Saturday, January 31, 2009

the opportunity of a lifetime?

A brother and fellow Southerner sent me this notification the other day. He found it on Craigslist. Needless to say, I couldn't resist the urge to apply. When I responded to this, they sent me a questionnaire. When I sent the questionnaire, they gave me a call. A hearty round of phone tag ensued. I'm not sure, but I could be "it" at this point. Let's see what develops.



A diverse group of African Americans (rich, poor, Northern, Southern, College Grad., High School Grad., Suburbia) are united on a trip to Africa to explore the Homeland. From townships and shanties to modern cities and skyscrapers, watch what happens when African Americans come face-to-face with the real Africa. Black to My Roots is a pilgrimage of personal and cultural discovery.

We are searching for a diverse group of applicants (Lawyers, Doctors, writers, hip hop artists, teachers, actors, nutritionists, fashionistas, etc). Please email a paragraph describing yourself and what makes YOU the ideal candidate for this opportunity, essentially what makes you UNIQUE.

Also, attach a photograph and your contact phone number. All entries must be received by 1/30/09.

Friday, January 30, 2009

...and now, a few words from chuck d

While Bill O'Reilly at FOX News taunts hip-hop artists like Jay-Z, ridicules Cam'ron and Damon Dash on his show and ignores challenges from Nas to book an interview with Young Jeezy, Chuck D is in the UK and Europe, pontificating about the Obama effect and the state of things stateside on high brow chat shows and the like with political pundits and social/cultural theorists. I don't know what's more shocking for me -- the fact that this is an intelligent, thoughtful, opinionated, politically astute hip-hop artist in our midst, or that he is treated with such a high level of respect. Certainly his work as a seminal member of Public Enemy precedes him, especially in other parts of the world where they were wildly popular once upon a time -- and still are.

It should be duly noted that unlike most hip hop artists, Chuck D is a college graduate. He's also written a best-selling autobiography, has been tirelessly involved in political activism in the music industry and beyond since PE's inception (and received awards for it, by the way) and has remained popular on the college lecture circuit -- from Harvard to Howard -- for more than 20 years. One would think that if a tv show/news magazine would want to hear from an artist in the hip hop community, this guy would be on the short list. But he's not. At least, not in this country.

I know everyone in neoconservative America is raising a stink about the Jay-Z/Young Jeezy My President is Black remix but recently, Public Enemy made news when President Obama remarked that on his first date with his wife Michelle, he took her to see Spike Lee's film Do The Right Thing which featured the song Fight the Power. The media kind of ignored this one. If you read any of Public Enemy's lyrics, you'll know why. They started cranking out the jams in the 80s and the stuff is still poppin' fresh like it came out last year. Especially the song Fight the Power.

It's time to play the lyrics. Everyone's lyrics. For now, here's what Barack and Michelle were listening to on their first date.

Fight the Power

1989 the number another summer (get down)
Sound of the funky drummer
Music hittin' your heart cause I know you got sould
(Brothers and sisters, hey)
Listen if you're missin' y'all
Swingin' while I'm singin'
Givin' whatcha gettin'
Knowin' what I know
While the Black bands sweatin'
And the rhythm rhymes rollin'
Got to give us what we want
Gotta give us what we need
Our freedom of speech is freedom or death
We got to fight the powers that be
Lemme hear you say
Fight the power
Fight the power
Fight the power
We got to fight the powers that be

As the rhythm designed to bounce
What counts is that the rhymes
Designed to fill your mind
Now that you've realized the prides arrived
We got to pump the stuff to make us tough
from the heart
It's a start, a work of art
To revolutionize make a change nothin's strange
People, people we are the same
No we're not the same
Cause we don't know the game
What we need is awareness, we can't get careless
You say what is this?
My beloved lets get down to business
Mental self defensive fitness
(Yo) bum rush the show
You gotta go for what you know
Make everybody see, in order to fight the powers that be
Lemme hear you say...
Fight the Power
Fight the power
Fight the power
We got to fight the powers that b

Elvis was a hero to most
But he never meant shit to me you see
Straight up racist that sucker was
Simple and plain
Mother fuck him and John Wayne
Cause I'm Black and I'm proud
I'm ready and hyped plus I'm amped
Most of my heroes don't appear on no stamps
Sample a look back you look and find
Nothing but rednecks for 400 years if you check
Don't worry be happy
Was a number one jam
Damn if I say it you can slap me right here
(Get it) lets get this party started right
Right on, c'mon
What we got to say
Power to the people no delay
To make everybody see
In order to fight the powers that be
Fight The Power
Fight the power
Fight the power
We got to fight the powers that b

Thursday, January 29, 2009

a panel discussion in brooklyn about black women?

On Saturday, January 31st, from 2-4 p.m. the Brooklyn Museum will present a panel discussion entitled “What’s Black Got To Do With It?”

Moderated by Elvis Mitchell, film critic and writer of the HBO award winning film, The Black List Project, this panel will discuss how race, history, and individual striving have shaped Black Women’s stories of success, as well as what the next four years might hold for Black women now that Michelle Obama and her daughters have moved into the White House. Panelists include: Thelma Golden, Director and Chief Curator of the Studio Museum of Harlem; acclaimed artist Lorna Simpson, who is featured in the Black List Project; and Lola Ogunnaike of CNN’s American Morning.

For more information, click here.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Friday, January 16, 2009

i'm african, part one: it started with the girl scouts...

i have always felt a genuine connectedness with any african i have ever met -- whether it's someone that i greet in passing or friends that i have made along the way. this connection is so real, it's almost tangible. neither the african in question or i know exactly what it is but we know that it's there and sometimes we are literally jumping up and down in the street, because we are so happy about it. when i tell them that i'm not from africa, they look a little disappointed. when i tell them that neither of my parents are from africa, they look somewhat confused.

when i walk down 125th street, i smile and wave like i'm the newly crowned miss black america. i greet all the africans in french -- the senegalese mommies with their babies on their backs, the haitian cab drivers, the angolans selling things in their little shops, the ladies from places like togo and cote d'ivoire and ghana who ask me if i want to get my hair done, the nigerian students -- and when i do, they light up and call me sister. how cool is that?

"you are a real african girl!" an older gentleman from ghana said to me recently. he blurted it out, like he was so overwhelmed with the idea of such a thing, he couldn't keep it to himself. and he so loved the idea of it, he turned it into a question and posed it to his friend, who smiled softly and nodded in agreement.

this has happened to me ever since i can remember.

when i was a kid, i used to babysit for an adorable nigerian couple -- graduate students at georgia state university who had two daughters. they would show me off to their african friends and say, "look at this pretty nigerian girl!" heh. some of them thought i looked yoruba. the rest said ibo. those were lite beer from miller "tastes great -- less filling" moments that still make me laugh. all of them encouraged me to ask them all the stupid questions i wanted. they would show me pictures and little movies and they would feed me fufu and tell me stories and explain all kinds of things. babysitting for them immersed me in their languages, their culture, their music. it was a pretty cool experience.

but as lovely as they were, they weren't my introduction to all things african. that happened with the girl scouts. (yeah, you heard me right. the girl scouts!)

this may come as a shock to all the blacker-than-thou black folk i know in brooklyn and newark, but it's true: more black folk live in the state of georgia than any other state in the nation. it's been that way for a very long time -- and with the new great migration that's been in flux for the past 30 years or so, our numbers there are increasing. also true: juliette gordon low, the founder of the girl scouts, is from savannah, georgia.

the girl scouts faction that you belong to basically yields to the whim of its troop leader. so if that adult leader wants to sell cookies all year, that's the way the deal goes down. it was the 70s, though, and it was atlanta -- and my troop leader was the epitome of afrocentric. she was evelyn ridley, the blackest woman on the planet -- certainly one of the blackest women i'd ever met. when i say black, i don't mean "of the negro persuasion" -- i mean she had that james brown "say it loud, i'm black and i'm proud" kind of black pride that had all this fire and immediacy up in it. she had a short, well groomed natural. she wore dashikis and wooden jewelry. she was married with kids but she had her own business, she was her own woman. she loved herself. she loved her blackness. she was pleased with her african features. she was savvy, smart, and really really cool. all of this radiated out of her essence as genuine self confidence and joy. when i met her, i knew that she was the fist that stuck out on the end of that afro pick i used every day to lift my blowout. and i loved her for it.

by calling her the blackest woman on the planet, i'm not taking anything away from any of the other black women in my life. but this brand of blackness was something new. in my little kid mind, she belonged in a pam grier movie, fighting "the man" and helping "the community" -- not here with us girl scouts. as it turned out, miss ridley was right where she needed to be.

she brought out a map of africa and made us learn about each country and talk about it, and she didn't stop there. we had all kinds of activities going all the time. we made field trips to museums to see exhibits that pertained to anything african, read books and articles, met and conversed with africans and had job fairs that sparked many of us to seriously think about what we wanted to do with our lives for perhaps the first time. at one point, we made outfits out of african fabric and did a harvest dance, with drummers and musicians and art and everything, and presented it in a big assembly at school. the rehearsals for that one performance were dynamic, instructional and fun.

my niece madison is in the girl scouts. she and her three brothers and her parents live in decatur. she also plays the cello, studies german and is a member of a black girl leadership incentive in her school called "the little corettas," in honor of coretta scott king. they also have formal father/daughter dances, and theater and museum outings. that's a pretty well-rounded life for a little black southern girl. every so often, she'll sell me a box of cookies. hm. now that i think about it, i don't think we ever sold any cookies under miss ridley's jurisdiction.

whatever happened to miss ridley, you may ask? she and my mother became close friends -- so close in fact that when my little brother moniah was born, she was chosen to be his godmother. i see her whenever i go home. she's still got that afro, too -- and i must admit, my blowout occasionally makes a reappearance.

this was my introduction to africa. from there, things got really interesting...

Thursday, January 15, 2009

happy, happy, joy, joy, joy!

the new website is up and running, and it's ultrapayloaded. have a look and let me know what you think of all the bells and whistles. of course it's the same same bat time and the same bat channel -- but totally revamped. here it is for those of you who are playing along at home:


how did this come to pass? evidently, i have a friend in sweden -- and i can't thank him enough. (thank you, gunnar!)

Sunday, January 11, 2009

the essentials

steadily listing it as i'm living it.
  1. what about our daughters? -- simply put, i LOVE this site.
  2. guitar noise -- completely and utterly FREE guitar lessons. let's face it: if you want to learn how to do anything, from building a house to baking a cake, you can pretty much figure out all of the particulars on the internet.
  3. the daily plate -- they say the best way to lose weight is to write down what you eat and how you're burning it off. this website is a great tool, with shifting color coded pie charts, excercise options and everything else.
  4. map my run -- this is a one stop shop to find a run, keep a training log, locate events, etc.
  5. sonicbids -- this is a great tool for submitting my songs all over the place.
  6. look, no hands! -- when i'm looking for a chord, i sometimes start here.
  7. london street fashion -- when i want to rethink the way i'm wearing the clothes in my closet and i need a style boost, don't pick up a fashion magazine. i usually glance at this website.
  8. negrophile -- defined as "one who admires and supports Black people and their culture" -- is smart and insightful, and chok-full of media flotsam and jetsam about people of color
  9. rhymes with snitch -- ...and yikes! so is this...
  10. buzzflash -- i usually bounce around here first when it's time to take in the morning news

Saturday, January 10, 2009

gin n' juice, for real

don't wonder why snoop dog is making forays into country music, singing duets with willie nelson and such -- with this c&w cover of one of his most popular songs, he's garnered a devoted redneck audience that he could never have anticipated. and he's scrambling to figure out a way to cash in on it.

why? because you can have a career in country music, no matter how old you are as long as you and your songs are compelling. because evidently, people who buy country music -- all those red state folks -- are very loyal fans. and because country musicians consistently make money.

mark my words: black country music is the wave of the future. think about it. it's the only hybrid that hasn't exploded yet and that hasn't been truly explored. and when it does, it could very well be the thing that instigates real change and racial healing in this country. but that's just my opinion...

this version (recorded in february '08) of gin n' juice is by the gourds -- a grand 14 minutes long. enjoy!

part one

part two

Friday, January 09, 2009

what in the world is making me so happy?

here's a list.
  1. living in west harlem
  2. totally wearing myself out in boxing class so hardcore i can barely move the next day when i wake up
  3. the park next to the fairway uptown
  4. hanging out downtown and telling myself i'll walk for awhile to stretch my legs and get some air -- and then i end up walking all the way uptown
  5. garageband
  6. the consomme de chivo at acapulco caliente, my favorite mexican spot uptown -- but they only serve it on sundays and they usually run out by mid afternoon (*sigh*)
  7. dim sum
  8. high tea
  9. bugs bunny
  10. legit, totally legal cable tv. it's a little addictive...until i tell myself that it's my job as an actor to know what's out there. that's why i can write it off on my taxes.
  11. oversleep
  12. hopscotching all of the city and sitting in at everybody's open mic, singing standards and goofing off
  13. the mexican hot chocolate at the chocolate bar at henri bendel's on 5th avenue
  14. the spicy hot chocolate at vosges in soho
  15. the peppermint hot chocolate mix from williams-sonoma (yeah, it's that good.)
  16. ordering beautiful woolen yarn online
  17. roast duck with hoisin sauce, straight outta chinatown
  18. sharing a newspaper with a complete stranger
  19. kwaanza
  20. a red eye -- and upon occasion, a black eye. i haven't had a dead eye since college.
  21. sitting on the sofa practicing guitar watching some program on cable about art or science or history or whatever and listening to my friend say, "what he just said about (whatever) isn't true." and then when i goad him into it, he gives me a thorough explanation. and he's right. (schwingggg!)
  22. scotch eggs (God help me.)
  23. wandering through MoMA on a tuesday afternoon like i haven't got a care in the world
  24. the manicure/pedicure special at jeniette salon
  25. taking a formal voice lesson and singing full out on material i never get to perform -- like arias and lieders
  26. giving children candy
  27. the musk oil from kiehl's. i could bathe in that stuff. (is it really a love potion? probably.)
  28. daydreaming
  29. my army issued zip out padded fake fur lined so-ugly-they're-fabulous green snow pants. because nothing's better than being toasty warm when its freezing outside.
  30. africans who assume i'm from africa and then are kind of freaked out when i explain that i'm not
  31. letters and postcards from john job in oak ridge, tennessee
  32. losing weight and getting my body back (finally.)
  33. making any kind of progress, guitarwise -- like when the bar chords come easier
  34. knitting on the subway
  35. creamy kiehl's lotion. and that liquid soap, too. can't get enough of that stuff. my skin is so glowy happy right now, it's ridiculous.
  36. adult swim
  37. writing and falling into a daze filled with ideas and strange visions that have me typing away all afternoon, like i'm under a spell
  38. being loved and adored
  39. the lingerie shop brasmyth on the upper west side -- especially now that i know what my actual bra size is
  40. spa treats in koreatown
  41. baking the perfect layer cake -- especially if it's red velvet (it's my friend's favorite!)
  42. top shop and H & M and (of all places) forever 21
  43. the steam room at NYSC 125 or at NYSC 14
  44. aaron, my boxing instructor (soon-to-be personal trainer, when i can afford it) -- he's pretty freakin' cool because he knows how to push me by challenging me without berating me

Thursday, January 08, 2009

heavy construction

my former landlord sold all of the buildings on my side of the street to a particular company that's hell-bent on evicting tenants and renovating their cavernous apartments and filling them with pricey touches until they look like something out of home and garden magazine. and yes, that's exactly what they look like. i know because i've wandered through them while they were being deconstructed, and i've passed by the first floor windows and peered in like every other pedestrian on the sidewalk to see exactly what progress looks like. all year long, the workers kept at it like well organized trained ants -- dumping refuse, using massive cranes to swing in lumber and dry wall and whatever else they couldn't drag up the stairs or fit into the elevator, replacing all the windows in all the buildings, and on and on it went. it was crazy.

it's still crazy, actually. the evictions are still happening and they're still renovating vacant apartments -- like my little old lady mercedes place on the first floor. they worked all the way through the christmas holidays with no overtime or bonuses or anything. then again, i suppose that's typical. the question lingers: when are they going to be finished? or are they playing "flip this building" and making everything pretty enough for someone else to make that point of purchase? or are we going condo eventually?

it's not just the apartments that are getting a massive overhaul. they've fixed the elevator and put in a deluxe model, put up well-lit awnings at each entryway, scrubbed out the building's marble floors, slapped up plaster on the walls and painted the hallways and lobbies in soothing neutral colors.

this is the kind of change that frightens me.

the construction workers -- all of them, africans from all over the entire diaspora, from mali to brooklyn -- would gather up the block and sip coffee and congregate. when i would tromp off to start my day in the wee hours of the morning, they'd be there, like some outdoor secretarial pool, chatting and whatnot. they would always stop talking when i would walk by and resume when i was out of earshot. one day, i said good morning, black men. i said it brightly, like i'd known all of them all my life. and each of them waved at me and said, good morning black woman in the exact same way. after that, whenever i hit my block, i got a million greetings and compliments and salutations. the west indians. the west africans. the southerners up north, like me. the yankees. solidarity is a beautiful thing.

i don't know any of their names. we call each other brother and sister and that's more than enough.

the next thing you know, they were in my apartment -- plastering these cracks that are forever running through my walls, fixing and replacing plumbing pipes and all kinds of stuff. anytime any of them came over, i let them eat cake. when they were down the hall, they let me wander through an apartment they were fixing that had the exact same layout as mine and they told me how much the landlord was going to charge. naturally, i balked. basically, it was a four-figure downtown price for an uptown set-up. no one in the ghetto would pay it. no one in the ghetto could afford it. so who is all of this for, anyway?

with the economy in peril, i'm starting to wonder.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

the other old lady

once upon a time, there were three old ladies in my building that were a part of my mundane every day world in some way or another. all of them felt so familiar. i have no idea why.

the somewhat senile lady down the hall and her poodle are still there along with her niece/daughter/charge, although now there is a buppie couple across the hall from her with a small yappy dog, too. they moved into one of the newly renovated totally tricked out condo-like apartments that keep popping up when they boot someone else out of the building. so now, there's a lot of barking and scratching at the door that's happening in stereo at that end of the hall and i can't tell which dog is which unless i go over there and i don't want to go over there. i feel for her, in her twilight years, wandering through her gigantic apartment in her housecoat with her loyal dog at her ankles, wondering when her husband of more than 45 years is coming back from his errands. and he passed away several years ago. at least she has her niece.

and then there was mercedes, the lady in the window, the one who was always cooking something and always passing some of it through those child proof bars. dulce de leche, arroz con pollo, yicama, totones, bread pudding, empanadas, a beefy ox tail bone. delicious stuff. many was the day when i would head out the door and hit the subway with good food in my hand and my mouth because i passed her open window on the way out of the building. God, i loved her. she was like one of my aunts or my play momma or something. she put this coppery red rinse in her hair and she wore red lipstick and everyone congregated around her window -- the kids, the thugs, the fix-it guys. always giving my male friends the once over, giving my clothes the once over, giving me the once over -- and the third degree, in this really sweet way. i always baked her a cake on her birthday every year, and sometimes soups and stews which impressed her because she thought i was way too young and pretty to know how to cook. "you kids nowadays," she'd say. (*sigh...*) when i had some corporate wedding gig and they let me have flowers at the end of the night because they were just going to throw them away anyway, i would bring an extra bouquet just for her. oh, yes. this old lady had my heart.

well, they got her some months ago. it seems that she'd had tenants in her palatial three-bedroom apartment for the entire time that she'd lived in the building -- more than 25 years. she could stay and fight them in court or take a check and leave. she chose the latter. and why not? she already owned a house in the dominican republic and spent the cold months there taking care of her mother. i don't know why i'm still here, she mused when i came to say goodbye and take a picture of us. after she explained everything, she said that maybe she'd find love if she went home. a real boyfriend! how adorable was this little old lady, sitting at her kitchen table with me, totally independent and happy and surrounded by a big and loving family, and yet longing for a special someone. that conversation stayed with me for a long time.

it still feels wierd, to leave the building everyday and not yell at her window with what little spanish i know. for a long time, my body would shift in that direction automatically as soon as i swung the door open. and then i just felt a profound sadness shroud me for a little while as i would begin my day. would there ever be another little old lady to make mofungo just for me?

she's been gone since late last summer. i miss her every single day.

the third little old lady is shrouded in some mystery. what's apparent is that she's a tough old hide. she stood up to the building owners, their lawyers, the drug dealers that tried to do business in the lobby, and anything else that gets in her way. she likes me very much. i have no idea why. her apartment is directly across from the lady who is gone, so as i make my exit, i turn to the left now, to acknowledge her or at least to see if she is there. and she almost always is. someone is always standing at her window, drinking coffee and chatting. her apartment is cavernous and unlike mercedes, she never had boarders and she pays her rent on time, so they can't get rid of her. she has a yappy little dog too -- what is it with these annoying pesky noisemakers and why do they run to me? -- some sort of a chihuahua that attacks my ankles when i check my mail.

the thing is, she only speaks to me in spanish. she insists on it. i'm starting to wonder if she speaks any english at all. i understand what she's saying but it takes me ten minutes to make a sentence. i always have the appropriate greeting ready, though -- the old jews and all their many languages in that building on 86th street taught me that much -- and whenever i answer her, she's amused and somewhat impressed. and of course, that sends me running for my spanish phrase book. my trying to chat with her with what little spanish i know seems to make her happy. she tells me that my accent is strong and that if i learn spanish, no one would believe that i'm an american. she says i don't look american, anyway. she says that about my friend, too. actually, everyone says that about him. they think he's from scandanavia, from germany, maybe. anyplace but jersey. i told her the truth but she didn't believe me. then again, neither did mercedes.

maybe i feel so much for the ladies because i'm thinking, there but for the grace of God go i someday. i'm too much of a southerner to grow old here. i want old age to find me deep in the bowels of a swamp on a Sea Island, in a sturdy wide house up off the ground and near the water -- surrounded by gators, wild boar and indigo -- independent, in my right mind, eating fruits and vegetables from my own gardens and perfectly capable of taking care of myself. and still baking those pound cakes...

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

A story about "Call Me Ted"

by Ted Turner

Ted Turner and I have a very special relationship.

When I was a kid in the ATL, there was no cable television. There was WTBS, Channel 17 – the SuperStateion! – running an endless and constant array of cheesy sit-coms, classic Hollywood movies, game shows, wrestling matches and a ton of Bugs Bunny cartoons. Even the late-night news fare was askew, with a news desk that was as accessible and irreverent as anything else that came on their airwaves. They seemed to come out of nowhere, and suddenly they were everywhere – and at their helm was Ted Turner, that swashbuckling iconoclast, a maverick in the truest sense of the word.

I didn’t know exactly what Ted did all day long, but I knew that this station was his and subconsciously in my little kid heart, I thanked him for it. Why? With a father and a mother, two older brothers, two younger brothers and one tv set, there were a lot of people to please – and somehow, this one little channel managed to pull it off. There was no one to tell me that I shouldn’t watch this particular line of programming, or that it was in poor taste, or that I shouldn’t watch television at all. In a strange way, I felt as though it belonged to me, because so much of what they programmed made me so happy.

Don’t get me wrong: I didn’t live on the couch. With so many brothers afoot, I was a sturdy, athletic little tomboy of a girl. My parents were extremely traditional, so I was cooking, cleaning and running the house before I hit puberty. We lived on several wooded acres, so there was always plenty to explore in the great outdoors. I was a voracious reader – i learned how to read when I was three years old – so books were a great escape.

What I realize now is that as an artist, WTBS/Channel 17 was a really important part of my childhood. Every time I watched any of that programming, I was doing my homework. Each old movie was a chance to watch a great director at work on every level—to absorb the mise-en-scene, to let the dialogue swing through my head like a melody, to ogle the clothes, the hats, the accessories, to unhinge the elaborate musicals, to understand what made it good or bad and why. Bugs Bunny cartoons were filled with show tunes and tin pan alley songs and strange ditties and so many obscure vaudeville references and gags that I watched so carefully and so often that in my head they were commonplace.

Funny thing. I took it for granted that everyone had this kind of an “education”—and I was wrong, wrong, wrong. God knows everyone needs it. Even now, I will talk to other artists – actors, writers, whatever – and there are all these movies and tv shows and cartoons that they have never seen and/or can’t reference, stuff that’s an integral part of the very fabric of this industry we call entertainment and the pop culture we all swim in as citizens of the world. Oh, well. As an artist, I never wanted to be that kind of uninformed.

So yes – my time glued to the tv watching Ted’s station was very important.

It was with all of this and much more that I picked up Ted’s autobiography Call Me Ted.

The book is an easy, straight-forward, accessible read, in part because it sounds for all the world like Ted is sitting next to you, telling you all of this himself, with an occasional antecdote from a business associate or family member to augment whatever he’s saying and give insight into the person Ted really is. Ted is very honest and is quite candid about his childhood traumas, his sister’s illness, his father’s suicide, and so many of the intimate details in his life.

Here’s one that floored me: he was sent to boarding school at the age of four. That alone would be enough to upend most people but Ted bounces back from this with all of the resiliency of a bright red rubber ball. At one point in his youth, he simply makes up his mind to be positive and not dwell on the bad things in the past.

And yes, I was loving all the antedotes about Fidel. I keep wanting to run away to Cuba and meet Castro and learn how to speak Spanish once and for all, before he dies and they turn Havana into a strip mall. So I was more than a little jealous that he got to meet him, and go hunting and fishing and the whole nine yards.

After a certain point, though, I realized that much of what Ted said sounded canned, rehearsed. Like he’d told these little vignettes a thousand times before, at this gala or that dinner party or to this dignitary or some good ol’ boy around the way. And along the way, he glossed them into such a high sheen that sometimes they blindsided me. It was like that with the stories everyone else told, too. Even the negative things that happened—“there goes Ted, shooting his mouth off again!”—turned into clever twists that only undid him momemtarily. Ted didn’t spend a lot of time dwelling on the past. He kept it moving. I suppose there’s a lesson in there for all of us.

There were lots of details that he clearly wasn’t about to fork over, like the intimate goings on regarding his three marriages. But nevermind the personal details. The book really comes alive on this whole other level when it delves into the anatomy of the art of the deal. There are moments when he swoops in and conquers by the sheer velocity of his vision and his unswerving belief in it. When you consider all of the factors – he doesn’t really have the hundreds of millions of dollars necessary to pay for whatever he just bought, for example, but he has 30 days to come up with the money…and he does! – you find that he is literally doing what can only be described as the impossible, again and again and again. And in so doing, he created an empire and defined news media for an entire generation.

But Ted wasn’t necessarily doing the impossible, and he was hardly a fluke. His success is a result of years of hard work, a dizzying amount of sacrifice, a lot of well-thought out planning and execution and a tenacity that i recognize all too well in myself. He never sits back on his laurels and says, Enough. He simply can’t leave well enough alone. He constantly reaches for more—and for excellence, for doing a job well—and he’s really strategic about it. It’s the way he thinks. It’s who he is.

I was profoundly disappointed to learn that Ted basically abandoned his family for the sake of business ventures and yachting competitions. His children were raised by his second wife and a black man named Jimmy who worked for Ted’s father when he was a kid. (Too bad Marlon Brando didn’t have a decent wife and some real help. But then, I suppose I could say that about a LOT of famous people.) Then again, I’m not so sure that he would have been able to accomplish as much as he had if he’d stayed home and made his marriage and family a priority. Clearly, his temperament isn’t suited for such a life. But it was more than this. He seemed to be completely open, and yet i sensed that he was as closed as a fist, and i couldn’t say exactly why.

As the book went on, i realized that the litany I sensed in the book’s delivery and presentation had echoed throughout his life. There were certain personal issues that Ted simply didn’t want to deal with, certain places he would not go—and understandably, this in part led to the demise of his marriage to Jane Fonda.

Still and all, he soldiers on with his philanthropic work, his business ventures as a restauranteur, his travels—and as God would have it, he gets to be a grandfather. Throughout, I love his style. The way he calls rich people on their BS, the way he’s worth nearly a billion dollars at one point and he wears the same suit and drives the same car year in and year out. I love the way he mouths off to the press and gets himself in so much hot water, he’s still feeling the heat several decades down the line. What i think I really love is his panache, his nerve—the thing that drives him, that has him out thinking everyone in the room, thinking ahead of whatever anyone thinks is happening, whether it’s a conversation or a corporate merger. It burns through the sheen and the gloss like some sort of cleansing fire.

I suppose all of this begs the question “What makes Teddy run?” There’s something explosive in there, embedded inside the glint of his willfulness. In reading this book, there were moments when I thought I actually glimpsed it.

Monday, January 05, 2009

hip-hop, translated.

i think i love nerdcore hip-hop, way more than i probably should. i've been convinced for quite some time now that information is sexy. this is a part of the reason why art geeks with smart mouths and easy dispositions are my kryptonite. nothing breaks me down like some guy that's dressed like it's 50 years ago and he's going on in this low brow way about high art. with calloused hands, no less. he's got a cool old car with suicide doors. and he prefers the butthole surfers to sonic youth. and yeah, he eats meat.

these guys are definitely right up my alley with this video. very clever stuff. nothing you haven't seen before -- the movie airplane with beaver cleaver's mom speaking "jive" fluently comes to mind -- but not exactly quite like this.


Sunday, January 04, 2009

and now...

i would like to take a moment to say thanks to the dominican thug on my block who, whenever he sees me, proclaims at the top of his lungs that anyone that effs with me effs with him, too. it was (and still is) momentarily embarassing, listening to his voice boom out over the street and then watching everyone readjust under the sheer volume of his seemingly spontaneous tirade, and then look at me sideways as i walk past them. but there is much love in it that i don't care anymore. i'm just loving the love.

when i first moved to the neighborhood, everyone assumed that i was dominican, too. and when they realized how bad my spanish was, they thought i was haitian. at this point, they're convinced that i'm some kind of foreign but they aren't sure exactly what. i wasn't necessarily one of them, but one of them looked out for me.

it was like that with will, the crackhead who lived on the first floor of my old building on west 150th street. when the con ed man would show up to shut off my electricity because i hadn't paid it in like forever, will would sic his twin dobermans on him. he tried very hard to convince me that if i didn't stop being so nice to everyone, something bad would happen to me. i would see him in the street all the time. my brothers had known him since forever and he would come over sometimes. he was like my crazy uncle or something. there were moments when we could not separate until we were nearly screaming because we were laughing so much. when his heart finally exploded in his chest and they dragged him to harlem hospital and worked on him and then he overdosed for real and died, i cried for days.

for some time after that -- and still to this day, really -- i find myself surrounded by junkies. most of them are hiding in plain sight, with day jobs and children and such. reformed, clean, sober. walking the narrow and playing it straight. invariably, i'll meet someone and eventually they'll tell me that they still shoot up sometimes. or that all that skag they used to do is something they don't ever really talk about. junk is usually in there somewhere. there was one someone who used to sing the chorus of that gun club song to me all the time. indeed, there have been so many junkies that have followed the sound of my voice and fallen for me that i'm starting to think of it as the will residue in my life.

and then there was the little old jew in my old building on west 86th street -- a retired moil, no less! -- who would bring me hamentashen on my special day and correct my relatively okay yiddish, and teach me more. actually, harry the moil was one of many. there was norman. and marty. and adele. and sam, who sat at the front desk and decided who could live there and who couldn't. all of them, fluent in several languages. all of them, holocaust survivors. sam filled the building with brazilians, artists and students, and harry would sit in front of the building and talk about "the old days" with his friends who also lived in the building. i have a 92 year old father who made it through the great migration north in 1928 -- from st. george, south carolina all the way to brighton beach, coney island to be exact -- so i've been hearing about the old days my whole life. you know. when a loaf of bread was a nickel and you didn't have to lock your doors at night and ladies were ladies and you only ate pickles out of barrels, not wrapped in plastic like nowadays and how you could go to dance halls for a dime and coney island was really fun, not like it is today and all this stuff. to this day, my father probably knows as much yiddish as they do.

at first they treated me like i was a walking freakshow but then eventually all of them totally loved me. they would sit in a half circle all day under the trees on that broad sidewalk and kibbitz. whenever i would come in or out of the building, they would teach me a new word. after awhile, i could greet each of them in at least six languages. including croatian. and oh, yes. my yiddish improved.

all of them looked out for me, all of the time.

and then there are the africans -- all of the africans from the entire diaspora that i've ever met, stateside and and across the pond, anywhere, ever -- who would assume that i was african and talk to me in their native language until i stopped them, who were repeatedly dumbstruck time and time again by how african i look, who would call me sister and mean it, who reached out to understand and embrace me as an individual and not some "american" stereotype, who would help me find my way and let me help them find theirs. the brothers who would teach me french, dance with me, eat my cooking, hold my hand, show me pictures of their little sisters who look like me.

everytime we pass each other, there is love. it happens so easily when we let everything go. all of our differences, all of the things that separate us. whatever tribe we belong to, whatever country we come from, whatever language we speak. there is that moment when all of it falls away in an instant. we "speak" in that time-honored tradition that still means everything to us and we say nothing at all, and in so doing, we say everything. we look at each other with this knowing and its so full of feeling that we can't look at each other any more. we look at each other and all of these things happen in an instant and all of a sudden, we have to look away.

and yes, there are so many more.

all of you -- i can't stop writing songs about you. you all changed me and helped me grow into a better person and a stronger blackgrrl. thank you for all the love.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

watch night and freedom eve

i can't ever remember not going to church on new year's eve when i lived down south. even now as a southern stranger in a northern strange land, it feels more than just a little odd when i don't make my way home to pray through the new year, surrounded by loved ones. the church that i attend doesn't have a new year's eve service, probably because of its proximity to times square. i would go to black churches that i knew of in brooklyn or queens or even harlem but once i settled into the ghetto, my big brothers made it plain that i was never to leave the house on certain nights of the year -- and after awhile, what they insisted upon became one of my city rules to live by, because it made a lot of sense. new year's eve was definitely one of those nights.

i spent this new year's eve with my friend and Grandma the Clown at Big Apple Circus (sooooo fun!) but waking up on new year's day and hearing the news reports of how many people got murdered in the tri-state area the night before was sobering enough to fill me with even more "stay home on new year's eve" resolve than ever -- at least, while i'm up here. i don't care how clean and safe they say new york city is. i don't care if they do turn times square into disneyland. i don't care how low the murder and crime rates drop, or how comfortable they make this place. it's still new york city. praying through the new year was something i did when i went home.

i didn't know that this tradition had a name. it was simply something that our entire family had always done, ever since anyone could remember.

so imagine my surprise when my friend shows me an article in the New York Times about the history of this african-american time-honored tradition, and why it resonates so deeply for so many of us black folk this year. although he is white with southern roots on his father's side of his family, he grew up in new jersey and had never heard of anyone going to church and praying through new year's eve until i suggested it.

it's important to note that according to, the definition of watch night is "a religious service held on new year's eve" and that there are many churches in this country who have services on this night. in fact, it was john wesley, founder of the methodist church, who started watch night services in america. and he got it from the moravians -- a small christian sect from the czech republic (bohemia, actually) that held the very first watch night in germany, 1733. the idea was to pray that God watches over everyone's souls into the new year. however -- that long wait in 1862 by so many for word from abraham lincoln on the last day of the year to confirm that he had emancipated millions of slaves all over the country gave watch night an entirely different meaning, one that black folks have embraced ever since.

here's an exerpt from the article in the Times:

Though barely known to most white Americans, Watch Night as observed in black churches holds a place among the highest holy days, surpassed only by Easter and Christmas. Originally an 18th-century Methodist addition to the calendar — and still observed in many Christian denominations — its special significance in the black religious tradition was cemented by its link to the New Year's Eve of 1862, when free blacks and abolitionists gathered to pray that President Abraham Lincoln would carry out his promise to sign the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863.

to read more, click here.

Friday, January 02, 2009


when i was a child, tremaine hawkins' voice was absolutely everywhere. she was married to one of the hawkins' brothers, sang with the LOVE Alive choir and was (and still is, some years later) a powerhouse of a performer. i remember wishing that i could sing like her. many an afternoon found me sitting and listening and imitating what i heard but that wasn't really what i wanted. i was drawn to the overwhelming passion in her delivery, but i knew that there was more than feelings involved. i knew how to sing, and i knew how to sing with feeling and i knew that i didn't have what she had. so the differentiation between feeling and that something else was understood.

if all of that weren't enough, it was the 70s. the radio was filled with people singing with feeling. the television was filled with variety shows that would have entire segments devoted to these "singing with feeling" people, strumming their guitars and their lutes and whatever else they could caress sincerely, staring glassy-eyed beyond the camera, to something that was beyond any of us. there was even a hit song at the time, called (appropriately enough) feelings. nothing could get more touchy-feely than that. and yet as time went on, that's exactly what happened. but i digress.

sitting in the living room, playing tremaine's songs over and over and over again, singing them to myself, watching the mac davis (a texan, by the way -- remember that huuuuge elvis presley song in the ghetto? yeah, well, mac wrote it...) show on tv, hearing david soul (another actor who was really a singer) on the mike douglas show singing don't give up on us -- nobody had to tell me. i knew. this woman's voice was something that was touched by the divine. mrs. hawkins was anointed. in retrospect, what i wanted was to sing with that anointing. i was raised COGIC and so i understood very well that i couldn't will my voice into such a state. it was simply the presence of God resting upon her soul.

of the hawkins brothers, walter had his brilliant moments with the LOVE Alive choir and many great songs but it was edwin who revolutionized gospel music with his rearrangement of the 17/18th century hymn oh happy day -- with full choir and a conga back beat, no less. (you don't even want to know what the original sounds like.) these were the same hawkins brothers who hung out with andrae crouch and his twin sister sandra as kids. much like the stewarts, who also lived in the bay area, sang gospel with their mother as the stewart four and whose son sylvester would break away from his gospel-soaked upbringing, delve into secular music and change the world, too.

and you know who recorded with them, sang with them, and attended bishop walter hawkins' church up until he died? that's right. sylvester.

interestingly, they were all COGIC.

in the same way that i tilt my head and look at people differently when they tell me that of course they're musically sophisitcated, of course they love jazz but they don't like ornette, i have to wonder about musicians who love sly stone (a texan, by the way) and who don't "get" his gospel roots, or know who andrae crouch is.

this song still resonates, still transcends, after all this time. she's an old lady and her voice is as clear as a bell and she's still on fire.

...and yes. this song is just the tip of the iceberg.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

every. single. day.

i've decided to jump start things this year creatively by doing the NaBloPoMo challenge this month. i figure the discipline of writing every day will bleed over into all of the other things that i have to do every day as well. like practicing the piano. and making my bed. and going to the gym.

interestingly enough, the theme for january is CHANGE.

there's a lot that's changing in my world, in spite of me. right now, it feels as though i'm being carried along by the undertow -- strong creative currents and good ideas.

more details as things develop.

in the meantime, here's a photo to keep you warm: me and Grandma the Clown, partying the night away on New Year's Eve at the Big Apple Circus.

and here's what my friend and i overheard at least a dozen times as we sat two rows from ringside.

Bratty Little Rude Ritalin Kid: (loud, obnoxious) are you a man or a woman?
Grandma the Clown: (smiling, flat response) yes, i am a man or a woman.