Friday, September 15, 2017

Warning: This blog may be offensive to anyone with a closed mind #whotellsourstories




“Have you seen Boomerang?” She says.

I am at my desk.  The old coffee maker in the break room behind me wheezes out the first few streams of water through the dark roast grind that I’ve just measured into the large, white, paper filter.  The smells lights up the office like a Christmas tree.  As if in a trance, our boss, Mr. Waterman, crosses from his office into the break room with his Panasonic Camera coffee mug clutched in his hands.

“Morning ladies,” he says, barely turning to glance at us.

Anna pulls off her oatmeal colored, fisherman’s sweater over her head, adjusting her black, satin headband afterward.  Her fine, shoulder-length blond hair sticks up in the air at all angles, making her look like a slightly deranged Alice in Wonderland.

Static cling! Just like the Bounce ad…

“You’ve got to see it because the entire cast is Black,” she continues.  “I mean everyone is Black – EVERYONE.  It’s an ad agency, right?  And the receptionist is Black, the security guards are Black, the mailroom guys are Black, the executives are Black! There are no White people at all!"

Her voice tilts up when she says this, as if she’s astounded by this fact and is anxious for me to share in her astonishment.  I grit my teeth hard as my heart pounds in my chest.  My fingertips start to tingle from the rush of adrenalin shooting through my veins.

Here we go…

My friends and I had all seen Boomerang several times already.  We laughed and howled at Eddie Murphy’s reaction to Lela Rochon’s “hammer toes.” We chortled when Eartha Kitt did her seduction dance, reluctantly admired Robin Givens' cutthroat instincts and rooted for Halle Berry to win Eddie’s heart. This was one of just a handful of movies that any of us had ever seen that was written, produced and directed solely by Black people. Boomerang was an amazing, unique experience for us.  And it was NOT an experience that I wanted to share with little miss "Anna in Wonderland," even if I could.

“I’ve seen it,” I say evenly, bracing myself for whatever stupid thing was going to come out of her mouth next.

Please don’t say something that’s going to make me hate you.

“I said to Rolf, this is must be what’s its like for Laura when she go to the movies.  Rolf pointed out that most movies have all White casts except for roles, like gardeners, maids and criminals.  Isn’t that horrible?  I can’t believe that I’d never noticed that until I saw a movie with an all Black cast!  Have you ever noticed that?”

Have I ever notice that?!  Have I ever noticed that?!!

When I was little, my picture books were filled with lovely White families, my textbooks told the stories of how White people conquered lands and invented things.  My teachers, who gave me all of this information, had all been White. The news anchors I watched in the morning were White, every face that graced the cover of any tabloid magazine that I bought was White, movie stars were White, and all of my favorite television stars were White.

I have a hazy memory of being a little taller than our kitchen table and hearing one of my parent’s friends speaking to my mom in angry whispers.  She was outraged that nearly ten year's earlier, Elizabeth Taylor had been cast as Cleopatra.

“What’s wrong?” I wondered out loud.  “Why are you so angry?”

“We finally had have one of our stories told,” she said turning toward me with ferocity in her voice.  “The story of an Egyptian queen!  But instead of casting one of our beautiful sisters in that role, they cast her.  Egypt is in Africa, Laura.  Elizabeth Taylor is White.”

“Ohhh…”

But the truth is that White actors have long been cast to play non-White roles.  Two years after Cleopatra, Laurence Olivier would be cast as Othello the Moor, three year’s previous, and Natalie Wood danced in to our hearts as Maria in Westside Story.  And there’s always my mother’s least favorite; the casting of Mickey Rooney as the offensive Chinese neighbor in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

And it didn’t stop in the 60's.  Just in the past few years, Johnny Depp was cast as Tonto; Angelina Jolie was selected to play Marian Pearl, (the lead) in A Mighty Heart. There was the all white cast of “The Last Airbender,” and don’t get me started on Joseph Fiennes as Michael Jackson (you really wanna be startin’ something?)

But Anna didn’t know that she had tripped over such a cultural land mine.  She had no idea why Boomerang was SO important to Black people.  She didn’t know or understand the tsunami of backlash that Brian Grazer and Reginald Hudlin had withstood in order to produce and direct a movie with a Black director and an all Black cast in 1992.

But I understood.  In fact, everyone that I knew understood.  Everyone I knew stood in line to see it the night that it opened in theaters.

“Yes,” I say crisply.  “I have noticed that.  Everyone who looks like me has noticed that...”


Who tells our stories?


“Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melach Ha’Olam….”

Miles, Justin and I make three circles with our hands over the flames of the two candles before covering our eyes.  I watch as four-year-old Miles peeks over at his little brother through his sturdy, brown fingers.

“Ahhh-haa-main!”

I sing the closing note by myself as both Miles and Justin begin to wrestle over a Sponge Bob bath toy.

How did that even get down here?

I close my eyes for a moment and take a deep breath, before grinning widely at each of them.

“Holla’ if you want chocolate chip challah!”

Sponge Bob falls to the ground as they both squeal and climb over to where I’m standing.  I rip two handfuls of the soft, fresh challah bread off of the beautiful, braided, egg-wash-shiny loaf and hand them each one before buttering a piece for myself.

This is the most delicious bread ever.  It’s not even bread! It's more like cake!

I loved Shabbat.  I did not covert when I married Brian (for a variety of personal reasons), but I love the stories of Judaism.  When I first became part of Brian’s large, Brooklyn born, Jewish family, I felt overwhelmed by all of the new things I had to learn.  New names, personalities, foods, traditions -- but once I heard and began to learn the stories of Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Shabbat, Sukkot, Hanukah and others, I had found my vehicle into their faith.  I didn’t have to "be one to know one".  I could carry the stories too.

These are people who had been separated from their homes, their communities, their families and their places of worship.  These are people who under penalty of death (or worse) continued to tell the stories of their ancestors.  Some of them literally died so that their stories — their history could live on and never be forgotten.  And now, I’m a part of that.

I would often find myself welling up during each Friday night ceremony, while holding a squirming Miles or Justin on my lap.

All around the world at sundown on Friday evening, Jews are doing the exact thing that we are doing right now -- passing along their stories to the next generation. In this way, while the adults tell and relive these stories, the children are connected to something bigger than them.

But there would always be a moment during Shabbat where I would kiss their curly heads and wipe off their small, brown faces and wonder:

But where are our stories of Black Americans?  Were those stories snatched from us as we were stolen from our mothers and fathers?  Did those beautiful oral histories die on the coasts of Ghana and Senegal with those beautiful oral-historians?  And how will my children ever really connect to this history and culture.  How will they know everything that they are?

African-Americans and Jewish people have a lot in common.  We were both enslaved people.  We are both persecuted people.  We are both people who have survived horrific holocausts.  Globally, we all remember the Jewish holocaust.  The Jews have made sure that it is something that we will “never, ever forget.”

I admire this.  I am envious of this.  But this also saddens me.

Because, I can’t help then but wonder, where are the stories of these beautiful brown people who built the country in which we all now live?  Who speaks for the enslaved Africans who were systematically separated from their families, their language and their history?


Who Tells Our Stories?




I was fourteen years old when I first heard Rapper’s Delight.  My friend, Monica patiently taught me all of the words so that she and I could rap along with the little black and gold transistor radio she always brought with her on the F bus. Normally, I sat in the front of the bus, right across from the driver.  But when I rode with Monica back and forth to San Francisco for acting class that entire summer of 1979, we sat all of the way in the back, hunched over her radio, reciting the words over and over like an incantation.

“Now what you hear is not a test…”

Suddenly I was a part of something.  A movement.  A revolution.  Hip-Hop was being birthed in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Harlem and had made it’s way across the country to us in California.  It changed everything about how we Black people saw ourselves forever.  And I had never felt more a "part of something" in my entire life.

I've had several friends over the years who have expressed shock when I reveal that I am (in my own words) a "hip-hop-head."

The conversation usually goes something like this:

Them: Really?  You like that RAP MUSIC?  Oh, I can't listen to that!

Me:  Oh, I love it.  It's the music I grew up on.  Have you ever really listened to it?

Them:  Well, as much as I could!  It's all Bit@# this and Fu%$ that.  Its all anti-female and pro violence.  How can someone like you listen to that?

Me: (someone like me?) Yes, true.  SOME of the lyrics are misogynistic, and some of them promote violence, but these young men and women are using their art, their craft, to tell the us about their world, which unfortunately does include elements of misogyny, fear, violence and prejudice.  But if you dismiss it all as violent noise, then you are missing the richness of the message that is being felt and received by young Black men and women throughout America and the world.  With hip-hop, Black people have a culture that WE created and that WANTS US.  It may be one of the only places that these young men and women can ever really belong and connect.

Them: Hmm.  I never thought about it like that...


Public Enemy’s Chuck D once said famously that, “Rap is Black America’s CNN.”

I love(d) Public Enemy.  I loved the brashness with which they conveyed the message of a fed-up, angry, oppressed, marginalized people.  To me, rap music was and is beautiful, thrilling, compelling.  To me, it is spoken word poetry, raw and abrasive, yet honest and moving. And most importantly, to me, it tells a story -- our story.

But now, circa 2017, Chuck D's words ring truer than ever.  For it is through rap music or more importantly, hip-hop culture that my sons are learning who they are.  It is through this musical revolution that they are able to connect and learn the stories of other people who look like them.

Poets like, Tupac, Biggie, Childish Gambino, Tyler The Creator and Chance the Rapper, give voice to the experience of what it feels like to a Black American.  Hip-hop's verses explain to young people that they are members of a race that has not only survived, but thrived in spite of the many unspeakable atrocities that have been waged against us.  It is through hip-hop music and culture, that Miles and Justin have learned to reject the notion that they are inferior because they do not see their faces on “those” award show stages or in “those” films or television programs.

Hip-hop is music, but it also clothing, television, movies, food and independent films.  Hip-hop is a collective of young men and women, vibing, cooking, eating, dancing, thriving and head-bouncing to the drum beats that came over with our ancestors.  Hip-hop is more than just "rap music."  Hip-hop is powerful and alive.  It is as connecting and kinetic as anything else that I’ve ever been a part of or witnessed.  It is not only important for the education of our young men and women —  it is vital.  Through it, we are learning our stories.


Who Tells Our Stories?





“I see now why they put Black people in chains!”

My friend has called me after exiting a showing of Hamilton.  I can hear the rush of enthusiasm in her voice.

“You loved it?” My voice is just short of a shriek.  I jump up and down a bit in place and smile widely.  I want to revel with her in how amazing Hamilton is.  “I knew you would love it!”

“Oh Laura!! Look at what we can do!!” she continues.   “I mean really!  Look at what BLACK PEOPLE can do!!  That show was a triumph.  How can any show ever compare to what I just witnessed?! I’ve been ruined forever!”

“I’m with you.  I’ll never be the same again.  Scottie and I have seen it twice and it has literally changed our lives.”

*  *  *

The next day in the ocean, Scottie is explaining to two other surfers (who had seen his Hamilton Facebook post) what the big deal it is.

“It tells the story of Alexander Hamilton, you know the guy who created the treasury.  The one on the ten dollar bill.”

“I know who he is,” says one of them dryly.

“Oh, okay,” says Scottie.  “But the cool thing is that Hamilton is the most successful Broadway plays in history.  Hamilton has set and broken more records that any other stage show of any kind.”

“It’s that great, huh?” says the other one.  “Wow.”

“The really great thing,” says Scott.  “Is that the cast is almost exclusively NON WHITE.  In fact, Alexander Hamilton is Black,” Scottie laughs.  “George Washington is Black!  Can you believe it!?  It’s fantastic.”

“I don’t get it,” says one moving his wet hair out of his eyes.  “What do you mean?  Black people play Hamilton and Washington?”

“Exactly!” Says Scottie.  “And the crazy thing is it’s all hip-hop.  You would think it might be hard to follow or understand, but it wasn’t at all.  It blew me away.  My girlfriend calls it a ‘hip-hopera’.  The choreography was amazing too."

Both the men are silent for moment.

“I don’t get it,” says the other one finally.  "Why would they cast a Black guy as Hamilton?"

Scottie senses now that he is not being received in the manner that he intended.  He feels himself getting frustrated.

“Look, it's not just me who thinks its great. Again, it’s made THE MOST money of any show in history.  Nearly a million people have seen it already -- some paying upwards of three thousand dollars per seat!  The reason its great is because they're telling a story of probably the Whitest people in history -- our founding fathers.  And they while they deliberately cast actors of color, they were also just looking for real talent.  And boy did they find it! Some of the actors are Black, some are Latino, a couple are White, but after you get used to it, nothing gets lost in the translation.  You are absolutely invested in this story!”

The surfers look at each other. One of them refuses to look at Scott.  Scottie looks at both of them with incredulous eyes.

“You really just have to see it," he says again.

“Yeah, maybe,” says one as he paddles away.  “I’m not really into rap music, though...”


*  *  *

"Some people will never get it, Hon."

Scottie and I are eating dinner in our kitchen later on that night.

"They're pretty nice guys," he says shaking his head.  "But it was almost like they didn't want to get it."

"Most people don't want their minds expanded, Hon.  People don't like change.  That's what happened last November.  All those people voted to restore America to 'what it used to be.' They didn't want the change that happened during the Obama years.  But more than that, I think people just don't like change — period."

"Its fu*#in'  frustrating," he says.

"I know," I say getting up and crossing to sit down next to him.

"But you know what, Hon?   Those guys are in the minority now.  People LOVE this show.  Hamilton will live on as the most successful musical  -- ever."

Scottie is silent for a moment, then speaks again, shaking his head in disbelief.

"Its like some people just can't let go of their old idea of America long enough to see what is actually really happening right now," he says finally.   "Hamilton blurs the lines of color and race.  It reminded me of Miles's graduation this year."

"I know!" I smile.   "That graduation was crazy!  All of the faces were different colors, different races, different shades.  I was stunned. I've never been so proud."

"Right," Scottie nodded.  "Until that graduation, I had never, in real life, seen a truer representation of what America really looks like NOW.  And that's what's up with Hamilton!  Hamilton is an American play.  It isn't a 'White play' and it isn't just a 'Black play' either. Hamilton is what's really happening right now --  we are more diverse than ever.  And that's why some people are so scared.  But for me, I say it's about time."





Open correctional gates in high deserts
Yeah, open our minds as we cast away oppression
Yeah, open the streets and watch our beliefs
And when they carve my name inside the concrete
I pray it forever reads
Freedom


 Kendrick Lamar


Justin, Jeremiah and Miles at the Museum of African American History and Culture 2017











14 comments:

  1. As always Laura I learn so much from you. You have a beautiful way of expressing how you feel about your life experiences. How you became Laura and I love and admire the way you live your life.

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    1. Thank you so much, Frank. I look forward to your comments every week. You are just the sweetest! I appreciate you.

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  2. This is your best entry yet! I love this. You told me once that you're trying to bring a fresh view to others (on the board). I've learned more from your blogs than anything in my life. And that's said by someone who goes to Haiti twice a year. I, as a Jew was relating to much of what you were saying AND THEN you brought them together. I knew I loved you. I see now why. Keep it up! Much love & gratitude Jill

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    1. Jill! Thank you so much for they validation! I just love you and have always admired how insistently you are of service to those about you. These are big compliments coming from you. Thank you again.

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  3. PS. I saw HAMILTON twice. My whole family loved it! I'm going to see it again!

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  4. It's incredible the way you articulate your not only your feelings and ideas but also your questions. You always ask yourself and those around you, and those who read you, the next important question. I am a Sri Lankan, Catholic who married a mix European Jewish boy; we both grew up in and our raising our 3 kids in the valley. Cultural events like Hamilton will be part of our kids' stories. Hamilton isn't just the story of our founding fathers, it's a representation of the only America our children know. Thank you, as always, for your voice.

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    1. Yes! Thank you, Rehani. I love your family mixture - so beautiful! Thank you, as always for your eloquent comments. I appreciate you, girl.

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  5. laura,

    unfortunately it has been quite a while since I was able to read one of your magnificent pieces, this one just went BOOM !!! Your writing is so eloquent and descriptive, revealing and telling, awakening and educational, tender and intimate, yet most of all.......heartfelt, as though you are sitting in front of me just sharing your thoughts.....I'm honored to read such tremendously informed writing, thoughtful and timely. You are telling the stories, you are sharing the history, interwoven with the present. I adore you and find you more compelling each time I read one of your posts....thank you for daring to be heard, to be seen, to reach out and touch us....and help bring about much needed dialogue and information.....may your words spread around the world, encircling all who read them with your wisdom and thoughtful loving voice.....xoxo

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    1. Wow! Lauren, thank you so, so much. Your comment took my breath away (it was so well written and expressive!). I needed to hear everything that you said, so again, thank you. And thank you for the encouragement. Xx, Laura

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  6. We'll put Laura, I can totally relate to your perspective on America.I haven't seen Hamilton yet but Have heard so much about it and will try to see it, I also can relate to your perspective on Hip hop in America and how it has a huge global following.As a former dancer of the 80's I really appreciated and respected the Hip hop music genre. I felt it empowered African Americans as well as anyone else outside of the Diaspora with an open mind, perspective and who shows empathy towards poetry put to music which is what I like to call it.. great post!

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    1. Thanks so much Heather! Yes, please try to see Hamilton. Like my friend, Leah said, "It is a triumph!" (she's British). But yes, you and I were right there together in the early 80's when this was born! Thank you for commenting, girl. I really appreciate it and great to hear from you!

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  7. Loved Boomerang! and so many of the other black movies of the 90's! I understand Scottie's frustration. His perspective, as well as mine, is different than most white people will ever understand or that can be explained.
    Also, sharing the experience of seeing Hamilton with my daughter is something I will never forget!
    Love 'your story'!

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    1. Didn't we see Boomerang together? I feel like we must have (especially since I've always considered you to be one of my Black friends - ha!). Thank you for commenting, Fran. I appreciate you...Xo

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  8. I was going to say I thought we saw it together! Lol. Love that.

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