This So-Called Post-Post-Racial Life

March 26, 2010

Like White On Rice

or, When a Bad Brand Goes (Even Further) Wrong

I was reminded of this 3-year-old post from my old blog after reading a piece from Stuff White People Do, entitled “describe racism as political incorrectness.” The original post was about an effort to re-brand a staple of US advertising lore as detailed in this story. I was (and remain) not impressed with the effort. By the way, out of curiosity I revisited Uncle Ben’s office to engage him in chat. Below is a transcript of our conversation:

[PPR_Scribe]: hello

[Ben]: Did you have my ORIGINAL CONVERTED® Brand Rice for dinner?

[PPR_Scribe]: no, not tonight

[Ben]: Away accepting another award for my rice. Nice that people still recognize the value of wholesome goodness when they taste it.

[PPR_Scribe]: where are you?

[Ben]: It is difficult to type and eat rice at the same time. Let’s talk when I am done.

[PPR_Scribe]: what are you doing?

[Ben]: Currently being fitted for a new blue suit. Upon returning and hanging up my new coat, will be in touch.

[PPR_Scribe]: so…you’re accepting an award, eating rice, and being fitted for a suit? at the same time?

[Ben]: State dinners would be more diplomatic if they always served my ORIGINAL CONVERTED® Brand Rice.  Can we pick up this conversation when I return?

[PPR_Scribe]: i have the feeling you really don’t want to chat with me at all…

[Ben]: Am attending the Beau Brummell Celebration in London. Will be my pleasure to chat upon my return.

[PPR_Scribe]: well, ok then. bye

[Ben]: Can you come by the office in person?

[PPR_Scribe]: um…no, i’m not really comfortable with that. why?

[Ben]: Out of office for rice harvesting season. My, those combines are loud. Will reply when I return.

[PPR_Scribe]: now you’re just being difficult…

[Ben]: Away accepting another award for my rice. Nice that people still recognize the value of wholesome goodness when they taste it.

[PPR_Scribe]: (???)

*******************************

Uncle Ben’s Cabin

It is an oddity of the history of advertising that Black folks have been featured so often as part of companies’ brand identity. Apparently, at one point in time nothing could prompt a consumer to snatch a product off of a grocery shelf like a demeaning characterization of a smiling Negro. Of course, two of the better known Black characters are Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben. (No relation? It’s hard to say as neither has ever had a last name. This blogger is trying to match-make them, though, so I hope they are not already kin…) I’ve talked before here about my relationship to the whole history of “racial naming.” Suffice it to say that for certain generations of Blacks, it is not endearing for White folks to refer to us as Uncle or Aunt (unless we are, in fact, their uncle or aunt.)

Uncle Ben’s image is most often discussed as part of the broader “Uncle Tom” racist caricature, seen in everything from advertising to film. This wonderful site sums up the image well. Aunt Jemima is often discussed as characteristic of the “Mammy” caricature. The same site linked in the previous sentence also provides a good description of Mammy depictions in advertising and elsewhere. The interesting thing about the pancake lady is that she underwent a make-over in the late 80s. Slimmed down, dressed up, no kerchief wrapped round her head. According to the company’s History web page, today “the Aunt Jemima products continue to stand for warmth, nourishment and trust – qualities you’ll find in loving moms from diverse backgrounds who care for and want the very best for their families. “

That’s Chairman Uncle Ben

Enter the rice man’s makeover. According to the NYT story:

A racially charged advertising character, who for decades has been relegated to a minor role in the marketing of the products that still carry his name, is taking center stage in a campaign that gives him a makeover — Madison Avenue style — by promoting him to chairman of the company.

You can visit his virtual office here. I didn’t last very long in his office. With each click the sour taste in my mouth grew fouler and fouler. I expected at any minute to see a cheesin’ and shufflin’, bow-tie clad older virtual Black man jump out from his task of sharpening pencils to greet me by name. This blogger was braver than I, actually using the “chat” feature to engage the new Chairman in conversation. (If you can call it that.) Here’s an excerpt of their exchange:

[Guest]: Hi
[Ben]: In Packaging Department. viewing the new box. It is a remarkable likeness. Will speak with you shortly.
[Guest]: That’s great.
[Ben]: It is difficult to type and eat rice at the same time. Let’s talk when I am done.
[Guest]: I don’t like rice.
[Ben]: Am attending the Beau Brummell Celebration in London. Will be my pleasure to chat upon my return.
[Guest]: Wait — I thought you were in the packaging department!
[Ben]: In Packaging Department. viewing the new box. It is a remarkable likeness. Will speak with you shortly.

Obviously still some bugs to work out. But my guess is Ben’s neither overseeing efforts in the Packaging Department nor sipping wine at some event in England, but–like I said–in an inner office sharpening pencils or involved in some other non-task his higher-ups assigned him as part of his “promotion.” Back to the Times:

“This is an interesting idea, but for me it still has a very high cringe factor,” said Luke Visconti, partner at Diversity Inc. Media in Newark, which publishes a magazine and Web site devoted to diversity in the workplace.

“There’s a lot of baggage associated with the image,” Mr. Visconti said, which the makeover “is glossing over.”

Uncle Ben, who first appeared in ads in 1946, is being reborn as Ben, an accomplished businessman with an opulent office, a busy schedule, an extensive travel itinerary and a penchant for sharing what the company calls his “grains of wisdom” about rice and life. A crucial aspect of his biography remains the same, though: He has no last name.

Indeed.

And the “cringe factor” just multiplies and multiplies. For example, asks one commenter to this site, “Does anyone else see irony in the company’s name — MasterFoods?” And several commenters elsewhere in the blogosphere have re-dubbed the company “Massafoods.”

I am no advertising executive. But this does not appear to be a re-branding effort that is destined to bear much fruit. Or grains of converted rice, as the case may be.

Ben There; Dumb, That

I do not buy Uncle Ben’s Rice. Never have. (And at this rate, never will.) I also do not buy any Aunt Jemima products. And if any of the products below were still available today, I wouldn’t buy them either. I come by this aversion to financing my own denigration honestly. As a child when we would travel the country by car, my father would drive 50 miles out of the way to avoid having us stop at a Sambo’s Restaurant for a meal or bathroom break.

The restaurant, perhaps not surprisingly, is also involved in a re-branding effort. This site attempts to set the story straight. Sambo’s, we’re told, was based on the names of the eatery’s founders, and the use of the book’s characters came about only later. (The whole story of The Story of Little Black Sambo is an interesting tale in its own right, but beyond this blog post. Begin here for further reading.) I’m not sure how helpful this re-telling is for understanding the restaurant–or the book and its many incarnations, for that matter. Why and how did folks running the company think that adorning their restaurant with images of “picanninies” would be a good marketing move? How do they now think that hearkening back to India’s colonial past would be a better or more sensitive move?

Beauty and the Brand

Companies, universities, and all manner of other entities spend millions in efforts to establish, redirect, and update their images. The book that I discuss in my still-draft blog post about re-branding is about what is being called “the attention economy.” In the Information Age, the scarce commodity that becomes extremely valuable is human attention. Not money, not information, not even “knowledge.” And certainly not an awareness of history. What matters is eyeballs to content. And when that is what matters, image is everything. (The book I’ll talk about speaks of this in terms of “fluff over stuff.”)

So what do we make of companies’ apparent reluctance to totally excise images of slavery and Jim Crow in trying to focus consumers’ eyeballs on products on crowded grocery shelves? I have framed the Uncle Ben’s effort as a potential fiasco, a massive marketing mistake. But what if it is, instead, a savvy business move? What if the company has discovered via its focus groups that images that remind people of the good old days of subservient, happy Blacks (who could sho-nuff cook!) continue to be comforting and endearing to many modern consumers?

Perhaps advertising’s racist past not even past, but only an old package in need of re-branding.

For further information on this topic, see the book Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, and Rastus: Blacks in Advertising, Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow.

March 19, 2010

The Magic of Hair Day

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — pprscribe @ 11:42 pm

I cannot believe I have never re-posted this from my old blog. Recently, due to jam-packed schedules, I was unable to take my daughters in for their usually-scheduled braiding appointments at the professional hair stylist’s. I did their hair myself. I had almost forgotten how much I enjoyed hair day. And I was pleased that I hadn’t lost the knack!

*********************

Something magical happens to me on Hair Day. I am a person who lives in the mind quite a bit, so maybe it is the tactile, manual nature of doing hair—but it usually results in me being so…present. Oddly, at the same time I feel an almost otherworldly connection to all the mothers, grandmothers, aunts, and Miss Johnsons before me when I do my daughters’ hair.

Hair Day?

Previously, I talked about what happens in our house on Hair Day:

The hours-long ritual that is washing and braiding my daughters’ hair is more than just a task that needs to be done. It is also an exercise in ethnic identity and pride building. First, the three of us decide on a style by looking through one of our hair books…It’s not that I am good enough to pull off many of these styles given my current level of very low skills. (Growing up, while my sister and girl cousins were doing each other’s hair, my nose was usually in a book.) But I can at least usually approximate the styles. And looking at the books gives us a chance to speak about the wide range and beauty of Black hair. These children are beautiful, I tell my daughters. Their hair is joy to behold….

(It’s been a while since I wrote that. I am getting more skilled at doing my daughters’ hair. But I am by no means yet an expert.)

Encounters

Last week was my kids’ spring break and one day we spent all afternoon at one of our area public libraries. Both my daughters were in the children’s section, seated at a table with their books. Soon another child joined them. From my chair a few feet away I noticed this little girl noticing my daughters’ hair. Her own hair was blond, straight, in a small pony tail at the nape of her neck. My daughters’ hair was in a style we have come to call “freedom hair” after a character in one of their books: large, picked-out, perfectly symmetrical afros.

The little girl reached over and patted one daughter’s hair. I held my breath. And sat erect in my seat.

“Look at your hair” she exclaimed. “Did your mommy do that?” My daughter lightly caressed her freedom locks. “Yes, she did,” she said, turning in my direction and beaming.

I exhaled. And relaxed my spine back into the curved wood of the chair.

Right, Under, Left, Cross, Pick Up…

My husband does not understand it, but when I first begin braiding I actually have to concentrate. I cannot discuss what I want to have for dinner that evening, or laugh at a witty commercial on TV, or opine about the merits of one summer camp over another. The simple rote act of correctly crossing three strands of hair to make neat rows of crop-like patterns requires all of my PhD-bound brain power.

Often I must comb out unsuccessful rows and begin anew. Almost always, my first attempts at sectioning hair into parts with the tip of my pink rat-tailed comb are ragged and rough. Sometimes early on I try to rush the process, combing through a section of hair before all the tangles are out—resulting in predictable pain and cries.

I have been known to poke a patient little girl in the ear lobe or eye with a comb, brush, or thumb.

But I do not give up. Mainly because I know that—if I just stick with it a little—this initial period of bumbling and fumbling will give way to something truly special.

Enter the Matrix

My mother is a pianist. She believes solo pianists should be old-school and memorize even the most complicated classical pieces (instead of appearing on stage with sheet music and a page-turner). When she would rehearse, she would say she had to practice until she was able to “get the music in her hands.” If she was able to sit down and play a piece that she hadn’t played in years, she would say that it was “still in her hands.”

That the closest analogy I can think of to what happens to me at some point during braiding. It is as if my hands take over some memory, some proficiency, some something that cannot be explained by my multi-year self-taught course in Black natural hair care. I do not always know exactly when I have reached this point. I usually only realize after: after I find that I have been looking up at the TV (instead of down, at my braiding) for one full minute at the SpongeBob episode where Sandy enters SpongeBob in a weight-lifting contest. Or maybe after I have near-simultaneously told one daughter where to find a missing puzzle piece, shouted to my husband what I want on my pizza, and completed another row of braids.

I am in the hair zone. I have entered the hair matrix. I am making hair magic.

My fingers are moving in effortless choreography to carve razor straight parts, create three perfectly even strands, and knit them together in strong, tight braids. My eyes have developed a sort of x-ray vision, discerning even microscopic masses of tangles which my suddenly gentle hands are then able to coax apart with not a single whimper. Whole sections of freedom hair are transformed into twists, braids, plaits, cornrows—of any thickness I please.

Some of the sections even look like the pictures in the hair books.

Crowns

Within the last year or so my daughters and I have added a new ritual to our hair styling–every time we do hair, but especially on Hair Days. After I finish, I fuss a little over the result, deem the style complete, then “crown” my daughter. This, apparently, is a step that I cannot skip or else my daughters will let me know about it. I must say, “I crown you ______, Princess of ______land” or “…Dutchess of ________ville” or “…Queen of __________.” As I bellow this phrase in my most solemn-sounding voice (no matter how silly I make the title or land) I must make a crowning motion with my hands, then turn my daughter around to inspect herself in the mirror.

Sometimes I wonder if I am going overboard with all this hub-bub about my daughters’ hair. But I usually conclude that positive hub-bub is just fine. Especially if it gives my daughters a confidence I never had to answer questions of curious children. Especially if they come to associate their hair with their regality.

And I have to admit that I love the special feeling in my hands that lasts for a few moments after I crown them. It lasts while my hands wash and put away the brush and rat-tailed comb…while my hands cap the spray bottles of special oils and empty the spray bottle of warm water. It starts to fade as my hands wash each other and dry themselves on the Hello Kitty towel hanging on the rod.

With that my hands are back to being the blunt clumsy instruments that merely poke at computer keyboards or wrestle a steering wheel. But I know that the memory and the magic are still there, somewhere inside them, waiting to take over from my mind on the next Hair Day.

January 30, 2010

Justice Denied: Black Women and Reproductive (non)Choice

Sometimes justice can be so elusive, can’t it? Bad enough that often it is overdue. But then, when it finally seems within our reach, it sometimes slips away…or we’re only able to grab hold of a little piece of it… That’s how I opened this post when I first wrote it for my old blog years ago. I posted it during Black History Month and, as Black History Month is almost upon us, thought I’d re-post it here. I like to begin with something like this to remind myself that Black History Month, in 2010, should be as much about justice as it is about remembering and celebration.

(I am currently searching for updates to this story and will update this blog with any new information.)

*****

These days eyes tend to be directed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and the future of the battle over abortion choice and access. In this social context, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that historically, for many women the central reproductive struggle has not involved abortion rights. Instead it has involved the right to conceive, bear, and provide for their children, as well as the right to maintain the authority to be parents of their children. From the buying and selling of the children of African-ancestry parents, to the forced placement into “boarding schools” of the children of Native American parents, to current day social service practices regarding the termination of parental rights that disproportionately affect parents of color—This country has a pretty shameful history when it comes to disallowing some people their rights to become and remain parents.

A particularly egregious example of this is the history of forced sterilizations in this country in the name of “genetic fitness”–otherwise known as eugenics.

The targets of these forced sterilizations were folks who evidenced various combinations of being Black, poor, uneducated, deemed to be “promiscuous” or potentially promiscuous, deemed to be “feeble-minded” or potentially so. These practices of sterilizing women and girls (and some men and boys) against their will and often without their knowledge sometimes went by the name “Mississippi appendectomies.” A particularly aggressive program, however, occurred in North Carolina. From an excellent multi-part program on the North Carolina efforts, “Against Their Will“:

They were wives and daughters. Sisters. Unwed mothers. Children. Even a 10-year-old boy. Some were blind or mentally retarded. Toward the end they were mostly black and poor. North Carolina sterilized them all, more than 7,600 people.

For more than 40 years North Carolina ran one of the nation’s largest and most aggressive sterilization programs. It expanded after World War II, even as most other states pulled back in light of the horrors of Hitler’s Germany.

Some of these folks are still alive, still seeking justice–which means, of course, that they have had to come forward and publicly share their stories:

In the file of Ernestine Moore, for instance, who was sterilized in 1965 in Pitt County at the age of 14, a social worker wrote that the people who lived near her were “of low incomes and low morals.” Moore was classified as feebleminded, even though she wasn’t.

In fact, the social worker wrote, “Ernestine has no appearance of retardation.” Upon reading what was written in her file, Ms. Moore, 54, told The Journal that North Carolina should “pay for the pain” and suffering she’s gone through since her sterilization.

In recent years, the state of North Carolina has agreed. But, as fate would have it, carrying out this justice has not gone smoothly. Issues abound, regarding such things as where to get medical records to prove forced sterilization, whether or not such records are still available or had ever been kept at all, and adequately staffing efforts to process claims.

All signs look like justice will be delayed. Again. And my cynical side is whispering that there’s a good chance justice may not come at all for these folks. Once again, they may have to make do with an official apology. For whatever (if anything) that is worth.

But. The hopeful side of me still has…hope. In the meantime, I will enjoy our State Fair this year much as I have every year since I began learning more about this country’s eugenics past: With the ghostly narration in my mind of contests aimed at promoting good human stock along with the best ears of corn or plumpest sows.

(Image ID: 14) Title: Kansas State Free Fair, Topeka, Fitter Families Contest examining staff and "sweepstakes" winning family; Archival Information: AES,Am3,575.06,55

From the excellent site Image Archive on the American Eugenics Movement:

At most contests, competitors submitted an “Abridged Record of Family Traits,” and a team of medical doctors performed psychological and physical exams on family members. Each family member was given an overall letter grade of eugenic health, and the family with the highest grade average was awarded a silver trophy. Trophies were typically awarded in three family categories: small (1 child), medium (2-4 children), and large (5 or more children).

All contestants with a B+ or better received bronze medals bearing the inscription, “Yea, I have a goodly heritage.” Childless couples were eligible for prizes in contests held in some states. As expected, the Fitter Families Contest mirrored the eugenics movement itself; winners were invariably White with western and northern European heritage.

I’ve mentioned before about how important it is for me to keep such history in my mind as I continue with my interests in researching issues of families and genetics. Late summer, right before the start of another school year is as good a time as any to give myself a booster shot of memory. Memory for the “non-placers” in the clean genes fairground competitions. Memory for the folks who were denied the chance to bear children to take to fairs in the first place.

January 5, 2010

Racism: A Love Story

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , — pprscribe @ 2:20 pm

In the beginning, Dear Beloved, there was a lack of knowing, an absence of seeing. You were but a fanciful tale told to me in the kitchen over morning grits and cheese by my Elders, read about in tattered self-published paperbacks with yellow and brittle pages that I found on my radical Uncle’s bookshelf, and witnessed in herky-jerky black and white news reels from years Before I Was Born. I had not (yet) met you, known you, experienced your hot embrace.

But you knew me.

You longed for me, secretly. You saw me striding through my child’s life with confidence (or arrogance?) and singing my child’s song with gusto (or greed?)—yet I strode and I sang alone, without your companionship. You saw me in my childish flirtations with others: Altruism and Kindness and Empathy. You knew these relationships would be short-lived and fastened by tenuous bonds. You  knew what I really needed to be whole was you.

Your first introductions to me were tentative. First I did not want to recognize you: Surely you were still the myth, the story, the fable. You were Misunderstanding in costume, Ignorance in drag. It really couldn’t be you, I thought. You did not exist.

But eventually you made your feelings known more vocally to me and I had no choice but to believe it was, really and truly, you. You had arrived to court me formally. And you have been pursuing me ever since.

You are strong beyond any strength that Mighty can muster. You sustain my rebukes and fend off my attempts to lose you. I condemn you and curse you and still you declare your everlasting love for me. I mock you and attempt to maim you, and still you stand—ready to walk proudly by my side when my fit is over. I am indifferent to you, I am dispassionate to the point where I can turn soup fresh off the stove to ice in a bowl. But still you wait in the wings, ready to woo me over in wild and dramatic fashion when I least expect it.

I know you have other objects of your affection. I am often, quite inexplicably, incensed by this: I do not want your attentions, so why should I care if your eyes behold others? Yet I do care. I do not want you for them. I do not want you for me—but not for them either. Instead, I wish for Loneliness, Obsolescence, and Isolation to be your only friends.

Even this does not bother you. You have enough capacity to love me and many, many others at once. In fact, your love grows stronger the more lovers you have.

You know me. You do not understand me. Otherwise why would you continue to woo me when I have not returned your heart? Why would you stalk me, attend to me, try to dazzle me with blinding displays of your prowess? Why do you continue to call me your pet names when you know I will not answer to them?

I have sometimes, during very quiet moments, asked myself if I do, in fact, love you in return? I search my face in the mirror…my hair…my choices in music or clothing…my address…other things…and I wonder if I have not accepted you into my life after all. Do I, possibly, love you in return, crave this partnering? By my very actions am I performing a predetermined role in a twisted affaire de coeur?

Currently you have left me. You are attending to your other lovers, or perhaps resting up for your next attempt at seduction of me. I know you will be back and I know I will, again, push you away. I refuse to submit; You refuse to surrender.

This is what we do, you and I.

I tell my children about you. In the kitchen over granola and yogurt, via the pages of glossy full-color award-winning picture books, with YouTube clips and cable movies. They listen dutifully, but still their strides are confident and their songs are strong. Some days I think they may never grow to be loved by you. I think they are sure to never know you as their would-be lover and personal pursuer. But you are strong. You’ll be there to catch them when they rise. Just as you have been there for me.

If I have my way, they will rebuke you—just as I have and will continue to do.

December 25, 2009

Santa Claus is a Black Man—and a Black Woman

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , — pprscribe @ 6:09 pm

We do not do Santa Claus in our home. We never have. Our children—from day one—knew that any gifts they received under the decorated tree were from me, their father, and family and friends from far and wide.

Before we had children, my husband and I talked about this. I had nothing but fond memories about believing in Santa Claus and in our family we went the full nine yards: taking pictures in the mall sitting on his lap, compiling our massive wish lists, leaving cookies and milk out for him to consume before leaving our gifts and flying off to the next house. My Point of No Longer Believing was pretty unmemorable. No major trauma of, say, an impossible wish followed by a glaring disappointment that showed me the folly of my faith. Rather, I just sort of gradually didn’t believe, until one day I felt sure enough to broach the subject with my parents. They confirmed what I knew, and I felt fine being “in” on the story for the sake of my younger sister and cousins.

My husband’s experience with Santa was quite different from mine. He was the son of working class parents who wanted to make sure he knew that his parents—not some bearded White man—were the ones who sacrificed all year long so that he could have a chemistry set or a 10-speed bicycle.

When we compared our Santa histories, my husband and I decided we would just never start the Santa myth with our then-future children. Not that we would rail against it or anything. And since our kids have been old enough to understand, we never delivered an anti-Santa speech to our kids. For them, the jolly heavy-set man is a character—much like SpongeBob Square Pants or Harry Potter. He seems to be as “real” to my daughters as these two much-beloved-by-them figures.

We have told our daughters that some children “believe” in Santa in a different way, and that they are not to spoil this fun for those kids by saying that he is not really real. I sometimes can’t hep thinking that this must set up some sort of logic chain for my kids: belief in Santa is fun for other children; We do not believe in Santa; We must be missing out on some sort of fun.

Yet they have never shown any hints that they have come to this conclusion.

For a while, my confidence in Santa-less parenting faltered. When my daughters started loosing their baby teeth, I did the whole Tooth Fairy thing with them: having them put their tooth under their pillows and placing four new quarters under their pillows over night as they slept right before removing the tooth. At one point one daughter asked, “Mommy, are you the tooth fairy?” Why do you want to know? I asked. “Because if you are, can you leave us $2.00 instead of $1.00?”

It will be interesting to see what my daughters do with regard to Santa if they someday raise children. I won’t be surprised if one of them does pretty much what she has experienced as a child, while the other goes all-out, full-tilt Santa immersion. But so far, from what I can discern, Christmas is no less magical, no less special, because of our lack of participation in the yearly Santa mythology. Of course, I could be wrong. In that case, at least my children will have something interesting to discuss with a therapist later in life.

December 21, 2009

Tighten Up On That Backstroke: Second Lap

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , — pprscribe @ 1:18 pm

I posted this over the summer when my kids were competing for the first time. Now they are on an area—not just neighborhood—swim team. Official times are kept at meets and everything. Already they have each moved up in their heats to groupings of faster swimmers. They are swimming longer events. It is kind of a big deal.

Recently they swam at a major meet. The best part of this meet was that it included inner city swim teams. I almost missed my daughters’ events from counting all of the brown bodies at the pool! However, even though my children were not The Only Ones, the kids of color (Black and other minorities) swimming only totaled about 20 or so out of more than a thousand. Clearly there is more work to be done.

My father (who you may have met in this post) cheers—literally—when he sees kids of color swimming at meets, even when they are on the opposite teams. His White peers, observing this, ask him “Now that isn’t your child, too, is it?”

My father says, “No. But I cheer for all the Black swimmers. You should, too.”

My two delightful brown “babies” swim competitively. They have been taking lessons since they were toddlers, but this summer is the first year they have participated on a swim team. On their own team, and at most meets with other teams, they are the only (or only two of a handful of other) brown children in the sparkling blue waters. As other parents ask each other “Which one is yours?” few need to have me point out my own offspring from the horde of dripping Speedo-clad children.

"Backstroke." PPR_Scribe

"Backstroke." PPR_Scribe

I have been thinking a lot about my daughters’ experience in this sport the past few days since the story broke out about the day camp full of minority kids being sent packing from a majority White private swim club. The case has been written about—and written about well—a number of different places in the blogosphere (here, here, and here for example). Instead of adding to the analysis of that particular case, I am going to provide a few personal insights and experiences.

Continuing a Family Tradition

My daughters became interested in swimming as a sport because of the example set by their teen-aged uncles, my little brothers. Both swam competitively on the same suburban team that my kids are now on, and both excelled there and on into their high school team. Back when they swam in the league, my father and stepmother, too, rarely had to pick out their sons for fellow swim moms and dads. People generally figured out that the two tall, extremely athletic brown skinned boys belonged to them.

Competitive swimming is an extremely “White” sport.

Any child interested in competitive swimming is advantaged by the natural fun most young kids have playing and splashing in water. There is something very basic, core, elemental about water that most of us are (initially, at least) drawn to. We are born into fluid; our bodies are composed of water and fluids; our little blue planet is mostly water. Some of our first soothing, intimate moments are spent being cooed at and caressed by caregivers giving us baths. Some of us undergo religious conversion by being dipped in water.

In the water we experience our bodies in a way that is unlike most of our waking moments. We are buoyant, free, unhampered by faulty knees or extra pounds. All of this makes swimming a perfect match for most kids.

However, any child interested in competitive swimming is disadvantaged by the sport’s relative lack of visibility. Most Americans probably only see swimming on TV when the Olympics roll around. There may only be two or three swimmers who folks know by name. Swimming as a sport necessarily means access to a pool and to instructors/coaches with knowledge of proper stroke technique and rules.

Most inner city kids of any race, as well as minority kids of any socioeconomic class, are further disadvantaged by not having role models in their immediate circle who swim competitively.

Black Folk Can’t Swim?

It is something most Blacks living in majority White suburbs of majority White cities have to deal with over and over. The service worker—lawn care guy, HVAC repair team, the carpet installers—does a quick (but highly apparent) double take and cognitive restructuring to deal with the fact that the homeowner who has just answered the door is not White, as expected, but Black. Most recover momentarily and are able to go about their business with some degree of professionalism.

But some just cannot seem to let go of their dissonance. They must make comments. Or observations. The rare service professional may even ask questions.

So it was one time for my brothers’ mother.

The service worker was shown to the faulty furnace in the basement, passing my brothers’ many swim ribbons, certificates, championship photos, and trophies on display.

“Your sons swim?”

Yes.

“Competitively?”

(Looking at the same first place blue ribbons the service worker was looking at.) Yes.

“Well, you know, that is really out of the ordinary. See, usually Black people can’t swim. It’s true. I was in the Navy and we did studies. It is because of your higher bone density. But this is really something. Two Black swimmers. Imagine that!”

I’ll leave aside the notion of US Navy-financed studies on the bone density of its Black recruits and sailors and whether or not Blacks can not swim. But I do know it is true that many Black adults and children do not swim.

The reasons are many:

Historical—As Jeff Wiltse wrote in Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America, swimming pools became a particularly problematic space for desegregation efforts. The fallout from this history is many faceted.

Cultural—Covering everything from Black women’s concerns about getting their chemically processed or heat straightened hair wet to some ancestral memory of our troubled transatlantic ocean crossing, cultural theories of Blacks’ aversion to swimming abound. Two documented facts that stand out in all this supposition: almost 60% of Black children do not know how to swim, and Black children die from drowning at three times the overall rate.

"Posing with Cullen." PPR_Scribe

"Posing with Cullen." PPR_Scribe

Changing the Complexion of Swimming

It was the first time I had ever seen the USA Swimming booth at Indiana Black Expo and I was extremely pleased. All of the information on display at the booth, however, was about water safety and learning to swim. Nothing on the sport of swimming.

The USA Swimming rep at the booth is handing my daughters booklets—10 reasons why Swimming is Fun and Making a Splash for Pool Safety or somesuch. My daughters’ eyes, however, are drawn to the giant poster of Cullen Jones hanging in the booth. They had just seen, and posed in front of, a bigger version of that same poster a few days ago.

(Noticing their interest.) “Do you know who that is.” the rep asked.

“Yes, that’s Cullen Jones.”

(Surprised.) “Oh! You know who Cullen Jones is! Have you ever seen him swim?”

“Just on TV. He wasn’t there when we went [to the USA Swimming National Championship trials].”

(Pleased.) “Oh, so you went to the trials!”

“Yeah. But we didn’t see Michael Phelps swim either. We did get his autograph, though.”

(Tickled pink.) “Wow! I don’t even have Michael Phelps’ autograph! So you swim on a team? What’s your best stroke?”

“Um, probably breast and back.”

“For me, probably freestyle.”

"Phelps Signing Autographs." PPR_Scribe

"Phelps Signing Autographs." PPR_Scribe

(The rep is simply bubbling, gifting me with USA Swimming membership brochures and extra freebies from a box in the back of the booth.)

All children need to learn how to swim. It should not be an option. It is a safety issue as important as bike helmets and car seats, antibiotic abuse and sex education. Parents need to let go of whatever fears and biases they may have and make sure their children learn to swim. (They might take lessons themselves while they’re at it.) Some folks need to join the rest of us here in 2009 and get over the idea of the black washing off of delightful brown swimming babies like mine and staining their own babies.

Changing the Attitudes about Black Girls

The elderly couple sitting next to me poolside had come to see their grandchildren swim at the meet. We exchanged glances and smiles and pleasantries, even though the kids we had come to see were on opposing teams. We commented on the marathon nature of swim meets—this, about two and a half hours into the four-hour-plus meet. We commented on the heat of the mid-July early evening.

As the meet was drawing to a close, signified by the start of the exciting freestyle medley relay races, the grandfather ventured into a conversation that I am sure he had been itching to start.

“You know,” he said to me, “I just have to tell you. I have the most adorable little Black granddaughter.”

Oh really? Well that’s…wonderful.

“Yes, my son and daughter-in-law picked her up from Florida when she was only a few days old. They already had a son of their own, but they always wanted a girl. They tried and tried but could never get pregnant again. So they adopted this adorable little girl. She’s two now.”

Well…I’m sure she keeps you young….

“Well,” laughing, “I don’t know about that! But she sure does keep us on our toes! Anyway, I just wanted to tell you that. I’m just looking at your two lovely daughters and I can’t help thinking about my granddaughter…”

OK…well…that’s just wonderful…

I was without many useful and meaningful words. So many things were going through my mind, not least of which was whether or not I should commence with my standard Adoption 101 lesson. But I decided against that, as it was clear that this gentleman was working through a different lesson of his own. I do not know what part I may have played in helping him through that lesson, and really was too worn out from the heat and the cheering to reflect much on it. I should have asked him if she, too, was a swimmer. But I did not.

"Starting Blocks." PPR_Scribe

"Starting Blocks." PPR_Scribe

I was glad that the day before this meet I had bitten the bullet and began taking my girls to a professional hair stylist to deep condition and braid their hair in preparation for daily swimming. I was glad that I had found a product that was a combination leave-in hair moisturizer and skin conditioner that they could spritz themselves with between events. My normally gorgeous brown babies looked fiercely radiant, like two goddesses risen from Atlantis or something. They strutted around the pool as if they owned the place. They swam their hardest no matter which heat they were in or how fast they touched the finish wall.

You couldn’t miss them. They were the only brown babies at the pool that day. And they were fabulous in every way.

At the Starting Blocks

At the end-of-swim-season party, both of my daughters earned awards for most improved swimmers in their sex-age group in their favorite events. They also, along with everyone else on the team, got trophies. They proudly displayed their certificates and trophies to their big uncles, swimming champs extraordinaire, who fist-bumped and high-fived them for several minutes. My daughters are hooked on the sport of swimming. And I must contend with learning to be a Swim Parent.

Swim Parents—like many sports parents—are an interesting bunch. An involved bunch. A knowledgeable bunch. An extremely, incredibly committed bunch. Swim meets are as much for the parents as for the kids. They are highly social events—as well as professional networking opportunities. The swim meets were very challenging for someone like me: new to the whole sports parenting thing with a generally introverted personality. At the first meet I brought my folding chair and a book. I am still suffering trauma from the appalled stares I received from the other parents. I learned after that. I learned to be a timekeeper and a ribbon writer and a finish judge and a snack bar vendor. I learned names of kids and names of parents and the order of events.

If my kids are committed to helping to change the complexion of the sport, then I am committed to changing the complexion of the parent gallery and extensive parent volunteer force.

I do not look forward to the early mornings heading to the pool before school in the dead of winter, when most sane parents are catching that precious last two hours of sleep before work. But I do look forward to my daughters continuing to improve their strokes, their times, their understanding and enjoyment of the sport.

I also look forward to hope. The hope of seeing more Black and other kids of color becoming involved in the sport.

At one of the meets there was a little Black girl, there with her White parents and older White siblings. She was probably a couple years older than the child of the grandfather I had met a few weeks earlier. She was not swimming, but had come to watch her siblings swim. Back and forth to the snack bar, to the baby wading pool, to her parents to get a sip of water or a cheese cracker. At one point she noticed my daughters, getting in line for the 9/10 year old girls’ breast stroke event. The little girl stopped for a moment. One daughter noticed her, smiled and waved. The little girl giggled and ran back to the wading pool.

November 26, 2009

Thankfully Yours

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — pprscribe @ 12:47 am

Another one from the old blog. As troubling as the “Thanksgiving” holiday is from a political and historical standpoint, I like that it gives me an opportunity to reflect on the goodness in my life. Of course, I should not need a notation on a calendar to prompt me to do this kind of reflecting. I shouldn’t. But most times I do need a reminder of some sort. So here is my ode to two of the gifts I am thankful for.

Thanks. Full.

This holiday weekend in 1999: What was I thankful for then? Perhaps I was relieved to have gone a few hours without the terrible morning (actually, “all day”) sickness that had plagued me throughout the first half of my pregnancy. Or maybe I had been thankful for an “everything looks normal” verdict following the most recent ultrasound scan of my crowded and expanding uterus. I may have also been thankful for successfully navigating the first couple months of my PhD program.

But there is no doubt about what I was thankful for a few months after that Thanksgiving: These two little munchkins:

"Sunlit Babes." PPR_Scribe

I remember walking through our front door for the first time with our daughters swinging from our arms in their car seat/carriers. It seemed strange to suddenly be back in my own home after an extended stay in a hospital room. It seemed familiar, yet somehow completely not. These two little infants all bundled up in their too-big newborn clothes (they were about a month early) seemed to actually warp the space around us as we toured the house with them. As we whispered to them, “here’s your new house,” “here’s the crib where you’ll sleep,” “here’s the kitchen,” I sensed that this could not be quite right.

Was everything that these babies needed really here in this little two-bedroom townhouse? Yes, all the outlets were stoppered with clear plastic plug covers. Yes, their cream colored bedding was all tucked in place in their brand new matching cribs. Yes, the electric double breast pump had been delivered and was out of the box. But this place was no hospital.

And who the heck was I?

I recall feeling in those first couple of days that at any moment we would receive a call from the hospital: “We have made a terrible mistake. We are sorry for any inconvenience. But you must bring the children back here. Immediately.”

Of course that call never came. Nope. These babies were ours, free and clear. And very soon any such insecurities about my new role as “parent”‘ evaporated in a hazy cycle of cleaning and nursing, bathing and napping, cuddling and soothing.

Yes. I know I must have been heart-overflowing with thanks for our daughters during those first few weeks–just as I have been ever since. But in a sense these babies were not just a gift to me, my husband, and our family. They were also a gift to the world from us. And so, as the world embraces these now five year old girls and whispers to us this weekend “Thank you” I whisper back, “You are welcome.”

November 18, 2009

Heartstuck

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , — pprscribe @ 6:21 pm

I was in the middle of writing a post about 5-year-old Shaniya Davis of Fayetteville, NC and found myself stuck. It was like trying to swallow a huge, chalky pill without a glass of water. Then once you manage, the thing gets stuck somewhere in your chest…feels like it’s actually stopped up in your heart, though of course you know that anatomically that’s not possible. One of my little ones gets occasional gastrointestinal problems that so far has not been diagnosed as anything that doctors can find. One time she was describing to me her ailment: instead of saying the term she had heard her father and me use—heartburn—she said she had heart stuck.

What an accurate word.

That is what I felt when I tried to write about the short life of this little girl in North Carolina.

It is tempting to try to place her life and death in some sort of context. Others have written beautifully about Shaniya and how her life, abuse, death—and media coverage of her death—fits in with other current events or broader societal ills. In the post I was writing, I tried to link Shaniya’s experience to that of a girl I once tutored—who also, coincidentally, was 5 years old when I met her—who had a similar story of pain and abuse. But I started to get that uncomfortable feeling—that hearstuck—and stopped writing.

I didn’t like the ending to that post that was coming clearly into view, even though I had not yet typed it. I think I was aiming to write a post of One Who Survived. One who was not Found Dead. One who was not a headline or a post in blogs from across the sphere.  I hadn’t seen the little girl from my past in many years. But recently I got a report about her and it was not cheerful. She had become a mother as a teenager and was currently serving time in a detention center. I think I was aiming to write a post with a happier outcome than what happened to Shaniya. But my blog post could have no happy ending. Unless I invented one.

So I am heartstuck and writing stuck and instead of commenting any more about this tragedy (or any number of other such tragedies of similar girls and boys) I choose instead to restate something I wrote a while back. I don’t know if Shaniya or the little girl I used to tutor ever had an outing with girl cousins like the ones in this post. But after thinking about their stories I am more dedicated than ever to make sure I get my Girl Cousins together soon and often, and make sure I fight for their right to be fully themselves, safe and sound, for their long and happy lives.

Working With Black Women, Epilogue: The Next Generation

***Part 1 here; Part 2 here***

So, as the blog says: What about our daughters?

Will they be destined to travel our same paths, stumble over the same exposed roots and boulders we did? Will they be able to be all their selves with each other? Will they decide to identify as feminists, womanists, multi-ists, or nary-ists? Will they be more than their hair, their skin tone, their names? Can they be yoked romantically to men, other women—to no one in particular—without being defined solely in terms of these connections or lack of them?

…The Family Reunion is an ideal natural environment to gain insight into these questions. The aluminum foil is peeled back from the homemade mac and cheese and the pork ribs. The card decks and dominoes are slapping table tops. Frankie Beverly and Maze is echoing across the green grass of the public park, and the living is easy.

"We all gonna get a chance to stir", PPR_Scribe

"We all gonna get a chance to stir", PPR_Scribe

Hugs and greetings of long-losts have been exchanged and now the sub-groupings have been formed. Loosely based on age and gender, but not completely.

A group of Girl Cousins, from 3 to 10 years old, has coalesced around a shared love of babies and homemade ice cream and a cooler full of juice in pouches. At some point I take them across the field to the portable potty. In-depth discussion: toilet paper and hand sanitizer, who is doing number one versus number two, the merits of High School Musical underpants versus plain white or pink, the odd looking “cookie” in the urinal (“where men go pee-pee; see, their penises fit inside there”) beside the toilet. After all this—and of helping with lining the dirty seat with paper and fastening snaps and belt buckles and buttons—I am ready to head back to the picnic site.

But the Girl Cousins are not.

They have found a sewer drain, full of water from three straight days of rain. The sewer drain is actually a pot of stew, and a discarded stick has become a wooden spoon. Beans are required from amongst the pebbles of the adjacent baseball diamond. Leafy greens are needed from the dandelion plants and grass. Seasoning in the form of sand from the pitcher’s mound gives it extra flavoring.

"We need more beans for the stew", PPR_Scribe

"We need more beans for the stew", PPR_Scribe

Braids and twists and puffs top the heads. Inside the heads minds work to create a state-of-the-art kitchen. The conversation is focused and intense. No, that’s a little too much salt. Yeah, great idea—Get the brown beans up under the lighter ones. Please let her add her greens next. Look at what I found—we can use it for a measuring cup! OK, OK, we all gonna get a chance to stir! Mmm, it’s almost done; Y’all wanna taste?

The Girl Cousins are from the inner city and the suburbs. They participate in vacation bible school and swim practice and drill team. They sing all the words to Kidz Bop and Beyonce and Keke Palmer and Alicia Keys and Hanna Montanna. Their parents are married, never married…their siblings are theirs by biology and social agreement.

"No, it needs to cook a bit longer" PPR_Scribe

"No, it needs to cook a bit longer" PPR_Scribe

They are a diverse bunch.

After the stew is made, the oldest calls for everyone to join hands and bow heads for a prayer. Her words give thanks for this food and the hands, Lord, who has prepared it. She asks for the continued safety of our family, Lord, and the love that we share for each other today and all days. The other Girl Cousins nod, their eyes tightly closed in reverence.

At the end of the prayer they all say amen and begin to eat their meal.

Eventually we head back to the picnic area. The Girl Cousins run ahead, leaving me to snap a few more photographs.

I pray that if there is a God, she or he listens to and answers the prayers of little children over make believe stew.

"And now may we please bow our heads", PPR_Scribe

"And now may we please bow our heads", PPR_Scribe

November 10, 2009

Round Up All the Black Boys in the Neighborhood

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , — pprscribe @ 12:08 am

That’s what my father did just before my first “girl-boy party.”

We lived in a majority White suburb (the setting for my “n***** story” that I related here), and I was turning 13 years old. I was going to have a birthday party—a real party in our apartment complex’s clubhouse. The music was to be provided by my uncle and his band. They were an extremely talented bunch that included his then girlfriend (or wife…the relationship is still unclear to me to this day) who reminded me of Chaka Khan. In fact, the band was Rufus-like, in that they could handle anything from Ohio Players to Yes.

I do not know how it came to be…what (if anything specific) instigated my father’s actions. But at some point my father left the clubhouse and began walking throughout the neighborhood, looking for Black teen-aged boys who were hanging out in order to invite them to the party. One thing is for sure: Without the addition of the few Black boys who decided to check it out, I would have had no Black male presence at my first mixed gender, teen party.

Recently the topic of this party and my father’s action came up during one of my family’s marathon story-telling sessions. I need to backtrack a little and explain something about the Scribe kinship line: We are a family of storytellers. But we do not just tell any old tales. We are tellers of tall tales. We have been known to stretch the truth a little if it will make for a better story. I have a term for this tendency: jeweling the elephant. Actually, that is not my term, but from one of the characters in Armistead Maupin’s The Night Listener. Some of us in my family are bigger elephant jewelers than others; my father—the elder of our clan—is the biggest jeweler of us all.

In my father’s version of my 13-year birthday party, he saw all of us new teenagers—all White except for his eldest daughter (me)—just standing around, segregated by sex, merely listening to all this incredible music played by a real live band. The party was going to be a dud. His daughter’s initiation into teenhood was going to be a colossal failure. She would not even have her first teen dance because none of the White boys present would ask her to dance. (Not that she—with her limited social skills—would have danced if asked or, goodness forbid, initiate asking someone herself.)

But a moment before this fate could be forever sealed, my father dashes out of the clubhouse in search of life support for my rapidly flat-lining party. Moments later he re-enters the party, leading a line of be-bopping, ultra-hip Black boys like some sort of pied piper of adolescent males. The rest of us loosen up, pair up, and begin to jam—the be-bopping ultra-hip Black boys teaching us the latest dance steps from Gary and Hammond and East Chicago. I have my first dance—including my first slow dance—with a shy, but adorable Black kid who was in town from down South visiting his cousin. I am saved a certain social death, and become the talk of the suburban junior high school!

OK. Actually, that is not my father’s version. (I said my father was the master of jeweling the elephant, but his firstborn is a close second place.) What really happened was not quite as dramatic as all that. But the gist of the tale is true to reality. And my father actually did go outside, walk around the apartment complex, and at some later time a group of random Black boys did show up at the door who he had seen in the neighborhood and invited.

How much things have changed. Never mind that if my father did something like that today, the boys would probably head straight to the police. A strange adult man out inviting young men to come over to the clubhouse for a party? They would have had the film crew from “To Catch a Predator” on their cell phones as soon as my father turned his back.

I wonder, though…would my father even do the same thing today, more than 30 years later—say, with his granddaughters (my daughters)? Would he do the same thing in reverse with my teenage brothers who have also grown up in a majority-White suburb? My daughters are not even in double digits yet. But what do other Black parents of Black teens do today under similar circumstances?

If I had my wits about me—and any small bit of entrepreneurial sense—I would start a business with this kind of situation in mind. It would kind of be like an employment temp agency. I would have groups of Black boys and girls who could be hired by parents to attend the social functions of Black teens  being raised in majority White neighborhoods. Eventually, of course, the word would get around and White parents would employ my rental Black teens for their kids’ parties, to give the gatherings that extra cool factor. I could even expand the business to include adolescents of other ethnicities… But I’d start my business model with Black families.

Afterall. What else do you get the privileged Black teenager living in the exclusive cul de sac who has everything? Black friends, of course.

But maybe I am stuck in an old, out-moded mind-set. Maybe such a service is not actually needed in today’s so-called post-racial world. Maybe my daughters’ 13th birthday party will be rocking and jamming…and possibly quite multicultural…without any need for intervention on my part. That would be a very good thing for me for all sorts of reasons. (Only one being that my social skills still are not that great.)

November 9, 2009

Wanted: Voices of Black Mommies

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — pprscribe @ 1:16 pm

One of my favorite pieces from writer Deesha Philyaw is re-posted over on Love Isn’t Enough (formerly Anti-Racist Parent), “Ain’t I a Mommy?”:

The absence of black mommy memoirs mirrors the relative absence of black women’s voices in mainstream U.S. media discourse about motherhood in general. In particular, this discourse is concerned with how women balance the demands of family and careers, and with the decision by some college-educated women to opt out of the labor force altogether and remain at home with their children. When this discourse ceased to be polite, the explosion was dubbed “the mommy wars.”

…The abundance of ink and airtime devoted to a vocal minority of women promotes the idea that this minority’s experience is somehow universal. Low-income and working-class women, black women, and other women of color don’t see their mothering experiences and concerns reflected in the mommy media machine, and we get the cultural message loud and clear: Affluent white women are the only mothers who really matter. Further, media overexposure of these women bolsters the perception of them as self-absorbed brewers of tempests in teapots.

The “mommy wars” as it has been framed is part of a topic known in academic circles as “work-family” (or, the more general “work-life”). In my field, the topic of “work-family” balance is very hot, with at least two of my academic mentors actively pursuing work on the subject. Because of our relationship, these researchers have been very open to listening to my objections about and concerns with how much of this work is conceptualized and carried out. Chief among my beefs are the very issues that Deesha brings up. I will be attending a conference of my professional organization soon. It will be interesting to see how much of current research on work-family issues addresses the diversity of parenting experiences.

3678688183_11b3aee75e

Migrant Cotton Picker and Her Baby..." US National Archives, http://www.flickr.com/photos/usnationalarchives/3678688183/

By the way, I have to say that since first reading Deesha’s article, I have a new twist to my own reaction. For many years I resisted moving back to the city where the majority of my family resides. But in the past year of living here I can say that I was very wrong on so many counts—and a big part of where I miscalculated has to do with work-family issues. There is nothing like being able to call a grandmother or a cousin or a teenage brother to help with child-related needs when work issues conflict with other areas of my life. Nothing like it.

In addition to the day-to-day help, however, is the sense of connection my children are now getting just by virtue of being near their family members on a regular basis. This year several people have asked me what my daughters want for the holidays. My answer has always been “nothing; they are in no need for more material things.” But this year I am adding a request. A request to come by the house and cook a special family recipe with them. A request to bring by some photo albums to share with them. A request to write them a letter that they can keep forever.

Of course I am continuing to “build family” with non-related families. When we lived away from home this was more challenging, but I did it as a matter of necessity. Now I do this as a matter of choice. These relationships and connections, too, have been incredibly valuable to me as a mother and to my daughters.

Since making this move, the “mommy wars” are even more foreign to me than they were before. It seems that this kind of angst is intensified in situations where mothers are living in isolation from the kinds of extended kin that can make childrearing less lonely—whether the mother works outside the home or not. At the heart of the (fake) wars is probably a sense of feeling unsupported, of feeling that one’s work (broadly defined) is not recognized or valued.

Yet another casualty of the American middle class focus on the nuclear family.

Yet there are other tensions that I now have, being a Black mommy raising kids around family. What happens, for instance, when my values for my children conflict with my extended kinfolks’ values? I have had to explain and justify all manner of decisions from why my children do not have a kiddie perm to why we do not regularly attend church; from why I let them read some of the books they do (e.g., the Harry Potter series) to why I believe anti-homophobic parenting needs to be as big a part of their upbringing as anti-racist parenting; from why we do not feed them many processed foods to why they do not get an allowance.

Of course, none of this parenting disagreement has reached a level of “warfare.” Nor is it ever likely to. But as a Black mommy, I wish more of the conversation could be around these issues rather than the ones the media (and academia) seem content to focus on.

October 19, 2009

On Grief and Guilt

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , — pprscribe @ 12:23 pm

Folks who followed me on my Old Blog know that my research area was child adoption. With my new gig, I do not get to follow the adoption literature as much as I used to. But every once in a while I come across a story in the mainstream press that makes me feel my time in the trenches was of value and that reignites my desire to get back to that work someday in some capacity. The former Anti-Racist Parent blog—rechristened as “Love Isn’t Enough” (tagline: “on raising a family in a colorstruck world”)—features an excellent post on one such recent story.

Whenever one of these stories surfaces, I am usually involved in giving the other side of the man-bites-dog aspects, assuring people that in the majority of cases it is the other way around but that dog-bites-man is deemed to not be a very interesting news story. Alright. Perhaps not the best metaphor. But the point is, despite stories like a family “returning” a child they had adopted, most adoptions do not entail this result—even most special needs and transracial and transnational adoptions. This is in large part due to the increased skill and preparation of many adoption agencies in screening and preparing potential and prospective adopters. (I’d like to think that academic research and the adoption blogosphere has also played a role, but that is a separate story…)

Nevertheless, stories like Anita Tedaldi’s usually strike a chord and, in the process, reveal much about our attitudes about family and privilege. Thea Lim’s piece is one of the best I have read discussing the issues. She concludes:

Tedaldi describes her feelings as “grief.” Grief is what we have when we lose a friend or a family member to death, or to the vagaries of life. Grief is not – at least not mainly – what we have when we utterly fuck up and totally let someone down. That is called guilt.

Grief is also what we have when we lose a dream. But D. is not a dream, not a realisation of the adoption fantasy Tedaldi admits to having had her whole life. He’s a human.

This is not a story about a mother and a child. This is not even a story about a woman and a baby. It’s a story about two humans. But that keeps getting lost in the mix.

Original posting at Racialicious! (plus lengthy comment thread)

October 16, 2009

@President Obama: “Why do people hate you?”

Filed under: NOLA Post-Katrina Levee Break — Tags: , , , — pprscribe @ 1:51 pm

Well, you might have missed it—what with little kids being aloft in balloons (or not being aloft in balloons) and interracial couples having the nerve to get married in Louisiana (or not getting married in Louisiana), but yesterday was the President’s town hall meeting at the University of New Orleans during his first trip to NOLA since becoming president.

Not a whole lot of solid or new information from the meeting. (The White House does have an 8-page document detailing recovery progress in the region thus far; scroll to bottom of the press release.) But the town hall was worth the price of admission because of this interchange, straight from the From-the-Mouths-of-Babes files:

THE PRESIDENT: …All right, I’ve got time for one more question. It’s a man’s turn, isn’t it? It’s a guy’s turn. Okay, here’s — this young man, right here. I’m going to let him use my special mic. Hey, this is a big guy — don’t go “awww.” Come on, man, I mean, this is a — all right, what’s your name?

Q Terrence Scott (phonetic).

THE PRESIDENT: Terrence Scott. What do you have to say?

Q I have to say, why do people hate you and why — they supposed to love you, and God is love and –

THE PRESIDENT: That’s what I’m talking about. (Laughter and applause.) Come on. That’s what I’m talking about. Terrence, I appreciate that. What grade are you in?

Q Fourth.

THE PRESIDENT: You’re in fourth grade? Well, now, first of all, I did get elected President, so not everybody hates me, now. I don’t want you to — (laughter.) I got a whole lot of votes. I want to make sure everybody understands. But you know, what is true is if you were watching TV lately, it seems like everybody is just getting mad all the time. And, you know, I think that you’ve got to take it with a grain of salt. Some of it is just what’s called politics, where once one party wins then the other party kind of gets — feels like it needs to poke you a little bit to keep you on your toes. And so you shouldn’t take it too seriously.

And then sometimes — as I said before, people just — I think they’re worried about their own lives. A lot of people are losing their jobs right now. A lot of people are losing their health care or they’ve lost their homes to foreclosure. And they’re feeling frustrated. And when you’re President of the United States, you know, you’ve got to deal with all of that. That’s exactly right. And, you know, you get some of the credit when things go good; and when things are going tough, then you’re going to get some of the blame and that’s part of the job.

But, you know, I’m a pretty tough guy. Are you a tough guy? You look like you’re pretty tough. And so you’ve just got to keep on going even when folks are criticizing you. Because as long as you know that you’re doing it for other people. All right? (Applause.) So thank you. You’re a fine young man. I appreciate you. (Applause.) Give Terrence a big round of applause.

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