Jun 22 2011

Week Before Airport Police Arrested Black Man for Sagging Pants, This Half-Naked White Guy Flew With No Problem

Photo by Jill Tarlow

How is it that a 20-year-old Black man with his pants sagging low enough to expose his boxer shorts made US Airways flight attendants feel the need to correct his fashion choice, yet this passenger flew with no problem on the same airline a week before–despite the fact that there were several complaints about his (lack of) attire. Disgruntled passengers were told the airline did not have a dress policy and they could not intervene.

*Clutching My Pearls*

Um. Oh, no they didn’t.

According to US Airways spokeswoman Valerie Wunder,

“We don’t have a dress code policy. Obviously, if their private parts are exposed, that’s not appropriate… So if they’re not exposing their private parts, they’re allowed to fly.”

Deshon Marman, hold on just a few months, my brotha. You are about to be a very rich young man.

Read more about this at the San Francisco Chronicle: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/blogs/crime/detail?entry_id=91446#ixzz1Q2GuzJI5

May 1 2011

Tyler Perry is Free

I have a vivid memory of a city bus ride I took with my father when I was eight years old. We were on our way to the science museum and there were some young Black kids in the back of the bus acting up–nothing outlandish–just a few unsupervised pubescents being loud. I could tell before he said anything that my daddy was not pleased with the way the kids were behaving, but he was never that “takes a village to raise a child” kind of Black man, so instead of providing any kind of parental conversation or guidance for the noisemakers, he shifted uncomfortably in his seat, let out an irritated breath and muttered a barely audible, “Making us look bad.”

I didn’t ask him what he meant. I clearly understood that my father was ashamed of the backseat Black kids, but more than that, I got the impression that he was not one of them. I gleaned from my daddy’s demeanor–the way he sat up straighter and held his head higher–that somehow he believed he was other then them, better than them, and that he certainly didn’t deserve the negative opinions strangers on the bus might attribute to him (because he had the same skin color as those unruly hooligans).

At that young age I didn’t yet realize that the strangers on the bus whose opinions he feared were the White ones. I began to recognize that as I grew older. I learned that he cared very much what White people thought of him and he took their judgement of him quite seriously. Over the years I saw him project that same negative judgement he himself feared so much onto countless Black youngsters who could have benefited from loving correction instead of his silent damnation.

That experience with my daddy is why I love and admire Tyler Perry so much, and why I appreciate Perry’s willingness to shine his own loving light on the “bad behavior” of people who share his skin color. Perry is not silenced, nor is his spine stiffened by what others think of him or his art — and yes, I do think it is the essence of art whenever we humans are shown our strengths and our flaws in a way that elicits strong emotion. Perry takes his art to another level by getting us to laugh about our pain as he educates and admonishes us NOT to pass our destructive flaws on to successive generations.

No one will ever complain that a violent, potty-mouthed buffoon in an Adam Sandler movie makes all white-skinned people look bad. I am an Adam Sandler fan, but the critics have HATED his movies for their “buffoonery.” I don’t go to see a Sandler movie expecting subtle themes, classic motifs and social responsibility. I go to laugh, and he makes me do that, so I pay for it. One of the privileges White film makers have (and likely never even think about) is that no matter what the subject matter of the film they want to make, their finished product will not be accused of reflecting (positively or poorly) on all White people.White filmmakers have the freedom to tell any story, any time, in any way they please.

Tyler Perry is choosing to claim that freedom for himself, and I applaud him for it:

“There are so many people who walk around saying ‘It’s stereotypical,’ and this is where the whole Spike Lee thing comes from, the negativity, that this is Stepin’ Fetchit, this is coonery, this is buffoonery, and they try to get people to get on this bandwagon with them, to get this mob mentality to come against what I’m doing…It’s always black people, and this is something that I cannot undo…I am sick of it. It comes from us. We don’t have to worry about anyone else trying to destroy us or take shots, because we do it to ourselves.”

Tyler Perry is making films for an audience that is buying tickets. Period. If he were to make a different kind of movie, he would likely be bringing in different numbers (as evidenced by Colored Girls, which grossed in total less than a Madea film makes in one weekend).

And, while it is true that Tyler is making googobs of money with his films, he does it while delivering messages of transformation, spirituality and personal growth. His films lecture deadbeat dads about their responsibility to support  their kids, warn youngsters about the repercussions of unprotected sex, and uplift women who have been abused.

Name a social ill impacting the Black community and you can bet one of Perry’s films has touched on it. It’s not like he’s making movies that glorify sexual promiscuity, drug abuse and crime, so why is there so much vitriol against him?

If you are old enough to remember, you know that the Cosby show got much criticism back in the 80s for what many Black people at the time called an unrealistic portrayal of the Black family that few could relate to. Cosby’s upper middle class family headed by an obstetrician and an attorney who were happily married and raising their children together was  hugely controversial, as evidenced by an exhibit from the Museum of Broadcast Communications:

“Some observers described the show as a 1980’s version of Father Knows Best, the Huxtables as a white family in blackface…One audience study suggests that the show “strikes a deal” with white viewers, that it absolves them of responsibility for racial inequality in the United States in exchange for inviting the Huxtables into their living room.” (-Darnell M. Hunt)

The attack on Tyler Perry and his right to portray what he chooses in his films is not a new phenomenon, it is just coming from a different side of the argument. Perry haters are complaining that his films reinforce negative stereotypes, but Cosby haters said just the opposite. Back then, Bill Cosby’s response to the controversy was swift and succinct, and it applies just as appropriately to Perry’s work today as it did to Cosby’s nearly thirty years ago:

“You . . . pretend that our existence is one whole shell of sameness. I tell the people who complain they don’t know people like the Huxtables, ‘You ought to get out more often.’ “

I don’t know about you, but I can name a real-life person for every one of Tyler Perry’s fictional characters–including Madea. These are people in my life whom I know and love, and though I might not always agree with or feel proud of their choices, I will always root for them to succeed at facing and eradicating their flaws — and, if some Black people are worried that the “strangers on the bus” will judge all Black people by the actions of  a few characters in an obviously comedic film, whose problem is that…really?

“I am ashamed for the black poet who says: ‘I want to be a poet, not a Negro poet,’ as though his own racial world were not as interesting as any other world…An artist must be free to choose what he does, but he must also never be afraid to do what he might choose.

Let the blare of Negro jazz bands and the bellowing voice of Bessie Smith singing Blues penetrate the closed ears of the colored near-intellectuals until they listen and perhaps understand…We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame…We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.”

-Langston Hughes

Apr 19 2011

LouAnne Johnson Responds to ‘Dangerous Minds’ Questions

Michelle Pfeiffer and Louanne Johnson

After writing the post Waiting For…A White Lady?, I did some further research and found that LouAnne Johnson has a website where she posts articles and answers questions about her current work as a teacher and her past experiences writing the book “My Posse Don’t Do Homework,” which the movie Dangerous Minds is (loosely, according to Johnson) based on.

At that website, Johnson provides a link to a downloadable .pdf file of a letter she wrote to a grad student who contacted her via email in 2007 with similar questions my post raised. I love her responses to that student’s query. And, though I’ve never met, spoken or corresponded with her, I love her. Louanne Johnson speaks her truth about her experiences in a way that is informed, inclusive and non-judgmental. After a visit to her website you may come to the same conclusion I have:  She is a teacher in every sense of the word.

I HIGHLY recommended reading her entire letter:


My Thoughts on the movie Dangerous Minds which was (very very loosely) adapted from my book My Posse Don’t Do Homework.

This was written in June 2007 in response to an email from a grad student:

Thank you for contacting me for input instead of just using what you find on the Internet or other resources.

Let me be clear: I think Dangerous Minds has its good points – it inspired a lot of kids to stay in school, it inspired many people to pursue their dreams of becoming teachers, and it inspired the brilliant song, “Gangsta’s Paradise.” I just wish that people would realize it’s a movie and not real life when they write about me.

I had very little input to the movie and much of it is fiction, at times so far removed from fact as to be ridiculous. My students never called me “white bread” for example – I had only one rule in my classroom and that was: respect yourself and the others in this room. I didn’t disrespect my students and they didn’t disrespect me. The producers couldn’t believe it could be so simple — that if you treat kids with genuine respect, they may not love you immediately, but they will learn to respect you.

I used rap lyrics to initiate lessons about poetry (not a Dylan-Dylan contest). Instead of a silly contest, we learned to write and analyze various forms of poetry, beginning with songs and ending with Shakespearean sonnets. Yep, they actually liked them, too. I never threw candy bars at my students to motivate them — I encouraged them to eat healthy foods. I didn’t fight with my administrators all the time — it was my principal who gave me the support and encouragement I needed to become an effective teacher. So, I would simply ask that you view the movie as a movie and not as a reflection of my personality, teaching techniques, teaching philosophy, and definitely not as a reflection of my attitude toward students.

I didn’t teach for one semester and then try to quit — I taught in the at- risk program for five years, starting as a part-time teacher and ending as a full-time teacher and department chair — and then I went back to grad school.

I agree with Bulman’s contention that the movie industry seems to think that white middle-class people can walk into a ghetto and ‘save the children.’ That’s a very very simplified version of his theory. But I would argue that whether the maverick teacher is middle-class, white or black, male or female — the key is in that person’s motivation. If you believe you are superior to somebody and you are going to save them, they will resist you, even if they are drowning, if they didn’t ask for your help. But if you truly respect and accept other people as they are, and your motivation is to encourage them to develop their talents and skills to pursue whatever goals THEY have set (or encourage them to set goals if they have none), then they will be interested in what you have to say.

People focus far too much on race, gender and money when they should focus on heart, soul and intention. It’s been my experience that when you have self-destructive or apathetic students, instead of trying to teach them lessons, you will make much more progress if you try to find out what they think of themselves. And when they have negative perceptions, you tell them what you see — a new perspective that they can’t see themselves. If this is an honest communication, it will change the way they think of themselves. Instead of thinking of themselves as hopeless, powerless, stupid, lazy, or whatever they have been taught or told to think — they begin to see themselves as human beings, separate from the school system labels, human beings with talents and abilities that will be valued by the world, if they can just survive school.

That’s enough. I’m writing you a book! Sorry for being so long-winded.

Oh, wait, I take that back. One more thing. I don’t think the Hollywood film makers are intentionally perpetuating stereotypes and simplistic plot lines. I think in some cases they genuinely believe their stories, in some cases they are trying to create a feel-good story to attract an audience, and in some cases they just don’t have a clue because they never attended public schools and their worlds are so insulated that they believe whatever expert they have hired. I was told, for example, when I protested the racial stereotypes in Dangerous Minds (all black kids are raised by crackhead single moms, all Hispanic teens are gangsters because their parents don’t care, black parents resent effective white teachers), I was told in a very haughty voice that the “gangologist” on their staff assured them that their movie was an accurate depiction. I laughed myself silly before I cried.

At LouAnne’s website is a brief Q&A where you can find out what happened to the real kids whose lives were portrayed in the movie. In one of her answers to a visitor’s question she wrote:

Durell and Lionel came back to school after their grandma made them quit and work for a semester (and she never called me a honky anything – she was very nice).

Hah! I knew that evil grandma didn’t exist. I guess the filmmakers felt making her so mean and angry would make for a better, more enjoyable viewing experience.