Category Archives: Race

How One Black Person Responds to “How Black People Use Twitter”

The ridiculous artwork that accompanied the ridiculous article

It was something in the title that first struck me, the blatant, definitive, all-inclusive sound of “black people” in the title of SLATE magazine’s “How Black People Use Twitter.” Apparently it was time, the editors decided, not only to focus SLATE’s penetrating eye on the specific ways in which African Americans—we “black people”—utilize the popular social networking site which allows individuals to communicate in 140-character chunks of verbiage, but also how we bend the site to our own (apparently) racialized ways. The first time I read the article I was a bit bemused by it; my first thought was, well, should anyone be surprised that black folks happen upon some existing entity and re-create it to fit their own style? Of course not, American history is rife with musical, sartorial, and cultural shifts caused by the mere re-arrangement of codes that black folks decided to use to make things sound, look, and just work better for themselves—and eventually anyone else who decided to come to the party (sometimes stealing it in the process, but cultural theft is a blog post for another day). To be real, the so-called melting pot that is American (popular) culture seems as if its been eternally stirred by the fierce and hard-fought attitudes and moods of black folks who like for things to be what my grandmother used to call “just-so.”

But then I read the article a second time and I felt almost as if I was reading some updated version of 19th century racial anthropology or some foray into the heart of darkness, where the cultural ways of black folks get investigated with the usual mixture of shock and surprise and awe, a reversion back to that age-old regard for black folks as merely grouped-together objects with (of?) style, instead of actual individual subjects with points of view. Based upon the oh-so-interesting premise that even though black folks on Twitter use hashtags like #wordsthatleadtotrouble in an insular and provocative—and (apparently) black—way, these Tweets trend extraordinarily high in the Twitterverse and have taken to being referred to as “blacktags.” According to the piece’s author Farhad Manjoo, “The prevalence of these tags has long puzzled nonblack observers and sparked lots of sometimes uncomfortable questions about ‘how black people use Twitter.’” “What,” he asks, “explains the rise of tags like #wordsthatleadtotrouble?” (and, later, #ghettobabynames). “What,” he asks, “is it about the way black people use Twitter that makes their conversations so popular?” “Black people—specifically, young black people,” he decides, “do seem to use Twitter differently from everyone else on the service. They form tighter clusters on the network—they follow one another more readily, they retweet each other more often, and more of their posts are @-replies—posts directed at other users. It’s this behavior, intentional or not, that gives black people—and in particular, black teenagers—the means to dominate the conversation on Twitter.” And therein lies my real problem with this article.

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On True Blood: Long Live the King

I never ever thought I’d ever say this again, after pretty much writing off the show after one of the confusing and awful Maryanne-as-slave master episodes last season, but: I’m starting to really enjoy True Blood. It’s not that it’s gotten any better to me; it just feels more entertaining. And my reasons for enjoying it can be summed up in two words: Denis O’Hare.

I’ve been a fan of O’Hare’s work ever since I saw him in the original Public Theatre production of Richard Greenberg’s Take Me Out. I loved the play and O’Hare’s expertly-rendered, heartbreaking performance as the gay accountant of a recently-out baseball star so much that I saw it again on Broadway.  So, to be blunt, I was sorta nervous when I heard he was subjecting himself to the trainwreck of over-acting and bad writing that was True Blood, a show that somehow managed to make otherwise good smart actors (cf. Michelle Forbes, Evan Rachel Wood, Lois Smith, Adina Porter) into screeching, unappealing cartoons.

Well, maybe O’Hare’s too good or too smart. Because his work as Russell, the King of Mississippi is nothing but funny and engaging. He plays the blend of put-upon husband and petulant royal to the hilt, as if he knows it’s all one big joke anyway, so why not invest it with a little heart and humor and, as my buddy Al, calls it delicious evil? Perhaps his lover Talbot put it perfectly when he told the King, “You’re acting like a century-old child.”

O’Hare’s presence has given me something to pay attention to when I’m looking away from the dubious racial imagery True Blood has been playing with all season. Ever since the overly-symbolic representation of Maryanne as slave master last season, it seems as if Alan Ball and his staff of writers have decided to just go full-out with all the master-and-slave shenanigans, most often putting Tara (and regular readers know how I feel about that particular disaster) into some of the most stereotypical slave images I’ve seen in a piece of American pop culture since Mandingo—and that movie was about antebellum times (and, believe it or not, in some ways smarter than True Blood; see it if you haven’t)! Tara chained to the bed in the southern plantation in a Victorian era-looking (white!) cotton dress, held down to the whims of her white “owner.” Tara escaping the chains, and fleeing barefoot across the plantation, dogs snapping at her heels. Then, after one of the dogs catches her, it transforms into a nude white guy mounting her in a very sexual way.  I know bodies (and the various ways of queering of them through dress, behavior and, well, death) play an important part in the True Blood ethos, but when you’re dealing with the black female body, in an overwhelmingly white, Southern, (over)sexualized context, perhaps you’d wanna re-think some of the visual tropes you’re trotting out for your upscale, liberal HBO audience. The sad part is this: I’m not even sure that Ball and co. actually realize the power of playing so indiscriminately with such overdetermined imagery. Do they think they’re making some statement about race and gender? Or are they just trying to push the envelope? Either way it’s coming off in a rather distasteful and disturbing way. It’s not Great TV. It’s racism.

Anyway, it has been interesting to observe the more explicitly queer aspects of the show take root, starting with Sam Merlotte’s dream in which Vampire Bill glamoured him into a shower sex romp. Of course we didn’t see it happen—Sam was saved, literally, by the bell (the ringing of his phone)—but it woulda been good; seemed to be more chemistry between the shape-shifter and the Vampire than I’ve ever witnessed between Bill and Sookie. I was happy to see Lafayette get some loving—well, at least a kiss—from the only other dude-of-color to ever appear in Bon Temps since Eggs got shot. And how about sly old Eric Northman? (I love that character’s name even though up until last night the man himself didn’t do much for me.) If there’s one thing Alan Ball’s characters know how to do it’s to use sex as a weapon. Too bad Talbot had to be on the, um, receiving end of Eric’s revenge scenario. But only True Blood could make the prelude to murder into sexy freaking foreplay—with a striptease, natch! I loved the convo before they got down in the groove: Eric “It’s been a long time since I’ve done this.” Talbot “A man.” Eric “No, a vampire.” Funny, sexy, piquant with expectation.

For a second there I thought I was watching an episode from the first season!

See the scene below:

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Race, Fandom, and The Years of Living Mel-lessly

{I know the right way to approach the Mel Gibson story (if you don’t know about his racist, misogynistic outbursts caught on tape you  might wanna read this first) is to be either hiply cynical (y’all sure he didn’t say nigga?) or just casually jaded (racism! from Mel? whatever, man!), but maybe cause I was a fan, neither approach satisfies me. I’m too old to be shocked, yet too shocked to avoid it…}

I’m one of those people who likes to know which movies people consider their favorites. Especially if I sense you might be a person I might get close(r) to: I ask, very early on, “What’s your favorite movies?” It’s not that I judge their tastes—God knows I’d prefer someone to have very bad taste than no taste at all—it’s more that I like to learn from others, and if you seem cool, your choices in movies might be cool, and I’ll discover something I didn’t know about.

I’m also the type of person who, depending on the day, will try to make sure that you see at least some of the movies that I love—partly because I have a tendency to quote them, but also because sharing flicks is, to me, sharing a deep part of me: the movies I love really do, like the books I love, I think, define who I am. I am a fan, and proud to call myself one, someone who nonetheless understands and relishes his fandom as a complicated site of oft-needed pleasures and cultural belonging.

Two movies I’d always refer peeps to: The Year of Living Dangerously (problematic in some ways but oh so sexy) and Tequila Sunrise (problematic in other ways but endlessly fascinating as an investigation into the nuances of male friendship). Both because I think they’re top-notch examples of Hollywood filmcraft, rich of character and ambience, filled with grace notes of longing and loss, and because they starred one of my very favorite movie stars: Mel Gibson.

Suffice to say, it’s been years since I’ve watched a Mel Gibson movie. Dating back to 2006, to be exact.

When I was a teenager, Mel Gibson was The Man: coming off the over-the-top action of the Mad Max flicks, he was infinitely watchable in the Lethal Weapon flicks, and by the time I was an adult, Mrs. Soffel and Gallipoli (which I discovered late), showed him off to be quite the actor, equipped to perform touching moments that felt real and true, who also had—compared to other big stars—impeccable taste in material and the directors he worked with. And though I saw Payback and Signs, the last Gibson film I can say I really liked was Ransom. A Ron Howard throwback to high-Hollywood suspense burnished by a sleek contemporary world-weariness that wore well on its entire top-flight cast, Ransom felt in many ways like Mel cementing his eventual Clint-ness (as in Eastwood)—as wrinkles deepened along with the presence, as maturity began to take the place of rip-roaring braggadaccio.

I didn’t much love Braveheart; it felt a little over-determined to me, and I won’t even get started on the blatantly nasty homophobia that marred the representation of King Edward as such a complete, I don’t know, nelly(?), that he might as well have been—as the direct opposite to “masculinity” in which he was portrayed—literally, a Queen. Thinking back, was this the beginning…?

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The Secret Life of Marketing?

I’ve been thinking a bit lately about “audience.” By which I mean, who buys what, and why do they buy it? Where do they buy it, and what gives them the idea to buy? I thought about this a few years ago when my book HUNG came out: it got a good amount of placement in bookstores, my publisher bought an ad in the New York Times, I got a great review in the New York Times Book Review a coupla Sundays after it came out. And though it sold decently,  it wasn’t the “HUGE” seller (no pun intended!) that my publisher expected. AND I got emails from people–mainly guys–saying that even though they found the subject matter interesting, they’d never buy my book because there was a naked guy’s torso on the cover. Wow. I was also fascinated by the fact that on Amazon, for instance, HUNG always came up in searches for gay literature. Even though there wasn’t a ton of “gay” stuff in the book. Rarely did I find it coming up in searches I did for African-American lit. Was this because of the naked guy’s torso on the cover? Who knows. All that said, I’ve been curious then, not only about “audience,” but also about marketing in general: why do certain books (or movies or TV shows or records) get funneled toward certain audiences and not others? When do—HOW do—the decisions get made to point interest in certain pop culture projects in certain directions? When does race or sexuality become the be-all and end-all of how companies decide to promote a book or movie or CD? Maybe HUNG didn’t sell as well as expected because of the cover? Because some perceived it as a “gay” book? Because white audiences weren’t interested in a book “about” the cultural ramifications of the black penis? Because it wasn’t written all that well? Because it was “too intelligent,” as one of my Amazon reviewers commented? Who can say?

Of course I’d like to think we live in a world where everything’s culturally equal—of course we do: I recall how “crossover” became a touchstone word back in the 80s, particularly around music. I’ve seen plays with black themes succeed wonderfully on Broadway, and Toni Morrison sell well AND win both the Pulitzer and Nobel prizes (and, saleswise, I remember a week in the 90s, I think, when Morrison, Alice Walker, and Terry McMillan were all on the NY Times bestseller list in the same week). I’ve seen Will Smith become the biggest movie star in the world, and hiphop become the soundtrack of suburbia. Yet for all this cultural “equality” there’s still a process of “ghettoization” that goes on in the pop culture sphere (just like in real life, one supposes), and I can’t help but think some of it has to do with who’s getting hired (still) to do the marketing for some projects. I remember when HUNG came out and I had my first meeting at Doubleday, the only black folks in the room were my editor, me, and my agent.  But there’s also apparently this sense out there that black folk like a certain kind of cultural project—and I guess, when Tyler Perry sells the tickets he sells and the street lit sells the books it sells on street corner tables everywhere, that attitude is re-confirmed. Not that there’s anything wrong with Tyler Perry or street-lit; if that’s your thing, roll on. But it’s not everyone’s thing—definitely not every black person’s thing…Aaron McGruder definitely made that point clear a coupla weeks ago…

I don’t know what the answer is. Some black work breaks on through to the other side, finding a wide audience; some black work does well catering solely to black folks; a lot of black work languishes when similar “white” work goes on to wide success. Then there’s the age-old debate as to, not only, whether black folks read or not, but also whether white folks will read a book or see a movie or play with a specifically “black” theme. I was fascinated to find that two articles in major dailies are grappling with this issue in different ways. Author Bernice McFadden wrote a stirring editorial in the Washington Post this weekend about the “ghettoization” of black literature by publishers and in bookstores, and the New York Times pubbed a piece today about how Broadway plays with black themes get marketed to black audiences.  It’s interesting how the concepts overlap, yet diverge in very telling ways.

Bernice McFadden’s essay, click here.

New York Times piece, click here.

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