Wednesday, July 22, 2015

We Will Just Have To Agree To Disagree

Social media has taught me that plenty of people hold strong opinions that I consider to be quite bone headed, and the reverse is equally valid.  Below is a Top Ten list of issues where others are in disagreement with how I see the world.  That said, I respect your opinions, all the more so if we engage in debate and you handle your end in a respectful manner.  I try my best to be mature when taking my stances and I forgive you for being wrong.   

* N word usage: I'm not in favor of it being said by anybody. It's firmly entrenched in our culture as a hateful insult and I do not believe the misguided attempt to claim the word for ourselves (primarily by ending it with "a" rather than "er") has been successful in removing its sting.  Otherwise nobody would get upset when a non-black person said it.  It can't be denied that the N-word has successfully ingrained itself into black culture though.  African Americans, particularly under a certain age or under a certain degree of educational achievement, will continue to use it.  They won't mean any harm.  It's like a cigarette habit, mostly self inflicted damage with some second hand smoke level injury.  I believe that to be respected by others it is important to show you respect yourself.  Referring to yourself by a derogatory term is not what Queen Aretha was referring to by R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

* Feminism needs to be broken down into race categories?: My Twitter mentions blew up the other day on account of this question.  I carelessly RT'd someone who said something that seemed sensible to me and BOOM went the dynamite. Look, I get that people from different cultures have different struggles.  A hardship that applies to a black woman's day-to-day may not impact a White or Asian or Latina woman in the same way, and vice versa.  But certainly there are a sufficient number of issues that are woman based, regardless of race/skin tone/religion, for Feminism to serve as an umbrella cause covering women in general. To say that feminism is strictly for white women seems very short sighted to me, though I have no doubt there are white feminists who give little thought to certain matters that only tend to affect a woman of color.  Even so, women of all backgrounds have many shared hardships.  They deal equally with sexual harassment in the workplace; catcalling on the street; lower pay for equal work; less representation in top corporate positions, needing access to birth control; considering abortion to be a personal choice over one's own body rather than a decision handed down by politicians; breastfeeding shaming; slut shaming; body image shaming; possibly having to choose between motherhood and career in inflexible workplaces; etc. etc.  So with all of this being shared, I don't believe the differences that exist are enough to disqualify feminism from catering to womankind overall.  There is more than sufficient common ground. And there is strength in numbers.  Why shrink the volume of your collective voice?  One doesn't even need to be a woman to be a feminist.  If you're a man who happens to have a mother/sister/daughter/girlfriend/wife/ or friends of opposite sex then you should consider being a feminist too, regardless of your race.  Lastly, agreeing with someone who has a similar view of feminism (or anything else for that matter) is not "caping" for them, not protecting them from big, bad bullies.  It's just agreeing with them.

* Hashtivism / Semantics / Which Lives Matter?: I believe that activism by hashtag has led to oversimplification of what it means to be supportive of a cause.  Inclusiveness seems to have become a vulgar concept.  Consider what I just said about feminism.  Yes it's true that certain issues pertain to people of one race more than another, but that doesn't mean we can't still be in the fight together.  Yes, there are issues being brought up about mistreated black lives that have caused people to proclaim that "Black Lives Matter".  I repeat, #BlackLivesMatter, for of course they do.  Do all of the other racial categories of lives matter as well?  Of course they do.  Granted, when we're specifically talking about black lives we should try to stay on topic.  We can talk about the struggles of Native Americans and Eskimos some other time. It's not as if we insist that the NRA talk about knives or that anti-smoking people discuss the perils of trans fat in fast food. A special interest group is allowed to focus on a particular topic and the specific people affected. That's fair, right?  But if someone does happen to say ALL rather than black, there is no need to assume that the speaker is saying black lives DO NOT matter.  Saying ALL does not mean that issues of particular importance to African Americans are being ignored.  It simply means that all people are created equal, we all have the same inalienable rights, so in situations where a particular group is getting the shaft, that's a problem in need of remedy.  When asked about a specific racial injustice if somebody chooses to wave it off as unimportant, then we can conclude that their definition of ALL is more limited than it should be.

* Police: We need significant revamping of the screening/training/sanity maintaining of police officers in departments throughout the USA. I do not believe all cops by nature are evil.  I do not believe all white cops are racist. I do believe that cops who walk a beat have stress inducing jobs that can sometimes lead to hair trigger overreaction. There are plenty of cops who need to be weeded out as they are unfit for the duty of protecting and serving everybody equally.  There are plenty of officers who act decently 99 days out of 100 who may screw up royally under pressure on the exception day.  Hopefully the result won't be the needless loss of a life.  We can't allow the police to police themselves for they have shown inclination to protect their own over making sure that justice is served.  Bad apples must be tossed out before they spoil the bunch.  But not every cop is a bad one, and not every situation that arises and makes the news is the result of a cop gone wild.  Sometimes the one being arrested is the bad guy as it is supposed to be.  We need cops to do their job properly, and more often than not, that's what they do.  The success stories don't get much press, only the incidents where something goes horribly wrong.

* Cultural appropriation: People copy aspects of ethnic cultures other than the one they were born into from time to time.  This is not a federal crime, nor is every single example equivalent to black face.  Cultural borrowing, typically temporary, can go in any direction.  It isn't a one way street of whites ripping everybody else off.  Every couple months it seems a new celebrity is being accused of underhanded cultural appropriation. Miley Cyrus was the focus of ire for awhile.  Iggy Azalea is a white woman from Australia who somehow sounds like a black woman from Georgia when she raps.  This is certainly peculiar and clearly a calculated decision on her part to capitalize on a certain sound that isn't native to her.  But it doesn't mean she is the enemy of blacks, including the black guy she agreed to marry.  Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.  So if Kylie Jenner wears her hair in cornrows for a day or two it's not like she's leading a lynch mob, she's just a girl trying on a different look for size.  If you agree with me here but draw the line at Rachel Dolezal, I can't say that I blame you.  Rachel went several enormous steps too far by making a conscious effort to pass for black and somehow managing to take her masquerade all the way to heading a chapter of the NAACP.  Had she stopped short of the NAACP I probably would have just shrugged, but apparently Rachel is not the sort of person who does anything halfway.  Yet I'm not pissed off at her and I don't feel she did much harm to anyone other than herself once secrets were revealed.  We got some good laughs at her expense.  We should now be able to move on.

* Interracial relationships: They happen. In every variety of way. With celebrities and with everybody else.  It's not a trend and isn't going anywhere.  So get over it. Being involved with somebody of a different race is not proof of self loathing.  One does not abandon what they were born by being involved with someone of another race.  Just as people can walk and chew gun at the same time, they can be themselves while loving another.  If you're not in the relationship it's none of your business.  If I'm not in it, it's none of mine.

* Privilege: Yep, white people in the USA have it.  Especially the males.  Most especially those who aren't broke.  This isn't the only kind of privilege of course.  Things are set up more for the convenience of right handed people than lefties.  Able bodied people are in a better situation than handicapped.  Tall and skinny usually works out better for a person than short and tubby.  Being considered attractive comes with perks that being considered NOT does not.  Whichever of these and other privileges you may be in possession of, chances are that you didn't have much choice in the matter.  As for categories where you got the short end of the stick, c'est la vie.  Deal with whatever it is you need to deal with and go be great.  Nothing is stopping you except maybe for you.  Privilege is just there chilling, not caring how much of it you ended up with.  So stop whining about it 24/7.  Didn't you know that privilege is blind and deaf to your protestations?

* Stop declaring every belief by a black person that you disagree with to be an example of hotep/Uncle Tom'ing: People curse because they lack the vocabulary to make an intelligent argument.  The same can be said for referring to someone by an insulting term for the sin of having a different opinion than you.  This is done to an exhausting degree in the black community.  Within any other ethnicity, if one person has liberal left leaning beliefs and the other has conservative right wing beliefs, they'll disagree on a lot of issues.  They'll vote for candidates in different political parties.  When arguing over a particularly heated topic they may not like each other very much, at least temporarily.  But typically neither of them will call the other anything like an Uncle Tom or a hotep, which are terms that mean a black person is acting in a traitorous manner against his own race (see interracial relationships)Feeling strongly one way or the other about a matter has nothing to do with racial identity for most people.  But if a black guy happens to feel that black-on-black crime is as much of a problem as police brutality, he is called an Uncle Tom.  Perhaps we'll eventually modernize that low blow to Uncle Don in honor of Don Lemon. Don receives as much name calling / abusive meme treatment as anyone these days.  Disagreement is inevitable and won't always be kept civil.  But it's possible to not agree with much of what someone such as Clarence Thomas stands for, to dislike him vehemently, yet still not pull a card having anything to do with race when expressing distaste.  Consider him to be a jerk. State that you think he's dead wrong. Leave it at that.  As Chris Rock once said, I have some things I'm liberal about and some things I'm conservative about.  Most grown-ups feel similarly, even if in their younger days it tended to be all one or the other. It's not a matter of jumping back and forth between being conscious and being a so called hotep.  It's simply a matter of being a complex human being who judges situations on a case by case basis.

* Black Twitter: It's not actually a real thing:  Neither is Black facebook, black instagram, etc.  There was (maybe still is) a Black Planet, I'll grant you that.  Social media is one for all and all for one.  There are plenty of black people on Twitter.  Among them I don't believe there is 100% consensus on anything.  The LA Times has put a writer on the case, think pieces are written on a monthly basis, books are in the works, all about Black Twitter.  One may as well write about Bigfoot, Loch Ness Monster, visiting space aliens, and mermaids.  They all make for fascinating stories but nothing can be proven so it must be considered fiction.  I'm black. I have a Twitter account.  Does that make me a member of Black Twitter?  Not necessarily, as apparently not every black person tweeting is in the club.  Also, I've read you can be in Black Twitter without even being black.  I wonder if Rachel Dolezal was in Black Twitter before being outed.  Do I have to hold certain beliefs to be in Black Twitter, 100% compliance to whatever the rules of engagement are?  If so, where are the guidelines?  Hidden like stations of the Underground Railroad?  I doubt it.  Have I forever disqualified myself from Black Twitter membership by writing this blog post? Surely it goes against several core BT principles?  Or maybe it doesn't.  I have no idea because I have no idea what Black Twitter is exactly, no clue what it represents, and neither does nobody else no matter how much they've written about it and swear they know the deal.  Black Twitter is the ghost in the attic, the fairy in your garden, the angel on your shoulder.  Nobody can get a picture of it but they swear it's real.  It's not. Until someone registers - it's nothing more than a phrase that people use to pigeonhole. One more completely unnecessary label.

Racism is a 1-way street (aka Blacks can't be racist): Hogwash. Every street runs two ways minimum, even if on some of them cars are only permitted to drive in one direction. If you (no matter what race you happen to belong to) generalize and pre-judge an entire race of people (no matter which race is the one being judged) then congratulations, you have just participated in the art of racism. We are all capable of being angels and all capable of being a-holes towards our fellow (wo)man. The more power that you personally and your race in general wields, the more harm you are capable of inflicting with it.  But even if you are relatively powerless, if writing a scathing think piece read by six people is about as much damage as you can inflict, you still don't get to be excused from having a racist mindset.

R.I.P. Sandra Bland. May the full truth be unearthed and justice prevail.

And now for some book reviews:

Mary Poppins (Mary Poppins, #1)Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I knew from the movie Saving Mr. Banks that a personality overhaul was given to Mary Poppins when Disney adapted this book into a film. She's all sweetness and light in the film, quite the hard ass in the book. She's rather vain in the book as well. I suppose I'd be vain too if I could fit furniture into a suitcase and fly by umbrella. I learned from Wikipedia that the reason so much that happens in the movie is not in the book is because there are 8 Mary Poppins books and the movie is based on events taken from the first four, plus some stuff added by Disney. I can't say that I loved this classic book that spawned the much more charming movie. I'm giving 3 stars rather than 2 because without the books, starting with this one, there is no movie.

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How the García Girls Lost Their Accents How the García Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a beautifully written book. But it's one of those works of fiction that isn't really about anything in particular. Readers spend time with alternating Garcia girls in random order throughout a portion of their lives. There is no plot to speak of. The chapters are connected by the fact that one or more Garcia girl is featured in each of them, but you could read them in any order you wanted without impacting the reading experience. The chapters/scenes hold your attention in standalone fashion as well as loosely connecting with the others. I didn't grow attached to anyone in particular. I cared about what was happening when it was happening and then the book moved on to something else. How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents is a well written series of scattered moments in the lives of girls who become women who become the memory of a book you once read.

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The RuinsThe Ruins by Scott B. Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Seriously creepy stuff. What do you do if you and a group of friends end up on a hill in Mexico that is crawling with vines from hell. They can think, plot, see, hear, deceive, mock, physically and mentally torture, invade your body, destroy your soul before eventually, inevitably stripping your bones clean? You hold out for as long as you can in hopes that the cavalry will arrive before it's too late. If one of you happens to be an Eagle Scout, perhaps you can figure out ways to last longer than most. But no matter. It was too late the moment you took one step upon that hill. This is a dreams haunting kind of book.

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The GoldfinchThe Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Extraordinary. The Goldfinch is a deeply satisfying blend of gorgeous literary writing with a thriller style plot and Charles Dickens-esque range of scope. Theo Decker is a character we watch from boyhood to manhood, in peril for much of that time, in possession of a cherished gift. It's a gift meant for all people who appreciate art and beauty, not just for him, but it ends up in his hands to secretly protect and preserve. After surviving an explosion that takes his mother's life he moves through his days recklessly. As a teen in his father's careless charge he immerses himself in drugs. As an adult who has somehow managed to secure a comfortable lifestyle with the seemingly non perilous job of selling antique furniture, he is continually drawn to danger. His mindset is practically suicidal, we readers care about him more than he seems to care for himself. He is also cared for by those in his inner circle: his best friend Boris, father figure Hobie, and Pippa, the girl whom he loves from first sight but has no idea what to do about it. Theo protects a masterpiece meant to be displayed on museum walls much as he guards memories of his mother who was taken too soon. Memories never have to be surrendered, but eventually we all find ourselves needing to let go.

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A Wrinkle in Time (A Wrinkle in Time Quintet, #1)A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

There are Young Adult classics that dazzle no matter when in life a reader comes across them. And then there are those that one needs to be young to fully appreciate, it seems. If discovered too late in life, those in the latter category will fail to impress. I'm putting A Wrinkle in Time in that latter group. A lofty reputation preceded but when I finally got around to reading it, I simply failed to see what all the fuss is about. Yet if my theory is accurate then my daughter, who it was read aloud to, would have enjoyed it considerably more than I did. She didn't. We were both underwhelmed, though we were in agreement that it got better as it went along and we became used to the space age setting. I am dazzled by the best of science fiction because of the level of imagination required to create a new world from scratch. I would not call A Wrinkle in Time science fiction at its best. I'll stick with writers such as Philip K. Dick for that. I feel kind of bad almost that I didn't enjoy this book more than I did because I know it's such a beloved classic. A great many readers will enthusiastically recommend it to you. Take them up on it. Perhaps you will agree with them more than you do with my review, and that's fine by me.

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Saturday, July 18, 2015

To Kill a Mockingbird - And Revitalize a Brand

My original review of To Kill a Mockingbird

Updated review: It was all a dream, Atticus NEVER read Word Up Magazine.

So in case you haven't heard, and of course you have, Harper Lee has a "new" book out.  It reads as a sequel to her classic 'To Kill a Mockingbird', showing us an adult Scout and a very much changed Atticus. The lawyer with a heart of gold who championed the cause of justice in a racist society is now a bitter, garden variety bigot. You probably also already know that Go Set a Watchman was not written as a sequel to Mockingbird, but is actually its first draft.  At editorial suggestion Harper Lee focused on a flashback to Scout's childhood, and from that piece of advice the book we all read in school was born.

Harper Lee famously said that she did not want to publish another book. So why at age 89 would she decide to let Mockingbird's first draft be published as a book in its own right after the missing manuscript was supposedly discovered by her lawyer?  Your guess is as good as mine.  The purpose of this post is not conjecture about whether Harper Lee had a late in life change of heart or is being taken advantage of by a publishing giant.  Let others shout "Liar Liar - pants on fire" if they wish.  I'll buy this version of the story until/unless someone proves it to be false: From Mockingbird to Watchman

And perhaps there is more to come, for here is A New Account of ‘Watchman’s’ Origin and Hints of a Third Book

Some readers are conflicted:

But perhaps we should simply read Watchman and judge it on its own merits. Doing so without comparison to Mockingbird is of course pretty much impossible. Harper Lee's 'Watchman' Is A Mess That Makes Us Reconsider A Masterpiece

Not that this is preventing it from selling like hotcakes. Go Set a Watchman Breaks Book Selling Records

The release of Watchman has people re-examining Mockingbird with new eyes. In the #BlackLivesMatter era does Atticus Finch still come across as a civil rights hero?

It's also tough to think about Mockingbird the book without comparing it to Mockingbird the movie.

A search for more hidden gems may now be underway as result of the discovery of Watchman:


Chapter One of Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

My review of Go Set a Watchman:

Go Set a Watchman (To Kill a Mockingbird, #2)Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"I looked up to you, Atticus, like I never looked up to anybody in my life and never will again. If you had only given me some hint, if you had only broken your word with me a couple of times, if you had been bad-tempered or impatient with me---if you had been a lesser man, maybe I could have taken what I saw you doing. If once or twice you'd let me catch you doing something vile, then I would have understood yesterday. Then I'd have said that's just His Way, that's My Old Man, because I'd have been prepared for it somewhere along the line."

The words above are spoken to Atticus by his daughter Scout towards the end of Go Set a Watchman. They basically sum up the entire book. As you may already know, or in case you didn't until landing upon this review, Go Set a Watchman features many of the characters from To Kill a Mockingbird quite a few years later. Jean Louise (aka Scout) is now a grown woman contemplating marriage to Henry, whom she has known since childhood. Henry has remained in their hometown of Maycomb, Alabama and followed the footsteps of Atticus into the law profession. If Scout wishes to marry a father figure, she's all set. Yet apparently she wants more out of life than Maycomb has to offer, because she now lives in New York City, which is about as different from the small southern town she grew up in as a planet in another galaxy. Maycomb holds many ties on her though. The narrative of Go Set a Watchman takes place during a visit to the place where her identity was formed in the earliest of her 26 years.

Much has changed in America from the years Mockingbird are set in to the 1950's. A considerable amount of the change has to do with race relations. People who were once blatant bigots continue to be so. Some things never change. But those who were closet bigots with enough good manners not to let it show in polite society now feel free to express hostility openly. Turns out they were only able to give the appearance of open minded respect for their fellow man when scales of opportunity were tilted heavily in their favor. As the scales became more balanced, the truth beneath southern hospitality was revealed. Count Henry and even our hero Atticus among those in Maycomb more willing to hear out the KKK than the NAACP. Changing times to them means time to put up a more aggressive fight against progress.

Amazingly Scout has been clueless about her father's true social/political views until he is about 70 years old. Once she is finally in the know, of course she feels betrayed. Her father was a lie. Her childhood was a lie. Her life has been a giant deception and she must get through the devastation and figure out how to come to terms with this.

I did not like Go Set a Watchman much. Not enough happening in the plot (no cool subplot like the one Boo Radley presented in Mockingbird). Too many long speeches that did not ring true to how people speak off the page of a novel. A domestic violence scene (I realize this was a far different time than 2016 but still) that was jarring and felt unnecessary and plain weird to me. Last but not least, I just didn't buy that it would take an intelligent woman so long to obtain an inkling of how the people closest to her feel about topics of such importance to her. It's not as if anybody was trying to hide anything from her. But somehow she only saw nobility in her father without catching a whiff of the stench of the rotten core that lay beneath his principles. Those of us who read To Kill a Mockingbird and/or saw the movie adaptation were also duped. This isn't the Atticus we thought we knew. How had that guy actually been this guy all along? Did we not read the book closely enough, all subtext going over our head? Or was Atticus given a complete personality transplant, which means not only did Atticus betray Scout, but Harper Lee betrayed us?

I could choose to contemplate Watchman in a vacuum, pretending I have no awareness of Mockingbird, that I'm meeting these characters and examining their motives for the very first time. If I do, I don't think it changes my opinions much. I still see the same flaws regarding lack of an attention holding plot, too many wandering speeches, etc. Sense of betrayal would be lessened, but I would still find it odd that it took Scout so long to finally wander into a room and learn what type of people she has been surrounded by her entire life.

Maybe that last part is unfair of me. After all, I know a thing or two about racist views remaining undetectable for a long period of time until the right situation brings them out from hiding. I've known parents who showed no overt sign of bigotry until their child became romantically involved with someone of another race. Prior to then, from their words and deeds and even choice of friends, few if any clues of intolerance were given.

There are things we don't know about those who are closest to us. There are things we don't yet know about ourselves because the circumstances to unearth them still lay in the future. There are cowards who believe they are brave, timid people who don't realize their potential to be adventurers, and friends who do not yet know that they consider you to be their enemy.

Unintentional deception is an intriguing premise for a novel. I don't feel that Go Set a Watchman examined it particularly well, but merely brushed up against the surface. I suppose that's why Lee's editor advised her to put Watchman aside and craft a new book based on an incident referenced in what turned out to be a first draft several decades before emerging as a sequel. That sound piece of advice (or so the legend goes) led to the creation of the vastly superior To Kill a Mockingbird.

Then again, perhaps the beloved Atticus Finch of the time tested Mockingbird is simply too good to be true. Maybe Atticus of Watchman is the more realistic depiction of a flesh and blood man, because the fact that he is a hypocrite is made plain. The shattering of illusions we depended on always goes down hard.

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p.s. Turns out there are way more than #TenThingsNotToSayToAWriter