Category Archives: Race

What a Way To Make A Livin’

Last weekend was pretty great. I got to witness the marriage of two dear, dear friends, and the next day saw Clybourne Park at Woolly Mammoth Theatre. And then the cherry, of course, was seeing Dolly Parton with friends that night.

#winning, right?

I really, really liked the first act of Clybourne Park. It was moving and beautifully acted, funny, and heartbreaking. (There were a few moments where the audience’s laughter struck me as bizarre, though, because I was tearing up. Anyway!) The second act, however, was unpleasantly farcical at times and as one friend put it, “Gentrification 101.” We speculated the reason why we didn’t much care for it was because it didn’t really delve any deeper than black-couple-is-wary/white-couple-is-offended. I don’t know about you — and perhaps it’s because I’m part of the liberal media — but most young white folks I know are far more self-aware than the couple in the play.

Still, I’m glad I went. The acting was pretty brilliant and the post-show discussion was cross-generational and enlightening. Many thanks to Rachel Grossman at Woolly Mammoth for inviting me to participate.

Now… Can we take a moment to talk about Dolly Parton?

She sounds AMAZING for someone who’s been in the business for so long. Amanda and I were trying to figure out why she still sounds so good — compared to, for example, Mariah Carey, whose voice is a wreck (still love her) these days. She must have a strict vocal regimen. And as someone who doesn’t have a particularly deep knowledge of her songbook, I found laying out on a blanket and drinking Andre while Dolly jammed on stage extremely enjoyable.

And speaking of alcohol — I’ll be at Bar 7 tonight talking about gentrification with some awesome folks brought together by the Humanities Council of D.C. I think things get started at 6:30. Swing by if you can.

Update: Abdul Ali has a piece at City Paper that much more eloquently gets at my issues with Clybourne Park.

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Filed under D.C., Music, Race

Clybourne Park

I’m pretty excited to be participating in a talk after a production of the Pulitzer Prize winning Clybourne Park at Woolly Mammoth Theatre this Sunday. The play is a response to Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin In The Sun and is about the 1950s white neighborhood that freaks out when the black family moves in — and how 50 years later, a white couple moving in sparks a similar freakout.

Post-play, I’ll be talking with Washington City Paper’s Lydia DePillis and DCentric’s Elahe Izadi about the role of the media in telling the story of gentrification.

You can get tickets here (use code 1285 for a 20% discount), or, if for some crazy reason you just want to see us talk, no need to buy tickets. The post-show discussion is open to the community; which is just one more reason to love Woolly.

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Some Writing I’ve Been Doing

I’ve got two pieces out today that I’m pretty proud of, in different ways. First there’s the first post in a series I’m beginning for Colorlines that explores the jobs crisis, and why it’s so hard to get things done in Washington. I talked to a couple of economists who have some theories:

“If you go back to that time, I think we were worried that the unemployment could get up to 6, or maybe 7 percent,” says economist Lawrence Mishel, president of the liberal Economic Policy Institute. “There was bipartisan effort to stimulate the economy when we were worried about 7 percent. Now we’re at 9 percent,” he adds—but now no one cares.

Chad Stone, an economist at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, argues that unemployment has fallen away as a real priority because Washington politicians are now caught up in a short-sighted argument over the budget deficit.

“The idea has caught on in this town that we have to cut spending really quickly to address a perceived budget crisis,” Stone says, but “cutting spending immediately goes in the wrong direction for solving the jobs crisis.”

Read the rest at Colorlines.

Second, I did a post for The Hairpin that I’m pretty excited about because I love The Hairpin/Awl. Thanks to Edith for running it! I wrote about the ridiculous Psychology Today post that postulated theories for why black women are objectively less attractive than all other women.

I know, right?

The problem with race-based assessments of attractiveness or intelligence — particularly when it comes to black people — is that it completely ignores a couple of things. First, that black people can be Paul Robeson or Anatole Broyard or Butterfly McQueen or Lena Horne. There’s no one kind of blackness. This leads directly to point number two, which is that most black Americans have varying degrees of white genetic material, and, traditionally, fairer skinned black women — those who are closer to white — have been considered most beautiful.

That means that you could conclude that a) the blacker a lady is, the less attractive she is, that or b) in order for racism to work, people have to believe irrational, crazy things about other races — like that black women are less attractive and less feminine than other ladies.

Read the rest at The Hairpin.

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Filed under Race, Sexism, Women

“Captain, aren’t you kind of overdoing your glee in becoming a colored boy?”

I’m about a third of the way through Kingsblood Royal (remember how I was talking about it?) and I’m finding it even better and more surprising than I thought it would be. The book is set in 1940 or so, and the titular character, Neil Kingsblood, has just found out that he’s 1/32 black. This, despite his ginger coloring or his daughter’s champagne-colored hair! Instead of going into denial, or brushing it off, he’s suddenly unsure of everything he ever knew about Negroes, and more importantly, himself.

Much of the book is clearly meant to be satirical. That Kingsblood almost immediately fears that people he’s known for 30 years will suddenly see his Negroid blood, his terror that blacks in his small Minnesota town have known all along and are waiting of the right moment to use that knowledge against him, his furtive visit to the black part of town and a black church so he can learn more about “his race”; all of these things are over-the-top and are obviously being used to illustrate how silly and wrong his racist views are. In one rather funny internal monologue, he concludes, “Captain, aren’t you kind of overdoing your glee in becoming a colored boy?” “Okay. I am.”

What I find somewhat extraordinary, is how human blacks are in this novel. They’re not just magical Negroes for Kingsblood to learn from, they’re presented as people with internal thoughts and lives. There’s also the acknowledgement of differences in attitudes toward equality, and even class, as in this passage:

And he was more certain that he could never become “colored” when he passed the Beale Street Bar-B-Q and saw the dark cloud of Negroes looking hatefully through the steamy window at the slumming white man; when he came to the Jumpin’ Jive night club which, he thought, belonged to Belfreda’s friend, the sardonic Borus Bugdoll, who had made light of the Kingsbloods in their own kitchen. It had been a store; the show-window was now filled with a gilded plaster seashell decked with silver pine-cones and poison-green ribbons, framing the blown-up photograph of an almost naked black dancing-girl.

The street was more alien to Neil than Italy in wartime, and it seemed to him that every dusky face, every rickety wall, hated him and would always hate him, and he might as well go home.

But all of this had taken only five minutes of slow walking, and in the sixth minute the sorcery was lifted and he was among people who, though their faces were more beloved of the sun, were like any other group of middle-class church-going Americans.

They were Dr. Brewster’s congregation, enjoying their weekly gossip before the church bell should summon them in: placid and well-shaven men, wearing the kind of Sunday clothes that people do wear on Sunday; Mothers in Zion, nervously thin or comfortably buxom, talking about their sons in the service; supernaturally Sunday-neatened small boys restless in tight shoes and little girls flaunting their Sunday splendor; elders with a long good life recorded in their etched faces; voluble babies who had not yet heard that they were Negroes and who assumed that they were babies.

It’s funny, beautiful, painful prose.

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Filed under Books, Race

You Turn Me On, I’m A Radio

If there’s no good reception for me
Then tune me out, ’cause honey
Who needs the static
It hurts the head

In the above 1972 clip, Joni Mitchell says she wrote “You Turn Me On, I’m A Radio” because she’d never had a hit (the audience scoffs in laughter, but it’s true, at that point, despite having a loyal following for several years, top-of-the-charts fame had eluded her). She says she was trying to figure out how to appeal to DJs (“I was in a very sensitive place, you must understand, but I decided I’ll channel all this sensitivity into commerciality.”) She figured that radios appealed to DJs, so why not write a song that’s, on its surface, about the radio?

Oh honey you turn me on
I’m a radio
I’m a country station
I’m a little bit corny
I’m a wildwood flower
Waving for you
Broadcasting tower
Waving for you

I’ve sort of skipped over it it all of these years that I’ve had a copy of Joni’s “Hits” (not to be confused with “Misses,” a disc of b-sides and not-hits), but “You Turn Me On, I’m A Radio” is just what I needed to listen to this week. At one point, the guitar breaks, and she warbles, “honey, who needs the static, it hurts the head.” Good question.

Who needs the static?

I’ve had to fight my desire to tune out the static this last week, which has brought a lot of feedback of my City Paper piece. I’d say most of it is positive, and some of it is critical. That criticism breaks down into two areas: very contructive and straight hating (ha, I know, “hating.” Who am I, Chris Brown?). But Ta-Nehisi wrote a pretty great post yesterday critiquing the story and some of the criticism:

If you don’t reach outside your peer group, expect that your piece is going to be somewhat myopic. But with that said, I think it’s really important to consider “Confessions Of A Black Gentrifier” within the context of journalism about gentrification, and the fate of cities in general.

I cut my chops writing and reporting about D.C. for five years. I’ve written and reported on the problems of cities, and the problems of black people, for fifteen years. In all the journalism I’ve produced and consumed in that time, on the subject of cities, in general, and on gentrification, at large, I’ve never noticed any shortage of quotes from the black poor. Indeed the standard conflict pits poor black vs. yuppie whites. More broadly, there’s a recurring theme of black people being “pushed out” usually because of money.

From my perspective, Shani is introducing a narrative, and an angle, we see too rarely in discussions about the problems of the city. There is no question in my mind, that more reporting–and specifically more reporting beyond her social circle–would have made Shani’s story better. I hope she’ll take up that challenge in the future.

As I commented in the thread, both Ta-Nehisi’s interpretation of what I was trying to do, and his criticism of it were accurate. There is more reporting I could have done and more I would like to do. That’s kind of the beauty of not being dead yet, though, right? I can keep pushing. I will keep pushing.

I know you don’t like weak women
You get bored so quick
And you don’t like strong women
‘Cause they’re hip to your tricks

Oh, and “You Turn Me On, I’m A Radio” ended up being Mitchell’s first big hit, getting to #25 on the Billboard charts.

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Confessions of ‘Confessions of a Black Gentrifier’

Illustration for Washington City Paper by Robert Meganck

Where have I been?

Working. Working on stuff like this for Colorlines. Working at my actual fulltime job.

And, also, working on this.

Today, my first-ever cover story, anywhere ran in the Washington City Paper, which is somewhat surreal, because I remember being a young journalism student at Howard who was completely entranced with the awesome longform covers in the magazine. And now I have one. Well, I don’t know if it’s awesome, but I worked really hard on it.

A snippet (it’s long, you should instapaper it, or better yet, pick up a free physical copy in town):

When I moved here last summer, all I could see were the changes in my neighborhood. I’d attended Howard University from 2002 to 2006, and while I knew that the city was where I wanted to stay, I got a job in New Jersey and worked there for a few years.

It was pure luck that when I made it back, I found a house for rent in LeDroit Park, right around the corner from my old dorm. The change that had occurred in four short years was stark.

To put it bluntly: There were white people, everywhere. Now, they trek between Bloomingdale and U Street NW by way of the busy intersection of Georgia and Florida avenues, where just nine years prior, it was a place where black college students butted up against unemployed brothers lingering on corners.

This shouldn’t have been a surprise. The shift was happening even when I was in school, and it was quite noticeable then. A college friend noted at some point between freshman and senior year—after 2003, when Magic Johnson opened a Starbucks connected to the Howard University Bookstore on Georgia Avenue as part of a community development program called “Urban Coffee Opportunities”—that there were, as she put it, “just more white people around.”

Johnson sold his shares in the UCO program to Starbucks last year, and company CEO Howard Schultz bragged in a press release: “Together we opened several successful locations, including our Harlem store, which led the redevelopment of that now vibrant neighborhood.” While the Georgia Avenue store may not have helped economic development on that strip—there seem to be as many, if not more, empty storefronts as there were in 2003—it became a pretty reliable place to find white people on an otherwise largely black stretch.

White professionals and hipsters trickled in, slowly, visible even through the bubble of being a black college student, surrounded by 10,000 other black college students, in a largely black neighborhood, in a mostly black city. By 2004, they were regularly spotted making their way to and from the Shaw–Howard University Metrorail station. And by the time I graduated, white people were jogging up 4th Street NW through the campus, and walking their large dogs on the green lawn of Howard’s Louis Stokes Health Sciences Library—something longtime black residents never did.

The change was disconcerting, in a way.

More disconcerting, though, is that five years later, I walk my own large dog on the library’s green lawn.

The story of the black gentrifier, at least from this black gentrifier’s perspective, is often a story about being simultaneously invisible and self-conscious. The conversation about the phenomenon remains a strict narrative of young whites displacing blacks who have lived here for generations. But a young black gentrifier gets lumped in with both groups, often depending on what she’s wearing and where she’s drinking. She is always aware of that fact.

Read the rest at Washington City Paper.

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Filed under D.C., Economy, Journalism, Links, Race

Of Deference and DADT

Black enlisted men in WWII. Image via the National Archives (click for more info and images).

Adam, writing at The Plum Line, derides former Republican governor Tim Pawlenty’s suggestion that defunding the don’t ask don’t tell repeal would be “reasonable” in order to pay deference to the “sentiments” of combat troops:

Either Pawlenty sincerely believes, against all available empirical and real world evidence, that DADT repeal will harm military effectiveness and that it must urgently be reinstated, or he’s just trying to signal disdain for gays and lesbians, including those willing to give their lives in service to their country, to homophobes in the Republican base. Possibly both.

Comparing struggles is really only useful up to a point, but I can’t help but be struck by the similarity Pawlenty’s objection to gays serving openly in the military has to the Army’s arguments for racial segregation in the 1930s and ’40s. I finished Koerner’s Now The Hell Will Start last night, and one narrative that runs through the book is the ironic result of deferring to the white troops. To do so, the Army segregated blood banks, barracks, and mess halls. Black soldiers ate worse food, and were almost always assigned to jobs as cooks or ‘engineers’ (in other words, they shoveled dirt and carried things). They reported to racist, or at best, insensitive, white commanding officers.

Shockingly, despite the care and deference given to whites who wanted government approval to continue to treat blacks as subhuman, race riots regularly broke out.

It’s a small point in this much larger mess — and it’s one that could similarly be made about letting women serve — but I think it bears repeating that ‘deferring’ to people who are racist or sexist or antigay instead of protecting the rights of underprivileged minorities is always the argument conservatives make, and it’s always wrong. And in the case of DADT, it’s doubly wrong, since the majority of troops and Americans think the law was overdue for the trash heap.

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Filed under Politics, Race, Sexism