This So-Called Post-Post-Racial Life

January 8, 2010

Images for No. 1 Ladies

I was very happy to see that the amazing HBO series, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, has been nominated for three NAACP Image Awards: Outstanding Drama Series, Outstanding Actress in a Drama Series for Jill Scott, and Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series for Anika Noni Rose.

I first wrote about the show the night after its premier:

Last night, about halfway through The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency I realized that I had been tense since the program began. It only took me a moment to figure out why. I had been so looking forward to it, so hopeful for it. But I feared that I would be let down.

But what I suddenly felt at that moment was…relief.

Also, a sort of a feeling of revelation. It is actually possible to depict Black people (and, more specifically, Black African people) without having the required one good White person? Perhaps the White school teacher from Britain with a heart of gold…. Or a White American missionary who begins the tale with ambivalent feelings about the dark people but, through a series of heartwarming interactions and growth-inducing traumatic experiences, comes to terms with both his underlying racism against Blacks and his disappointment with his God…. Or a White female Australian there to save the apes from the ravages of a changing global ecosystem and the bias and ignorance of the natives who have lived amongst the apes for generations….

No? None of these obligatory White characters are present? Just Black Africans going about their daily business and lives? Africans who are proud of and happy in their country (Botswana, in this case) and are not looking to escape to somewhere else? Africans who have the capacity for tremendous good, tremendous bad, and all levels of complexity in between? Africans who face plagues and violence and the tug-of-war of the old and the new with bravery and grace?

The very notion of such a program appearing on my television set is almost too much to comprehend….

I did comprehend the program. And wrote about it regularly. (My posts on the program can be found here.) Sadly, the series is not currently filming a second season and it does not appear as if it will any time soon—although the show’s producers and HBO are said to be “in conversations” to figure out a way to bring it back. I really do miss The No. 1 Ladies and hope that these discussions will be fruitful. Until then, I know what I will be rooting for if I watch the Image Awards.

November 24, 2009

“When did you discover you are African?”

"When did you discover you are African?" PPR_Scribe

"MOAD Exterior." PPR_Scribe

That is the question asked at the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco.

While I was in town recently for a conference, I dragged my old college roommate there. Although she has been a resident of the city since we both left Boston, she had never visited the museum. I remember being very excited about it when it first opened in 2005; in fact, I think I even wrote a post about it on my old blog. So I knew I couldn’t visit the city and not visit MoAD.

I am tempted to compare MoAD to the National Underground Railroad Museum and Freedom Center, which I blogged about this summer. That would be, perhaps, an unfair comparison.

The Underground Railroad museum is working with probably 10 times more space for one thing. The exhibits are more emotionally charged at the Underground Railroad Museum just by nature of their content, and are a lot more participatory than the exhibits at the more gallery-like MoAD. There are also probably important differences in terms of ownership of the real estate that the two institutions inhabit that might partially account for how MoAD is able (and unable) to use its building, though I do not know for sure what all these details are.

"Museum of the African Diaspora, exterior." PPR_Scribe

Given these differences, though, I do think that MoAD could better utilize its small space. The exhibit space was small to begin with, and configured strangely—Rule number one of any public space is that it should not be so difficult to find the restroom.

But I was happy to see that the space was being used as a community gathering area: During my visit there was a respectable group there to hear artist Richard Mayhew speak. We did not have time to listen to the lecture but did enjoy the retrospective of his work.

There were creative uses of some of the spaces: Both the stairwell and the elevator were covered in hundreds of images of the people that make up the African diaspora, for example. And the space itself is gorgeous from a design standpoint. The small gift shop was impressive. The staff was welcoming and knowledgeable—the two young Black men working there who tried to talk us into attending the lecture were especially wonderful to see. The place had the feel of an intimate, cozy, vibrant cultural salon. And the on-line museum is user-friendly, aesthetically pleasing, and educational.

That the museum exists is reason enough to be happy. Hopefully with more time—and more monetary support—the space can be transformed (and maybe enlarged) to better host its important themes.

It was definitely worth the visit.

"Ancestor Image Stairwell." PPR_Scribe

"Ancestor Image Elevator, detail." PPR_Scribe

"Transformation-MoAD Lobby." PPR_Scribe

July 11, 2009

“I have the blood of Africa within me…”

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , — pprscribe @ 11:35 pm
Some you know my grandfather was a cook for the British in Kenya, and though he was a respected elder in his village, his employers called him “boy” for much of his life. He was on the periphery of Kenya’s liberation struggles, but he was still imprisoned briefly during repressive times. In his life, colonialism wasn’t simply the creation of unnatural borders or unfair terms of tradeit was something experienced personally, day after day, year after year.

~President Barack Obama,

July 2, 2009

“When, in the course of human events…”

WHEN, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

"Chasseurs Volontaires." negFoto, http://www.flickr.com/photos/negfoto/2059959079/

"Chasseurs Volontaires." negFoto, http://www.flickr.com/photos/negfoto/2059959079/

We hold these truths to be self-evident:– that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its power in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security. Such has been the patient sufferance of these colonies, and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former systems of government. The history of the present king of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these states. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has refused his assent to laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.

"Near White Plains, GA." Library of Congress, http://www.flickr.com/photos/library_of_congress/2179068532/

"Near White Plains, GA." Library of Congress, http://www.flickr.com/photos/library_of_congress/2179068532/

He has forbidden his governors to pass laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

He has refused to pass other laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of representation in the legislature, a right inestimable, and formidable to tyrants only.

He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.

He has dissolved representative houses repeatedly, for opposing, with manly firmness, his invasions on the rights of the people.

He has refused, for a long time after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the legislative powers, incapable of annihilation, have returned to the people at large for their exercise; the state remaining in the mean time exposed to all the danger of invasion from without, and convulsions within.

He has endeavored to prevent the population of these states; for that purpose obstructing the laws for naturalization of foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migration hither, and raising the conditions of new appropriations of lands.

He has obstructed the administration of justice, by refusing his assent to laws for establishing judiciary powers.

He has made judges dependent on his will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.

"Slaves, Ex-slaves, and Children of SLaves in the AMerican South, 1860-1905." Okinawa Soba, http://www.flickr.com/photos/24443965@N08/2723654375/in/set-72157606462071258/

"Slaves, Ex-slaves, and Children of Slaves in the American South, 1860-1905." Okinawa Soba, http://www.flickr.com/photos/24443965@N08/2723654375/in/set-72157606462071258/

He has erected a multitude of new offices, and sent hither swarms of officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance.

He has kept among us, in times of peace, standing armies, without the consent of our legislatures.

He has affected to render the military independent of, and superior to, the civil power.

He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his assent to their acts of pretended legislation:

For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:

For protecting them, by a mock trial, from punishment for any murders which they should commit on the inhabitants of these states:

For cutting off our trade with all parts of the world:

For imposing taxes on us without our consent:

For depriving us, in many cases, of the benefits of trial by jury:

For transporting us beyond seas to be tried for pretended offences:

For abolishing the free system of English laws in a neighboring province, establishing therein an arbitrary government, and enlarging its boundaries, so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these colonies:

"Portal of Sorrow." The Wandering Angel, http://www.flickr.com/photos/wandering_angel/310101997/

"Portal of Sorrow." The Wandering Angel, http://www.flickr.com/photos/wandering_angel/310101997/

For taking away our charters, abolishing our most valuable laws, and altering fundamentally the forms of our government:

For suspending our own legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.

He has abdicated government here, by declaring us out of his protection, and waging war against us.

He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.

He is, at this time, transporting large armies of foreign mercenaries to complete the works of death, desolation, and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of cruelty and perfidy, scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the head of a civilized nation.

He has constrained our fellow-citizens, taken captive on the high seas, to bear arms against their country, to become the executioners of their friends and brethren, or to fall themselves by their hands.

He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions.

In every stage of these oppressions we have petitioned for redress in the most humble terms: our repeated petitions have been answered only by repeated injury.

A prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Nor have we been wanting in attention to our British brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts made by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them, by the ties of our common kindred, to disavow these usurpations, which would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity which denounces our separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, enemies in war, in peace, friends.

"4th of July celebration, St. Helena Island, SC." Library of Congress, http://www.flickr.com/photos/library_of_congress/2179076774/

"4th of July celebration, St. Helena Island, SC." Library of Congress, http://www.flickr.com/photos/library_of_congress/2179076774/

We, therefore, the representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the name and by authority of the good people of these colonies, solemnly publish and declare that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, FREE and INDEPENDENT STATES; that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British crown; and that all political connection between them and the state of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved; and that as free and independent states they have full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which independent states may of right do. And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

More information:

May 26, 2009

Finding Words: A photographic trip through the National Underground Railroad Museum

"Underground Railroad Museum, exterior." PPR_Scribe

"Underground Railroad Museum, exterior." PPR_Scribe

The woman painting my nails, several miles to the north of the National Underground Railroad Museum and Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, told me she had never been to the museum. But she thought it was a good idea. She was Black. I had no words to tell her what visiting the museum had meant to me. I did want to scold her for living a stone’s throw from the building but never having been there. Then I thought it inappropriate for many reasons, not least of which was because there I was on my Memorial Day weekend, celebrating my freedom by getting a $40 manicure. Who was I to scold. So I said nothing. She asked me how much it was to get in. I told her I could not recall, but that children and seniors get in for a reduced rate.

I chose A Ouibit of Red for my nails.

"View From Freedom." PPR_Scribe

"View From Freedom." PPR_Scribe

Did anyone visiting that day catch the symbolism of this view from the museum’s grand hall? Across the vast, open space I could see the Ohio River, and beyond that, Kentucky. Once, a river separated enslavement from freedom. A few generations separated me from feeling the relief ancestors must have felt looking back from the Ohio side. Behind me as I was getting this shot a group of field tripping high school students—Black, White and Hispanic—were relating to their museum guide what they learned about the major cash crops the enslaved Africans harvested. They recited words by rote memory and the guide, a young Black woman, praised each answer—even the incorrect ones.

"Juxtapose." PPR_Scribe

"Juxtapose." PPR_Scribe

I went through the museum reading the posted plaques. I opted against the recorded self-tour after being somewhat put off by the actors’ voices portraying US slavery-era Blacks. They sounded like cartoon characters. The woman who took our money and gave us our tickets (reduced price for children and seniors) had given us the children’s tour. I wondered if the voices on the adult self guided tour sounded any different.

I was somewhat annoyed by the juxtapositions of new and shiny and gleaming, and old (or, in many cases, replications of old). I walked inside the slave pen. Inside the pen was myself and (I am assuming by their dress) an Amish family. There were seven of us inside the log walls of the pen. I tried to imagine the pen filled with three, four, five times that number for days, weeks, months at a time. I could not imagine.

I was cataloging my reactions—for later retelling to friends and family back home and to visitors to this blog. “Antiseptic” was a word I kept using in my head. The actual artifacts were walled away in protective glass in a protective enclosed atmosphere in order to preserve them for future generations. The replicas were made to look old, but I have seen enough episodes of home shows on HGTV to know how they were likely artificially aged. Everything was clean. Antiseptic.

"Through Time." PPR_Scribe

"Through Time." PPR_Scribe

This time line marched history along a curved wall in perfect, orderly, well-lit fashion. The years in between were lost. The vastness of those years was also lost.

I imagined a walk outside the grounds of the museum and throughout the city’s downtown. Each decade would be a half mile or so on the path, with markers all the way telling of the key events and figures and laws and battles and speeches. People would walk along the path, hopefully growing tired before they even reached the Civil War.

Yet… That would probably still be fairly antiseptic. There would probably be several Dippin Dots kiosks along the time line path.

"Point of View, 1." PPR_Scribe

"Point of View, 1." PPR_Scribe

I thought a lot about the field trip groups making their way through the museum. Several of the exhibits were life sized. This allowed the children to literally place themselves into the exhibits.

A group of preteen boys that I followed through several rooms were having an extended discussion about what weapons they would have used to break free from slavery. Here, two of the boys caressed the barrel of the rifle and said they would have over powered this single guard and stolen his weapon and killed him and ran away “up North.”

One of the boys decided that he would have hidden a knife in his pants. Then another boy became enthralled by a long machete depicted in another exhibit and decided he would rather wield that weapon.

I longed to tell them all to STFU, but their chaperon was only steps behind me. She, a White woman, was listening to the self-guided tour. She appeared to be crying.

"Point of View, 2." PPR_Scribe

"Point of View, 2." PPR_Scribe

Another school group came through as I was lining up these shots. One of the boys ran over to the seated men and exclaimed, “Oh, lookit! I’m a slave!”

His classmate, a girl, looked at him with disdain and said, “You retard! Being a slave wasn’t a good thing!”

The boy stood up, glancing at me as he did. I suppose I gave him a look, or perhaps it was his rebuke by the girl (who he had probably been trying to impress). But he stopped smiling and laughing and walked quickly away from the exhibit.

I thought the girl’s choice of words could have been better. Hers were not more enlightened than the rifle-choosing boy who told the potential knife wielder that his own choice of weapon was “so gay.”

But at least she had words. Apparently I just had a look.

I sat next to one of the life-sized seated men and took my shot.

One of the exhibits appeared at first to just be a darkened room with a large clear center column containing what looked like thousands of colored glass beads. I walked through quickly, in search of my children who I thought had gone on ahead of me. I found one with her grandfather, then returned through the room to search for my other child. I found her looking at the time line with her father.

I walked back through the darkened room. I stopped this time to look. The plaque said that the room was dedicated to all the Africans who did not make the Middle Passage with their lives. The colored beads were meant to represent them, because their names have—like their lives—been lost. I walked back through the room and suddenly burst into tears. I stood in a corner and silently cried for a few moments before catching up with my daughter and my father-in-law.

I amended my mental blog post to remove the word antiseptic.

"Young Witness." PPR_Scribe

"Young Witness." PPR_Scribe

My children also cried. One cried while reading the account of Margaret Garner, the woman on whose account Toni Morrison’s Beloved is based. She told me through her tears…it was so terrible…why would a mother do something like that?

I tried to explain that this shows how horrible slavery was, that a mother would rather her children be dead than return to be slaves. Could she imagine how horrible that must have been? She told me she hated slavery, and I was glad.

Both cried during a short film that used actors to portray a mother, her young daughter, and teenaged son about to be separated as the young man prepared to run away from his family and the plantation.

I almost did not go into the little theater, prepared to be annoyed at the actors. But I, too, cried. We hugged each other and remained seated for a few moments after the film credits ended. I asked my daughters if they wanted to ask me anything about the film. One said, “It was all just so sad.” I was happy that she was sad. All I said was that I agreed.

My other daughter wondered if the young man in the film made it. I reminded her that this was just a reenactment, but that some Blacks made it and some did not.

They wanted to go upstairs to the fourth floor to the genealogy center to “look up all of Paw-Paw’s brothers and sisters.” But it was nearly time for us to leave. We went through one other exhibit, then headed for the gift shop.

One daughter chose as her souvenir a fair trade beaded bracelet made somewhere in South America. She opted for no bag, immediately put it on her wrist, and remembered without me telling her to say “thank you” to her grandparents for buying it for her.

One daughter chose a finger puppet of Harriet Tubman. She picked Tubman over the finger puppet of Frederick Douglass, someone who I think was supposed to be Che Guevara, and several other figures I could not readily identify. The puppet was affixed with a magnet so that, I suppose, after you are finished putting your finger up through Black Moses’s skirt and lodging it into her head, you can use her to put your shopping list up on the refrigerator.

I was troubled by this thought and tried to convince my daughter to look at the free trade bracelets that her sister had already chosen from. But she was having none of it. She wanted the Harriet Tubman finger puppet with a passion.

Her grandparents bought it for her. She opted out of the bag, immediately putting the puppet on her index finger. She thanked her grandparents and ran out of the gift store. All the way to our car in the parking garage she extolled us, with the Tubman puppet held up high, to follow her to freedom. She managed a surprisingly accurate quoting: I freed a thousand slaves; I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves…

Although…her finger puppet Harriet Tubman’s words sounded much like Professor Minerva McGonagal talking to Harry Potter about the adequacy of his incantations at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Before I could become annoyed, I told myself that at least my daughter knew the words. That’s a start.

***More photographs from the National Underground Railroad Museum and Freedom Center***

May 12, 2009

Love Heals: The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , — pprscribe @ 12:21 pm

The 7th episode of the HBO series The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency resolved some mysteries and revealed a couple new or unresolved ones. As usual, I attempt here not to spoil the plot. Instead, I will focus on one of the themes for the episode—and, indeed, for the series as a whole.

In the author’s diary for this week’s episode, Alexander McCall Smith talks about the healing power of love that he sees as part of Botswana’s national character. I have already talked a bit about my ambivalence about love as a weapon of justice. But this time my focus is a little different: Who has the capacity to love. No, actually: Who has the right to love?

When this series first began, I kept hearing one question. Is it possible, people wondered, for a White man—a White, British man—to write sensitively and respectfully about a Black African woman?

Some people said, out-and-out, no. Others doubted. Others left the question open, but still were angered that a White male voice should be privileged over the voices of native Black Africans generally and Black Botswanans specifically—especially Black Botswanan female authors. It appeared to me than many people expressed these opinions without ever having read any of the No. 1 books, or seen any of the episodes of the TV program.

I understand the consternation. I once did a video presentation of films that used Black folks as backdrops—in movies about Black people and experiences. (No use cataloging the films I used as examples. Just begin with Glory and Mississippi Burning and Out of Africa and free associate from there.) I have very definite and strongly felt opinions about White and other folks’ appropriation of the creative, artistic and other cultural products of Black and other POC. The White kid on the subway wearing waist-length locs and a Bob Marley t-shirt smiling hopefully at me gets barely a smirk from me in return… Everything but the burden. Yes. I get it.

I cringe when White folks say of their former Black “help” that these people were “like part of the family.” I am annoyed at young White hipsters traveling the globe and “connecting” during their vacation or year-off with black and brown and yellow and red people with whom they come into contact. I chuckle at Madonna’s infatuation with multiculti skin art and rankle at her infatuation with multiculti “orphans.”

Yes. I really get it.

Yet. Is it possible for a White person to truly feel love and respect for a culture not his or her own? How would that look, exactly? How would we discern that from any of the (I think) inauthentic examples I mentioned above?

It seems from the bonus material for No. 1 that Alexander McCall Smith feels love for the people of Botswana he has met, and continues to have a relationship with people and institutions in that country. Do I get to disallow his love, or say that it is not love?

When JLB first tells Precious that he loves her, she responds “I am very glad.” Not the reply he was looking/hoping for. But perhaps that is how I can respond to the professed “love” of cultural outsiders: I am glad that you love me; I, however, do not necessarily love you. And if that is what you were looking for by telling me of your love, then your love is not true.

But if love heals, then am I doing myself a disservice by not opening my mind to the possibility of seconding that emotion? Do I remain stuck in the past, unable to move forward in some sort of racial reconciliation? What prize to I get if I hold the cultural line, not letting any White (or other non-Black) folks in, belittling their attempts to connect and relate, being on the watch-out for the racial betrayal I know is just around the corner?

I have asked many questions, yet I do not have many answers. But so far, at least, the White film and decision makers connected with The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency have not felt the need to inject themselves into the story. We have not seen the appearance of the White British nurse with the heart of gold or the ambitious and naive young White American Peace Corps worker. It is difficult for me to imagine the restraint that this must entail. Surely some cable executive somewhere has said, “This is really great stuff…but, er, I think we need to create a character that people can relate to”—and that character, of course, would need to be White. But so far, we have not had to be subjected to this random White character to appease the (White) audiences. I thank the people connected with the series for that.

I don’t know if it is “love” or not. But I love it. And am very glad to have it.

***My previous posts about The No. 1 ladies’ Detective Agency can be found here.***

April 30, 2009

Everybody Plays the Fool: The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , — pprscribe @ 10:01 am

JLB is in love.

But then, we already knew that. What we may not have known before this past Sunday’s episode is the lengths he is willing to go to win the (at least for now) unwinable heart of Precious Ramotswe. Everyone has advice to give. Most of that advice involves JLB presenting himself as someone other than JLB. Surely he knows the lady detective better than that.

She will not be swayed by the inauthentic.

But perhaps she will be swayed by JLB’s loving care of something (her white “van”) that she loves and cares for so much—and that is a material symbol of a someone (her late father) who she loved and cared for and who loved and cared for her so much in return. Perhaps she will also hear and see how she is making JLB feel—as if he is being used, his time and his willingness to assist being taken for granted….

Everybody plays the fool, Mr. JLB Matekoni. Sometimes. There are no exceptions to this rule.

JLB’s own housekeeper is playing the fool—for him.

Mr. Patel—the first non Black African resident we have seen—is apparently being played by his young daughter, who has ideas of her own about how she spends her time (and with whom).

The butcher, Rra Badule, is being played by his wife. This, he already suspected even before appearing at Mma Ramotswe’s door. But he will accept it, apparently, for the sake of the boy he loves so much and the hope (likely misguided) of a better future with his wife.

Everybody plays the fool. Sometimes.

***Previous No. 1 Ladies’ posts here.***

April 22, 2009

African Hearts: The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — pprscribe @ 1:14 pm

Sunday’s episode was my favorite yet. And if you haven’t seen it yet, let me warn you: watch with a box of tissues close by.

In this episode we are treated to a guest appearance by the incredible CCH Pounder. She plays a grieving mother from the US who, though she officially loses her son, ends up gaining more than she ever could imagine. The interaction between her character and the Botswanans reveals what we Americans do “best” when traveling the world: being American. She is (at first) dressed inappropriately, naive about hospitality despite poverty, awkward in acknowledging her connection to the Africans, and—most relevant to my previous discussion—hell-bent on vengeance. But through exploring her son’s “African heart” she discovers African hearts of her own.

The other huge payoff with this episode is the further development of the relationship between Precious and Grace. Again, I try to write these without giving away too much of the plot so I will not say too much here. Suffice it to say that another sisterhood is here forged. And that Anika Noni Rose has got to be one of the most undervalued actors in the business. In this post from That Black Girl Site Corynne says:

Rose, however, layers in much more complex attributes giving her vulnerability, a big heart, and a strong head for business. In most of the episodes that have aired thus far, Rose is the source of comic relief. She doesn’t need to say it word it is imbued in the way she moves as well as when stares thoughtfully and blinks her eyes. But Rose gave us even more this week when she also showed that she can turn in both a comedic and a heartbreaking performance in the same show. Her confession to Precious Ramotswe had me (and I suspect a bunch of you) in tears.

Hopefully this episode will quiet somewhat the concerns of some observers who wanted from this series more of a focus on the impact of HIV/AIDS on the continent. This issue is dealt with here in a manner that is serious without being heavy-handed. Over in “real life,” Botswana’s response to the AIDS crisis is seen as one of the more successful models on the continent:

Botswana’s national treatment programme is now seen as a successful model for other African countries to follow. Though progress was initially slower than expected, the programme made rapid progress in 2004 and 2005, and patient responses have been comparable to those seen in Europe and the USA.

MASA [the national antiretroviral therapy program; the Setswana world for "dawn"] has demonstrated that antiretroviral treatment can be provided on a national scale through the public health system of a sub-Saharan African country – not just through localised projects run by foreign aid workers or researchers. In Botswana’s case, almost all of the actual cost of treatment has been paid by the Government, while other partners have given support by providing laboratory equipment, staff training or patient monitoring services.

…But the struggle to provide universal treatment in Botswana is far from over. All of those already enrolled must continue to receive drugs and monitoring services for the rest of their lives, and people who develop resistance to their current medications must have access to alternatives, which can be more expensive and complex than first-line therapy.

It is much easier to provide treatment in towns than in rural areas, and MASA will need to be further decentralised to ensure that all areas are covered. The shortage of skilled staff will continue to be a great challenge to MASA, and the programme will continue to be very expensive. The need for help from the rest of the world is as urgent as ever.

Botswana’s long-term vision is to have no new HIV infections by 2016, when the nation will celebrate 50 years of independence. (Emphasis added; Source)

***Read my previous posts about The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency here***

148252221_a978e1ff601
“Botswana, condom dispenser.” http://www.flickr.com/photos/mvcorks/148252221/


April 8, 2009

“Something Else”: The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , — pprscribe @ 1:01 am

As I have said here previously, what I love so much (so far) about the HBO series, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is its difference. An all-Black cast: different. Set and filmed in Africa (Botswana): different. A leading lady who is sexy and smart and “traditionally-figured”: different. A relatively slow-paced and relatively sweetly-written plot: different. There is just a lot here that we do not often get to see on our small screens at home (or on the big screen either).

This week’s episode revealed more of this difference.

****MILD SPOILERS AHEAD****

One has to do with the developing relationship between the two female leads. Fairly well-known working Black female actors in Hollywood probably have stacks and stacks of scripts in which they were slated to play the sassy Black friend to the White female lead. Or, if there were multiple Black female leads, likely the script called for them to be waiting for a man in order to exhale. But two Black female leads who are depicted in an employee-employer working relationship? Talking about work expenses and life and human nature?

Now that is “something else.”

Also different is that each of these women has been given a complex back story–even in such a (on the surface) simple and sweet story as No. 1 Ladies. We already saw some of Precious Ramotswe‘s back story last week in her marriage to a jazz musician, experience of domestic violence by his hand, and resulting death of their baby. But this week we also see that there is more to Grace Makutsi‘s past than just a near-perfect score at secretarial school.

That these two women’s paths have intersected is clearly going to be the impetus for each of them growing in different ways. In episode two it is not yet clear how this will come about, but the hints are there.

This week we also get an interesting and heated exchange between BK, the hairdresser and Grace. Sexual orientation is never explicitly brought up in the exchange. But BK does accuse Grace of having been words away from calling him “something else”–that something else being, I guess, “gay” or some slur for gay–and thinking that there is something wrong in being something else. Later BK and mild-mannered Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni engage in a joint display of macho stage play to assist Mma Ramotswe on a case. Mr. Matekoni compliments the normally flamboyant BK, and BK then says something like, “Yes, not bad for a ‘something else.’”

Again, I am withholding judgment on how the BK character is treated here. When I first saw him last week, I wracked my brain to remember him from the books but could not. Well, it turns out that the character was created specifically for the series. In the “Making of” behind-the-scenes program he is described as adding “comic relief.” A flamboyantly gay hairdresser as comic relief? Not so different. We’ve seen it a million times before.

But perhaps there is something here that will develop into something else. Perhaps BK will also be given a more complex backstory and get to be more than the sassy BFF. (Yet another character type that is always the best friend but rarely the lead.) I am hopeful.

In the meantime, I hope that the adorable Wellington returns.

****Elsewhere, on The No. 1 Ladies’:

Claudia of The Bottom of Heaven comments on the lovely Jill Scott’s portrayal of a lovely fully-figured woman:

Maybe this is what Stanley Crouch had in mind when he wrote that Scott’s character “embodies Bessie Smith’s proud claim of being a big fat mama with the meat just a-shaking off her bones.” But I don’t think Crouch quite gets it. Mma Ramotswe doesn’t strike me as a blueswoman, though she can be as forthright, perceptive and as sensual as one. As a plus-size woman myself, I’m just delighted to watch “No. 1 Ladies” and know that there isn’t a role in this series that Tyler Perry is qualified to play.

I agree 100%!

****Please, if you are blogging about The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, tag your post with the full title and drop me a line if possible. Thanks!

April 5, 2009

“Aiding” Africa? The Helpers Have No Clothes

One of the things I loved about the HBO broadcast of “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” is that it portrayed a different picture of the African continent than what we usually see: either a place where only exotic wild animals roam the land or a place where only famine, disease, poverty and war characterize the people.

Of course, this is not to say that the continent is problem-free. So often, however, these problems are painted as endemic to the countries and their people, with Americans and other great Westerners as those who will come in and save the day.

So it is nice to get an alternative view of the problems on the continent and what is and is not helping–and a view that is not from a non-African, White, male. Dambisa Moyo provides just such a view:

Dambisa Moyo is a unique voice in the debate over African aid. In a conversation dominated by white, male westerners—and most conspicuously by celebrities such as Bono or Bob Geldoff—Moyo is a black, African woman. Born in Zambia to a banker mother and a father who now runs an anti-corruption organization, Moyo earned her master’s from Harvard and a Ph.D. in Economics at Oxford. She’s worked as a consultant to the World Bank, and for the past eight years was the sub-Saharan economic expert for Goldman Sachs. It was at Goldman Sachs that Moyo began work on her book, Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa, released just a few weeks ago.

Moyo does not see the premise of her book as controversial, saying that to most Africans it is simply common sense:

I think it’s quite bizarre frankly, and slightly laughable, when I hear people say “Oh, the book is controversial.” My view is that it’s hardly controversial; it’s very obvious. Someone described it quite appropriately as The Emperor Has No Clothes. Because I think we all know that aid is not working. That’s why in the book I draw on literature from organizations like the World Bank. It’s somewhat bizarre that all this evidence is out there [that aid doesn’t work], but somehow we just continue to push for more. Let’s take the capitalistic system for a second. It’s quote, unquote, not working now. We have centuries of evidence that it generates wealth and delivers jobs, and yet here we are after one bad year and we’re ready to throw the baby out with the bathwater. So I find it quite worrying that we can look at aid—after sixty years and one trillion dollars that haven’t worked in Africa—and we still don’t question the system. It seems the natural thing that when something has as bad a record as aid does, we should question it and want to overhaul the system.

I readily admit to not having a very good mind for macroeconomics. That is why I depend so much on the analysis of others–those who I must trust with their expertise–to get a handle on such issues. I’ve only recently begun reading books on economics, starting with two by Fareed Zakaria: The Post-American World and The Future of Freedom. I’m looking forward to adding Moyo’s book to my self-imposed syllabus.

March 30, 2009

Liking Ladies’ No. 1

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , — pprscribe @ 11:47 am

Last night, about halfway through The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency I realized that I had been tense since the program began. It only took me a moment to figure out why. I had been so looking forward to it, so hopeful for it. But I feared that I would be let down.

But what I suddenly felt at that moment was…relief.

"Botswanan flag." futureatlas.com, http://www.flickr.com/photos/87913776@N00/506956546/

"Botswanan flag." futureatlas.com, http://www.flickr.com/photos/87913776@N00/506956546/

Also, a sort of a feeling of revelation. It is actually possible to depict Black people (and, more specifically, Black African people) without having the required one good White person? Perhaps the White school teacher from Britain with a heart of gold…. Or a White American missionary who begins the tale with ambivalent feelings about the dark people but, through a series of heartwarming interactions and growth-inducing traumatic experiences, comes to terms with both his underlying racism against Blacks and his disappointment with his God…. Or a White female Australian there to save the apes from the ravages of a changing global ecosystem and the bias and ignorance of the natives who have lived amongst the apes for generations….

No? None of these obligatory White characters are present? Just Black Africans going about their daily business and lives? Africans who are proud of and happy in their country (Botswana, in this case) and are not looking to escape to somewhere else? Africans who have the capacity for tremendous good, tremendous bad, and all levels of complexity in between? Africans who face plagues and violence and the tug-of-war of the old and the new with bravery and grace?

The very notion of such a program appearing on my television set is almost too much to comprehend.

I will say that I liked the program. Loved it even. I am sure it is not perfect. I am not certain if the gay hairdresser will be treated with the humanity that will save his character from the perils of stereotype, for example. And of course, I wish that something of equal quality can be done with a book by a Black author. I sense that if I look carefully enough I will see clear signs of a “White gaze” in the depictions of this program–Africa and Africans as seen, still, by White men who, perhaps, have romantic ideas about the continent.

I will have to look at my recording of the program to assess any further nuances of my reaction. Again–the program was just so new that I could barely concentrate on anything other than my great relief and contentment.

I will also say that I loved Ms. Jill Scott. In this world of unworthy “artists” getting the fame and recognition that is more rightly due others, sometimes the fates get things right. And Jill Scott is one of those cases. She was stunning to look at and stunning to listen to. We were even treated to her amazing singing voice.

And the cinematography is like…visual poetry. Apparently the series is being shot on location in Botswana. It is rare that we get beautiful shots of an African landscape that are not immediately followed by a voice-over describing a migrating herd of some four-legged species of animal.

I see that Madonna is in the news again concerning her child and her wish to adopt another child from his country of birth. I suspect more people get their image of “Africa” through lenses such as this than will get it through the tale of Precious Ramotswe and her investigations.

But I can hope.

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