What I Would Give for Surprise

Officer Rusten Sheskey of Kenosha has returned from administrative leave. He will not face any disciplinary action for shooting James Blake.

And it’s Tuesday. A Tuesday like any other. Nothing shocking, nothing out of the ordinary. One more in the forever line of days of being at constant risk in this land of the free (whites) and home of the (trigger happy) brave.

* * *

Let’s talk about Golden Shovels, shall we? I’ve been so tired the last few days, I haven’t had time to think about how hard this form is for me. All I’ve been able to do is churn out a poem and get it posted. I posted a comment earlier that showed me at least part of what the road block is for me with these poems. Yes, having a prescribed set of words and word placement is restrictive. The bigger issue is that the lines I’m using as my source text are from Clifton’s poems. Using them feels rudely audacious and makes me even more self-conscious than I would normally be. So yes, the task I’ve set for myself for this month is specially designed to trip me up. Brilliant!

Despite all of this, I am actually starting to feel more comfortable with the form. Not snuggled in the way I was with the tanka. I don’t know if I’ll ever feel that cozy in another form, but I am feeling less like a combatant, less under siege. That’s a good sign, of course, and it’s kind of right on time. It’s usually around the middle of the month that I stop approaching my chosen form as if we’re cage-fighting. It remains to be seen if I can approaching something closer to actual ease with this.

Tonight’s source text is from “the times.”

No Charges

That confidence, safety, certainty is so white,
so very, blindingly white, and
the heat of it burns, glowing, as I
watch it dance, saunter, flaunt its might.
I understand.
I do. I might be the same, except
nothing in this unwelcoming birthplace has afforded me that
freedom, that comfort. Instead, I
have built every good thing I am.
And today what I feel is tired,
as again I spit out a bitter draught of understanding.

National Poetry Month 2021: the Golden Shovel

As I’ve done for the last forever, I’ve chosen a poetic form, and I’m going to try to write a poem in that form every day for the month of April. I don’t always succeed, but I always give it my best shot. The “Golden Shovel” was created by Terrance Hayes in tribute to Gwendolyn Brooks. I learned about it from my friend Sonia (aka Red Emma). I’ll be using Lucille Clifton’s poems as my starting point this month. Here are the rules:

  • Take a line (or lines) from a poem you admire.
  • Use each word in the line (or lines) as the end word for each line in your poem.
  • Keep the end words in order.
  • Give credit to the poet who originally wrote the line (or lines).
  • The new poem does not have to be about the same subject as the poem that offers the end words.

If you pull a line with six words, your poem would be six lines long. If you pull a stanza with 24 words, your poem would be 24 lines long. And so on.

Should be interesting!

You’re not even trying.

I’m tired. Beat to my fucking socks. Once again hearing Zack de la Rocha’s lyric, like the only song this country will ever want to sing to me: “Don’t you know they’re counting backward to zero?” So damned tired.

The source text for this poem is Lucille Clifton’s “grief.”

Pause

I am thinking of
a number between naught and eternity. Many
stories, many artful shadings of all colors.
Pause --
as we listen for
your revision, your retelling of the
tale. It's your story, your myth.
The reconfiguration of
Black death in Amerikkka.
Pause --
because he thought it was a taser. And pause for
the self-flagellating knife-cuts of our scoffing laughter, for the
rejection of your tired, lazy myth,
for this one more time of you revealing the bloody soul of
Amerikkka.

National Poetry Month 2021: the Golden Shovel

As I’ve done for the last forever, I’ve chosen a poetic form, and I’m going to try to write a poem in that form every day for the month of April. I don’t always succeed, but I always give it my best shot. The “Golden Shovel” was created by Terrance Hayes in tribute to Gwendolyn Brooks. I learned about it from my friend Sonia (aka Red Emma). I’ll be using Lucille Clifton’s poems as my starting point this month. Here are the rules:

  • Take a line (or lines) from a poem you admire.
  • Use each word in the line (or lines) as the end word for each line in your poem.
  • Keep the end words in order.
  • Give credit to the poet who originally wrote the line (or lines).
  • The new poem does not have to be about the same subject as the poem that offers the end words.

If you pull a line with six words, your poem would be six lines long. If you pull a stanza with 24 words, your poem would be 24 lines long. And so on.

Should be interesting!

What I Don’t Want to Say

Since Wednesday, I’ve been thinking about all of my Asian friends … but I haven’t been checking in with any of them. Not directly. I’ve certainly clicked “love” or “care” or “angry” on their FB comments. I’ve shared articles they’ve posted. But I haven’t reached out.

And, clearly, I feel lousy about that, or I wouldn’t be writing about it now.

Last year, people started checking in on me. Sometimes more than once a day. Lots of people. Close friends, not-so-close friends, people who weren’t really even friends at all. I got emails, texts, notes on Messenger and IG. It was a lot, and I had no idea what to do with any of it.

It was early June. It was right after the murder of George Floyd. Yes, because that’s why everyone who knew me was checking in.

(Of course, when I say “everyone,” I am lying. There were some unsurprising and conspicuous absences from the cavalcade of “How are you doing?” messages. The folks for whom Floyd’s murder didn’t register, didn’t matter, the ones who were entirely pissed off and threatened by the uprising that spread across the globe but couldn’t acknowledge the wrongness of the killing that sparked the protests. Those people didn’t check in. And yes, I have those folks in my various “friend” lists. I leave them there so I can get the occasional glimpse of what’s happening in that mindset. It’s bracing, to say the least.)

I appreciated that my friends and everyone else were thinking about me. I mean, I mostly appreciated it. I was also really frustrated by it because, often, the checking in was accompanied by a request for me to do something — when was I going to start posting about it on FB, when would I write some essays? And yes, people had reason to expect some kind of written response from me, since that was a way I’d shown up after so many other murders of Black people. But I went silent last year, so a lot of the people who reached out also asked when they were going to hear from me.

And that didn’t feel good. It felt, instead, as if I couldn’t just rage and grieve in private but had to share, had to do some rib spreading, let everyone see my feeble, shredded heart.

And I really am not trying to sound as much like a jerk as I sound right now. I love my friends, and they love me. I imagine they struggled with what to say to me just as I’m struggling right now.

I haven’t been contacting my friends. And that’s because I remember how I felt over the summer and don’t want to pile on. At the same time, I have to be honest and admit that I have no idea what to say. I certainly don’t want to say, “How are you doing?” because how can anyone be doing right now? What would I have wanted people to say to me last year? What would have felt less like pressure and more like love?

And maybe that’s all there is to say, maybe that’s what I would have wanted to hear last year. My love feels thin today, though. Doesn’t feel like nearly enough, though it’s the only thing I have in abundant supply.

There’s no neat and tidy bow to tie around this. I’m sad and angry and angry and angry. And I feel like a bad friend right now. Raging and grieving in private feels selfish today.


It’s the 14th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
Head on over to Two Writing Teachers
and see what the rest of this year’s slicers are up to!

Original Slicer - GirlGriot

What I Didn’t Do

Content warning: Atlanta shootings

I had a crap day today. I’m overtired and cranky. I discovered a huge error in the big project we’re slogging through at work. There was a worsening of a pain in my right arm that feels distressingly similar to how my rotator cuff tear started four years ago. I left work too late to make it to the UPS store, which likely means it’s too late to return a nonsense purchase I made a while ago.

I had a crap day on Monday when I hurt my hip and smushed my finger in a door and had a snarky interaction with a neighbor who refuses to wear masks or respect socially-distant space.

I could have an entire blog dedicated to writing about the crap days I have. The days when I come home feeling defeated. The days when it’s hard to get out of bed because what’s the point when everything sucks. The days when I’m more sad, angry, lonely, tired, fed up than I am anything nicer. I generally have pretty good days, but I have quite a number of super-bad ones, too.

I don’t imagine I’m all that unusual. Don’t we all have crap days sometimes?

I had a lousy day. What I didn’t do was pretend that my unfortunate day was a reasonable catalyst for terrorism. What I didn’t do was go on a killing spree and explain my actions by saying I was in a bad mood. What I didn’t do was make my victims out to be villains who left me with no choice but to end their lives. Somehow I managed not to do any of that.

I had a crap day and this is what I did: some impulse grocery shopping when I was finally on my way home and got back here with watermelon, tortilla chips, and ice cream (hey, my binge doesn’t look like everybody’s binge). What I didn’t do, it bears repeating, was kill anyone and then blame them for my violence.

I’m not surprised that a police officer (one who has been revealed to be — surprise! — a racist) would talk about Robert Aaron Long’s act of domestic terrorism in a way that offered up excuses for the murder of eight innocent people. I’m not surprised that this racist police officer told the killer’s story and erased the victims from the narrative as easily as Long did with his racist, misogynistic violence. I’m not surprised. But I am, too.

I had a bad day. And it was made worse by the reverberations of this latest act of white male violence against people of color. Robert Aaron Long isn’t some lone wolf, some individual crazy guy who had a bad day, some unfathomable mad man. Long is one more in a line of violent white men we are asked to ignore over and over again. This morning I wrote on FB that he looks like all of his brothers — like Dylan Roof, like Tim McVeigh, like Biggo with his feet up on Nancy Pelosi’s desk, like every murdering incel. They all look alike, because they are all alike. And we are asked to ignore everything that is plainly similar about all of them, asked to pretend that each of them is a stand-alone case of mental illness rather than force the conversation about the violence of angry white men, rather than act.

I had a bad day, but I’m still here. I wish I could say the same for the eight innocents who were gunned down yesterday.


It’s the 14th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
Head on over to Two Writing Teachers
and see what the rest of this year’s slicers are up to!

Original Slicer - GirlGriot

Soul-less

I was skeptical about Pixar’s Soul. I love animated movies, but watching the trailer and seeing the Jamie Foxx-voiced lead, Joe Gardner, morph into a little glowy orb thing gave me a stomach ache. Soul looked as if it would be yet another animated movie in which a BIPOC character spent a major portion of the film not visible as a BIPOC character but as an animal, or an object, or whatever.

I read a little about the film before seeing it – very little because I hate spoilers. (There are, in fact, spoilers coming up, so be forewarned if you haven’t yet watched the movie and hate spoilers.) I did that recon because I wanted to know what other folks were saying about this “mighty morphin’ BIPOC” crap. Some were sharing the same disappointment and concern that I felt after seeing the trailer. Others were talking about how hard the filmmakers had worked to not fall into those traps. I remained skeptical.

I read excellent pieces by Monique Jones (Shadow and Act) and Andrew Tejada (Tor). I even found a Change.org petition.

I knew I was going to watch the film, but I still had a stomachache about it. My bits of research did nothing to resolve my doubts. A good friend called with a rave review – so beautiful, what a great story, such amazing animation. I still had doubt. I raised the issue, and they said they didn’t think it really applied to this film. Which actually made me more doubtful.

Okay, before was just a casual heads up. This now is an official SPOILER ALERT. If you keep reading, you’re absolutely getting spoilers. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

So I watched the film. And it is beautiful, and the animation is amazing, and the story is good … ish.

Yes, Joe Gardner turns into a little glowy orb thing pretty early on in the film, really early. And I gather from some of the pieces I’ve read since watching the film that I’m supposed to be charmed by the fact that – after a brief time in the “soul world” – I get to see the Black man on screen again and see him for the remainder of the movie. I’m supposed to be charmed … or perhaps lulled into acceptance/acquiescence/inability to see what’s actually going on. Yes, I get to see a Black man on screen again …

Except not. When the body of the Black man returns to the screen, the man himself – the magical essence that makes him Joe – is in another character’s body and Joe’s body, the Black man’s body is inhabited by … wait for it … a white woman. I’m serious. We do get to hear the Black man because his soul winds up in the body of an animal. We get to see the Black man’s body – moving awkwardly and with the voice and thoughts and ideas of a white woman. Just typing it makes me tired.

All of the significant moments the Black man experiences in this section of the movie – which is, of course, the bulk of the movie – are  worked through and experienced by the character called “22” who’s voiced by Tina Fey. If you watch the trailer, most of the moments in which “Joe” is shown having a moment of joy or a significant realization are moments when Joe is actually not Joe. All of those moments and realizations are happening for 22. Yes, Joe – in his furry, animal form – is there to observe these experiences, but he is removed from the direct experience himself. This is most telling in an important scene sham-Joe (Joe’s body without Joe’s soul inside) has with his mother. It would mean so much more for Joe to be the one speaking, for Joe to be the one having that moment of understanding with his mother, for Joe to be the one embracing his mother. Instead, real-Joe gets to watch 22 have a beautiful moment. When real-Joe acknowledges his mother at the end of the scene, of course she’s not paying him any attention because she’s focused on sham-Joe and, even if she were looking at real-Joe, all she would hear would be animal noises because real-Joe’s soul is bottled up in an animal.

And then there’s the fabulousness of 22 deciding not to give Joe his body. Yes, the white woman decides that she’s quite comfortable living in Joe’s body, thank you very much, and isn’t interested in returning it to him. Yeah, that.

Joe does get back into his body and gets to spend some time on screen as Joe’s-soul-in-Joe’s-body. There is a return to the soul world in which we, of course, lose Joe’s body again. And then comes a brilliant bit of original writing, a kind of plot point we’ve never, ever, ever seen before: Joe decides to give up his body all together to help 22. It’s clear that I’m supposed to be moved by Joe’s sacrifice. Joe is that good, that giving, that heroic. No. I mean, I was moved … to being totally pissed off. Joe is going to sacrifice himself so that a white woman can go enjoy her life? Really? Haven’t enough Black bodies been sacrificed? Even just in the past year, forget about decades and centuries of history.

Back in October, Kristen Acuna wrote about the work the filmmakers did to avoid racist tropes:

“We were unaware of that [trope] as we started, but we certainly became aware,” Docter, who’s also Pixar’s chief creative officer, said […]

“My hope is that when you see the whole film, there is plenty of Joe on screen,” Docter continued. “I think we have over 50 percent on Earth that follows Joe’s life, his places of where he goes, people he’s with, and then the other part is in the soul world.”

Yes, sham-Joe is on screen for the majority of the movie. Sure. But sham-Joe is just that. We get to see a non-Black person move through the world wearing a Black man’s body like a costume. We see sham-Joe interact with the Joe’s friends better than Joe has interacted with them. We see sham-Joe live Joe’s life more fully than Joe. It’s pretty aggravating.

There are other annoying things about this film. There’s the ham-fisted microaggression of another Black man being mistaken for Joe – He’s Black, get it? That’s comedy! – and then being terrorized as a result of that botched identification. And the entire story arc of the hunter from the soul world who comes to earth to capture Joe is problematic. The character, Terry, is a little too slave-catcher-y for my tastes, bringing to mind John Sayles’ The Brother from Another Planet.

Soul frustrated and disappointed me, but I have to acknowledge that some parts of this movie are pleasing. Some of the ideas about how our souls develop and how our personalities are shaped are great — at turns funny, a little wrenching, thought-provoking. Some of the animation is stunningly joy-inducing. When Joe (real-Joe) plays the piano, the sequences are gorgeous. His hands, especially, are everything I could ever want and more. I read about how Docter worked hard to capture pianist Jon Batiste’s playing style so he could create it for Joe, and I give him full marks and extra credit for the finished result.

Those pieces of the film that are stellar actually make me more annoyed with the film as a whole. The time and attention taken to create them is clear. The filmmakers wanted to be sure to get them right, to wow us with just how right they got them. (The simply perfect animation of a samara fluttering down from a tree and into sham-Joe’s hand is quietly extraordinary, beautiful.)

All that care and attention … and not once did someone think it might be a mistake to have the body of a Black man inhabited and controlled by a white woman? Even if, as Docter said in interviews, the filmmakers were unaware of the issue of Black animated characters disappearing from center stage almost as soon as they arrived, surely someone in this current world we live in should have seen the tone-deafness of having a white woman take over the body and voice of a Black man. We’re years into the constant barrage of news stories showing white people white peopling, showing Beckys and Karens raising the alarm when they see Black men doing nothing more egregious than talking to their wives at local brunch spots.

And yet, the care taken to create Joe’s beautiful piano playing, his gloriously long and graceful fingers, his nearly tangible joy in the music … that same care couldn’t be extended to the embodiment of the primary character?

Soul isn’t a “Black movie,” isn’t a film that delves into the Black experience. It is, instead, a movie about learning to value yourself and your time, about living your life fully. It is a movie about all of that, and the central human character is a Black man. His Blackness isn’t key to the unrolling of the storyline. His Blackness simply is. And that’s great. Black characters written as multi-faceted beings going about the business of living their lives, unburdened by the stereotypes they’ve been written into forever is excellent.

Soul isn’t a Black movie, but it is, too. It wants to take advantage, with a kindly nod and wink, of the double connotations of its title. And it for-sure wants credit for the gentle dive into showing some aspects of Black community – the barber shop, the tailor shop. So, not claiming to be a Black movie, but … trying hard to be one all the same.

Whether Soul is considered a Black movie or not, Joe’s Blackness can’t be ignored. If anyone reading this hasn’t yet learned, colorblindness isn’t real, and pretending to be colorblind is insulting, is racist, is hurtful and damaging. True acceptance of others isn’t about being able to magically not see the things that make them different from us. It’s about seeing those differences and having them not make a difference. So Joe’s Blackness, while not a plot point of this film, can’t be ignored. Joe’s Blackness is. We want to be able to watch his everyman story play out, and we need to see that his Blackness is in good hands, that the filmmakers understood their responsibility for Joe’s Blackness.

They didn’t. At least not fully, not enough to see some glaring missteps.

Docter said he was unaware of the disappearing-animated-BIPOC problem. And I find that easy to believe. BIPOC folks have been aware because we’re the ones it’s happening to, ours are the faces and bodies that are being disappeared. Docter has had the cozy privilege of not having to pay attention to such “details.” He has been able to simply watch and laugh as a frog or pigeon or llama or whatever bumbles along through the film instead of the BIPOC character whose story is supposedly being told.

I can play along and believe that Docter didn’t know about this pattern of erasure. But it’s also true that he was made aware of the issue and still didn’t take enough care to avoid errors like the ones written into this film.

And yes, as part of his efforts, Docter brought in Black folks – writer, director, various consultants – to work on the film. Soul was already three years into it’s five-year development. It’s great that Black folks were brought in to work on this film The fact that there weren’t already Black folks involved is a red flag, but it’s also true the lead character wasn’t a Black man in the first versions of the story … I want to believe that the moment the character became a Black man, someone looked around the table, saw all non-Black faces and said, “Oh, we need to do something differently here,” and set about to shake things up.

Kristen Acuna’s article about the effort to avoid racist tropes includes this comment from Kemp Powers, a Black filmmaker who joined the Soul team:

“This film is that first effort. Keep in mind, I was invited on as a writer and then made a partner as a co-director. And, it’s a sad reality that there haven’t been many Black people in general in positions of power in animation,” Powers noted. “Just in the couple of years that I was at Pixar, I watched the number of Black animators and Black story artists increase. I just love the fact that rather than just talk about it, Pixar was moved to action and I can speak to that having witnessed it.” (Acuna. Insider, October 2020)

It’s easy for me to believe that much (all, I really should just say all) of the gorgeousness of the portrayal of Black people in Soul exists because of the inclusion of Black creatives on the film crew. Still, I was left feeling that those creatives were brought into the production to serve, in part, as shields. When folks like me raise concerns about the movie, those creatives will be shoved in our faces and we’ll be reminded that they — the some-of-my-best-film-crew-friends-are-Black Black folks — thought the film was okay, so we must just be overreacting and seeing bias where there isn’t any. Again.

Soul is beautiful, and it has a lovely message in the end. It also left a bad taste in my mouth.