Is “This is America” the Modern “Invisible Man”?

“Shake him, shake him, you cannot break him For he’s Sambo, the dancing, Sambo, the prancing, Sambo, the entrancing, Sambo Boogie Woogie paper doll.” (Invisible Man by Harlan Ellison)


First, backstory:

There was one black boy in my elementary school. His parents came, at the invitation of my kindly first-grade teacher (who was also black), and taught us about Kwanza. It seemed marvelous; they had full costumes, the lighting of candles, eating of special foods, and there were stories. The whole thing seemed magical, and I was deeply impressed with my classmate, and that he got to participate in this incredible celebration.

Later, we had a visiting storyteller come by and tell us Anansi stories. The storyteller also wore the colorful South African-inspired clothes and had black skin, and that was fascinating, but I was focused on Anansi. She invited class involvement, and I was picked to play Tiger, a role I took deeply seriously. Tiger was strong, and fierce, and angry, but Anansi was clever, and trapped Tiger in a hole. This storytelling lesson inspired me to read many more Anansi stories as I got older, too. Anansi was clever, if not always kind, and he was an inspiration, how smart could beat strong.

While my school, over time, was minority-majority, there were very few black people; the main minority in my area was Hispanic. I learned about Crispus Attucks, Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, Jr., read Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Huckleberry Finn and was troubled that these people, locked tight up in history books, resigned to the past, had been hurt, but proud that they had struggled and won, had finally been proven how right they were. The history was done; it was written down, final. Black people were free. I didn’t need to worry about it anymore.

I grew up thinking we were in a truly post-racial society; racism didn’t happen to me, or in my range of vision, so that meant it was done and gone.

I shake my head at my naiveite now. It’s embarrassing that I ever believed the world was so pure, that I was so insulated that I didn’t know I was insulated.

The scales of privilege didn’t start to fall from my eyes until I read Invisible Man by Harlan Ellison in high school. It shook me, deeply. I was very troubled that this man would be treated so unjustly in so many ways, again and again, based on the color of his skin. But still I didn’t connect that it was not just a history book, that it was a fact of life for real people living at that very moment. I asked my reading group, “What can we do? How can we, as people, fix this?”

I wanted to patch things up, tuck it nicely back into the history books. My classmate said, “I don’t think we can. All we can do is try.”

So, all that is to say: I know I’m not the audience for Childish Gambino’s This is America. I’ve seen some commentary that white people shouldn’t try to dissect and comment on the music video but “listen and learn.” And maybe that is true. I am trying, do try, to listen and learn. I admit my privilege and my shortcomings, but I also can’t help but react to the music video. It’s powerful, and it resonates. And all I can do is try.


Soaked with Symbolism

Maybe the first reason Childish Gambino’s music video reminds me of Harlan Ellison’s novel is because it shook me the same way. Neither experience—reading the book or watching the video—feels good. In fact, it’s revolting; I want to draw away from it. But at the same time, it echoes in my mind long after I’ve interacted with it. There’s an inherent push-pull, where I want to swim in the content more, but also hate how it makes me feel, hate the mirror it holds to the world.

Second, both are steeped with symbolism. Buzzfeed tries to break down some of it; even Forbes has chimed in with the dance-move call-outs. It all happens so fast it’s impossible to take in in one viewing.

But I haven’t seen anyone, yet, say that the music video has parts of Invisible Man in it.

Go read the book (or at least the plot summary). There’s too much for me to break down briefly, but the basics: It’s a symbolic, unusually-styled book about an unnamed black man and the many (many) ways he is abused by society, both writ large and personally. It is both subtle and not in its use of symbolism (the narrator, at one point, works for a company that sells white paint… paint so white it will get anything white – the way it’s meant to be, it’s implied).

At the time of first reading, I had to ask a teacher about the dancing Sambo doll in Invisible Man. From context, I knew it was racist somehow and some kind of mockery, but I didn’t know the cultural weight of it. Sambo was a word for a person of mixed (black plus anything else) ancestry. It’s a name that shows up all over the place for black characters and African Americans as a whole.

But the Sambo doll had more layers. The doll pranced and jived and looked happy for all the (white) children and doll-purchasers. It is based entirely on stereotypes and yet is seemingly innocent fun. It was the entire minstrel movement shrunk down and commoditized; you, too, children, can play with a Sambo of your very own! (The package instruction–“easy to work!”–also strikes me as insidious double-messaging.)

In the book, it’s repulsive that a black former activist has resorted to selling these racist dolls—it’s a repudiation of his prior interaction with the narrator and a meta-commentary on society as a whole. It makes the reader question: is the seller mocking the white people, for being so stupid as to think Sambo is a reflection of reality? Is the seller mocking the other blacks, for their participation in the system? Is he just out for money by playing on stereotypes? Has he betrayed the other blacks he used to work with?

Which gets me back to Childish Gambino: is he a living Sambo doll in the music video?

He dances with jerky movements (like a puppet doll might). He distracts the (white?) audience from all the chaos going on behind him. He smiles and japes like a minstrel act, while representing something deeper and more tragic. “Look at these great dance moves,” Gambino seems to say, “you don’t need to care about anything else. This is the only kind of black person you want to see, audience, so here I am, performing my tricks for you. You are so stupid you won’t see anything else.”

Are Gambino, and the dancing school children with him, a reflection of the commoditization of black bodies, black culture, the way the Sambo dolls are in the book? Is Donald Glover/Childish Gambino the rich sellout Sambo-dancing his way to the American public, tricking us white idiots into swallowing the message we don’t want to see?

Invisible Man ends with the character on the run, chased by both one of his black former friends and an angry crowd. The book ends in darkness, counterbalancing the electric lights of the beginning. This is America ends similarly, the fear etched in Childish Gambino’s eyes as the people who ignored him, looked past him, didn’t see him, finally do—and want to kill him for it.

 

Advertisements

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Ways Real Life is Like Video Games

I’ve already explored the ways real life lets a video gamer down, but sometimes, it holds up…

Real life can be like video games in that:

  • It’s dangerous to go alone
  • You are the hero of your own story
  • Even seemingly inconsequential moments can have a dramatic effect on your “story”
  • Everyone else seems like an NPC
  • Sometimes the NPCs seem to be controlled by really bad writing
  • Friendships and deep relationships resonate and sometimes make you cry
  • Your group of friends each has a unique skill set that contributes to your collective victory
  • Sometimes you don’t want to skip the cut scene; you want to languish in every second of it
  • You think about it at night when you’re supposed to be asleep
  • Multitasking is an important life skill
  • There are some really incredible views
  • People are generally kind and helpful as you work toward your quest/goal
  • Sometimes there are bad things in the world; it’s your job to make the world a little better
  • Grinding for money to buy things really sucks
  • There’s something really powerful about collecting the produce from your very own garden
  • Some people prefer to snipe from a distance while others tackle a fight head-on
  • You’ve got to put on your armor before you face your day
  • It’s really great when you get a pet
  • We’re constantly trying to save our place but also want to keep going with the storyline
  • It’s easy to get distracted by someone else’s playthrough
  • It can feel like you’re a lab rat in a cruel experiment where the evil robot is increasingly trying to murder you in clever ways
  • It can take awhile to explore the whole map
  • It’s a bad idea to mess with Ghandi
  • It has repetitive moments and some parts you just have to grind through in order to level up
  • Your level and the amount of gold you have can make a big difference in how the world treats you
  • Even small things can count toward your achievements
  • Collecting things, even silly things, can be a lot of fun
  • There’s someone who will like what you like, if you explore enough of the world
  • The princess may be in another castle, but that doesn’t mean you should stop trying to fight the big bosses

Leave a comment

Filed under video games

Review: Do I Make Myself Clear?

Do I Make Myself Clear? Why Writing Well MattersDo I Make Myself Clear? Why Writing Well Matters by Harold Evans
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Questions for Mr. Evans’ editor:
1) How intimidating was it to edit a book about quality writing? That must have been a great deal of pressure! The horror, had you let slip an errant comma! So I’m sure you paid quite close attention to the book. Which leads me to ask…

2) How hard was it to deal with someone so pugnacious that he collected, for years, sentenced he found abhorrent solely so he could one day combine them into a book to tell people they were so very wrong? I get it, they are good examples to illustrate his points. I am just guessing at the type of person Evans must be to have that kind of intensity.

3) can you explain to me why you would let Evans write a book about writing—presumably targeted to those who don’t write and/or read well—with such high-minded jargon? I mean, I’m a pretty consistent reader, and I’m a writer and editor—what I’m saying is I know words, and yet the “expensive” 10-dollar words Evans used caused even me to pause. If I didn’t read it easily, how could you expect the non writer to breeze through that horrible introduction?

4) How did you ever let the man publish so much political dreck? Honestly, it’s a problem. If he had wanted to write a book about politics and his opinions, he should have done so. But he didn’t. He wrote about writing, and I wanted to read about writing, so why is so much of the book NOT about writing?
Think of it this way: if you pay for a basketweaving class, would you get annoyed if the teacher spent most of the class droning on about how much he hates a particular pizza joint? Of course you would! That’s not why you’re there and he’s wasting your time.
See, editor, I think easily a third of this book is unnecessary political sniping. I want that shorter book, not this one.

That’s why I had to bail on this book. I can’t even tell if there is good advice in it. There very well may be, but it’s not really a book about writing. It’s a book about one man’s snobbishness, vanity, and dislike for the current political situation. It’s bloated and… well, not particularly clear.

View all my reviews

Leave a comment

Filed under Reading, Reviews, writing

Thoughts on Pepper Potts and Why She Needs to Stop Being a Nag

Warning: Mild Avengers: Infinity War spoilers from the first 15 minutes of the movie. Scroll past Pepper and Tony when you’re ready.

 

Avengers photo from http://therealstanlee.com

 

Maybe it’s just because the trailer for Incredibles II came right before our showing of Avengers, but one thing in the movie really struck me wrong–the way women, primarily Pepper Potts, harass their (stronger, super-er, more impressive) boyfriends/fiances/love interests.

Pepper Potts is by far the worst offender. When we first see Tony and Pepper,  Tony is going on about wanting to have a baby with Pepper. She tsks him away, pointing to the arc reactor on his chest and asking him when he is going to stop.  When a wizard opens a magic portal in Central Park and insists Tony Stark has to go somewhere right now to save the world, Pepper’s first thought is to tell Tony not to go. When Tony misses their dinner reservation because he is off doing some super-heroism, Pepper is nagging away on the phone as Tony cringes in sadness as the signal fades out.

But why? Why hasn’t Pepper accepted that this urge to protect the world is just part of who Tony is? She has been with him the longest. She has risen in the movies from employee to CEO of Stark Industries, been rescued and worn the suit. Iron Man is an integral part of Tony’s life. How can she claim to love Tony if she can’t accept that this is part of who he is?

Sure, she doesn’t have to like it. And I get the writers threw in that call as a heartstring-tugging moment to let Tony be a bigger, more impressive, more self-sacrificing hero. But come on, Pepper. You’ve got a lot going for you. If you didn’t like this part of Tony, you could have left.

This is my same problem with the Incredibles‘s Frozone. Yes, that “I am the greatest good” line is pretty funny, but I’m really disappointed to see it continued in the newest movie (at least, according to the trailers). It bothers me, a lot, that Frozone and Mrs. Frozone (who we never even see on screen!) can’t sit down like reasonable adults and talk this out. Why can’t he be sitting down to dinner, and then the wife looks out the window, sees the giant attacking robot before Frozone does, and hurries to help him get dressed? Why can’t she insist he move faster before that robot destroys her azaleas? Why can’t she be supportive of his activities outside the house?

What I would like to see out of at least some female supporting characters is…support. In other movies, we get firefighter wives who cook a meal for the whole fire house, or triumphant military wives who are proud to be able to see their men off to war, or boxers’ wives who go moment-to-moment through the fight afterward with their man, patching him up for the next go or whatever. They may not like the danger, but they understand that this is important to their spouse so they do what they can to make it happen.

Where is that for a superhero movie?

I think it’s missing because of cultural norms. Thanks to Victorian America, we have this concept of separate spheres: the man’s place is outside the home, the woman’s place is in it. Women are constantly trying to “snare” a man, to “trap” him and “hold him back” with marriage. That ball-and-chain gag depicts the relationship; it’s gross.

We should be beyond that. We live in a two-income world, where relationships are supposed to be decided based on love and mutual interests. And relationships are supposed to be based on trust and understanding. Something like understanding when the motivation of your partner is to run toward danger rather than away from it.

I do have one example that gets it right. In the Dresden Files books by Jim Butcher, Michael Carpenter is a Knight of the Cross–basically a holy crusader who is always being called to danger at a moments’ notice, often with wizard Harry Dresden. He has a passel of kids and a wife, Charity. Charity does not like Harry much; she doesn’t like the dangers her husband gets in with Harry around. She doesn’t quite trust Harry. But she trusts her husband and his calling 1000%. She supports him in everything. Her fear and anger at Harry is turned into something formidable; she’s one of only a few humans who can scare Harry Dresden, and he’s fought vampires and werewolves. But for her husband? She is understanding. She helps out. She is a great spouse and an excellent role model.

I want to see more Charity Carpenters in superhero movies. I want the women, even those who are “just” supporting characters, to have nuanced, good relationships. Because the nag thing is a tired trope.

Leave a comment

Filed under Feminism, Movie Review

To the Bride Who Loves My Wedding Dress

I’ve decided to donate my wedding dress to Brides for a Cause, which will support women’s charities but also gives me a way to share the love encapsulated in my beautiful, knee-length, swooshy, wonderful dress with the world. I included this note to the future happy bride in the box with the dress; I don’t know that the charity will pass it on, but I needed to write the words regardless.


Dear Bride–

I hope this dress gives you the joy it gave me. I love the way it sparkles, how soft the satin feels on my skin, the flounce of it as I walked and danced on my wedding day. And it has pockets, can you even imagine?!

I felt out-of-this-world beautiful in this dress, and smiled like my face would rip. A dress that has that power shouldn’t be hidden away in a closet; it needs to share its love with the world!

So I am honored to pass this dress to you. Look at how it makes your legs look long! I wore bright yellow heels and loved being able to show off that shock of color. This dress is made for dancing, because I believe weddings are made for dancing, but is also good for gorgeous lounging and stately emotional walks down the aisle.

Here is the dress. Make beautiful memories with it.

Yours,
-M

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Review: The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater

The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater: Essays on CraftingThe Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater: Essays on Crafting by Alanna Okun
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I gobbled this book up. I heard an interview with the author and went home and immediately bought it, which I never do, and then the second it came in I put aside my other books and gobbled. It is a book I didn’t know I needed.

It is alternatively poignant and funny, and I felt the author’s feelings right there beneath the page. I love the footnotes.

There are a lot of resources from sciencey folks telling us that crafting is good for mental health, but this is spoken here directly from the crafter. That gives the message a vividness and a relatablity that made me feel not alone.

It’s one of the themes that echos throughout the book: oh, you like this too? How wonderful, let’s be friends! And because I am the most crafty person I know, this book made me ache for a crafting community, or just a person like the author in my own life. But I know I am Not Alone, and that may be enough.

I do have two complaints:
1) the title, taken from one of the essays, makes this seem like a book about boys/love/grief. It is not. It is about crafting and its place in our lives. A better title, poached from inside another essay, would have been Unfinished Objects (UFOs).

2) There is not a single pattern or craft suggestion in it! A missed opportunity, because now that I’m done I want to make a thing and have to go find an idea all my own somewhere else.

View all my reviews

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews

Review: A Darker Shade of Magic

A Darker Shade of Magic (Shades of Magic, #1)A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

While the ideas behind this book were really interesting–unique magics, other worlds like but not like ours, a feisty female thief with nothing to lose–this story didn’t work for me nearly as much as I thought it would. Something was just missing. It felt like it had been edited into blandness; I could anticipate beats and twists well before they showed up.
I did like the story, but I don’t know, it felt like every other modern magic book out there. I just didn’t connect with it.

View all my reviews

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews