Thursday, May 18, 2006

Uncle Ruckus & Reparations Redux

HK Edgerton (Asheville, NC)

David Hammons, African American flag, 1990

Now see,

this is the kind of craziness that is haaaaaaaard on a sista.

First, I flip to Penn & Teller's Bullshit! on Reparations (don't trip, that's the name of the show) and who do I see but the Uncle Ruckus of Cultural Criticism, John McWhorter (insert name of his latest

tired diatribe

book here). It's not that I don't think McWhorter has some interesting things to say, particularly on linguistics and what they insist on calling 'Ebonics', and it's not that I'm surprised our clever and creepy hosts pulled him out of their back pockets, I'm just wondering why they sic'ed him on that po' brothaman Dr. Willis or whomever, rather than having McWhorter go head to head with Randall Robinson.

Could be that the producers actually asked Robinson to join the discussion, could be that he declined, but then again, having him rebutt McWhorter's predictable pandering would have been contrary to the point of the show, which is to make everyone who appears on it look as stupid as possible, no matter what views they express. And that ain't too hard, when you got folk like McWhorter gazing up into the rafters for no apparent reason, looking all bug-eyed and dazed, when I guess he was supposed to be looking deep and soulful? (And folk wonder why Uncle Ish is calling black journalists out....) Penn & Teller might have actually had to have some compelling discussion from several sides of the issue if they had done that, and well, that's not 'good TV.' What was 'good TV' is seeing that former NAACP president and mayoral candidate HK Edgerton, parading down Asheville, North Carolina's streets with a Confederate flag talkin' bout 'Southern Rights.'

Negro pleeeeeeeeeeeeeze.

Whatever point Edgerton was hoping to make got lost in the sensationalism around his Confederate costume and props. Watchin' him waving that flag, signifyin' (or coonin', depending on who you ask), reminded me of Dave Chappelle portraying a blind Klansman who didn't know he was black, 'cept Edgerton ain't funny. Well, when he was trying hit on folk while in Confederate drag, okay, that was a little funny--and, that was funny. Then today, I'm doing some research on contemporary African-American women playwrights, trying to sort out who in addition to Suzi Lori-Parks, Andrea Hairston, and Eisa Davis are using some of the tools of speculative fiction to tell their stories, when I follow a link to a review of Brian Copeland's Not a Genuine Black Man by Matthew Murray:

"We learn early on in Copeland's probing stage memoir, Not a Genuine Black Man, which just opened at the DR2 Theatre, that this is one black man who pronounces the word 'ask,' and he's quite proud of it, thank you. He's Catholic. He believes in personal responsibility. He rejects using double negatives in conversation and doing and dealing drugs. And, oh yes, he raises the three children he fathered - with their mother, the (white) woman he married."

Okay, so "using double negatives" is not only a sign that you lack "personal responsibility," but it is also as criminal as "doing and dealing drugs?" Ooh, I feel a story coming on...

Must I say it again?

Negro pleeeeeeeeeeeeeze.

Don't nobody buy that bulllllllll...

Unfortunately, quite a few people do. The unspoken assumption is this: if mo' blackfolk could just straighten their tongues right along with them naps, then we'd all be free. We'd overcome! Just learn how to speak you some Standard (American) English. Save that juba and jive for 'entertainment' and other acceptable public minstrelsy (that is, prime time television, that is the Oscars show, that is, that is...) These unspoken directives are part of McWhorter's (and others') theory on "The Pathology of Black Culture." Yeah, and that's Pathology with a capital 'P.' If we can just rid ourselves of them evil songs and tongues, then maybe, just maybe we might be able to talk ourselves right out of poverty and the ravages of racism. Later for country grammar, liberation is in conjugation.

Somebody say it with me....

Negro ple----

No, but seriously. One of the most interesting segments in the show was that on a Japanese woman who described how her family was imprisoned in 'Relocation Camps' during World War II. There was little doubt how much this experience humiliated and traumatized her as a young person, being forced to watch silently as her family and neighbors' lives were uprooted by suspicion and racism. One guest on the show tried to argue that once they proved their loyalty, these 120,000 Japanese internees were able to leave at will. But how does one prove your loyalty, and to those who are determined to see you as a spy and a traitor because of your ethnic heritage? We also learn that after they were 'released,' these American citizens were handed $25 on their way out, even though many of them returned home to find that they no longer had homes, or jobs, or any comforting vestiges of their former lives.

The other interesting moment in this episode was learning just how little of the billions of dollars generated by the largest Native American/First Nation-owned casinos is distributed in these communities. According to Penn & Teller's Bullshit, The Foxwoods multi-billion dollar casino empire, the largest in the nation, is shared by members of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation--all seven of them. Seven. Is this fo' fact or bs? The other big Tribal Nation-owned casinos are the Mystic Lake Casino, operated by the Shakopee Mdewakanton Dakota (Sioux) in Minneapolis, the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood, Florida, and the Cache Creek Casino owned by the Wintun Indians in California.

Now don't get me wrong. I actually like this series. It ain't the Daily Show or Michael Moore's The Awful Truth (remember when he had those tracheotomy victims caroling outside a tobacco company's headquarters?), but it's pretty good. The topics are generally provocative and highly controversial, and the editing gives our hosts some of the best one-liners and comebacks on cable, especially since we've seen all the Chappelle shows and The Boondocks are in reruns. One thing Penn & Teller said in this episode that I do agree with is that discussions such as these can never be this simple. There are far too many layers of assumptions and competing historical narratives for any significant insights or common ground to be found in a 30 minute show hosted by 'eccentric magicians with a psychotic twist' or in the drive-by rhetoric we normally resort to out of frustration and fear. Although most of Penn & Teller's shows don't answer as many questions as they raise, they do invite viewers to step outside their comfort zones and revisit a few long held 'truths,' even if you still feel like throwing a brick at your screen.

Check them out if you get a chance. Or better yet, forget their Bullshit! and do your own research. Here are a few resources for folk who may be interested in learning more about the reparations discussions on these shores and beyond:

JURIST Legal News & Research: Taking Reparations Seriously (April 26, 2006)

Congressman John Conyers, Jr.'s HR 40 Bill to Commission to Study Reparation Proposals

USA Today: President of Brown Seeks to Fuel Reparations Debate

Wachovia Apology Renews Reparations Debate

Japanese Internment in World War II article

Democracy Now! WWII Reparations: Japanese Internees
A Holocaust Reparations Settlement Makes Its Way to South Jersey
New York Times, January 24, 2006: "Within the next few weeks, Barbara Principe, a 73-year-old South Jersey woman who still lives near the chicken farm where she grew up, will begin receiving payments from millions of dollars in real estate in the former East Berlin. The land was lost to her family 67 years ago...."

Anthology: Should America Pay: Slavery and the Raging Debate on Reparations edited by Raymond Winbush

This site features a fuller bibliography or resources, including info on Native American and International reparations discussions.

Jill Robinson wrote "BLACKout," a speculative fiction story exploring reparations for Dark Matter, and she later read it during a Black History Month program at a prison upstate, one of the few facilities that still offers educational programs. The reading generated a lot of good discussion, but what struck me was how there were so many different perspectives on just what a reparations bill might look like and how it might impact the nation. It was one of the best conversations I'd heard on the subject, and I'd be curious to see how other creative writers have approached the issue over the years.

All Best,

PS - Is it just me, or is this stamp and the accompanying 'tours' just bizarre?