Veronica Mars and the Bummer Patriarchy

Last night I watched the first episode of Veronica Mars and it blew my mind. I have never felt a need to write an episode recap so badly as I did watching that pilot last night. I mean, holy shit, one of the first shots of the episode is of Veronica cutting a black classmate down from a flagpole to which he’s been duct-taped, naked, her face at about waist-height.

Granted I’ve been studying lynching, but these are loaded opening shots for a girls’ after-school special. Continue reading

On Ethos (or, White Woman Writing Kanye West)

I recently published an essay in The American Reader, “Yeezy Rising,” which related mainstream media’s persistent mockery of Kanye West to historical discourses around lynching, a public media spectacle which celebrated the dehumanization and murder of outspoken, upwardly mobile black men. The piece was generally well-received, especially, I noticed, by other white academics. Despite my promotion of the piece and my social media connections with scholars of color, however, I also noted that writers and thinkers of color generally didn’t seem interested in my article. I found myself wondering if I had mishandled my subject or if it was somehow offensive or distasteful to a more sensitive and discerning crowd.
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One comment at the end of the piece offered some insight. Continue reading

A Tough Love: “Beyoncé,” Mutuality, and the Dirty South

In a previous post, I discussed some of the lyrics on R. Kelly’s new album, “Black Panties,” alongside the words of Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams in his essay “The Body’s Grace.” Looking at the lyrics to “Marry the Pussy” alongside similar lyrics in songs like Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” and Miguel’s “How Many Drinks,” I noticed a similar ability to disguise male desire and male need in the trappings of celebrating women. Each of these three songs is about what a male agent wants, and each of these three songs denies or obscures the agency of the women they’re sung about or to. But in making women (or women’s body parts) the objects of desire, these songs lull critics into thinking they are pro women, so that Jezebel calls “Marry the Pussy” a “magnificent ode to pussy,” and another source I can’t find calls rapist R. Kelly’s album “sex-positive.”

still from "No Angel" -- Bey's homage to  Houston

still from “No Angel” — Bey’s homage to Houston

Continue reading

“We are pleased because we are pleasing”: Black Panties and The Body’s Grace

Image

via Pitchfork.com

Last weekend, in the car with two besties from Chicago, I asked a really buzzkill question when one of them started talking about R. Kelly’s new musical proposal, “Marry the Pussy.” Echoing the kind of infamous celebration of the new album that appeared in feminist publication Jezebel a few weeks ago, my friend insisted that “Marry the Pussy” was a celebration, what Jezebel writer Isha Aran called “a magnificent ode to pussy.”

“But,” I asked, the mood dying around me already, “…does the pussy have any agency?” Continue reading

#WeCantStop Appropriating Blackness: A Bibliography

Y’all, it is a bull market out there for appropriating Black culture. Sell, sell, sell, ’cause folks are buying. You got twerkers on hand? Set them around a white lady and open the auction. Miley was just the beginning. It’s a bonanza out there.

a still from Miley's video "We Can't Stop," via vimeo.com

a still from Miley’s video “We Can’t Stop,” via vimeo.com

For a few months now people have been asking me when I’m gonna blog about Miley Cyrus–her VMAs performance, her recent music videos, her appropriation of ratchet cultural signifiers–it all seemed so in my cultural wheelhouse. There was only one thing standing in my way: I don’t like Miley Cyrus, and I don’t like her music. No special offense, really, to Miley. It’s just, I’m a busy lady, so when I blog about something it’s because, even if I find it problematic, I am attracted to the music or the star enough to spend my free time researching, listening, and writing around them. Continue reading

Grades, Schmades

Last week I started to have this funny feeling, a feeling I had never had before. My students were e-mailing each other the first drafts of their Unit 1 Blog Posts, and I was reading with such glee how much this whole literacy-based inquiry had captured their interest. Every Single One of them engaged their personal literacies in the service of some kind of argument about what literacy means or how we teach reading and writing today. Every Single One of them challenged a traditional portrait of literacy that only values alphabetic, academic reading and writing. That is to say, every single on of them did, to some extent, what I asked them to do on their assignment sheet, and what I really wanted them to do. They engaged.

Zen, Motorcycle Maintenance, and a Crashed Crop Duster in the Background

Zen, Motorcycle Maintenance, and a Crashed Crop Duster in the Background

And for the first time ever I had this crazy little feeling like, I didn’t want to give them grades. Continue reading

A Holiday D’Var Torah for Syria

On Thursday morning I attended Rosh Hashana services at a Conservative synagogue in Dewitt, NY, neighbor to my new home of Syracuse. While it was odd to attend a new synagogue by myself, I appreciated this congregation’s open services policy and far preferred it to the option of visiting the Hillel on the University campus where I am a graduate student.

20130908-231044.jpg

a still from Emad Burnat and Guy David’s “5 Broken Cameras”

Before the Torah reading, the woman who would be reading gave a short d’var Torah, or commentary, on that morning’s reading: Genesis 21 through—27? 28?–, which covered the birth and binding of Isaac. In her short speech, the woman reflected on the moment when the matriarch Sarah, finally a mother, tells her husband Abraham to cast out his slave Hagar and their son Ishmael. She compared this moment to those columns in magazines which proclaim, “Stars: They’re just like us!” According to this shul’s Torah reader, it was reassuring to see the stars of the Torah behaving in imperfect ways. As a mother, this woman said, she understood Sarah’s selfish desire to save all her husband’s wealth for her own son, and send her husband’s first son and son’s mother, their slave, packing into an unforgiving desert.

As the woman chanted this fundamental story from the Torah, I read through the passage in English. And I was struck, not by Sarah’s relatability, but to her cruelty at a time of family celebration. Continue reading

SCHOOLED [the first three pages of my imaginary Comp/Rhet book]

[for the first meeting of CCR 611, history of composition, we were asked to write the first three pages of our future first book in the field-- pure whimsy, of course, since we're all first and second years. Here's what I came up with.]

Rap is a referendum on America’s failed schools. In a moment too reminiscent of our own, urban youths stood outside the walls of schools with no budget for art class and made a whole culture out of the detritus of the society which had discarded them. From spoken language the rapper spat verse; the DJ scratched the break beat into vinyl; writers painted reclaimed language on subway cars; postmodern dancers fashioned studios out of cardboard; all of these children, artists and intellectuals, dropping the sweet science of hiphop. Continue reading

I spent 900 days in TA orientation and All I Got Was This Lousy Blog Post Idea

Q: Why, oh, why do we blog?
A: So that the Internet will remember all the ephemera that otherwise get written in notebooks, lovingly stored and transported around the country with every move, and never opened again!

Here is what I learned in six days of TA orientation. Continue reading

My 100th Post!

In honor of my 100th post on Hiphopocracy, I would like to throw down the gauntlet and say that so far the best thing about Justin Timberlake’s 20/20 Experience has been the increased radio play of the better songs from all of his other albums. I also would like to place my bet now that, out of both volumes of this album (we hear a second part is to be expected), “Mirrors” will be the only really good song, with two additional decent singles of “Seniorita” quality.

via People.com

via People.com

(Have you noticed how all of these songs are about falling in love, but JT doesn’t sound like he’s fallen in love? Just like how those People magazine wedding photos look so staged? Paging Anne Helen Petersen. What happens when a million-dollar star image doesn’t *stick*?  ) Continue reading

Part II, Chapter 2

Lakewood Park, ca 1952, by William A. Garnet. via designobserver.com

Lakewood Park, ca 1952, by William A. Garnet. via designobserver.com

I am shouldering my way through this discombobulating book of essays by Joan Didion, Where I Was From, reading it with a dedication dedicated to trying to understand this discombobulated place I moved to, California (which is, incidentally, Where She Was From), when finally, in Part II, Chapter 2, it all clicks in: Lakewood. Lakewood, a planned city of 17,500 homes south of Orange County, surrounded by defense contractors on all sides, a town built around a mall, supported by income flowing from the military-industrial complex, a happy town which as the defense jobs shuttered in the early 90s found itself on the national media stage for the vagrancy and alleged rapes committed by a clique of its post-adolescent males, the Spurs.

And I think, this essay is so good. Continue reading

The Word You’re Looking for is “Excoriated”…Or, In Which I Win at Bad Ally Bingo

BPgrlyoCcAAa4ej

via @NanticokeNDN

Yesterday I got schooled by two feminists of color on twitter, @NanticokeNDN and @thetrudz. It was kind of like being workshopped at life. You get a ton of criticism really fast, and it stings going down, and some of it’s useful and some of it’s not. Thinking through that critique, and implementing it, is helpful and important. Continue reading

“That’s Retarded, Sir” : Miley Cyrus v. Rachel Jeantel

via popdirt.com

via popdirt.com

Jezebel had a nice piece on Miley’s twerking and cultural appropriation: On Miley Cyrus, Ratchet Culture and Accessorizing With Black People. The title is pretty self-explanatory, but the idea is that Cyrus’s new video and general new ‘tude are a disrespectful appropriation of black southern culture, a move rooted in Cyrus’s privilege to “accessorise” with minority accoutrements but still move in privileged spaces with money and clout. Continue reading

Rapping About Rapping: Remembering Writing Studies

via BedfordStMartins.com

via BedfordStMartins.com

A month from today I will leave the house I share with my partner in Sunnyvale and I will fly from San Jose to Chicago to spend two days catching up with family and friends. On the 11th, I will pick up my UHaul and drive it to Michigan, collect my belongings from my boyfriend’s basement in Ann Arbor, hitch my much-missed Honda Civic to the back of the truck, and drive along the great lakes to Syracuse. TA orientation starts on August 14.

In the last week or so I’ve been trying to work my brain back into the academic mindspace I left last December when I finished teaching and moved with my partner to Kalamazoo. Since then I’ve been writing fiction, blogging, reading a lot of novels, draining my savings, and savoring the slow life. Things are about to get hard, and quick. My partner and I will be separated for months at a time, and I’ll be diving into a really rigorous PhD program, teaching new material, trying to keep up with a cohort of colleagues who largely have MA’s in this field. I am lucky, and I am ready, but I am scared.

Yesterday the textbook for the freshman writing course I’ll be teaching this fall arrived: Writing About Writing, by Elizabeth Wardle and Doug Downs. I spent much of yesterday paging through it, reading the articles and working my brain into its editing style. It’s funny, because I remember at Michigan talking serious smack about the premise of writing about writing. “You have to write about something,” I said. “That’s why I teach my courses about hiphop: students need something to write about.” Of course, Wardle and Downs make a strong case that writing about writing is writing about something: writing studies is an academic field with content that writing students ought to study. There are scholars who study writing int he same way scholars study anthropology or philosophy. That’s the content a writing class should teach, and student writing should be about.

Of course I have some reservations about this material, but, as they say, Don’t Knock It Til You Try It. Yes, the volume’s editing is overdetermined and a bit treacly. Yes, I can’t shake my writer’s fondness for precision and clarity of language. That said, many of the lessons I made up for my students are basically codified in this book: that writing is drafting. That content is more important than grammar. That effective scholarship joins a conversation. That there’s no such thing as a “reliable source.” It feels good to have my hunches backed up by this book. And it feels great to trust the program I’m joining. Hell, I wouldn’t have uprooted my domestic life otherwise. I’d stay sitting pretty in California.

(Sidenote: I spent 4th of July weekend at my boyfriend’s family reunion in Montana. One morning, over breakfast, R’s cousin looks up and asks: “Is the Economist a reliable source?” An echo of Yeses whirs ’round the room. Except for curmudgeony ol’ me, who says, “What is a reliable source?” [Immediately wished I had kept my mouth shut.] Cousin says, “I want to know if The Economist is right about this X or Y technology that’s being released.” “Can you trust it for that?” I countered, “Probably. But can you take its interpretation of the news as pure fact, no. All sources have agendas and biases.” At which point Cousin’s mom, Aunt, pokes in. “Of course some sources are reliable,” she says. “I’ll prove it with an antonym: Wikipedia.” [At which point in my subsequent retelling, partner R just shook his head.] “What are you talking about!” I cry. “Lots of Wikipedia is accurate! And it’s all a ‘reliable’ artifact of acceptable public knowledge. It’s reliable as to what Wikipedia says about something!” Lots of shrugs go around the table. Cousin still wants to know can he “rely on” the Economist article. I take my tea and go back to our room. #longweekend . But fun, too.)

All to say that I’m going to have lots more to tell you this coming fall. This program is a big leap of faith for me: I already knew rap was literary, but I’m jumping to the conclusion that it’s rhetorical without tons of rhetorical knowledge to back me up. But I’ll have it soon. And I’ll be able to argue that RAP is Writing About Writing (or more like, Rapping about Rapping). Hiphop is meta and discourse formation and the rhetorical situation and writing about writing. I just can’t prove it yet. But stay tuned.

If you’re into all this rhetoricky stuff, I’ll leave you with a link to the blog I’ve been reading this morning, that of CCR faculty member Collin Brooke, who writes about lots of fun digital/social media-rhet-comp stuff. He quotes a Facebook comment from his colleague Doug Hesse:

We built the Web for pages, but increasingly we’re moving from pages to streams (most recently-updated on top, generally), on our phones but also on bigger screens. Sites that were pages have become streams. E.g., YouTube and Yahoo. These streams feel like apps, not pages. Our arrogance keeps us thinking that the Web is still about pages. Nope. The percentage of time we spend online looking at streams is rapidly increasing. It is already dominant.

And on that final note, I’ll add this little spring to my stream. Happy Tuesday, y’all.

Brief Notes on the BET Awards as I Watch Whatever Video the Website Queues Up Next

Gotta be the weirdest part of the BET Awards: 2 Chainz, A$AP ROCKY and Kendrick Lamar rap “Bad Bitches” along with Drake and Rick Ross’s bleeped-out, disembodied voices. #FAIL

2 Chainz Causing Problems With A$AP Rocky | Videos | BET.

Contrast that–and I mean both the awkward on-stage antics (Rocky’s name sans Rocky is one) and the weird audience posturing/slash/singalong–with the unbridled audience joy that broke out when the homage to Jamaican music started. I mean, who doesn’t smile when “Murder She Wrote” comes on? Shit, mane, India.Arie was singing along!

http://www.bet.com/video/betawards/2013/performances/happy-hour.html

And then the night’s most authentic swagger–and most comfort with dance moves and lip-synching–comes frome the ladies, Nicki Minaj and Ciara. Ciara, by the way, is my nomination to unseat Chris Brown from his most athletic/best dancer pop singer seat. Plus, you know, she’s…nicer. Also, where can I get those dolla-dolla-bill pants? Love that they’re ONE DOLLAR pants. You know any dude would be wearing hundos.

http://www.bet.com/video/betawards/2013/performances/ciara-nicki-minaj.html

ALSO Mariah Carey apparently stipulated in her contract that she wouldn’t have to take a single step as long as she hit them high notes, and the choir singing R. Kelly was better than the best episodes of GLEE and NASHVILLE multiplied together then times a hundred, and proof positive of why we still let the man headline music festivals and why the awards producers gave this man SIX MINUTES, which I guess he spent just singing hooks until the clock ran out.

Biggest smile of the evening was Charlie Wilson’s, during the Lifetime Achievement Award tribute to HIM. (He danced even bigger, and more authentically, than Nicki during the Jamaican get-down.)

http://www.bet.com/video/betawards/2013/performances/charlie-wilson-tribute.html

Kendrick: “They call us the minority.” Then walks Quevenzane out. Precious.

Another thought: Chris Brown’s dancers and 2 Chainz all wore kilts. So, Kanye’s pretty much right, ‘far as his trendsetting is concerned. (NYT)

And best performer of the night? Uncle Charlie himself.

Yeeziography: raw beats, but the lyrics are half-baked

"New Slaves" on SNL, via fistintheair.com

“New Slaves” on SNL, via fistintheair.com

So Yeezus gives us a new Kanye: minimalist, “black new wave,” hyper-fragmented, stripped down. Well, I’ve been listening and I’ve been reading reviews, and here’s my final answer:

The MUSIC is tight: surprising, eclectic, unfulfilling, jagged, intelligent. I am thinking of “Bound 2,” the album’s closing track and my favorite song, the one I keep replaying. Yes, the samples are titillating but shift before your heartbeat finds the record’s groove. The album curates a huge swath of American music, from Nina Simone to breezy 70s disco to early, obscure rap to a rising Caribbean influence. West has perfected DJ Kool Herc’s originary hiphopvention of cueing up the best moment on a record–but unlike Herc, West doesn’t loop it: he gives us just a taste, then pulls away. It’s up to us to loop. Loop Yeezus.

The reason I don’t keep playing the whole album, though, is that the LYRICS are banal. Even when the rhymes are good, I would argue they’re coy about the emotional stakes. Sure, West has some funny and transgressive lines about courtship and civil rights sex acts, but we’ve seen them all before. Kanye’s last two albums spent considerable lyrical real estate exploring the power of a rock star to explore and exploit younger, inexperienced women. On MBDTF we got gems like  “Yeezy reupholstered my pussy” and “She learnin’ a new word, it’s yacht” (rhymed, wonderfully, with “Basquiat”). On Watch the Throne Yeezy asked a potential mate to “Meet me in the bathroom stall/So we can see if you deserve to have it all” and, on another track, contrasted dreams of “the girl in all leopard” with “coke on her black skin made a stripe like a zebra.”

GREG TATE for SPIN disagrees. Hethinks the album is bangin’, but only 8 outta 10 bangin’. Tate thinks more highly of some of the lyrics than I do.

Album opener ”On Sight” drops at least three hardcore hip-hop quotables in the first 16 bars: ”Soon as I pull up and park the Benz / We get this bitch shakin’ like Parkinson’s”; “Black Tims all on your couch again / Black dick all in your spouse again”; “She got more niggas off than Coch-ah-ran.” This is what we would call meeting the Azealia Banks Challenge for ribaldry and sexually aggressive rhyming. What else, after all, is there for a po lil’ rich boy to do? Become another All-American hippity-hopping family man like Jay-Z or Wiz Khalifa?

West begs to differ, or at least suggest sonically on “Black Skinhead” that 21st-century hip-hop could benefit from a few choice re-animations of Adam Ant and Bow Wow Wow. Later on, he’ll more openly voice his retro-Afro-Futurist aesthetic motivations in verse form: ”My mind moves like a Tron bike / Pop a wheelie on the zeitgeist / Fittin’ to start a new movement led by the drums / … / They be ballin’ in the D-league / I be speaking Swag-hili.” Swag-hili? Did he just define his whole career as a visionary lingua franca and genre right there? You gotdam betcha he did. And with as brilliant a neo-African neologism as we’ve heard since Boogie Down Productions let us know there were ”Robo-Coptic Boys” among us.

Yeezus’s shortcomings lurk unmentioned, dropped between the lines of Tate’s purple prose. Ok, “Spouse again” rhymes with “Coch-ah-ran” is a great mosaic rhyme. “Swaghili”? Eh. The only line on the album that made my jaw drop was “Whole fist in her like a civil rights sign.” West still has a real talent for probing the profane. But onwards.

CHRISTOPHER BAGLEY at W portrays Kanye as the eternal student, oblivious to Parisian formality, concerned only for new and revolutionary information. I’ll take it – I’m always on the education tack, after all. Similar revelations from the under-edited interview with JON CARAMANICA for the NYTIMES.

I agree with TOM HAWKINGS for FLAVORWIRE that “West’s imperfect rhymes form quite the contrast with his consistently flawless production” and that “for all his studio genius, West’s still not a particularly great rapper.” But Hawkings doesn’t want to dwell on that; he wants to talk about how un-hiphop this record’s production is, except insofar that it kind of copies Saul Williams’ s 2007 The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust!

But it was reading EMMA CARMICHAEL and KIESE LAYMON for the Hairpin that really popped my bubble of Kanyapologia, when they called out my very response: “Kanye, do you really hate the white man? Really? So you’re gonna fuck his woman to get back at him? Really? Go further than that, homie.” Dang. I appreciate how Laymon positioned this issue not as a failure of Kanye’s reactions but as a failure of imagination or creative pressure to push beyond these tropes we’ve heard before.

After reading all these reviews and listening to the albums a few more times, I found myself thinking back to comments Ye made about privacy in his interview with the New York Times.

[Ye:] I don’t want to explain too much into what my thoughts on, you know, fatherhood are, because I’ve not fully developed those thoughts yet. I don’t have a kid yet.

You haven’t experienced it yet.

Yeah. Well, I just don’t want to talk to America about my family. Like, this is my baby. This isn’t America’s baby.

We all know that Yeezy has been falling in love with Kimmy K for the past year or more. Now as of a few days ago, they’ve had a child together. And I wonder whether this album’s lyrical ho-humminess comes from a novel inclination, on West’s part, to keep his love life (now his family life) private. These lyrics are boring because they don’t give us any new feelings. There’s a little bit of lovin’, sure. I hear it on Bound 2: “One good girl is worth a thousand bitches.” Ok. And the sample itself: “Bound…to fall in love.” But there are no one-liner gems here about the pains, joys and ironies of falling in love. “Yeezy reupholstered my pussy” is an awesome line because it is crass and it is funny and it reflects a real emotional experience, of being the worldly man with a naive girl and, you know, turning her out. And I really believe Kanye has the potential as a writer to craft lines that are funny and profane about falling in love. The best lines on this album are about narcissism, on “I am a God”:

I am a god
So hurry up with my damn massage
And a French ass restaurant
Hurry up with my damn croissants!

These lines are funny and self-questioning even as they are dead serious. Judging by his interviews with W and NYT, Yeezy really thinks he is a god. But he also knows that’s ridiculous well enough to see that this croissants line is hilarious. Maybe Yeezy’s just lived with his arrogance longer than with true love, so he knows it better, knows how to poke fun affectionately. Because these kinds of lines, about love, they’re not here. They’re not on this album. Whatever this album says about male-female relations, we’ve heard it from Yeezy before. And the pressure is even higher here, because minimalist production demands minimalist lines. Kanye hasn’t left himself the room he had on “All Falls Down” to tell involved stories that make the chorus really sing. Yeezus is brief and brash: Ye needed those lines you can repeat again and again and they move past catchiness into unfolding layers of meaning. “Eating Asian pussy, all I need is sweet and sour sauce” is not that line. Despite the cultural reference, neither is “Got more niggas off than Cocharan.” I am thinking of lines like:

Got 99 problems but a bitch ain’t one.

Gonna let her lick the w/rapper.

We real cool, we skip school.

These are the breaks.

Et cetera.

I guess we could say that Ye’s mask is ON. It’s interesting, because in the visuals Kanye’s released so far he’s engaging directly with representation and minstrelsy. I see that loud and clear in the high-contrast closeup of his face–which is a black man’s face–that constitutes the video for “New Slaves,” and in the closeup of his eyes which accompanied the SNL performance of that song. But I guess what I’m trying to say is, I’m disappointed. Yeah, I’ma keep listening to this album. I think the music is dank, but I’m a lover of words, and these words ain’t much to love.

P.S. LOU REED for TALKHOUSE totally agrees with me, even if he sounds way cooler than me saying so.

SORRY FOR PARTYING Honored by the Paris Literary Prize

Reading at Shakespeare & Co.  via facebook

Reading at Shakespeare & Co. via facebook

Hey y’all, I’m writing to share some happy news (and then I’ll get to Yeezus): a novella I wrote, SORRY FOR PARTYING, was recently named a runner-up for the Paris Literary Prize, a novella competition run by the wonderful Shakespeare and Company Bookshop in Paris. On top of the honor itself, the sponsoring de Groot Foundation flew me out to Paris for the weekend to celebrate literature with my co-runner up, Svetlana Lavochkina, for her novella DAM DUCHESS, and the big winner, C. E. Smith, for his novella BODY ELECTRIC, along with all the wonderful folks in the Shakespeare & Co Community.

A special honor was that two of the prize’s judges came in from London to celebrate with us, and both wrote short columns about the prize which marveled at judging a truly blind literary prize. Rebecca Carter, a literary agent at Janklow & Nesbit, wrote of my novella that “Tessa Brown’s wonderfully demotic Sorry for Partying was full of Hispanic American slang and references to Occupy Wall Street, so I guessed where the author was based, but not her ethnicity.” She added that ” all three of the winning novellas were, in part, about the alienation of modernity. C.E. Smith writes of Reality TV invading an American morgue. Tessa Brown’s story concerned creative teachers being fired from Chicago schools in favour of those who toe the line. Svetlana Lavochkina’s exuberant Dam Duchess is about the inhumanity of a Stalinist dam-building project.”

Svetlana, C.E., and me, via S&Co's facebook

Svetlana, C.E., and me, via S&Co’s facebook

Erica Wagner, the Literary Editor of The Times of London, lauded the task of judging a prize with ” absolutely nothing to go on: no publisher’s reputation, no quiet word from an agent, no encomium from a publicist. You don’t even know the name or nationality of the author;it’s amazing how difficult it is to stop yourself from trying to figure out whether the writer is a man or a woman, where they are from, what their background might be.” Of my novella, she wrote, “Tessa Brown’s story…showed a level of political engagement and narrative art that’s rarely seen these days.”

The biggest pleasure of this all was giving a reading among Shakespeare and Company’s friendly walls of books. In honor of the prize, I thought I might share what I read, my novella’s beginning, with you all. I should also take this opportunity to thank all the folks at Shakespeare & Co – Terry, Sylvia, David, and more- the judges, and the de Groots for an incredible Paris experience.

 

Sorry For Partying

 For single black female Alison White, Pilsen was a precious place to live. Populated mainly by Spanish-speakers, tacked onto the south side of the Loop, divided from the rest of Mexo-Chicago by a freeway whose job it was to do just that, Pilsen persisted. Even now, in the fall of 2011, as the heat hung on and Hispanic radio drifted through the streets, as the impeding hordes of hipsters—having exhausted themselves moving northwards and west, priced out by the gentrification they themselves had produced, having in recent months doubled back, for the first time, to the south side of the Loop, to discover Pilsen—even through this, Pilsen persisted. The taquerias still sold chiles rellenos, the bodegas laid out their tomatillos and tortillas every morning, the murals in bright yellows, blues and reds were hardly tarnished by these demographic shifts. For the most part, Alison was glad.

But not right now. Now, she was laying on Carmen’s bare mattress, as he cleaned up his life around her. For a year they had shared this second floor apartment in a humble home on Loomis and 19th street, lived happily in some kind of domestic bliss, but apparently this was then end. He was leaving her.

“Don’t go,” Ali moaned. She grimaced and clutched at her guts. On top of everything, she had her menstrual cramps. Also, it was raining. She could hear the rain surround their little house, flooding their small neighborhood with wet. Ali groaned. She had a theory that when her abdomen hurt this bad, Wallo had successfully impregenated her this month, and the pain wracking her south-of-the-border was her IUD rejecting whatever illegal alien had implanted itself on her uterine wall.

“Don’t go,” she said again. She opened her eyes and marveled at the sight of Carmen’s emptied room, barer than she’d ever seen it. Gone were the bright red curtains and Himalayan prayer flags, the faded posters of Ricky Martin and Shakira, the nails above the bureau where her roommate hung the necklaces he only wore around the house. She had never seen the room like this, devoid of those artifacts of Carmen which constituted his very Carmen-ness. They had all been here when she moved in. All he hadn’t packed was the photograph of Howard Zinn, clipped from the People’s History at the Pilsen Public Library, now on a dining chair forming a makeshift shrine with a statue of Ganesha and a dollar candle of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Onto the candle’s glass wall the virgin mother was painted with  her palms open and her eyes raised, her suffering nearly as graceful and exquisite as Carmen’s, who only this morning had been fired from his job as fourth grade special needs coordinator and Alison’s co-teacher at Progress Charter School, nee Cermak Elementary, where they had both until recently worked.

“How will I do Columbus Day without you?” Ali asked.

Carmen came and sat at the edge of the bed. “Just bring this picture of Zinn with you to school,” he said, rubbing Ali’s back. “And hold it to your heart mientras se lo dices a los chiquitos how Cristobal Colon was a racist, rapist, slaveowner who thought their ancestors were stupid animals and he stole their country for imaginary gold.”

Ali propped herself up on her elbows to better consider the picture of Zinn. “It’s like the worst of both worlds,” she said. “Yes Columbus was horrible, but he also spoke Spanish, which everyone also forgets. What do I tell our little hispanohablantes?”

“Tell them the truth,” Carmen sighed. “If you don’t lie to them, that will be enough.”

Alison flopped back down onto her belly. Traffic rattled past the window, sending water droplets fluttering down the iron tiers of a fire escape.

 

snapshot from Paris

snapshot from Paris

They stood dancing in the kitchen as the onions and peppers sputtered on the stove, Carmen occasionally spinning out from Ali’s embrace to stir them with a battered wooden spoon. Through the floor they could hear the family downstairs arguing in Spanish, the mother chiding her kids like all mothers do. On the kitchen table, Ali’s cell phone buzzed. She dropped Carmen’s arm to take it.

“Wallo’s coming over,” she said, sitting down. “What? He called me.”

“Bullshit, muchacha,” Carmen said. He spooned the fajitas onto a plate and carried them over to the table. “So why you don’t turn him down?’

Alison knew her roommate was mad, but it felt easier to let him slip away, drip drip drip, like whatever blue-eyed baby grew inside her. “Leave me alone,” she said. “I have cramps.”

“Yes, a gringo pendejo will solve your womanly pains, absolutamente,” Carmen said. He held a taco over the stove range’s open flames, then flipped it with his bare fingers.

“I’m sorry,” Ali said. Carmen was older, he knew things she didn’t. His eyes told her he knew what she was doing, that she was preemptively pulling back. But understanding didn’t mean it felt good. He walked to the table with a plate of tortillas, sliced tomatos, grated cheese.

“Uuuuuuoooooooggggggghhhhaaaaaahhhhh,” Ali cried, already filling a taco. “How am I going to survive without you?”

“No se,” he said. But his eyes said: so tell me not to go. Say you love me the most.

They ate in silence until the doorbell rang. Ali buzzed Wallo in and then there he was, sliding past her through the open door, his thick black hair piled atop his head, almost female in its luxuriance, his feet skittering across the kitchen tile as though this was a television set, his slim hips leading like Ali and Carmen had pulled Wallo in by his corduroy waistband.

“Hola, fuckers!” said Wallo. “Alison, Carmelo.”

Grimacing at his given name, Carmen stood and carried some empty dishes to the sink. Wallo promptly took his seat and patted his knee, inviting Carmen to sit down there.

“How did you not get fired today?” Carmen asked, from the sink.

Wallo grabbed some peppers with his fingers and tossed them into his mouth. “Who did?”

“Carmen did,” said Ali.

“Well shit,” said Wallo. “Now what.”

Carmen steeled himself against the sink for his announcement. “I’m going to occupy Wall Street.”

Wallo laughed, threw his head back and positively guffawed. “You’re fucking kidding me.”

“I am not,” Carmen said. “Now go. Both of you. Don’t crowd the kitchen for my sake.”

Which Sketchy Songwriter Stuffed Miguel + Kendrick’s New Track Full of Rape Logic?

Miguel is a stylish new R&B crooner with a new post-Akon/Neyo aesthetic, so I’m sorry that his new single, “How Many Drinks,” is full of predatory one-liners. The music is sultry, true. And whenever it comes on the radio, I admit I groove for a second before I remember what song it is.

I’m not the first listener to be turned off by. At the LA Weekly, Shea Serrano describes “Why This Song Sucks.” (Answer: because it’s rapey). At Madame Noir, Clark Gail Baines asks whether it’s ok to still jam out to a song that, if its lyrics were directed to her at a bar, would have her “two step[ping] in the opposite direction.” And while the video posters at Clutch, Rap-Up, Absolutepunk.net and 2DopeBoyz don’t say anything of the kind, commenters at all four compared the lyrics’ scenario to “date rape.” But the best treatment of the song came in Twitter conversation between @BShariseMoore, @UrbanGrief (Lisa Good), and @sisterprofessor (Dr. Zada Johnson) in a series of tweets, from which Johnson segued into a great discussion of the falsetto in R&B, and BShariseMoore follows up with a blog post that breaks down the song’s questionable lyrics.

It’s a damn shame Miguel’s people didn’t notice a sociopath wrote their new track. This song is filled with really classic predatory logic, from using alcohol as a weapon for committing assault, to distorted thinking that blames the victim for something she didn’t choose. I know you guys think I”m being a total killjoy here. And I’m thinking of the scene in 40-Year-Old Virgin when Steve Carrell is told to go for the drunkest girls in the bar, and he ends up with Leslie Mann, who of course is hilarious and it gets very funny. But the depiction of Mann as the aggressor is disingenuous. In real life, real drunk girls are vulnerable to real predators, not affable adult virgins.

Even if it’s not fun, it’s important to look at lyrics like these to remind ourselves how blurred conceptions of consent are in our popular culture, and in popular depictions of courtship. Miguel’s lyrics describe a seduction that focus entirely on his wants and his needs, which describe a pickup as a process with only one ending, whose only variable is not whether a woman might want to sleep with him or not but only “How many drinks?” it will take to get her there.

The song opens with Miguel’s assumption that because he’s attracted to a woman, he’s entitled to her.

Frustration: watching you dance.
Hesistation: to get in your pants
Come closer, baby, so I can touch
One question: am I moving too fast?

So the song opens with Miguel, presumably at a bar, “watching you dance.” Immediately he feels “frustration,” which I’m reading as both sexual frustration but also anger: you have something he wants. But it’s all about his feelings, not yours. He feels frustrated, so you need to “come closer” so that he “can touch.” (What, is he supposed to come over to you? Ask you to dance? Too lazy.) Miguel has “one question: am I moving too fast?”–but from the lyrics that follow, it doesn’t seem he cares what your answer is. He already knows how the night will end, and your opinion doesn’t matter.

‘Cause I ain’t leavin’ alone, feel like I could be honest, babe,
We both know that we’re grown
That’s why I wanna know
How many drinks would it take you to leave with me?
Yeah, you look good and I got money
But I don’t wanna waste my time
Back of my mind I’m hopin’ you say two or three
You look good, we came to party
But I don’t wanna waste my time

The chorus is where things get aggressive. “I ain’t leaving alone,” said instead of sung, is an almost threatening statement. It suggests to a woman that there’s only one way out of here, and it’s with me. The next two lines sport some faulty logic: Assumption: “we’re grown” (meaning what: we’re both DTF?); ergo (“that’s why”) there’s only one question here (“I wanna know”): “How many drinks would it take you to leave with me?” Miguel knows you’re coming: you’re a grownup, right? And, because he’s grown, and you’re grown, and he looked at you, your desires must be identical to his. Or if they’re not, he doesn’t care. The “one question” he asked you is not, “Do you want to go home with me?” or “Are you attracted to me?” or even “Wanna fuck?” It’s, How drunk do you have to be, or how much money do I have to spend, or even how much do I have to talk to you “to get you to leave with me,” which if you do, I will assume that is consent to sleep with me (though it isn’t).

via npr.com

via npr.com

The next few lines strike me as pathologically narcissistic, as Miguel lays out what he’s comfortable with in this situation (spending money) and what he’s not comfortable with (you spending his money without the payoff). Twice Miguel repeats that “I don’t wanna waste my time.” This line would read hugely different to me if he said “I don’t wanna waste [your] time,” giving some small indication of the woman’s subjectivity, like that she could be disinterested in him. And why is the “back of my mind hopin’ she’ll say two or three”? Because then she’ll be good and drunk? Or because more than that is expensive and who needs four or five, honestly? Miguel, in the “back of your mind” you should be sayin, I hope I’m being respectful of this woman’s boundaries. She seems kind of drunk,  maybe I should ask for her number and call her tomorrow. 

Kendrick Lamar’s verse on the song is interesting because it shows how rape culture and alcohol culture intersect.  On “How Many Drinks,” he raps, “Pool full of liquor then we dive – in it/Knowing if I lick her I might die – in it.” The first part of this couplet is lifted from Lamar’s track “Swimming Pool (Drank),” where the voice of an experienced partier explains to Lamar, “First you get a swimming pool of liquor then you dive in it.” However, as one of my students V. J. demonstrated in a great paper last near, “Swimming Pool (Drank)” is a polyphonic narrative that uses multiple voices to demonstrate a really ambivalent attitude about drinking. Yes, one voice advises “diving in,” but another voice, identified as Lamar’s “conscience,” reminds Lamar that he’s “drown in some poison abusin’ my limit,” and the chorus depicts the anomie of a life of binging, hangovers, and the real boredom of addiction.

But this ambivalence is totally lacking in Lamar’s track on “How Many Drinks.” It’s almost as though he misquotes himself, takes his own words out of context, and distorts the meaning of (and tarnishes the subtlety of) his original song. Lamar’s lyrics don’t have the same narcissism as Miguel’s: his lyrics, which aren’t so brilliant, depict the choice to get together as one he and the woman make together: “Ah, what do we have? Your empty heart and my empty bottle and yellow cab.” That is, it takes two people’s desire, not just one: she’s had a break up, he’s had some drinks, there’s a taxi waiting outside. What’s really striking to me about Lamar’s verse is the effect it has on our reception of the sampled song, “Swimming Pool (Drank).” Because as listeners there’s this impulse to read the values of “How Many Drinks,” which is about getting a girl drunk so you can bang her, onto “Swimming Pool,” to forget that the latter actually questions alcohol culture as self-destructive, and instead remember it as a binge drinking anthem.

At the end of the remix, Miguel tries to spin his sleazy pickup as an exercise in women’s lib with a dash of YOLO:

I ain’t judgin’ if you do decide that you might be f*ing tonight
What? More power to you if you do decide that you might be f*ing tonight
Let’s go, shit, we only live once right?

Whatever action verb is used for sex is mixed out, but it sounds pretty clearly like “fucking” to me. Sorry, guys, but this is what rape scholarship calls “cognitive distortions.” In Miguel’s outro, the cognitive distortion is that while earlier in the song he was the one deciding “I’m not leaving alone,” suddenly the woman is an engaged participant with agency and choice. These lines also function to remove Miguel from responsibility while implicitly shaming the female. Suddenly “I ain’t judgin’” her decision to be promiscuous. Of course, these lines are laden with implicit judgment. In fact, they are nearly victim-blaming. Suddenly the empowered woman “decide[s...] to be fuckin’ tonight.” What happened to the girl you only had one question for? The sarcastic congratulations, “more power to you” only makes the line more offensive. They equate women’s victimization with women’s empowerment. If you wants to be liberated, go ahead, but you’re gonna get fucked. By Miguel. Yucky.

Here Are the First 15 Pages of My Unpublished Novel, THE NIGHTS

THE NIGHTS

“Night is deliverance.”

- Tayeb Salih, Season of Migration to the North

A scene:[1]

She took her to Toledo to seduce her.

Toledo, Spain, that is, not Ohio, and she being Aisha and the other she being Lena, my older sister, the eldest of us four Kahanes.

Let’s try that again.

Aisha took my sister Lena to Toledo, Spain, to seduce her. This was back in spring of 2006, when they had been living in Berlin for a year, working diligently (too diligently, actually, thus the trip) on their modern American English-language translation of the Thousand and One Nights, and not sleeping together, which is not what Aisha had had in mind. They lived and worked in a storefront flat in Kreuzberg, the Turkish neighborhood the hipsters loved, but back then they still sat at their desks with papers spread around them, and the Persian rug Aisha stole from her husband sat unused on the floor, dotted with cushions, a kid of leisure-lounge area. (Eventually they would eschew the desks and spend all their time on the floor, lounging. But we’ll get to that.)  In spring of 2006, you recall, the two American wars were dragging on and Katrina had recently doused New Orleans and Dubya’s approval rating hovered around twenty percent.

But Lena, my sister, wasn’t concerned with American current events. She had graduated from Princeton with a degree in Linguistics and was living in Europe with her favorite professor, Aisha Wasila, and together they were rewriting The Nights for a modern American audience. It was going very well: if nothing else, those four years at Jersey’s fanciest country club had imparted to Lena excellent writing and research skills, and military-grade study habits, a work ethic the nation’s premier Presbyterian university could be proud of, in a Calvinist, good-works sort of way.[2] In their first year in Berlin, Lena and Aisha had categorically sifted through the thousands of Xeroxed pages of multiphonic versions of The Nights Aisha had copied from many dozens of manuscripts and anthologies in the tri-state area over the past seven years, then schlepped across an ocean in seven boxes when they moved. Now the copied tales were laid out along the southern wall of the apartment, organized by provenance and subject, Toledo, Istanbul, Paris, Algiers across, Sindbad, Aladdin, Scheherezad down.

It was from this well-lit, well-organized enclave of healthy work habits and professional relationships that Aisha looked up one morning from her work table and turned innocently to Lena, her charge, and asked, “Have you ever even seen a Medieval Arab city?”

“No,” Lena scoffed. She lived plumbly in the ahistorical present, in a converted storefront apartment in the formerly East Berlin, with a woman who had been her professor and would be her lover, but for now was only her roommate, and her boss. “Have you?”

“Only my hometown,” Aisha replied, but did not give its name. She looked at Lena’s profile, its cameo sheen: the long white neck, the subtle nosey bump, the black shadow of hair. The girl was ready for the next step. “You don’t find this problematic?” Aisha went on. She clutched at the papers that littered her desk. “That you will write Basra with never having seen it?”

“I’m not going to Iraq,” Lena said.

“No.” Aisha looked out the wide front windows at the chic Berliners ambling by. “I suppose no one is, save your soldiers and your tanks. No, we will go to Toledo.”

“They’re not mine,” Lena whined. She was still looking at her computer screen, where she’d been typing out a new draft of the Hunchback’s Tale. “You’re American, too.”

“Citizen, not ethnicity.”

“There is no American ethnicity. I’m Jewish.”

“Don’t remind me,” Aisha said. She stood up, closed her laptop, and smoothed her hair. “Come, we must pack.”

[1]               It always opens with a scene.

Or perhaps use a question:

How does one begin a story like this? With a scene:

Or maybe I could allude to the beginning of The Thousand and One Nights, which opens at the bedside of a dying king.

No: Too soon. Patience, storytelling is all about Patience, Nathan (I tell myself: I being Nathan, your humble narrator.)

Let’s leave it as it is: A scene. The rest is implicit: every story opens with a scene. Even the first one: big bang, om, tsimstum, breishit bara, heaven and earth, lingam and yoni, Krishna and Shiva, the opening dance.

All right, okay, I get it: a scene, sure, but my God, make it grand.

[2]               This would be in sharp contrast to my own experience at Princeton, where I gleaned the alternative skill set of hobnobbing and substance abuse, a charted course which would eventually see me duly punished, freeing me up to narrate the unusual tale of my sister’s escape to Germany (an 21st century inversion of the typical holocaust-era tale).

——-

A plotter, Aisha had already bought the tickets. Aisha was cunning, but she was organized about it. Had she even pushed Lena and Ted together, that first day in Arabian Nights class? I don’t know. And if she was already researching the Nights at that time, she redoubled her efforts, so that by the time Lena graduated four years later, Aisha had a foreign fellowship all lined up. All she needed was an assistant who could read Turkish, Arabic, French, and Greek. Luckily, she had trained her protégé well. Now Lena watched as Aisha packed for a long weekend escape: two cashmere sweaters, a black cardigan and a white pullover; three t-shirts, black, white, and tan; one pair of slacks and one pair of jeans; two brassieres, one black and one beige; five pairs of underwear, three briefs and two thongs; four pairs of socks, one wool; one pair of water-resistant boots and one pair of loafers; and a small cosmetic case containing mascara, lipstick, a toothbrush, toothpaste, conditioner, shampoo, and a hotel-sized bar of soap. Then she separated out the boots, the jeans, one sweater, one t-shirt, one set of underthings, and looked up at Lena, who had stood above her, watching, and said: “For the plane. Plus jewels. Well? Go pack.”

Lena put some clothes in a bag and soon they were on the airplane. The Eurozone crisis was a vague forethought in the some corners of the universities and Spain and Germany had nothing to say one another. The metro on both sides was good, but Berlin’s was better. When they arrived, Aisha could speak Spanish. They took the Metro to the Atocha station and Aisha bought their commuter rail tickets to Toledo and they killed an hour in the atrium, drinking espressos. Around them under the filtered sunlight milled dark women with their sleep ponytails tied into elaborate knots and this was what Lena had thought Italy would be like, and did, until a few months later when they went to Rome.

The commuter rail sped south and to Lena, who had never seen Spain, or any other arid landscape, the blank plateau seemed designed by Miguel Cervantes himself for the express contextualization of Quijote’s interminable quest. Looking out the window, Lena recognized that for the Knight of La Mancha, son of this flat, expressionless land, delirious fantasies were the only recourse for spiritual survival. On the train car with she and Aisha was a large group of schoolchildren shepherded by two school teachers, one old and one young, who turn turns ignoring the children. Aisha sat in the aisle seat reading a magazine in Spanish and periodically looked up at the window to deliver Lena a disquisition on how the Mideival Moorish occupation of Spain had brough not only Scheherezad but also algebra, astronomy, and Aristotle to Europe.

Then, in an hour, it was eight hundred years ago. From the train Lena watched Toledo rise out of the plain like a city built atop a giant turtle’s back, all the stone and brick the same color as the earth itself, the buildings like barnacles stuck to a shell. From the train station at the outskirts of the city they took a taxi to the studio apartment of an absent person Aisha knew from somewhere. (In every European city they went, and this was the first of many, Aisha would know a missing person. So Lena never met any of them, never found any witnesses to fill in the gaps about Aisha’s life. Lena got to know Aisha’s friends by their houseplants, their foreign woven rugs, their furniture, stark or plush, the painted details on their dinner plates.) The cab wound up into the city through narrow streets, and the locals hugged stone walls to let it pass. Their apartment was on the third floor of a building undifferentiated from its neighbors, denoted only by a numeral alongside the narrow wooden door set into the stone, which opened to a surprising formica liner on the stairs. Inside, bright white walls and a window box that needed watering, suspended over the view of a beautiful alley. In one corner a kitchenette, in another a loveseat, in a third, a narrow futon with sleeping space only for one.

For two days they walked. Munching on marzapan bought made in a convent by nuns, they entered every synagogue and cátedral and mosque. They saw suits of armor in shop windows and children’s swords for sale and above every streetred streamers were hung as though a festival had just ended, or was about to begin. Each church boasted its own Goya, the jazz-age faces wracked with grief, the heavenly light dissolved among the jewel-toned villagers and hills. In an ancient mosque-cum-synagogue with faded Coptic Jesus on the wall, Lena caught her breath and hoped those were tears in her eyes.

Lena insisted they go to the Jewish museum, tugged by some vague unstoppable internalization of our mother and her mother and hers: You went to Europe and not to the Jewish museum (there was always one, wasn’t there)? Ach! Go! Go! Go!

Inside the retiring synagouge the walls were covered, floor to triple-high ceilings, with Hebrew script. Lena stood under the light emitted by the rose-cut windows in the high stone and felt like a black ant inside a Torah scroll, ecstatic, trapped. On the second floor, the women’s section had been converted into a gallery for dead Jews’ things. Lena stood at a map of the post-inquisition diaspora and watched as the Jews to whom she was least related fled Spain for Paris, Amsterdam, Istanbul, Algiers. These Sephardic Jews were not our Jews. When the Temple fell, they went east, into Europe, while we middled in Germany, inventing Yiddish, before schlepping east.

A fat Spanish woman with hair dyed red approached smiling and asked, “Eres Judeo?” and Lena said, “Si,” and when Aisha appeared the woman included her in her broad beatific gaze. “Hermosas?” “No,” Aisha said, “somos investigadoras de la historia Judaismo,” and the woman smiled sadly and nodded her grey roots and drifted away.

Aisha led Lena by the elbow to a glass case holding shawls and candlesticks begging to be used, but locked away instead. “The Megillat Ester,” she said, indicating a tiny scroll unrolling into endless miniature Hebrew script. “Orientalists suggested—mostly notably in the 1912 Encyclopedia Brittannica entry on the Nights—that Scheherezad and Queen Esther were the same woman, both second wives to an ancient, insomniac Persian king, both with unusual sway over such a powerful man.”

“Is that true?” Lena asked. She peered into the glass case, looking for answers.

“Are the texts true?” Aisha stood close beside Lena, matching her breath. “It doesn’t matter if they’re true. They’re symbolic. They’re true mythology. Look at the symbolism in the first few lines.” And she offered an approximatae translation. “And there, in the time of Ataxerxes—he Ataxerxes, who reigned then from India to Ethiopia, and so forth, in the third year of his reign, and seven chamberlains, and the seven princes.”

“It’s a lot of sevens.” Looking closely, Lena could see the repetition of the Hebrew word seven, שבע , across the first few lines, the mythic three-pronged ש, the little crowns rising off its slick calligraphy. Lena turned and walked to the banister and looked out over the empty shul. Here in the women’s section the light from the rose windows hovered at eye level on the far wall, igniting the calligraphy with flames. On the ground floor, three steps led up to an ark that stood open and empty, the velvet cushions long gone, the Torah scrolls adopted or burned.

That night, after tapas and Tempranillo on Zocodaver square, Lena and Aisha returned to the absent friend’s flat. The night before they had slept chastely side-by-side, but tonight Aisha had other plans. Of course, I wasn’t there. But I can imagine. Did they stand at the window, watching the moon hover over the narrow streets, downing another glass of wine? Did Aisha brush a tendril of my sister’s long hair from her face, did she whisper entreaties of love? Or perhaps it was a roving foot, a meandering hand, that reached for my sister’s body when they were already tucked into the narrow bed. She must have expected it, in some way. Aisha was a highly sexual person. Lena was a year gone from Ted, her first and last true love. Who knows what her body needed, or could settle for, in that heady moment, head swimming with intellectual excitement, her body hot with the day’s excercise and wine. I imagine a few tender kisses in a foreign city was all it took, the first finger pulled (if I may say so) from the dyke. When they returned to Berlin, to their shared apartment, Lena was Aisha’s, at least until now.

 * * *

Phew! Call it Freudian, but for me writing and shitting have a lot in common. Both involve dropping my pants (figuratively in the former sense), my most private self exposed, and dedicating myself the difficult work of self-excavation with extreme purpose and single-mindedness. I really have to push. In both cases I must identify hidden interior material, composted and compacted after its long, winding journey through my being, and eject it (moaning and groaning all the while) into some blank white receptacle of my distress. If Geertz suggested that delayed gratification is the central psychological feature of the modern world (not to mention the modern novel, am I right? Bueller? Cervantes? Anyone?” then I am not ashamed to declare myself the first to proclaim (if  not downright discover) that constipation just might be the governing metaphor of mankind’s contemporary, technologically mediated existence.

Of course, if Lena were here, she would object that our world’s first novel, if we are defining the novel by its embrace of the conceit of delayed gratification (which is to say, suspense), is not Don Quijote but rather that endlessly iterated collection of tales to which my sister would insiste the Quijote is obviously, indeed explicitly, indebted, Nathan, that is, The Thousand and One Nights. But returning to an earlier point, the invocation of The…Nights, in whose pages waiting strikes a decidedly sexual tenor, allows us to infer that the action of delayed gratification is an inherently sexual or preferably sensual act. By which I mean—the holding it in—before, you know, letting it out—I mean—it feels good.

And woe to you if you call them “The Arabian Nights,” since as Lena will tell you (O for she has studied—under, literally under!—such a venerable scholar of The Nights) these tales traveled the Silk Road from Africa to China, and were originally recorded by the Persians, and have been transposed into all the world’s great languages, soon to be including (no offense to the Briton Burton) American English.

I know what you’re thinking—what, suddenly with a BA and three years of private cunning linguistic lessons from Aisha, Lena’s the master of the modern American idiom? Ahem?! Narrator here!

Far be it from me to protest that she doesn’t even live in America, because, then again, neither do I.

But I oughtn’t apologize: this is my story, even if they’re Lena’s facts, and so what if I’m cramped up in a moldy bathroom on the repossessed Israeli shores of the Mediterranean. (Yes, despite Aisha’s protestations, this story is Jewish. But at least my heritage offers the literary precedent of Portnoy, Sr., for my cramped-up kischkes.) And sheesh, if Lenaa told this tale, you’d miss the whole delicious context: that is to say, our family, the Knight-Abraham-Kahanes. As much as Lena may have thought running away from us all to Germany exempted herself from this grand Jewish-American tale of which she is a necessary part, it didn’t. Why do you  think she ran away in the first place?

I’ll tell you why: it’s because she fell in love with a schvartze. A black.

Ted.

Ted Knight, no relation.

Tadik “Ted” Knight, whose Arabic-inflected given name didn’t help matters as far as the social hostilities unleashed by Lena’s miscegenation were concerned, despite everyone’s protests that the issue wasn’t that Ted was black but simply, defensibly, that he was a goy.

Yeah, right. The old shaygetz excuse.

Of course, ours is a contemporary American family, so our bigotry was never so explicit (except in a few instances, when it was), but Lena was a good girl and a good daughter, played soccer in high school and excelled in her studies, she went to Princeton for Chrissakes, and so after years of satisfying my parents’ every wish for her this last, enormous failure needed only to grate on her for a few years before the bough cracked and she split.

It didn’t help that he asked her to marry him. What was she supposed to say, yes?

Aisha was the wild card. Aisha, who had been watching Lena and Ted since the first day they met, who then, when Lena was at her most vulnerable, pounced. She carried my sister away to Berlin, business class, where they still stay, living, working, and fucking even now, as we (figuratively) speak.

But, in Lena’s case, every trip has to come down eventually. Even now, as dusk falls over Berlin, the rumblings of her next abandonment are beginning to break the placid surface of her socialist work-life-conflation with Aisha. (Aisha, who, like any adulteress, hadn’t minded Lena’s fickleness when it was she Lena was leaving for.) If Lena had anything to say on the matter, she would insist that bad luck has followed her from the get-go, that she’s not a leaver but a loser, not the schlemiel spilling soup but the schlemazel unto whose lap it is spilled.

Oh, fuck her and her long hair.

Forgive me. As the eldest of her three brothers, I am not impartial. I am also among those whom Lena has left.

This is all easier to tell than show, but I know that isn’t the way. I won’t waste any more of your time hypothesizing as to the roots of Lena’s commitment-phobia, whose infinite set of possible originary causes begins with our parents’ divorce and extends back to the Russian pogroms, the destruction of the Second Temple, the eviction from Paradise itself.

And here I get ahead of myself, or more precisely, behind. I’ve all but already declared that storytelling takes patience, takes time—from both of us, reader, you and me, so stick around and I’ll explain it all. Just picture me the hare, plodding forward one step at a time, while fleet-footed Achilles (standing in for my plot) advances upon us from the starting line. Movement may be impossible—I know, I know, tell it to my bowels—but it is certainly probable (thank God!), that is, difficult to avoid. Zeno’s protestations notwithstanding, I promise the story will catch up with us in time.

And anyway, it’s midnight here, and I’ve been perched on the toilet too long, and I know you’re eager to get to Berlin, where my sister and Aisha lay sprawled on a woolen carpet embroidered with a rendering of Eden (whose potent symbolism will presently be revealed).

Could it be? I think I feel something stirring down below. If you’ll excuse me, I have pressing business to attend to. Ah, the armchair historian sinks to a new low.

Exeunt.

Oh, Kanye, You Always Know Just What to Say

Kanye West wants to be heard.

Kanye on the Crown Fountain at Chicago's Millennium Park

Kanye on the Crown Fountain at Chicago’s Millennium Park

He also wants to be seen, hyped, talked about, gathered around,  re-tweeted/tumbled/blogged/televised, experienced. And the man knows how to give us what we want, namely: primary source material. In the era of the chattering classes, when everyone with a BA and a smartphone thinks she’s Roland Barthes reincarnate, 10 minutes of Halftime Beyonce–shit, 10 seconds of “Bow down, bitches”–produces a Talmud’s worth of critical writing.

And into this media environment swaggers Kanye, who knows how to debut a motherfucking album. One tweet:

And then, last Friday, his new video and song debuted in 66 locations across the world–not the country, mind you, but the world–and then on Saturday he was on Saturday Night Live to rearticulate his vision for network TV where your ten-year-old kids could see him, even if on Friday they were already in bed, or, worse, in the suburbs.

As Meaghan Garvey wrote on her tumblr Sensitive Thug (and hers was the best post on the new release, and from it I shall quote heavily),

Chief Keef isn’t white America’s worst nightmare. Because while he scares the living shit out of them in person, he fits neatly into the trope that many racist white Americans need young black men to fit into: violent, uneducated, aimless. They expect this kind of character, and in turn know how to strip him of his humanity, dismiss him, and avoid him.

Kanye West is white America’s worst nightmare. Because as much as one may attempt to dismiss him—by calling him an asshole or classless or deranged or various other adjectives that fill the comment sections of literally every article about him—you still have to turn on your regularly scheduled late night comedy program and stare him in the face. You can’t avoid Kanye. He’s made very sure of that.

And, as Garvey chronicles, commentators high and lo spent the weekend trying to dismiss Mr. West. Garvey sorts their dismissals into three categories: “He’s A Hypocrite, This Isn’t New, and He Wants Attention.” She does a really, really great job of showing how all protestations are leaden with BS – indeed, leave this post now and go leave her post. (And yeah, she beat me to it, and she did a really, really good job.) I’ll summarize her main thesis a bit: Kanye’s been aware of his participation in consumerist culture from the very beginning, all the way back to “All Falls Down” when he rapped, “But I ain’t even gon’ act holier than thou/ Cuz fuck it, I went to Jacob with 25 thou/ before I had a house and I’d do it again/ Cuz I wanna be on 106 & Park pushin a Benz” (qtd Garvey).

Now, I’m a little late on the uptake here, so instead of continuing to repeat what others have said I’m gonna direct you to various points in the conversation-thus-far, and then add some thoughts where I can.

In the Chicago Sun-Times, film critic Richard Roeper left me missing Ebert all over again when he wrote, “[S]top bitching….nobody embraces capitalism, consumerism and crass commercialism more than Kim and Kanye.”

MTV News actually did a nice job rooting Yeezy’s politicism in his earlier work. And over at Vice, Ernest Baker suggests the song is more trenchant if you’re actually black.

Over at The Week, Keith Wagstoff responded to the political content of “New Slaves,” especially its indictment of government and private sector complicity in a failed drug war. Wagstoff also directed readers to similar pieces in the ThinkProgress, Salon, and the New Jersey Star Ledger, and highlighted Michael Moore’s amazed tweet at Kanye’s political forthrightness on primetime TV.

At the Ledger, Tris McCall did a nice job contextualizing Kanye’s politicization among some of his earlier tracks as well as within contemporary rap reactions to the prison-industrial complex.

And Alyssa Rosenberg’s piece at ThinkProgress was most notable for its failed critique of Kanye’s turn toward misogyny at the end of “New Slaves.” After blasting the DEA+CCA, Kanye threatens to come to “Your Hamptons house/I’ll fuck your Hamptons spouse/Come on her Hamptons blouse/And in her Hamptons mouth.” A more trenchant gloss of those lines might have eschewed mere moralizing and instead noticed that in the face of a faceless war on poor people of color by the most powerful Americans, West’s only recourse is to sexist rhetoric. Indeed, given his reference to himself for dating a white woman as “King Kong” in “Black Skinhead,” West’s lyrics are aware that by resorting to threats toward an implicitly white woman he plays into the very sexual-racial stereotypes white America already wants to hold against him.

What I want to add to this discussion is a focus on this video being projected on walls all over the world, and especially on its appearance on the Crown Fountain at Milennium Park, the flashy civic space in downtown Chicago where white-collar workers can go in the summer after work to see Andrew Bird for free, but which doesn’t have a basketball court.

Because it’s almost like this video was made for that park.

I opened this piece by mentioning that the diversity of media experiences this debut created was an innovation made for the moment. What makes Kanye’s “guerrilla marketing technique” so incredible to my eyes is not that the video was played all over the world–it has been well noted by playa-haters and fanboys alike that after the first thing aired in Tokyo or whatever, everyone could stay home and watch someone else’s iPhone footage from their own boring bedroom.

What’s really amazing here, in this era of critical excess, is that these separate viewings unmediated by a centralized TV camera cockpit created hundreds of individual pieces of primary source material for us aspiring scholar writer types to gush over. We can hear kids react to their first sight/sound of “New Slaves” in New York, Chicago, Toronto, in French, English, Japanese, Portugese, and so on, and we can close read all that shit. That’s cultural innovation that’s not arbitrary but directly responsive to the environment in which it functions.

On the Prada Store in Manhattan, as the video opens up with colorful 1950′s-esque graphics with the words SPECIAL $3.99 printed on a green rectancular background, NOT FOR SALE on a yellow circle, $1.75 NEW handwritten over red, NEW SLAVES like a dog tag, NEW MART $21.86 on a lime-green square, a barcode, and we hear a female spectator ask, quite reasonably, “Is that an advertising spot?”

On the side of Wrigley Field, the image projected over Chicago Cubs graphics, the video’s high-resolution imagery seemed designed for this kind of imperfect medium, especially in a white, wealthy neighborhood like Lakeview. As Kanye’s starkly black face faded into the background, the image asked, can you see me? can you hear me? Or aren’t my white teeth and my chain all you see anyway? “See its that rich nigga racism…all you blacks want all the same things.”

And oh, oooohhhhh, on the Crown Fountain at Millennium Park. I remember when this park opened, thinking how dope this fountain was. On either end of a granite reflecting pool in which children play barefoot in the summer are two towers made of glass bricks through which huge videos of Chicagoans play. The videos are one-minute close-ups of Chicagoans of all ages and races, old men and women, kids, teenagers, young people, blacks, whites, Latinos, Asians, looking straight at the camera. At the end of the minute, they purse their lips, and a stream of water comes out of the column where their mouth is and flows into the reflecting pool.

Now imagine that, last Saturday night, in the warm May evening, you stood around the pool under a clear sky and watched this glass tower: a figure of an elderly Asian man appears, then a white teenage boy, then a Latina kindergartner, smiling gently at the camera, blinking slowly, pursing their lips as in a kiss at you, and water pours into the fountain. How delightful.

Then a black man’s face appeared. Oh shit, it’s Kanye West. Kanye does not blow a kiss at you. Kanye starts rapping, and his message is angry. In the context of the Crown Fountain, his language acquires new meaning. It says, “Fuck your pat multiculturalism.” Yesterday the unelected Board of Education, all appointed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, voted to shut down 49 Chicago Public Schools, all in predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods. “Fuck your race-blind rhetoric.”  Now the mayor wants to build a taxpayer-funded arena for the DePaul basketball team and continue opening privately-controlled charter schools. “Fuck your school-to-prison pipeline.”

I know that we the new slaves

I see the blood on the leaves

I see the blood on the leaves

I see the blood on the leaves…

Get your piece today.

And then, at the close of the song, Kanye stops speaking his own words, which already called on the legacy of black protest music with the quotes from Billie Holliday and Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit,” and begins lip-synching to vocals which to me sound like, “We can’t get too high, we can’t get too  high, again, Oh no, so low, so low…” These words are a clear retort to folks like Richard Roeper who tell Kanye to “stop bitching.” West alludes to  My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which opens by asking, “Can we get much higher?” Here he seems to answer, “No.”

Meaghan Garvey decodes Kanye’s attachment to black suffering:

Questioning why a rich black man has a right to express anger at the plight of less rich black people is essentially asking, “Well, you’re gonna be okay, so what’s the problem?” Kanye’s wealth and participation in consumerist culture …cheapens his message to certain critics. This is because they are approaching the hyper-consumerist culture Kanye references when he says “What you want a Bentley, fur coat and diamond chain?/ All you blacks want all the same things”  as a force that is very bad, certainly; but not as a force that has enslaved them, personally, into a permanent underclass and then gone on to laugh at them for accepting the ideals and signifiers of this culture.

Kanye has transcended the class that is bearing the brunt of the issues at hand in “New Slaves”, and thus is expected to gratefully shut the fuck up and let it slide (“throw him some Maybach keys/ Fuck it, c’est la vie”). He now belongs to the same social class that has essentially trapped his people…. Kanye is not a “new slave” in the same sense as the victims of the prison industrial complex, but he is still trapped in a world that expects him to not only be complicit with the struggle of his people, but to be appreciative that he is not one of them. And on top of all that, while he gets to exist in the world of the 1%, having the money and signifiers of success still aren’t enough to make his (white) 1% peers actually even respect him.

As always, Kanye is begging us to really hear him. In tapes of his Friday night debuts you can hear kids already singing along with him: “I know that we the new slaves/I know that we the new slaves.” Besides the one official video and the official SNL video, there are dozens of tapes on YouTube of the same music video played against the backdrop of real cities where real people are suffering real injustice.  “Niggas is going through real shit, man, they out of work/ That’s why another goddamn dance track gotta hurt.” His video played on Wrigley Field, on a Prada store, on the safely-philanthropy-funded Crown Fountain. But Big Money’s complicity in Kanye’s debut isn’t ironic, it’s the whole point. As he rapped a decade ago on “All Falls Down,” “We all self conscious, I’m just the first to admit it.” We’re all guilty, we all know what’s going on, we’re all participating in the systems that enslave us. At least Ye has the guts to stand up there and say it. Not For Sale. Of course he’s for sale. But aren’t you? Aren’t we all?

Males Rapping Females: Drake, Pride, and Manly Self-Sacrifice

via necolebitchie.com

via necolebitchie.com

So, I finally raised my white flag and started listening to Drake. This was on the heels of a lot of Frank Ocean and Kendrick Lamar, and I’ve been thinking a lot about how each of these three male artists writes and performs songs about female characters. (I’m thinking here of Drake’s Take Care, Ocean’s Channel Orange, and Lamar’s Section.80 and Good Kid, mAAd City). At first, my response was positive, both personally and politically – I felt noticed as a female listener: hey, he’s talkin’ ’bout ladies, he’s male but he cares, he notices the women around him. Cool. Then, my critical impulses jumped in: hey, talkin’ about ladies is great, but I shouldn’t be  satisfied by men talkin’ bout women. Where’s the women talkin’ ’bout women? And then, finally, I started collecting evidence, listening to the songs about women more closely. I started wondering about these tracks’ emotional content: why sing a certain song about a female character instead of about yourself? What can these artists achieve emotionally through female characters that they can’t or won’t approach through their own male selves?

These questions are rooted in my longtime interest in gendered values/vices, a subject I’ve discussed briefly here before. To briefly summarize where I’m coming from (and you can read more at the linked post), I’ll just note that traditional Western Christianity tends to see self-sacrifice as a virtue and pride as a sin, a la Jesus Christ. However, in the 1960s feminist theologians began to criticize this vision of virtue and vice as tailored primarily for the powerful, for white, heterosexual men: if you’re in power, self-sacrifice can be virtuous, pride and overreach can be sinful, sure. But for folks who are oppressed, who are voiceless, inculcating the “virtue” of self-sacrifice tends to reinforce their oppression. These feminist theologians suggested instead that for oppressed peoples, self-assertion is virtuous, while self-abnegation is a vice, a revision also taken up by Martin Luther King, Jr. when he asserted that those in power will never give up power willingly, but it needs to be claimed by the powerless: i.e., the virtue of pride.

I mention this all because I’ve noticed in Drake’s work especially a use of female characters to elide pridefulness. On his album Take Care, while Drake is braggadocious, he doesn’t take wholesome pride in his accomplishments and hard work; instead, he ascribes pride to female avatars: mother figures in “Look What You’ve Done” and a female love object in “Make Me Proud.”

On “Look What You’ve Done,” Drake proudly recounts his rise from obscurity to fame, the hard work and the lucky breaks, but repeatedly redirects his pride from his own self to a grateful honoring of his mother and another mother figure who supported him. Of his mother’s health problems, he asks, “But maybe I wouldn’t have worked as hard/If you were healthy and it weren’t so bad.” In this moment Drake resists taking pride in his own work ethic. Perhaps a work ethic isn’t manly, but altruism is: so Drake suggests he worked hard not because he was a hard worker, but because he had to be a man and take care of his mother. He continues:

Oh it’s my time, yeah, it’s on
[Lil Wayne's] thinking of signing me, I come home
We make a mixtape with seventeen songs
I almost get a Grammy off of that thing
They love your son man that boy gone
You get the operation you dreamed of
And I finally sent you to Rome
I get to make good on my promise
It all worked out girl, we shoulda known
Cause you deserve it

These lines fascinate me because Drake is being playfully prideful, braggadocious: “Oh it’s my time, yeah, it’s on,” and he alludes to his hard work when he makes a Grammy-nominated mixtape in record time. But these declarations of pride and hard work are quickly redirected from effeminate pride in oneself to manly self-sacrifice, i.e., taking care of Mom: “you get the operation you dreamed of…’cause you deserve it.” What I’m wondering here is, why can’t Drake deserve it?  Didn’t he work hard, didn’t he make this music? But recognizing his own hard work in a serious way seems uncouth, and so he transforms his own pride into gratitude and self-sacrifice by using his achievement to take care of Mom.

This picture of acceptable virtues and vices is expanded on “Make Me Proud,” which similarly resists pridefulness but celebrates and encourages a female other–voiced literally by Nicki Minaj–to take pride in her accomplishments. On this track Drake paints a picture of a girl working hard, balancing her academic/career aspirations with her social/superficial concerns. Remarkably, she pulls it all off, and Drake expresses a kind of sympathy for what a catch she is, how she must be getting hit on at every turn:

weekend in miami, tryna study by the pool
Couple things due, but you always get it done….

You said niggas coming on too strong girl
They want you in their life as a wife
That’s why you wanna have no sex
Why you wanna protest, why you wanna fight for your right
Cause you don’t love them boys
Pussy run everything, fuck that noise

That line in there: “Why you wanna protest, why you wanna fight for your right” – in invoking the feminist mantras, Drake gently mocks them, mocks this girl he supposedly loves. And this dressing down of her righteous and well-earned pride in herself is continued into the chorus when, first of all, the girl’s achievements are conflated with her physical appeal, and second, her pride in herself is something that appears to need to be validated by Drake:

I know things get hard
But girl you got it, girl you got it there you go
Can’t you tell by how they looking at you everywhere you go
Wondering what’s on your mind, it must be hard to be that fine,
When all these motherfuckas wanna waste your time
It’s just amazing, girl, and all I can say is…

I’m so, I’m so, I’m so, I’m so,
I’m so proud of you (x3)
Everything’s adding up, you’ve been through hell and back
That’s why you’re bad as fuck and you…

And then Nicki jumps in – unlike Drake, she can inhabit pride in a way he is not permitted to:

B-b-b-bad I am
All of them bitches I’m better than
Mansions in Malibu babblin
But I never mention everything I dabble in
…Done did the pop tour, I’m the realest deal,
The best legal team so the deals is ill
It’s Mac, OPI and a fragrance too
Apparel, I’m dominating every avenue
Cobblestone, good view, lil gravel too
Gotta pay for the entourage travel too
Cause I’m fli-fli-fly, I’m flying high
Ain’t got time to talk, just Hi and bye

It’s interesting to ask, in this context, whether Nicki’s braggodocious lyrics, above, are qualitatively different from Drake’s. (We’ll look at another song of his in a moment). Taken on their own, I would say they’re not: she’s better than bitches, she has a great team, brand-name deals, she flies her entourage around, etc. Drake brags about the same shit. I think the difference is the context, the introduction Nicki receives. “That’s why you’re bad as fuck,” he says, and she replies, “Bad I am,” as though Drake gives her permission to take pride in herself and she accepts it, as though she condones his  validation of her worth.

It’s also fun to watch Drake and Nicki’s genuine chemistry and affection in the video of “Make Me Proud,” above.  Because when they are actually rapping the lyrics to each other the song has an even clearer dialogic quality. And we see then that not only does Drake sing to Nicki, “I’m so proud of you,” but she sings it back to him, gesturing to the audience: “I really am so proud of this guy.” It’s almost maternal, a mother saying she is proud of her son. Perhaps that’s the invisible voice missing from Take Care: maternal pride (though actually it does appear, dressed as gratitude, at the end of “Look What You’ve Done”). Drake doesn’t need to be proud of himself; he’ll be proud of the women, and the women will be proud of him.

I compare “Look What You’ve Done” and “Make Me Proud” with a number of other songs on Take Care in which Drake engages with female characters and variously brags, acts falsely humble, appears emotionally unavailable, or alludes to a private emotional self but resists trespassing beyond a set core of manly emotions: sexual appetite, generosity for women and friends, gratitude/blessedness, blase oversaturation at the volume of food, drink, pussy he gets, empty apologies for said emotional unavailability. But never can Drake say, I worked hard, I earned this (only female characters can say that); and while Drake can say I mistreated some women, he is never mistreated by them – he uses them for sex, they use him for money, but his heart is never broken (that is weak): thus, “Cry if you want to, but I can’t stay to watch you, it’s the wrong thing to do.” I.e., Drake’s sin is emotional unavailability, he’s too tough to love you right now, but he’s rational enough, smart enough, chivalrous enough to break your heart to your face, instead of “end[ing] up lying, and say I love you too.”

There’s more to say, but I’ll stop here. I’m interested to hear what y’all think – all fictional characters are in some sense avatars of their authors, and I’m hoping to create space for us to notice the different characteristics rappers care to occupy as themselves versus as female fictions in their work. We also see this going on in Frank Ocean’s “Pyramids” and lots of Kendrick Lamar tracks, but I’ll save that for another day. Peace y’all.