the meek shall inherit the earth

I recently visited the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery to see Jennifer Angus’ bugs. Big bugs on walls. Little bugs on walls. Lots and lots of dead bugs on walls. Even crushed and ground bugs used to make pink paint that is on said walls.  (See pic below.)

#renwickgallery
Courtesy of US artist Jennifer Angus’ exhibit currently on display at the Renwick Gallery

I found these bugs impressive and I was amazed by the artist’s ability to turn fear and discomfort into a thing of beauty. It was a happy marriage of entomology and aesthetic critique.  But, as is often the case with art, its meaning can shift with time and with the knowledge of the beholder.  For me, Jennifer Angus’ bug exhibit, particularly this image I captured of carefully preserved insect corpses arranged in the shape of a human skull, has gained new hemispheric meaning.

In the two hours that the GOP debate spent draining our time and energy, a great many women have contracted the Zika virus.  Surely, some of those women are pregnant. Transmitted in the saliva of the mosquito genus aedes aegypti, Zika virus first surfaced in Brazil in May 2015.  Since November there have been more than 4,000 Brazilian babies born with microcephaly that is related to the Zika virus they were exposed to in the womb. And, according to the World Health Organization, 3 to 4 million people will be infected with Zika in the next year.  What percentage of those millions will be pregnant women?

Aedes aegypti is a very bad gyal (the female mosquito is the one who does the “biting”). Besides Zika virus, she also transmits yellow fever, malaria, Chikungunya, and the Dengue virus.  According to the CDC, in 2013 a half million people, many of whom were African children, died from malaria.  Overwhelmingly, the people of the tropics and subtropics are the people who are at risk of these diseases. (I will resist conspiracy theory.) Curiously, I must add, the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro are set to begin in 188 days and their official website has yet to make mention of Zika.

For those of us looking to stay in this hemisphere while hiding from Zika, the cold is our only possibility of salvation. So, not surprisingly, it will be chilly Canada for the win. Latin America and the Caribbean are in Zika’s sights.  Aedes aegypti has already spread the infectious disease from Barbados to Ecuador and from Paraguay to Haiti.  To date twenty four countries on this side of the globe are facing real viral threat.  And while my in-depth feminist comments will be detailed in a forthcoming post, I would be remiss if I did not at least mention that in El Salvador women of childbearing age are boldly being asked by governments and health officials to postpone reproduction.

Yes, the meek mosquito has found another way of inheriting the New World. Who will suffer most this time? I think Dr. Eduardo Espinoza, El Salvador’s vice minister of health, is pointing to the answer.

black pop, black hair, black fear?

**Updated 3/17/16** See video addendum below.

Admittedly, I still listen to the radio. I am just not willing to relinquish the FM dial.  I find worth in the way that radio gives a sense of what is popular and what is propaganda. And as I think about my preset hip hop stations and the slippages between the music played on the hip hop stations and the music played on the pop stations, I cannot help but think of how far hip hop has come from its roots, its core, and its early audiences. Musical genres like blues, reggae, hip hop, rap, and dancehall connected listeners by articulating struggle. Today, much of hip hop, rap, and dancehall may be better categorized as contemporary “black pop” as they are short on conscious content and long on “catchy vocal hooks” and “funky rhythmic grooves” (I am borrowing words from this thorough bullet-point breakdown on black pop). For an answer as at why this shift towards sex, violence, racks, stacks, and cake have been the mainstays of rap and hip hop since the mid 1990s I deflect to a Hip Hop DX interview with the “Freaky Tales” king himself, Too Short.  As a conspiracy theorist Too Short points the finger at record executives. Fair enough. But as I considered the music that I am hearing on the radio presently, the fact that popular hip hop’s content shift took place during the mid 1990s raised more questions than answers for me. Here’s why.

In 2014 Robin S.’s “Show Me Love” (1993) came back in a big way when DJ Mustard sampled it and reworked that track into the ground with “Show Me” going platinum and “Main Chick” being met with much sales success as well.  Both songs were by Kid Ink and featured Chris Brown.  To me, they were redundant, but I will try to reserve judgment.  We also saw the return of the 1992 mega dance smash “Rhythm is a Dancer“, by German Eurodance group Snap!, in the form of Jeremih’s “Don’t Tell ‘Em” 2014 single, which was also produced by DJ Mustard.  In 2012 Kendrick Lamar’s single “Poetic Justice” sampled Janet Jackson’s “Any Time, Any Place” (1993). And listening to the radio this week my memory continues to be struck by the ’90s samples present in today’s black pop.  From Brownstone’s “If You Love Me” (1994) sampled on Tory Lanez’s “Say It” (2015) to Shai’s a capella version of “If I Ever Fall In Love” sampled on Jeremih’s “Oui” (2015) it seems that the melodies of twenty-odd years ago are back. But the flashbacks do not stop there.

It might seem in step with the musical sampling that black women and black men today are donning the hairstyles that were popular during the early to mid-1990s.  What was captured in popular movies like 1993’s Poetic Justice or any of the House Party franchise films we now see everywhere. Hello, box braids and box cuts!  From Iman Shumpert on the basketball court to the everyday kid at the mall, from Gabrielle Union and Taraji P. Henson to the girls and women in school and in the office, big black hair is everywhere. Yes, the 1990s are back.

Casual popular references aside now, with the uptick in violent attacks on black bodies, I am inclined to question whether or not there are navigable links between black hair and black fear. As more black hair styles are seen in the public domain do they serve as a reminder of black pride? Do they serve as a reminder of a pride that can induce fear of blackness in a social/racial/political environment that has historically read the black body with suspicion? Is black hair contributing, inadvertently, to black fear?  Maybe I should say fear of black instead of black fear.  Whichever the order of the words, I am talking about the kind of fear that leads to gunfire. The kind of fear that leads to murder.  The kind of fear that led to #TamirRice, #MichaelBrown, #EricGarner, #TrayvonMartin, #EricHarris, #SandraBland, #FreddieGray, #SamuelDuBose, #WalterScott, #JonathanFerrell, #AmadouDiallo, #EmmettTill, and the broader reminder that #BlackLivesMatter.

Malcolm X said that chemical straightening or a conk was a black person’s attempt at whitening himself.  In his autobiography he said that the conk was evidence of black “self-degradation” (91). Indeed the 1960s Black Power Movement that began in the US and spread across the hemisphere and globe was captured in hair. In Jamaica, reggae artist Linval Thompson spoke directly to this on his classic 1976 record “Don’t Cut Off Your Dreadlocks.” Natural hair like the afro, like dreadlocks were ways for black people to express their self-pride.  So today, as black women trade in relaxers and Yaki weaves for kinky braids and closely cropped afros, their blackness is visibly essentialized.  As black men forgo cuts in favor of growing their hair taller and taller, their blackness is visibly essentialized.  Essentialized, for better or for worse, by hair choices that undeniably identify black people as black during a time when blackness continues to evoke hostile fear. And so I ask, how much is this style shift also a black pride shift?  And if it is a black pride shift, what a powerful way and a critical time to make this pride known.

Once upon a time for-us-by-us music was made with a sense of purpose-concern-awareness of realities pertaining to being black in the ghetto, being black in America, being black in the Caribbean, being black in this world.  Maybe the connections between black hair and black fear will soon be recorded using a catchy melody and set over a heavy bass line.  When that happens, and especially if it happens on the radio, I will certainly listen in.

*UPDATE*

I came across this video post (March 16, 2016) on Facebook by Black Girl with Long Hair and thought it was a relevant video to share within this post.

Indeed we need to pay attention to all of the historical and cultural signs that we encounter today.  From hairstyle to clothing style, its all worth reading.

a good story

Located south of the Atlantic Ocean, east of Venezuela, west of Suriname, and north of Brazil one will find the intriguing English speaking country of Guyana.  Despite being attached to the South American mainland, Guyana is undoubtedly West Indian (read: Anglophone Caribbean) and shares in that Caribbean legacy of colonization and multiplicity.  But before there was a Venezuela or a Suriname or a Brazil, or a colonizer from any European nation, before there were indentured laborers from India, and before there was an importation of enslaved Africans, there were the indigenous groups who called this little piece of the globe home. These people, their languages, their customs, and their beliefs still thrive today. They are known collectively as Amerindians. Locally, in Guyana, Wapixana, Arawak, Carib, Patamona, and Warao are just a few of the Amerindian tribes surviving today.  So why am I sharing this history lesson?  Because fifteen years ago I read a good story by a Guyanese author of mixed European, African, and Amerindian heritage and her story has never left my mind.

Pauline Melville is the author of The Ventriloquist’s Tale (1997). In this novel readers are taken deep into Guyana’s (then British Guiana) hinterlands and out to the coastal capital city of Georgetown and far off to Canada as the plot unfolds during the first third of the 20th century.  The novel is ripe with everything I never knew I wanted in a fiction: incest, mythology, colonial oppression, a general fear of miscegenation (racial mixing), a general fear of culture mixing (the losses never match the gains), and a palpable anxiety for both knowledge and freedom as both come at a cost. Yes, The Ventriloquist’s Tale is a very good story and because it is very good it has continued to haunt my mind, and I mean that in the best way.

Good stories are not good because they are sweet or kind. Good stories are good because they are honest. Good stories are good because they expose truth.  Good stories are good because they show us something about ourselves and make us ask tough questions. And we know these stories are good because we connect with them and never let go.  Good stories haunt us forever.  Last month my paternal grandfather passed away after falling ill.  Three days ago family and friends gathered to celebrate his life.  As I stood at the church pulpit to read my grandfather’s obituary aloud, that good story by Pauline Melville surfaced again.  It echoed as I spoke of my grandfather’s birth in the small district of Milestone in Jamaica.  I heard it as I spoke of his move to New York City where he made a life in Queens. It quieted as I named his siblings, his friends, his wife, his children, and grand- and great-grandchildren.  But it was there as I listed his jobs, accomplishments, and hobbies and spoke of his love of mangoes and calypso.  It grew to a piercing pitch as I spoke of his date of return: ashes to ashes.

My memory of Melville’s novel surfaced because my grandfather’s obituary was not his life, it was not his good story.  Rather, my Jamaican grandfather’s life was one good story after another and always a lesson laced with humor. It was a story told in patois, Spanish, and Yankee. It was a story of carefully selected words and purposeful pauses.  It was a story told in a chuckle and a story told in a sigh.  It was a story of digressions and redirects. And always from his lips came a story of love. Love of family, love of God, love of friends, love of countries.  Always to my ears came a story of life. A life built by family, by God, by friends, and by countries.  No, his obituary was not his life. And this is why that clever, confident trickster narrator, Macunaima, in The Ventriloquist’s Tale came to me as I read his obituary.  Breaking free of the fiction, Macunaima engages the reader directly when he says: “Writing things down has made you forget everything. […] Do you think a man’s life is slung between two dates like a hammock? Slung in the middle of history with no visible means of support?  It takes more than one life to make a person” (2).

Like Melville’s The Ventriloquist’s Tale, my grandfather’s good stories will haunt me forever, in the best way. As but one of the lives who made up the person that was my grandfather, I can say that he was a storyteller of the best order.  His own memories of people and places were as sharp and as pointed as they come.  No, his life was no hammock of dates. His life was rich with experiences that he bestowed to all as gifts of memory.   And I hope that writing this down does not make me forget a thing.