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.


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.)


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.


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.

March 6, 2010

A Presidential View

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , — pprscribe @ 11:01 am

I am still taking something of a blogging break from serious and contentious news of the day. Usually when I feel worn down like this I retreat to music, fiction, or photography. I have been listening to a lot of music lately—and can’t wait to re-join Old School Friday soon to share some of my musical ministry here. I have picked up an interesting novel, and have a couple more on my list. So that leaves photography. These shots I modified from the White House’s Flickr photostream.

They are nothing momentous: Just moments.

I don’t know why I am partial to this image. Actually, yes I do. It shows the President writing with his left hand. I’ve written before about the pride I feel, on behalf of my leftie daughter, whenever I see Barack Obama use his left hand. But I also like to imagine the moments right before this shot was taken, when he asked this brother (personal aide Reggie Love) to hold up a minute so he could write on his back.

This guy’s folks will have this image forever. He’ll show it to his own grandkids one day, should he one day be a grandfather. This young man will never know a United States in which a Black President did not exist as a reality. I know that there are important policy issues that we should be attending to—and holding this president accountable for. But in doing so we should not lose sight of the radical-ness of this president’s very Being President.

This is another one of those captured moments that I want to imagine the moments just before. The kid in the baseball hat really wanted to play this whole thing cool. But you can tell he’s interested. (Though I wish he had taken his cap off.) The President has got his Dad-face on.

And of course, who doesn’t like Bo. The “Snowcopalypse” may have shut down the Capital and much of the rest of the country, but it was all fun and games, apparently, for the First Dog.

February 24, 2010

“I’m Still Standing…”

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , — pprscribe @ 9:01 am

“It’s been a long time; I shouldn’t have left you…” (Without a blog post to step to…)

“…All apologies; What else could I say..?”

“Funny how time flies when you’re having fun…” (Or working really hard)

“I’m (or soon will be) back in Black…”

(And at that time) “Don’t call it a comeback…”

“The B**** is (or soon will be) back…”

…I don’t know how else to sing it. I’m on something of a blogging hiatus. Follow me on Twitter—or drop my my house to help with laundry or my office to help me write. Otherwise, I’ll be back blogging soon!

January 26, 2010

The Beautiful Struggle

Filed under: Photography and Photo Essays — Tags: , , — pprscribe @ 5:00 pm

"Negro going in colored entrance..." Library of Congress,

If you have dropped by this spot before, you know I have a thing for black and white photography, and black and white historical images of African Americans in particular. There is a subset of these images that are of hardship, struggle, pain. Yet many images are still what I would characterize as beautiful—sometimes startlingly so.

Such is the case with these photographs, more from Flickr’s incredible collection of public domain photographs, The Commons.

These may not be famous works of photographic art from their periods, but they masterfully capture important slices of history. But beyond that, they are beautiful works of art.

As was the case of the people in my post “My People and Other People’s Children,” I do not know who the subjects of these photographs are. But I claim them, proudly, as my own ancestors. I am grateful to them, for enduring, and to the photographers who captured their beauty.

"Cultivating sugar cane..." Library of Congress,

"Electric phosphate smelting furnace..." Library of Congress

"Woman carrying bundle on head..." New York Public Library

"Woman carrying bundle on head..." New York Public Library

"Negro laborers..." New York Public Library

"Company stores and offices and clinic of Delta Pine Company..." New York Public Library

January 22, 2010

Reporting from the mean streets of the cul-de-sac

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: — pprscribe @ 7:12 pm

MOMMY! DADDY!” Daughter comes running into the family room the other day, shouting and panting hard. “We just saw a family looking at the house for sale across the street and they have two kids—a boy and a girl—and guess what else? They’re BLACK!

The Mister and I go running into the dining room to look out of the big picture window that looks out on the house across the street with the “For Sale” sign in the lawn. We strain, we peer, we jockey for position. The family comes out and stands in the driveway, apparently reviewing the visit with their realtor. They are just as Daughter described them. The Daughters and I move away, me fearing How We Must Look. The Mister stands there for a while. (Later he tells me he wanted to make sure they saw him.)

Later, away from the kids, we two adults confer. Was the relatively short length of time they were in there a No-this-is-definitely-not-what-we-were-looking-for amount of time? Or was it a This-is-perfect-write-the-offer amount of time?

We hope it was the latter…


"School Bus Coming" PPR_Scribe

We were excited about moving to the quiet cul-de-sac. The house was perfect for us, and we were tired of looking. Our Black realtor told us there was another Black family living in the subdivision, as well as two Black families in the subdivision across the major road from us, and several in the one down the road. I worried just a tad at this news that, I am sure, she meant to deliver comfortingly or even bragging-ly. Was there a list kept of all the African American families in this suburb? Would we be required to submit Papers or keep the authorities of some kind or another updated on our whereabouts?

But the thought soon passed. I was not worried. There would be nothing so dramatic as cross burnings next to our mailbox. Maybe some sideways glances, but nothing more, right?


It was just my luck that when the first neighbors came to our door to welcome us to the neighborhood shortly after we moved in, I just happened to be blasting Lil Wayne on our whole-house audio system. There I was trying to chat with a husband, wife, teenaged girl and pre-teen boy who all looked like they stepped out of an L. L. Bean catalog, there standing with a plate of homemade cupcakes and bottle of wine, all the while Wayne Carter quipped about Masarati dancin and bridge pu**y-poppin. Efforts to figure out how to turn down the volume of the high tech controls failed so we all stood there screaming (over Weezie) about moving here from Minnesota (…Sicilian bi*** with long hair…) though we were originally from this area back in the 80s (“ the Lamborghini hopin’ them crackers see me…”) and what school did you say your kids would be attending (“…And I be the shit now you got loose bowels...”).

After they left I closed the door, cupcakes in hand, certain we’d never see our new neighbors again. But still, no drama, right?


I will never forget the first time I did see our realtor-registered Black neighbors. I was driving out of the subdivision and she was driving in. We both almost lost control of our cars for trying to glance back to see each other. I hoped I managed a friendly wave and smile before righting my front wheels. That Halloween my kids and I trick-or-treated at these neighbors’ house. The Black woman from the car opened the door with her basket of candy treats. The two of us made eye contact and smiled at each other goofily over the heads of the waiting ghosts and ghouls, princesses and pirates. The other parents trick-or-treating with me probably wondered if we two were OK.


We had this one neighbor who visited us early on while we were working in our garage, our garage door open. “Visited” is not quite the right word, and neither would it be quite correct to say we had a “conversation” or “chat.” He pretty much interviewed us: where each of us (my husband and me) went to college, what each of us did for a living. At one point he appeared satisfied. He then went into an extended riff on our fellow neighbors: which families were part of the original cohort that built these homes, who was retired, the one woman who was a single mom… Slowly I had a sense that I should try to bring the conversation to a close. But I was too late. The man started talking about the subdivision’s two Asian families: The one was OK, they were both university professors, but the other one “from Japan or something” couldn’t speak a lick of English and—he “wasn’t racist or anything”—but it’s just so hard to understand them—“though they seem really nice, polite”—so he just tries not to have to interact with them at all.

The Mister, who is less tactful than I am, got up and abruptly walked into the house. Leaving me to say, “__________.” (I leave that blank in the hopes that I come up with a sufficiently appropriate anti-racist come-back to insert later.)

That neighbor left our garage with me knowing I would never speak to him again.


Finally, I thought, some drama.

A neighbor was telling me about the monthly parties the subdivision has. They’re called “Flamingo Parties,” she told me. You’ll know when and where we’re going to have one when you see the big, kitschy, plastic bright pink flamingo planted in someone’s yard, she said. Oh. And they’re adult-only.

Now at this point I must provide some background. I was a child of the seventies. My father was a psychology grad student, my mother a teacher and musician, and we lived on a college campus. My parents hosted a lot of “adult-only” parties. My sister and I often helped with the set-up: mixing the 7-Up/High-C/wine punch, setting the ashtrays out strategically, flipping through LPs and judging the album covers to decide which ones should be played. At one point I was tall enough to stand up in a chair and hang my parents’ favorite mobile from the ceiling of the hallway at the junction of the living room, dining room, and bedrooms. The mobile was a series of one-way signs, each hung vertically from one string so that the one way signs drifted slowly round and round. On each sign was a different word: straight, gay, bi, curious, observer…probably some others I cannot recall.

…Fun times.

I’d never heard back then of “flamingo parties,” but I imagined they just might be interesting. At any rate, I was about to find out!!!

Or, not. It was just a party. A bunch of adults standing around over small bits of food stuck through with thoothpicks and drinking imported beers and talking about plumbers and hardwood floor installation companies.


No word yet about the house across the street and the Black family that visited it. We made an effort to try to get some friends of ours to look at the house. We’ve had fantasies about them moving across the street, registering with the proper authorities, and becoming our neighbors as well as our friends. I have known the woman in the family for years, since my first graduate school days. But quite miraculously, our husbands bonded, our kids bonded, and we re-bonded—and all of us bonded with each other. As hard as one-on-one relationships are, finding compatible family-on-family relationships are even harder. Trust.

But we all fell into deep friendship with each other.

I don’t think they are going to move into the house, however. I shouldn’t be so greedy, considering where they live now is only about 8 minutes away by car.

Whoever moves in I will try to be neighborly. I’ll bring a bottle of wine over and a box of store-bought cupcakes and make small-talk. If they ask me about the neighbors and the neighborhood I’ll be honest: On average everyone is pretty nice. And the cul-de-sac? Pretty quiet.

No drama.

January 1, 2010

Me and My (Blog) Ego

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , — pprscribe @ 4:16 pm

Happy 2010 to all! I have been thinking about what, if any, changes I want to make to this blog during the new year. Should I change my profile picture and/or the blog design? Abandon the black-and-white-only photo posting policy? Should I “come out” as myself here on the blog? I don’t feel any huge need to change my picture. I kind of like the garden of Eden look of that black stone statue amongst the tropical foliage that I now use. I also like the blog design, though I do need to update my blogroll. I may or may not start posting color photographs. Mainly I need to get back into taking photographs, period.

As for “outing” myself, most regular commenters already know me from other environments, whether “real” life, the old blog, or other on-line forums. So I don’t feel a real need to blog here under my real name. At least not at this point.

But this last issue has been on my mind lately. As much as I resisted it, I have begun to Twitter. So far, the experience is still new to me. And still a little odd. I am continually shocked about what, on Twitter, people will reveal about themselves. I have heard of families airing all their dirty laundry via Tweets for each other and all the Twitterverse to see. Some people I follow have begun using a program where they will entertain the most intimate questions about themselves, promising to answer any and all queries honestly.

All of this, I do not quite get, nor do I expect (with my personality) I ever will. This has made me think of the following post from my old blog. “Egocasting” has gone warp speed since I wrote these words. There are now so many potential on-line selves to coordinate, so many potential worlds and audiences to collide. I think Twitter might be the end of the technological personalization line for me. If folks want to know anything more than what I already share they’ll just have to get to know me face to face.

(Also related: this BlogHer post from Nordette Adams.)


I have been rather busy lately…a little friend called a dissertation. But I also enjoy keeping this blog. As I have said before, this is an extension of the journaling—personal and academic—that I have always done. My compromise has been to largely post brief entries of things I have read elsewhere, with perhaps a little commentary from me. Lists also seem to be a quick, enjoyable way to keep a blog going—and, a main initial feature of [this blog] was my making lists of things that I seemed to not be able to get to.

In this vein, a while back I thought I might post a list of the summer reading I wanted to do. But while I was compiling in my head what I would post here to the blog, I found myself excising a few of books from the list.

What was that about?

Well, these books were “light reading”—what some would even call “trash.” As this blog is, in large part, about my PhD journey, posting such non-intellectual fare would have been like admitting to the world that I planned to spend the summer on the couch watching “Three’s Company” re-runs on one of the nostalgia TV channels.

Blogger as Product

“I am so hip even my errors are correct.”
~Nikki Giovanni, “Ego Tripping”*

My being loathe to make such an admission was the first I had realized that I was intentionally and strategically using this forum as a way to reveal some things about myself—and, more interesting—to cloak others.

I have heard this kind of on-line self-presentation called egocasting. And it appears that blogging could be part of the realm of technologies of personalization. Just as I can use my iPod to listen to my own personalized 24-hour radio station full of only those songs I like, just as I can use my television and remote and DVR to view only those programs I like, I can use my blog to “broadcast” only those aspects of my graduate school experience that I like.

Even if I reveal my frustrations and errors, I can wait to craft a post until I have successfully overcome and corrected them. Even if I reveal my shortcomings, I can spin them in such a way that procrastination appears to be reflection, lack of divergent thinking becomes focus, pathological perseveration becomes dedication.

I can be a product of my own production.

Same Broadcast, Different Station

You ain’t ridin/
You ain’t bumpin like I’m bumpin/
You ain’t sayin nuthin homie/
You ain’t fresh az I’m iz…
~Bow Wow, “Fresh Azimiz”

It just so happens that while I was having this summer reading/egocasting epiphany, I was also updating my CV (or, resume, for you non-academics). In a stroke of convergent thinking (or, in a sure sign of being mired in a mental rut) it occurred to me that a CV is a much older and much more widespread type of “egocasting.” In my CV I broadcast the professional self that I hope will be pleasing to my “audience”—prospective employers. I do not (purposefully) reveal my negative qualities, perhaps hoping to give the impression that I am in possession of none.

Not only do I try hard to broadcast myself in the best possible light (evident, for example, by spending inordinate amounts of time deciding between “developed” and “designed”) but I implicitly try to convey that I am better—muchmuchmuch better—than any other egocast my audience may be tuning into on their prospective employee dial.

Again, I am a product. Plus I am a better/fresher/tastier/faster product than the others.

“Become the Boast…”

Well, anyone who has ever sent themselves off to faceless others in the form of a multi-page listing of awards, accomplishments, and action words knows that such an endeavor can be pretty rough on the ego. You’re supposed to be confidently tooting your own horn, but just as often you feel as if you may be sounding discordant notes. The act of egocasting via plain old CV-writing can be undermining to one’s ego.

In true spin-making form, though, I have decided to look upon both my blog writing and my more formal professional presentations of myself not as occasions for doubt and worry, but as opportunities for goal attainment. My CV is a catalog of my proudest moments for others; But for me it can be a “how-to” manual for even more proud moments to come.

And no, I can no longer claim that this blog is “just an on-line journal”—It is also a digital representation of a (somewhat/some times) carefully crafted on-line self. But it does not have to turn into a forum for private self-guessing and self-authentication—It, like my CV, can be part of the road map to my personal mission.

In that spirit, I just may post that summer reading list. And think what you may if it is not packed with great classics or deep literary prize winners. I will likely list a few of those in the hopes that my seeing those titles here will serve as motivation to actually read (not just purchase) them. I like to think of it as having a healthy balance between work and play, seriousness and fun. (Though I could also think of it as my being shallow and frivolous.)

Whichever way you slice it: Both my CV and my blog are me—or at least a part of me that I decide is ready for public consumption. Whatever perfection contained herein is true even when it doesn’t tell the complete story. And of course, any lack of perfection is part of the story, too. But at least a part of the rest of the story is my intention to reach higher…

I am so perfect so divine so ethereal so surreal.
I cannot be comprehended except by my permission.
I mean…I…can fly
like a bird in the sky…

~Nikki Giovanni, “Ego Tripping”*

*(Recorded spoken word available on iTunes and here on Amazon)

December 31, 2009

“Seize the promise of tomorrow”

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Michelle and I send warm wishes to all those celebrating Kwanzaa this holiday season. This is a joyous time of year when African Americans and all Americans come together to celebrate our blessings and the richness of our cultural traditions. This is also a time of reflection and renewal as we come to the end of one year and the beginning of another. The Kwanzaa message tells us that we should recall the lessons of the past even as we seize the promise of tomorrow.

The seven principles of Kwanzaa – Unity, Self Determination, Collective Work and Responsibility, Cooperative Economics, Purpose, Creativity, and Faith – express the values that have inspired us as individuals and families; communities and country. These same principles have sustained us as a nation during our darkest hours and provided hope for better days to come. Michelle and I know the challenges facing many African American families and families in all communities at this time, but we also know the spirit of perseverance and hope that is ever present in the community. It is in this spirit that our family extends our prayers and best wishes during this season and for the New Year to come.

~Statement by the President and First Lady on Kwanzaa

December 30, 2009

“Find the life that brings joy to your heart”

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As your elder, I support you in your effort to try to crash out of a life that you had outgrown. And I feel compassion for your loved ones who must be as confused and hurt as you feel yourself. It is easy to see how hurt you are feeling by looking into your eyes, which I have recently done (via You Tube) in an effort to see how you, on a soul level, a heart level, are. Sometimes we feel crashing out of a life, by any means necessary, means we are done with life itself. The truth is that we’re only done with the life that no longer feels worth living. That is why we must bear the suffering until it begins to ease, and life shows us the possibility of a new direction.

~Alice Walker

(Her words are to Tiger Woods, but they are good words for anyone.)

December 29, 2009

The War on the New Years

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , — pprscribe @ 11:38 pm

Forget the so-called war on Christmas. The real war is on all things New Year. As evidence:

1) We see images of Santa Claus, Frosty, and Rudolph—as well as religious icons from Christianity and Judaism during this holiday season. But rarely do we see images of Baby New Year to the same degree. Abortion may be to blame. In which case this is a liberal plot against the new year. Or a conservative bias against nudity, because most often Baby New Year is butt nekkid. In either case, I bet that both the old man in the red suit and the little baby in swaddling blankets get more image time than the little guy with the top hat.

2) All these “best of” and other ending year lists unduly elevate the year that will soon be no more at the expense of the year that is not yet quite here. There seems to be a list for all things ending-year. And people argue over the lists—what should have been included that was not, what was not included that should have been, what should have been higher or lower than something else—as if these rankings had any meaning.

3) The mad rush of celebrities passing away in the latter days of December is a clear bid for attention from a year-ending-obsessed media. In any given year, about a half of these deaths are of celebrities most people had assumed had already left this earthly plane, while nearly a half were of people who once were famous but who need “of…fame” after their names to let us know why their death is news. Most years there are only a handful of truly famous, truly unexpected celebrity deaths to close out the year.

4) There are numerous day-after-Christmas sales, but few (if any) high profile January 2nd sales. In years where January 2 falls on a weekday, most people just grudgingly return to work. There are no consumerist efforts to, say, get a jump on the Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday gift-giving season. True, at this point on the calendar a lot of stores begin putting out Valentine’s Day decoration and merchandise. But who, truly, starts planning for V-Day in January?

5) Many people make resolutions for the new year. Few keep them—for example, as evidenced by the vast drop off in gym attendance, smoking cessation sessions, etc. People may have good intentions, but somehow these good intentions are never enough. This is due, I believe, to the lack of true commitment to the new year. A lack of commitment that gives aid and comfort to those who are trying to destroy new years.

6) Although many make predictions for what the new year will bring, most seem to make them for the satisfaction of seeing at the end of the year which things have come to pass. No one makes predictions that are that much truly unexpected or that would really be something come December should they come true. Like, say, that this will be the year we learn to clone the gene for human flight. That would be a prediction worth reaching for all year long.

I submit that this neglect of the New Year is an organized and evil effort to keep us focused on the past instead of looking forward to the future; to keep us stuck on what was instead of oriented to what could be. This is an all-out attack. A war. And we must fight it. I’ll volunteer to be one of the foot soldiers on the front lines of this battle. I will not blog these next couple days about all that was in 2009. I will not compile any “best of” lists. I will not lament any high (or low) profile celebrity passings.

My eyes are on the new year: 2010.

Which is, to be correct (and despite the frequent statements to the contrary), the last year of this current decade. Not the first year of the next.

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 23, 2009

What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , — pprscribe @ 3:35 pm

So asks the song. As I listen to it this year (Ledisi’s wonderful version) I am alarmed that it has been years since I have “done” anything special to ring in the new year.

There was a time when I would plan for weeks in advance for the event.

One year, when my and the now-spouse’s relationship was young, we went out partying at a swanky hotel with several other couples. Before going out, we gathered at one couple’s house and everyone made a toast. One guy made a particularly moving toast to his then-girlfriend. Something is up with those two, I told my husband. I think he’s going to propose to her tonight. My husband poo-poo’ed that notion—“Nah, he’s not that type of brother.” What “type” would that be, I demanded. “Umm, another glass of champagne, dear?”

Later that night at some point the two of them disappeared. We later found them by the huge Christmas tree in the lobby—him looking relieved, and her crying her eyes out with a giant rock on the fourth finger of her left hand. He had hidden the ring in an ornament hanging on the tree. I do not know if he was more relieved that she said yes or that the ornament with ring had not been been swiped.

Another year my husband and I, strapped for plans, went to a fraternity party. It was…interesting. This was the party hosted by the older, not younger, members of the fraternity. Besides seeing my aunt and uncle there, we also got a chance to sip champagne and dance the night away with our high school advanced placement English teacher. Seeing the woman who taught me how to diagram sentences tipsy and doing some combination of the Hustle and Richard Simmons work out is not something I wish to see again. Ever.

One year when I was home for the holiday break from college in Boston, some friends and I drove up to Chicago to party. I was looking cuter than I ever had looked in my life. Normally not a fashionista, I had actually taken time to carefully choose an outfit that revealed enough to say “Maybe…” while at the same time declaring “…but not so fast.” I was ready: dressed to impress and ready to mingle. We went to two parties, each time having to walk in the frigid night from the car to the locale. My pump-clad feet were killing me. The wind was whipping my body in its lightweight (but very cute) coat to shreds. At the second party, around elevenish, we got a tip about where we just absolutely had to go. I was outvoted 4 to 1. We went back outside, walked a couple of miles, piled into the car, and—through a series of mistaken routes in this pre-GPS era—finally made it. I elected to stay inside the car. I rang in the new year with the radio—and the car heater—on full blast.

Many years later when the kids were small, the Mister gave up his New Year’s Eve to work in the hospital so that the single folks could go out and party. In return, he had been home with us Christmas Eve. An hour before midnight, I strapped the girls into the car and we drove to the hospital. The kids were so excited to hear their Daddy’s name over the loudspeaker. He came into the waiting era, completely surprised, and gave us all big hugs. I got a midnight kiss from him right there in front of everyone. Which is something because my spouse is not, generally speaking, that “type” of brother.

Most other years recently we have just spent time together as a family. Those years that nothing “special” happened are just a timeless montage in my memory. Playing board games or watching movies…The novelty, for my young daughters, of staying up until midnight…Their joy at sipping sparkling apple juice from our wedding champagne flutes…My husband and I reminiscing together over the aging acts performing on one televised New Year’s Eve special or another….

I guess I take it back. Every year when the evening of December 31 rolls around I am “doing” something. Something very “special.” Granted, my younger self in the sexy dress, high heels, and non-sensible coat would probably be appalled to see what my New Year’s Eve festivities have come to.

But the today me—I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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