now the children are older, and we have almost met those two goals. Pretty soon the two of them will be off to college leaving the two of us to our own devices. What do we do then? What will be our purpose? This is what my wife asked me as my head rested on the pillow awaiting sleep. And I really wished she had not done so because then sleep would not come. I instead spent the night staring into the darkness and contemplating this question.

However, toward morning a narrative came to mind. Toward morning an old image returned.

As the story was related to me, my grandfather began his adult, married life sharecropping on the very land on which his family, my ancestors, were held as slaves. However, the white owner, who was incidentally his great uncle, was so impressed by his work ethic and mental acumen that he promised to bequeath him the little house he had built for his family, and the bit of land he occupied at the time.

You can probably guess what happened next. Upon the landowner’s death, his heir, my grandfather’s cousin, refused to honor the agreement. He insisted instead that his father had left my grandfather the house, but not the land.

My grandfather responded by taking a job on the graveyard shift at a new manufacturing plant that had just opened in Milan, Tennessee. So, by day he dutifully worked the little piece of farmland that was his responsibility, and by night he worked as a factory worker.

He did this until he had amassed enough money to buy his own land elsewhere. And when that day came, he and a few of his relatives broke the house into manageable pieces, loaded it onto the back of a flatbed truck, and moved the house onto his new property.

During the years following that move, he continued to build and add to that little house little by little, piecemeal by piecemeal. With what little money he earned, he purchased lumber and other things he needed, and he bartered and traded for labor. With the help of his sons and relatives, he managed to add a second story as well as additional bedrooms. In fact, he worked on that house up until the eve of his death, and with the insurance my grandmother received, she finished the work he had started.

I remember playing in the yard one day as he and my great-great uncle El Duffie worked on some part of the house. Being the curious, precocious child that I was, I sauntered over and asked him what he was doing.

He responded with, “I’m building a home.”

I responded with a question. “You are building a house?”

He patiently answered, “No, I’m building a home.”

He went on to try to explain the difference between a house and a home, a distinction which was lost on me then. He explained that he wanted to provide a place of relative comfort and safety for his wife and children and me. He went on to say that long after his children left his home, he wanted them to have a place to return to, a place filled with loving memories that would always call them, beckon them back.

And he added that he wanted to build a home to which I, too, would always want to return, to which I would want to bring my children and my grandchildren so that they might know a place of respite, a place of relative comfort and safety to which they might bring their children and grandchildren and so on.

My grandfather has passed away. And recently my grandmother passed away. But that home still stands, and I still possess my key. I return there as often as time permits. And no matter how low I am, no matter how life has beaten me down, joy comes from just stepping foot on the grounds. My strength is renewed by the musty smell of years and years of life and living. I am inspired by the memories that reside there.

I have written often of what that house still means to me, most recently here.

So, today I shall begin working toward a new goal. I have found my purpose. I am going to build me a home.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Five Things that Make Me Smile

This has been one of those weeks. You know those weeks when you are so busy that you cannot seem to even catch your breath. One of those weeks when no matter how hard you work you just can’t seem to catch up. One of those weeks when by the week’s end anger and frustration has built to the point at which you are almost ready to explode, that you feel you just need to vent.

When I got up early this morning to compose a post, this is the anger and frustration out of which I wrote. In fact, the original post was entitled, “Five Things I Absolutely Loathe.” But as I went down my list of loathsome things, I began to think of at least three things that made me smile for every one thing that made me angry. So instead of “Five Things I Absolutely Loathe,” I give you “Five Things that Make Me Smile.”

1. Getting up early on a Saturday morning to fix breakfast for my family.

For some reason, I have a problem getting up on time during the week, but on Saturday morning, I awake for no apparent reason around five and cannot get back to sleep. I usually spend this time enjoying the peace and quiet and writing, but I soon begin to miss the voices and laughter of the rest of the family.

And how better to wake everyone up and get them into the same place than the smell of breakfast cooking. You cannot shake them awake, but when the smell of food wafts through the house, for some reason they are awaken from their slumber. This morning I prepared peppered bacon, eggs, and French toast.

2. When my wife and kids call me for no apparent reason.

Throughout the day, thoughts of my wife and children pop into my head for no apparent reason. I cannot seem to help myself, but I wonder where they are and what they are doing at the strangest, most inopportune times. However, every now and then one of them will call me, and when I inquire as to the reason for the call, they either reply that they were simply wondering what I was doing, or that they forgot the reason for calling. The latter is used mostly by my children.

Nevertheless, for whatever the reason they call, it always brings a smile to my face. It is good to know someone is thinking about you.

3. When guilt causes me to do the right thing.

So last week I ran by the house during the day to pick up something I had forgotten. While I was there, I happened to check the mail and there was a nice hefty check from our insurance company. Evidently we have been overpaying on our homeowners’ policy for quite some time now. It suddenly dawned on me that no one knew about the existence of this check but me, and I could use it to buy some of those things I have been wanting for some time now, namely a XM satellite radio for my car and a couple pair of new Cole Haans loafers.

But guilt got the best of me, so I finally showed the check to my wife. Alas, no XM satellite radio, no Cole Haans loafers; it seemed she had other ideas for what to do with an unexpected windfall. But she seems to be really happy, so I guess all I can do is smile as well.

4. When I get to share experiences with my son that my dad shared with me.

When I was a young man, I loved going to the barbershop with my dad on Saturday afternoons. Black barber and beauty shops on a Saturday are more like events. They should charge admission on top of the price of a haircut. You can watch whatever sports program is being featured that day, or you can watch the latest bootleg movie, sometimes before it even hits the theaters. If sports or theater is not your thing, you can hear deep philosophical conversations by some of the greatest minds ever assembled in a barbershop.

Now my head is as smooth as a baby’s behind, but my son gives me an excuse to visit the barber every other weekend. And now he enjoys going just as much as I did when I was his age.

5. Finally understanding some of the lessons my elders attempted to teach me as a child.

When I was a child, my elders attempted to teach me a number of lessons that I could not understand as a child. However, now daily I am confronted with situations wherein one of those lessons comes to mind.

Just this week in a confrontation with an irrational, argumentative colleague, for a brief second I lost my patience and decided to let her know how I really felt. Then I remembered my grandfather telling me at one time or another, that I should never waste my time arguing with fools or babies because I have nothing to gain either way. I realized at that very moment that this was one of those fools he was speaking of, so I just smiled, ended the conversation and went about my business. I guess I am finally getting the hang of this whole adulthood thing.

What things make you smile?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Have We Forgotten Already?: Five Lessons for Young People in Rememberance of Derrion Albert

It’s winter.

Winter in America

And ain’t nobody fighting.

Cause nobody knows what to save.

Gil Scott Heron

Everything that is learned must be taught. –Lev Vygotsky

On September 24, 2009, on sixteen year old male, a honor student, was beaten to death on the south side of Chicago.

And as I suspected, just as always has happened, for a few days, for a week or so, we were completely infuriated by the incident. For a few days, for a week or so, we walked around shaking our heads, wondering just how an incident of this nature might happen, wondering just what malevolent forces could drive young men to commit such a heinous act. For a few days, for a week or so, we talked about it, and we blogged about, and we looked for answerw.

But as soon as the furor died down, the whole episode seemed to just fade away, and we moved on to the next new outrage.

The president even dispatched a team consisting of U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Education Secretary Arne Duncan to Chicago with $500,000 in emergency grant funds to meet with school officials, parents, and students. However, from what I have read, the meeting took place across town in the Four Seasons Hotel, far removed from the inner city, the locus of the violence.

Please do not misconstrue this as acrimonious; however, perhaps within the comfortable, safe confines of the four seasons hotel was not the best place to hold the meeting. The meeting should have been held there in the very streets where the violence occurred.

And though more funding is desperately needed, money is perhaps not the greatest need; we have a bad habit of throwing money at a problem, and then standing back waiting for the problem to solve itself. But what we really need on the south side of Chicago and in the inner cities across the nation are people willing to step outside their comfort zone, willing to take leave of the suburbs and the Four Seasons Hotels, and give of themselves.

We need teachers, and by teachers, I do not mean school teachers. I mean those who have come from similar backgrounds, those who have faced similar obstacles, those who should have been statistics but ended up otherwise, those with a testimony to give. We need those people to come back and maybe take responsibility for as many as they believe themselves to be able to handle, and teach those who need instruction the most. Based on my experience with working with inner city youth, the five lessons that follow are those that need to be taught first:

  1. Every action has a consequence.

I teach my own children this very same lesson. Every action, no matter how great or small, carries with it a consequence. For every positive action, the consequence is usually positive; conversely, for every negative action, the consequence is usually negative. But the catch is we cannot the magnitude of the consequence.

I don’t think those young men meant to kill young Derrion Albert. This type of incidence occurs with such frequency in inner cities that the young men involved thought nothing of it. However, this time it was caught on tape and somebody died. Now as a consequence of their action, their lives are forever altered, which brings us to the next lesson:

  1. In only a brief moment, your life can change forever.

My grandmother was fond of saying, “In the twinkling of an eye…” In just the time it takes you to blink your eye, the action you take may have consequences that could irretrievably alter your life. The whole notion of being caught up in the moment, in the emotion, is inexcusable. Take time to think.

  1. There are no acceptable excuses.

It seems to me that we give our children far too many excuses to fail. I attended the sentencing trial of a young man recently, and for almost a whole afternoon, person after person—relatives, neighbors, psychologists, former teachers, coaches and other individuals—took the stand to offer excuse after excuse for this young man’s behavior. In the end, the judge simply shook his head and handed down the maximum possible sentence.

Then a few days later I was speaking to another young man about his behavior. I usually begin such conversations with the question, “Why?”. Often in the process of trying to articulate the rationale for their actions, they realize how utterly foolish their actions were.

But this young man took me completely by surprise. He gave me the most learned, clinical explanation of inappropriate behavior that I have ever heard. He had been through so many hearings that he had memorized and internalized those very excuses we had given him as excuses in our pleas for leniency.

  1. Everyone who tells you no is not necessarily against you, and everyone who tells you yes is not necessarily for you.

Often I meet with groups of students who, for whatever reason, are behind in their studies. And when I say behind, I mean fifteen and sixteen year olds in middle school. There is one main theme to the excuse I hear most often: I am in the condition I am in because someone did not like me.

It seems that too often our children are under the impression that for someone to have their best interests at heart, they must necessarily say yes to all their whims. They must always offer them the path of least resistance, and God forbid that anyone should take the time to reprimand them for improper behavior.

However, those who are really on your side, those hoping most for you to succeed, will offer the appropriate response and will point out the most efficacious path, and they will offer praise and reprimand as needed. And it is not necessary for them to smile when they do so.

  1. Life ain’t fair.

There seems to be some prevailing notion that life is somehow fair. But I found out a long time ago, this is not always the case. However, I have find that somehow I can manipulate the curve simply by putting forth the very best effort I can offer and preparing myself for that day when things do go in my favor.

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