Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Justice (Finally?) For the Memphis Three?

Coming from where I come from, I know a thing or two about injustice. In one of Jamaica's most notorious cases, a man was convicted and sentenced to death for a crime that happened after he was arrested.

I also know a thing or two about Heavy Metal. To this day I tell anybody who would listen that Guns and Roses saved my life. After Hurricane Gilbert pulled a Hiroshima on Jamaica, light went, water seemingly evaporated, food quintupled in price and the radio stations played Don't Worry, Be Happy all day long. I was nearly going postal and my mom was a cop who probably had a gun in the house.

I still remember the night I came home, turned on the radio and heard, not Sweet Chile O Mine, but the end of it. There I was hapless and hopeless and the first thing I heard in the dark was Where do we go? Where do we go now? I didn't know where I was going. I felt as if I'd never go anywhere, ever. I was trapped and stuck and losing my mind. I think I fell to my knees. I know I cried. A year later my school, in order to make sure we grew into morally upstanding young men, showed us the documentary Highway to Hell —you know the one—the one that backmasked Led Zeppelin and told you that even Madonna was a servant of Satan. Some people found Jesus after that documentary. I found ACDC, Led Zeppelin, Judas Priest, Black Sabbath and 999.

Also, coming from a country whose churches are out numbered only by bars I also know a thing or two about satanic panic. Hell, I wrote my first novel about it. Christanity whipped into a frenzy of justified bigotry and distrust of the other. So when the West Memphis Three, Jason Baldwin, Jessie Misskelley, Damien W. Echols, [picture] were convicted on a grisly triple murder that even third world detective work could have proven false, I knew it was heavy metal that was being convicted. Satanic panic given free reign to fill in the awfully wide gaps in a preposterously implausible story. I could go on about the details of the case, but the New York times, in a story that broke today about new DNA evidence does it much better.

Granted, Heavy Metal has never exactly been a banner music for racial equality. Some branches like a lot of European Black Metal seem to not like negroes very much and think Hitler was a right smashing fellow. Ultimately my allegiance is with Punk because it tore down racial and sexual boundaries as quickly as you could say 1234! (well it used to). The racial and sexual boundaries that some heavy metal still adheres to.

But something about being an outcast even among outcasts makes the story of the West Memphis Three resonate. It's not the first time Heavy metal and youth was put on trial. It's not the the first time nor will it be the last the church will launch a jihad on people who do not fit in. And it's not the first nor will it be the last time that people profit from the lingering miseries and petty fears of others.

Friday, October 26, 2007

On Slave Mentality

Sometimes I wonder if to be black in this world is to be absolutely unaccountable. For anything. We love windows but have never been very keen on mirrors, but then that probably goes for all human nature. Criticism is too often looked upon as attack and blind defense of black people simply because they are black can make for curious bedfellows, thugs, thieves, murderers and cop killers suddenly elevated to victim-martyr-saint status by Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton even though the latter has gotten far more judicious lately.

People complain, privately of course of the black person’s eagerness to deploy the race card and maybe they do in the US but in countries like Jamaica where pulling a race card is tantamount to mixing chocolate in coffee, it’s the slavery card that gets pulled once too often. A female friend of a friend of mine, a woman from the Dutch colonies tried to break down how it was the English slavery cum colonial system that resulted in the Jamaican mentality. Our almost communal refusal to be decision makers, our eternal patience for their mediocrity to be rewarded (hello, Long Service award), and our basic lack of ambition, revealed in everything from a 30 year sojourn as a file clerk, to a five month sojourn on the street corner waiting for handouts, guns, and the visa that was revoked mere weeks ago, though not necessarily in that order.

And while the argument that we are still carrying the ill effects of slavery nearly 200 years later has many merits, it’s also old and barely applies to any current living situation. Tribal politics, Brain Drain, importation at the expense of production, political shortsightedness, poor emphasis on education, drugs and turf wars and just plain laziness have far more to do with the so-called slavery mentality than slavery itself, but those factors lack the one thing that makes the slavery excuse so tantalizing: Blamelessness.

As long as it’s slavery, it never our fault. The whole point to an excuse is to excuse oneself from accountability and in that regard the slave mentality is manna from self-delusion heaven. It’s the one size fits all justification, the ultimate go to for explaining everything from post colonial theory to post colonial architecture. It is so universal, so easily said and so easily grasped for that “slave mentality” can silence any fruitful discussion, leaving all the black people in room warm and cuddly all over for getting to the core of what’s wrong with them. It is also tired bullshit.

As I said before, the truly rewarding thing about the slave mentality card is that it absolves entire nations of responsibility. It gives black people a 500 year get out of jail free card, where everything that has happened or will happen can simply claim slavery as the reason why. Terrell Owens makes a mess of his career? Slavery. Jayson Blair invents stories for the New York Times? He’s burning down his master’s house—Didn’t you get the memo? Mike Tyson beating the living daylights out of one woman and raping another? He’s had 400 years of the white man on his back, so of course he’s a monster. Black men breeding kids all over the place? It’s slavery dontcha know? From those days when the black man’s job was to be Mandingo-cock while the Massa sold off the kids so that he didn’t have to deal with baby-mama drama. Failing in school? Don’t you know that it’s the legacy of the white devil education that taught us to be inferior? Sho nuff it is. And you can’t help but be downtrodden because even after 1838, the white man simply got craftier with his enslavement of us.

Of course faced with such logic, white people often feel powerless and unfairly treated, as well they should be. They were dealt a nasty card, an unimpeachable one, similar to a Zionist screaming ‘NEVER AGAIN!” to silence even the slightest possible debate about Israel’s political policies. After a man shows his Bergen Belsen tattoo or his great grand father’s lynching photo what comeback can a white person possibly have?

None perhaps except this. Some blacks have a ridiculous capacity for mythmaking, a rewriting of the grayer parts of history that nobody wants to confront, the story of ex-slaves who owned slaves, blacks who collaborated with whites in slave rebellions and the Civil War, and blacks who could rob, rape, kill and steal just as terribly as any white Jack the ripper. The slave mentality as excuse for the black person’s inability to prosper is the all encompassing, unimpeachable argument and it’s also false. Maybe Brother A can’t get a job because the world is racist, but maybe he didn’t study hard enough in school. Maybe sister B can’t progress because she’s just too damn worthless to try. Maybe Father Q didn’t want success badly enough and was never put in a situation where he had to. Maybe the poorest of us Jamaicans have gotten so used to free food near Election time that we have no need to earn anything. Maybe it was gang violence the de-motivated the ghetto. Maybe it is a rural people drifting into an unforgiving urban reality that led to extreme poverty. And maybe that has nothing at all to do with slavery.

What’s truly offensive about the slave mentality excuse is that it insults the memory of slaves. How dare we wallow in our present victim fetish by casting our ancestors as the ultimate victims, ignoring what they went through but assuming that whatever it was, gave them an internal sense of defeat that they passed on to us. This patronizes their oppression and ignores their triumph. Jamaican slaves were victimized for over 400 years, but they were never victims once, not even for a day. They were one of the most rebellious in the western hemisphere. And this was more often than not the product of genuine planning, preparation, and thought, not some wild savages trying to pillage and plunder. At the core of Tacky’s revolt was in ingenious idea, not just destruction but rebuilding the county if not the nation in a series of city states based on the fruitful African model. Rebellion was more than an act of violence; it was an act of self-determination, independence by any other name. Even the Paul Bogle led protest of 1865 was again, a race of people demanding to be social and political players in their own socio-political system, not a bunch of dumb niggers blocking their own roads and burning down their own stores—cutting off noses to spit their faces. Were a slave to come to a ghetto street corner right now, he’d be horrified to know that these are the people for whom he gave his life. The true slave mentality was one of constant ingenuity, constant, active rebellion against an oppressive society, and a constant struggle for equality and humanity. The maroon town is a product of slavery mentality. The ghetto is not.

So maybe the reason why you have no drive, ambition, intelligence or future is that you’re too damn worthless to begin with. Maybe the reason you don’t have a good job is that you’ve never tried to find one or thought those subjects you took in school never came in handy. Maybe the reason you are looking to the Don for a handout is that you’re trapped in your own urban prison shaped by greedy modern politics and a dependence on handouts to begin with, instead of bearing the legacy of ex-slaves who knew how to grow their own damn food. Maybe it’s the drug and weapons trade and not the post slavery economic dispensation why your sister will be shot and killed tomorrow because she’s just one foot beyond her garrison boundary. Maybe the education system failed because teachers have become bureaucrats who care about meeting the requirements of the syllabus and not educating kids, just like every other bad education system in the world. Maybe fathers don’t raise their kids because everybody lets them off the hook and nobody puts forth legislation for deadbeat dads the way white people did in America (turns out that worthless fathers can be white too).

Maybe Tacky, Nanny, Sam Sharpe, Boukman, Accompong, Kunta Kinte, Frederick Douglas, Mary Prince, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Paul Bogle, Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. Dubois are all turning in their graves wondering if we were worth their lives. I have a feeling they might be thinking that we aren’t worth a damn, but who knows, maybe that’s just their slave mentality.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Methinks I Shall Read 100 Books

The easiest thing about choosing to read 100 books is picking the first one. I know that flies in the face of all logic, but logic was not one of the things I brought to the table when I decided, rather calmly I might add, that I was going to read 100 books before I write my next one. It just felt like the thing to do. Maybe I was looking at Jane Smiley’s 13 Ways of Looking At The Novel, a little too closely, but as far as I know I’m not suffering from writer’s block. I am concerned that to write now would be to bring the same old things to a new book, whether that be style or world view or philosophy or even structure. I need to read more. Maybe my next book will be a forward step instead of the sideways move that it feels like right now. Maybe I’m just envying these Camus and Saramago novels that I’ve been reading.

In the middle of all that I’ve been considering two seemingly diametrically opposed thoughts: how to write books that mean something more than what fiction can be on the surface (not metafiction which I cannot stand) but also how to capture that old sense of what a story could be, not necessarily Victorian, but maybe Dickensian in scope and in scale. I’ve been thinking about Dickens a lot lately, not just him but writers, extremely talented writers who nonetheless never forfeited that unwritten contract with the reader. The reason why my headline says Books instead of Novels is that several of the books I plan to read will be Non-Fiction, certainly biography. In fact, between biographies of Young Stalin and classics like the new translation of War and Peace, I might not find much space for contemporary novels.

This is not just because I want to connect with the past or the factual. But maybe you have noticed that if the reader today wants a story on a epic scale, something larger and more sweeping in narrative, he has to read old novels or non-fiction. The novel does not provide these pleasures anymore —certainly none I’ve read recently save for Absurdistan —and I’m not sure why. Michael Cunningham once lauded the era of the smaller novel, narrow in scope and focused on the minutiae of human life. Many writers seemed to agree with him. My problem with this is that it seems to be a decision that writers made among writers for writers without ever asking what the reader thought.

Faced with countless books about nothing the reader goes to where he can find a story: old books, non-fiction, even a videogame like Metal Gear Solid. It says volumes that the most engrossing recent novel was not recent at all, but a rescued work from Irene Nemirovsky, who died in a Nazi Concentration camp in World War 2. The main drawback to teaching a course on 9/11 Novels is the fact that the truly great narratives are not fiction. There has not yet been a novel of the sheer epic span of Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars, or the wide Tolstoyan scope of Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower, or the bark and bite of Fiasco, the funky feminist insight of The Terror Dream, the downright surreal Imperial Life in the Emerald City, or even The 9/11 Report, so devastating in its very plainness.

There’s no question that novels change, that the purpose of fiction should change. I’m just not sure anymore what was the point to any change in the past 40 years. In the late sixties John Barth declared the end of narrative, but I’m not sure who that to applied to other than him. Novelists in their desire to break free from imagined boundaries found many exciting ways to express, but not many to communicate. In some arenas that is still called by its first name: masturbation. There is a point to be made for experimental fiction, but fiction has been experimenting since Tristram Shandy and nobody has ever accused that book of being dull. I think I’m trying to find a midway between a novelist’s desire to innovate and a writer’s desire to connect. And maybe after reading 100 books I’ll get a clue.

The first book? Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Saw it fall off a shelf in Borders and just knew. As for the rest, I'm all for people telling me what to do. What book do you think I should read?

Monday, October 15, 2007

People, Places and Things We Can Now Give Up On.

Are you carrying around a dead weight? Hoping that sooner or later he or she will be into you? Hoping that Hip-Hop will make another classic album? That the third world will one day make dollars? That Bush will make sense? Are you waiting on Clay Aitken to get naked with a female? Let me introduce you to the so thrilling it’s sinful pleasures of giving up on people. My favourite preacher once said he enters everything situation with a hypodermic and a gun. If the situation can be fixed, inject some medicine. If it’s a dying horse, shoot the sucker. Point your guns at the following.

1. MySpace

Ludicrously ugly and un-navigable from the get go, MySpace’s success was a stunner from day one especially since Facebook, which came out at roughly the same time (and his since surpassed it) was far more viewer friendly. The MySpace page was such a colossal eyesore that you could almost judge people by whether they had one or not. It was also responsible for some of the most laughable acts of hubris in years, with barely talented musicians all proclaiming themselves stars of a sort because they suddenly had 500 friends, none of whom would buy their records. With frustrating loading time, and a dogged refusal to innovate in any way that normal people would appreciate, the space soon became as much a dinosaur as friendster. And that long promised radical upgrade is only a boo.com away.

2. Ryan Adams

It was once our favourite pastime: waiting on Ryan Adams to make that country rock masterpiece. Lord knows we needed one— Sweetheart of The Rodeo, Honky Tonk Masquerade and Guitar Town were getting mighty lonely. But instead, caught up as he is in sleeping with famous women and having more hissy fits than the baldy from Smashing Pumpkins, Adams hasn’t found the time to deliver on that admittedly tall order. Instead we get the Ryan Adams record or rather, one every week; a CD of mostly tepid, country rock, with two or three all out stompers to help keep the faith. And they keep coming. If this were sex you’d begin to wonder if consistent quasi pleasure beats never having the orgasm that always seems around the corner. For some, that’s enough. For others it’s easier to believe that the bang did come, and the problem was us. Or maybe, like Terence Trent D’Arby and Lenny Kravitz, Adams was over praised from the start.

3. The End of the Cold War

People who believed that the US won the cold war made the crucial mistake of confusing war with battle. It was a curious 20 years, with some Americans taking credit for the fall of Soviet Communism, as if a suicide counts as murder if somebody else wanted to pull the gun. But some things were meant to come back to life. And Putin, sick of hearing how China’s greatest debtor somehow won a war against his country has been letting his horns show. Communism may have been a bad thing overall but it was the one thing Russia did well. And some people prefer the politburo to the Russian Mafia. So as journalists end up shot, former spies end up poisoned and dissidents end up disappeared, we can count down the years until the hammer and sickle comes back. And just in time too. My CCCP t-shirt still looks cool. Quite frankly I missed the cold war. Mutually Assured Destruction was the one thing not preventable with a condom. Many thought the right country won at the time (OK, maybe Americans and Pinochet), but the rest of us knew it was only a matter of time before the bear, rumoured dead would wake up from hibernation. Meeting with Iran? Yup, I think that he just growled.

4. Cable Series

The Sopranos are gone and they have taken with them the world. The world of the cable drama anyway. So after running out of hairs to scratch from watching John from Cincinnati and laughing at the future drag show that was Rome, the sad realization came upon me that the era of the genre and gut busting cable series is over. The mix of powerful writing, unrestrained acting, violence and real time sex was powerful indeed but it also smacked of the forbidden—as if we were watching something that we really should not be, biding time in illicit pleasure until somebody pulled the plug. So now instead of the brilliant, daring or merely shocking, we now have the good, pleasing, “edgy” but unbrilliant cable show, Dexter, Weeds, Tell Me You Love Me, and the Tudors. Ironically enough the better are shows are now on network TV. Or maybe I’m just saying that because I cannot get enough of Burn Notice.

5. Michael Jackson

If you still had hopes, you’re even more wacko than he is. And step away from those little boys while you’re at it.

6. Peace in the Middle East

Should we blame this one on Abraham? It’s the biblical thing to do. Atheists may want to, but to do so would mean to believe in God in the first place.

7. The Great Reggae Record

Sure it was overstuffed, overblown, self-indulgent and at least five songs too long, but Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers’ Jahmekya was also the last reggae masterpiece. Well the second to last, before Til Shiloh. But Jahmekya, was by any standard a stunning record, the sound of a band recognizing a world bigger than their own and responding without a second thought and sometimes without first one. So there was disco, funk, rock, but also a return to drum and bass basics that showcased the seminal talents of Stephen Marley. Pity that they released the crappy Kozmik as the first single and the crappier Small People as the second. To this day, most people judge the album by those tracks, a shame because roots Reggae will never make a record as brilliant again.

8. The Great American Novel

Was any thought more ludicrous to begin with? The concept has always smacked of self-consciousness and identity crisis, as if one could ever come across a singular work of fiction that speaks to the 8 million Americas that reside in New York alone. The very idea of a novel to end all novels is preposterous for it supposes things that could never be quantified: a universal definition of singular greatness, and the idea that one book could speak to such a heterogeneous and conflicting population. And should that goal happen, what would be left of American Literature? What would be the point for any American to continue writing? Where would the American novel go but down? Notice nobody is out there beating themselves trying to write the great British, Russian or Swedish novel.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Doris Lessing!!!!

Again, another of those writers you never think about for a Nobel because you just assumed she had won it already. I really need to check that Laureate's list. Way off was I. Consider me humbled.