In July, 2008, I, Princess Rachella, Intrepid African American Girl International Journalism Consultant, pulled up stakes once again and headed to Nairobi, Kenya. Through my various adventures, I've concluded that if I get any MORE explosively fabulous in these prequel years to "THE BIG 5-0," I will have to register myself with the Pentagon as a thermonuclear incendiary device.
Monday, January 24, 2011
I could not believe what was I was reading last week when a friend sent a link to a story about his latest hijinks. Apparently, while Chinese President Hu Jintao was visiting the US recently, Lame-baugh thought it would be really funny to mock the way he speaks. He riffed about 17 seconds of standard-issue babbling, a la the 1930's Hollywood version of Chinese...I don't have to repeat it here, do I?
Apparently, all Asian languages sound the same to Rush, and so somewhere in that warped, swampy morass that passes for his skull, he decided to score some comedic points with the army of feral zombies devoted to his show. I'm still appalled thinking about the blatant disrespect, the unblinking, defiant lack of human decency that man embodies. And then I remember he was raised in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, at a time in American history when you could openly mock and harass and disrespect people of color, if they didn't stay in "their place," or if they spoke when they weren't spoken to.
Now, I'm not using this posting to malign "Cape" as it's most often referred to, because those days of segregation are long gone. Whenever I've gone back to the Midwest over the past decade or so, I've usually wound up going there, or to another town with a similar pedigree, Paducah, Kentucky. For Cairo residents, they are two of the closest locations for shopping or any semblance of city life. Black folks can pretty much go wherever they want in both towns these days.
Anyway, on the same morning I read about Rush's latest tomfoolery, I also saw the photo up top. Once again, America's Sassy Little Sweetheart, Sasha Obama, came to the rescue! Apparently, she's learning Chinese at Sidwell Friends School in Washington, and so she greeted him in his own language, politely and respectfully. Like somebody who was raised well. It was such a powerful reminder that no matter how many mansions he lives in, no matter how many ratings points he scores or how many young blonde trophy wives he marries, Rush Limbaugh will go to his grave as little more than a bellicose, belligerent pre-Civil Rights Era Cape Girardeau schoolboy craving the attention and admiration of the other creeps on the playground by making fun of people who are "different."
While Rush was uttering his gibberish, he said he can't understand how anybody can learn Asian languages. Thanks, Sasha, for providing one more piece of evidence that Rush Limbaugh has the mental agility of someone under the age of 9, and displays all the class and decorum of someone raised by wolves.
"I'm just sayin', dawg..."
Sunday, January 23, 2011
However, lest I be accused of harboring delusions of grandeur, all I really mean to say is that I am once again mesmerized by the geopolitical events on the African continent. Or I guess I should say I'm in a state of continuous astonishment. Within the past month, everyday, average Tunisians like the ones in this picture managed to literally dismantle the government, to end a brutally greedy and selfish regime that was draining their very life blood.
In fact, this picture was taken at the funeral of a young man who set himself on fire, after constant harassment by police took its toll. He was a college student trying to support himself and his family selling fruit, but officials kept confiscating his meager wares. The young man finally had enough, and chose an horrific way to end his frustration.
His grieving relatives may not be able to glean much satisfaction from the fact that his desperate act launched the overthrow of the government, but I'm hoping one day they will. As a survivor of suicide myself, I can attest that you spend the rest of your life trying to find a reason, or meaning, or justification for what your loved one did.
My God, what a way to make sense of a tragic loss. What a way for a nation to find its courage and connect with its internal might. What a sacrifice.
And now there are similar acts occurring in Egypt and Algeria. One day soon, I'll share my thoughts about why I don't think "People Power" will reach East Africa anytime soon.
Thursday, January 20, 2011
Part of the reason I'm smiling so widely is that since she just turned 47, it's a potent reminder that I am for the first time older than an American First Lady, yet have managed to remain in the above average percentile of the Smokin' category, just like Michelle. Not that I'm comparing myself to Michelle physically, mind you--especially not her Terminatrix biceps. It's just that when I look at this picture, it invokes so many powerful, empowering thoughts.
I guess the main one is that if I live on the African continent for another 20 years, I'll still be American, proudly and fiercely so. It wouldn't matter if I married a Kenyan man, adopted a Kenyan name, learned flawless Kiswahili, even got myself a Kenyan passport. I'd still have more in common with Michelle than most Kenyan women my age. I'd still be more myself with my sisters across the water. After nearly four years of living in East Africa, I may recognize some of the rhythms and embrace some of the patterns, but I've finally admitted to myself that I'll never really, truly belong in this culture.
That doesn't necessarily make me sad, but if I'm honest, I'm also not happy about it, either. As I've written before, I keep expecting that maybe one day, I'll land in an African nation and feel completely at home. But then, the older I get, the more I realize that home is about a hell of a lot more than geography.
Anyhoo, the next emotion this picture evokes is gratitude. I am about to turn 50, and I am still holding the line against Father Time. Oh, sure, fewer people guess my age to be in the early 30's than they used to...I'm lucky if I score a "38 or 39" anymore, and that's only if I got a good night's sleep. But this shot fairly SHOUTS that I am a 49 year old black American woman standing in the heart of downtown Nairobi, Kenya next to a picture of the first American First Lady of African descent, and I have lived long enough to revel in the fact that I am indeed older than said First Lady, yet most days I still feel like the whole damn world is my oyster!!!
That platitude expressed, I must admit that I am also writing this post while seated directly adjacent to a fan turned on high, because I've been gripped in the clutches of a weeks-long continuous thermonuclear hot flash. (Oh, don't act surprised that I've started back on that topic again!! You can't have been so naive as to think it was never going to come up again, dammit!)
Wednesday, January 12, 2011
Whenever people ask me what working at National Public Radio was like, I often respond with two very distinct impressions. First, it was and remains the smartest place I've ever worked. Nine out of 10 people in this building are smart. Extremely smart. Now, I might not have liked some of them for a whole constellation of reasons, but everybody, including the security guards sitting at the reception desk, was freakin' smart!
Seriously, though, what that means is that out of all the newsrooms I've worked in, I was never so surrounded by as many curious, inquisitive, intellectually rigorous people. You could sit in a meeting for a couple of hours at NPR just discussing the whys and wherefores of a particular story, and whether it was worth doing, and still come out feeling there was some territory left to explore, and with no final decision. But whenever that decision was made, you best believe it was the right one.
I started out at NPR in August 1998, working on the Science Desk. I have never worked with a more hilariously deranged group of people! And most of them had advanced university degrees! Talk about intimidation, at first anyway. But I was a seasoned newspaper reporter with a deep voice, and an interest in child well-being and health issues, and that's how I got the job. With my typical "can do" spirit, I jumped in with both feet. And I had a lot of fun working for NPR's Science Desk. Especially on Friday afternoons, when the impromptu bar was opened at somebody's cubicle.
But a few months after starting, I "heard through the grapevine" that one of my Science Desk colleagues was openly objecting to my presence there, because he felt I'd been hired for no other reason than my skin color. This was in the Fall of 1998. And this brings me to my second major impression of my experience at NPR:
It was one of the most stubbornly resistant cliques of white, middle-upper middle class privilege I have ever encountered. (Strap yourself in, y'all...remember, I done TOLE you 2011 is my year to say what I mean and mean what I say!) Now, let me parse that statement carefully, so as not to give the wrong impression. When I use the term "white, middle/upper middle class privilege," I do NOT mean to suggest that there is an overt pattern of racist exclusion, or formalized structures that result in people of color getting paid less or being openly ill-treated. Rather, the privilege I refer to is that the people who run NPR by and large reserve for themselves the inalienable right to interpret the world, and what is newsworthy, based on how THEY view it, and how people who look like them, sound like them, and live in their neighborhoods or similar ones, view the world.
Don't get me wrong: that world view is just as valid as any other. It's just limited. It isn't the same as mine, or the Latina living in the Bronx, or the Asian guy in San Francisco's Chinatown. So the question becomes, do you want to produce programming that sounds like, and appeals to, mostly people who look like you, sound like you, think like you, and experience the world through your lens, or do you want to broaden your range?
That's the question legions of people have asked about NPR through the years. People who love NPR ADORE it, and I'm not questioning the quality of its content. What I'm saying is that the people who have sampled NPR and rejected it, or who've heard about it but never looked into it, or who have never even heard of it, constitute a significant percentage of the populace. I'm not just basing that on skin color; millions of young people think NPR is for old people. Lots of rural folk think NPR is for snobby, citified elitists. People in various ethnic groups feel the programming has absolutely no content that reflects their experience.
The good news for NPR is that the die-hard core audience of people who adore the network is largely well-educated, affluent and influential. With demographics like that, who'd want to risk fiddling around with content? Well, funny you should ask that, because that brings me to the main reason I'm writing this blogpost--I recently learned that NPR's Senior Vice President for News, a woman named Ellen Weiss, "resigned" last week. In case you are among those people who aren't slavishly devoted to NPR, Ellen's gone because she was the person who fired a...ahem..."journalist" named Juan Williams for saying that he gets nervous whenever he's in an airport with people wearing Muslim garb. Oh, and he said it during his extracurricular commentator stint at the rabidly conservative Fox News Network. Oh, and one MORE thing...she fired him over the phone.
Now, I'm not gonna get into the whole rigamarole around the Juan Williams/NPR/Fox News shitstorm. You may have already deduced what I think about Juan Williams AND Fox News, based on that last paragraph. But I mention it because the way Ellen Weiss handled that incident does such a terrific job of summing up NPR's Diversity Strategy. First, in my association with the network, which consisted of part-and full-time stints off and on over a 9-year period, I saw very few attempts to "grow their own" when it came to internal efforts to change the culture and make its' sound and programming more diverse. Diversity was attempted by hiring a marquee-named person of color and then pointing to him or her and shouting, "See?? We are oh-so-diverse!"
For example, Tavis Smiley got hired, but his show was targeted to public radio stations with largely black audiences. I don't believe it was ever carried on the main network. When he didn't work out, along comes Ed Gordon, formerly of BET. He eventually exited stage left. Journalist and commentator Farai Chideya landed a gig, but her show got axed last year. Two marquee names remain--Michelle Martin of "Tell Me More," and Michelle Norris, a co-anchor of "All Things Considered."
(If I were a complete cynic, I'd even read something into THOSE hires. "Make sure your two black female stars have the same first name, so you'll never be accused of thinking they all look alike." But then, I'm not a complete cynic...much.)
You might say at this point that the fact that I was hired contradicts that point, but then I'd reply with the bottom line reality that for my entire time as a reporter with the network, I was told my voice just didn't make the grade. Literally everywhere else in the Universe I travel, people comment on my rich vocal timbre, but at NPR it was rubbish. Now, I know that just because a person has a deep voice doesn't necessarily make them broadcast material, and I also admit that it took me years to relax and try to be conversational in my delivery. But that's not what they were saying.
My voice was not a fit at NPR because it has too much bass in it. Too much African bass. I don't sound like Mara Liasson, or Jennifer Ludden, or Andrea Seabrook. Or like anyone who lives near, or looks like, the people who run NPR. And in their minds, that would be an affront to the core audience. It doesn't fit into the NPR signature sound.
Again, I am not suggesting racist intent here, and I need to make that clear. Other than the one or two folks who resented me being there early on, I never experienced overt racism while working at NPR. Ever. But as someone commented on the National Association of Black Journalists blog following Ellen Weiss's departure, it's as if NPR simply just doesn't know what to DO with people of color! All those brilliant intellects become flummoxed at the prospect of including a different worldview at the table. Which led to the Public Relations DEBACLE of the Juan Williams firing, which any 9 year old who's watched enough TV could have advised Ellen that you probably should give the guy, like, a warning first, or at least have him come in for, like, a meeting before you fire him, because, like, he's black, and, like, kinda famous, right? And, like, there are very few black people in your office and, like, you don't wanna make people think you don't like black people, do you????
But in what was just the latest in a series of ham-fisted moves involving employees of color, Ellen just simply didn't know what to do about the "Juan Problem," and chose the most expedient way of removing it. After all, she had lots of other important things on her plate. See, you have to understand a bit about a woman like Ellen. She's about my age, but graduated from Smith College (which incidentally, I received a financial aid package offer from back in the Stone Age, but realized I didn't want to go to an all girls' school, and couldn't afford it anyway. And then promptly decided to go to Northwestern University, which I also couldn't afford. Go figure.)
Ellen started working at NPR as an intern straight out of college, and I'm betting she intended to retire from there 10 or 15 years from now. And even those people who may be somewhere humming "Ding, dong the Witch is dead..." right about now would concede there are few more single-minded, totally focused, hard-working and driven people on the face of the Earth than Ellen Weiss. They would laud her perseverance, and the fact that she achieved the goal she articulated when she started, to one day run the whole kit and caboodle.
But they would also say that the same single-minded focus was what may have ultimately contributed to her downfall. Ellen Weiss spent so much energy creating a signature philosophy and sound and culture and ethos at NPR, that there was no time or energy left to consider how it might be shaped to reflect the larger society. Recognizing and acknowledging the need for people who don't look like you, or live near you, or sound like you to be a part of the mix would divert that focus. Staffing that newsroom with said people would require you to move outside of your interpersonal comfort zone, to maybe consider programming content that holds absolutely no interest to you. In other words, becoming the Big Kahuna at NPR was more about Ellen Weiss's personal goal and vision instead of creating a more inclusive newsroom and product, in my opinion. That's fine, I suppose, but once again, her departure proves that mindset quite frequently has a expiration date.
Bottom line: When there are half as many people of color in NPR's Newsroom as there are in NPR's Mailroom, or in the IT Department, I'll believe they're getting serious about diversity. Period.
Did I forget to mention here that I LOVE NPR?? And that I have many friends who are still there, and that I have a deep and abiding reservoir of respect for the work that is produced there? That said, I also remember being on assignment once in Atlanta, and having a black public official tell me that while she listened to NPR all the time, she couldn't help noticing the dearth of black voices on the network. For some reason I had a bit of the Devil in me that day, and I shared with her that in some circles (namely, my brain), NPR stood for, "Negro, PLEASE Run! Don't walk outta there, RUN!"
That woman laughed for a good 10 minutes straight! I bet she's still telling people what I said, especially lately. Thing is, these days, when I think of all the wasted potential and bad press and glacial efforts at diversity at NPR, I find I derive "No Pleasure, Really."
Sunday, January 9, 2011
Saturday, January 8, 2011
Friday, January 7, 2011
Now, my number one New Year's Resolution for 2011 is to reclaim my voice. To say what I mean and mean what I say. I expect those of you who may have followed this blog over the past few years might be a bit confused, because I certainly haven't been a shrinking violet about my life, fears, neuroses and challenges. (And if I was having sex, I wouldn't hesitate to talk about that, either.) But for a lot of reasons, I've kept most of my opinions about life on the African continent to myself.
Now, Miss Eloise didn't raise no fool, so don't expect me to go rogue, or anything. I mean, I'm well aware that I could get the knock on the door in the middle of the night, or have the wheels on my taxi shot out before being dragged off somewhere, if I started getting too opinionated. After all, I am a visitor on foreign soil, and a female one at that. These Kenyan dudes don't play that, 'yo? So, tempered with all the love and respect I can offer, what I wanna say at this particular moment in time is,
"Africa must wake up, the sleeping sons of Jacob. For what tomorrow may bring, may a better day come, Yesterday we were kings, can you tell me young ones -- Who are we today? "
Actually, I stole those words from one of my favorite albums of recent years, "Distant Relatives" by Nas and Damien Marley. There's so much wisdom on that joint, it's almost like food. It's from two Diaspora brothers and their artistic colleagues who, in my opinion, absolutely nailed the demons plaguing the African continent. Tribalism, greed, poverty, every lyric tells the story. Just like the picture above.
It reminds me of some the criticisms of Black America during the Civil Rights Era Riots. In every major American city, whenever some injustice against black folks went down, we starting burning and looting our own shit. Wasn't no riotin' in Beverly Hills; we just burned down Compton, and shook our fists at the TV cameras. Oh sure, there was a lot of positive activism, and lots of "insider" political and intellectual advocacy, but much of what led the news was the brick throwing and flames.
As a kid, I didn't get it, and 40 years later, watching scenes of rioting and looting and shouting at the Al Jazeera and CNN cameras, I still don't get it. Because when I watch these mostly young, male, "ain't got a pot to piss in, nor a window to throw it out of" Africans shouting threats and taunts in support of some guy who's barricaded inside a palace using cutlery that costs more than what that same young man will make in an ENTIRE YEAR, I wind up concluding that kid THINKS he's awake! He thinks he's doing something, making a statement, taking a stand. He thinks he's expressing power and might, especially when that guy in the mansion hands him the equivalent of five US dollars and a machete and tells him to go kill the "enemy."
That young man, who has been stripped of every other type of legitimate power, or identity, or even basic human dignity due to outrageous and obscene squalor and deprivation, feels mighty when the lens is pointed at him. But he is in a deep coma. He is a puppet dangling on the end of a string held by a man who's 3 times his age and has nothing but utter contempt for him. A man who wouldn't even stop to help if his presidential motorcade accidentally knocked him down. An old man who has drained the coffers and the lifeblood of their mutual homeland, and views him with the same disgust as a sewer rat, could not give a f--k whether he and everybody like him died of starvation tomorrow as long as his own children get to live in palatial splendor, and he gets his medical care in Geneva.
THAT'S what Nas and Damien Marley mean in those lyrics. Young and old, male and female, the majority of people living in unquiet desperation on the African continent need to wake up. "Wake the F--K up!!!" I wouldn't even pretend to suggest I know who should be running things where I am, or in Cote D'Ivoire, or in any of the 52 African countries. But as a brown-skinned woman who lived through a tumultuous era where people like me came out on the other side with some basic measure of rights, I can tell you that things will never change as long as people allow the few to so cruelly exploit the many.
And they'll never change while you're walking around with your eyes wide shut.
Saturday, January 1, 2011
by Jenny Joseph
WHEN I AM AN OLD WOMAN I SHALL WEAR PURPLE
With a red hat which doesn't go, and doesn't suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals, and say we've no money for butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I'm tired
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
And run my stick along the public railings
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick the flowers in other people's gardens
And learn to spit
You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat
And eat three pounds of sausages at a go
Or only bread and pickle for a week
And hoard pens and pencils and beermats and things in boxes
But now we must have clothes that keep us dry
And pay our rent and not swear in the street
And set a good example for the children.
We must have friends to dinner and read the papers.
But maybe I ought to practice a little now?
So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised
When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.
Taken from the book
When I Am An Old Woman I Shall Wear Purple
Editd by Sandra Martz
Papier Mache Press--Watsonville, California 1987