Day 39: Tanning as the New Black Face?

Another admission: I watch Jersey Shore. Yes, that reality show full of problematic representations of Italians and of my now home state, New Jersey. Full of uncouth behavior and random brawls. And full of acronyms like GTL (gym, tan, and laundry).

Which brings me to the focus of this post. The characters on Jersey Shore can’t go long without visiting their local tanning salon to darken up. During their time in Italy, they are unable to keep up with the “T” in their GTL ritual and comment frequently that they are changing into colorless, pasty people. One of the first things they do when they return to the United States is go tanning. Pauly D, in fact, gets an especially intense tan and burns his face to the point of being unable to move his facial muscles. But, at least he is darker.

For people on Jersey Shore, tanning is about “representing.” As Pauly D explains, “I was born and raised a Guido. It’s just a lifestyle, it’s being Italian, it’s representing — family, friends, tanning, gel, everything.” Why tanning is part of representing Italian identity is very curious to me.

As I watch these folks religiously tan and make getting and staying darker such an important part of their existence, I can’t help but be reminded of black face images from stage and screen. Black face minstrelsy was a racist form of entertainment that became quite popular in the United States beginning after the Civil War and extending into the 20th century. In these shows, black characters were played by white actors “disguised” as blacks by blackening their face with the ash of burnt cork. Black figures in these shows were horrid stereotypes of black culture.

In 1986, when I was just starting high school, the comedy Soul Man was released. The movie is about Mark Watson, a socially and economically privileged white student (played by C. Thomas Howell) who is afraid that he will have to pay his way through law school. In order to appear to qualify for a scholarship for African-American students at Harvard Law School, he decides to take a larger than prescribed dose of tanning pills to appear black. Initially, Mark believes that black people have it made, but then, once he begins living as a black man, he finds that he is treated very differently than he was when he was seen as a white person. Along the way, he also ends up dating Sarah, a black female student who happens to be the other student who applied for the scholarship; she now waits tables to pay her way through Law School. Eventually, Mark is put in a position where he has to admit to his charade. He plans to pay back the scholarship money and to do charity work to make up for his wrongdoing, and Sarah decides to give him a second chance. Howell’s blackface performance was not well received generally and the NAACP protested the use of blackface in the film.

For the purposes of this post, Soul Man conveniently links tanning and racial appearance together. I wonder, in terms of tanning in the context of Jersey Shore, is there a way that “representing” Italian culture draws on what is perceived as cool and replicable about blackness? Or about other racial identities that could be referenced with a darker skin color — Indian, Native American, Latino, Asian, Middle Eastern?

More to the point, according to this post (’s-1899-arizona-football-and-blackface-fans/), racial mockery through donning blackface is alive and well on college campuses across the country. Blackface in a “post-racial” America? These are the kinds of cultural moments, cultural performance, that notions of the “post-racial” potentially allow us to avoid discussing. Perhaps our students don’t see their actions in a context of racial stereotyping. But, not knowing does not mean that their actions don’t do the work of recalling racial stereotypes.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Day 38: Giving in to Harry Potter

I admit it. Until recently, I was a bit of a snob when it came to all things Harry Potter. What was all the hype about? Why read Harry Potter when you could read Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings series? Wasn’t Harry Potter’s world a mere derivative of Tolkein’s imaginative genius?

I’m not usually this way about most things. I’ve used popular culture references in my classroom, even in my dissertation. And I’m not a fan of making lists of “the books everyone must read to be educated” sort. I’d much rather discuss books in terms of what kinds of questions and concerns they invite us or challenge us to grapple with. Recently, one colleague astutely commented in a meeting, “Life is too short for great literature. Give me a good book.” I immediately wrote the comment down. At least to my ear, it suggests that, while we are debating whether or not a book is worthy of the classroom or of our own reading time, or while we are asserting a norm around aesthetic values that inevitably provides a limited sense of what stands as literature, we could actually be reading, experiencing, discussing a book.

OK, so back to Harry Potter? Why was I so resistant to this cultural phenomenon? Why was I privileging the LOTR phenomenon over this one? I discovered Tolkein’s The Hobbit back on that Boston Latin School Summer Reading List I mentioned in an earlier post. I was immediately smitten — the language, the landscape, the different types of characters, the journey. And how can anyone resist the brave and quirky Bilbo Baggins? Oh, how I wanted more! And, fortunately, the novel was connected to the LOTR series. Then, much later, came the movies, and they renewed my love of these books. I have friends who also share this love of these books, enough even to propose that we all meet later this year when the latest LOTR movie premieres, and that we can only attend if we each dress as a character from the books/movie. Geeky, yes, but oh so much fun! What LOTR is for me and my friends is very much what Harry Potter is for the generation growing up with the J.K Rowling novels, movies, and products.

So this Christmas, when most of the kids on my buying list — Logan, Lucas, and my three nephews in Boston — wanted all things Harry Potter, I delved into the world of Hogwarts and wizardry to figure out what a budding Harry Potter enthusiast would love to find in her or his Christmas stocking. I ended up finding wooden wands on Etsy (my high school students told me not to buy the regular commercial wands because they break too easily); the wands have the kids’ initials burned into them because, of course, as we learn in The Sorcerer’s Stone, the wand chooses the wizard. (Also, a less cool, practical reason is that these initials will quiet any fights about whose wand belongs to whom!). I compiled a few spells from the series that I found on-line and gave the kids each their own personalized book of spell.

This weekend, when we were in Boston, the kids all got together and played Harry Potter. They cast spells, defeated “the bad guys,” and dressed in wizard robes. The older two kids talked about the books. The younger ones listened. For them, these books and characters have made reading a social activity, one where they learn to socialize with their peers in part by sharing their love of reading and their love of imagining.

Now that’s a powerful spell.

Has Harry Potter cast a spell on you or your kids?

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Day 37: Notes from an Adopted Self, the Prequel

When I was younger, I imagined my baby self in a room full of other Lund babies waiting to be adopted. Rows and rows of plastic cribs filled the room, and everything in the room — cribs, linens, curtains, clothes, even the signs with our assigned numbers — was a sterile white. I imagined my parents coming into the room, looking up and down the aisles at all the babies, and eventually choosing me.

Of course, when I shared this with my mother, she softly laughed and then explained to me that, while she and my father chose to adopt me, they didn’t actually see me until they had signed all the adoption papers. They knew I was an infant girl, that I was biracial, and that I was healthy. Nothing more. When they saw me, I was wearing a green two-piece outfit that they had to leave at Lund. So they dressed me in an outfit they brought with them and gave me my name: Nicole Leta Brittingham.

My parents, Harry and Virginia Brittingham, married after serving in the Korean War — my father as a gunner and cook in the Navy, my mother as a secretary in the Army (more precisely, in the Women’s Army Corps). They were in their early 40s when they got married after seeing each other only once and writing to each other for a year. Snail mail!

After they married, my parents moved to Boston; Jim Crow was still alive and kicking in the South in the 1960s, so they moved North and found jobs. At the time, my father worked at the Chelsea Naval Shipyard and was also in the Navy Reserves; my mother worked as an administrative assistant and also attended a two-year college.

While they wanted desperately to have children, they couldn’t and so they decided to adopt. They contacted an agency in Boston but, according to that agency, they were not considered good candidates for adoption because they were older and working class. My mother was furious. She felt like she served her country and now should be able to adopt a child and raise a family. She even wrote a letter to the White House complaining about the situation.

Then, one day, my mother decided to search the phone book for other adoption agencies. This was in 1971. She saw an advertisement for the Lund Home and called the number. The adoption coordinator at Lund invited my parents to fill out the necessary paperwork. My mother said that the people at Lund seemed excited to have my parents in the pool of adopting parents. Not many African-Americans were adopting at the time (at least not formally; blacks were adopting in the sense that there were informal kinship and community arrangements that involved grandparents or other relatives raising a child. These informal adoption arrangements have a long history in the African-American community. There is a bit of that history reflected in my family tree. Recall from my earlier adoption posts that my biological paternal grandmother wanted to adopt me. My adopted maternal grandmother also raised several of her grandchildren and cared for at least one great-grandchild).

What I learned, too, after my research visit to Lund about two years ago, was that the agency was struggling to find parents for biracial or African-American children; couples were looking for white babies. This period in Lund’s history (1971-1972) is called in several pieces of archive material the “Problem Years.” Lund saw its lowest adoption placement numbers during this time. Not only was Lund struggling financially to keep its programs going, but the agency was also trying to reeducate couples about what and who constitutes a family unit so that they would be more open to the possibility of raising a child that was racially different from them.

Few biracial or African-American infants were adopted in the early 1970s at Lund. All of us were cared for by foster parents until we were adopted. Fortunately, I was adopted when I was just 2 months old — on April 21, 1972. Unfortunately, many children were not. Why me? I don’t know. If not me, then who? These questions are overwhelming. All I know is how — or at least pieces of how I came to be adopted. And who I’ve been able to become largely because of that fortunate start. I returned to Lund only once during my childhood. I was 18 months old and my parents returned to Vermont to adopt a two week old baby — my brother.

On this 40th birthday, I am so thankful that my parents’ desire to have children led them to Vermont — to me.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Day 36: No Ordinary Artists

“I decided on the spot that I would be an artist, and I assure you, it was no ordinary artist I had in mind.” –Henry Ossawa Tanner

A sincere artist is not one who makes a faithful attempt to put on to canvas what is in front of him, but one who tries to create something which is, in itself, a living thing. –William Dobell

During our visit to Boston this weekend, my in-laws threw me a surprise 40th birthday party. I celebrated my birthday early with four generations of family members and a few dear friends whom I hadn’t seen in a few years. We had a wonderful time hanging out, playing, opening gifts, and, of course, eating delicious, home cooked food.

Among my generous and thoughtful birthday gifts were paintings created by Rafiq Ali, one of Nigel’s cousin. I’ve known Rafiq since he was about 10 years old, and he was always drawing such striking images. Recently, he’s been painting portraits by request. He works from a photograph, and the portraits he created for us were painted from professional photographs that Nigel’s sister, Crystal, took at Wyatt’s baptism. To say that his paintings are copies of these photographs, though, would totally ignore the artistry that is so apparent in them.

The painting Rafiq did of Wyatt visualizes his young spirit so keenly that, when I unwrapped it and saw it for the first time, I was drawn into the painting like I am pulled into Wyatt’s face now — just overwhelmed with a feeling of awe at this newish, precious person. It took Rafiq weeks to paint Wyatt’s portrait, he said, because babies are really difficult to paint. I’ve heard that before, once from a professional painter in Vermont who said that he doesn’t paint children’s portraits until they are at least five years old. Young children just change so much so quickly that it is hard to render them in a lasting portrait. Rafiq painted and repainted this portrait and even spent some time with his baby nephew just to get a better feel for what he wanted to accomplish in the portrait. He told me at the party that, in the end, he didn’t want to let the portrait go; he had spent so much time with it.

And the portrait of Nigel and me captures us on Wyatt’s baptism day. We were back at our house taking pictures with family and friends. The house was packed — the best way for us to celebrate our new little one. The original photograph actually pictured us holding Wyatt between us, but Rafiq repainted it the way it appears here:

These portraits will always be two of my most cherished, valuable pieces of art. With these paintings, as with the other portraits Rafiq has painted recently, there is a way that he is able to capture so much more than a person’s visage. He renders a person’s spirit. What a gift — for an artist to take precious time to create art for someone else and to capture with care people in a particular moment in their lives. And, in doing so, to share an artistic vision of not only some of who the person in the painting is, but also what the artist sees within the subject. And because I know Rafiq, I know that he pours himself into his art; he is immensely connected to his creative process. When I see these portraits, I can’t help but also think of the positive energy he emits from within himself.

When we got home from our trip, I immediately put the pictures on our mantel. They joined the portraits we asked Natalie Del Villar to paint of Logan and Lucas a couple of years ago. Natalie also has a keen eye for the character of her subject, and she creates such fresh, enlivened portraits, full of verve. We are fortunate to know her through her brother, Angel Del Villar (aka Homeboy Sandman, (his own lyrical talent who Nigel and I taught years ago at the Holderness School). It’s quite a gift to know and witness such creative talent.

When I showed Wyatt his portrait, he became really excited; he kicked and smiled. I think he recognized himself in it.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Day 35: Race in the Mourning Time

Whitney Houston’s funeral yesterday prompted an email conversation between myself and a group of friends that raised questions about how black performers who are viewed as crossover artists often are “reclaimed” by the black community when they fall from grace or die. “When Whitney was on top of the world, she transcended race – she was all of ours. When Whitney crashed and burned, she became a “black singer” – she was all theirs,” a friend shared today. When they are successful, when their style and manner are palatable to a majority fan base, performers like Whitney Houston is said to transcend race. When such performers develop addictions, die untimely deaths, or otherwise “fall from grace,” they begin to be perceived by whites as descended in blackness, rather than transcending it. This doesn’t only apply to Whitney Houston, but also and perhaps more palpably to a star like Michael Jackson.

While the funeral services of these two stars — Whitney and Michael– were so different from each other (take, for one, the different venue choices with Whitney’s return to Newark, NJ and her childhood church, and Michael’s event at the Staple Center and the different statements these services made) what interests me most is the line of thinking by a larger culture that each of these figures, in their own way, transcended race to become pop icons.

It seems that in these moments of mourning, race becomes magnified. Far from transcendent, there is something about these moments of mourning around figures like Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston that remind the general populace that they are, indeed, black. And were all along.

What does it mean to “transcend race”? How do you “transcend” race anyway and why should anyone try or want to? By suggesting that blackness in particular is a racial aspect that needs to be transcended, risen above, implies also that blackness is limited in it’s scope of expression, of humanity. In this respect, the idea of “transcendence” is actually quite problematic, especially given that, in public discussions of race, we never talk about a white person transcending his or her race. What would it look like, what would it mean if we started thinking about how whites transcend whiteness? Do we think of Steve Jobs as a white man who transcended race to produce technology that even people of color would purchase and enjoy? How white people have a race too?

This notion of transcending race doesn’t only come from a majority perspective. Whitney Houston was criticized in black owned publications such as Ebony and Jet at points during her career for creating music that was “too pop” and “not black enough.” But as a good friend asked today, what is pop music if it is not black? Think about the ways in which Elvis Presley appropriated what he heard as a cool black sound that he replicated in pop music. Despite what these publications said, Whitney Houston was always a black woman singing pop music. And, by singing pop music, she actually expanded the sonic landscape, situating herself as a black female vocalist squarely in the soundscape of pop music.

These moments of mourning black celebrities perhaps also emphasize the need for us to think differently about racial difference and how we perceive it — in others and in ourselves.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Day 34: Angry Birds

You may know about the popular video game, Angry Birds. In this game, players use slingshots to launch angry, wingless birds at pigs that have taken the bird’s eggs. As players advance, new birds appear, and some of them have special abilities. The goal is to destroy all the pigs on the screen.

When I think of Angry Birds, I can’t help but think about the political landscape in this presidential election year. I’m not the only one (see for example NPR NH Republican Primary ). Most of the comparisons to this video game focus on the GOP candidates — campaigning politicians hurling words at each other and about the President like wingless angry birds, hoping they’ll aim well enough to knock themselves into the White House come November.

There is little substance in the debates I’ve heard. We’re engaged in semantic games defined and played by men acting like school boys fighting over a ball during recess. We have politicians in Congress who are making decisions, not based on engaging the pressing needs and issues of the moment, but on their signed pledge to vote unilaterally regarding raising and cutting taxes. And instead of treating women’s healthcare rights as the complex issue it is, politicians are waging a simplified culture war over women’s bodies.

The recent debate regarding contraception coverage and between pro-choice democrats and pro-life republicans (who, by the way, also tend to be pro-death penalty) is based on a fallacy. The real issue is, of course, more complex and concerns a woman’s right under the Constitution to pursue happiness — to define the contours of her life for herself. While the Founding Fathers did not necessarily have women in mind when they signed our nation’s governing document, this statement applies to women as well, the citizens of this country who shoulder the bulk of contraception costs. If the cost of Viagra is covered through health insurance, why not The Pill? To allow the views of a few powerful men to frame or ignore the private needs of women and families in this country is unconscionable.

It’s no surprise that the focus on the campaign trail turned to social issues when we started seeing slight decreases in unemployment numbers. Who knows how long this heightened political and media attention to social issues will last. For now, at least, there’s an opportunity to take all the anger being slung around and transform it into energy towards inter-party change. For the Democrats to grab the current culture war and actively reframe it and engage in it as a war for lasting and systemic social and political change. 1, 2, 3, 4, I declare a culture war…

The danger is that, if we can’t shift from the current iteration of these culture wars, if we can’t move beyond anger, what is best for this country and its people will not be politically possible.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Day 33: Deer Sighting

This post has very little to do with deer. And yet I wouldn’t have seen what I saw without this recent deer sighting.

The kids and I were on our way home from school yesterday when I noticed a deer lying on the side of the road. The young deer presumably had been hit by a car as deer often are in our area of New Jersey. The deer’s head jutted out a bit into the road, causing me to swerve to avoid hitting the carcass. I avoided running over the deer and looked back in my rearview mirror to see if the kids had noticed anything. I saw Logan looking out the back window of our car. She then turned around to face the front of the car and our eyes met. She had seen the deer and was in deep, feeling-full thought about it.

I asked her right then if she was alright. When she answered, “I think so, ” Lucas wanted to know what was wrong. Persistently, he kept asking, “What happened, Logan?,” until she answered, “I just saw something.” Of course Lucas wanted to know what she saw. Finally, while looking my way, she told Lucas, “I just saw a strange leaf, that’s all.”

It was the first time I noticed that Logan intentionally was, in her mind, protecting Lucas by making up a story. In this instance, she obviously thought it was best for Lucas not to know about the deer. She probably thought that he might get upset at the sight of one of his favorite animals laying lifeless on the road, although he has seen deer like this before. And she seemed to be letting me know, with just a look, a sighting, that she was big enough to handle seeing the deer and old enough to keep her little brother from knowing what happened. She revealed an awareness in this moment — she was aware that I knew what she saw, and she decided to create an alternate story that wasn’t true, but nonetheless was meant to protect. That deer sighting belonged to us — to me and her. And Logan’s brief fib and her calm look let me know we could handle it.

She’ll be fine. I hope I can handle it — she is growing up so fast. All my kids are.

Have you experienced similar moments with your children?

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment