Sunday, November 17, 2013

The cancelling of Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell

Every time I think of the fact that Totally Biased has been cancelled, I get a little teary-eyed. I will miss it sooooo much. 

For one thing, it was a way to see my son, who lives a thousand miles away, every day. I didn't even have television before he got his own show. Oh, I had a television monitor, but I used it to watch the DVDs I rented from Netflix. The few television shows I wanted to see--Bill Moyers Journal, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart--I watched online. But when Totally Biased started in August 2012, I ordered cable. Not only would I watch as it was telecast, but I watched each show repeatedly on On Demand.

I enjoyed so much the Totally Biased perspective on the news, but I learned a lot as well. I learned the difference between Sikhs and Sheiks (although I did know that Sikhs were not Muslims); and the difference between sex and gender. 

I loved "No More Mr. Nice Gay" and everything Hari Kondabolu did. And Citizen Dwayne Kennedy said exactly what I would have said in the Civil War re-enactment and the touching of black hair segments. The street interviews were absolutely wonderful as well as being hilarious.

Moving a show that's just getting established from one to five days a week and then sending it off to a brand-new network that nobody could find was NOT smart. Anoosh Jorjorian explains the foolishness of it better than I can. 

Like my son, however, I am grateful that FX gave thousands more people a chance to discover his unique talent. As this  journey ends, we begin a new one.  Life is full of unexpected turns; that's why it's so exciting.

What is THE black community?

A few months ago when Dr. Dre gave the University of Southern California (USC) $35 million, he was roundly denounced by a number of black folk. Walter Kimbrough, president of an historically black university, Dillard University, explained his misgivings in this column. Dr. Kimbrough makes some compelling points, but still I was left with some questions. These are questions I've had before and will no doubt have again, but I'm sharing them here to see if anyone has any answers.

What is THE black community? 


Who belongs to it?


Is the criteria for membership determined by the individual, or by the group?


Is it possible to create a "community" out of a group of people because they have been oppressed on the basis of their skin color?


What if Dr. Dre considers himself a member of another community?


Do black people have a right to expect certain behavior from other blacks any more than whites have a right to expect certain behavior from us?

Sunday, May 19, 2013

No Visible Gray Hair

"There is no visible gray hair on the heads of any of the 16 female United States senators, ages 46 to 74.”

I watched Book TV today and learned about a book I hadn't heard of, The Beauty Bias: The Injustice of Appearance in Life and Law by Deborah Rhode, a law professor at Stanford University. Rhode says, "Cosmetic surgery has quadrupled over the last decade. Women still wear stiletto heels that ruin their feet and backs and buy any wrinkle-smoothing cream for any price."

I have long thought that once women achieved a measure of freedom from having their movements and finances completely controlled by men, the new method of control became fashion and makeup. Susan Faludi writes about this in detail in her book Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women published in 1991. This latest method of control makes women lack confidence in the way they look and fear censure if they don't dress in the latest fashions. This is more treacherous than earlier control mechanisms because it comes in the guise of "making you feel better about yourself." It is also insidious because women themselves are major proponents of the "beauty rules," often policing one another.

I am old enough to remember when most "decent" women did not wear makeup. Red lipstick on the mouth and rouge on the cheeks were the calling card of prostitutes. Blood engorged lips and cheeks are a signal of sexual arousal, so it made sense for women selling sex to imitate arousal as a way of enticing customers. I also remember when stiletto heels were the reserve of pornographic magazines.

Now, of course, both these indicators of  sexuality are de rigueur for any fashionable woman, no matter her age. Most women, including those elected to high national office, feel bound by these requirements of "femininity."

Fortunately, this demand that women look and dress within these confines is not legally binding so one woman at a time, we have the option of releasing ourselves from this tyranny.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Being White in Philly: A response

I congratulate Robert Huber for being white and actually talking about race, a subject usually avoided by most whites except racists and university sociologists who are "studying the problem."

Huber is apparently confused as to why, after he has lived in a neighborhood that is predominantly African American and is careful to be cautious and polite in his encounters with blacks, Philadelphia remains largely segregated with 31% of its black population below the poverty line. Oh, and yeah, Philadelphia has had black mayors for 25 years and we now have a black president, yet nothing seems to have changed for blacks. In one sentence he dismisses the generations of discrimination that blacks still deal with because he is discussing the issue that race is for whites.

What Huber apparently fails to understand is that racism in the U.S. is historic and systemic, an issue for the entire country because we all live here together. Any examination of race/racism in the United States of America has to begin with slavery and its legacy; otherwise the discussion is meaningless. You can no more examine the issue of race while ignoring its source than you can discuss alcoholism on Native American Indian reservations without factoring in the genocide perpetrated against them.

John Edgar Wideman, who grew up in Philadelphia, has a lot to say about racism in his book Fatheralong, published in 1994, but this statement sums up the insidiousness of racism.

"Of all the weapons devised to conquer and subjugate the lands beyond Europe, the most effective ... is the concept of race. The paradigm of race located within its victims the causes and justification of the victim's plight. Thus the oppressed, to the degree they internalized the message of race became active agents of their own oppression."

I write more about America's intractable racism in my forthcoming book, Not All Poor People Are Black, to be published later this year.

By the way, I wonder if Huber has statistics on the percentage of whites living below the poverty line in Philly?

Thursday, January 10, 2013


When I was a child, my mother told me the only reason my brother kept calling me names was because he could get a rise out of me. “If you ignore him,” she said, “he’ll stop.” She was right. So I learned it’s what I answer to that matters more than what you call me.
            I may not have seen Django Unchained if the movie had not generated such controversy. There was angry talk about the number of times “nigger” was used--somebody counted and said it was more than a hundred. Spike Lee said he wouldn’t see it because it would offend his ancestors. Others were outraged that Brunhilde (Kerry Washington’s character) was a “helpless female” needing rescue. (If she had been the proverbial “strong black woman” fighting to get her husband back, we would have complained about that as well.)
            I thought Django Unchained  was fun and funny.
            When I heard the contemporary music playing, I knew it was not a serious movie, so I relaxed. I’ve seen a couple of Quentin Tarantino movies and I was more disturbed by the prospect of his signature mayhem than I was about how many times “nigger” would be uttered.
            This movie is an ironic spoof of slavery. Beloved (1998) was a serious film treatment of slavery and nobody saw it. Tarantino knows what kind of movie puts butts in the seats: lots of big blasting guns, explosions, blood flowing freely, a damsel in distress, an invincible hero who has close calls, but whom we know will triumph in the end; and, with tongue firmly in cheek, anachronisms all over the place. In other words, Tarantino made a typical Hollywood adventure film. What was atypical is that it was set within slavery and the last man standing was black.              
          Yes, Tarantino mocked the travesty that was slavery, but he also showed the cruelty and absurdity of it. I much prefer that to having slavery being denied or lied about. And there were several moments of hilarity. The night riders who couldn’t see through their ineptly made hoods was a scream. The sadistic slaver who “owned” Brunhilde called his plantation “Candyland;” a silly parody of the pastoral names given to the estates of traders in human flesh. I hooted when, after all the whites around him were dead, Samuel Jackson’s character dropped his cane, straightened his back and stopped acting servile. I also laughed when Tarantino’s own character wound up as a hole in the ground, victim of one of the explosions. It was escapist, cathartic entertainment.
            The film Lincoln, on the other hand, is serious and can be faulted for ignoring important aspects of history pertinent to the story. I believe the movie has resonated with so many, as it did with me, because nearly 150 years ago the U.S. Congress was as sharply polarized as it is today, and along nearly the same lines. This is a movie for those who love the gamesmanship of politics. Unfortunately, by focusing solely on the white male elected officials who finally managed to make traffic in human lives illegal in the United States, Spielberg has denied agency to the many others who forced this political battle. This is particularly obvious and painful because those who are ignored, not even given the courtesy of a line of conversation, are those who are historically marginalized in this society that reserves power for wealthy white males.
            Briefly, these people are Quakers who were resisting slavery in the seventeenth century; abolitionists who labored for decades to change public opinion from acceptance of slavery to abhorrence for it. One of the most eloquent abolitionists, Frederick Douglass, met with President Lincoln to convince him to allow blacks to fight in the Union Army. Eric Foner, professor of history at Columbia University, said, “The 13th Amendment originated not with Lincoln but with a petition campaign early in 1864 organized by the Women’s National Loyal League, an organization of abolitionist feminists headed by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.” To not even mention Douglass or the Women’s National Loyal League in this movie is inexcusable.
            However, I am pleased to see a serious, major American movie admit that the Civil War, this country’s most pivotal event, was fought over whether or not the U.S. would continue to hold other humans in bondage. For a very long time the country has been in denial about that.
           The capture, enslavement of, and commerce in the bodies of people of African descent went on for hundreds of years, and the fallout from that trauma continues to the present day. It will hound us and haunt us until we face it, talk about it and accept it as a tragic part of our history. Despite their flaws, these two popular movies, the latest of several Hollywood attempts to present that brutal experience on film, at least have the country talking about an enormous and critical subject that we usually avoid.