Archive for the ‘pop culture’ Category

Lost & Found: Go [Bleep] Yourself!

What would this nation do without Jon Stewart?!? The Daily Show has taken the recent controversy over South Park and its  (attempted) depiction of the Prophet Muhammad and turned it into a profound commentary on religious and artistic expression. This segment is smart, hilarious, and delightfully reckless. Plus, the gospel choir at the end of the segment is not to be missed.

This (Black) American Life

Sometimes I imagine that I am Ira Glass, reflecting on society’s oddities and ironies behind the microphone at WBEZ Chicago, pondering new punchlines to humanity’s oldest riddles, narrating stories with the conversational rhythm of old friends at the kitchen table.

To my mind, there is no better radio program than This American Life (and maybe Car Talk) for its creative and clear-eyed appreciation of everyday life. Take an episode from this past summer called “The Fine Print” (#386) that brilliantly loops together the hidden meanings of contracts, forced confessions, insurance policies, a parent’s divorce papers, and an fictitious agreement between a son and his overbearing mother. This last story by David Rakoff, subtitled “Occupancy May Be Revoked Without Notice” made me howl with laughter and passive-aggressive shame.

The show isn’t well known for its rich cultural representations; what’s “American” about this particular life is the diversity of experience – microscoping in, telescoping out and around the peculiarities of a single theme. I think it’s safe to say that the show’s content reflects the interests of the typical white, progressive, well-educated NPR listener, though its audience is undoubtedly¬† a bit younger than the target demographic for Prairie Home Companion. Lately, though, I’ve begun to think that This American Life is missing a precious opportunity.

In a program that takes such care in finding the unique textures of our contemporary moment, I crave more complex stories about black Americans that uncover everyday truths and unexpected levity in the midst of crisis. Mini-narratives that recognize racial realities without being limited by the latest controversy. Or segments that shape the raw multicultural materials of NPR’s Oral History Project, StoryCorps, into creative works of art. I don’t get the impression that This American Life aspires to “color-blind” airwaves – and if often covers the impact of international issues quite well – or that its producers are going out of their way to avoid stories about race and black experience. Nevertheless, I can’t help but express my growing frustration with the fact that so many stories about this American life have yet to be aired.

And now, for your consideration:

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This (Black) American Life

Episode #1: Name Games

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Prologue: One year into Barack Obama’s historic presidency, our nation’s Secretary of Post-racial Affairs, writer Colson Whitehead, reveals that America’s racial crisis can be better understood as a “branding problem.”

Act One: “Obama Middle School”

A reporter follows the efforts of a group of school children and their parents who want to rename their middle school, not after the 44th President, but after First Lady Michelle Obama.

Song: “Blak Girls” by Shelley Nicole’s Blakbushe

Act Two: “His mama named him Clay, I’ma call him Clay.”

As a freshman at Howard University in the 1980s, Phillip Johnson stunned his family and friends back in South Carolina by taking an African name. Over 20 years later, he considers why it may have been one of the best and the worst decisions of his life.

Poem: “I Am a Black” by Gwendolyn Brooks

Act Three: “My Name is Roosevelt Franklin.”

Hear the story from one of Sesame Street’s creators about the controversy surrounding a favorite African-American character, Roosevelt Franklin, who was retired from the show in 1975 after complaints from parents. Now as Roosevelt makes a cameo appearance in the show’s 40th season, we reflect on the lessons of the muppet who taught us that “Black is a fact, there is no taking it back.”

Song: “The Skin I’m In” by Matt Robinson (the voice of Roosevelt Franklin)

TBoH Recommends: SuperNews!

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It’s your favorite YouTube viral video meets The Daily Show, or perhaps a South Park version of The Office. SuperNews is a new half-hour animated sketch show on Current TV that features hilarious political, entertainment, and technology satire. It also has one of the best vocal impressions of Barack Obama that I have heard to date (although it’s hard to compete with Iman Crosson). President Obama is notoriously difficult to parody, but the show finds creative ways to poke fun at the White House and our contentious political climate, as in the sketch “Obama Hits the AIG Spot”:

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TBoH’s Top 10 Villains in Black Popular Culture

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Entertainment Weekly recently published an article on the “Top 20 Heroes and Villains in Popular Culture” (both lists can be found here). I’m delighted that my favorite movie hero, Ellen Ripley, ranked #5 and wow, what a nice surprise to see Foxy Brown (#13) featured three spots higher than Jack Bauer (#16) on the hero roll call.

I was disappointed, however, by the representation of African Americans, particularly among the pop culture villains. On that list, the closest we get to a black person is the voice of Darth Vader (#2) – the mighty James Earl Jones. I would take nothing away from Hannibal Lecter (#3) or Annie Wilkes (#14) who have surely earned their notoriety, but hey, EW, “how come their ain’t no brothas on the wall?”

To make up for this oversight, I’ve been inspired to compile a list of my own (in close consultation with Frieda, my husband, and anyone else who would listen). Let me know what you think. Did I forget anybody important? Would you rank these characters different? I’m just having fun with this, so let the debate begin!

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Top 10 Villains in Black Popular Culture

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1. Evilene (Mabel King) in The Wiz:

Nobody embodies villainy better than The Wiz’s Wicked Witch of the West, Evilene, who runs a sweatshop in the NY sewer, wreaks havoc on the lives of Dorothy and her friends, and can belt out a tune that brings flying monkeys to their knees. And the way she steps down off her throne and cracks her whip is without match. Just listen to her growl don’t nobody bring me no bad news! and it’s end of discussion, no contest.

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2. Mister (Danny Glover) in The Color Purple:

Abuser, adulterer, and sniveling idiot. Although he works to redeem himself at the end of The Color Purple and eventually earns the privilege of being identified by name (Albert), his cruelty and contempt can never be forgotten.

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3. Russell “Stringer” Bell (Idris Elba) in The Wire:

Stringer Bell’s memorable run on The Wire represents the emergence of a new and improved villain, soft-spoken, college-educated, and ruthless. He’s street smart and book smart (and yummy to look at).

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6a00d41438c4456a4700fa9686d0480003-320pi14. Eartha Kitt’s Catwoman:

Eartha Kitt is the classic Catwoman and the sexiest villain ever. Who doesn’t know her trademark purr?

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5. Nino Brown (Wesley Snipes) in New Jack City:

The Scarface of crack-cocaine, Nino Brown has become synonymous with parasitic drug dealers who cripple their own communities for greed and power. Though some may want to put him on the list of heroes, there’s nothing about Nino worth emulating. Rock-a-bye, baby!

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6. Stagger Lee (Lee Shelton), Black Folk Legend

Okay, so I went way back for this one. The legend of the cold-blooded murderer, Stagger Lee, has been the subject of dozens of blues songs since the early 1900s including Mississippi John Hurt’s wonderful “Stack O’ Lee Blues.That bad man, oh, cruel Stack O’ Lee! His story is unraveled in the excellent graphic novel by Derek McCulloch and Shepherd Hedrix, and he just recently popped up in my favorite webcomic, Bayou.

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7. John Harris, Sr. (Michael Beach) in Waiting to Exhale:

Angela Bassett’s character set this cheatin’ man’s car on fire and millions of black women across America cried out in victory!

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trainingday_l1 8. Alonzo (Denzel Washington) in Training Day:

I don’t think any of us were prepared to see Denzel transform from an easy-going mentor to a heartless criminal with a badge. This Oscar-winning role instantly secured his place as a top villain in black popular culture.

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resisting_slavery 9. Simon Legree in Harriet Beecher’s Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin:

Of all the slave drivers who could (and should) have made this list, few are more vicious that Simon Legree, the fictional Louisiana planter that beat Uncle Tom to death without an ounce of regret. Even black folks who have never read Uncle Tom’s Cabin get chills when they hear the name Simon Legree.

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zzprinceofegypt 10. Ol’ Pharaoh (Ramesses II) from “Go Down, Moses”

The first villain our enslaved ancestors dared to identify by name in the most well-known Negro Spiritual of all time. Taken from the Book of Exodus, Ol’ Pharaoh was a symbol for any and every slave owner, for the institution as a whole, and the will of millions to overcome their oppression.

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Runner-Up Villains:

  • Mr. T in Rocky III
  • Sweet Daddy Williams (Teddy Wilson) in Good Times
  • Darryl Jenks (Eriq La Salle) in Coming to America
  • Elijah Price (Samuel Jackson) in Unbreakable
  • Wilhemina Slater (Vanessa Williams) in Ugly Betty

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“Changing Seasons”

Now the steely gaze of a Female Cop,
(too tough to love)
will begin to soften and linger a moment longer
on the District Attorney’s back.

A newborn baby is about to be stolen, but
Mr. T is coming by,
and the gang has just touched down in
mrtsunny Acapulco.

Now come the time slots
we welcome,
the twists and turning points.
The evil twin.

We stay tuned to the changing seasons
and to each other, knowing
we’ll be right back.
This catchphrase, this commercial break away
from wonder.

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This is my first contribution to Totally Optional Prompts – a site I discovered through Black-Eyed Susan’s – where participants are asked to write a poem based on a weekly theme. This week, in honor of Spring, the theme is “season change.”

“You Know I Don’t Mean You”

smurf018This week I spent some quality time with Dear Darkness: Poems by the incredible poet, Kevin Young. He draws on his Louisiana roots in this new collection, mourning the loss of family and faith with the characteristic voice of a bluesman. Poems such as “Another Autumn Elegy” are particularly moving, while other verses use images of food in funny and surprisingly reflective ways. Take the “Prayer for Black-Eyes Peas”: “harbor me & I pledge each / inch of my waist not to waste / you, to clean my plate / each January & like you / not look back.”

But I was especially excited to discover that Dear Darkness reprints what is, without a doubt, one of my favorite poems about the adolescent negotiations of race:

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Lost & Found: For the Santa in All of Us

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A few links, videos, and other online ephemera from our favorite sites this past week:

  • twitter-16x16TBoH has discovered Twitter! Honestly, though, beyond posting blog updates and reading what others are doing, I still don’t know how to make this high-tech time-waster useful. (Do you really want to know what I’m eating for breakfast?) If you have tweets to share, follow us here!
  • Watch: We finally saw Wall-E on DVD last weekend. Like all Pixar’s films, it is visually stunning. But the story’s message about self-preservation, earth conservation, and a loving, anthropomorphic trash-compacting robot was more captivating that I ever imagined. In other words, I was crying big, sloppy tears by the end.
  • Laugh: Okay, David Alan Grier. You finally got a laugh out of me with this sketch on Black Comic Con 2008. Your opening rant about Death’s Hate Crimes was pretty edgy, too. A sign of better things to come, DAG?

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Lost & Found: Get Up! Edition

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A few links, videos, and other online ephemera from our favorite sites this past week:

  • 389 Years: And speaking of progress, check out this typographic mashup, soon to be a poster.

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Uniqua’s Post-Racial Backyard?

Rethinking the politics of identity is more than just an intellectual exercise when you become a parent. These days, my anxieties about raising a black child with a healthy, well-rounded sense of self has lead me to unusual places and unexpected insights. Take, for instance, The Backyardigans:

Virtually every American preschooler knows about Nick Jr.’s animated show, The Backyardigans. My toddler is no exception. The show’s five friends share a suburban backyard and an adventurous imagination.

The music initially caught my daughter’s attention. The impressive mix of musical genres are inventive, fun, and provide the show with a rare kind of cultural diversity. In one episode, Pablo the Penguin imitates James Brown’s soul music. Tyrone the Moose often croons country-western songs, and in space, the Backyardigans sing contemporary African pop music with a Martian mom (voiced by Alicia Keys). Click here to open the Nick Jr. video player and search for Backyardigans clips.

But for me, Uniqua is the show’s main attraction. She is the pink, plump, and perceptive polka-dotted creature who inspires others with thoughtfulness and bravery. And while Tasha the Hippo is often cast as the princess or the diva, Uniqua is not bound by traditional gender roles. She is the brave knight, the graceful Egyptian Sphinx, and the chest-thumping Viking. Her positive energy and assertiveness are qualities that I have been trying to instill in my daughter since she was a blip on the ultrasound screen! So it also matters, you see, that Uniqua’s voice and mannerisms are that of an African-American child.

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Lost & Found: Barack O’ Lantern Edition

A few links, videos, and other online ephemera from our favorite sites this past week:

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Lost & Found: Token “Black” Edition

A few links, videos, and other online ephemera from our favorite sites this past week:

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Prince Akeem for President

Murphy as Prince Akeem

Lately I’ve been wondering how much of my fascination with Senator Barack Obama has been shaped by Eddie Murphy’s 1988 comedy, Coming to America.

Make no mistake, my reasons for supporting the Illinois senator’s candidacy for president are substantive. Education and health care reform are two of the issues that matter most to me. I appreciate the thoughtfulness and intellect that he brings to solving these problems, not to mention his prescient take on foreign relations. Even the way he runs his campaign is impressive.

I won’t pretend, however, that I don’t also have an emotional investment in an Obama administration. I’m hardly a generation removed from Jim Crow segregation. (And I live in a state that still displays the Confederate flag outside the Capitol.)

All of this is part of the network of experiences that constitute my worldview, my “cultural compass” – to borrow a term I heard Michele Norris use recently in a terrific NPR series on race and politics.

But when it comes to visions of Africa, and of black love, leadership, and royal blood in America, my cultural compass often points to, of all places, the imaginary Kingdom of Zamunda. Prince Akeem’s hilarious journey to New York takes a romanticized narrative generally reserved for “whites only” and recreates it as a modern black fairytale, rich with pop cultural parody and historical allusions, bawdy satire, and an all-star cast.

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