Friday, March 8, 2024

Don't Be the A$$ in the Assumption

It’s my favorite time of year! No, not (just) the dawning of spring but gala season! From personally participating in several in support of the organizations and charities that are near and dear to my heart or front and center for the “fashion shows” on Hollywood’s red carpets that lead to every arts & entertainment celebration imaginable from the Grammy’s to the NAACP Image Awards, it’s a time for seeing and being seen. And the largest “runway”—in the form of the 96th Academy Awards stage—comes alive this weekend. That’s why in addition to being a gala lover, I’m also a self-proclaimed cinephile, which means I try to see the most buzzed about Oscar-nominated films before their big day. Enters Oppenheimer.

Let me say, I’d heard the 2023 epic biographical thriller film—written, directed, and produced by Christopher Nolan and starring Cillian Murphy as the American theoretical physicist credited with being the "father of the atomic bomb" and his role in the Manhattan Project—was worth its hype. No, not just from critics whose opinions I rarely let influence my own movie-going desires but from family whose opinions I highly trust as many of our interests are similar.  But I also knew at 180 minutes, I would need to set aside time for this viewing. And that time would be Thursday night when I finally turned down the lights, curled up under a blanket on my couch, and settled in for this cinematic experience of anxiety-inducing highs and melancholic lows, all crescendo’ing into an ending that unfolded in a “The Usual Suspects” style of storytelling. It ended, the credits rolled to the backdrop of an ominous orchestral score and I watched. Sat—shook. I woke up the next day still shook. And the irony is that what shook me had nothing to do with the major themes of the blockbuster: the perils of war; living with the consequences of your decisions; being surrounded by wolves in sheep clothing; or even the danger of succumbing to self-aggrandizing behavior. No, what left me in deep perseveration was a scene so subtle, yet so profound, that in my opinion the entire movie hinged on its existence and, in the end, was what truly threatened the course of history: an assumption. No, not of the mathematical variety rooted in theory and calculations but a simple assumption rooted in basic human insecurity and pride.

I won’t provide any spoilers, but I’ll just say that the reveal not only stopped me in proverbial tracks and caused me to take inventory in ways I may have let such behavior impact my decision making, but also led to a re-commitment  to do a better job in allowing myself to be, well, wrong. Now, let me say this can be more difficult than you think for some of us for one very important reason: intuition. For while often unexplainable, it is God-given, real, and we all inhabit some modicum of it. But it is not a perfect science, and it is subject to error. Yet, some of ours may be much stronger than others, which is why leaving that margin for error is indeed something I struggle with primarily because I am my grandmother Sallie’s grandchild (IYKYK :-). For if you’re a person whose intuition has proven accurate way more often than not, it can lead to, dare I say, an arrogance that can block both growth and meaningful understanding that not only makes us better communicators but, ultimately, better human beings. 

And it is in that inability to hold space for such where disagreements, broken relationships, and failed opportunities to learn may emerge. There are no absolutes in anything but the truth and, often, the easiest way to dismantle an assumption is just to ask those questions that need to be asked that removes all doubt and subsequently sets us and our counterparts free. Yes, sometimes we fear what the answer will be for what it may reveal about others or ourselves, but that truth will always outweigh living suspended in doubt. For if one of the principal characters in the movie had asked one simple question instead of assuming that he knew instead, the legacy of J. Robert Oppenheimer would have unfolded in a much different way. Dare I say, history may have unfolded in a much different way.

For this (and sheer excellent storytelling, directing, and acting), I say give Oppenheimer its flowers. But, as multi-hyphenated entertainer Issa Rae once said, I’m still rooting for everyone (and everything) black (shoutout to “American Fiction,” which I loved). However, if we don’t emerge victorious in some Academy categories because we’ve been defeated by this powerhouse, I won’t be (too) disappointed. I’ve seen it and it was worth its weight in, well, plutonium 😉 But don’t get it twisted: I'll keep my proverbial Oscars-protest-picket sign in my closet dusted off and ready to go for next year because Hollywood is always gonna Hollywood, if you will. This year, however, I’m trusting they’ll at least get it right in the Best Picture category.

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Friday, December 22, 2023

The Recipe for the Restart

For all of its criticisms, one thing social media has always done is entertain. In between the rantings (about societal ills) and the ravings (usually about one’s own achievements) there’s the entertainment factor in the form of skits, monologues, and wildly accurate observations that make you feel humorlessly less weird about your own revelations. However, as a lifelong learner, what I’ve always appreciated most are the posts that bring about pause, reflection, and invaluable “aha” moments even if that wasn’t the intended goal, which is why one recent Instagram post in particular sparked the inspiration for this end-of-year post as we prepare to close out the old and ring in the new.

The Instagram reel of note finds a grandmother doting on her young grandchild in ways the child’s father simply can not believe in contrast to his own experience growing up with his mom. As the grandmother purchases and lets the grandson do whatever he wants, the adult son interjects, “I could barely get a hug [growing up.]” Her reply, “Well barely get da hell out of my face.” After a series of scenarios play out where the son continues to express disbelief at her “new and improved” style of parenting, the video ends with the mom telling her son ,”It’s a different type of vibe over here; you can’t compete where you don’t compare.” Now although their banter was intended to be humorous and may even be relatable to many who have marveled at parents' ability to transform into Grandparents 2.0 once the next generation arrives, there was an undercurrent of hurt in the son’s voice, not necessarily because of how his grandmother was showing up for his son but in not acknowledging the ways in which she had not showed up for him. 

Let me say, this is not an experience I've witnessed personally. My parents were of the "we-love-our-grandchildren-but-take-them-home-because-we’ve-already-raised-our-six-kids" variety. However, this experience of “do-over” parenting was the experience of a close friend and, let me just say, those memories for him were both painful to process and conflicting. After all, who wouldn't want their children to be lavished with an abundance of unconditional grandparent love; however, in contrast to the love he did not receive, it tore open a never fully healed wound; a wound he sought to get acknowledged at times but for which, much like reflected in the reel, would always be dismissed or responded to with excuses that didn’t quite land. 

I’ve also been on the opposite end of this experience, if you will, with an ex-boyfriend-turned-friend who, out of the blue one evening over dinner, suggested we have a baby. Pause for reaction. Exactly. However, me being me, I had to inquire as to what was underneath this unforeseen and, dare I say, audacious request. After some deliberation, he stated because he hadn’t showed up how he should have for his child after his divorce, he wanted a chance to “do it over right.” In other words, instead of acknowledging, apologizing, and then investing in correcting where he fell short in his past, he preferred to leave it all behind and hit the restart button—with me (FYI, it’s important to note I did not accept the offer. Smile). 

And ironically, I’m currently in a group chat where this dynamic is playing out in a similar manner as well, i.e., someone has committed an infraction, everyone knows it, but the perpetrator has “moved on” to sending funny memes, gifs, and Tik Tok videos in hopes the infraction will somehow resolve itself and the vibe will be restored. Let me tell you: I’ve never been in a quieter group chat as, thankfully, no one is interested in playing a part in such dismissive behavior until the right thing—or the right conversation—is had. Ignoring, burying, and sweeping the past under the rug doesn’t make it disappear; it just makes a lumpy rug that’s all the more obvious to anyone who cares to see it.

So what does this have to do with the new year? Everything. When the ball drops and we belt out the familiar words of Auld Lang Syne, we’ll also drop the lists, make the proclamations, and re-share those inspirational posts that speak to how we will do and be better. We announce all the new adventures we’ll embark on and boast about the self-exploration we’ll begin. But if our starting anew means ignoring those things in our past that need to be acknowledged and reconciled, our rebirths will be in vain. Yes, age should bring wisdom and when we know better we should do better but our acknowledgment need not be at the expense of our grand transformations. We may choose to forget the things we’ve done that caused others pain but, rest assured, our victims do not. As poet Maya Angelou would once say, at the end of the day people may not remember exactly what you said or did, but they will remember how you made them feel. So as the new year dawns, let’s commit to “making those crooked places straight”; finally having those conversations we’ve ignored; and acknowledging our transgressions instead of dismissing their occurrences. As writer William Faulkner famously reminded us, “The past is never dead. It's not even past….”

Wishing everyone a blessed and prosperous 2024! Happy New Year!

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Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Happy 30th Living Single: Still True Blue and Tight Like Glue

There were a plethora of norms that the pandemic of 2020 immediately stripped out of our lives like daily work commutes and regular trips to our barbers and beauticians. And then there were new norms that crept into our routine out of necessity and the need for connection like DoorDash deliveries and living room dance parties courtesy of rapper-DJ D-Nice's Club Quarantine on Instagram. But then there were those daily habits that sustained us and remained with us long after we removed our masks and ventured from our homes to re-socialize with family and friends. For me, that habit was "meeting up" with Khadijah, Regine, Maxine, Synclaire, Overton, and Kyle, for a few laughs every morning while I drank my coffee and checked work e-mail: a routine that I gleefully continue til this day.

August 22nd marked the 30th anniversary of the hip, urban, sitcom created by writer/producer Yvette Lee Bowser that followed the fictional lives of six black 20-something Brooklynites played by Queen Latifah (Khadijah James), Kim Fields (Regine Hunter), Erika Alexander (Maxine Shaw), Kim Coles (Synclaire James), John Henton (Overton Wakefield Jones), and T.C. Carson (Kyle Barker), as they navigated the high and lows of life, love, and careers.

When the sitcom debuted in '93, I was a bright-eyed, twenty-year-old heading into my junior year at historic Howard University as a print journalism major. With the leading character, Khadijah James, portraying a Howard alum, and the creator and editor of the fictitious Flava Magazine, you'd think the show would have resonated with me more during that time than it does now. However, despite seeing every episode during its original television run, the appreciation I held for the series then does not compare to the admiration I hold for it now. Much like hindsight being 20/20, it is in my adulthood that I have discovered how far ahead of its time the series was in portraying us as young attorneys, stock brokers, business owners, and boutique buyers, all while tackling issues that would not come to the forefront of national debates until decades later. 

There was the episode on hair discrimination long before the CROWN Act, which prohibits discrimination based on hair style and hair texture, was enacted in California in 2019. There was the episode on same-sex marriage before the 2015 Supreme Court Law made such unions legal in all 50 states. And there was the episode on black mental health and the importance of therapy long before social media posts and podcasts began to remind us daily of its relevant necessity in our community. But it was also a plethora of other ground-breaking topics the show would take on such as reverse female-to-male sexual harassment; family planning via artificial insemination; and the fears often associated with mammaplasty (also known as breast augmentation/surgery) that would quickly set the show apart from its contemporaries' storylines. And let's not forget those subtle gems like casting Queen Latifah and Kim Field's real-life mothers as their characters' mothers or the delightful laundry list of cameos from entertainers and athletes that spanned generations from Flip Wilson to Jim Brown to Eartha Kitt to TLC to Montell Jordan to Heavy D to Grant Hill to Alonzo Mourning to Cheryl Miller to Shemar Moore to Terrance Howard to Nia Long to Arsenio Hall...just to name a few! 

And then there was the Afro-centrism that was always on full display courtesy of natural hairstyles, artwork, artifacts, and fashion, despite character Regine displaying an ever-evolving wig collection that would've made rapper Lil' Kim envious during that time. And just as noteworthy, would be such episodes as seasons five's "Forgive Us Our Trespasses" that would be the first since the 1970's "Good Times" that toyed with the discussion and depiction of "Black Jesus," in a role masterfully played by The Best Man's Harold Perrineau as the Savior himself. But of all of the first-to-do-it moments Living Single could plant its flag on, most notably would be the one that gave its audience the opportunity to participate in story writing by allowing viewers to decide how the episode should end.

When new brownstone tenant, Hamilton, played by another Best Man alum, Morris Chestnut, guest starred in season one's two-part episode "Love Thy Neighbor," viewers were asked to call a toll-free number and vote for Khadijah, Regine, or Maxine to be selected as his paramour (spoiler alert: the highest number of votes were for Khadijah). Yet it remains my favorite episode due in part to character Khadijah breaking television's third wall and stating to the viewing audience, "you did this to me..." at the conclusion of the episode and after to what turned out to be a less than enjoyable date with Hamilton. Today, the episode continues to run, without the call-in option of course, which makes Latifah's response the best inside joke ever for us day-one fans who know exactly what she's talking about but which probably still leaves newer viewers of the series perplexed. 

Of course the series, which is as beloved now as it was then, was not without its hiccups: though Synclaire (Kim Coles) and building handyman Overton (John Henton) would be the series' beloved series' couple, it was Fields and Henton who were a real life couple "on the low" during season one, which fizzled before season two; and later Fields and Carson, who played investment banker Kyle Barker, would leave the show before the series' end, and be replaced by actor Mel Jackson to try and fill the void. In a later interview, Fields would suggest that due to stress around her divorce, she departed the show early to focus on her mental health. However, Carson would return for the final two episodes of the series, in which it would be revealed that his character--thanks to Maxine being artificially inseminated at the clinic where he donated his sperm--would become a father and the two would finally become an official couple after four seasons of an on again/off again comically, tumultuous love affair.
But hiccups aside, the series would make its own mark in television history, while being rumored to spark the creation of one of television's more celebrated white sitcoms, "Friends" (if you know, you know ;-), and would serve as a springboard for further propelling the show's actors into careers on the big screen, on Broadway, on comedy stages, and even behind the camera. And on a personal note, it would also further the career of my very own cousin, Charles Penland, who landed the leading role in season one/episode two's "I'll Take Your Man," as the beau in the center of a love triangle with Regine and Maxine, giving me and my family our very own personal connection to the beloved sitcom forever.

Ultimately, Living Single would be that first mirror many of us Gen X'ers, in particular black women, would have held up to us in an authentic, comical, and fashionably stunning way while we navigated our own friendships, careers, and relationships. In fact, creator Bowser stated in a recent interview reflecting on the show's impact "I wanted to create a series that centered on and celebrated women," she said. "When you create something that is intended to be a love letter, and you pour love into it over time, what I've found is that you continue to get love back over an extended and unexpected period of time." Which is why it's safe to say that even 30 years later, Living Single continues to be one of our great American love stories for the ways it entertained and educated us, and remained unapologetic in how it centered and celebrated blackness--and looked damn fly all while doing so. There's no denying that in a 90s kind of world, we were blessed to have our girls--and guys--and the creation that would make Living Single the black national treasure that it was and continues to be today. 

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Friday, July 7, 2023

And in This Corner...Social Media vs Silence

There's an unanswerable question my friends and I often entertain ourselves with whenever someone initiates a beef, clapback, or inappropriate reveal on social media: how did these people show up in real life before the convenience of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and the like. Were they the kids who started fights in the cafeteria? The teens who got on the phone and called everyone in their phonebooks from A to Z to spread gossip? Or were they the drama queens and kings who exaggerated the simplest of situations for attention? The answer is probably all of the above, because much like is said about any vice: they don't make you who you are, they simply expose who you are. 

And the recent Keke Palmer vs her baby daddy nee' Darius Jackson debacle is providing no time like the present to talk about it. At this point, for anyone who follows the child actress turned multi-hyphenate media darling, you've been given a delightful front row seat to her glow up personally, professionally, and--most recently--physically, thanks to what Keke has declared as her "mom bod" credited to the birth of new son, Leodis Jackson. Simply put, Keke has been glowing inside and out--and her energy has been infectious and requested from her invitation to host Saturday Night Live (where she officially revealed her pregnancy) to her recent interview with Vice President Kamala Harris. In between these milestone moments, we got glimpses of her coupledom journey with beau Darius as well as their funny co-parenting adventures. We'd come to expect the funny Tik Tok videos and Instagram posts, and looked forward to what humorous yet insightful musings about life our "favorite lil' cousin" would drop. 

What we didn't expect--and definitely not so soon--was the possible ending of their relationship thanks to a public display of disrespect. And deciding who disrespected who--and first--is what continues to be debated across entertainment blogs from The Shade Room to the Jasmine Brand and is even being reposted by such celebrities as comedian and commentator D.L. Hughley. Some would say Keke's revealing dress she wore to the recent Usher concert on a girl's trip to Las Vegas, where the R&B crooner serenaded her much to her delight, was the culprit. Others would say it was Darius' unexpected Twitter post highlighting and questioning her attire choices in light of her new title as "mother" and measured against "standards, morals, and traditions." And soon Keke would drop her own Tik Tok dancing and lip syncing the lyrics "if you 'gon act up, we gon' link up" in as a subliminal but very clear message to Darius. And without hesitation, and much less respect, almost everyone would offer an opinion or an insult to the quickly growing "injury." Yet, the only true victim I could identify in any of this after 48 hours of discourse was the Sanctity of Silence that continues to get grossly disregarded in this age of social media madness. Or more simply stated, keeping your business, your business. 

To be fair, I can't chastise a man or woman when the actions of a loved one elicits emotions, be it insecurity, jealousy, or even sadness, that creates a level of discomfort or pain one may not have known they were capable of harboring. I also can't chastise a man or woman for choosing to celebrate him or herself how he or she so chooses even if others question when, where, or how that should be done.  But what I can and will chastise is how many people use social media to navigate and process those feelings or use it as a distraction to properly confront those feelings. And in the end all that remains is an incitement of trauma and an elevation of drama for airing grievances to a million--or even 10--followers who don't truly know--or care--about you or your loved one. Yes, feelings are real, valid, and deserve to be acknowledged. But to quote Uncle George in the cult classic "ATL," you gotta know the difference between what's real and what you feel because they're often not the same and, more importantly, don't need to be shared with strangers.

Yes, there is a lot that couples are called to navigate, and the ups and downs in relationships are inevitable. And often times we are none the wiser of what goes on even in the unions of some of our closest friends and family nor are they privy to what goes on in ours. We rise, we fall, and we pray to rise again. Yet, the one thing that has often stood in the pathway of reconciliation when there is a breakdown in the relationship is the sting of public humiliation; a sting that can turn into a sore that can turn into a bruise that may never heal. And what took less than 200 Twitter characters to destroy may take a lifetime to repair IF you're lucky.
However, Keke and Darius is not the first couple nor will they be the last, unfortunately, whose woes will play out for all to see AND weigh in on. But I pray for the day when folks will begin to value each other enough to share their concerns, their pains, and their fears with their loved ones, one on one, and in a space where healthy communication, understanding, and growth can occur. The opinions of many can't help a situation, but it can certainly hurt it, and there's nothing the public can ever offer except biased judgment on subjective narratives that create nothing but even more confusion, doubt, and drama. As is often jokingly said on social media, "We want out of the group chat." In all seriousness, it's time for folks to put the high school antics behind and do the inner work that graduates them to a place of maturity both for themselves, their partners, and--in Keke and Darius' case--their child. 

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Thursday, March 9, 2023

The Complex Relationship Between Goals, Dreams, & Fantasies

Recently I was in conversation with a family member about their co-worker's small business idea, with whom he was working with to try and create--or inspire--a plan of action. Me being me, I had a ton of questions: What was the coworker ultimately trying to accomplish? When did the he want to reach his goal? Would it be a side business or replace his current job? How was he planning to define success in regards to the goal? By the end of the conversation, my family member stated although he had raised similar questions, his coworker never provided any real in-depth or insightful answers. What they mostly spent time doing was just talking about the idea. Finally, I asked my family member, "Is this what your coworker really wants to do or just what he thinks he wants to do?" The reply: "At this point, who knows."

Oddly, I had these same ruminations recently when I fell down the rabbit hole of the new BET series, "The Impact Atlanta." The unscripted reality series offers a behind-the-scenes look into the lives of Atlanta's top influencers and--although I doubt I'm its target audience--was surprisingly enjoyable for me to follow the cast of Generation Z hustlers--Jayda Cheaves, Ari Fletcher, Lakeyah, Dess Dior, and Arrogant Tae--as they navigated trials and tribulations around family, mental health, business management and, not surprisingly, social media gossip and feuds. Fan favorite--and one of my own--was Tae, née Dionte Gray, a Chicago native celebrity hairstylist and wig guru, whose mastery with all things hair have landed him such high profile clients as Nicki Minaj, Teyana Taylor, and Lala Anthony. 

The Impact's premiere season storyline for Tae primarily focused on his desire to open his first brick-and-mortar hair salon, which he wanted to be the first of a chain. The audience was allowed to go along when he and his assistants/friends looked at a vacant space, which they all quickly rejected due to size and safety. More interestingly, however, was hearing Tae share his hair salon dream with friends and family, which was met with everyone being both encouraging yet somewhat exhausted as if they'd heard this narrative from him before and repeatedly--because they had!
In fact, many of his friends seemed more confident in the idea than he may have realized he did at times based on their exasperated responses of "You just need to do it already!" which was often countered by an equally exasperated Tae stating, "I know. I just need to find the right spot." However, with a booming business and entertainment industry that has put Atlanta prominently and popularly on the map the past three decades, I'm sure Tae's friends, family, and now the viewing audience were all thinking the same thing: "There is no way you haven't found a single, suitable spot yet." And then it hit me: this was most likely not Tae's dream or even goal, but perhaps a mere fantasy that was much more enjoyable in theory than it would ever be in reality. But here's the gag: there's nothing wrong with that. The challenge is in being able to recognize the difference so you can either set yourself on a course of action or simply set yourself free.

One of the best quotes I have ever heard, which I use and rely on until this day is, "The difference between a dream and a goal is a timeline." Others have simplified it by saying, "A goal without a plan is just a wish." Said even plainer, don't just talk about it; be about it. In whatever form, I can not express how valuable those words have been in my life in helping me accomplish much of what I have; words that I now find myself sharing with my nieces and nephews as they set off into their own adult lives. In other words, if you're going to reach any goal, you need to set a time you want that goal to be accomplished--a month, a year, five years from now--and begin to work backwards in charting a course for how to get there including what sacrifices may need to be made, what it will cost (literally and figuratively), who you may need to engage to help you, what classes you may need to take to better understand how to get there and, just as important, how you will celebrate your win when you do.

Furthermore, you have to be able to define what success looks like for yourself and by yourself, and not how it looks to others. If your goal is to get a law degree for your own "bucket list-self satisfaction," that alone can be success, and not necessarily starting your own law practice as others might suggest. Perhaps you're a chef who enjoys serving a small roster of catering clients. However, it's sure not to be long before someone will proclaim, "You need to open your own restaurant" when you know the running a large business is not your joy or even your strength. That's because the dreams others have for you are often nothing more than fantasies for yourself. 

Everything that sounds good is not necessarily good for you, and everything doesn't need to come to fruition or be taken to the next level. Sometimes fantasies are needed just to give your mind a joyful reprieve from reality, the same way watching your favorite movie does. Yet, frustrations are sure to arise if you haven't done enough honest soul searching to figure out what category your thoughts belong, for nothing will put you more in turmoil--and a wasted spiral of time--than chasing a dream your soul already knows should remain a fantasy. However, once you decide what your thoughts truly are, you can boldly and confidently set off to put your plan into motion or simply take comfort in being exactly where you are, despite what the world may say.

At the end of the Impact's first season, I was convinced even if Tae finally opens his salon, it will be successful but that is most likely not where his joy will be. The joy Tae exhibited each episode doing the hair of clients and friends out of the comfort of his home or theirs, told me everything I needed to know: he had already found his true joy. It was in the connection he made with clients-turned-friends and in creating head-turning-looks for music videos, magazine shoots, and red carpets. Anything more he obtained would simply be for show and, of course, more money but not necessarily more joy. So as we approach midyear when many of us stop to reassess our new year resolutions, let's be honest about what we say we want. Let's truly assess the difference between dreams and fantasies and whether either truly belongs to you or are being projected onto you by others. But, if you find the dream simply won't let you go and continues to call out to you without ceasing, get to setting that deadline and crafting a plan of action that will help you reach it. Timelines will shift, hiccups will emerge but, as author Norman Vincent Peale stated, "Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you'll land among the stars."

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