And an Upcoming Novel
Those who believe in the Law of Attraction say the more attention you give a subject, the larger it gets. In one of his many programs on public television, Dr. Wayne Dyer put it this way. Suppose you’re in a shopping mall and you see a store filled with ugly lamps. And you say to yourself, “Those are the ugliest lamps I’ve ever seen. I hate those lamps.” But then you go into the mall and purchase fifty of those very lamps.
That’s what seems to be happening in the current political landscape. In today’s New York Times, columnist Charles Blow joins others who say, Enough is Enough; it’s time for that to stop.
It won’t, of course. As a nation we seem to be suffering from the DT’s--delirium tremens, a medical Latin term dating from 1813, which translates literally to “trembling delirium.” The DT’s are usually caused by withdrawal from alcohol. But it seems there might be other ways to bring them on. Perhaps overexposure to any toxic substance might produce the same symptoms. Consider what those are: hyper excitability, anxiety, irritability, agitation, tremors, seizures. The DT’s.
Looking at recent press coverage of the galloping campaign for the soon to be vacated White House, the diagnosis seems apropos. But at least some in the media are beginning to realize they’re being played.
The great Walter Lippmann once wrote:
“The news of the day is an incredible medley of fact, propaganda, rumor, suspicion, clues, hopes, and fears, and the task of selecting and ordering the news is one of the truly sacred and priestly offices in a democracy. The power to determine each day what shall seem important and what shall be neglected is a power unlike any that has been exercised since the pope lost his hold on the secular mind.”
When I was a cub reporter, still cutting my teeth in journalism, I kept that quote on my desk as a reminder of what I’d become involved in. Eventually I would eventually veer away from journalism on the belief, promoted by Hemingway and Garcia Marquez and buttressed by my own experience, that it is an impoverished form. Nevertheless, the Fourth Estate is essential to our democracy. Although we don’t seem to like priests much these days, there’s no denying the power invested in the office.
Will Charles Blow’s call to abide by Law of Attraction put an end to the DT’s? Probably not, but at least he’s taking a stand.
As my friends in Australia say, “Good on you,” Mr. Blow.
And good on you, too, Michiko Kakutani, for giving us something else to focus on this August 28, 2015, fifty-two years after Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered the famous speech everyone knows him for.
Ms. Kakutani’s essay on the lasting power of Dr. King’s "I Have a Dream" was first published in the New York Times two years ago during the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. Thanks to Twitter and the power of the Re-tweet, it’s available again--and most worthy of our attention.
Why spend your time looking at ugly lamps when you can fix your gaze on a “radiant vision of hope”?
Sometimes girls just wanna have fun--even when they're anchoring the news.
When I first saw this video, it made me happy. But not in the way you might think. Watching the ladies do their thing was fun. What made me happy, though, was vindication, that feeling you get when you find out you were right after all. Since I hate to say, "I told you so," I wont.
But I will say this. Back when I anchored TV news -- and it was a while ago -- the higher-ups brought in consultants who pushed a concept called the "happy talk" format. This was light chit-chat between segments, which sometimes rose to the level of repartee, but not often. I wanted to live in an ideal world back then, not the real one. So with all the self-righteousness of Martin Luther tacking his 95 Theses to the cathedral door, I resigned from the news business and wrote an essay saying why. The essay was eventually published in a textbook and taught for a while in college classrooms. But the only "reformation" to come out of it occurred within me.
Over the years, the consultants have come up with other ways to jump-start flagging newscast ratings, since merely delivering information was not enough to hold the public's attention. If you've been near a TV set when the news was on, you already know what I mean. Reporters jumping from airplanes. Confessing to past sins. Weeping on air. Becoming the news instead of presenting it.
But what you see in this viral video featuring newscasters in Memphis, Tennessee, is the best move yet. Nearly three million "hits" within 36 hours. Coverage in Cosmopolitan online. Why didn't anyone think of this before?
I predict the woman in the purple dress will soon resign her job as co-anchor to become a Hollywood actress. She will star in a remake of Lost Horizon called Quan Yin, which will be completely innocent of any other meaning Quan Yin might have. The movie will flop. But this viral video will live on. I also predict a slew of copycats coming to a screen near you. Other newscasters have already posted their versions of this so-called "Hit the Quan Challenge." (If you do not yet know what "Quan" is, a trip the Urban Dictionary will prove most enlightening.)
When the consultants first invaded the news department where I worked and told us every newscast must have an animal, a fire, and no politics unless the "governor was caught on tape screwing his secretary," one of my colleagues, an award-winning journalist, asked, "How low can they go?"
Now we know the answer. Happy Talk News has become Happy Feet News.
Keep your seat, Mr. Sondheim. There's no need for clowns. Just bring on the penguins. And fear not. This is not the beginning of the end of broadcast journalism: that happened a long time ago.
Apologies of the Times: How Julian Bond's "Slave Mistress" Ancestor & Dr. Dre's Remorse Share Common Ground
On August 21, 2015, two apologies appeared in the New York Times, which at first glance do not seem related, but in fact are.
The first was from the Times’ Public Editor, Margaret Sullivan, in response to criticism that the paper’s obituary of civil rights legend, Julian Bond, used the term “slave mistress” to describe his great grandmother. The second, perhaps more widely read apology was from 50-year-old Hip Hop mogul, Dr. Dre, who issued a statement via the Times indicating that he is sorry about the women he has hurt.
These things claim our attention this week because Julian Bond is being mourned after a lifelong career as an activist on behalf of justice and civil liberty. And also because theaters across the country are finding enormous success in Straight Outta Compton, a film depicting Dr. Dre’s early life as a member of N.W.A. The film has garnered praise from Oprah Winfrey and Selma Director, Ava Duvernay. You can’t turn on a TV or PC without something from either of these events bubbling to the surface and making its way onto whatever screen you happen to be looking at.
The two apologies are related because both concern affronts to African-American women.
They also point to differences within African-American life, which are as old as slavery itself—the seemingly endless dichotomy between those who worked in the house and those who worked in the fields This comes down to more than catch-phrases like “field nigger” or “house nigger.” It’s about differences in perception and attitude, opportunities for education and success, and whether your relationship with the mainstream power structure will become adversarial or not. Will you become Attorney General of the United States, or find yourself behind prison bars? If you are pulled over by the police for a minor traffic violation, will you be let off with a smile and a warning, as I was once when I worked as a TV news anchor in the country’s fifth-largest market, or will you wind up dead on the floor of a police van with your back broken or a gunshot to the head?
These things rumble in the background like a back beat in jazz. They never go away. But those two apologies in the Times ask us to look more closely at the ongoing degradation of African-American women.
During my first year as a radio talk-show host in Atlanta, Julian Bond was an on-air guest at the station. I’ve forgotten the specific topic of the day’s call-in conversation, but it had nothing to do with Julian personally until a white caller rang up with this question: “Mr. Bond, are you part white?”
“Well if I am,” Bond said, “It’s not because my great-grandmother raped the white slave-master who owned her.”
His answer shut the caller up and put an end to the matter. I could tell he had heard this question before. The Times apology for referring to Bond’s ancestor as a “slave mistress” makes the following point: You can’t be both. A mistress is one thing. A slave is another. If you are a slave, you cannot say no. You do not have the power to give consent to the liaison.
Here’s what Bond eventually said about this part of his ancestry in a 2013 article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution:
“My grandfather and his mother were property, like a horse or a chair. As a young girl she’d been given away as a wedding present to a new bride. And when that bride became pregnant, her husband — that’s my great grandmother’s owner and master — exercised his right to take his wife’s slave as his mistress. That union produced two children, one of them my grandfather.”
That grandfather had a son, Horace Mann Bond, who became the first African-American president of Lincoln University and eventually president of Atlanta University. The family has always prized education, and although H.M. Bond wanted Julian to follow in his footsteps, the son felt a compelling need to respond to the call of Civil Rights. He dropped out of Morehouse College for several years but eventually earned a degree in English and went on to teach at American University, the University of Virginia, and elsewhere. In a way, he did follow in his father’s footsteps. The unchanging Y-chromosome has unshakable influence: the apple does not fall too far from the tree.
Enter Dr. Dre, whose life on this planet began in a very different way. He was born on February 18, 1965, the year Julian Bond ran for public office and won. That was the same year as the explosive Watts Race Riot, which lasted six days and led to 34 deaths. Last year, Dr. Dre sold his Beats music company to Apple for $3 billion. The movie about his early life raked in $56.1 million during its opening weekend. After a long silence on the recording scene, his first album in years hit No. 2 on the charts the first day of its release. What’s he got to apologize for?
When you see Straight Outta Compton, you realize what Dre and his homies were up against. You understand why Oprah and Ava have said see this movie. What is less obvious but refuses to go away is an attitude towards women some have characterized as misogynistic. That might have something to do with the bitches and ho’s referenced in N.W.A.’s music. It might also be related to alleged acts of violence against Dre’s former girlfriend, Michel’le, and journalist Dee Barnes. Dre pleaded No Contest to Barnes’ charges and eventually settled out of court in her civil suit against him. He has apologized in the Times and in Rolling Stone. Apple has issued a statement supporting his declaration that he is not the same person who did those things twenty-five years ago. Some critics are concerned, though, that because the incidents were not included or even referenced in the film, audiences may not get a true picture of the life and times of N.W.A.
Then there is the “Bye, Felicia” moment in the film, a joke that journalist Allison Davis did not find funny. If you haven’t seen the film, there are no spoilers here. But here’s a link to the NPR story on the subject.
Davis is concerned that the African-American woman in the “Bye, Felicia” moment is made to look bad and portrayed as the scapegoat in a dispute between two men. It’s a moment most people laugh at during the film. Does that laughter provide tacit support to a culture that degrades women in general and African-American women in particular?
The counter-criticism of this argument is that Dre and N.W.A. reflected the reality of the world they came from. They didn’t make the culture. Their work simply gave it a voice.
But we have these two apologies, you see, coming on the same date. August 21. Which makes it interesting to note that August 21 was the day in 1831 that Nat Turner led his ill-fated rebellion against slave holders in Southampton County, Virginia. He was rebelling against the very conditions that caused Julian Bond’s great-grandmother to be forced into the bed of a white Kentucky farmer while his white wife was with child. He was rebelling against what happens when your children are sold out from under you or you are farmed out to breed more slaves.
If you contemplate the lives of African-American women in the period that covers Turner’s rebellion, the rape of Julian Bond’s ancestor, and the alleged “culture of misogyny” reflected in Straight Outta Compton, you would be forced to conclude that black women have had an awful lot to bear. You might also conclude that under the circumstances, they have carried on the best they know how, some more successfully than others, in a world where merely to have survived is an achievement.
A lot has changed. Who could deny that? But in a way, the same things seem to happen again and again, generation after generation. The general degradation of black women has become a kind Groundhog Day. One wonders when that is going to change.
As I write this, it is now August 22. By the time this appears, the ashes of Julian Bond will have been spread across the Gulf of Mexico. He understood that the struggle he was involved in would take a very long time, and he settled in for the duration. He did what he could, and he probably does not care now about the apology from the New York Times.
So today, August 22, is a time for remembering Bond and what he stood for. It happens that this date too is historically significant. For it was on August 22, 1950, that the US Lawn Tennis Association accepted 23-year-old Althea Gibson into the annual championship games at Forest Hills, which is now known as the US Open. Gibson became the first African-American ever to play U.S. Championship Tennis. She won 11 Grand Slam Titles in France, the United States, and Wimbledon. She was a role model who paved the way for current African-American superstars like Venus and Serena Williams.
But despite the 65 years between Gibson’s debut and the Williams’ victories, African-American women remain in a battle for the long haul. If the songs of hip-hop do not denigrate them, if a film about Compton is not responsible for the culture that puts them down—then there must be something else, which includes but is not limited to the international image-building machine with its insistence that they become other than what they are.
The world seems to want something from black women, which they will never be able to give. They will never look like Maria Sharapova, who is thin, blonde and white. For that reason, despite 21 major tennis victories, Serena Williams has been criticized in the New York Times and on social media for her body image. One Twitter user infamously tweeted that she is “built like a man.” To which J.K. Rowling famously responded by tweeting a photo of Serena in a red dress and calling the tweeter an “idiot.”
I have not yet seen any apologies from the tweeter or others who criticized Serena’s body when they could not criticize her game. But wouldn’t it be nice if we lived in a world where apologies were not necessary—and African-American women finally got the respect they deserve?
This is the photograph of Julian Bond I like best. It is January 10, 1966. Everyone but Julian is standing, their right hands raised as they take the oath of office to serve as duly elected representatives of the Georgia State Legislature. Julian does not remain seated in protest, as one might expect this firebrand of the Civil Rights Movement to do. He's not standing because he is being punished. The legislature has denied him the seat his constituents have elected him to. Why? Because he spoke out against the war in Vietnam before it became popular to do so.
Look at his face. He is twenty-six years old—and from the looks of him, a mere boy. Already he has co-founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a key player in the African-American Civil Rights Movement. He has risked his life in rural areas south of Atlanta in order to register poor black sharecroppers for the vote. He has marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., along paths fraught with danger. He has run for office and won.
Keep looking at that face—and you will see that Hamlet got it wrong. Conscience does not make cowards of us all. That only happens to people too afraid to stand up for what they believe in. In the early 1960s, Julian Bond believed that a disproportionately high number of African-Americans were drafted to fight in Vietnam. SNCC released a statement condemning US involvement in the war. Bond, a pacifist, endorsed the statement and said he admired those who had the courage to protest the conflict by burning their draft cards. The state legislature responded by denying him his seat. He shows up anyway. After all, he has been elected. But they don’t let him take the oath.
In his excellent book, Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular, Esquire Magazine’s long-time fiction editor, L. Rust Hills maintains that the job of fiction is to reveal the moment when a character turns the corner and becomes something else. The spinster aunt was not always a spinster. The drunk uncle was not always the inebriated embarrassment routinely parodied on Saturday Night Live. Something happened to make them that way. Their response to life’s circumstances defined the selves they would become. Julian Bond was already on his way to becoming the heroic icon whose life and legacy are mourned with his passing at the age of 75. But he did not start out that way. You are not born an icon. You make decisions, and the decisions make you.
That boyish face of January 10, 1966, belongs to someone who does not know how things will turn out. Notice the uncertainty written in those eyes. Look at the battle taking place in the corridors of the unknown. He’s out on a limb. Ostracism, doubt, and who knows what else has come to shake its fist at him. See the resolve written there. The willingness to face the lions. No matter what.
We know the rest of the story now. How the United States Supreme Court ruled in Bond’s favor by a vote of 9-0. The state had denied his freedom of speech, the unanimous high court said, and was required to let him take the seat his constituents wanted him to have. Two years later, during the turmoil of the 1968 Democrat Convention in Chicago, Julian Bond will become the first African-American to be nominated for Vice President of the United States—an honor he must decline because he is not yet thirty-five years old and therefore too young to hold the office if elected.
Other moments will follow, many victories, a few losses. The boyish curls will fall away. His face will become set, his hair gray. He will age and eventually leave the planet after a brief illness. Julian Bond will be mourned and lauded as the activist, hero, and legend he most certainly was. Head of the NAACP. State legislator, professor, author, narrator of Eyes on the Prize. By all accounts a great man who served his country by standing up for its core values even when that service took on the isolating posture of dissent.
The loneliness of the long-distance runner is a mantle you choose to accept. It’s something you take on when everyone else stands up and raises their right hand. You don’t know how things will turn out, but you do it anyway.
Look at that face.
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