“I’ve Become A Cookie Monster”

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A generation ago children across the US were introduced to the magic of “Sesame Street” and an array of delightful characters both human and puppets. Master puppeteer Jim Henson created what he called “Muppets”—combination monsters and puppets to entertain us all. One such Muppet was a shaggy, furry blue puppet known as the “Cookie Monster.” At the mere mention of the word, “cookie” Cookie Monster would go crazy. He stuffed his face with cookies and could never seem to get enough of them. He would do anything for cookies. Well, I fear I have become a Cookie Monster.
However, the Cookie that has me crazy is the character that Taraji P. Henson plays on Lee Daniels breakout television hit, “Empire.” This ghetto fabulous woman is my alter ego and, truth be told the alter ego of a lot of us Sistas who are constrained by the politics of respectability. Below are some reasons I (and a lot of my friends) love Cookie:
1. She’s smart – Cookie understands the music and entertainment business; she understands economics; she understands the streets; and she understands people. People only underestimate her intelligence ONE time.
2. She’s good at what she does – Despite a 17 year absence (for a stint in prison) she still knows the business and she knows it well enough for her ex-husband to realize it is better to have her on his team than on the team of an opponent.
3. She has her own sense of style – Unlike the muted grays and soft cream colors of Olivia Pope, Cookie is all about the animal print. She rocks snakeskin, leopard skin, zebra print…you name it. She wears it, has it hanging in her apartment, and anywhere else she is. The outrageousness of her style is an exercise of power. It’s telling the world, “I’m Cookie…You better ask somebody!”
4. She’s a Tiger Mama – Despite her harsh exterior Cookie LOVES her children and will turn the world upside down to ensure that they get what is rightfully theirs. She’s not afraid to get up in their faces but she’s not the least bit shy about saying, “I love you” to 3 grown men.
5. She’s loyal – Seventeen years of hard time has not allowed Cookie to forget who has been on her side and she is committed to staying on their side. How else can you get someone you haven’t seen in almost 2 decades to shoot up someone you suspect has it in for you?
6. She’s complex – This character is not just some loud, obnoxious ghetto girl. She has dreams and visions. She was the brains behind the empire and she knows it. She wants to hate her ex husband but she understand the bonds of love, marriage, and family run deep and no matter what has transpired, it’s just not that easy to walk away from some things and some people.
7. She knows how to make an entrance – Only Cookie comes in to the boardroom with wide brimmed, 70s style disco hats and 9-inch heels. Like her or not, you do have to notice her.
8. She knows how to make an exit – Oh my, in the last episode where she was sorely disappointed about hearing the news of Lucious’ impending marriage to Anika, Cookie showed her vulnerability by letting everyone in the room know she came prepared to get busy with her ex as she opened her coat and exposed the fact she was wearing a sexy piece of lingerie. Any other character would then dissolve into a puddle of tears and humiliation. But, Cookie turned around, displayed her generous and nicely maintained backside and let her rival know what time it really was. (cue: Elvis has left the building).
9. She’s fearless without being stupid – Cookie is no daredevil. She’s not looking for trouble. But she’s not one to cut and run. She let the federal prosecutor know that by forcing her to testify before the grand jury she was one, “Dead B- walking!” But knowing this did not have her cowering in fear…she began initiating plans to deal with impending danger.
10. She’s just BadA$$– This is the woman many Black women have lurking deep inside of us. We want to mean what we say and say what we mean. We want to be unapologetically Black without being a caricature, stereotype, or less than feminine. We want to control our sexuality without being turned into sex objects. We want to be able to rock a name like “Cookie” whether we are 14 or 44.
11.
I am loving all things Cookie and am not ashamed to tell folks, “I am a Cookie Monster! You better ask somebody!”

Stay Black & Smart!

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“When The Funk Leaves Uptown”

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I love Bruno Mars. He is both a wonderful singer and entertainer. In the 2014 Super Bowl, his halftime show was the one thing that held my attention. Bruno Mars has incorporated the best of Michael Jackson, James Brown, and Prince to bring his brand of neo-funk to the party. Today, his hit song, “Uptown Funk” has become an earworm for me. I can’t get it out of my head and find myself constantly humming, “Don’t believe me just watch!” But this blog is not about Bruno Mars. It’s about what happens when the funk leaves uptown.
Because of my work I am constantly traveling and I can see the way developers, investors, and hipsters are taking over the cities, communities, and neighborhoods that were once iconic Black spaces to create upscale, exorbitantly expensive neighborhoods that displace the people whose blood, sweat, and tears created those communities. I predicted and then witnessed what happened in post-Katrina New Orleans. Instead of the funky, very African place we’ve known as the Crescent City, we now have an expensive, lower density city that is clearly “less Black” than its pre-Katrina days. Its schools are run by and filled with White administrators and teachers (since all of the Black pre-Katrina teachers were fired).
But, it’s not just New Orleans that we could argue was changed by special circumstances. The District of Columbia is no longer truly “Chocolate City.” What was once a city with an almost 70% Black population now has a Black population that has slipped below 50%. It is also an extremely expensive city in which to live so fewer Black families will be moving to it.
And, have you seen what has happened to Harlem? Once the mecca of Black life and culture, Harlem, NY is fully 30% White. The rents and property costs are through the roof and the ability to maintain it as a mixed income community is slipping away. Last summer I was there for a meeting, had dinner at the “hot” Red Rooster Restaurant and could not get over how many White people were in the restaurant, strolling along the sidewalk, and lined up outside the Apollo Theater at almost 10 o’clock at night. The Funk was definitely leaving uptown!
The latest casualty of the evacuation of funk is the Motor City. Detroit was a city in crisis. It was one the largest municipalities to ever fall into bankruptcy. Because of all of its problems—crime, failing schools, unemployment, drugs, and corrupt city government—Detroit was losing population faster than any other city. Today, however, groups of White investors are swarming into Detroit and snatching up cheap properties. There is a new vision of Detroit as the Midwest Silicon Valley. There are a number of “art” colonies springing up in the city and those artists are mostly young, White middle class folks. The funk is leaving Motown!
Even in the small, formerly almost all Black East Palo Alto, CA (EPA) we can see the way powerful interests remove those who “stand in their way.” Today EPA is home to an Ikea store, a Best Buy, a Home Depot, and a Four Seasons Hotel. But, many of the Black families that once lived there have migrated across the San Francisco Bay to places like Hayward, San Leandro, and Union City.
This pattern of displacement and gentrification is not a new one. Black people have always been disposable in the plans of the powerful. And, no one seems to care that the character of Black neighborhoods and communities are radically changing to suit the desires of the elite. It seems that no one cares that the funk is leaving uptown!

Stay Black & Smart!

“When You Stop Waiting For Them To Give You Something”

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When I began as a young academic I worked day and night to get the rewards of “the system.” I wanted my work to be published in the “best” journals and with the “best” publishers. As this began to happen I wanted my work and efforts to be acknowledged by the receipt of certain honors and awards. And, to be honest I have received my fair share of those. However, I noticed that some of my White colleagues who, in my opinion, had not worked nearly as long and hard or produced work that had equal impact as mine were receiving honors and accolades. At one point I was grumbling about this seeming inequity and my (now deceased) father casually remarked, “You need to quit expecting White folks to give you anything!” At first I was taken aback by his statement. “But…but, I’m not,” I countered. “Yes you are,” he said. “Some White people are giving some other White people some prizes and you got your mouth all twisted up. Just do YOUR work and stop waiting for White people to give you something! It’s not going to happen…and if they do give you something it doesn’t mean nothin’ if you ain’t servin’ your own people!”

That moment with my dad reminded me of an experience I had in 11th grade. For my honors US History class I decided to do an term paper that examined the “European slave trade in African and the Americas.” I had a wonderful mentor in my church’s youth minister who had a degree in US History with a specialty in Black History. He urged me to go up to New York to the Schomburg Collection so I could access some amazing resources. On one Saturday morning I hopped on the train from Philadelphia to New York, rode the subway up to Harlem and spent the entire day sifting through a treasure trove of Black history resources. I wrote, what I considered to be, a fabulous paper that I typed and proudly turned in on the requisite due date. When my teacher (who was a White man) returned the papers, my paper was nowhere to be found. I asked about it and he snapped, “I’ve misplaced it!” When I asked if he at least had read it he said, “Yes, I gave it a ‘B’!” I was distraught—I knew that paper deserved an A. When I shared that sentiment with my mom she said, “If you know you did excellent work then don’t worry about what he thinks!” I think this experience fueled my passion for Black History and kept me teaching it throughout my career.

This brings me to what inspired today’s blog. We are now in “Awards season.” The Golden Globes, the Grammy’s, and the Academy Awards are being given and we are speculating about the winners. Already with the Golden Globes and the Grammys we have seen some disappointing results. Ava DuVernay’s moving film, “Selma” is taking a back seat to films like “American Sniper” and “Boyhood.” Singers like Beyoncé are being bypassed by Sam Smith, the new UK singing “sensation.” Last year it was Macklemore instead of Kendrick Lamar. In the case of the Academy Award nominations “Selma” received no acting or directing awards although, curiously it was nominated for “best picture” (and best song).

As the results started pouring in I was reminded that we cannot continue to expect a mainstream White audience to appreciate our art in the same ways we do. The photo of the Academy Award nominees was the whitest it’s been in 10 years (with Oprah and Common standing out like 2 little ink spots). And, no one in Hollywood is making any apologies for these slights and omissions. But, I believe that we have to move past waiting for the affirmation and validation of White America. We have to stop waiting for White people to give us anything!

Stay Black & Smart!