Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Are We Women As Evolved As We Think We Are?

Is Suzie Homemaker a thing of the past?
Over the Thanksgiving holiday, amongst all of the statements of gratitude, reflections, and travel plans that were Facebook'd and tweeted, I noticed a common theme: women announcing what they were cooking, bragging about how they could throw down in the kitchen, and--if you needed proof--posting photos of their heavenly, culinary creations for all to see. Be it teachers, doctors, or lawyers, one thing was clear: these women wanted to remind everyone they could "burn" as well.

Even Oprah--a self-made billionaire, who can change the course of people's lives by uttering one simple phrase--posted photos of herself making sweet potatoes with freshly picked rosemary and cranberry sauce from scratch. That's when it hit me: no matter how evolved we become as women, there is still something in us that wants to let folks know we haven't completely traded in baking pies for boardroom politics. Maybe it's the little voices in our heads--courtesy of "evolved" men--that remind us that gorgeous eyes and pretty smiles will never take the place of a good steak and potato. Or maybe it's simply our homage to our mamas and grandmamas who instilled in us that no matter how far you go or how big you get, you best know how to feed yourself and your family, and not by dialing out for Chinese either.

Oprah "showing off" her cranberry sauce from scratch
That got me to thinking about other areas in which, although we women can sing Beyonce's "Me, Myself, and I" word-for-word, we still need "tradition" to reign in our lives and, in particular, our relationships. One of those areas is in having the man be the head of household. Over the years, women buying their own homes before marriage has become the norm, especially since women are waiting later and later to get married, and have also recognized that the benefits of home ownership are too great to delay or pass up.

I too had the pleasure of stepping out and doing so for myself, by myself at the tender age of 24 (much to the chagrin of my dad, a TRUE traditionalist). I knew at that age, it wouldn't be as quickly applauded by my men friends as it was my girlfriends. But in taking the leap, I already knew what I would need to do when and if I ever got married: MOVE! And not necessarily into his house, but into something new we could build together. Having the man move into a woman's home greatly upsets the balance that not only men need, but that we women need as well (if we're honest) to feel protected and secure in the man's ability to "take care of home," even if we're making six figures. I discovered this in talking to four friends of various races and ages, who moved their husbands into their homes, but aren't feeling satisfied with marriage OR their spouse. For sandwiched between the text of their conversations is a subtext that says, "I don't feel confident in his ability to take care of me." And if you think nothing cools things in the romance department for women like an "unbalanced scale" or "not feeling secure," you're correct.

We can do it, but should we?
And then there are the subtler things for which a man's traditional leadership is appreciated, be it on financial matters and setting the spiritual tone of the house to simpler tasks like washing the car and mowing the lawn. Yes, we women can do them (maybe even simultaneously with our eyes closed), but it doesn't mean we don't prefer the man (traditionally) handles it. Just as there are things men prefer women do as well. For there's always a big difference between what we can do and what we should do, and those things that separate those lists AND celebrate our gender roles should not be forgotten or frowned upon.

Saying all of this to say, we may have evolved on the surface, but deep down inside tradition still brings a certain kind of comfort--and dare I say, "attractiveness"--to both men and women that is needed, as apparent in all of those braggadocios photos posted that screamed, "My sweet potato pie is da bomb!" Yes, we--men and women--can do it all these days (as apparent from a few men who posted their "mean turkey" photos as well), but we both seem to have a desire to remind the other that we recognize the importance of having the foundational basics down too. After all, with 40- and 50-year marriages under their belt, Big Mama and Pop Pop must have known a thing or two and done something right. Let's not forget those things when we're creating our own "recipes" for successful relationships and thus marriages. God made us different for a reason. Let's celebrate that; not try to override it or compete with it. And just in case you're wondering, my Cajun cabbage and collards are to die for. I'll post a pix at Christmas (wink).

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Are We Too Plugged In? (Take the Challenge and See!)

Sitting in city traffic the other day, I watched 10 people in a one block radius on their cell phones. Texting. Chatting. Listening to music. The day was sunny, flower boxes were in full bloom, and the breeze just right. Yet, no one seemed to notice. Nor did they notice the kid that took a tumble, the homeless man begging for change, or the police car that came zooming through the intersection. Everyone was plugged in, but to what actually?

It seems every week a new application shows up for cell phones. Laptops (now IPads) can fit into purses. We carry IPods with 10,000 plus songs (we'll honestly never get through). We can Facebook, Instagram, and Tweet from the super market line if we choose to. But in all honesty, why do we want to? At a time when vehicles of communication are most plenteous, ironically, intimate "person to person" communication seems to be suffering the most. Spouses will share their thoughts via status messages all day, yet struggle to utter two words to their mates when they get home. We'll e-mail 20 messages to friends, yet not open our mouths to speak to the neighbor we've lived next door to for five years. How about watching two people on a date, both checking messages during dinner? Or watching parents engage in full lectures to their children by text? We think we're opening ourselves up to new forms of expression through the use of technology, but slowly we're closing ourselves off from any true intimacy that every human needs. Want proof? This family photo below surfaced on Facebook and speaks volumes to how technology is robbing us of true communication, and we're not even aware.

Even the intimacy we need to have with self is being impaired by the constant interruption of beeps, buzzes, and chirps. The ability to just sit and be--with your thoughts, your ideas, your spirit--seems to be harder than pushing a boulder up Mt. Everest. But being able to do so is as necessary as breathing fresh air. Nothing bothers me more than to see someone reading a book yet stopping to text. Or to see status updates posted from church: "Pastor Williams is preaching up in here today, y'all!" Well, if we turned off our phones and truly immersed ourselves in the message, perhaps we'd grab hold of that one nugget of truth we've needed to hear that could set our whole life free. But we missed it right as we were hitting the "enter" key on our phones to "do our own preaching." Oh darn.

Now don't get me wrong. I too am aware of how easy it is to be constantly engaged in something. So aware in fact, I refuse to upgrade my phone to one that allows more apps and accessibility (much to the chagrin of friends) for fear of being more drawn away from being in the moment. But the distractions aren't just found in what's in our back pockets but what's coming out of our televisions and our radios as well. For even absolute, complete silence to communicate with self has become a monster we're afraid to confront.

I know this to be true from a recent confrontation I had with a close friend. I couldn't hear their point of view and, naturally, the person couldn't hear mine. Tired of the noise "internally" and "externally," I decided to shut everything off--no cell, no TV, no driving with the radio on--and took a moment to replay the scenario in my head. In less than a day, their point of view (that they had been making for a YEAR) was so clear that I couldn't believe I missed it--or even challenged it. Not only did it change how I saw the situation, it ultimately improved our relationship. And it got me to thinking how much we're all missing in our lives by hearing but not truly listening--an action not done with our ears but with our hearts and our minds. A type of listening that can not be achieved in the presence of constant distractions.

Perhaps too much silence gives us too much time to think; too much time to realize we're not being productive and instead are just being "busy"; too much time to embrace we're not as happy as we pretend to be; too much time to realize we owe someone a call of forgiveness or a note of thanks; too much  time to "get our house in order"; too much time to actually formulate a plan to reach our dreams instead of just talking about them; too much time to invest in real relationships; too much time to create a better life. So, we take all of that "too much time" and become too distracted for our own good.

We can and we need to do better. So, here's my challenge to you. Pick a day--any day--when you disconnect from it all (TV, radio, cell, computer). Go about your routine, but without electronic "crutches" of any kind, and let quiet be your companion. Take note of what you see, what you hear, how you feel, and what new revelations (or solutions) come to mind. After you do, please post a reply here and let everyone know how you benefitted from this experience. To quote Bert Murray, "Conscience is that still, small voice that is sometimes too loud for comfort." Let's not fear a new comfort that could be awaiting us in the silence. I look forward to hearing your revelations. Happy disconnecting!

Thursday, July 5, 2012

What Kind of Vampire Are You?

Vampires are real...and they're everything you believe them to be: deadly, frightening, calculating, and evil. You've probably encountered them in every area of your life and, most likely, at any hour of the day. But what you may not know is that instead of protecting your neck, what you need to protect is your space. For the "vampires" I'm speaking of are not of the Twilight or True Blood variety; they're "emotional vampires"--those people who come into your space and drain the life right out of you. Not literally, of course, but whose negative energy i.e. complaining, mean-spiritedness, nagging, gossiping, spitefulness, and drama, suddenly shifts your positive energy to match theirs. Often times, it's done unaware; and at other times, you could be that very person causing that shift for someone else.

Energy is indeed real. Iyanla Vanzant once said "You are equally as responsible for the energy you put out as you are the energy you allow into your space." How many times have you sat in a meeting and, depending on who walked in or out, felt the vibrations shift in the room? Or notice how different the vibration feels when certain people are out of the office--even those who don't work with you directly? How about being out with a group of girlfriends and the absence of one changing the entire mood of the evening? Or having your phone ring and, upon seeing the caller ID, feeling your energy decrese or increase depending on who it is? So what to do about it? First and foremost, get aware; secondly, get active.

Often times--such as at work--we have no choice but to accomodate the variance of energies we encounter. But in our personal lives, we have a choice. It just all depends on how much you value your peace of mind and are willing to protect it.  The complaining associate? Politely end the conversation. The perpetually angry friend? Limit your contact. The compulsive gossiper? Change the subject. The loafing adult child? Move them out. Start to take note of your physical reaction to certain people and their behaviors, and respect it as a litmus test to let you know what is not serving you well. And if you're the person exhibiting these behaviors (and often, you know who you are), there's no time like the present to put yourself on a self-induced "negativity fast," while you begin unearthing what's at the root of your "need to bleed" others with your vampire-ish ways.

As I often say, "If you're not sowing joy into someone's life, then you're most likely taking joy away from it." Don't do it to others and don't allow it to be done to you. To quote Donna Karan, "Accent your positive and delete your negative." Even if that deletion includes people. Your peace of mind--and, ultimately, your health--depends on it!

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Finding Avery Sunshine...

…not that she was ever lost. The discovery is in fact ours; those of us late in recognizing a “hidden gem” in the melting pot (and sometimes “cesspool”) of music today. It was an innocent enough discovery: an evening drive with a barrage of slow jam classics playing on Washington D.C.’s WHUR, when sandwiched between the some things “old” and even “borrowed,” I heard something “new”: a bare-all, no-holds-barred, melodic approach to an apology, titled, “Ugly Part of Me,” a song about a woman asking for forgiveness from her man for her off-the-cuff, unexpected and, well, ugly actions during an argument. Rare indeed, and not much heard of since Anita Baker’s 1994 “I Apologize.” And so my curiosity was peaked. Peaked enough to buy Avery’s 2010 self-titled, debut (and only) album; peaked enough to see what she was about live and in living color. I got that opportunity on a rainy, Wednesday night at D.C.’s famed Blues Alley, and what I witnessed was incomparable to anything she could have captured on disc.

There are some artists you simply have to see live. I quickly realized she is definitely one. Taking to the Blues Alley stage (her second appearance there), it soon became apparent why the show was sold out; why you could feel an anticipation in the air; why she already has “followers”—or as she calls them “family”—who have memorized her play list. Petite in stature with a closely cropped ‘do adorned with glitter and dolled up in flawless makeup, Avery sashayed to the baby grand piano, accompanied by her musical partner and guitarist, Dana Johnson; a local bass guitarist; and a drummer—and brought down the house for 90 minutes. With the musical talent of a Rachelle Ferrell; the stage presence and humor of a Ledisi; and the vocal chops of a Gladys Knight, simply put, the girl is bad.

In between songs, she’s candid in talking about her past (she’s a Spelman grad; a former choir director; a divorced mother of two); her present (the financial struggles to put out her next album; the woes of pining for that special someone); and her future (wanting to get married again for love, although she once promised the next time she did it, it would be for money). And in between the sharing and the laughter—even pausing to tell an audience member to “cut out all that talking over there,”—she’s a bona fide crooner; she's easily the real deal. If I wasn’t convinced from the delivery of her original material, I was sold as she effortlessly transitioned from her own songs to her rendition of Maroon 5’s “Sunday Morning” to covers of classic Luther, Aretha, and Michael (no last names needed). But it wasn’t until she left the stage (all too soon for me) and returned to do an encore performance of gospel classics, that I witnessed what every artist should strive to be—a medium for something greater than themselves.

Her roots are clearly in the church. And like many secular artists who pay homage to those roots with a song or two on their albums (Brian McKnight has done so for years; so has El DeBarge), Avery features a jazzy rendition of “(The Lord is) Blessing Me” on hers. But what I have never seen is an artist perform those songs live, and turn their concert into a full-on worship experience. For when Avery flowed from “Blessing Me” into “Safe in His Arms,” a gospel classic that unless you’re without a pulse, you will feel something, concert goers were on their feet—with their hands lifted in praise! She took the crowd to church and even commanded, “Don’t feel funny about that Hennessey sitting on your table; you better praise Him while you got the chance. It could be your last.” Enough said. And we did. Before her final exit, she took it back to hand-clapping gospel, stood center stage, and broke the crowd down vocally to do what she also does well—direct. And, I must say, we sounded pretty damn good with that four-part harmony too—until she jumped back on the piano and purposely changed key. *sigh* Choir directors (smile).

By the time the house lights came up, I seriously considered staying for the second, almost-sold-out show. A definite first for me. But I decided to savor the moment, and play her CD on the drive home instead. It was satisfying, but nothing like seeing her do her thang in person, and was I ever happy I got to.

Although it often saddens me to see how often true talent is overlooked or to see the struggle many must endure just to get a quarter of the recognition the “not-so-talented” is so easily given (thanks many times to auto tune, a good weave, and a half-naked body parading around the stage), I felt absolute joy in experiencing this “hidden gem” for myself. For being able to say, “I saw her when….” for talent that big—and pure—cannot be contained for long. I know I’m not alone in that sentiment and hope, like most hidden gems, once they’re discovered, they’re properly put on display and revered. So Avery, continue to shine, girl. You are indeed a diamond—nothing rough about it.

Check out Avery Sunshine's official video for "Ugly Part of Me":

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Remembering the Godfather

I don’t know how old I was when I first heard go-go. However, I do know it was love at first listen. And the man responsible for that “love affair” came right on time but also left us far too soon: The Godfather of Go-Go, Chuck Brown.

Though there’s not an exact point of reference, my earliest recollection of the Godfather’s music was the breakout hit, “Bustin’ Loose,” an infectious jam with a sound closer to mainstream "funk" than any other go-go song probably ever had. Yet, there was still something different that let you know this was something bigger than funk. This was a new sound in town, and the more you heard it, the more of it you wanted, from the thumping percussion to the blaring horns; the syncopation, the call and response, and even that gravelly voice riding over the beat telling us that, "You got to give a lot just to get what you need sometimes...." Oh yeah, we wanted more of this, and boy did we get it!

Although Chuck had been “movin’ and groovin’” in the world of jazz, blues, and Latin music long before many of us even came into this world, his creation of go-go gave Washington, D.C. something that no other music had—an identity; something to call our own; a sense of pride. Even through the ups and downs the city faced over the years from falling mayors to the crack epidemic to gentrification, go-go remained consistent, like a life-long friend and gave us a sense of “home.”

It was the soundtrack to our youth. It was there at the cookouts, the house parties, the Back-to-School boogies, the park concerts. It was there when you got that number or gave yours out for the first time. It was there when you convinced your parents to let you buy your first Dookie gold rope or “Run Joe” sweatshirt. It was there when you got your first set of wheels and you’d lean on the car, open the windows, and let the bass thump. And as we got older, it was there at the wedding receptions, the reunions, and the pool parties. And behind it all was Chuck Baby.

As the music and the movement continued to grow, birthing other local “stars” like Experience Unlimited (E.U.), Rare Essence, Little Benny and the Masters, and the Junkyard Band, some groups attempted to evolve in a quest to get a taste of the mainstream fame that probably drew them to pick up instruments as kids in the first place. There was just one problem: not many understood or embraced go-go outside of the D.C. area. It was the blessing and the curse: a curse for those artists who wanted more recognition; a blessing for those of us who didn’t want the world to take what was rightfully ours and turn it into nothing more than a “cash cow.” And so with flashes of national recognition here and there, much like the Prodigal Son, go-go always returned to its Godfather—and we couldn’t have been happier.

Times continued to change; the audiences got older; going to see a live go-go show or hear some around the city got a bit tougher (as, ironically, most local clubs will not allow it to be played due to the “high energy” it causes in its patrons), but we always knew that a trip down memory lane or a night of unadulterated partying was just a Chuck Brown show away. Even as Chuck grew older, venues continued to grow larger, and his name would share the marquee with such notable acts as Jill Scott, the Roots, and Erykah Badu. Whether playing the 9:30 club or the famed Howard Theater, shows would sell out in a matter of days, and now two and three generations of lifelong fans were shouting “Wind me up, Chuck” together. For when you’re at a Chuck Brown party, you never think the party—along with the beat—will end. Unfortunately, it came to an unexpected halt on May 16th.

In the instant the news broke about the Godfather’s passing from a brief illness at the “young age” of 75, there was not one D.C. area native whose entire youth did not flash before their eyes. It was akin to losing that uncle and knowing you’ll never hear his jokes again. Or losing that aunt and knowing you’ll never have her sweet potato pie again. It was losing your mom, and knowing you’ll never hear her voice again. It was losing your dad, and knowing you’ll never see him working under the car again. It was losing an icon and knowing you’ll never see him standing in front of that mic again, tall and lean, signature hat slightly cocked to the side, guitar strapped to his body, 10+ piece band fading in with that oh-so-familiar percussion, and the crowd beginning its signature chant, before a rich, deep baritone so smoothly replied, “Aww, ya spoil me now; I love you so much.”

Well, Godfather, you spoiled us and we love you for it, for you gave us a lifetime worth of memories that can not be replaced. With every call and response, you gave us our youth back. And with every riff on your guitar, you gave us a magic that we held on to tightly and kept deep down in our souls. Yes, we trust go-go will live on and will always be a part of the fabric of the Nation’s Capital. It will continue to evolve and, hopefully, grow with the emergence of new go-go bands every day. But no one will ever be able to make us feel like you did; no one will ever be able to set the rhythm and flow of an entire city to music; and no one will ever be able to replace the greatness that was Charles Louis Brown. And we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Rest in peace.

Friday, April 13, 2012

It's Time to Grow Up...Mentally

So, the other day, I let my 5-year-old drive my car. She crashed, hurt many people in her path...and I let her drive it again. Crazy right? Or is it? Not really, for many of us do it everyday without even knowing it.

I realized this watching a recent episode of "Basketball Wives" when Tami Roman, one of the series' most infamous characters known for her "take-no-bullsh*t" attitude, sat down with her mother and confessed that she had been violated twice as a child. She also shared that she realized that's why she's always so angry and even distrusting of men, and how this has impaired her relationship with her mother and is now impairing her relationship with her own daughters. She also admitted she discovered all of this during therapy.

Oooh. Cringe. The dreaded "T" word that so many in our community need yet avoid. And it doesn't help that in many black churches the necessity of it is often overshadowed--if not overlooked altogether--by applying the "power of prayer" instead. Now don't get me wrong: I absolutely respect AND rely on the power of prayer greatly. However, there are some things we can do along with prayer to make the impact that's needed to heal our lives greater. I heard it said best this way: "Saying prayer changes things is not as close to the truth as saying prayer changes me and then I change things." I.e., we still have much work to do after we get off of our knees.

There are so many experiences that shape who become. Some good; some not so good. But both very critical to how we "show up" in our lives as adults. And, unfortunately, the "not-so-good shapings" are the most influential and can run the gamut: abuse, molestation, divorce, illness, abandonment, substance abuse, bullying, and the list goes on, whether we experienced them as victims or silent witnesses.

Far too often, we pat ourselves on the backs for surviving these situations, but as often seen, we've only survived them physically; mentally, the impact of those situations are still playing themselves out in our lives and manifests itself daily in how we communicate (or not communicate) with others, seek (or avoid) love, navigate relationships, raise our children, deal with grief, problem solve, and, most importantly, love ourselves. Our hurt, five-year-old selves are now carrying our adult weight. So answer this: If you'd physically run to help a wounded child in need--maybe one you don't even know--why then do we let our own inner five-year-old selves remain wounded?

In many ways, mental health is just as--if not more--important than physical health. Just as we take pills for our high blood pressure, exercise to control our diabetes, or even less concerning, keep our weekly hair appointments to look our best, why are we not as diligent in making sure our "insides" are as healthy as our "outsides"? The minute we can all ask ourselves that question, then make a commitment to do something about it, our lives will change, our relationships will change, our families will change, and our communities will change.

I think author Stephen Levine says it best both poetically and plainly: “Simply touching a difficult memory with some slight willingness to heal begins to soften the holding and tension around it...[for] those who insist they've got their 'sh*t together' are usually standing in it at the time."

Seeing Tami's breakthrough was inspiring and, hopefully, life changing. Oddly, many of us indulge in reality TV because watching the antics of others allows us an opportunity to retreat from our own drama. But just as we cringe watching their behavior, many around us cringe while watching ours, and we're not even aware. The time is now for all of us to begin striving to be better people inside and out, whether that starts with a therapist, life coach, counselor, support group, or good self-help book that opens the journey of healing, releases the guilt, and sets free all shame. In the end, everyone in our lives will benefit from it and, most importantly, our five, ten- or, even, 15-year-old selves will thank us...and, prayerfully, release us.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Habit of Having Habits

"You don't have to keep [habits]. They keep you." --Frank Crane

Like most, I have a set morning routine from what I watch as I start my day to the order in which I get dressed to what I eat. Part of that routine includes morning prayer. Ninety-five percent of the time, before my feet hit the floor, my knees do first. Not right; not wrong. Just what I do. However, in being away on vacation, it wasn't until I was saying grace over breakfast on the THIRD day that I realized it was my first verbal commune with God. I was a little embarrassed with myself but quickly appreciative for the realization it brought me: how many other things am I--and maybe a lot of us--doing out of routine as opposed to authentically.

I recall hearing a sermon in church once when the pastor purposely made an un-Christian-like remark. On cue, several parishioners replied, "Amen." The pastor then stopped and said, "No. That is not correct. And now I know how many are not truly listening and simply responding out of habit." It brought shame to those "usual suspects" of the "Amen corner," but hopefully it brought conviction and awareness.

Like that incident, my absence of prayer caused me to think of other ways we are habitual and how we can be transformed by more awareness as well. How many of us sit in church every Sunday yet our minds are on the football game score or even what we have on our agenda for the week? How many of us end our conversations with family and friends with "I love you," yet harbor ill feelings in our hearts about them that go unspoken? How many of us walk in the office with a cheery "Good morning," yet cursed all the way into work about how awful the day already is? How many of us encourage friends to "Call me if you need me!" but check the caller ID to try and avoid them when the time is inconvenient to us? And how many of us bow our heads over every meal and recite the grace we learned at age 5, but never truly reflect on what it means to be thankful to have food on our plates?

We're all guilty of it, but perhaps it's time to be more intentional with our words and actions. Perhaps when we tell someone we love them, we need to add WHY. Perhaps if the morning is not going so well, simply greeting your co-workers with "hello" is enough. Perhaps instead of telling friends to call you if they need you, you just simply perform a random act of kindness for them without being asked. And perhaps when we say our grace, we actually thank God for each item on our plate from the peas to the carrots. If we truly looked at everything we did and said daily, we'd be surprised to discover how habitual we really are and perhaps, like me, we'll begin to desire something a little more heartfelt and honest.

Now I know realistically we won't be able to do this every day about every thing and definitely not overnight, but if we commit to truly start thinking about what we do and WHY, we can begin to take small steps toward aligning our thoughts, words, and actions more often, which can only breed better relationships, more truth, richer love, and, as always, increased growth for all of us.

And so as I challenge you, I challenge myself as well to do better--starting with an honest commune with God today, although it's already 2 in the afternoon, and I've long started my day. Because I'm realizing I'd rather be late and authentic than on-time and routine. Amen to that.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Numbers Don't Lie...But Do They Matter?

70% of black women won't marry...50% of marriages end in divorce...African-Americans account for 44% of all new HIV cases...80% of Americans are in debt. The numbers game is playing out everywhere. And it's obvious we are a nation obsessed with, fearful of, and controlled by statistics. Not saying these numbers aren't true, but I've come to realize that focusing on them has done very little to create a shift in our relationships, health, or wallets. The most it's done is cripple our hope and create a wealth of fear. And any psychologist or spiritual healer will tell you, fear and growth cannot exist in the same space.

In fact, I've come to realize that one example of a good relationship can spark more hope for a couple's love life than a zillion articles telling them what they're doing wrong. Seeing one friend slow walk their way out of debt (and be willing to share about it) creates more encouragement for a person facing foreclosure than a thousand CNN "Debt in America" specials. And one guy telling his buddy he gets tested annually (and encouraging him to do the same) can provide a better wake-up call than a million "scary" stories related to the disease. Don't get me wrong: our community still NEEDS this kind of activism and those who go out to do so are truly our faceless heroes. But I also realized it wasn't until the message shifted from "AIDS Can Kill You" to "We Are Greater Than AIDS" did the sting of fear diminish to where the desire to be more conscious and proactive grew. Is some cases, getting tested even became "cool."

It is said that only .02% of high school basketball players make it to the NBA. Yet, for the countless number of young boys that wake up every day motivated by that dream, statistics don't matter. All most have is one favorite player to emulate or one good mentor that believes in them to provide enough hope to carry them through each new day, whether they're growing up in the suburbs of Los Angeles or the inner city of Chicago. Hope. That's it. And that's all most of us need for there to be a shift in thinking that manifests change.

Not statistics, not horror stories, not hours upon hours at happy hours with girlfriends declaring, "Chile, there ain't no good men left." Not stories telling us that every other house on the block is being lost and unemployment is at an all-time high. And not article after article declaring the new death toll of African-Americans is rising. If there was enough hope to sustain our ancestors and lead them through a wretched 400 years, surely there's enough to lead us to happy relationships, good health, and hearty living.

So, you can choose to let your life be influenced by negative numbers or you can choose to let your life be shaped by positive thinking. The choice is yours. The focus is yours. And hope is there for the taking. Look for it. Find it. And hold on to it. And when you believe it and it begins to transform your outlook and thus your life, don't forget to be that hope for someone else. That's what will make the difference that leads to change. Not fear. But hope. And that can not be measured.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The More Things Change....

I will admit, being in my own bubble called "life," I was late in learning of the story of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old African-American teen, shot to death by a Jewish neighborhood watch leader named George Zimmerman in Orlando, Florida. Like most, I was horrified at hearing about another senseless death, mortified that an investigation had uncovered that the police led questioning and changed eyewitness statements, and disgusted that the authorities involved chose to focus on what a stand-up citizen with a squeaky clean record Zimmerman has been (which turned out to be a lie) yet doing nothing to reveal the squeaky clean record the victim actually had. Lauded as a good kid that still allowed his parents to kiss him publicly, another young black man is dead for, well, it seems, just being black.

Of course there are the typical details of the suspect looking suspicious, of him "being out of place" walking in a gated community (which Trayvon's dad's girlfriend lived in), and after being approached by what I'm sure Trayvon saw as an equally suspicious-looking stranger (a.k.a the neighborhood watch captain) of putting up a struggle that ended his life. Zimmerman is claiming the shooting was in self-defense. However, details are slowly revealing what we all inherently know when we hear these stories. We've seen it all before--Rodney King, Sean Bell, the Jena 6. Dare I take a long trip down memory lane to 1955's civil rights icon Emmett Till? And in 2012, here we still are. Victims of suspicion; corpses of corruption.

At times like this, I am beyond answers. I realized just how far beyond, when my first instinctive thought after reading the details of the case was to say, "Dag, I wish Trayvon wasn't wearing that hoodie." Yep, that is where I am. Desperately trying to find ANYTHING that could possibly keep our youth from being targets. In my exasperation, I've unconciously put the blame on the victim, for I've lost all hope for the perpetrators. It's no longer about freedom of (fashion) expression; it's about survival. For no matter how many Black in America specials CNN produces, regardless of the countless number of dollars Will Smith brings to the box office portraying a heroic black male, no matter how many networks Oprah may own, regardless of how many "black friends you have," take most people out of their comfort zone--or worse, put a black face in theirs--and all they see is a suspect.

Sadly, even if this case finds Trayvon vindicated, it's safe to assume that victory will be short lived--until the next hooded black kid decides to walk to the store for a bag of Skittles. The only solution to it all lies in a complete overhaul of a thought process birthed by a racist nation and, sadly, kept alive by those who continue to find comfort in stereotypes, peace in segregation, and joy in superiority. Until everyone suffering from this "mental illness" is committed to a complete shift in their thinking, the protests and marches will continue right along with these tragedies. And thus, I'll continue to wish Trayvon hadn't worn his hoodie.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Stop! In the Name of Love

"What is this love thing all about?" --Martin Lawrence, Martin

Maybe better stated, what is their love thing all about? The couple in question: Pop music darlings Rihanna and Chris Brown. Their initial foray into “couplehood” made headlines; the punch that sent Rihanna sailing out of the relationship made even bigger headlines. Interviews abounded, declarations were made, restraining orders were put into place, and new love interests found their way into both of their lives. And then it was quiet—-until now. According to reports the two appear to be tweeting and texting their way back into each other's hearts and, possibly, each other's arms. Normally not a big deal when this involves young lovers or entertainment figures, except for the fact that this relationship and, thus, its tragic end, created proverbial lines drawn in the sand by many: domestic violence survivors, women interest groups, die-hard fans of Chris Breezy, faithful Rih Rih stans, and simply lovers of good music who didn’t care about any of it. And so a possible reignited flame between the two seems to have again heated everyone. But not me.

Before I go any further, I will say in no way am I condoning or diminishing the horrific effects of domestic violence. That alone is a topic for another blog. But not only was I not surprised at this rumored reuniting, I was actually waiting (not hoping) for it. Maybe it was the unconvincing way Rihanna spoke to Diane Sawyer during her first public interview and half-heartedly convinced us she had learned her lesson and was never going back. Maybe it was that in every fourth song Chris put out, there seemed to be some nod to Rihanna—and not in a bad way. Maybe it was the subtle, across-the-room glances photographers caught of them that read, “Oh, how I miss you….” Or maybe it was the leaked news of them chatting whenever they could steal away from the press and public. In any regards, lessons learned or not, these two have a love for each other that maybe even they can’t explain. Does it appear to be a healthy one? No. Is it something we can learn from? Yes.

Much like our own relationships—even when violence is not a factor—they end when and how we want them to. No amount of coaxing, talking, support, or even restraining orders have ever made a difference when two people want to be together. It only ends when one or both parties agree enough is enough. We’ve seen it with Ike and Tina. We’ve seen it with Whitney and Bobby. And we’re seeing it with Chris and Rihanna.

These relationships end when individual growth authentically happens (not when a publicist says it has) or when someone’s spirit desires something healthier and finds the courage to seek it. Until then, the only thing we can hope for—-and all learn from—-is that it’s personal growth that draws healthy, unconditional, supportive love into our lives that doesn’t hurt in any sense of the word; it's not our lip service. I’m not saying these two have not done their self work and, thus, re-discovered each other. If so, that's beautiful as everyone deserves a second chance when they've done the work to earn it. But if they haven’t, we can save our talk and work on ourselves instead.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Heaven "Help" Us

I have a confession: In recently watching “The Help” honored at both the Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild Awards, I was tempted to carry around a rabbit's foot, a box of lucky charms, and a pocket full of pennies in hopes that lightening will NOT strike a third time at Sunday's Academy Awards. Needless to say, I was not a fan of the movie. Now, before you chastise me for wishing something so sinister on such hard-working actors who simply want nothing more than to be celebrated by their peers, let me explain.

In 1939, Hattie McDaniel received an Oscar for best supporting actress for playing a maid. Fast forward 73 years (yes, you read that correctly), and two of Hollywood's best African-American actresses today (Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer) are being nominated for playing what? You guessed it. Maids. No matter how one spins it (or peppers their acceptance speech with accolades to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to justify the necessity of such a movie and role (uh, yeah, Octavia)), there's no getting around the fact that when it comes to blacks being celebrated in and by Hollywood, it is mostly for roles that reflect them in a subservient or less favorable light, e.g., welfare mothers (Halle Berry's "Monster's Ball" and Monique's "Precious"), bad guys (Denzel Washington's "Training Day"), overly-animated caricatures (Cuba Gooding Jr.'s "Jerry Maguire" and Whoopi Goldberg's "Ghost"), and servants (Morgan Freeman's "Driving Miss Daisy"), and the list goes on and on. Sure, there are a few African-American's who have been properly celebrated for powerful, uplifting roles, but the bottom line is this: there is simply not a enough of those roles given or celebrated to create enough of a balance to where seeing us play the maids, thugs, and pimps, is not still difficult to swallow.

If there were more diversity in Hollywood in the roles we were offered and, thus, celebrated for, this blog post--and the many articles speaking on this same topic--would be unnecessary. If there was a presidential role for every pimp role; a captain's role for every convict role; and a microbiologist role for every maid role, I'd be the first to celebrate...but there aren't. And until there is, it's up to black actors to be more selective in how we're represented and celebrated. Just as it’s also the responsibility of our legends to not take steps backward that hurt those chances as well (i.e., our most respected Cicely Tyson also playing a maid in this movie). The argument that regardless of the roles taken, winning awards helps to open doors for us couldn't be further from the truth if they're continuously opening the SAME doors. Yes, it's tough in Hollywood and even tougher if you're a black actor. And, yes, folks need to work. But to quote a line from one of my favorite movies, "There's work at the post office."

As Octavia Spencer took the stage to accept her SAG award for best supporting actress in "The Help," her tears as well as those of her peers said a lot: this happens far too infrequently, and so we should celebrate. In 2012, that's unacceptable. Do these women deserve to be celebrated? Absolutely. Do they need to be celebrated for this? Absolutely not. Seventy-three years and here we are. That "open" door is more like a "revolving" one.

Friday, February 17, 2012

What We Can Learn from Whitney’s Death (and It’s Not Just Say ‘No’ to Drugs)

Another songbird has flown away. Ms. Whitney Houston. Her unexpected death has left so many shocked, saddened, and reflective. And we’ve lost so many others in recent months that conjure up these emotions as well: Nick Ashford, Heavy D, Etta James, Don Cornelius, and now, America’s first black “darling.” When we lose someone unexpectedly—be it our Uncle Skeebo; our sister, Deborah; or a musical idol that inspired us to set up countless impromptu concerts in the bathroom mirror (hairbrush microphone and imaginary audience included)—we can’t stop thinking of how they touched our lives and, more painfully, how they’ll never be able to do so again. And then we forget the money they owed us; the one or two holidays they ruined; or the boyfriend they stole from us (that wasn’t good for us anyway). And instead we begin to celebrate the good they did; the laughs they gave us; the support they offered us; and even the “soundtracks” to our lives they provided us.

Much like pop icon, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston’s rise to fame and celebrity in her latter years was more infamously notable than famously celebrated. Michael’s fight against pedophilic allegations, plastic surgery mocking, and a number of misunderstood actions, undeservedly earned him the moniker of “Wacko Jacko” alongside his well-earned title of “King of Pop.” And then there was Whitney’s struggle with drug abuse, a questionable marriage, erratic behavior, and notorious interviews, which caused many to question whether she would ever regain her rightful place in music history or would we simply be mourning an untimely death. Yet, ironically, at the time of her death, her fans were doing both, for it seemed she was back on her way to the top, yet struggling to let go of what kept the Whitney we grew to love away from us so long. But in the end, it was not meant to be. And what inevitably followed was the expected negative press. But what is ultimately prevailing is a celebration of her life.

There is so much she—or most entertainers for that matter—can leave us standing around the water cooler for hours gossiping about. However, what often rises in the end is a reverence for a person’s unequivocal legacy. In this week, I’ve learned of several charities Whitney contributed to, medical wings named in her honor, and the maternal love and guidance she gave to so many young stars that were lucky enough to work with her. Yes, the talk of drugs is still a constant as the final cause of her death is still being determined, but it is not what we are choosing to remember her for. And that’s the beauty in choosing how we celebrate and treat each other every day.

And so, this is what we can all learn from Whitney’s untimely passing: focus on the positive of a person; celebrate their triumphs and quickly forget their mistakes; pray for them as much as we praise them; and never, ever stop letting a person know they are authentically loved and appreciated. I can’t help thinking if we would do this more often with the people we encounter every day as well as with the celebrities we admire, there would be less searching in unwelcomed places, unfamiliar faces, and deadly substances to “feel” these things in a world that is quick to highlight your failures and slow to recognize your triumphs. After all, isn’t that what we all want in life and how we want to be remembered in death? Let’s not wait until someone leaves our presence to start doing what we can in the present. That is, loving each other fully, wholly, and unconditionally—every day.

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Common Thread Called "Pariah"

So, yes. I was one of those gung-ho for George Lucas' "Red Tails" to debut and, in hearing about his struggles to get it produced, made it a personal mission to spread the word and garner as much support for it as possible. Four weeks and $41 million dollars later, I feel good about my small part to seal its place in movie history.

However, as the movement for "Red Tails" was gaining more support by the day, another movement for a lesser known independent film was growing as well. That film was "Pariah," a coming-of-age story written and directed by Dee Rees and partially executive produced by Spike Lee. But outside of film festivals and movie clubs, that highly praised the film, one question kept surfacing: "Why is no one pushing 'Pariah' like they're pushing 'Red Tails'?" Probably not the fairest question with the two movies being so vastly different, as the only similarity both seemed to share were being films with all-black casts about a black American experience. But that wasn't the only similarity. For what ties these two movies together akin to Yin and Yang is one very strong thread: the thread of acceptance. One about race; the other about sexuality.

And there possibly lies the answer for why "Pariah" is not receiving the mainstream conversation it so rightly deserves. That being, that regardless of how common sexual images have become on our TVs, in our music, and on the silver screen, many are still not comfortable discussing sexuality. It's the blessing and the curse for this movie because although that's its core theme, there are so many more layers that exist that everyone regardless of race or sexual orientation can relate to: the struggle for acceptance; experiencing rejection; making friends; losing friends; seeing your parents for who they really are; having your parents see you for who you really are; experiencing your first love; experiencing your first heartbreak; and, ulimately, choosing to discover life on your own terms.

In the end, what emerges is a beautiful, visual tapestry of the complexities of life while the focus on sexuality rests comfortably in the passenger's seat. Not that it isn't integral to driving the plot; it's just that when you open your eyes--and your mind--to what "Pariah" is offering, you simply see so much more. And isn't that what the fight for equality is all about? Looking past the surface for the common bond that unites us all? "Pariah" masters this with respect, humor, heartfelt emotion, and does it all from a rare perspective: an African-American, teenage girl from Brooklyn.

With exceptional acting by both newcomers (Adepero Oduye, as subject character, "Alike") and veterans (Kim Wayans, as her heartbroken mother, "Adele," who struggles to accept Alike's choices as well as choices she has made in her own life), "Pariah" easily becomes a movie that not only needs to be seen but needs to be supported and talked about. It may not have the big budget or vast screen placement as "Red Tails," but it doesn't have to. It's found a way to make a powerful statement in a small space and with quiet genius. I laughed. I cried. I learned. But more importantly, I was inspired. I think you will be too. See it...and spread the word.

Official Trailer: