A Loss In Words
What do I say to my niece?
This endless violence won’t cease.
My only hope that it will decrease
Before I am deceased.
At night I’m supposed to sleep
But I can only weep
Over the lives that could not keep
The souls that death chose to reap
Do I tell her that this all about race
That the color of face
Determines her place
In society’s good grace.
No tv tells me that’s not true
This violence can happen to me or you
Yet the only deaths in my view
Leave a distinctly colored residue
I don’t want another excuse!
It’s past time to introduce
The definitive way to reduce
This pattern of abuse.
You want help? I’ll be the first to volunteer
Just don’t be insincere
Or even worse, disappear
From our quest due to fear.
It’s gonna take all of us to make this change
Though at first it may be strange
Great ideas we will exchange
Monumental plans we will arrange.
We will succeed because our goals are right
And it all won’t happen overnight
But you tend to have to fight
To remove a society’s blight.
Every night I dream of this peace
For the bloody news to cease
Giving me an increase
In good news for my niece.
In order to talk about the Rachel Dolezal story, I’m going to put a few things aside right at the beginning. I’m not going to make this an article about being “transracial” (whatever that is) or make any comparisons to Caitlin Jenner’s situation. I’m just going to get to the bottom of why this is such a big issue in the first place. because, in reality, despite expert analysis and feedback, it’s all very simple.
Let’s pretend that you formed a group with friends at school. The group started because you have this similarity: you each have heterochromia in your eyes, meaning that none of you have the same eye color for both eyes. For example, Jill has a blue eye and brown eye, and your friend James Bond (the name is quite common) has a green eye and a hazel eye. Not everyone with heterochromia sits with your group at lunch every day, but a lot of them stick together. You like a lot of the same movies, a lot of the same artists and hang out in a lot of the similar place. One day, one member of your group, who we will call, “Rach” is eating her pudding when something flies out of her eye.
This entire time she was eating with your group and advocating for its awareness, she was lying-both her eyes are baby blue. They are quite nice eyes now that you see them…but that’s beyond the point. Rach has been lying to you for months. She pretended to be something she wasn’t. Now we wonder, what else was “Rach” lying about?
Trust is what this whole national issue is about. That’s what we should be upset about most in this story. So why do most arguments center around Rachel’s “pretending to be black”? It comes down to appropriation vs. assimilation.
When you arrive in a new environment, work environment, school environment, etc., you are likely to pick up certain work habits. For example, if everyone starts using the word “ZANTHEPE” to refer to an unruly customer, you’ll probably start saying it or at least start thinking about it. As time goes on, you may consciously pick up certain work habits while consciously rejecting all others. This is the process of assimilation into the new culture. You do it actively and passively so that you can survive and thrive in the company. By contrast, let’s say your roommate that works at Burger King starts using your work lingo and slang. One day, they come to the company Kwanzaa party and talk and act as if they worked there and had their experiences. This is seen as appropriation, because this person is pretending to be a part of the culture without having a direct connection.
This is an important distinction that is often missed. Any person of color in America that has been accused of “acting/talking white” knows this. Because they have chosen to take aspects of other cultures in the diverse American melting pot into themselves, they are seen as outsiders in their own respective cultures. Yes, there are some people who take it a bit too far but the large majority are just living the way they want to. There is nothing wrong for a person who does not identify as black to wait for the newest Kendrick Lamar mixtape to drop. In fact, they just have a great taste in music.
Crossing cultural lines and divides is a beautiful thing that we get to do in America. Unfortunately, that decision is not always supported by culture you were born into. That’s why some people are willing to go to extremes to avoid the transition. If you just take on the new culture wholesale by putting in those contacts or changing your skin color, you get to skip all those questioning looks from your culture that say, “Why are going over to that lunch table? You already have us.” It doesn’t make it right. You should be who you want to be despite judgments and criticism. But we all know that the world is not that kind and accepting…yet.
Rachel, you went about this the wrong way. Instead of embracing your identity and black culture simultaneously, you sacrificed one for the other. That lie you held for so long is going to take a while for us to get over. You’re not a bad person…we think. You did all of this because of your love of black culture…we think. You didn’t mean to make light of the culture by appropriating a false identity…we think.
You know…it’s hard to say.
We’ve never met you, Rachel.
Disclaimer: This blog post is not primarily about Pocahontas, but also, kind of all about Pocahontas. Allow me to explain.
About a year ago today, I was putting the finishing touches on my first play. It takes place in the future, and at its heart, is a long allegory for Alzhemiers’ disease. I remember swinging by the office of an old professor of mine (just by timing. The man is in better shape than me.) and telling him all about my play. We discussed themes, length and that one joke I put in there about buzzfeed. But the thing that sticks out the most was when we talked about the characters’ themselves.
Specifically, their colors.
It kind of went like this.
Professor Man: …Are your characters any particular ethnicity?
Me: With the exception of Cheng, I wasn’t really specific. I thought they could be played by anyone.
Professor Man: Interesting…do you normally create characters like that, or are they usually the same race as you? (Black/Puerto Rican)
That was the big question that got me to think: what color do I create in? When considering characters for stories, what do they look and sound like? I went back and look at the last seven or eight ideas I created. In all of those stories/plays/dark musicals, there was at least one black or Hispanic character. And if they weren’t the lead, then the lead character had no defined race, and in some cases, not even a defined gender. But even if it wasn’t explicit on paper, when I imagined those faceless leads: they looked a lot like me or my sisters.
The reasoning for this is pretty obvious. I want to picture myself as the intelligent badass who has unlimited resources and allies in my fight against evil, or the ridiculously strong, yet sensitive leader of the group. But then that got me thinking: If my mind works like that, does the same go for all other creators? Is our own color our default setting for a story? More often than not, I think that’s the case.
Black directors are expected to direct movies about black characters. The script should also be adapted by a black writer. This is not to say it’s a bad thing whatsoever. Or to say that this is always the case. Taylor Hackford gave us a fantastic movie about Ray Charles, and he was a white director. But nine times out of 10, there seems to be a societal expectation that a black director would be by the camera. Which is again, not nearly close to being a bad thing: except that minorities are just that in Hollywood.
In every area of entertainment be it directing, acting, screenwriting, or anything else, you will tend to find more Caucasians than people of any color. If my theory from earlier is correct, and artists create using their “color” more often than not and apply to Hollywood, that would lead to one conclusion: We will continue to see more films with white male leads. Now, I know I’m not blowing off the lid of any big conspiracy theory here. You could have guessed all of this from just looking at the Academy Award selections this year. I bring this up because maybe the reason we don’t see different cultures represented more often is not because of bigotry, but because of difficulty.
Let’s go to Pocahontas again. Although Disney skimped on some of the details, they had to do more than just make up a story from scratch. They had to research culture. They had to take create complex animation to accurately capture bodies and shapes in the correct way. They even met with an Algonquin nation in Virginia to get a better idea of accuracy. Yes, they took liberties with the material, but you cannot deny that they put in the effort to understand Native American culture before they were able to make the story they did…and it paid off.
So why don’t more artists do this? Controversy. Although I wish I could remember the exact book, I remember that a man of Asian descent wrote a book about the experience of being a black maid in the south through the 1800’s. Some people were upset because they felt that there was no way that an Asian man was qualified to tell that story. But did the people who criticized him read the book? Or see what his primary resources were? I don’t have those answers. But I do know if Michael Bay offered to tell the story of Malcolm X, we’d hear similar rebuttal. (and see lots of explosions)
Again, I know I’m not breaking new ground here. It is clear that minorities are still just that in American media. And that stories about them should be treated with honesty, dignity and by people who truly understand their experience. Realistically, it’s going to take many, many, many years before Hollywood can say there’s a completely equal number of artists creating in a rainbow color coalition of people that covers every gender, sexuality and race. But maybe the path that leads there is proving that we want to see our entertainment in every color. Go see Milk. Take your friends to Selma. Flip a coin on Tyler Perry. If Hollywood sees a demand, they will respond with a supply of different movies, which in turn will lead to wider minority representation, which in turn, leads to that beautiful rainbow I talked about earlier.
Artists often create in their own image. I’m no exception. If we want to see more colors out there, we need to take the artist by the hand, lead them to new culture, point and say,
“You can paint with these colors too.”
Happy Black History Month! In order to kick it off, I thought I’d go with something near and dear to my heart: acting.
No Romeo and Juliet here. The type of acting I mean is the type that everyone does. The choices in personality, hobbies and people that we make every day. As you’re well aware, in many places, America especially, you’re expected to make certain choices based on your economic status, gender, location and of course, race.
And I think that’s bullshit.
As a black/puerto rican man, I’ve been expected to do everything from freestyle rap on the spot (give me 2 minutes at least), dance the bachata (give me at least 6 to remember the steps) and know every rapper in the game (I honestly listen to more Rise Against). But the biggest thing that I’m expected to be: black.
What does that mean? Depends on the person. Some people expect me to use certain slang, others expect me to be a legitimate threat. When I use certain vocabulary, some people say “i’m acting white”. This is always surprises me, because I haven’t tried out miming in at least 18 years. And this phrase horribly disregards every experience I’ve had leading up in my life to a single moment and reduces it to one factor: my race.
We’re in 2015, and I have no definite solution to this occurrence. All I can say is that there are people who look past race to judge character in my life, and for every person that has done that and continues to do so, I thank you. So until the rest of the world comes around, the best thing to do is to channel those feelings of frustration and ignorance into something better.
Like a poem.
Without further ado, please enjoy:
Red, White, Blue, Yellow
They want me to be “white”, America
My grammar must be exquisite.
I always need to speak in full sentences.
I should wear a suit and a tie everywhere I go.
But when I dress and talk
The way you would have me
I am told:
“You speak well for a black man
But we know what you are.
You should be that instead.”
They want me to be “black”, America.
A loose flow of words
And short phrases
Through a couple of rhyming verbs.
Things you heard
A million times before
But you know the score
So homie, don’t be sore
When I bust these rhymes down like a door
“What was that? No more?”
Is this your way
“Stop tryin’ to be black.
That’s not what you are
You’re better off actin’ white!”
I’m not white, America.
But I am Puerto Rican!
They want me to be Hispanic, America
To speak Span-Ish
To dance the bachata
To listen to some salsa
To make some arroz con pollo
To say me jamo
Excuse me, me llamo…
Que tu dices?
“No, no, no, papi. Tu no comprendes es-pan-ol.
Be…” something else?
So what’s my choice, America?
Black, White, Hispanic, Jamaican, British, Russian, Irish?
How about a human being, America?
A being that speaks in full sentences,
Although, from time-to-time my grammar will slip
Into a rhyming pattern.
One who can say hola
To be who I am,
Not just what you want to be, America.
The Ferguson protests are not about one person.
Michael Brown was a young man with a lot of promise. His death is tragic and my heart goes out to his affected family and friends. Michael was gone far too early.
But now with news flooding in every day about protests, arrests and even the arrival of national guard, is clear that the shooting on August 9th has transcended one person. Everything that you’ll see happening in Ferguson is not about Brown-
It’s about the next young black person.
This is far from an irrational worry. You don’t need to look far to see past evidence of incidents just like what happened in Ferguson. Trayvon Martin was two years ago, and the confusion and tragedy still ring fresh in our minds. And this is not to mention years and years of injustice suffered during and before last century’s civil rights movement. If you believe the adage that “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”, than America is doomed into a cycle where a large number of its citizens fear that they will not get the same justice as everyone else.
Let’s put this another way:
Imagine there was only one car dealership in America. Let’s call this dealership “USAOA”. You go to this dealership when you are young. The salesman promises you a great car. You will always be safe in this car. It will go just as far up the highway as anyone else’s. And most importantly, this car will be seen just as important and valued as anyone else’s. You buy the car.
As you grow up, you see incidents. They may happen right in front of you or to others you know. Other people’s cars are going faster. They are traveling further than yours is able to. And they seem to have special pathways open to them. You would complain, but there is a no return policy. The car you have is the one you keep for life.
Then one day, it is time to get a car for your own child. You go there knowing that you may not get a fair deal, but at least they’ll be safe. Then you hear that Sybrina’s Fulton’s child passed away in a car accident. The accident wasn’t caused by a faulty car part or a drunk driver. It just happened. At the end of the day, some justice was served-but not nearly enough to replace what was lost. You stand at the dealership, your child’s hand in yours. Sybrina’s case is not unique. In fact there are hundreds, thousands of examples of this same thing happening. If you buy that car, will your child be safe?
This is the question that many African-American men and women are forced to think about every time a news report like Ferguson gets out. And yes, anger is a part of it. It’s not hard to imagine why. But again, the bigger emotion here is fear. Fear that their child will be the next face plastered on boards as a reminder that sometimes in America, your life may depend on the color of your skin.
Of course, most people understand all of the above. And hell, anyone may have experienced this even if they aren’t black because of their sexual orientation, gender, weight, ethnicity, religion and many, many, many more invisible lines drawn in America’s sands. What some people don’t understand is why Ferguson is full of protesters, ready to fight if necessary to be heard. And that’s quite simple too.
The media won’t speak for them.
Oh yes, the media does often highlight African-Americans in a positive light. Seriously! We hear every development about Beyonce and Jay-Z’s relationship. We know right away what Will Smith’s next movie will be like. And even if you didn’t know anything about Lebron James, his move from one state to another dominated sports coverage for at least a week. These men and women have done great things that inspire and encourage us their community to shoot for their own dreams. But at the same time, these are rare cases, statistically at least. The media needs to highlight these people so that the 99 percent who never get that far in a system stacked against them think, “Maybe I can get there too.”
The above is by no means unique to the African-American community. Turn on the E channel for a minute. There’s now even a luxury channel devoted to rich people showing off their rich things. It’s insane! (Unless one of them has a batmobile. Then I’ll tune in). The media is fantastic at balancing tragedy with distraction. And sure, they’ll cover stories of social injustice like Occupy Wall Street or Casey Anthony or Ferguson…until the rage dies down. Until the outrage becomes another moment of quiet acceptance. A cautionary tale, but never a constant reality.
This is why the people in Ferguson are hefting up their arms in protest. They know they take the action to put their arms down, it may be mistaken as acceptance. An acceptance that this is the way that this country will operate, that this can happen again with the same result. This is something that the protestors will not accept.
No matter what race, religion, gender and many other types of identity that you have chosen to be, there is one universal truth here: You do not have to agree with the “raised arm protests” or the exact words that the protestors in Ferguson use. But please understand why this is so important. Why this story can’t be simply cycled out of public consciousness after the sentencing. Why this story is about race.
The Ferguson protests are not about one person.
The raised arms you see are people trying to shield their children from the next bullet.
Dear Mainstream Film,
I love superhero stories.
They are tales of ordinary people tasked with doing the impossible. They are the heroic beacons of light in the world. They sacrifice whatever is necessary for a greater good. Hero stories can be light or dark, gritty or fluffy, long epics or short stories. There are many diverse superheroes, and thus many stories to be told.
However, growing up among all these superhero films did leave me with a question:
Where are the black superheroes?
Now let’s look at numbers in terms of movies. If you take every single movie in which a black superhero appeared from 1993-2014, you get 21 films. I’m going to break that down further for you. To get to that 21, I had to include Cobra Bubbles from Lilo and Stitch, Jax from Mortal Kombat and Shaq from Steel.
Twenty-one may not seem like such bad figure…at first. But let’s look at it again. Of those 21 movies, can you guess how many focused exclusively on a black hero as the lead character as opposed to a supporting role? Fifteen? Maybe 10? Haha, not that many, silly! Six. Maybe that number doesn’t seem so bad to you either. But here’s a fun fact. Do you know how many superhero films there were in 2013 that had a Caucasian male lead? Did you guess six? Correct! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_American_superhero_films
So, when you really take a step back, you realize that it took 21 years for black superheroes to do what took Caucasian superheroes seven months.
No offense, but seems a little unequal.
Oh, but I’m not saying you’re just leaving black heroes out. Where is the wonder woman film? She’s more well known than whoever the hell Jonah Hex is, but he needed a movie first. Oh and should I even try to name the Hispanic superheroes or Asian superhero films? Sorry, for some reason I can’t get past Zorro and Kato from Green Hornet… But one thing at a time. I’d hate to overwhelm you with the sheer amount of people you’re ignoring.
Getting back to topic, maybe you didn’t know how many black superheroes are available. Spoiler alert: it’s more than six!
Oh, are you worried that there’s no good comic material? Trust me, I’ll see a Cyborg movie. Oh man, if you came out with a Static Shock movie, you could have my wallet. You could do Super Globetrotters (Okay, that one is for comedy purposes)! How about Luke Cage? Silhouette? Bumblebee? Oh sorry, those last two were black superheroes that are also female. That may be a little much for you.
You’ve also told me that black superhero stories aren’t as widely known. Well, that’s true enough. Maybe some of those names in the last paragraph were even news to you. Hey, you know what you could do? You could put a black actor in a role that was originally depicted as a Caucasian man or woman!
Oooh, think about it! There could be a black spiderman! Or a black green lantern! We could even do a black superman! What? Do you think I’m crazy? The comic books did literally all of those!
Don’t you usually use the comic books to make these movies?
Are you afraid of racial sensitivities or inaccuracy? That’s funny, because you don’t usually care. Johnny Depp played a Native American last year. In 2012, Ben Affleck played a Mexican CIA operative. And even way back in 1961, you had Mickey Rooney play an Asian man. And in each of those cases, you did kinda lean on sterotypes…but hey, that’s not the issue here either. It’s all about staying true to the story.
I’m here to let you know that you don’t even have to change the story at all. For example, if you wanted to do a black Batman with Idris Elba, you don’t even have to change Batman’s story! Idris Elba can still have billionaire parents, a butler and access to unlimited gadgets: none of these things have to do with his race! (Shocking, I know!)
I know you’re not considering this idea more heavily because you’re trying to protect me. After all, they just announced that Micheal B. Jordan, a black actor, will be playing Johnny Storm in Fantastic Four. A lot of people are angry because Jonny Storm is usually depicted as a Caucasian male in the comics. The ones who aren’t mad about that specifically are arguing something like this,
“Sue Storm is played by a white actress. Johnny storm is played by a black actor. They can’t be brother and sister.” <- They actually consider this a fullproof argument. They’re forgetting that it is GENETICALLY possible for two siblings to appear to be two different races or, I don’t know, that people are occasionally FUCKING ADOPTED!!!! But don’t worry, people have got that angle covered too.
^You see, I can’t fight arguments like that. Step-brothers and sisters can’t feel more love for each other than just plain ole brothers and sisters do! After all, every relationship between two siblings with the same two parents are flawless! Just look here:
Because at the end of the day, it’s not the story, it’s not the special effects, but two differently colored siblings that will sink this movie. Oh, but as this person suggested, please feel free to make Ben Grimm black. After all, his character turns into orange stone halfway through the movie.
Sorry, I know I got a little angry back there. And I don’t know why, but for some reason, the Junot Diaz quote comes to mind: “If you want to make a human being a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.” Haha, I don’t even where that came from. Outside of superhero films, I know you do your best to represent the black, Hispanic, female, Asian, lgbtq, muslim populations and every other identity in the spectrum in a prominent and shining light throughout the media. Like in television!
In closing, I’m just asking that you think about some of my ideas. After all, you wouldn’t be alone. Stan Lee said in a recent interview that he’s working on a Black Panther film and thinking about Chinese, Latino and Indian superheroes. But Stan the Man isn’t going to be around forever! So how about you help him out a bit?
Again, I’m not saying you have to make Superman black. I don’t hate on the multitude of fantastic superhero films that you’ve offered to me in the past. I’m also not insisting that my race has been completely ignored in superhero films (six, remember?) I’m just posing the question that has been on my mind since I was a kid in the 90’s:
Where’s the superheroes that look like me?
A 22-Year old Black and Hispanic Male
P.S. Happy Black History Month 😀