25 February 2005

One Nation Under a Groove: The year that was 1978

It was the year I graduated from high school. The year I went to Europe for the first time. The year I began my studies at UNC-Chapel Hill. It was the year that Parliament released “One Nation under a Groove.”

Sometimes my life has its own special soundtrack. This was the case in 1978, 1983, and 2000. It is as if the events of these years are burned in my memory, not only in terms of their significance, but also by the music that accompanied them.

Take 1978. Or more specifically, take the fall of 1978 when I entered Carolina as a 17 year-old freshman ( I would turn 18 about a month later). Two weeks before the University’s official orientation, where freshmen were given the time and space to adjust to being away from home and at university, there was Black Pre-Orientation. This was where black freshmen were given the time and space to adjust to being away from home and at a major university that had only recently started admitting black students.

Edith Hubbard was one of two black women admitted to Carolina in 1964. The (publicly-funded) university was founded in 1789. Hers is a fascinating story, and suffice it to say that there was not Black Pre-Orientation gathering to help her acclimate to the new environment.

But to be honest, I didn’t know anything about Edith Hubbard until I started doing a bit of research for this post. I didn’t learn about the history of black students at Carolina during Black Pre-Orientation, I just knew that we hadn’t been there very long and that there weren’t many of us. What I did learn was other “useful” information such as:

1. To determine if the party being advertised on the flyer was going to populated by blacks or whites, look for key words, such as “jam” (blacks) and “40 kegs” (white).

2. On the first day of any maths or statistics classes look around to see if there were any Asians present, if so, switch to another section because they were math geniuses and would mess up the grading curve.

3. Do NOT sign up for Chinese 50 (a history course) because it USED to be a slide, but there had been a recent article in Newsweek on the university in which the course was named and shamed, so it had become super tough.

4. In response to black students from traditionally black institutions who came to our parties and criticised us for going to a “white” school, suggest that they go back to their own campus to party.

I’m sure I probably learned other very important information about support systems, etc. but since I had just graduated from a predominantly white high school, and had just spent the summer in Europe living with different families etc., I wasn’t too worried about my “minority” status, and so perhaps I tuned the useful stuff out.

And George Clinton?

Well, each Saturday during football season when there was a home game, the Black Student Movement (BSM) would reserve about 200 seats, in a practice called block seating. Then black students who wanted to sit with the BSM would request this block when going to pick up tickets for the game. The BSM block was a riot, so it was critical to pick up these tickets as soon as they were available. [If only I had been as diligent about registering for classes.] Food, fun, music, it was ALL good. The kick though, was the beginning of each game when everyone was supposed to stand for the national anthem. As the band began to play and voices began to sing, “Oh say can you see. . .” someone in the BSM block would fire up the box and we would dance and sing, “One Nation under a groove, gettin’ down just for the funk of it. . .” Although I realise the offense it must have caused back then, I still chuckle at the thought of it. A handful of us in an enormous stadium in an act of defiance that always resulted with us getting pelted with something. Is there anything like being 18?

These thoughts came flooding back a couple weeks ago when I listened to a brilliant radio documentary on George Clinton done by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). I remembered the joy and excitement I felt being at Carolina, the crazy friends I had, and a university experience I will cherish for a lifetime.

Music can do that.

22 February 2005

21 February 2005

February 21, 1965

"Brothers and sisters, let me tell you, I spend my time out there in the street with people, all kind of people, listening to what they have to say. And they're dissatisfied, they're disillusioned, they're fed up, they're getting to the point of frustration where they are beginning to feel: What do they have to lose? And when you get to that point you're the type of person who can create a very dangerously explosive atmosphere. This is what's happening in our neighborhood, to our people. I read in a poll taken by Newsweek magazine this week, saying that Negroes are satisfied. Oh yes, poll you know, in Newsweek, supposed to be a top magazine with a top pollster, talking about how satisfied Negroes are. Maybe I haven't met the Negroes he met. Because I know he hasn't met the ones that I've met."

This excerpt was taken from a speech delivered in Detroit on February 14, 1965, hours after his house was firebombed and a week before he was murdered.

young malcolm x
In Memory of Malcolm X
(Photo courtesy of www.malcolm-x.org)

19 February 2005

Shades of Black - Part Two

Let’s start with a quote from a book I’m supposed to be reviewing:

“There are many ways of expressing and experiencing racism which focus on particular cultural specificities, but all are nearly always predicated by the primary indicator of skin colour, since the essence of any racist discourse is the linking of biology to behaviour, or in this case, colour to culture.”

The quote is taken from Rehan Hyder’s Brimful of Asia: Negotiating Ethnicity on the UK Music Scene. Page 21 if you’re that interested. In the book, Hyder uses the experience of four bands to explore the issues of racial and cultural identity in contemporary Britain. I thought of Hyder because of the comments Henry and Wael made to yesterday’s post. As Henry said: “You are what I say you are.”

Or as Hyder says:

“Who we think we are is only part of the story, since what others think of us is a contingent part of the process of self. . .”

The analogy I used yesterday about the teacher, the chalkboard and the categories, was an attempt to get to the heart of what I consider to be the problem: “black” as an impossibly narrow category defined by others. What astonished me about Ms. Reichel’s essay, was the realisation that even in 2005 the possibilities for being a black woman still appear to be so limited. This isn’t to suggest, of course, that black women aren’t out there thumbing their noses to these “restrictions” and living to the fullest extent of their capabilities. But the essay shows just how their lives can then be critiqued in terms of their “blackness.” And if that weren’t bad enough, consider the criteria for being black. Have we really not come any further than the Mammy/Sapphire dichotomy?

Obviously this isn’t just a problem for black women. Wael’s comments about his experiences as an Arab-American since 9/11 – including visits by Homeland Security – reveal the extent to which stereotyping remains the organising principle around which racism operates. [Hey Wael, where’s your blog?]

And I don’t see it changing. Well, at least not without a fight.

This fight means challenging stereotypes and racism whenever and wherever they are encountered. It means speaking up, talking back, and challenging small-minded notions of who and what we are. While I do not support her politics, I think that Condoleezza Rice has earned the right to be judged on the basis of her role as Secretary of State and not on some racist notion of what it means to be a black woman.

In my mind, being a black American is not the indication of a racial category, but the evidence of a shared experience: America’s slave-trading past. And if it is not possible to move beyond the essentialising notions of race evident in the essay, we are still in chains.

Coming soon, "One Nation Under a Groove: The Year that was 1978"

18 February 2005

Shades of Black - Part One

When I first read the article, I thought, “Hmmm. . . Maybe my German isn’t as good as I thought it was.” Then I read it again. Nope. The problem wasn’t with my German, but with an essay published in the January 2005 issue of Cicero, which bills itself as a magazine for political culture. Glossy, high-brow, conservative rag. [It was a gift from someone I know who works there, okay? I didn’t buy it.] In any case, the offending essay was titled, “Wie schwarz ist Condi?” (“How black is Condi?”) For those of you who can read German, click on the essay title. Written by Sabine Reichel, the essay is just what its title implies: the attempt by a German woman to determine the blackness of an American woman.

Imagine a classroom with a large chalkboard. The teacher draws a line down the middle creating two columns. One column she labels “Black,” the other “White.” She then invites the students to offer facts about the life of Condoleezza Rice, which she will then enter into the appropriate column. “Born in Alabama.” Black. “Ph.D. at the age of 26.” White. “Concert pianist.” White. “Youngest Provost in the history of Stanford University.” White. “No Ghetto-Glamour.” White.

You get the picture.

But because I was still worried that the fault was actually to be found in my inability to suss the essay's inherent irony, I asked Martin and Isabelle to read it, since they were native German speakers. They couldn't detect any irony in the essay either. Ms. Reichel is calling it like she sees it. Here’s a (translated) quote from the article:

“With every aspect of her behaviour she is a white woman who has erased her ethnicity. With good reason: In America it is hard enough to be black, it is really foolish to remain black. Whoever wants to belong to the white middle class, has to be able to recreate themselves in the image of whites.”

Okay, because I’m a Libra I’ll give Ms. Reichel the benefit of the doubt. After all, she is a German woman living in Berlin and what she knows about being black in America can probably be summed up by her exposure to MTV and other forms of mass media, and we all know how balanced those images are. And I’m sure that there are some black folks out there who are also passing judgement on other black folks as to the extent of their blackness, but I’ll deal with them another day.

Giving Ms. Reichel the benefit of the doubt, however, doesn’t mean letting her off the hook. Despite whatever connection she has to black women in the US, she has revealed herself nevertheless, to be a narrow-minded, arrogant, not to mention ignorant individual. [See the list of things I don’t like in my profile.] As evidence of Condi’s “whiteness” she asserts, among other things, that Condi is lacking in certain black-defining criteria: she is not “a passionate Hot Mama in African clothing"; “doesn’t speak ‘black’”; and that she would “never be encountered snapping her fingers at a hip hop concert.” With respect to that last comment, Ms. Reichel goes on to say that Condi “idolizes the elegiac Brahms and not the fiery Missy Elliott and Jay-Z.” Oh, the horror!


Now, I’m no Condi fan, but that’s not the point, and you know it.

I’ll be back tomorrow for Part 2.

15 February 2005

Gone Native

Last Friday I visited Deniz and the kids at the Naunyritze Youth Centre in Berlin-Kreuzberg for their weekly hip hop workshop. I met Deniz in 2003 and hang out at the weekly workshops whenever I’m in town. Most of the kids who work with Deniz also belong to his group, Berlin Hip Hop Fraction. The aim of the group is to go back to the roots of hip hop culture, which in this case means rapping socially conscious lyrics which speak to the plight of inner-city kids, and which do not glorify violence, drugs, or misogyny.

During a visit in November 2003, Amani, a 13 year-old girl in the group, asked me to rap. She had been to NY and seemed to have been left with the impression that all black folks in NY can rap. She handed me the microphone as everyone sat staring at me to see if I’d take the challenge. “Mach mal ein Beat” (Giver her a beat), she told the human beat box sitting across from me. Well I got away with it because I did someone else’s rap. Something by Run-DMC – “You Talk too Much” – which seemed utterly appropriate. Later, with my street cred still intact, I asked her if she’d give me an interview for my project and she agreed.

Fast forward to last Friday night. I was sitting there enjoying the workshop, when Deniz announced that for the next exercise, they would all work on their freestyle techniques. The way it worked was that Deniz would throw out a word and then call someone’s name and then that person would have to do a freestyle rap (to a recorded beat) for as long as possible, which was usually only about 45 seconds or so. Almost in unison MC Rex (13), MC Arrow (14), and Dr. Rob (14) insisted that I had to participate.

MC Rex and MC Arrow
MC Arrow and MC Rex

Well it’s one thing to rap something from memory AND written by someone else, it is another thing entirely to do freestyle. Try it if you don’t believe me. For the full effect though, you should try it in front of some kids. My pleas fell on deaf ears, so there was nothing for me to do but get off my butt, stand in the circle with everyone else, hold my mic and wait for the humiliation to begin.

rob and iso
Dr. Rob and Dr. Isolight

The first word Deniz threw at me was “Diamant” (diamond). Having received permission to deliver my rhymes in English, I tried to pull something together about diamonds NOT being a girl’s best friend because too many Africans died in diamond mines, etc. You know, kind of like Miss Dynamite but really bad. They loved it. My next word was “Jacke” (jacket), and as I tried to rap about my green leather jacket, I was really starting to get into it. By the time I received my third word “Liebe” (love) they practically had to pry the mic out of my hands so that someone else could have a turn.

Deniz Bax

Seriously though, I was in the middle of writing a chapter on the aesthetics of hip hop and discussing stuff like flow and rhythm and the voice, and it took just two minutes on a microphone trying to do it myself to give me an entirely new perspective. And for that I should thank Arrow, Rex, Rob and Deniz. And guys, this Friday, I’ll be spittin’ my rhymes in German! And I want my own mic. . .

Wael's Reply to the Valentine's Post

And here's a very thoughtful response about yesterday's post from my ex-boyfriend. Okay, I know I wrote that as if I only have one ex-boyfriend, but writing "one of my ex-boyfriends" sounds like I have a collection, and my mom reads this. That said, she'll be wondering why I let this one get away. . .


You are right. I'm NOT convinced. Sure, there might be the rare woman who is happy on her own, the rare Katherine Hepburn (who commented, "If you want to sacrifice the admiration of many men for the criticism of one, go ahead, get married.")

But in general we human beings crave the deep union with another mind that only a good marriage can approximate. We are so fundamentally isolated in this world - we exist only in our own heads, with our own thoughts - and I think this is both the essential condition and defining trauma of our lives. We're so limited. We're social creatures but locked into our own skulls. We are intensely curious but hemmed in by five pathetically weak senses (and others that we have no clue how to use). We want to leave an imprint on the world, a lasting legacy, but for all our advances we are still cut short by the Biblical threescore and ten years. Our spirits are much bigger than our messy little bodies.

I think these maladies of existence can be partially addressed through prayer, meditation, whirling dervishism or music… but only partly. We need to understand and be understood, and the closest we can come is to find one other person willing to make this awesome commitment to stand next to us for life, and so to see what we see, know what we know, tend to us when we've got the flu, cheer when we hoist a trophy, be hungry with us when we're poor, and help us laugh at our own stupidities. And let's not forget that genetic drive to procreate. Marriage is "the dawn of romance and the commencement of history," and I mean that in a serious way.

There are six billion human beings out there whose lives you'll never know, but through marriage you get an insight into one other mind, and that's the closest you'll come to not being alone.

Besides, no man wants to believe that when he finds the right woman, and he's ready to settle down and leave his biological legacy, that she might say, "No thanks, I'm good." Every guy thinks that the right woman will naturally see her future in him, and if she's not sure then she'll give him the benefit of the doubt.

As Gloria Steinem said, "Someone once asked me why women don't gamble as much as men do and I gave the commonsensical reply that we don't have as much money. That was a true but incomplete answer. In fact, women's total instinct for gambling is satisfied by marriage."

We guys all want to think you'll gamble on us.

14 February 2005

Hana's Next Book

My friend Hana is planning a new book. She is currently working on one that features her own illustrations, as well as colourful stickers she has artistically arranged on the large cream-coloured pages. The new book, which I'm sure will be illustrated as well, will list all of the things she gets to do when she turns six. She only turned five a week or so ago. According to Alisa, Hana's mom, the book was actually supposed to be about all of the things Hana would be able/allowed to do once she turned five. But alas, that deadline has come and gone, hence the need for a new book and a new list of things. Actually the new book should be more interesting anyway, because everyone knows that six is much more of a milestone than five.

In any case, Hana's new book got me to thinking: What are some things that I can't do now that I will be allowed to do when I finish my Ph.D.? Okay, aside from get a job and hence not feel guilty about every euro that leaves my pocket, the most important thing the completion of the Ph.D. will allow me to do is get a dog. Those of you who've spent any time with me in the last few weeks know that this is becoming an obsession. Perhaps it's being in Berlin, which must be the dog (poop) capital of Germany. But I don't think so. For the past few years I've been telling myself that when I finish the Ph.D. and finally settle down somewhere, I can get a dog. Well finishing the Ph.D. once seemed about as remote as scaling Everest, but not any longer. There's light at the end of that bloody tunnel, Hallelujah!!

So now I can displace any anxiety I may be feeling about whether I'll find a job or if the past few years have been a colossal waste of time and money, onto more realistic concerns, such as whether or not it's fair to my future dog to raise him in an urban environment.

Oh well, I wonder what Hana will do when she's six.

In Memory of Zulu

Happy Valentine's Day

Perhaps there's nothing more pathetic than a single woman who claims that she's happy being single. Confronted with the assertion that she is not really looking for a partner and that she is perfectly happy on her own, those in relationships nod knowingly as if to say, "sure, you're happy. . . right." Thanks to shows like Sex and the City, single women are perceived as constantly on the prowl, willing to spend ridiculous sums of money to hook men, who in turn seem to be quite happy to remain single. However, in a recent survey in the UK, it appears that single women are actually happier than single men. According to the survey, 56% of women claimed to be happy with their status, as opposed to only 46% of single men. Interestingly, what annoyed single women about their status was the fact that no one believed them when they said that they were happy and weren't looking for partners, while the men said that they missed the sexual aspect of relationships. But hey, that might just be a British thing, but I don't think so. You can read the story here if you like.

In any case, it's Valentine's Day, and to my friends who are happily in love, all the very best to you. And to my single friends - especially the ladies - don't fret. It's not worth the effort to try and convince your friends and family that you're happy. Just revel in it!