Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Obama Question We're Afraid to Ask

It took the media long enough. Last friday I was looking at my screen saver, a program that flashes recent news headlines and there it appeared: a headline that made me almost fall out of my chair. Time magazine had finally gone there—asked the unaskable. Or rather they raised the fact that the question was being asked. The often thought but never uttered question. We asked it of Jesse Jackson and Colin Powell, we've even enteratained it about Condoleeza Rice. The one question about Obama that dares not speak its name in polite public discourse. If you're black you know what I'm talking about, even if you wouldn't write a blog about it. If you're white, you probably know that we're asking the question, but what you don't know is that we've been asking it from two years ago. And not just about Obama, but Harold Ford as well.

How long will it be before they try to kill him?

There. I've said it. It's been said.

And if you're black and have never thought of this question you're lying. Martin Luther King was to many Americans too much of an Icarus waiting to happen. In hindsight, the only thing shocking about his assassination was how inevitable it now seems; how likely—as if the American extremist element, like the Taliban or Al Qaeda would stomach much longer a black man impacting popular consciousness. Obama, on paper at least stands for something even more outrageous, a possibility, and a real one that someday is today and we may have really overcome. If that's a fairy tale for many blacks, it's downright heresy for some whites, white who are so happy that they can remedy that situation with a steady aim and quick trip to Walmart.

Can we discuss this in the open? Our very real fear that Obama, even if he wins will certainly not be permitted to win, unless he already has a full body kevlar suit? Not insignificant is the fact that Obama was given full secret service security since May 3, the earliest ever given to a presidential candidate. In fact the size of his security comes close to that of an actual president. That notwithstanding, haven't we been here before? Swayed by the hope of change or at least newness only to have it shot in the head from a Texas roof or in the middle of a hotel ballroom, a one note act that leads back to the Status Quo. Ask someone who was a teenager when Kennedy was shot and listen for the silences in his answer; the sigh that never stops, the sense that something truly immense was lost that day and lost in an instant, even if they cannot articulate what it was.

I think it was hope in its purest form. Hope at its best makes no sense. Like faith, it is evidence of things unseen, which is why it can be fearful and exhilarating at once. Hope is not quantifiable, which is why a Hilary Clinton neither understands it nor takes it seriously. Will the type of person who still thinks Bush was right about Iraq sit by while America votes for a candidate named Barrack Hussein Obama?

It's not that Obama threatens to be another MLK. That tactic didn't work for Jesse Jackson. It far worse than that. It's that he threatens to be another JFK. It's stunning to hear people talk about a man in a way that you can only see in newsreels of 1962. Barrack Obama is without question the finest public speaker running for office since Kennedy. Barrack and Michelle are certainly the most glamorous couple since Jack and Jackie, and Michelle has made it quite clear that she's nobody's fool. An Obama white house would be an era not seen since the early sixties when daring to dream must have felt like embracing a secret taboo, something that you had to take on with a poker face, not to reveal how much you heart was dancing at the sheer prospect of newness. Freshness.

Clinton, the poor man's Jack saw this of course and patronized the man for 'giving a good speech.' That's cute-speak for, 'he certainly knows how to inspire,' something that Hilary Clinton could never do, even with written instructions. Are we ready for this? A president who with one speech can make you work harder, go farther and do more? A president that encourages you to own yourself and take charge of your own future? A president so new in spirit at least that he'll most like piss off republicans and democrats? A president who might just think twice before taking the easy road of partisan politics?

Nope, I didn't think so either. Every RFK gets the Sirhan Sirhan he doesn't deserve. And even if you've never said it, you've thought about it. We'd like to think this is a new America and things like that will never happen again, but I remember not long ago seeing a photo of a lynching on display at America's Black Holocaust Museum in Wisconsin. Same as usual— the black human body desecrated and transfigured into something animal, like a goat being strung up to be butchered. Lynching photos have an awful uniformity, the neck squeezed like a tied balloon and the shoulders sunk low as if both blades were broken. But as horrifying as the picture was, it was also reassuring because of our association of lynching with the past.

Reassuring at least until you looked at his feet and saw brand new Converse sneakers.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Book Number 2: Pride and Prejudice

I have not yet seen the film version of Atonement. I don’t really plan to, largely because of what the director did with Pride and Prejudice a few years back. Granted, after a TV miniseries so brilliant that there were moments that stood neck and neck with the original novel, one could argue that the only way left to go was down. The film wasn’t a nadir exactly, but it left one wondering why the director killed plausibility by turning Elizabeth into a babe, and Darcy into Heathcliff. But it made me read the novel again and I’m always looking for reasons to re-read Pride and Prejudice. Fine, I will give that Emma is her most perfectly realized novel, Mansfield Park her most public, Sense and Sensibility, her wittiest and Northanger Abbey her kinkiest. But Pride and Prejudice still resonates the most with me because each time I open the book, it’s a different novel.

This time I found myself coming into a new understanding, if not total affection for the least likeable characters, largely because of something that was always present in the novel but that I had not noticed before. Whatever your opinion of the shrieking harpy, Mrs. Bennett, the money hungry yet intellectually bankrupt, Mr. Collins, the sadly cynical best friend Charlotte or the imperial Lady Catherine de Bourgh, they all possess one thing lost on the far more appealing characters. They are the only characters thoroughly aware of the era in which they are living. The closest any main character comes to such wisdom is rude-phase not romantic-phase Darcy.

It turns that even those of us who praise Jane Austen profusely still have loads to learn. For a novel so steadfast in the belief in having it all, great love and loads of money (hello, chick flick) The novel is also blessed with a deep understanding of the real machinations of society, and the economics of love, marriage and sex, so much so that these characters serve to remind us that for the rest of the world things are not so simple, if ever they were.

Take for instance Mrs. Bennett. Very early on in the novel, Austen makes a striking character assessment of her, a technique that would have been condemned in 20th century fiction as “telling.”

Mr. Bennett was so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice, that the experience of three and twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character. Her mind was less difficult to develop. She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented, she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news.

No reader in the 19th century would have dismissed Mrs. Bennett as shallow and callous from that sentence, in fact they would have congratulated her for being the only Bennett with her head on straight. The fact is this was a woman saddled with five daughters. Think about that for a second; the paragraph will still be here when you get back. Five daughters, two of which were nigh passing the age of desirability. What’s more, Mr. Collins, the sanctimonious kiss-ass who stood to inherit their estate had made no bones about leaving them to starve should none of the sisters marry him. You can congratulate your smug self that Mr. Bennett so wittily told Elizabeth not to marry Collins, but he had also condemned five women to a life of the destitute and seemed to be quite pleased with himself about the matter. Mrs. Bennett has every right to shriek and scream; the man had in a way destroyed his own children. Mrs. Bennett is not dead set on a wedding because he enjoys wedding cake. She’s thinking about the survival of her children, something Mr. Bennett doesn’t pay much attention to until his loosely run house allows one of his daughters to cut loose.

The same is true for Mr. Collins, reptilian as he may be. A man lucky enough to be blessed with inheritance is not about to squander it taking care of five spinsters, none of whom plans to give him any hand in marriage (or sex if you want to get post modern) in the bargain. Charlotte disappoints Elizabeth when she marries Collins and seems to get her punishment with a life of unhappiness, but again credit Austen with some sense and sensibility. She neither condemns nor condones the marriage, but does make it clear that for a plain, poor woman like Charlotte a fate like hers was an extremely lucky one. Had Austen written a novel that had put forth the Elizabeth-Darcy model as the only legitimate male female relationship, it would have joined all the other bodice rippers of the time that have been forgotten. But Austen has always been keenly up to date on her own society. Something she shared, not in the romantic ideals of her great characters but in the cold practicality of her minor ones, the ones who served to remind us that while love sure is grand, even in the 19th century, it’s all about the bling.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Whatever Happened to Dionne Farris?

Maybe it was only a feeding frenzy after all. It wouldn’t have been the first time. Anytime an artist sidesteps formula and hits upon a winner along comes the deluge, the signing shitstorm that starts off promising but ends up with diminished returns, Shabba Ranks leading to Snow, Pearl Jam leading to effluvia like Creed. But this movement was something else. I didn’t believe it myself. Back in the mid nineties you couldn’t throw a stone without hitting a brilliant black female musician.

The sheer number was staggering: Ambersunshower, Carleen Anderson, Jhelisa, Davina, Amil Larrieux, Sha-Key, 99, Meshell NdegeOcello, DK Dyson, Nicole Renee, Cherokee, Julie Dexter, Erykah Badu, Ndambi, Angel, Joi, Joi Cardwell, Janice Robinson, Skin, Res, Sandra St.Victor, N’Dea Davenport, Jazzyfatnastees, Kira, Des’Ree, D-Influence and Caron Wheeler. Neneh Cherry had just released Homebrew, a stunning new direction for hip-hop that showed you could be a blues-heavy world-wise funky mother of two and still wear no panties if you wish. This was the glory days of Vibe magazine under Jonathan Van Meter, where every week they seemed to dig up brand new funky thing. Like the so-called black wave of film directors (remember that NY times cover?) this wave of unclassifiable black women talked like a revolution, artists who were neither divas nor garden tools and who weren’t afraid of taking their minds to the dance floor. Dionne Farris in particular was championed by the magazine. Late of critical darlings Arrested Development and ready to take on the planet, she had even a better album than her former group.

But ten years later, Beyonce and dark-side-of-the-force clone Rihanna is as good a R&B gets. Missy Elliot, our last dependable funk-freak has become predictable, Meshell has left R&B for jazz wankery, and everybody has all but disappeared. Worse the standard for intelligent black pop has lowered considerably, excusing the hippy-dippiness of Jill Scott, the abysmal lyrics of Alicia Keys and the overbearing sentimentality of India. Arie, a woman whose lifetime channel wisdom is unleavened only by her considerable hubris.

But back then, when Dionne Farris slayed us with her first single I Know, we knew not only that revolution was coming but that it was going to start in the bedroom first. Her album, Wild Seed, Wild Flower was The Love Below of its time, with a little Prince, a little Betty Davis and a little Bill withers thrown in for good measure. Hot Southern soul that wasn’t afraid to rock out, as she did on Passion. Hell, she became the second woman (Neneh was the first) to take a Lenny Kravitz sample and come up with a better song, her blistering Stop To Think. And if that wasn’t enough she snatched her own hit single back, stripped I Know to its acoustic core and let it loose in the Mississippi Delta. Wild Seed, Wildflower was a near perfect album, inexplicable as it was irresistible. Farris and black female artists in general seemed on the verge of making a major statement. Then she disappeared. Fourteen years later “I’m not my hair” is as profound as some black women get. What happened?

And attack of the black, that’s what.

Not long after Wild Seed, Wild Flower, Farris, along with co-writer Van Hunt (criminally underrated, but that’s another blog) contributed a song to the Love Jones soundtrack, Hopeless, a single whose fortune was anything but. The record became an R&B smash. Still warm and gorgeous now nearly ten years since it first came out Hopeless also sealed Dionne Farris’s fate. Suddenly the powers that were sought to make an R&B diva out of her. Give us more of this they “asked.” And throw in some ghetto love, baby mama drama, some tracks we can play on BET Midnight Love, and something with a big ole space so we put Biggie Smalls smack in the middle of it. By the way, ditch the guitar, only lesbians play guitar. Okay maybe they didn’t say any of that. Instead they did much worse. Farris refused to compromise and asked to be let out of her contract. She went home, raised her kids, picked up carpentry and vanished. Some of her fans even believed she was dead.

Synchronicity can be a bitch, of course, for it seems a similar fate happened to the whole wave of black women who rose up around the same time. Nicole Renee is still MIA, presumably without a record deal, a shame for a woman who sounded like Prince and looked like Sheila E. Joi got picked up and ditched again, despite committing no sin other than making the female Stankonia. Twice. Meshell traded pop for jazz, but confused elliptical with boring. Sandra St. Victor took so long to rise that her music suffered from datedness. The list goes on and it only gets more depressing. Then you have the tragic case of diminished returns. Women like Alicia Keys, Arie and Scott being praised not for what they are (clich├ęd musicians and terrible lyricists) but what they're not, another round of producer controlled bimbos. Ironically, Janet Jackson for all her flaws has still delivered more gut truths than all these "artistes" combined. Not one of these women or anybody else in neo-soul for that matter has contributed a single new idea to music. Erykah Badu has, but she's a hip-hop artist who's been fooling herself.

Thankfully that’s not the final story. Erykah Badu’s “Healer” has sparked an online sensation not seen since, well “On and On” and word is her new album, New Amerykah, is the masterpiece she almost made with Worldwide Underground (criminally underrated, but that’s another blog). Best of all, Dionne Farris is finally back with a new album this year. The title? Signs of Life.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Book Number 1: The Brief Life Of Oscar Wao

Junot Diaz should hire me as his publicist. People left my forum at AWP either convinced or not a little disturbed by my proclaiming that the Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao may very well be the first true twenty-first century novel. It's not the first novel to celebrate its own post modern geekiness or to revel in its polyglot intensity ( Gautam Malkani's Londonstani achieved pretty much the same thing), but it is certainly the first novel in decades to point to a direction that fiction from the diaspora can and maybe should go. I wrote a humongous article on this already for the Caribbean Review of books and have no desire to repeat myself, but I really think that Diaz found a way to back flip to the past, leap frog into the future with only passing references to the present. And whenever that happened the present in usually what's being said on the street right now, not a liberal pseudo-hip re-imagining of ghetto speak, but real urban language.

And when the novel isn't talking loudly (which is 80% of the time) it literally sings. Or raps. Or beatboxes. Or toasts. Or spits wicked Spanglish without translation. It took twenty two years for English speaking people to give us the first true twentieth century novel, but now that we have a candidate a mere eight years in, could literature's prospects be finally looking up?