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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Aftershocks and the Super-Absorbant Human Psyche

It struck me yesterday, after logging several hours watching the wall-to-wall news coverage of the earthquake and reading Facebook and Twitter, that events, such as these, pack multiple impacts. While we all breathed a collective sigh of relief that no one died, after the shaking stopped, the business of living took over. Local newscasts interviewed families displaced from structurally suspect high rise apartment buildings. Hastily handwritten signs posted on the buildings' front entrances banned tenants from entering and retrieving their personal belongings. So these people sat outside, making temporary homes in the building parking lot, with nothing but the clothes on their back. They wondered where they would spend the night, but it was OK. Friends and family recounted their tales of survival in cramped Metro trains and in bumper-to-bumper traffic, but it was OK. By this morning, my coffee house posse were busy trading "where were you" stories - one guy was having his colonoscopy when all hell broke loose - ouch!! These stories, though, all shared the same punchline: at least we're OK. And that's the point, isn't it?

At some point, we're OK. The one thing that I am sure about when it comes to human beings is that we can take a punch! We can absorb an awful lot. One of my friends posted to her Facebook page that since arriving in Washington, DC, she's survived the DC sniper, blizzards, 9/11, and now this. It may not be the stuff of a Convention and Visitors Bureau advertisement, but she makes a great point. It's like that old Broadway song from Follies, "I'm Still Here" where the singer chalks up a lifetime of highs and lows to one significant, unshakable truth, that no matter what's happened, she's still here! And so am I. The pictures on my wall may be crooked, and the spices in my kitchen cabinets may have been tossed around, and I may have to incorporate yet another thing to fear into my lexicon of daily living, but I'm still here and that's life, I'm just saying:)

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Did You Feel the Earth Move??: I'm Just Saying's First Earthquake

Almost three hours ago, I and several million of my now closest friends, experienced a 5.8 magnitude earthquake. And you know what? I didn't like it at all. I was in a parking lot in Washington, DC, about to head home. I'd put the key in the ignition and was set to pull off when a sudden, and violent shuddering began. Now, as the owner of a late-model Jeep in severe need of strut work, I had confused the earth's trembling with the last gasps of my car.

The shaking soon stopped and I headed home, and as I sped down the highway, I heard my Blackberry chime as new text messages were being delivered. I thought nothing of it, and kept on towards home, but with a short stop at the Panera. And that's when I saw a sight that was a bit confusing - hundreds of workers gathered on the sidewalks outside of the office building that sits adjacent to the Panera. I thought maybe there'd been a bomb threat - these things happen sometimes - and all I could think was, "damn! I hope I can get my Greek salad before the whole plaza's evacuated". And that's when I thought, maybe, it'd be a good idea to look at those text messages, and whatdayouknow?? My husband had texted me about the earthquake. Now, I knew I wasn't getting my Greek salad!!

The next few minutes were an exercise in frustration. Frustration that I couldn't make a call or send a text message from my Verizon Blackberry to my husband and family. Frustration that now my husband, loyal AT&T customer that he is, will have permanent bragging rights. Frustration that I wasn't going to get my lunch! But hey, there at least is one bright spot and it's this: I was able to send and receive messages with my mobile Facebook and Twitter applications. Woo-hoo!

This was my very first earthquake, and while the sensation of being tossed around on land was foreign to me, sadly, this combo-pack feeling of vulnerability/fear/confusion is very familiar.  This is the post-9/11 world, after all. On that September day, as rumors of attacks, fatalities, blackouts and curfews flowed, and as public officials and news media struggled to tell the public what to do, thousands decided to forgo the waiting and head home, clogging Metro platforms and the streets and highways around Washington, DC. Today's been no different and while I type this, images of a jammed 395, 495, and 95 are playing on the local newscast. I guess Dorothy was right - there's no place like home!

And that's where I am now - home. Safe, right now, and attempting to comfort my freaked-out house cat without resorting to a Valium. Tonight, I'll turn off the news (and they're frequent references to Haiti and Christ Church, New Zealand), and drink a glass of wine with my husband with a new-found respect for my West Coast brothers and sisters. And, maybe I'll sit down with a good book, or, better yet, my homeowner's  insurance policy! I'm just saying:)

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Why I Hate "The Help"

Well, it's finally here, a day that will live in infamy, the day that the motion picture adaptation of Kathryn Stockett's insufferable novel, "The Help", is released. As you might have guessed from this first sentence, as well as from the title of today's blog, I am not a fan of "The Help." I hate it and my hatred of it began on the Merritt Parkway, somewhere around Trumbull, Connecticut. My husband and I were on our way to visit family, and the local NPR station was airing an interview with one Kathryn Stockett, author a brand new novel that was causing a stir. The NYC-based Stockett had loosely based this period piece on the black maids who had worked for her Mississippi family and her family's friends. The NPR reporter went to great lengths describing the blond and beautiful Stockett, and, within the first 5 seconds of hearing Stockett herself, I gleaned that she shared this opinion.

The story of "The Help" is a memory tale, told from the perspective of the character, Skeeter, a young, white southern girl at a crossroads in her life - follow the traditional path of other southern white women towards marriage and family or embark on a new path as a writer. Helping Skeeter along the way is her black maid, Aibileen, who shows Skeeter the painful world of black domestic workers in the Jim Crow south. The novel's subject matter isn't all that earth-shattering as other, less commercially successful works of fiction and nonfiction have described the exploitation of blacks employed as domestic servants. But, Stockett's little ole book was making waves, mostly due to the author's decision to employ vernacular for the black characters. Stockett admitted that this particular choice had generated a great deal of consternation among publishers as she shopped the book around, but she defended her use of it as an authentic characterization, and then, it happened - she began to read passages from her book, complete with the "you is" and the "yes'ums." Are you kidding me??!! It was like audible black face! Stockett's little Minstrel show went on for what seemed forever and by its conclusion I was in full stew and had resolved to never read that book.

Until last summer, when I was asked to take part in a discussion of the book. My grandmother had worked as a maid for a white family and when I was in college, a black woman named Mrs. Proctor, cleaned our Honors' Program dormitory. Add to that that the fact that I'm a black woman and you've hit the trifecta! I read the book in one day, forcing it down in big gulps, meeting Skeeter and Hilly and Minny and Celia and, of course, the Magical Negro of Aibileen. Those first blossoms of hatred that bloomed on the Merritt had now become a bumper crop! My anger wasn't just because of Stockett's use of vernacular, or because this white woman was attempting to describe the interior lives of these black women, or because all of the novel's characters - black and white - were so one-dimensional. No, my anger was why this tale, so lacking in profundity, was garnering so much attention and racing off of bookstore shelves.  Why the hell were so many people reading this hot mess of a book??

I got some answers at the book discussion, which was attended by sixty or so black and white people from multiple generations and regions of the U.S. There were some people who, like Stockett, grew up in the south with beloved black servants. For them, "The Help" conjured up rich memories of happy times with people whom they considered members of their family. But, there were also black and white discussion group members for whom the system of black servitude was foreign. For this group, Stockett's heroic tome of friendship across the great race divide was inspiring. I came away from the event irritated, as I seemed to be the only person whose anger was directed towards the author and her shallow, self-congratulatory attempt to talk about racism. Here we are, a country with a President who is black and white, but yet the only way we can discuss race relations is to flee back to the ample bosom of the black mammy!!??

Right now, London is on fire with the worst race riots its seen in decades, and on the eve of the dedication of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s monument on the National Mall, the racist chatter against the President is at an all time high. Now is not the time to smugly slap ourselves on the back and say that we have overcome prejudice, if anything, it's time to go deeper. I'm just saying.


Monday, August 8, 2011

Confessions of the "Cool Black Friend"

This week, several of my friends are packing up the U-Hauls and minivans for the long, bittersweet journey to the college campuses where they will leave their children. There, these children will begin their own journeys, discovering the mysteries of laundry, and negotiating with a slightly slutty roommate about curbing certain "activities" when you're in the room. My freshman year of college was the beginning of a long journey for me. My school was a small southern college set on a charming parcel that looked like it had been plucked from a Hollywood movie. The center of campus life was a brick plaza area, in the middle of which was a fountain. Ringed around the courtyard were the campus center, the administrative building, and the three main dormitories, one of which would be my freshman home. As my parents and I finished our load-in of all of my things, we sat down on the front steps of the dorm. This was the first time they had ever said good-bye to one of their children, the first time that a child of theirs would be sleeping 100 miles from them, and they were this confusing mass of worried and proud. Would I eat right? Would I wake up in time for class? Would I know what to do if I got sick? Would I lock my doors? I laughed off their worries and I hugged them and I sent them on their way. But they were right to be worried.

In all of their checklists of things for me, the one thing we never talked about was the fact that my small, southern college, with a student body just under 1,100, was predominantly white and that I was one of only a dozen or so African-American students on campus.  At first, it wasn't so strange, especially when you added in all of the other strangeness of college life, like eating strange food, living in a strange place, and learning strange new things. But soon I came to the uncomfortable realization that my blackness was strange to a lot of people.

First, there were the questions from the girls on my floor in the dorm - questions about the texture of my hair, and just what does a relaxer do?? Do black people tan?? Do you get sunburned?? Why do you put baby oil on your face after you shower?

Then came the questions from the boys, usually shouted drunkenly at me during fraternity parties - You know how to dance, right?? Why's your booty so round?? And other questions of a more prurient and insulting nature.

Even my professors got in on it, asking for my informed (black) opinion on the slave trade, inner city poverty, and Jim Crow.

I never knew how Black I was until I was in the company of so many white people! So much so that my Blackness became strange even to me.

I began to dissect myself, and to view myself from the perspective of my white classmates. Looking at yourself from the outside-in is as unnerving as it sounds, especially when you're a seventeen year old who's still trying to figure out who you are.  I began to craft a new narrative for myself, one that would address my strangeness with a light-hearted flare. Like Cleavon Little in "Blazing Saddles", I would take the sting out of racism and, instead, make a joke. I learned a new vocabulary and new cultural references. I could spot the difference between Laura Ashley and a cheap knockoff at 20 paces and I knew the names of all of the members of R.E.M. I could tell Shannen Doharty from Tori Spelling and I knew that when the Lambda Chi boys put on Rob Base' "It Takes Two" that my job was to burn up the dance floors with the Running Man. I became the Cool Black Friend who didn't judge you when you needed an opinion on whether or not a joke was racist.  I became the VIP at the fraternity house that, prior to my arrival on campus, had been sanctioned for holding mock slave auctions of their pledges and watermelon eating contests on their front lawn.

With every trip home, I measured just how alien my own skin felt to me, until I was no longer at ease at home or at school. I never felt so alone in all of my life. I had truly become untethered from myself, disembodied and strange. Looking back now, more than 20 years later, I'm not sure which surprises me more: how I survived it or why I endured it!

In my days since college, the Cool Black Friend has slowly faded into the background, but she's not totally out of my life. There are moments when I call upon her, like when someone addresses me as "girlfriend!" or attempts to cloak their racist sentiments about my Black President in partisan political speak. But I've found that my Cool Black Friend simply doesn't want to be bothered anymore and I can't blame her.  It has been a long, bittersweet journey, but that's what life and growing up are. After twisting myself inside and out, I know who I am...I'm just saying.

Friday, August 5, 2011

The End of the Church Ladies??!!

This week, churchgoers were almost tossed off of our pews with the release of a new study on church attendance. It appears the church is experiencing woman problems. And no, I'm not talking about bloating and fatigue!! Actually, maybe it is fatigue because apparently women are spending less time in church.

Let me explain. Researchers from the California-based Barna Group surveyed 1,000 random people in 1991 as a part of its multi-part State of the Church series. The survey questioned interviewees on a handful of core religious behaviors: attendance at a church service in any given week; weekly Sunday school attendance; volunteering at a church; Bible reading; and labeling oneself a "Christian." Twenty years later, researchers repeated the survey, randomly selecting 1,600 people, and this week, the results were released. Here are some of the highlights:
  • Attendance at a church service in a given week? 47% (that's down 9 percentage points since 1991)
  • Adults attending Sunday school? 18% (down 8 percentage points since 1991)
  • Volunteering at church? 22% (the 1991 figure was 30%)
  • Bible reading? 46% (1991 figure? 51%)
  • Do you label yourselves"Christian"? Well, 31% of you who do haven't attended a church service in the last 6 months (a.k.a., the "unchurched").
For women who took the survey, the results are a bit more troubling. The percentage of women attending a church service in a given week has gone down by 11 percentage points since 1991. There's also been a 17% increase in the number of women joining the "unchurched" ranks. Women are also doing less volunteering, Sunday school, and Bible reading in 2011 than we did in 1991. So what gives? What do these numbers mean? Do these numbers reflect what's really going on in our churches?

Growing up, my worship life was dominated by lay women volunteers who were affectionately dubbed church ladies. These were the women who decorated the altar, polished the communion chalices, and produced the Sunday bulletin. They organized the Friday night bingo games and the annual all-parish crab feast and they knew how to make the coffee for the Sunday coffee hour. They attended Sunday church services religiously (yes, pun intended:) and they knew every parishioner by name. In my current church, women hold key leadership positions and on any given Sunday, women are in the pulpit and in the pews. Women volunteer as Sunday school teachers and choir members. We make meals for the hungry and collect clothing for the needy; we attend Bible study and committee meetings; we serve as vestry members and ordained ministers, and we still know how to work that urn for the coffee hour. On the surface, it doesn't look like much has changed, but take a closer look and you start to see hairline fractures all over the place.

To begin with, let's think about the life cycle of a woman in the church. In generations past, women went straight from their parents' house to their husband's house, and church was not only a spiritual refuge but a social outlet. For these young ladies in their early twenties, their involvement in the church gave them their first leadership roles. As their families grew, these women took on even more active roles in the church, and when their children were old enough to leave the nest, these women became the backbone of the church, taking the mantel from their elders.

But that life cycle has changed for women in the church. For starters, a lot of us moved from our parents' house and into our own home before we married. And while we were on our own, some of us opted for careers. A lot of us married in our early 30s, and some of us didn't marry at all.  Some of us had children and left the professional workforce, while some became working moms. For those of us who became moms in our late 30s and early 40s, we're hit with the double whammy of caring for our small children and for our aging parents. All of these cultural developments have, over time, dramatically changed the way we women live out our faith, but this doesn't mean that our churches have kept pace.

Yes, there are churches that have amazing Sunday school and youth programs, but what is there for single, professional women or women struggling with infertility? Sure, your church might have lots of committees that do amazing community service, but if I'm a working mom with 2 kids on traveling basketball teams, then I'm more inclined to attack that overflowing pile of laundry than attend a 90-minute outreach committee meeting on a weeknight. And don't get me started on the alienation that women in the midst of marital separation and divorce feel at the hands of their churches.

So, does this mean the end of the Church Ladies?? Maybe it is, but it may also be the beginning of Church Ladies 2.0. Maybe it's time to let go of who women used to be and embrace who we are. I'm just saying:)