Sunday, January 31, 2010

Better Be Good! Black History Mumf 2010 is Here!

A message from your friendly neighborhood Odienator: For the third year in a row, I have hijacked this blog. Fear not: the only explosive in my underwear is the stick of dynamite God gave me. So don’t bother calling the authorities. They’ll tell you I’m light-skinned and have no Negro dialect unless I want to, then they’ll hang up on you. Sit up straight and look presentable. It’s Black History Mumf again. If you’re unfamiliar with the game, start with 2008’s entries here.

All we need is a voluntary, free-spirited, open-ended program of procreative racial deconstruction. Everybody just gotta keep fuckin' everybody 'til they're all the same color.” –Warren Beatty, Bulworth

My life ain't heaven
but it sure ain't hell.
I'm not on top
but I call it swell
if I'm able to work
and get paid right
and have the luck to be Black
on a Saturday night.
-Maya Angelou, Weekend Glory

I remember my first encounter with the U.S. Census. I was 10. I retrieved the Scantron-like form from the mailbox and I read it. Years of the California Achievement Test addicted me to bubbling in circles with a No. 2 pencil, so I was itching to fill it out. I brought it to my Mom, No. 2 pencil in hand, junkie smile on face, itching to start scribbling in circles. “The Census came!” I eagerly told her. “Can I fill it out, Mom?”

“Throw that shit away,” she said.

“But why?” I asked. “The commercial says the gov’ment needs us to fill it out!”

“The Government needs to mind its damn business,” my Mom replied without even looking up from changing my brother’s diaper. “Do as I say before I beat your ass with a switch.”

Secretly, I kept it, bubbling in circles and hiding it under my bed like porn. Some time later, the gov’ment sent a Census taker to our house. I answered the door to find a prim and proper looking White woman with a clipboard. I thought she was a welfare case worker. Our next door neighbors were on assistance, and they shared our last name, so on occasion the gov’ment came to our place instead of their desired location. “You want next door,” I told her, and started to close the door.

“Young man, is your mother home?” she asked me. “Who are you?” I asked. “I’m a Census taker,” she said proudly. “I would like to ask a few questions to the adult in the house.”

“Who is it, Odell?” my mother yelled from upstairs. “It’s the Census lady!” I yelled back.

My Mom came barreling downstairs, holding my brother’s diaper in one hand. Pushing me away from the door, she faced the Census worker. “Yes?” she asked in her all-business voice.

The Census worker went down her litany of questions. My Mom refused to answer all but one question.

Census Taker: How many people live here?
Mom: No comment.
Census Taker: What is the household income?
Mom: That’s none of your business, Miss!
Census Taker: How would you identify your family’s ethnicity?
Mom: We’re Black.

I remembered this story after reading the big to-do about this year’s Census choices for race. Seems that some folks (and y’all know who y’all are) listened to some shysters with Reverend in their names and are up in arms over the Census’ use of the word “Negro” as part of the designation for we people darker than blue. Rather than lecture my people about breaking our addiction to trusting people with Reverend in their names (unless it’s Dr. King, JUST SAY NO folks!) I’m going to ask a rather pointed question:

Is Negro the new N-word?

Let the question simmer a moment. Readers of Black History Mumf know I use the term Negro a fair amount here. I went through the entire series, and the term I used least is African-American. I usually say Black, which is how I identify myself. My mother used it to identify herself and us. My grandmother on my stepdad’s side called herself “cullud” until the day she died. Some of the young bruvas I mentor call themselves “African-American.” So who’s right? And does it really matter which term one uses to self-classify?

Sometimes I feel like Black people are the only race with built in PR and aliases, like we’re all walking wanted posters from the Post Office wall. “Odienator: Black, aliases Negro, African-American, Colored…” Every few years, we’re something new, and I just don’t get it. Neither does Smokey Robinson, whose Def Poetry Jam poem is the definitive word on the subject.

You have to go back seven generations of my family to find somebody who actually had African soil in their rusty butt, so I don’t know if I’ve even earned the distinction of the prefix of a continent to which I unfortunately have never been. After all, the NAACP hasn’t changed its name to the N-double-A-double-A-P. It’s probably because changing stationery is expensive, or perhaps it’s because we know what the NAACP stands for, and it doesn’t need a PR name change to be effective. BET is still BET, because if it turned into AAET, it would sound like a place for alcoholic aliens. And Black History Mumf will be Black History Mumf so long as I’m helming it.

Truthfully, I don’t think most Black people care what our brethren call themselves; we have much bigger problems to deal with out here. The whole Census rigmarole struck me as ridiculous. It’s not as if they were asking us to check the box next to “Jungle Bunny, Coon and Porch Monkey.” I would have no problem checking the box next to “Black, African-American, Negro,” that is, if I were actually going to fill out the Census. My Mom would kill me if I did.

But HOLD THE PHONE! This just in, chicks and dudes! We’re STILL in post-racial America! Census race questions shouldn’t matter anymore, because we’re all White now. Isn’t that what post-racial means? It damn sure feels like it. Suddenly, it’s unpopular to be proud of your own culture as part of a bigger narrative of your being an American. Why? To me, what makes us different is what most fascinates, and sharing that knowledge brings us even closer. I love hearing personal stories from my friends of different races because it helps me understand them even more. The highlight of my friendship with my friend of Dutch heritage, the moment that brought us closer than ever before, was when he told me that his grandfather told stories about getting his ass beaten with a thin wooden rod whose Dutch name sounded like the word “switch.” Who would have thought both his grandfather and I both were sent to get switches when we did wrong?

Chris Matthews said that during Obama’s speech, he forgot that Obama was Black. Was he listening to the State of the Union on the radio? Was he watching a black and white TV? Did he have racial amnesia brought on by bad caviar? Regardless, I blame Obama. He needed to scream out “MMMM! FRIIIIIIED CHICKEN!” in the middle of the speech, or light up a Newport and call the GOP a buncha muthafuckas. That would have reminded Matthews! Of course, Matthews threw out those code words “post-racial America” to justify what he said, which proves to me that being “post-racial” means automatically assuming that everybody has the majority’s race, skills and characteristics. Whether intended or not, Matthews’ quote came out as the standard “you speak so well for a Black man!” I know Matthews loves him some Obama--didn't he say a prior Obama speech sent a warm feeling up his leg--but still.

Post-racial America is bullshit dreamed up by a marketing department that should be executed with extreme prejudice. Who decided I didn’t want to be Black anymore? Give me their address so I can go kick the shit out of them. It’s not like I can forget anyway. Even if I didn’t have a mirror, Fox News pundits and the right-wing fringe groups won’t let me forget.

The bottom line is this: Be proud of who you are. If you’re six different things, mark them all on the Census form. If you don’t see the term that identifies you, draw another bubble and add it. Blow up the gov’ment’s Scantron machine! Obama’s gotta mark two boxes if he avoids the “One Drop Rule,” so if it’s good enough for the Prez, it’s good enough for you. A post-racial America is just as absurd as a post-gender America. Imagine that! Women would no longer be allowed to identify as women. Oprah would be bankrupt as shit, and Lifetime would merge with Spike TV. Lifetime movies starring Dana White from UFC! Do you want that?

I am proud to be American, but you know what else? I like being Black too. And even if I didn’t, Blackness, like prostitution, advertises itself. All you have to do is look to see it. It’s going to be a long time before Bulworth’s suggestion comes true, and I guarantee you the end result’s going to look more like me than David Duke.

I hope this is enough to justify having a Black History Mumf this year, and if it isn’t, too fucking bad. I’m here and I’ll be here the next 28 days, reflecting on life through the movies and TV that gave us images of African-Americans, Negroes, Colored People and Blacks. As I’ve said the past two years, this is not a scholarly discussion. I am not politically correct. I use profanity. I don’t care if I offend you, and I probably will. The N-word will appear here, and I don’t mean Negro (whose appearance is a given), but always in the negative context it deserves. And the person I am meanest to in these pieces is Black. No, not Diana Ross. I’m talking about me.

The Mumf is open to everybody. You don’t need to be the owner of a nappy head to appreciate it. In fact, if you have a tender kitchen or crispy, burnt ears from a straightening comb, this stuff is old hat for you. The ultimate goal is and has been to reminisce with those who look like me, and reveal things to those who do not. Granted, this is more Odienator History Mumf than anything else, but being Black automatically makes me part of that experience, so my history is Black History too.

Creep with me through my neighborhood.

Thursday, January 14, 2010


Big Media Vandalism's action hero, Odienator, is on his way home from a year of globe-trotting and many hair-raising lookeehere moments, ready to give us a third round of Black History Mumf.

To be honest, after Black History Mumf 2009, I wasn't sure we'd be able to run another one. After all, Obama had been elected, and we were suddenly living in post-racial times. We'd look mighty old-fashioned, publishing essays related to something that no longer exists, namely Blackness.

Thankfully, as 2009 staggered along, the Lunatic Right stepped up to reassure us that we ain't in no post-racial nuthin. If anything, America has now entered the Hyperracial Era. Obama's race, and the potential deadly alliances and inconsistencies it may encourage, has kept millions of conscientious Americans up late at night with anxiety. With a leftist negro firmly at the helm, how long til we smash headlong into the iceberg?

So thank you, Lunatic Right, for keeping the menace
concept of Blackness alive-- and Odienator in business for years to come.

As he has since 2008, Odie will be posting one article for each day of Black History Month, loaded with history, insight, drama, wit, pop perspicacity and eleven herbs and spices. You'd be a fool not to dig in.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

From 2006: "Down here at the foot of the skyscraper, we hardly see anything coming."

by Steven Boone

Readers of this blog have no idea that there was once a Big Media Vandalism book. In early 2006, my girlfriend at the time wanted to beef up her portfolio by designing a book cover, so she asked me if I had any material. All I had were my stupid blog and some stray reviews, so I handed them over. She formatted it all for standard paperback printing and sent it to Cafe Press, along with her design, which I thought captured the spirit of BMV perfectly. No ISBN, no Amazon. We sold four copies--to ourselves-- and did no promotional nuthin. Good, clean fun.

Four years later, as I contemplate leaving New York for good thanks to El Jefe Bloomberg's ongoing po' folks fumigation program, the inroduction I wrote for the BMV book comes back to me in all its naive intransigence.

Here's some of that intro, written when the recession and Obama were still in the bleak/bright future:

Kiss the Sky

The photo on the cover of this book struck me as quite appropriate for the themes and concerns herein. A corporate fortress of glass and steel marred by a square of average-Joe plywood. But the real thrill of this picture is that it was composed from down on the street. Such an establishing shot is the opposite of the bird’s-eye cityscapes seen on everything from Trump’s The Apprentice to the opening of every third urban romantic comedy. Hitchcock used the omniscient God’s-p.ov. shot to signify our infernal helplessness. Nowadays, the helicopter flyby mostly represents the preferred view of the frequent flyer class. The sky is no longer a site of terror or God’s wrath—even after 9/11. Well, not consciously, anyway. What’s truly terrifying, and inadmissible in a society trying to outrun terror itself, is failure. Failure is never quite visible from such lofty heights.

A news show apparently taped on Cloud City, CNN’s The Situation Room often does a Millennium Falcon lightspeed jump across continents to catch up with fast-breaking stories, assuring us that no place under America’s vast dominions is ever out of reach or out of control. Even the recent Biblical cataclysms, bloody social unrest and, of course, relentless terrorist attacks are ours to package and resell.  The skies and above are where we wrest control of the weather, space, time and fate from God.

If you’ve managed to read this far without rolling your eyes, I’d better let you in on who’s offering these middlebrow musings. I’m an American who’s more likely to take his snapshots from down on the street than from up in the sky. I’m an African-American, or whatever we’re called these days. So when I refer to Americans or the United States as “we,” I’m actually indulging a bit of poetic license. Most black folks I know view America’s imperial actions as “their” business—“they” being “the white folks who run this country, always have, always will.” Poor minorities who take too much of an interest in America’s bloody power plays and head games are seen as foolish, self-destructive, crazy. Present.

Blacks by and large are too busy stumbling out of the rubble of the post-Civil Rights era (in which every formidable progressive leader was bought, jailed or destroyed and a chemical weapon called crack decimated whole communities) to resist much of anything beside the urge to sleep.

Down here at the foot of the skyscraper, we hardly see anything coming.

My reason for writing this book, and the blog that it is based on, is to hold up to the light what we do see from down here, media-wise, culture-wise. I also hope to shed some light on what the big media companies don’t see, or see but refuse to share with the rest of us. They have their reasons. Jonathan Rosenbaum has a great book (Movie Wars) about how the major studios like to hide good movies from us while casting the impression that there isn’t much good stuff out there, which, of course, clears the decks for their own horrible art-trocities. My book and blog are less about how corporations self-censor than what they censor, and why.

Even though DVD and the internet have made it hard to keep a good film down, Chris Rock’s 2005 Oscar® telecast gave the lie to supposed digital-age pluralism. In a man-on-the-street skit, he asked several black moviegoers to name their favorite film of 2004. An overwhelming majority named The Chronicles of Riddick, a gawdawful sci-fi flick that had been advertised so heavily on TV and radio that year, a record number of ’04 newborns named Riddick wouldn’t come as a surprise. Rock’s aim was to show how out of touch the Academy was with the viewing public, but what stung worse was the sense that we are being prodded to feast upon the cinematic equivalent of chit’lins.

As for what the big media won’t show:

I don’t know one poor American who isn’t working like a field hand, round the clock, to better himself. And few work harder than those on the welfare rolls, counting food stamp credits, applying for Section 8 housing. Everyone I know is in school while working at least two jobs—or an improvised job-and-side-hustle combo. (I call myself a writer, but to the IRS and the Bank of NY, I am a security guard at a homeless shelter. Writing is my side hustle.)

Of course, I’m speaking mainly of poor folks living in major coastal cities, where gentrification is politely waving bayonets at our backs. For those of us stragglers not ready or unwilling to embark upon the Second Exodus—back to the South, where wages can pay for both food and shelter—every minute spent lingering in New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco… is fraught with suspense. How will we make it? Will we make it? But for us, the exodus is more like a forced march, so staying put is our half-assed idea of civil disobedience.

I worked in my city for ten years, mostly for media companies, in offices, studios and editing rooms overwhelmingly peopled with educated white folks. I rode the subway back to my struggling neighborhood each day. All the contrasts and ironies you’d expect, but also this: Every American thinks he’s middle class.

Turns out that the relatively affluent white kids I worked alongside imagined themselves as products of the average American household. Never mind that many of their parents were six-figure professionals in publishing, politics, the arts—even Texas oil. A wealthy commercial director I once worked for used to gripe about bills and the ostentatious “rich folks” he saw in the gossip pages. It was his way of bonding with his assistants, but I could tell that, in his mind, it wasn’t an act.

Back home, folks living in housing projects or renting studio apartments in the roughest parts of town also imagine themselves as middle class pillars of the community. The late model Lexus, the satellite dish perched on the fire escape, the designer wardrobe all attest to this belief. They may be living paycheck to paycheck with little or no savings, but they have all the right possessions as proof of membership.

Politicians stare into the TV cameras to flatter and commiserate with the supposedly long-suffering “middle class” so much, who can blame the poor or the rich for wanting to be down?

It took working in the bowels and on the fringes of the image industries to make me see this fractured reality in all its terrible beauty. The subway ride home was always a return trip through the Wardrobe.

The essays in this book are adapted from my online blog, and as such are about as well organized as a street fight. They are predominantly about my favorite subject, movies. The films covered are far ranging and not particularly unified in theme, style, author or topicality, but the essays all come from the same place, the ground floor.

Why “vandalism”? I’m not a graffiti aficionado, but I like the idea of outlaw expression as much as I despise arbitrary notions of refinement, professionalism and responsibility in art. When I tell folks that I intend to continue making self-financed films and writing self-published commentary even if I stumble across some commercial success, they all give me that look. “I thought the whole idea of doing an independent film was sorta like how you play for the minor leagues until the majors call.” Well, for a lot of folks, it is like that.  The TV show Project Greenlight and Hollywood’s self-representation in general help solidify this impression.

On Greenlight, a couple of bland movie stars and some hack filmmakers mentored wannabes in the craft of filmmaking. Trouble was, they didn’t do as much mentoring as scolding and flaunting their own relative professionalism. Like most reality TV, the show trafficked in humiliation: The eager-to-please, eager-to-fit-in fledgling directors often made fools of themselves trying to come off as hard-boiled and uncompromising as they thought big-time filmmakers needed to be. In return, their mentors rolled their eyes, tapped their watches and delivered sotto voce ultimatums.

The purpose of public relations presentations like Project Greenlight is clear: To discourage the notion that filmmaking is something anyone with a little spare change and talent can do; to perpetuate the 20th century concept of the art form as an aristocratic pursuit. In the age of cheap digital media tools and affordable DVD duplication, this notion is beyond absurd. There are a lot of small-town mavericks out there who don’t buy it, but the public at large still trusts The Chronicles of Riddick over Pi, Primer or Tarnation.

In any case, making media without any binding relationship with the major media conglomerates—at the production, distribution or marketing stage—is supposed to be quixotic, mastubatory, suicidal. The truth is that many people are self-distributing their music, books, films and reportage at a decent profit. They’ll never net what Time Warner or Conde Nast can guarantee, but their creations are theirs, wholly. For some of us, that beats a Maybach.

Individuals free to express themselves in any medium without having to negotiate a brushstroke with some accountant—this is the new vandalism. Simply rejecting the standard Faustian arrangement (journalists trading truth for access, artists swapping personal vision for high production values and prime venues) that globalized McWorld is so certain you’re desperate enough to accept... knocks out a window in that perfect skyscraper.

That other world those anti-globalization protesters keep saying is possible... ain’t possible until enough of us find ways to get our media creations in front of the people without assistance from powers whose only intention is to assimilate, censor and reconstitute these works as disposable product.

The technology is here—has been here for a minute now.

The gun is in your hand. Why turn it on yourself?