Archive: How To “Counter” Racism

 

 

The view of downtown from the museum’s second floor. 

 

 

Originally Posted: 6/23/10

The following was my account after visiting the International Civil Rights Center and Museum, located in Greensboro, NC. Reposted for Black History Month. Greensboro is the home of the very first     Sit-In, an act that still holds significance in American History. If I had learned anything from this tour and observing the artifacts, it’s that racism extended to the smallest, pettiest details of everyday life. Details that are often left out of movies or books, for lack of generational knowledge. Once you see that, it doesn’t seem unusual that racists will pitch a feral shit-fit if a black person sits in the “white section” of the lunch counter or pour acid in a pool. Humans are the most hair-pulling creatures ever.

I would know, wouldn’t I?

Forgive the poor editing. I was new to blogging. Any updated thoughts will be in bold.

“This week was the first week of the International Civil Rights Museum. Located in the original Woolworth store where four North Carolina A&T students started a sit-in, it was the museum’s first week after its grand opening. One of my mother’s fellow church members works there and invited us on the weekend tour.  The tour began as most would: A guide introducing what was going one in the world at the time and showing us a transparent American flag that revealed jim-crow artifacts.

Among the artifacts was a Klanman outfit. I can’t mention any faster how much of a historical gold mine this suit is. Think about it: how many people are willing to donate a piece of their racist pasts? [I’ve since seen the Klan robe at the Smithsonian Museum of the African American] After ogling the sheet, the group moved onto the next room, collaged with images of church bombing victims, MLK Jr., and other marching photos. One of the photos on the walls depicted a victim from a Birmingham church bombing [Sarah Collins]. If you looked at her out of context you would ‘ve thought the picture was taken in a war-torn African country. She was laid in a hospital bed with the sheet bundled up to her shoulders. Her burned eyes covered with square bandages. As the group moved on, the guide began telling the story of the four students from A&T.

Using a room that held some of the original Dorm furniture from the time, the group was treated to a projected reinstatement film courtesy of the contemporary A&T Drama Club. The first detail that caught my attention was her mention of their ages in college: 17. My mother was the same age her freshman year and that started my mind working. What was going on back then that had 17-year-olds in college? What was wrong with the educational system today that 17-year-old high school seniors were now rarer? I came back to my thought about the students’ ages in college, I asked my mother why so many kids were younger than 18 by the time they were college freshmen. According to my mother, such an occurrence was typical but eventually, some students were found to be emotionally unprepared so policies were put in place that set a 6-month line requirement, before. I knew they did that for kindergarteners with late birthdays but this was a revelation for me. [Since then, I learned more about the old junior high school structure and have since met a few 17-year-old college freshmen in the 2000s.]

By the time my mind left that thought for the moment, the group had moved to the preserved Woolworth’s food counter where the students made their sit-in. Not having seen a genuine counter establishment, I expected something smaller or more in tune with the counters of a Silver Diner. However, this counter stretched from one wall to the next connecting wall and covered what I think were 25 stools. As for those stools, We saw green and salmon covers, which weren’t originally there. The guide told us they were replaced after the original black covers began to wear. Two of the intact seats are in the Smithsonian [With two more at the Newseum in Washington, DC and a few more at the MLK Civil Rights Museum in Atlanta]. After the counter display, we moved on to another section, which was again more or less historical items that represented Jim Crow and Black achievements during said time. There were some artifacts that leaned towards the absurd side of white supremacy, like a double-sided Coca-Cola Machine. One side had a 5 cent label while the other side had a 10 cent label covering a 6 cent label. Guess which side was for “Coloreds”? [Don’t get me started on the prohibition of vanilla ice cream for blacks. Just don’t]. Across from that Machine was an old Plaque from one of the department stores. According to its information, the restroom for colored men and colored women were on the lower level with the White men’s restroom. What was peculiar was the white women’s restroom which was all the way on the way on the second floor. After thinking about it for a while I theorized that they planned this so that white women could stay as far away from black patrons as possible while the white male patrons could keep an eye on them. Once again, racism is a strange thing. [This speculation was based on the confirmed knowledge that blackface actors were placed in scenes featuring white actresses in Birth of a Nation to avoid having them act with real black males. Watch the film closely. It’s true. As for the plaque, still speculation that holds weight.]

I should point out by now that through the collages on the wall, Jesse Jackson’s picture would show up more than one could ignore. Well, he’s there because he attended A&T like the four sit-in guys [but there was no other reason for the Jesse overexposure other than a shameless effort to boast a famous A&T alumnus on part of the museum, but I digress]. As a matter of fact, the displays included people who either attended A&T or were from Greensboro. I mean this IS a local museum, but they kept a lot of focus on national history, even ending the tour on a display about other groups throughout the world who fight the same injustices. [Of course, the struggles of the civil rights movement was just one of many human rights struggles that were and continue to be fought globally]. After the tour, my mom and I went down the street for lunch. At a Diner. At their lunch counter.” [The diner in question, Fincastle’s, has since closed permanently. It will be missed.]

 

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The cafeteria at the Smithsonian Museum of the African American

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George RR Martin: A Game of Writing

A month has passed since I attended ConCarolinas in Charlotte this year. I’ve had a lot of life changing decisions, paperwork to mail and illnesses to recover from in the interim, but it’s allowed me time to reflect and get my thoughts together about meeting this year’s special guest: George RR Martin.

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When I arrived to the panel room, I noticed a few in the audience members dressed as Game of Thrones characters: Danaerys, Jeoffrey,……that’s about all I know. George RR Martin was at the other end of the room, a moderator at his side. As one would expect, he did discuss things related to Game of Thrones, but expanded on his other works and collaborations like Fevre Dream, the Wild Cards series, Hunter’s Run and his time working on television projects such as Beauty and the Beast, Max Headroom and the 1980s Twilight Zone.

Martin discussed his life as a writer, such as his writing routine, and his well known usage of a 40 year old DOS system. Around this time a microphone was being passed around to audience members with questions, the first inquiring whether it was better for novice writers to find their niche with short stories or a novel. “Short stories are better to take a risk on.” He recommended. Martin wrote a few before he began A Song of Fire and Ice. The short stories earned him three nominations and one award which provided excellent PR by the time he released his first novel. His career has given him many opportunities to work on projects outside of literature, including an invitation from Neil Gaiman for his Sandman project, which Martin admitted to stupidly turning down.

As he further discussed his experience with comics, Martin provided a perspective similar to what I briefly touched upon in an earlier posting: that which one had when Marvel comics first came about. Like television, the telephone and even internet, those who grew up with the innovation develop the idea that life has always functioned with said innovation integrated. What my generation sees as “old hat” comic tropes was revolutionary for Martin’s generation—in his words, the world of DC Comics was “static”—once Batman and Superman saved the day, they returned to their homes, jobs and loved ones. He was right, it took 60 years for superman to marry Lois Lane, and 50 for Dick Grayson to move out of the bat cave and on with his life. The Marvel universe changed all that—Spiderman lost Gwen Stacy, went off and on with Mary Jane, graduated college, and life changed for Peter Parker—all in the first 40 years. All I can say is thank god for trade publications, or us new gens would never be able to keep up with any prime marvel story.
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Editor’s notes can only catch you up so far.

Others may differ on this issue, but I’d rather have a story I’d need to keep up with than see the characters and settings remain in arrested development after a decade. The portion of people who get agitated by the emotional swerves and sudden deaths of characters forget one thing—the same things happens in real life. The creators of Sesame Street and Guiding Light, and Gasoline Alley understood this as much George RR Martin. Yes, the media scale is that wide in terms of understanding this fact.

In this age of trade paperbacks and Netflix, we more access than we know to catch up on episodic stories. If soap operas managed to gain new viewers with an ongoing storyline and long established characters long before the digital age, why must the rest of television have to stick to the 20th century sitcom formula in it? The only reason left for a person to complain about changes in a story is if they themselves cannot come to terms with change in real life. Of course Mr. Martin had a story for that, to which he explained the difference between “escape fiction” and “comfort fiction”. He reminded the audience that his books are not for everyone. In my opinion, the woman who wrote to complain about his book probably should’ve picked up the latter at her local bookstore.

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“Nobody Lies. Nobody Dies. All is well in the land of Westeros”

After all that, you couldn’t call me too surprised when he admitted hating comic reboots like Marvel’s “Ultimate” series and DC’s “New 52”. In response he decided to write Who the Fuck was Jetboy? For the Wild Cards series, in which newer generations could revisit older heroes. By now it was pretty clear how much his perspective on comics ( especially Marvel) influenced the way he wrote as much as history.

I was not the only one to expect mostly Game of Thrones topics, because many of the cosplayers suddenly had to leave the room. It gave me the opportunity to take one of their closer vacant seats. My writer’s mind was still on, so I stayed and listened. After all this was a writer who got to work in other media and had his own series adapted into a runaway hit TV show. I wanted to learn what he did to get to that point, so I listened.

Another issue Martin brought up was the tension that often came when two writers collaborated on a shared fictional world. What is that? Readers of any medium would notice when a new writer comes in and changes things the previous writer established, the former will react to this change by killing off as many of their characters so that no other writers can use them. I think TV Tropes calls this “Torch the Franchise and Run.” Martin explained a compromise he set up (which I keep secret out of respect for the guy), so that both parties could benefit from a shared world. This is a part of the writing world I never even considered, and to hear about this was information is well valued.

The last question raised regarded his notorious habit of killing off characters. Close followers of his career would notice this trademark extends beyond Game of Thrones. For example, not long after being hired as writer for Beauty and the Beast, he kills off the eponymous “Beauty”. All he could say was this: his books were about human nature. Again, I agree.

People do die without warning, in car accidents or unforeseen heart attacks. It’s why we have life insurance. Friendships end, lives are upended, and people make decisions that make sense to them yet boggle others’ minds. We begin the day in one place and condition and end it in another. As Martin insisted with comics, humans and the world they live in are not static.

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I assure you they’ll be dressed as another character next year. That’s life.

Writing this reminds me why I like attending panels like this—you get to learn about the person behind the pop cultural phenomenon and a little a bit about yourself as your take in what you hear. If only one thing has proven static is that Martin’s experience has reminded me that literary works are always the springboard for writing projects in other media. Dorothy Parker and F. Scott Fitzgerald had their own experiences as hollywood scriptwriters. Unlike the latter two writers, Martin was being part of that generation who grew up with television and comics; he could transition himself between the different media. Now he’s in Parker and Fitzgerald’s shoes, adjusting late to the new medium of Twitter. My generation has the digital world now and the one growing up now will think of it as “old hat”, so let’s see what we can do with that and whatever comes later.

 

Skydeck Follies (Part Two)

     When I arrived to the top of Sears Tower Skydeck, an elementary school class was in the middle of their field trip. I can surely say children are fearless when it comes to dangerous situations.Their excitement with the surroundings had them literally running in all directions, even mowing down someone’s toddling baby in the process. Even the adults had to watch for any children running up behind them. I had to wait a while until the glass casings where cleared of children. When I finally had a chance to step out on the glass casing I began to look down. 
     Maybe is was too many viewings of “Engineering Disasters” on the History Channel. Or that teenage girl who stomped on the glass casing earlier as a joke ( yeah, real funny). Or perhaps I’m just at that age where your amigdala finally matures and tells you what can get you killed. All I know is, I wasn’t convinced all that thick plexiglass and steel bolting could hold my weight (even with my backpack removed.) This survival instinct didn’t keep me from doing what I initially wanted to do, so here’s the pic:
A better compromise

     Now remember that old science fact from middle school that heat rises? well, it reminds you with a vengeance. I don’t know how the photographer and gift shop workers put up with it. The only reason anyone wants to return below is the cooler temperatures. I think it’s the greenhouse effect that the sun and windows have on the place, considering that according to the tour video, the atmosphere at that height is much colder than at ground level. Anyway, once I began to sweat, I knew it was time to go.

Hidden Pleasures of B&Bs

House of Two Urns, Chicago
     I never thought about the profound distinction of  Bed & Breakfasts from hotels/inns until I stayed in one for the first time. When given the chance, the first thing a person wants to do after a long trip is sleep. Whenever I’m in a hotel, I question the purpose of the “Do Not disturb” door hangers they give you. I swear some housekeepers ignore them and barge in anyway. If not, they’ll still wake you up with a loud rap on the door and the familiar call “Housekeeping!” If the housekeepers’ runs are limited to certain days of the week,  you’re obligated to leave your room. Otherwise you’ll never get any fresh towels or clean drinking glasses for two days.  The Bed and breakfast provides you with enough toiletries to last you until their housekeeping day. 
     If you’re staying for a week or longer, you need a place that feels like a temporary apartment. Hotels beyond three days can get really expensive, and God forbid if it doesn’t have a mini fridge. 
     Sometimes you just need a place to stay, and the rest is under your control. That what is good about bed and breakfasts: they respect that mentality. 

SkyDeck Follies (Part One)

My writing residency in Wicker Park is officially at its end and I needed to kill 3 hours before I go on my train out of chicago, which I did by catching up on an old self-promise: visiting the top of the Sears Willis Tower. My first trip to chicago with my mother was just a little too close after September 11, so mother was dead set against me going to the top of any high rise. 
Best view , 2001

However, this was 2011 now and Mom was not longer there to stop me.
     I should point out, that the sears tower was not my first visit to the top of a high-rise. Some time in 05, I did join the ranks of the empire state building, so I noticed a similar routine when other tourists and I had to journey to the top. The first stage involves rounding us up like cattle. The employees ask how many are in each respective group, in order to determine where to cut off the line. You find yourself waiting for a while because only so may people can fit in their cargo-sized elevator. Once you get onto the first elevator (yes, the first),  it flies up so many floors ( from 3 to 99) you feel like you’re on the world’s cheapest amusement park ride. Have chewing gum on you. Once your off that, your roped in again like groupies as you watch the elevator let off the next set of exiting visitors before your group can board.  By the time you’re wondering how many more elevators you have to take, an employee is there to welcome you to the top. 
     More times that not, the view is similar to what the “traffic cam” on your local news sees, but through your own eyes. It was the early afternoon, so the skyline had an orange tinge to it. 
Leave it to my 11 year old camera to filter it blue.
     Because the sun was on it’s way to setting, the clearest part of the skyline was overlooking the lake shore. As an east coaster, I was so used to the vastness of the ocean, so I found it hard to grasp the concept of any lake as “great”. When seeing lake Michigan out on the east side of the building, and no end to the coastlines at either direction, I began to understand what gave these lakes their collective name.