Archive for January, 2006

The Productive Writer

People ask me all the time “how do you find the time to write, much less the other stuff that you do?” Well, my friends, the simple answer can be summed up in one (albeit hyphenated) word: multi-tasking. Let’s follow a typical day.

5:00 a.m. Wake up. Put on my clothes–that I set out the night before–in the dark. Trip over my oldest son who has once again snuck into our bedroom in the middle of the night to finish his slumber.

5:10 a.m. Sit in front of the computer and check e-mail and my message board.

5:30 a.m. Get to work. All of a five minute commute. I barely have time to complain about idiot drivers. Then again, I’m usually the only one on the road.

6:30 a.m. Begin planning my writing “to do” list. I love lists. I never accomplish everything on a list, that’s bad luck. Instead, when I’m down to one item, I start a new list.

7:00 a.m. Jot dialogue snippets on Post-It notes around my desk. NOTE: it’s important to collect the Post-Its at the end of the day. Otherwise your co-workers think the description of dismemberment is about them. Really, it’s not. Really. Even when you turn my markers upside down.

9:00 a.m. Staff meeting. I take copious notes, though they look suspiciously like my latest blog entry. At this point I remember that my co-workers read my blog. I make a note to remind them that they are reading my blog while pretending to be researching.

11:00 a.m. I type reports which look suspiciously like my latest blog entry.

12:00 p.m. I kiss the wife hello/good-bye as she leaves for her part time job. I check my e-mail and my message board. It’s a really cool board that more people ought to stop by and say “hi” on.

12:10 p.m. Chesya calls.

12:15 p.m. Ignore my youngest son’s latest trick: shimmying up the door frame so that he can get the keys we leave on the top of them. Post blog.

12:30 p.m. Realize that two short stories and a writing grant application are due tomorrow. Decide to procrastinate by bagging the 1500 comic books that a friend game me six months ago.

12:55 p.m. Ignore the fight between the boys over which show to watch: Dora the Explorer or Higglytown. I settle the argument by turning the television to an NYPD Blue rerun.

1:35 p.m. Random friend drop by. One of the moderators from my message board. I convince her that it is the longing of her heart to help me bag comic books.

2:30 p.m. Ignore the splashing sounds coming from the kitchen sink. Chesya calls.

3:45 p.m. I decide that today is “make your own lunch day” – complete with lollipops and soda if they leave daddy along and are good. Remember that wife sometimes reads blog. Leave a Post-It note reminding the wife that one of the things that made her fall in love with me was my sense of humor. (She never gets tired of hearing “You must laugh all the time!”)

4:30 p.m. I post my blog. I tell the boys to “make downstairs spotless.” That’s their cue to clean up downstairs and put away all of their toys before mommy gets home. “It makes daddy look responsible.”

5:05 p.m. I cruise the horror message boards looking for flame wars that I’m above participating in. Make popcorn to settle in to enjoy reading them – I justify this by calling it “networking.”

6:10 p.m. I finish some paperwork for The Dwelling Place. I re-think the idea of working for a church without a salary. I call up the pastor and demand a raise. He offers to double my pay and give me a snazzy new title. I make a mental note to randomly say the word “boobies” from the pulpit at my next opportunity.

6:30 p.m. My wife gets home. Me and the boys decide to nap.

7:25 p.m. I remember my story and grant deadlines. It’s time to catch up on my friends blogs, Xangas, and LiveJournals.

8:00 p.m. Time to watch our television shows that we have on videotape, or as we call it, ghetto TiVo.

9:00 p.m. Put the boys to bed. Sometime in the next hour or two they might go to sleep.

10:00 p.m. Prepare to write. Have to straighten up my desk first. And the living room. And the dishes. And a load of laundry.

11:00 p.m. Write.

1:00 a.m. E-mail off story. Print out finished grant information. Watch an episode of Gilmore Girls on DVD and enjoy a glass of wine. This is “me” time.

2:30 a.m. I call it another successful night and go to bed.

Follow this pattern and you too can be a moderately productive writer.

Since I don’t know where you are reading this, the best way to guarantee me seeing your comment is to post on my message board. Or simply drop by to say hi.

First and Latest Publications

I posted the first story I ever wrote not too long ago, but I’ve had reason to reflect lately on what my first published work was. My bio says it was my story “Soul Food” (1999) in the now-defunct magazine Hoodz, but I recently dug up my true first foray into print: a fanboy letter in the comic book Starman. April 1997, Issue #29, Starman was one of my favorite comic books at the time and made me a fan of writer James Robinson. So much so, that I wrote him a letter:

Dear Starman, Before I read part three of “Hell and Back,” I felt the need to go back and re-read issues #0-25, including the letter columns. I came across your work rather late, so I’ve had to go back-issue hunting (always the best part of collecting, so I’m not complaining) and only recently finished my set of Starman. I just wanted to let you know a few thoughts of mine. I have found that in my comics shop buying, your biggest, most fervent fans seem to be frustrated, unpublished (or both) writers. I guess I am in that category. Be that as it may, I wanted to cast another vote for you to give advice to struggling writers. I myself an going through the rejection phase of my career–that bold step where a writer sends his material out into a hostile world so that editors who have had bad days can crush your dreams with a form letter (Again, I’m not complaining: a) this is considered paying one’s dues; and b) short of a comic-book career, the market for short horror fiction is somewhat limited). Now to a topic I wish for you to address in your letter column (allow another digressions: don’t let people pressure you all into regular columns. I enjoy the Shade Journals even more than the letter columns). At some point can you go into a list of your top five favorite movie directors? You seem to be a person who enjoys his movies. Other than comics, rare horror movies are the only other thing I collect (although The Wicker Man still eludes me). My top four directors are 1) Spike Lee, 2) Alfred Hitchcock, 3) Akira Kurusawa, and 4) Martin Scorsese. John Woo, Quentin Tarantino, and the Hughes Brothers all have honorable mentions. I was just curious who your favorites included. Maurice G. Broaddus
To which the editor replied:

Maurice, I’ll try to get James to do a special “advice column” one of these days for potential new writers. Sorry the writing gig has been tough so far. Hang in there, but. Also, I called James to get a short list on your question. In no particular order, his top six directors are: Hitchcock, John Ford, Scorsese, Signey Pollack, Sam Fuller, and Orson Welles. This led into a frighteningly “Starman”-like conversation in which he corrected me on how it was Roman Polanski, not John Huston, who directed Chinatown.

Never let it be said that I’m above very public whining. Or nerd-boy behavior. At any rate, I can’t remember if Mr. Robinson ever got around to his advice column, but the letter was read by my fellow horror writer, Wayne Allen Sallee, also a fan of the book. He took it upon himself to write me an encouraging letter and we struck up a friendship. He convinced me to attend the World Horror Convention in 2002 where he introduced me around. I entered their short story contest, and my story, “In the Shadows of Meido”, received an honorable mention. Admittedly, the true highlight of the con was hanging out with Neil Gaiman. I went to the World Horror Convention the following year and won their short story contest. That story, “Family Business”, is now out in the latest issue of Weird Tales Magazine.

Wow, this was a long way to go for an ad for myself.

Underworld: Evolution

One of the first movies that my wife convinced me to take her to when we were dating was Scary Movie. She thought it looked funny, I wanted to please her, so I paid what few hard earned dollars I had for us to spend an evening at the movies. It turned out to be a cinematic experience so miserable that she apologized to me afterward. After seeing Underworld: Evolution, someone owes me an apology.

I want two hours of my life back.

I’m now convinced that I’m going to be on my deathbed, re-tracing my life, and I’m going to remember that I once sat through Carnosaur 2 and Underworld: Evolution. And frankly, there were enough unanswered questions from the first Carnosaur to justify me watching the second – at least compared to trying to justify Underworld: Evolution. Having seen the first Underworld, it’s not like I expected a whole lot: Kate Beckinsdale, as Selene the Death Dealer, running around in a tight leather outfit shooting a lot of bullets at monsters. That, by the way, is a better plot summary than the barely one step above a video game’s thing that passed for a screenplay. Before you ask why I went to see this in the first place, sequels of these type of cult movies tend to be better than the original. They tend to up the action quotient, deepen the mythology, create more of a thrill ride, and possibly–possibly–even become a director’s franchise. Not so here.

I want two hours of my life back.

Underworld: Evolution picks up after the ending credits of the first Underworld. So we are in the midst of this overly-Machiavellian, grand conspiracy/war between the lycans (werewolves) and the vampires. [This is basically a story set in the White Wolf gaming company’s Vampyre (the basis of the television series Kindred: The Embraced) and Werewolf games universe, but the uninitiated is not supposed to notice.] The movie was relentless action with no point. The frenetic direction mostly illustrated director Len Wiseman’s love of things crashing through walls. The action literally stopped long enough for gratuitous sex scenes or the one bit of exposition that supposedly explained why everyone was running around shooting and otherwise trying to maim one another. Yes, I said gratuitous, because the randomness of it, like the rest of the movie, made no sense. Sadly, I kept waiting fo the movie to start making sense, but by the time it did, I no longer cared.

Vampires represent a resurrection to darkness. In vampires you see the perversion of the idea of blood being necessary for eternal life. Underworld: Evolution continues in the Postmodern era’s tradition of distancing itself from the religious elements of vampire mythology, though sunlight is still an effective weapon against vampires and blood is still essential for the transmission of what they are as well as their reason for being immortal. The lure of vampires, from the original to Anne Rice’s depiction of them, has been their seductive underside. Vampires seem more free, civilized, almost aristocratic; frankly, they have been over-Romanticized.. Werewolves, by comparison, are savage. Beasts reminding us that we have a corrupted self inside us. A side, a nature, in us that we must tame, restrain, or kill.

“Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned” Romans 5:12

“The journey to the truth” is through the blood, Marcus said. Echos of the story of Christ reverberate through this movie. SPOILER WARNING (I think. Who knows if I’ve even grasped the plot fully): Much of the movie revolves around the search for Alexander Corvinus (Derek Jacobi, a long way from his I, Claudius days), who is essentially the “Adam” (the first) of the vampire and werewolf clans. He is the father to twin sons, Marcus (Tony Curran), the original vampire; and William (Brian Steele), the original werewolf. Yet, despite the evil his sons immediately inflict on the world, he cannot bring himself to destroy them.

“For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.” I Corinthians 15:21-22

Selene and Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman as the half-breed or hybrid rescued from the first Underworld) represent the future. The “second Adam,” much like what Christ did, takes on the traits of the first–takes on his very nature–but lives the life meant to be lived. In effect, the second Adam redeems the life and sin of the first. Through facing temptation, through trials, even through a death and resurrection (including an “ascension” in to (sun) light), the lives of the second Adams provide the example for others to follow.

I’m still wondering how a movie full of vampires, werewolves, non-stop action, and a leather-clad Kate Beckinsale sucked so badly. Though I am tempted to make a list of the things I could have done instead of watching this movie, I will concentrate on the themes drawn out of the movie. Though even the echoes of the story of redemption are not enough to save this movie.

Things Overhead in the Broaddus Household II

My ongoing series that helps provide insight into the life that is Maurice Broaddus.

Conversational Tidbit #1:
Maurice: Both of you clean up that mess. From now on only one of you go to the bathroom at a time. And from now on, only touch your own wee-wee. Um, not too often. And … uh … only for short periods of time. And don’t tell mommy that I taught you the sword-fighting game.

Conversational Tidbit #2:
Malcolm (age 3): Daddy, I want to watch the butt movie.
Maurice: What’s the butt movie?
Malcolm: The one where the lion eats the giraffe’s butt.
Reese (age 4): It’s not a giraffe, it’s a zebra.
Malcolm: The lion eats the zebra’s butt. And the zebra says you’re eating my butt. And the lion tries to eat everyone’s butt.
Maurice: Madagascar? This is why I’m not allowed to teach kids Sunday School class.

Meanwhile, over on my Hollywood Jesus blog, new reviews on the comic book The Dark Knight Returns and the movies Hoodwinked, Glory Road, and Underworld: Evolution.

Oh, and Chesya decided to say thank you in her own special way.

Comment on this bit of rantus interruptus anyway you want (I don’t know where you’re reading it from) but if you want to guarantee me seeing it, do so at my message board.

Glory Road

Many of the important or best games in NCAA basketball tournament history seem to feature the University of Kentucky. I spent seven years living with a University of Kentucky basketball fan, a fan that I have known since childhood. Let’s just say that under such circumstances, you learn to love Wildcats basketball. There is an argument that can be made for the power of divine providence as part of the power and statement of this game. The year 1966 was the only year this could have happened. UCLA won all of the NCAA championships between 1964 and 1973, except for 1966. A little known player, who would one day be known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, was ineligible to play as a freshman that year. The University of Kentucky, after a mediocre previous year, came together as a team. With University of Kentucky/Adolph Rupp perception–the pride of the South, old school mentality–it would seem like a story couldn’t be better written. My friend goes on to give more of a detailed history of Rupp and the background of the University of Kentucky basketball program at the time. These days, the only thing that would be unusual is seeing an all-white roster hitting the floor. However, Glory Road is not about these days. It is about a chapter of history well worth exploring, as well as being another entry in the sports movie genre.

Remember the Titans. The Greatest Game Ever Played. Miracle. Like them, Glory Road is based on a true story. These David vs. Goliath, root for the underdog type movies follow a specific formula: rookie coach/player (in this case, Don Haskins, played by Josh Lucas) new to the game faces uphill battle, first resistance from the players, then the system, then their ultimate arch-nemesis when they seek to win the big game. The standard for the quality of the particular movie is often best measured in terms of how well it can maintain any sort of dramatic integrity. Though Glory Road seems a little more heavy handed, it still is quite the memorable and effective movie.

Remember the Titans is the easy comparison since it has a similar backdrop of racial politics. Glory Road follows the journey of the Texas Western University basketball team, a multi-racial basketball squad in the deep south, breaking barriers akin to those broken by Jackie Robinson in baseball. Though teams were often integrated, the integration amounted to tokenism (the unwritten rule being “that you never played more than one black player at home, two on the road or three if you were behind”). Let’s face it, history is written by the victors though by most accounts, the movie stays fairly close to the truth and depicts the characters fairly. Some expected creative license was taken, for example, the added scene of the players’ trashed hotel rooms and the actual tempo of the final game. However, Adolph Rupp (Jon Voight, doing a lot with very little screen time), legendary coach of the University of Kentucky team, wasn’t portrayed as a frothing racist (which, I rather expected he would be). And, frankly, Don Haskins recruitment of black players almost smacks of desperate times (his inability to compete for the best white players) calling for desperate measures (recruiting black players).

“I don’t see color, I see quick, I see skill.” –Don Haskins

This was a nice sentiment and I understand what people mean when they say things like this, however the problem is that the rest of society doesn’t necessarily get that same memo. Every time we step out of our front doors we are identified and treated primarily by our racial identity. Or, as the teams’ sometime spiritual advisor put it, “knuckleheads come in all sizes, shapes, and colors.” Black people were still perceived as something less than human. Athletic, sure, but they didn’t have the intelligence for team sports. They couldn’t be leaders, couldn’t control themselves, could never be part of a team game since they were more interested in show-boating. As far as we’ve come, there is still a way to go. Similar sentiments still linger today, since only recently have black quarterbacks seen an emergence on the pro level in football (and I grew up with various adults in my life trying to convince me that black people had extra muscles).

The coach–and by proxy, the movie–succeeded exactly because he actually did see color, recognizing the power inherent in people’s perceptions of color. The importance of the final game was a statement about color: five white players vs. five black players. If color didn’t matter, the movie wouldn’t matter.

“It’s more than just a game now. I sure as hell can’t quit on it.” –Don Haskins

The game symbolizes something transcendent for all those that are a part of it, something greater than themselves. In a lot of ways, the game is their means of liberation: the coaches and the players, both black and white. The black players had been degraded, humiliated, treated as less than human, yet all they want to do is play. Their white team mates stood alongside them, often abused and insulted also, though without the sting that called into question their very humanity. When the team forgot what they had come to do, their mission–and instead focused more on each others’ skin color–they suddenly couldn’t play together. Hatred is contagious: to return hate for hate, the whole team ends up losing.

One of the things that I have come to realize about faith is that you can’t separate ideas from social reality. What you think about God, your theology, can’t be separated from your socio-political status in (your) society. God is involved in history, the story of us, and His revelation is intertwined with our social and political affairs. This movie reminded me that God is for the oppressed, the marginalized. The poor have the Exodus gospel/model: to rise up, decry oppressive powers, and seek liberation. The gospel is an offense to the rich and powerful. It’s the death of their ideas of wealth and power, those priorities.

Our faith needs to have a social dimension, shaped to affect our present situation. We need to understand that evil can be systemic, imbued into the very fabric of our social structures. The good news is about accepting freedom. Christ is the Liberator with a mission of liberation, to free us from the bonds of this world and its systems. Not only that, but we are called to join that mission by adopting the revolutionary methods of peace and love.

The movie succeeds as an inspirational movie not for the usual athletic underdogs aspiring to greatness, but because this particular group of basketball players did not succumb to criticism, jeering and all sorts of racism. A powerful theme of Glory Road was how the game was played. While we need to call evil, evil, we can’t use the same means–the hate, the violence– to combat it or fight for equality. This movie forces us to confront our racial issues and attitudes. We all must travel that Glory Road and like any journey, we’re the better for it.

An Introduction to Chesya

Poppy Z. Brite said something in her blog about her friendship with Caitlin Kiernan not too long ago that resonated with me: “For the record, I think authors who are close friends almost always learn a lot from each other.” I think that perfectly encapsulates everything that I have to say about most of my writing friendships, though I thought that I’d focus on one for reasons that will come painfully evident by the end of this post.

It’s probably no secret that Chesya Burke is my best writing friend (I’d normally say “one of my best writing friends” but she’d have no part of that. It’s all or nothing with her.) I often refer to her as my con spouse (with author Simon Wood rounding out our little triumvirate. Sure, he has more publishing credits than Chesya and I combined, but when he’s around her, he has this look … like the husband who finds himself at the mall wondering how he ended up holding his wife’s purse.)

What’s less known is that we can’t stand each other’s writing styles. It’s not as bad as it sounds (well, it is for me since I get to hear the “how dare you not think that everything I crap is gold” tone from the aforementioned literary diva), because we still respect each other’s writing. Because of that, we can see things in each other’s work that the other would be prone to miss. And we have great affection for each other, cushioning the criticisms. Criticisms we delight in heaping on one another, at least judging from our profanity laced crit-sessions (uh, not me, but that Chesya has quite the potty mouth).

For the record, besides trying to take over my new cabal, she’s also been too lazy to have her own blog, so periodically I’m obligated to talk about her. Though, that brings us to the topic for today. Occasionally we bounce career advice off one another. We both have ideas of how we want our careers to go. Very specific ideas. In fact, we can seem rather snotty for two nobody writers. Anyway, typical for one of our phone calls, she calls me up to run an idea by me (or to brag about her latest bit of good news. Have I mentioned that I measure my career not in terms of publishing credits, but only in can I top Chesya moments?). Also typical for our conversation, I go on to explain how wrong-headed she is. One such conversation we were having not too long ago went something like this:

Maurice: You need a blog.
Chesya: Why? I ain’t got nothing to say. You the one that likes to hear himself talk.
Maurice: I’m just saying that it helps to keep your name out there. You didn’t have anything out in 2005.
Chesya: Do you know who I am?

Allow me to digress for a moment. You can pretty much equate Chesya saying “Do you know who I am?” to a drunken redneck saying “Do you think you’re better than me?” It usually precedes a monologue wherein I am reminded that her name is Chesya Burke. Chesya. Burke. The monologue never fails to remind me that we once had a conversation where she thought she should just go by Chesya. Since, well, there can be only one.

Of course.

We went on to bicker for the next half hour, again, typical for our phone conversations. Sadly, we have folks that just follow us around at conventions just to hear us bicker. In fact, my boys always seem to know when it’s her on the phone:

Malcolm (age 3): Why’s Daddy yelling?
Reese (age 4): He’s talking to Chesya.
Malcolm: Oh. Chesya Burke.

After we hang up, she calls me back. She taking my original position, but since she’s saying it, it’s now her idea and thus brilliant. She’s launching a blog. Apparently, as I’ve been told, her name hasn’t been out there enough, you know, besides Poppy Z. Brite name-dropping her. (Lord, I didn’t hear the end of that. Memo to any other big name writers: I need one of you to name-drop me soon. Preferably someone bigger than Poppy or else I’ll get “well, that’s nice, but (so and so) is no Poppy.”)

Anyway, go check her out. She’s got a story to tell. Of course it’s all about her. She’s Chesya Burke.

(By the way, she really loves it when people say the following sentence: “I’m Chesya Burke and I crap gold.” Absolutely loves it. You definitely won’t get an example of her potty mouth.)

Comment on this bit of rantus interruptus anyway you want (I don’t know where you’re reading it from) but if you want to guarantee me seeing it, do so at my message board.

Ontological Blackness III: Race as Shared Story

I’ve always hated history. In fact, my two worst subjects in school were history and geography. Those subjects were always just so … dry. Names, dates, everything reduced to rote memorization – they never held my interest long enough for me to learn anything. The ironic things is that I now write a lot of historical fiction. I’ve discovered this love of history and exotic places because I’ve learned to find the stories behind them.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Black identity, in this country, has had to continually be reconstituted. We have had to constantly seek new parameters by which to measure and define ourselves. The fact of the matter is that it can be looked at fairly simply. If truth arises out of my experience, then it’s possible to say that truth can arise out of our (collective) experience. We can each have our own story, a story that defines who we are as a person. Our personal story is our ontological essence.
Building on that, a race of people could be defined as a people with a shared story, that is, experience, heritage, culture (insofar as it goes deeper than appreciating the aesthetics), and most importantly, history. History is the story of individuals coming together.

Getting back to my original discussion, for something to be black, it must reflect what it means to be black. Ontological blackness. And yet, when all is said and done, ontological blackness is a reaction to racism. [I ran across someone else thinking about similar issues from the flip-side. Phil Sinitiere examines the emergent church and the idea of white privilege. Part 1, 2, 3, 4.] In this regard, so much of what it means to be black is tied to, well, whiteness. Our story, the story of black people, is shaped by “white”-ness. Our history is one of striving for legitimacy in “their” eyes via “their” ways. We can’t seem to escape the oppositional fervor. We constantly look at ourselves through the eyes of others. We engage in a brand of racial apologetics: defining blackness against white ideology and cultural aesthetics; a battle of superiority and legitimacy; racial life as a series of binary determinants.

Thus we all become trapped in this endless cycle of trying to create criteria to define those in and out of any given group. And yet we can miss the point of these identifying stories and fail to see that our stories are actually quite similar.

For example, there is the story of aliens in a foreign land whose existence seems determined as crisis, struggle, resistance, and survival. That story, in turn, had been the source/inspiration of their art. The songs that bound them as a culture. The folk tales passed down that shaped them as a people. On a symbolic level, anyone can participate in this story, and, in fact, we all do. Especially since that was the story of the Old Testament Israelites. It is not as if black people have a monopoly on a story of crisis, struggle, resistance, and survival.

But that does not negate our particular story.

Every people has a story to tell. When all is said and done, “blackness” (any racial identity) is about shared story. A story that defines us and continues to form us. When stories are reduced to law or dogma, their vitality is drained. When people no longer tell or listen to others’ stories, they become locked in their provincial mindset, cultural ghettos of their own making. In fact, when people become so removed from another’s story, they become compelled to destroy those (other’s) stories for they suggest other ways of living. Their stories become a threat.

What we can’t afford to do is let one story keep us from participating in other stories. Maybe this is where reconciliation can begin.

Ontological Blackness II: Nigrescence?

If culture, in its truest form, is our sense of identity, who we are, then to be stripped of it can be traumatizing to say the least. It’s one of those tertiary effects of slavery that doesn’t get a lot of play: it left a lot of people insecure about their blackness. I imagine this chiefly an issue for black Americans, because let me tell you, Jamaicans have no identity and pride issues. Ditto Africans.

I was surfing the Internet when I ran across a LiveJournal community for “oreos”. Made up of black folks insecure in their “blackness.” Their stories start to sound alike after a while. Some variation on “I grew up in the suburbs and ‘lost my way’”: My whole life I grew up in “white” settings–school, church, neighborhood. So I don’t sound or act black. What’s ironic is that white and Asian people who act black or ghetto give me just as much grief. (OR) I never seemed to fit in with anyone. In high school, I read a lot and listened to whatever music interested me. I had friends, but I wasn’t hung up on color. The black kids teased me a lot.

However, racial identity issues are not unique to black folks. I know “oreos” (black on the outside and white on the inside), “eggs” (white on the outside and “yellow” on the inside), and “bananas” (“yellow” on the outside and white on the inside). Maybe examining a kind of racial journey anecdotally found among American black folks might shed some light.

This journey of defining blackness was the basis for my first novel, Strange Fruit (still making the publishing rounds). This might seem like “too black” of a theme, but I think the idea of struggling with identity is a universal one. When I was in college, I ran across this article on the “Negro-to-Black Conversion Experience” (sometimes called Nigrescence, developed from the work of Dr. William E. Cross, Jr., author of Shades of Black, one of the most frequently referenced texts on Black identity). The stages of Nigrescence goes something like this:

Pre-Encounter Stage
In the first stage, individuals downplay the importance of race in their lives and focus more on their membership in other groups (e.g. religion, social class, sexual orientation). Some people in this stage consider race-based physical characteristics to play an insignificant role in their daily lives, while others see race only as a problem that is linked to issues of social discrimination, and even others have negative attitudes toward Blacks.

Ah, the “colorless” stage. It sounds like a good and reasonable stage to be at. A live and let live, non-judgment, “can’t we all just get along” sort of place. It sounds like something to be strived for not run from. The problem is the negation of cultural identity: my blackness, for example, is part of who I am. To reject, dismiss, ignore it is to do the same to part of me.

Encounter Stage
The second stage of the Nigrescence experience in which individuals encounter an experience that causes them to challenge their current feelings about themselves and their interpretation of the condition of Black people in America. The experience is often one in which individuals face a blatant racist event. However, there are other instances in which the experience is more positive. In any event, the Encounter experience is one that is so foreign to individuals’ previous worldview regarding race that it forces them to rethink their attitudes about race.

This is what I call “The Rodney King Memo” or the angry stage since this is the stage where there is the greatest danger of getting “stalled.” Few things can shatter a person like having their worldview collapse. The anger at the injustice and inequities can form a defensive armor.

In the third stage, individuals immerse themselves in Blackness and feel liberated from Whiteness; they have positive feelings toward everything associated with Black people and a negative view of those things associated with White people. Despite this immersion into all things Black, individuals have not psychologically committed to a Black identity.

I so clearly remember this stage. I wouldn’t do anything if it wasn’t black. I ate at black owned restaurants. Went to a black-owned dry-cleaner. Movies? “Yeah, I’ll check out a movie, but it’ll take a black one to move me.” I read a version of this article in the Black studies class that I enrolled in. Ironically, this phase comes with a spurt of creativity. I found this bit in my ad-hoc journal from the early 90s, as I went through this phase:

“Ours was a race that built great empires, civilizations, and culture. The only race to wander and conquer (in order to spread its self-declared superiority) is the white race. With slavery, they cut us off from our religion, culture, and language until we were the only race to have absolutely no identity. We couldn’t even keep our true family names. A collective tabula rasa upon which the white man imprinted history, his language, his culture and sense of aesthetic and his religion. Why are we so integration crazed?

“We were brainwashed into thinking white is good, black is bad–to hate ourselves and our color. We were taught to think that the lighter your skin color is, the better you are–in a society where the lighter you are the farther you can get. We were dubbed ‘the Negro’ and taught that our native Africa was peopled by heathen savages. We were raped, beaten, enslaved, worked, and tortured. We were kept ignorant and uneducated.

“We were taught to submit to and obey the white man by worshiping his alien (to us) white God (it’s amazing how God and Jesus are always depicted as white). In fact, never did white people spread Christ the way He did. Jesus spread his message in a meek and humble way. White people always spread his message with bloodshed.”

Obviously, still quite a bit of anger in this phase.

The fourth stage is described as a psychological change wherein individuals learn to balance their Blackness with the other demands of personhood (e.g. other group memberships).

It’s only at this stage that blackness starts to be defined, starts to become a part of the individual. I would guess that the anger and immersion of the previous phases were an over-reaction–the pendulum swinging so far the other way–due to where the person was when this started. Now, the pendulum is coming back to the middle; the person, however, is trying to figure out where that middle is.

The final stage of the Nigrescence model, in contrast to previous stages, this stage involves commitment to a plan of action, and individuals begin to live in accordance with the new self-image that they have developed.

Here, blackness takes on the dimension of praxis, theory accompanied by social action.

“Our ultimate concern is that which determines our being or not being.” –Paul Tillich

For the longest time, blackness was a state of non-being. People ask why black people make such a big deal of Black icons, black power mottos, even the high esteem in which Malcolm X is held. Because it is about reclaiming pride. Eschewing self-hatred. The whole “black and proud” recovery of our sense of pride, borders on a certain amount of culture worship. There are historical and societal reasons why we are where we are, victims of the holocaust known as slavery. Paradoxically, another unfortunate consequence of that human tragedy is that the idea of victimhood has also become part of our identity, popping up too often as excuses for why we can’t succeed.

Our neighborhoods feel less and less like communities devastated by drugs and crime, with our people imprisoned at a disproportionate rate because of this. Our teenage pregnancy rate has sky rocketed. Even as the effects of institutional racism lessen, as educational opportunities broaden. Victimization gave us a pass for a while, but after a while, blaming white folks isn’t enough. The deterioration in personal, familial, and communal responsibility and relations must be countered.

“What is needed is not integration but a sense of worth in being black, and only black people can teach that. Black consciousness is the key to the Black man’s emancipation from his distorted self-image.” –James Cone

Being black means being true to who you are. Black self-consciousness, black experience, it its totality of life and ideology. Transcends individuality in the name of communal survival. Well woo-hoo. So I know who I am, secure in what I am. Where does that leave me? I’m still not sure if I’m comfortable with this idea of blackness, if I want to carry this burden of race society feels so intent to foist on me. The thing is, it seems like I’m only now at a place to begin to relate to others within my community and without. However, history now stands in my way, as if I have to traverse a long winding path of past hurts and grievances before I can deal or be dealt with by other people groups as equals. Or, maybe the problem is that I am trying to deal with a modern problem through a modern paradigm trying to find a modern solution. Maybe that’s what we have to press beyond.

Ontological Blackness I: Identity Politics

“I’ve got so much trouble on my mind …”

I’ve been thinking through–actually, wrestling with–the idea of what it means to be black. This isn’t the first time that I’ve made several stabs at organizing some of my thoughts on the ideas of blackness, from looking at where we are now to examining where some of our ideas of blackness come from. Nor will it be the last time, especially since issues of race and identity are important themes in a lot of my fiction. This particular line of thought started with an off-hand remark made by a friend. They said that they don’t see color and it reminded me of how for a long time that was how I tried to see myself as “colorless”. The problem was that the rest of society didn’t get that memo and what I came to realize was that every time I stepped out of my front door, I was identified and treated primarily as a black man.

Attendant with the idea of blackness are the twin corollaries of the possibility of losing one’s blackness (racial apostasy?): “selling out” (which seems to have the derogatory connotations of becoming corporate, mainstream, educated/articulate, and integrated) and “keeping it real” (which in praxis seems to strive to be hard, poor, and too often dumb). Why? Because too often “blacker than thou” folks challenge my “blackness” as if my ghetto pass could be revoked. In a lot of ways, we have prided ourselves on identifying blackness with the idea of being ghetto. Just like at some point the idea of ghetto became the modern equivalent to field Negroes, and thus “real”. This is the stuff that frustrates me.

Identity politics has reared its head in a variety of ways in the last few years, much of it centering on African-Americans. Sometimes I have to wonder if much of it is designed to foment this idea of “us” vs. “them”. Designed not only to shape and define a people, but also to demand a certain kind of conformity from them – forcing its members to swear allegiance to their side. That probably has helped given rise to the idea that black people think alike. There is the illusion that we move as a block (since 80% of us vote Democratic. By the way, do you know what that gets us? Written off by the Republicans and taken for granted by the Democrats.)

Implicitly ties to identity politics is the yoke of community. A necessary and wanted yoke, but a yoke nonetheless. We bear the weight of community in our actions, with the ideas of it “takes a village”, solidarity, loyalty, authenticity as part of the package. Though I fear a loss of our sense of community with our buy in to American values such as individuality and consumerism. Still, does community equal race?

The dirty little secret of race relations is that race doesn’t exist. I hate to break it to people, but we’re just different complexions. The idea is a construct of the modern era, a by-product of the Enlightenment/Romantic thought, designed to separate, categorize, even prioritize people. Before the idea of race, we were divided by nationality, language, or families (because–being people and all–we have to keep creating things to divide us at all times). The difference between Blacks and whites were set up by people who wanted to remain in power.

The problem of race, or as W.E.B DuBois called it, “the Negro problem”, is an old one. Race is reified, treated as if it (objectively) exists independent historical, sociological, and cultural intentions. Race is the first lens through which black people view life. Blackness as essential to our definition of what makes us human and race is key to our identity formation. My issue is how the idea of race plays into the equation. Better yet, what is a race? Is it culture, history, creative expression, and/or a worldview. I feel like the philosopher who argued that we know things because we recognize their essence. It’s the idea of the essence of “blackness” that I’m trying to figure out. Is it the shared physical traits that identify the member within the group, i.e., skin color, a right of birth? Behavior? Dress? What is the priority: is it culture over skin color. History, the story that unites us? Is there such a thing as the black experience? Is there a black perspective? Exploring ontological blackness is sort of an existential look at what it means to be black.

So I do what any student of culture does when searching for answers: turn to television. Donald Bogle, in his seminal work Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, & Bucks, identified those images of black people as presented in film. The popular face of (ontological) blackness is trying to be sold to us in the form of rap videos and culture. Turning on my MTV, if I didn’t know better, I’d swear that I see a lot of bucks and hos pursuing bling. I don’t even buy into this idea of reclaiming negative epithets as an act of empowerment. It feeds self-hatred in my mind. Maybe I give rap videos too much credit for reflecting our values since I can’t seriously see sagging pants and gold chains as the face of blackness. Sadly, in too many ways, it’s like a contemporary version of blackface minstrelsy. And like the minstrel days of old, complaints arise when other cultures adopt the trappings of the entertainment/culture and threaten to co-opt it (thus testing the racists among us to come up with new epithets – I mean, come on, “wiggers”?).

I suspect that in order to come closer to the idea of race, one must examine what we mean by culture: a system of human practices that constitute society. Interconnected spheres of activity–this web of social interactions–encompassing: economics, politics, morals, religion, art, and language. [This reminds me: In college, I took a linguistics course where the professor wanted me–the lone black in the class–to speak on Black English Dialect. Luckily, her PC nature caused her to shake herself back to her senses. However, she went on to discuss “blackness” as defined linguistically: dropping ‘r’ or “g” or adding “ed” to perfectly fine past tense words. This doesn’t even begin to cover slang as a defining principle, amounting to a dividing wall of insider language designed to keep those not in the know locked outside of the culture.] Culture, in its truest form, is our sense of identity, who we are.

Add the weight of community to a unifying culture to help define race and that makes race identity the be all. “Blackness” subordinates internal differences so that everything is secondary to our racial identity. Do we need to press beyond this, strive for some sort of … cultural (or racial) transcendence?

That’s what I’m thinking through.

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns

Time and time again I am asked about comic books, often encountering skepticism and prejudice about them as a medium. Too often they are seen as the domain of children and, let’s be honest, nerds with no lives. The perception–for the most part, correct–is that they are juvenile, 4 color adventures of spandex-wearing, muscle-bound he-men and heaving-bosomed she-women filled with trite dialogue and situations. When I encounter this attitude, I issue a simple challenge. To show how far the medium has grown, I ask that the person read one or both of the following books, each written nearly twenty years ago: Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns or Alan Moore’s Watchmen. Both redefined what could be done in what my grandmother called “funny books” and developed an audience far greater than the insular and fairly small pool of comic book readers.

First collected in trade paperback form in 1986, The Dark Knight Returns changed the rules of the medium forever. In four issues, Frank Miller explored the idea, the myth, of Batman and the symbolic power he (and all heroes) represent. Put simply, heroes were beacons in a dark world and never had the world been portrayed as darkly.

Audiences, especially comic book readership, had matured and grown more sophisticated. For too long, stories risked being dismissed as naive and relegated to irrelevance. Audiences were ready for stories with adult themes and situations and the complexities of anti-heroes. For better or worse, The Dark Knight Returns ushered in the age of “dark” comics. “Gritty realism” was the phrase most tossed about at the time, now taken for granted in how stories are told. The reinterpretation of traditional heroes for this new audience soon swept industry wide. Some reinterpretations worked and some didn’t. The ones that did succeeded because the writers remembered what it was that made the heroes what they were. They retained the essence of the hero, the mythology.

Frank Miller employed a lot of the story-telling style that he experimented with in his mini-series Ronin. His art owed a lot to the cinematic style of Lone Wolf and Cub artist, Goseki Kojima. The Dark Knight Returns quickly supplanted the 60s era, Adam West’s silly TV show version, in the cultural consciousness. The popularity of the book provided the heat for the 1989 release of Tim Burton’s Batman. It is the spirit of The Dark Knight Returns that Batman Begins was filmed with (in fact, Batman Begins takes a lot of its story from Frank Miller’s follow up to The Dark Knight Returns, Batman: Year One.)

At the heart of the story, The Dark Knight Returns is about finding one’s purpose. It is the journey of a hero realizing what he was born to do and being faithful to that calling. There are other places you can go to get a detailed rundown on the intertwining storylines of the comic. The important are of emphasis lies in the study of the journey of the hero.

Batman has always been a dangerously focused character. The death of his parents at the hands of a criminal gave him a mission in life, but how he went about his mission has led writers to depict him as either a revenge-driven psychopath (continuing to punish the man who killed his parents) or an ardent pursuer of justice (pursuing a higher calling and mission). So this hero’s journey has always been as much internal as it was external.

The world of The Dark Knight Returns is indeed a dark one: run by a fascist, when not inept, government (both federal and local); societal values turned topsy-turvy (where the release of a murderous villain, the Joker, is heralded as a good thing); and Gotham City a victim of urban sprawl and decay, overrun with crime and gangs and rotting from its center – all with a “retired” Bruce Wayne/Batman as a lion in winter.

The journey of the hero is Christ’s story, the ultimate story, and the larger the hero, the more arduous his journey must be. As the story opens, Batman has been gone for ten years. There is a sense of “Messianic expectation”, as if everyone was waiting for his return. In a sense, the people of Gotham City are waiting for his second coming because their world seems too dark and without hope; and Batman offered a symbol of hope. Though gone for only a few short years, scholars re-examine him and declare him a myth; not believing that he, in fact, ever existed despite the eye witness accounts. On Bruce Wayne’s end, he meditates on (his) death, on what would make a fitting end for him. Pondering death has a way of making one reflect on their life and assess how it was lived and ought to be lived. After all, the hero’s journey isn’t complete without the final story.

To reach his end, Batman must run an escalating gauntlet of his greatest foes, foes which reveal much of the nature of his battle and career. First up was Two-Face. In Harvey Dent, former District Attorney who had the left side of his face scarred by acid by a criminal, Batman found a reflection of himself. His disfigured face, Dent became convinced, revealed his dark side. He used a silver dollar, with one side scarred, as his trademark calling card. It represented the choice each of use has to make between good and evil. Batman often sympathized with Two-Face for battling his inner demons – though it was a battle eventuating in him being consumed by them.

Next up was the street gang known as the Mutants. The Mutants were an army of petty criminals-cum-gang. They were the ever constant threat of crime in the ordinary, the faceless hordes that was the focus of most of Batman’s campaign against crime (as opposed to the occasional “supervillain” that he fought). The other thing that Batman’s mission tended to inspire was disciples called to join with him in his mission. From the various incarnations of Robin to the Mutants converted to the “Sons of the Batman”, his life called others to the mission. The shrine he kept to the second Robin, a fallen soldier in their war, reminds us of the cost of discipleship and the mission.

The rise of the super hero triggered the rise of the super villain. Thus, with the return of Batman came the return of his greatest enemy, the Joker. The Joker–the mad clown prince and homicidal genius–was Batman’s ultimate foe, the personification of evil that people are capable of doing to one another. However, ironically, the Joker was still playing the “old game” by the “old rules”, a villain out of step with the times; almost more interested in wanting to re-live old times than anything else.

Lastly, Batman faces the system itself: the “empire” seen as social and governmental impotence and as embodied by Superman. With Batman’s message spreading, the apocalyptic imagery takes on a life of its own, as if the whole book built toward some final battle. The detonation of a magnetic pulse weapon sends society into chaos. Stalled cars, crashing planes, it was like a scene out of Left Behind. In rides Batman on horseback, with bystanders only remembering the power of his voice, like a sword piercing their hearts.

In these “end times”, superheroes were essentially outlawed, not permitted to operate without license. License that Superman has and Batman does not. The idea of Batman becomes too big, too much of a threat to the powers that be. He challenges them and defeats them with unexpected methods and is thus labeled a threat to the empire. And has to die. The image of Superman and Batman entwined in battle is an interesting one. Both are messianic figures in their own right. Together they form a more complete picture of Justice – keeping in mind the verse found in Romans 11:22 (“Therefore consider the goodness and severity of God”).

The idea of Batman bears further investigation. His origins revolve around the idea of being inspired by a bat to instill fear into the hearts of criminals. He recognizes the power of symbol. The bat, during the course of the story, takes on totemic value, one that Batman draws power from. At first it seems to be just the symbol of fear, but it is actually the symbol of his calling, his destiny. On a strictly human level, Batman represents “the common man’s will to resist” crime and wrong-doing. In a lot of ways, however, this totemic bat spirit is Batman’s own messianic consciousness becoming aware of his mission.

The religious language of the book only intensifies the sense of Batman as mythic icon. Batman returns during a rainstorm, which he refers to as his baptism. His mission is often called his “holy war” against crime. An approaching storm–symbolizing Batman’s return–is described as the wrath of God. In fact, in a lot of ways, Batman embodies the wrath of God, the idea of His (punitive) Justice. Batman is comparable to Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry character, an Old Testament vision of punishment. It’s easy to forget that wrath is love in action: Batman defends the weak, the oppressed, and the “least of these”.

The story of Batman’s second coming, death and resurrection is a powerful one – a story that draws on an older one. Though written some twenty years ago, it stands the test of time, a testament to the renewing and enduring themes within the book. The Dark Knight Returns is a landmark work for any medium, so much so that it transcends it.

Like all good myths should.