Tuesday, August 19, 2008

To Snitch With Love

“Hell, yeah, I’d give you up!”


I laugh even though I know he’s serious.  Maybe it’s because Pa’s answer to my question doesn’t surprise me. The average person would be horrified to learn that if she committed murder, her father would turn her into the police in a heartbeat. Me, I’m just heartened by the fact that we’re so close, the man rarely stumps me and only in good ways.


In my house, boob tube often serves as an unusual bonding tool. Even the most inane show can lead to a rich discussion about morality and politics and the like between my parents and me, especially my father. (Court shows are particularly provocative.) That is, once we negotiate control over the remote.

On Sunday night, Pa and I quickly come to an accord. We agree to watch in the following order: In Plain Sight (the season finale of a show that only he follows), Law and Order: Criminal Intent (the last episode with Chris Noth of a show we both watch religiously), and Mad Men (a show that my father gave up on several episodes ago, hence, the need for this negotiation.  Thank AMC for encore presentations.)  

For the most part, I’m ignoring In Plain Sight. (Another blog for another day reflecting on why, strident feminist that I am, I couldn’t care less for shows like The Closer, Saving Grace and In Plain Sight which my father watches faithfully. I mean, I’m very pleased that these show exists. I’d just much rather pour out some Corona for The Wire than watch them.)

But at one point, the storyline catches my attention. Shero Mary Shannon plays a federal marshal (I think) who’s intent on giving up her drug addict sister to the authorities for a range of criminal offenses.  This makes her mom (played by Lesley Anne Warren who I still can’t decide if I like or not) go batshit. You’d give up your sister ?!? she shrieks to which Mary calmly replies, Yes… Yes, I would.

“Hey, Pa,” I say, prodding him in the elbow. “If one of us committed a crime, would you give us up?”


“Hell, yeah, I’d give you up!” I think he believes I’m laughing because I think he’s playing. I know he isn’t.  That’s what’s funny. 





Mr. Snitch

Pa rushes to qualify.  “I mean, if I know you out there doing things I didn’t raise you to be doing…” I just laugh harder, prompting him to qualify even more.  “If you kill somebody, and, you know, it’s in self-defense, I’ll do whatever I can to help you. I’ll get you a lawyer or whatever. But if you out there doing stupid things…”  

“You’d give me up, huh?” “If you had a drug problem, I’m going to try to get you help, but…”  “Just like that,” I laugh, snapping my fingers. “You’d snitch like a bitch.” Now I double over, in part because I know my mother would actually beat him to the phone.

Pa finally lightens up.  “You’d be hiding under the bed, and the police would come, and I’d go She’s right there…

… Now gimme my reward!”  

 “Snitches get stitches,” he says, quoting my Uncle Nelson – a former correction officer and his younger brother.

I shake my fist at him and put on my gangsta chick mug. “Talkers get walkers.”

Lots of folks would be hurt even furious to know – never mind be told to their faces – by a loved one that they would readily turn them over to law enforcement.  I can hear Hoochinetta McHood now.  Uh uh, he wrong for that.  Family’s family!

That’s right, Hoochie, family’s family, and that’s why I find my father’s response immensely heartwarming. Not only do I expect it, I understand and respect it. But that’s because I’m truly my parents’ daughter. As different as I am from them in fundamental ways, I have a moral structure of which they are the primary architects, and the Quintero code doesn’t define loyalty as I got your back no matter what dirt you do.  In our clan, loyalty demands that we tell you the truth about yourself no matter what and struggle mightily to get you to fly right when you get off track.  

So if I did do something irredeemably stupid and got the law on my ass, I wouldn’t see my family turning me over to the authorities as an act of betrayal. If anything, I first betrayed them by acting the fool. Facing the music would be the first step towards making amends to them as well as society. 

That’s just the way I was raised. 


Monday, August 18, 2008

A (M)Ad Man Creates a Campaign to Find Missing Children of Color

5 Questions for a (M)ad Man with a Cause: Giving Visibility to Missing Children of Color

With the phenomenon that is the show Mad Men, former ad man Hadji Williams chose an interesting time to put his copyrighting skills to use for a good cause. Fed up with the lack of news coverage for missing children of color, he launched a campaign of his own. It has caused some controversy, but that just proves to the sought-after brand consultant that he’s doing the right thing. I posed five questions – including one about America’s current favorite TV show – to Hadji Williams, and interspersed his replies with some of the artwork of his provocative yet necessary campaign.

Q. Introduce yourself, brother.

Hadji Williams here. I’m an 18-year vet of the advertising/marketing industry. Built my rep as a copywriter/brand consultant. I’ve worked on everything from Mercedes Benz to AT&T to Wrigley’s Gum to… wow, all I can say is if you drive it, ingest it, drink it, there’s a really good chance I sold it to you. I’m also an author of the Knock the Hustle series which gives people an insider’s view of the corporate culture and some of its crazy hustles.

Most recently I helped launch a campaign called “We Want Our Children Back, Too” which is an online effort dedicated to shining light on missing children of color who get almost zero coverage from America’s media. It includes pictures of actual missing children of color with challenging lines like “He had his whole life ahead of him, too” and “Her close-knit community was shaken, too."

Q. What inspired you to create an ad campaign focused on missing children of color?

Well, it was something that always bugged me because I’m from the south and west sides of Chicago – in the’ hood – and I was always amazed by how little support and understanding young victims of crimes in our community received. I had neighbors who lost family members to violence, hit ‘n’ runs, kidnapping, and every case was ignored by the media and not prioritized by law enforcement. We used to say, “White victims make the papers, black victims make the police blotters.”

I really got concerned with the Madeleine McCann case where the media would rather focus on a little white girl from England who went missing in Portugal than pay attention to missing Black, brown and Asian kids right here in the states. I checked with groups like the Center of Missing and Exploited Children, the FBI and other law enforcement sites. Black, Brown and Asian kids account for almost 45 per cent of all missing and kidnapped kids. Yet who gets all the attention?

But alternative sites like Color of Change, Black and Missing, What About Our Daughters, and Missing Minorities were highlighting kids who don’t get enough coverage, and it inspired me to do something I’m good at—create ad campaigns—for something more worthwhile than cars and toothpaste.

Q. Only a cold stone could not sympathize with the family of these kids, but such folks exist. So... has there been any criticism about the way you’ve chosen to go about this? I mean, no way your "Missing White Girl" spoofs is making you friends in all quarters.

Some people have emailed me saying that I’m just another Black person whining about “the white man” or “the system.” I get all kinds and I know the folks over at Black and Missing and the other sites that focus daily on this issue get their share of hate mail, too. All I can say is, when it’s your kid, your community that’s affected, you’re gonna want the whole world to stop ‘til that child comes home.

The white girl spoof actually furthers the point I’m trying to make. I got a bunch of mail from people saying that I shouldn’t be making fun of “people like that.” They meant missing white people. Most people who've seen the white girl and the white boy spoofs got it right away though and showed love. As for the rest, you can't please everybody.

You can’t get right with some people. I’ve gotten complaints for stretching some of the pics in Photoshop. People don’t keep camera-ready/production quality pics of their family members laying around so sometimes you just gotta tweak the pics to make ‘em fit. I say do your own campaign and hook it up the way you want. If you think this isn’t “expensive enough” then spend your own money and get out there and help instead of doing nothing but complain. I complained about what the mainstream media doesn’t do then I got busy to try and help. You’re free to do the same.

Q. So how do folks who want to step up go about it?

Spread the word. The artwork for the campaign is available online for distribution. It could be your kid next. I also encourage folks to know your neighbors. Many missing and exploited kids get snatched up by people from around the way. And keep a couple of media-quality headshots of your loved ones, something that reproduces well online and in papers. Outlets need artwork they don’t have to stretch, lighten or darken to use.

Q. Good advice that hopefully no one reading this will have the need to actually use. But you know I have to ask you this next. As a former ad man -- a Black man at that in an industry that still remains dominated by White men -- what do you think of the show Mad Men?

On the real? Mad Men reps the advertising industry the way Friends repped being a New Yorker or Two and a Half Men reps single parents. Granted, the industry was predominantly white male driven back then and still is now, but say why that is. Are these guys staunch racists? Are they latent bigots? Are they a "product of their environment?" Don't tell me that wouldn't make for better characters than what they have now. There’s drama in explaining that kind of bias. There's humor in that.

As for the rest of the show, it's not even how the industry works. You can do episodes about how you deal with different clients and types of ads and make it exciting and intriguing. Mad Men, in my opinion, is just some half-assed joint cooked up by folks who've either never worked in the industry or weren't allowed to do the show they really wanted to do in order to get it on the air. But leave it to the Emmys to pick some BS--filled show with white folks being loud and self-indulgent and call it "entertainment."

Friday, August 15, 2008

Coming Out When You're Not Gay?

“Are your parents coming to the show?”


Someone needs to write a book on how to come out when you’re not gay.  The catalog of books for White folks interested in promoting racial justice grows each day, and there are a some titles geared toward men committed to gender equality.  But where’s the how-to manual for heterosexual people who desire to be allies to LGBTQI community? Such a field guide would’ve come in handy when I served as the dramaturge for Pandora’s, the multimedia off-Broadway show produced by my company Sister Outsider Entertainment.


An ambitious production that intersperses ten monologues with seven documentary shorts, Pandora’s sought to bring a higher and more complex visibility to queer Latinas than you might see on, say, The L-Word. The show is the brainchild of its creative director Elisha Miranda who also happens to be my business partner. But E’s also my sister warrior, road dawg, ace coom boom.  In other words, she always has my back, and I always have hers. 





When Elisha told me years ago that she wanted to produce a multimedia show about the Latina queer experience and asked if I were dramaturge the monologues, I didn’t hesitate.  If anything, I was honored.  There were several more experienced and critically acclaimed playwrights she could have approached who would’ve jumped at the chance to work with her on Pandora’s (E be magnetic like that.) And that’s why when she asked me if my parents were coming to see Pandora’s when it premiered at Theater Row last month, the simple question reduced me to tears.


I hadn’t even told them about the show.


One reason I had not told them about Pandora’s is because, in explaining to them why Sister Outsider was “doing a gay show,” I would have to out Elisha.  My parents have come to love Elisha and her husband Alex as if they were their own children.  Although Elisha is openly bisexual and a relentless activist for queer issues, being married to a man often thwarts any consideration that she might not be heterosexual. As open as Elisha is about her sexuality, around certain folks like my parents, Don’t ask, don’t tell was in full effect, and I didn’t feel it was my place to announce her sexual orientation to anyone.


I explained this to her when she called and asked if my parents were coming to the Pandora’s premiere.  “Well, girl, you know, I haven’t said anything,” I said while standing in the shoe aisle at the Bruckner Boulevard K-Mart.  “’Cause, like, I’ve noticed in the past that you’ve kinda held back about talking about that when they’re around.”  Like the time we both stayed with my parents at their home in Puerto Rico. While there Elisha was finishing her novella for Juicy Mangos, the erotica anthology we were both writing for at the time.  Hers was about a lesbian who’s haunted by her first kiss. I noticed that when my parents were in earshot, Elisha censored the way she talked about her story, and I took that as a cue that she wasn’t ready for them to discover that aspect of her identity. Indeed, it would be like coming out to her own mother (who I affectionately call Mom2) all over again.




But when I explained this to her, Elisha surprised me by saying, “You know, girl, I know this must be hard on you because you’re single and after what your cousin did to you… I’ve seen how you get targeted in different ways so whatever you decide to do, I’m cool with it.   I support you.” 


When we ended our call, I sat there staring at it for a moment, thinking When did this become about me?   I walked shell-shocked out of the K-Mart, leaving behind those cute sandals I had been eyeing.  As I started on my way home, knowing that I would find my father nestled in the living room recliner and switching back and forth between the Yankee game and a Law & Order rerun, the truth hits. 


It was about me. 


When you’re a perpetually single, unapologetic feminist with a queer best friend (and therefore, run with more lesbians than the average heterosexual, single gal), queer and straight folks alike keep trying to yank you out of a closet you’ve never been in. Sometimes it can be flattering, a sign that you’re walking your anti-heterosexist talk. You’ve succeeded in communicating to queer folks not just with your words but through your actions You’re safe with me.


But more times than not, it stings of the homophobia that LGBTQI people have to endure every day.  For example, it becomes an  “explanation” why I go for long periods of time without a relationship (because, you know, it couldn’t possibly be that I have enough self-awareness and esteem to stay single than settle for any man just to be able to prove I can nab one.) For patriarchal men and women alike, it becomes an opportunity to dismiss my feminist ideals as well as a rationale for queer folks whose internalized homophobia is so deep, that despite their demands that straight people get over themselves, acknowledge their heterosexual privilege and become allies, they cannot fathom that someone is genuinely trying to step up and heed their call. 


No way.  She must be a closet case. 


I’m proud to say that most days I take these incidents in stride.  I understand the ignorance and fear in which they are rooted, and I know who I am as do the people who truly matter.  That’s a’ight. Go ‘head and do me like that. You’re saying way more about yourself than you are about me.  Having had considerable practice, I easily resist inclinations to assert my heterosexuality as doing so only perpetuates the homophobic thinking and behavior I have committed myself to challenging.  But I’m only human, and there are days when I particularly feel vulnerable and cower behind my heterosexuality, especially when it strikes close to home, and you don’t get much closer to home than with family. 


A few weeks before Pandora’s premiered, my own cousin targeted me this way. She was angry with me over something too petty to mention. Rather than contact me and discuss the matter, she wrote a blog where she stated that if I’m a lesbian why don’t I “quit with the bitch-assness” and “come out already, damn!!!”  Mind you, this same cousin fancies herself a queer ally because she never misses an episode of her favorite show The L-Word.

I didn’t realize how much that blog impacted me until Elisha asked me if my parents were coming to see Pandora’s and I had to admit that I hadn’t even invited them.  At first, I didn’t even think my cousin was referring to me when she wrote that blog, and my primary contention was not with the homophobic allegation disguised ironically as an anti-heterosexist demand to keep it real.  It was that she chose such a juvenile way to express her anger with me. And I believed that was all there was to it, especially when I confronted my cousin and never mentioned the suggestion that I was a closeted lesbian. 


But when I reflected on my conversation with Elisha as I walked home from K-Mart, I had to confront myself.  For all my talk, I could no longer deny that another reason why I had not even mentioned Pandora’s to my parents was because I was afraid that they, too, might think (and worry and fear) that I was a lesbian. This is what brought me to tears: the realization that I wasn’t the ally I prided myself on being and had failed my best friend, my homegirl, my camarada who never thinks twice about standing up for me.


I walked for several blocks, sniffling to myself, Bitch, you ain’t shit.


What I needed to do was instantaneously obvious, too. I had to invite my parents to Pandora’s.  The sudden buzzing in my stomach at the thought confirmed that “outing” myself as a queer ally and dealing with the repercussions whatever they may be was the right thing to do. 


So when I got home, I settled in besides my father in the living room.  “Look, Elisha and I are doing this off-Broadway show, and I’d like you and Ma to come,” I began after some baseball chit-chat. “The thing is you should know that it’s a gay show.”  I give Pa all the reasons why producing a project like Pandora’s is important to me, all of them boiling down to the same fact: it reflects who I am and what I stand for as a person. Then I confess, “And the reason why I haven’t said anything until now was because I was afraid that you might think I was gay.”

Pa and I end up talking for about three hours, from the personal (all the gay people he admires like “Pompa” who works hard and is a great son) to the political (“It is kinda messed up that they can serve in the military but can’t get married so the wife or husband won’t get their benefits if they die at war.”) Now let’s not get it twisted.  I went to Pa because he’s unusually open-minded for a person of his kind – a working-class Puerto Rican man who came to the United States in ’52. That’s why I often describe myself as my father’s daughter (with not a small hint of braggadocio), we are the best of friends, and all my friends want to adopt him. 


But he’s still very much, well, a Puerto Rican man who came to the United States in ’52. Hence, there are some things he just can’t grasp, sometimes out of sheer unwillingness.  Pa Dukes doesn’t “get” bisexuality, definitely belonging to the “pick a team” school of thought on that one but, in his defense, so do many gay people) so forget about breaking down what it means to be transgendered.


But I did try, and that in and of itself is no small victory.  My parents didn’t go to Pandora’s, and to be totally honest, I didn’t approach Ma for reasons other than (but not excluding) residual homophobia.  But she did know that Sister Outsider was putting on a show (even if she remained unaware of its content), and when I would come home, Pa would smile and ask, “How’s it going?” genuinely interested in the backstage lore (OK, gossip.)


Just when I thought it wasn’t possible, Pa and I are even tighter because no part of who I am or what I believe is hidden from him. It truly paid off to feel the fear and do it anyway.  Hopefully, I’ll be an even better ally now that I have personally experienced an inkling of what it must be like to come out.  In fact, maybe I’ll evolve into a better activist overall, recalling this feeling the next time I’m in a cynical funk and smirk at a man who claims to be a feminist or a White person who describes him/herself as anti-racist.


In addition to being evidence of one of the feminist movement’s most insightful contributions to social justice of all kinds – the notion that the personal is political –  “coming out” as a queer ally to my father has proven to be a multifaceted blessing.



Thursday, August 14, 2008

A (Feminist) Job for Tyrese

Lately, I’ve been inspired to explore the “ride or die chick” archetype. According to the best rated definition in the Urban Dictionary, this is “a chick that ain’t afraid to be down with her man, she’ll do anything her man needs her to do.”

From what I see, she’s the only female in mainstream hip hop that gets any love on a regular basis (mothers and daughters don’t fare nearly as well.) Rappers write odes to RDC, and she has become a staple in predominantly male “urban” films (as if Sex and the City, Gossip Girls, et al aren’t urban, but that’s for another blog.) I wanted to see just what a sister has to do get any respect in a genre roundly criticized for its misogyny.

So I head over to Hollywood Video and stock up on videos I ordinarily wouldn’t go near (the sacrifices one makes for social justice.) Most of these were trashed by critics and tanked at the box office only to rack up on the video market. In other words, plenty of folks are spending time and money on these movies without a half-damn for the opinions of J. Hoberman., A.O.Scott or any of these cats with initials for first names.

First into the DVD player is Waist Deep starring Tyrese Gibson and Meagan Good. Meagan is second on my list of Sisters Who Are Better Actresses Than the Roles They Get (Vivica Fox has been hard to dethrone, but let her keep on with the excessive and unnecessary surgery, hoochie antics and the WTF? flings with dudes like 50 Cent…) Despite a breakthrough performance in Kasi Lemmons classy debut Eve’s Bayou, Meagan has become a preternaturally beautiful young woman who appears regularly in films that range from the tolerably mediocre to the laughably awful. But the sister’s a goddess in hip hop circles. In fact, I select Waist Deep because she is the female lead. Gwendolyn Pough once argued that Jada Pinkett Smith was a “hip hop” film icon because by merely casting her in a role, filmmakers immediately evoked that girl who was “in” the hood yet not “of” the hood. As I settle in while the opening montage plays, I suspect that Meagan Good is on her way to becoming the symbol of the “ride or die chick” archetype.

Yes, overall Waist Deep is crappy. Sure enough, Meagan is your classic RDC who does everything her man Tyrese says so they can hustle up the loot he needs to pay off the street urchin who has kidnapped his son. And as to be expected from most films in this genre, there’s just enough visual oomph, bumping music, and crispy dialogue (Larenz Tate just skyrocketed to the top of my Brothers Who Are Better Actors Than the Roles They Get list) to make it entertaining enough for you to see it through the end, forestalling the inevitable recognition of how terrible it actually is.

But here’s the craziness. Right or wrong, I watched Waist Deep expecting all the aforementioned to be true. That said, I expected I would have to push myself to don a more sophisticated lens when deconstructing Meagan’s character CoCo, understanding that very few films can be fairly described as irredeemably sexist or thoroughly progressive.

What I didn’t expect was for Tyrese’s character Otis to be the most feminist character in the movie.

[Note: Waist Deep was co-written and directed by Vondie Curtis Hall who is also married to Kasi Lemmons so maybe their union plays a role in what I’m about to discuss.]

Not because he relinquishes male privilege, overtly stands up for women’s equality or anything radical like that. (C’mon now… this is the Game’s acting debut. Playing a thug named Big Meat, no less.) Otis stands out in the small but explicit ways he challenges traditional ideas of masculinity. For example, he is the primary caretaker of his son, stands up against violence towards women and doesn’t feel entitled to sex with CoCo simply because she’s in his line of sight.

OK, let me keep it real. Otis’s is only a slightly kindler, gentler patriarchy. He’s left with his son because his babymama’s a treacherous ‘itch, and he intervenes when some dude hits CoCo by issuing a merciless beatdown (yelling the entire time between kick and punches What the !@#$ is wrong with you, boy? Don’t you ever beat on no mother!@#$ing woman like that!) Hey, this is still the ‘hood, and Otis aka O2 is still is a down-ass thug nucca, ya feel me. For this genre, such male behavior is kinda sorta progress.

[Spoiler alert: If you haven’t yet but want to see Waist Deep, stop reading. Yeah, I figured you’d keep going. I ain’t mad atcha.]

Aw, hell. Maybe all that’s BS, and I just got taken in by the ending. Whether it’s an homage or a ripoff, there’s no denying that the climax of Waist Deep was inspired by both Set It Off and Thelma & Louise, two films wildly popular by feminists of all stripes from the street corner to the ivory tower. After smirking through much of the film, I found myself perched on the edge of my recliner when Otis, surrounded by police, drives his car off an open bridge. “Oh, no, they didn’t!” I yelled at the television. “No, you did NOT bite off of Thelma and Louise!” And let me ‘fess up. As I watched O2’s car sink into the river, I said it.

“That boy better be dead.”

Because if he was a woman, that’s the way the film would end. The tropes of feminist popular culture deems that it go like this:

1. Woman breaks out of suffocating traditional sex role.

2. Woman is deemed outlaw for such defiance and is sought out for punishment.

3. Woman gives the patriarchy one last fuck you by refusing to submit to punishment.

Therefore, unless, this is sci-fi, fantasy or some other genre not rooted in contemporary realism, homegirl must die.

So for a few moments, I was a bit heated that a film in which the female lead is little more than a plot device, the male protagnist not only gets to appropriate the bittersweet chick flick convention where the true RDC only makes the ultimate sacrifice for herself and other women, he also gets to live. He makes it to Mexico. And he has a family waiting for him to boot.

And yet if not for this appropriation, I might not have ever gone back and reexamine the character of Otis and noticed some of the other things about him that are unusual -- in a good way -- for a male character in this genre. Rather I was focused on what messages were conveyed through the female character CoCo. Yet I always preach to young men of the hip hop generation that feminism is for everybody and can liberate them from debilitating ideas of masculinity.

So this ending reminded me that part of the feminist project must include seeking out men – and representations of them in the media – that challenge archaic notions of masculinity, big and small. Like I said, Waist Deep stays overwhelmingly loyal to the tropes of its genre which implicitly necessitates the marginalization of women, and ain't changing no time soon. Within those narrow confines, however, it does engage in tiny betrayals and even, steals, er, borrows from the best of pro-women popular cinema.

So if the RDC for the cause of women’s liberation can sometimes be a man, then maybe sometimes we have to send Tyrese to do a feminist’s job.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Dodging Snagglepuss

I walk into the bodega for my cafecito looking forward to my day when there he is. Snagglepuss. That’s what I call him. Not that he knows that, but if he keeps harassing me, he just might find out.

Snagglepuss is a tubby, not-quite-menacing-yet-not-quite-comforting, gap-toothed dude who lives in my neighborhood and my latest recurring headache. He claims to be my age, but hard knock life makes him seem a decade older. Every time he sees me he says hello in that way that doesn’t strike me as very neighborly. So I ignore him, but then Snagglepuss calls after me, insisting that he’s known me since high school. I may forget a name, but I’m pretty good with faces, and with an unforgettable (and not in a good way) mug like that? No, I don’t know Snagglepuss. Never did. Dude’s lying.

I’m tired of being in this position – not knowing if it’s best to ignore a character like this or to make an effort to be friendly. Street harassment is easier to deal with when a woman encounters it outside the neighborhood where she lives. For the most part it doesn’t matter how you handle it – ignore the unsolicited invitation or opinion, attempt to engage the perpetrator in a diplomatic session of consciousness raising or fire off a pithy comeback meant to shrivel homeboy’s testicles long enough for you to escape around the corner. Just assess the circumstances, follow your instincts, and keep it moving. The chances are very high you’ll emerge unscathed and never see this joker again.

Not so when the perpetrator resides in your neighborhood. The stakes are higher because the creep knows where you live. He knows which stores you patronize and which subway you take. He can discern when you come and go, when you’re with company or by yourself. And if he’s entrenched in the street life, he knows more people than you. People you make a point not to know.

So do you ignore him or do you try to make nice? Ignoring him might get him riled up, unnecessarily escalating the situation. Then again, maybe a little small and quiet hello is all the man needs. Perhaps acknowledging him for the human being that he is will quell his desire to objectify you. And maybe it’ll even have practical benefits because he’ll tell the other corner boys, “Leave her alone. She’s a'ight.”

But what if you’re wrong? You just might decide to be neighborly and have your friendliness rewarded with more of the same harassment. In fact, it may spread like a virus. What if you give homey an “in”, and he runs with it? Yeah, I know her, dog. She fine, rah? Ayo, shawty…! Now you can’t go to the Chinese takeout for some rib tips without him and all of his boys hollering at you from the liquor store across the street.

Like I said, I’m tired of having to think about this shit, especially this early in the morning. Buying a cup of coffee at the corner bodega shouldn’t require that I run the mental calculus of street politics at the speed of light. I should be able to offer a genuine hello to anyone in my neighborhood without pausing to assess whether the gesture will result in my being me more or less safe.

But there’s really no ignoring Snags today. I’m trapped with him in the narrow aisle between the counter and the junk food rack as I wait for the bodegüero to prepare my cafecito. “Good morning,” he says, eyeing me up and down. Because there are other people in the store, and the proprietor is keeping a fatherly eye on me, I decide to err on the side of humanity.

“Uh, yeah, hi.”

“Oh, my God!” yells Snaggle. “That’s the first time you’ve talked to me in years. Like I said, I went to high school withchu.”

I’ve done what I’m about to do now and have regretted it, but I decide to do it again. Be honest with the man. “What you need to understand is that a lot of guys say that they know me when they don’t.” I say this with a tone that unmistakably conveys And the jury’s still out on you, bruh. “But when I try to be nice and say hello, the next thing I know, they’re following me around and harassing me.”

“That’s ‘cause they do,” he insists.

Aw, shit. Should’ve kept my mouth shut. But I can’t now. “No, they don’t. I know who I know,” I say. “And just because you see me around don’t mean you know me.”

“Yeah, you be keepin’ to yourself,” concedes Snagglepuss.

Then he launches into how much better the neighborhood is now as compared to the eighties at the height of the crack epidemic. He recalls how at this hour the street would already be teeming with people buying and selling crack. I glance at the bodegüero, and it becomes evident that Snagglepuss has never been nor will ever win customer of the month here. He rolls his eyes at Snaggle’s lament which does seem to smack with a bit of nostalgia. His mouth says, “Yeah, it used to be so bad back then,” but his bloodshot eyes tear: Ah, the good ol’ days.

Apparently, the proprietor has enough of Snaggle’s fake whining and wants him out his store, but he’s not going anywhere while I’m there. So I rope the poor guy into the conversation. I translate Snag’s lament in Spanish. "Eso lo qu’esta hacienda él ahí," he smirks as he snaps open a paper bag for my coffee. "Vendiendo drogas." The second he says that, Snagglepuss bops out of the store without having bought a thing. Clearly, he understood what the proprietor said about him, but somehow I don’t think he learned that in Mrs. Bitetti’s Spanish class.

I chuckle, “Siempre ‘ta diciendo que me conoces.” I peek out the door to see if Snaggle took off, but he’s loitering out front. “Dique asistió la escuela conmigo.”

The bodegüero scoffs at that one. “¡El nunca fue a l’escuela!”

I start laughing. True that, too. Snaggle doesn’t even know where the high school is. I take my coffee, wish the proprietor a good day and head out.

No sooner do I step onto the sidewalk is Snagglepuss sidling up to me, doing exactly what I hoped being nice to him would avoid. “You have a nice day,” he leers.

I’m thinking Sure, once you leave me the hell alone. But I mutter, “Yeah, you, too.”

“You married?”

This time I make sure dude can see me roll my eyes. “Yeah, I’m married,” I lie. I hate that I have to do it. I shouldn’t have to do it, but you do what you have to do in the ‘hood. Time will tell if it even matters. s

Monday, August 11, 2008

Another Reason to Love America (Ferrera, That Is)

When Blakely Lively grabbed a chance to hijack a promotional opportunity for The Sister Hood of the Traveling Pants to shill for her own show Gossip Girl, the Ugly Betty star let's her feelings be known without saying a word.

Going Out of Print

Today, I received an email from agent informing me that Burn and Picture Me Rollin’ are going out of print. Although I saw this coming, it’s no less disheartening. And yet despite the bad news, something inside my soul resonated.

I’m more than an author. Damn it, I’m a writer. I’m truly a fuckin’ writer.

Many thoughts – overwhelmingly negative thoughts – flashed through my head first. Fuck publishing. People getting imprints for trafficking in stereotypes, and I’m going out of print? Just stop writing novels and stick to…

Whoa! Slow your roll, Sof. Stop writing novels?

I can’t even imagine that. Some of the stories inside me – the ones I feel most compelled to tell – are novels. They’re not supposed to be films or plays, at least not in their original incarnation. The novels I write are meant for people who value the intellectual and emotional engagement demanded of literary text, whether that person is the feminist professor who assigns it to her (or his) students to the teenage girl who yearns for a protagonist who is much like herself or someone she loves. These stories were meant to be conveyed with the intimacy that only a book can deliver. That is, experienced one person at a time through words that can be absorbed at a pace the reader sets. A story such as Picture Me Rollin’ is meant to be revisited in an effort to discover layers and nuances. They are meant to be opened and closed, entered and exited, put down and picked up, ll to a rhythm that is unique to the person who signed onto the journey, his or her ideals and accomplishments, insecurities and regrets, passions and aspirations, in tow.

So many other things you can do with your eyes closed with much more reward and less frustration, but, no, you won’t pick up your marbles and go home. Dique you can’t do it. Yeah, you’re a writer.

I have known for some time that something needs to change. For example, I certainly need to become a much more effective promoter of my own work. Gripe what you want about what the house won’t do for you, the bottom line is, no one can care about your work more than you. Maybe I should consider self-publishing. Sure, I’ll trade off one set of problems for another, but what I gain will make prove them worthwhile.

And it can never hurt to do as much as I can to become a better writer. As paradoxical as it may sound, the less the industry values craft, the more imperative it becomes to cultivate it. Don’t ask me to explain that. I can’t. I just instinctively know it to be true and suspect that artists of all stripes will intuitively understand what I mean when I say that.

But not writing the stories that I feel compelled to tell, stories that I know have a broader audience than my sales indicate, stories that I truly believe can do more than provide a few hours of mindless entertainment… the idea crossed my mind, but my spirit immediately rejected it. Do you know what that means?

Yup, I’m a writer.

Maybe the trick is to invest in breast implants and make my way through a particular industry on my back, keeping a meticulous diary along the way. No, I just need to fuck one person. Someone strategically placed in the publishing industry, gender, sexual orientation, and marital status be damned. Or I maybe I can spend a few days cranking out something ridiculously commercial, wholly unoriginal and unapologetically salacious and submit it under a pseudonym of nondescript ethnicity. Or better yet, do something incredibly stupid yet public to become famous then hire someone else to write it for me under my own name.

Nah, I’m a writer.

If one of my novels had been optioned for film, made a bestseller’s list or received a rave review, I’d probably share that on my blog as most authors would (and should.) I decided to blog about my last two Black Artemis novels going out of print because, while few will admit it, this is the more realistic and common occurrence of being a novelist in the mainstream publishing industry. And oddly enough, the very compulsion to blog about this proves one thing that no one can deny.

For better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness or in health, I’m a writer.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Meet Me & Support the Hip Hop Theater Festival

The Hip Hop Theater Theater Festival
hosts a book fair at the Court Street Barnes Noble in Brooklyn on Friday, August 22nd from 7:00 - 8:30 PM.

Join me as I read from PICTURE ME ROLLIN' in support of HTTF so it can continue to invigorate the fields of theater and Hip-Hop by: nurturing the creation of innovative work within the Hip-Hop aesthetic; presenting and touring American and international artists whose work addresses the issues relevant to the Hip-Hop generation; and serving young, urban communities through outreach and education that celebrates contemporary language and culture.

At the book fair, the HHTF will distribute vouchers so that a portion of your purchases benefit the organization to keep in the necessary business of finding, developing and introducing to the public new artistic creations from a diversity of cultures and points of view and bringing new, younger audiences to the theater in large numbers.

The event is at the Barnes & Noble at 106 Court Street in Brooklyn which is just south of the Boro Hall subway hub. See you there on the 22nd at 7 PM.

For more information, hit up:

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Baby, Alive!

Three African American women in their mid forties eat seafood outdoors at Johnny's Reef Restaurant and suddenly burst out in song.

You don't have to be a star, baby, to be in my show.

A few tables away, I sit with my parents, chasing my last bite of friend shrimp with a sip of sangria. I turn around and smile at them. Another slightly older trio of African Americans at the table directly next to them a gentleman and two ladies smile as well. One of the singers says to them, “Bet you don't know who sang that?”

Even if I'm wrong, I see where the conversation is going, and I want to be a part of it. “Leo Sayer,” I guess. I'm pretty sure I'm wrong about the artist, but I've got the right decade

“No, that's Peaches and Herb.”

”Nooo,” I say. “That song before their time.”

The sister who asked me by the condiment bar if she can have one of my salt packets says, “Yeah, now that you say that, I'm thinking…”

Her friend guesses, “Ashford and Simpson.”


Finally, the older brother calls out, “Billy Davis…”

“...and Marilyn McCoo!” the sisters yell. Everyone shares a good laugh. Of course, any conversation about seventies soul is going to lead to laments about today's music. Today, the lament leads to reminiscing about old school toys.

A third trio of women on our other side join in. “Remember paper dolls?”

Oh, yeah, paper dolls. You had to cut them out.

“I think they still make them,” I say, remembering racks of them at the old Coliseum Bookstore in midtown. “I think people who design costumes for theater use them.” Everyone nods their heads, pleased to know that they still exist and are being put to such lofty uses.

“I miss Colorforms,” I add. “They need to bring those back.” I swear I'd be a bunch of sets if they did.

“I used to love me some Baby Alive,” says the woman who started the singing. “You felt like you had a real baby. You fed her, you changed her…”

I never liked or wanted Baby Alive. I had a few friends who owned that doll, and the Hasbro didn't really think her through. “She was fun until all that gunk got trapped inside,” I remind them. “You didn't know you were supposed to clean her out until it was too late.”

“That's right!” says my salt-loving friend. “Some of the baby food would get trapped inside, and she'd get corroded.”

A woman from the table on the far side said, “Remember those dolls that could walk along with you?”


That reminds me of another large doll of the seventies. “Remember Tiffany Taylor?” I ask. “You'd twist the top of her head, and you could make her go from a blonde to a brunette.”

Yeah, yeah!

“And Spirograph.”

“And coloring books.”

“They don't make good toys like that anymore,” says Miss McCoo. “All the kids do nowadays is this…”

Everybody twiddles their thumbs, miming a child playing Xbox.

Then I say something that makes me sound as if I sit on the later half of fifty, but let the truth be spoken. “Go outside! Play Double Dutch, hopscotch, Hot Peas and Butter…” The amen chorus fuels my rambling list as my own childhood comes back to me. “… box ball, Hide n- Seek, skullies,… We had video games but still went outside on a nice day.”

Miss McCoo says. “They don't have anything that makes them use their creativity or imagination.” She doesn't sound frustrated as much as she seem sorry. “You had to sit down and cut out those paper dolls. Now you can't get a coloring book unless you go to Barnes & Nobles.”

“Well, sometimes the guys in the street have them,” says her friend.

But the singer is off on her own ramble…”But nooo, now that got that Sudoku.”

“Now, now, now,” the older brother says good-naturedly. “I love Sudoku.”

Yeah, girl, don't mess with a man's Sudoku. I offer an olive branch for my sister's well-intended oversight. “At least, that challenges your mind.”

“Yeah, that's true,” says Miss McCoo, and we all laugh. As each group finishes its meal, we bid each other farewell as if we just might see each other again. You'd think that after a conversation like that, a person would feel depressingly old. But I have a feeling we all left feeling very much alive.