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Books + Hair for Black History Month

Hello Meltingpot Readers.

It’s officially the first day of February which means two very important things; 1) My birthday is only days away and 2) It’s the beginning of Black History Month. So much to celebrate in February.

Since it’s my birthday month and this is my blog, I’ve decided to celebrate two of my favorite things in honor of Black history month, books and Black hair. Think of it as a celebration and a challenge. I was partially inspired by that cute little girl, Marley Dias, tired of reading about White boys and dogs who started her own book drive to collect books with Black female protagonists. Here on MyAmericanMeltingpot I’m going to profile a book about Black hair or a book where Black hair plays a prominent role throughout February, which will be Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays in February. I did the math and that’s 13 books I’ll be writing about. Sure, Marley Dias collected 1000 books, but this is not a competition people, plus February is a super short month.

Of course the first book I’m profiling is my own, Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America, not because I think it’s the best or the most important, but because I’m in the middle of making dinner right now and my chili is about to boil over, so I have to be quick. (Ms. Meltingpot has to multitask, you know.)

So, without further ado, I present Hair Story, still the only book on the market that tells the complete history of Black hair in American popular culture from 15th century Africa to 2014. We cover the politics, economics and culture of Black hair, from the Civil Rights movement to the Natural Hair movement. It’s a great read for ages 13 – 103.

The Updated & Revised Hair Story

The Updated & Revised Hair Story

Keep in mind that the books I will be profiling won’t all be nonfiction tomes, nor will they only be for adults. In true Meltingpot fashion, I’ll be bringing you an eclectic mix of tonsorial tomes that celebrate, titillate and /or investigate the beauty of Black hair.

Peace + Hair Grease!

Dear Black People: An Open Letter to the Black Families on Philly’s Main Line

Dear Black People on the Main Line,

#Warning This story may break your heart, or harden it.

#Warning This story may break your heart, or harden it.

No, not all the Black people. I’m sure some of you are super happy there and if you are, please feel free to completely disregard everything I’m about to say. I’m actually talking to the Friday family that was profiled in the depressing and disheartening story in the December issue of Philadelphia magazine, titled “Racial Profiling on the Main Line.” And while this letter was inspired by the Fridays, I know there are other families like them dealing with the same, ugly, race-based incidents and I hope they heed my advice. And that advice is, MOVE! FOR THE SAKE OF YOUR CHILDREN, PACK YOUR BAGS AND GET THE HELL OUT OF DODGE.

Dear Black people, you’ve been misled. You’ve drunk the Kool-Aid labeled American Dream and forgot to read the ingredients list. Just because you can afford a “million-dollar house” in the tony suburbs of Philadelphia where African-Americans make up less than four percent of the population, doesn’t mean you should move there, especially if you have children. And really, it’s the children I care about. Quite frankly, Black people, if you are a full-grown adult and you don’t mind being subjected to racist slights on a regular basis, like the chef profiled in the story who admitted he was stopped at least once a month on the Main Line for driving while Black, then that is your prerogative. But, if on the other hand, you are trying to raise happy and healthy children and you subject them to not only the same type of racist slights by neighbors and police, but also an environment that does not offer any positive reflections of Black life and culture, then we have a problem.

I know, I know, dear Black people, you only did it for the top-notch schools offered there in Lower Merion. They’re just so off-the charts amazing you decided it was worth it to sacrifice your children’s mental health, racial identity and self-esteem. Because when I read in the article that one of your sons was allegedly called a “black ass” by a teacher, that kids regularly taunted your kids with the N-word, that in school they are laughed at and made fun of because they’re Black and even that they get teased for eating fried chicken in the lunch room, I consider that abuse, plain and simple. Systematic and continuous abuse. And then I wonder, even if the school that these two boys were attending was the Harvard of middle schools, how much quality education could they actually be receiving if everyone from their classmates to their teachers were abusing them? If they were spending the better part of the school day trying their best to be invisible? The last time I checked, stress, abuse and low-teacher expectations had a negative impact on learning.

Now, before anyone says, ‘but Ms. Meltingpot, why should the Black people have to move? They didn’t do anything wrong. They have every right to live wherever they want. It’s 2015 for goodness sake.’ I have an answer to that line of reasoning. The beautiful thing about it being 2015 and Black people having the right to live wherever they want is just that. We do have the right and the choice to live wherever we want and thank goodness, there are choices. Lots of choices, in fact. In Philadelphia, if folks want suburban living, a big, fancy house and more diversity than the Main Line, there are options like Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill. These neighborhoods boast gorgeous real estate options with the benefit of a more diverse population. The public schools in these neighborhoods aren’t as good as those on the Main Line, but with the money one would be saving on taxes by living in the city of Philadelphia as opposed to the suburbs, parents could afford a decent private school. But let’s go back to that ‘its for the education excuse.’ You can’t convince me that you’re only staying on the Main Line for the sake of your kids’ education if that education is sullied by daily racist abuse. (see that argument above.) It sounds like you’re staying because of that Kool-Aid problem I mentioned before. Perhaps, dear Black people, you like the status of your big house. Maybe you think it says you’ve arrived because you have a zip code that indicates you have more money than other people. But really, what that house represents is that you’ve chosen status and the false promise of a quality education over the reality that racist wankers can and will ruin your children for life.

Which brings me to my next point; the racist wankers that inhabit the Main Line. Please note, I am not suggesting that everyone who lives on the Main Line is a racist or a wanker. Not at all. I’m simply saying that based on the Philadelphia Magazine story and anecdotal evidence I’ve heard over the years, there is a significant number of racist wankers on the Main Line and they are not moving. Nor do they seem to be interested in becoming less racist or less wanker-ish. As evidenced by what happened when the leaders of a White progressive church on the Main Line posted a Black Lives Matter banner on their church and were met with such condemnation and vitriol from the community, as well as from White supremacist groups nationwide, that church leaders feared for their safety. Now, one could argue that families like the Fridays should stay and fight the racists, but I say, why? One Black family staying put in their pretty house is not going to change anybody’s racist ideals. On the other hand, one Black family who takes their two children to a neighborhood where they don’t have to fear for their lives when they ride their bicycles around the block and where they will have a chance to interact with other people of color could in fact change two lives for the better. And dear Black people, those are the lives you need to be worrying about, your children’s.

What’s more, in one point in the article, the writer details a moment when Mrs. Friday stormed into school and demanded change after yet another troubling racist incident directed at her child happened. Of course, nothing changed. Imagine if Mrs. Friday took her energy and resources to a public school with a little less money and slightly lower test scores, where the complexion of the population looked more like hers. Imagine the change she could engender there, not just as a change agent, but as a role model. Imagine if Black people like the Fridays, instead of trying to integrate a hostile and unwelcoming White community, instead put their energies into empowering the Black and brown community? At the end of the day, it’s simply not Black people’s job to sacrifice their children so that White people might learn to appreciate diversity.

This letter is getting really long, so I’m going to end it here with a final thought. I know there is no magical Black village where everything is perfect. But I also know that for too long Black people have longed to move on up to that deluxe apartment in the sky, without taking stock of the sacrifices such a move requires of the children involved. Nor do they appreciate how significant going to a school where the color of your skin doesn’t make you a target for ridicule and abuse. Attending a school that doesn’t have manicured soccer fields or a girls lacrosse team isn’t going to destroy a life. What will destroy a life however, is being told on a regular basis that you don’t matter and that you are inferior because you are Black. Dear Black people, where you live matters. Where you send your kid to school matters. If you have a choice, exercise it and choose a neighborhood and a school where your children will learn in both actions and words that indeed, Black Lives Matter.

Sincerely,

Ms. Meltingpot

Five Radical Ways to Put the Black in Black Friday

Hello Meltingpot Readers,

Artwork by Ernest E. Varner

Artwork by Ernest E. Varner

I’m sure many of you are getting ready for the holiday season, checking those turkey recipes, getting your cornucopia table decorations ready, yes, all the fun stuff that makes Turkey Day so very yummy and fun. But have you noticed that every year Thanksgiving seems less important while Black Friday gains in popularity. It’s like the only reason we’re feasting is to power up to shop on Black Friday. While I’m sure the spirits of Thanksgiving past are rattling their chains over this unfortunate turn of events, I’ve decided to embrace the fact that all of America is excited about anything with the word black in it. And on that note, I’ve come up with five radical ways to really put the Black into Black Friday. Try one or try them all, but just remember to do Black responsibly.

1. Buy Black. If you’re going to get up at the crack of dawn and spend all of your hard-earned money on consumer goods you may or may not need, why not buy stuff from Black-owned businesses? Then your Black Friday is like Black squared. And that’s cool. And luckily, other people had this idea way before I did and have already put together a list of Black-owned businesses to patronize on this special day.

2. Buy a book by a Black author. The #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement is all about the publishing industry’s lack of support of authors of color. Well, while you wait for mainstream publishers to get it together and start publishing a slew of books by Black authors, just go buy a bunch that already exist. And trust, there are a lot of books by Black authors on the shelves of your average Barnes and Noble. Books for kids, adults and teens. Yes, Virginia, there are books written by Black people out there and you should buy some on Black Friday. You should read them too.

3. Put a #BlackLivesMatter sign in your front yard. Think of this as your decoration for Black Friday, like a Black Friday Christmas Tree, but without the messy needles to clean up later. Alternately, get a #BlackLivesMatter tattoo on your arm.

4. Capitalize the B all day long whenever you write something about Black people. If you are a journalist, you will really piss off the copy editors at your job, but that’s what makes this so revolutionary. It’s Black Friday, yo! You can also zip on over to change.org and sign my petition that’s still up asking The New York Times and The Associated Press to change their policy on keeping Black people in the lower case. Just recently Colorlines walked away from using AP style and decided to start capitalizing the B so there’s proof that these little radical acts can make a difference.

5. Binge watch as many Spike Lee movies as you can, then go outside and yell, “Wake up” as loud as you can. On Saturday morning see if you feel any different. Act as if everyday is Black Friday.

Happy Black Friday, people!

#TeamLightSkin vs #TeamDarkSkin Take it to the Beach

Hello Meltingpot Readers,

My thoughts exactly.

My thoughts exactly.

If you’re regulars here, then you know I’m working on a book called Same Family, Different Colors that explores colorism in the United States. I’ve been working on the book for quite a while now, and have been completely immersed in the world of colorism, so much so, I didn’t think anything could shock me when it came to color-based discrimination. But I was wrong.

A colleague told me today about a case of the color wars that had me shaking my head and sucking my teeth. For real. Not only was I shocked by what he told me, I was shocked that the incident hadn’t come up in all of my research for this book. I guess my Google alert doesn’t capture all.

In a nutshell, the popular African-American radio host, Tom Joyner hosted a Caribbean cruise this past spring where one of the planned events was a massive water gun fight where guests were split into two teams. Yep, you guessed it, TeamLightSkin vs TeamDarkSkin. For the record, TeamLightSkin won. What was most shocking about this color based competition is that it wasn’t the first time it was held. Apparently Joyner has some sort of TeamLightSkin vs TeamDarkSkin battle every year on the cruise. Reportedly, this is his way to make light of a very dark situation. (Puns intended.) I guess he’s trying to normalize the conflict between African-Americans on either end of the color spectrum by openly pitting the two extremes against each other.

I’m not sure I believe in this type of healing. When you consider the ubiquity of social media, where images are shared without context, one could easily assume that Joyner, who is himself melanin challenged, was simply fanning the flames of conflict between these two groups. So, despite his good intentions, if I were him, I might rethink this act of subversive, reverse psychology. Instead, I’d retire the TeamLightSkin vs TeamDarkSkin labeling and instead support TeamAllShadesofBlack.

What do you think dear readers? Is Joyner doing the right thing with these annual battles? If the people participating on these cruises don’t mind, should I? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Peace!

Free Black Man in France: James Hemings Makes His Culinary Mark in History

Hello Meltingpot Readers,

A portrait of James Hemings.

A portrait of James Hemings.

I had one of those driveway moments the other day when I heard this story on NPR. It’s about Thomas Jefferson’s enslaved chef, James Hemings, yes, the brother of Sally Hemings. James was apparently quite the culinary genius, so much so, that when Jefferson traveled to Paris for a five-year stay, he took James with him so he could learn the art of French cuisine. While there, James lived as a free man, indeed learned the secrets of French cooking and considered a bid for freedom. Check out the story on the NPR site and then tell me if you’re not moved.

I’m so happy people are taking the time to tell individual stories about Black people in antebellum America. This is how we restore our humanity and this is how we encourage young people of all colors to recognize the true diversity of the Black experience in America. For example, by sharing James Hemings’ story, folks realize that our culinary legacy reaches beyond the limited notions of Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben. No disrespect to Jemima and Ben, of course, because their contributions to our cultural heritage are significant and dear, but it is high time we expanded the notion of what Black people were doing in America’s kitchens before (and after) the Emancipation Proclamation besides stirring up pots of soul food.

Mind you, I love soul food in all its juicy pork goodness, but I also know that Black chefs weren’t cooking soul food for their masters. How do I know this, because I read and because it doesn’t make sense that White masters were eating slave food. They were eating the delicious creations that their talented, enslaved chefs learned how to make using the fresh, expensive ingredients in the master’s kitchen. Hello, James Hemings! Here’s another NPR story that will continue this argument, because I have to go make lunch. I’m hungry after writing this post.

I bet you are too. You’re welcome.

Peace!

Enjoy!

Is Private School “America’s Promise?”

Hello Meltingpot Readers,

I’m only about one year late on this, but I just watched the documentary American Promise last night. (Thank you, Netflix!). While I enjoyed watching the film immensely, I’m left with a bad taste in my mouth. For those of you who haven’t heard about this powerful documentary, in a nutshell, a Black couple decided to film their son’s education from kindergarten through twelfth grade. Think of it as one long, endless reality show, but with a point. What that point was exactly, I’m not sure.

I don’t know anything about the filmmakers Joe Brewster and Michéle Stephenson, except what’s presented in the film, and what’s presented is that they made the decision to send their son Idris to one of Manhattan’s most prestigious private schools in Manhattan, The Dalton School. Idris’ best friend Seun, also Black, was also accepted to Dalton and so the film begins as the two youngsters embark on an elite private school education. I don’t know what inspired Brewster and Stephenson to turn a camera on their son and his friend, but it was a fascinating journey to watch. Why? Because real life is fascinating, especially when you can condense 13 years into two hours. Check the trailer:

So, yes this film was riveting. I laughed, I cried, I stayed up way past my bedtime to see what was going to happen to these two Black boys dropped into a mostly White, extremely wealthy environment. And what happened was, both boys failed to thrive at Dalton. And while Seun’s parents ultimately chose to take him out of Dalton and place him in an Afrocentric public school, Idris’ parents – Brewster and Stephenson – kept him there and all I could think was, WHY? It looked to me like Idris was having a miserable time at school once he got past the fifth grade and the academics started getting really hard. And his parents seemed miserable too, trying to keep up with their son’s homework and schedule, always pushing him to do better and always worrying that perhaps Idris was being unfairly evaluated because of his race. I kept waiting for them to have their V8 moment and realize that they were all killing themselves for a prize that’s not guaranteed.

SPOILER ALERT: At the end of the film, we find out that Idris was not accepted into any of the prestigious colleges he applied to. It was a huge disappointment to his parents and us, the viewing public who bought into the idea that all of the sacrifices Brewster and Stephenson were making and Idris was enduring, would be worth a golden ticket to Stanford. But it wasn’t. And you have to wonder, at least I wonder, was it all worth it? Personally, I don’t think so. I think Idris could have gone to a less prestigious, less White school, gotten a great education, perhaps enjoyed his childhood a little more, felt less alienated as a Black person and still gotten into a good university.

So, I’m left wondering when private school at an elitist institution became America’s promise? Why are parents, of any race or ethnicity, willing to sacrifice so much to send their children to institutions of such academic rigor and soul-crushing workloads? What’s the trophy they’re hoping to collect? I wonder if people spent half the amount of time and money they spend on private school tuition and all of its associated extras on supporting public education, community institutions and simply spending quality time with their children, where we’d be as a country? Personally, I just pulled my two older boys out of private school. Not only is my bank account a thousand times happier, but my boys are too as they have a far more diverse student body to be a part of, more eclectic courses to choose from and quite frankly, a more realistic perspective of the current state of world affairs. And I’m confident both of my boys will be going to top-ranked colleges when they graduate because the academics are also really rigorous. And if they don’t, they’ll go to a second-tier rated college and still be fine.

Check back in four years and I’ll let you know how things worked out for son #1. Sadly, I don’t have a camera charting his progress.

So, dear readers. Have any of you seen American Promise? What did you think? I would really love to hear other people’s opinions.

Peace!

Passing While Black: Black Man Becomes the Indian Liberace?!

Hi Meltingpot Readers,

panditLast week The New Republic posted this fascinating story about the famous Indian singer Korla Pandit. Known as the “Godfather of Exotica,” he had his own TV show that ran in the 1950s and had an impressive recording career as well. He was rich, married –to a White woman – and accepted in Hollywood as, well, an acceptable exotic. The only thing was, Korla wasn’t what he seemed.

From the New Republic:

Like most everything in Hollywood, it was all smoke and mirrors. His charade wasn’t his stage name—it was his race. Korla Pandit, born John Roland Redd, was a light-skinned black man from St. Louis, Missouri. It was a secret he kept until the day he died.”

So, how did he do it dear readers? How did a Black man from Missouri become The Godfather of Exotica? By playing off the cultural ignorance of the American people, of course. All John Roland Redd had to do was slap on a turban and voila, instant Indian. He also invented a fantastic back story and liked to talk about spirituality and peace. What’s not to love? Considering the fact that there are a grotesque amount of Americans who still believe our president is a Muslim simply because of his name, it really can’t be too hard to fool us as a people. We’ll believe anything if it feeds into cultural stereotypes. The truth is, Redd’s whole act was one big stereotype, including the turban with the shiny gem he always wore. He claimed to be a Hindu, but Hindu’s don’t even wear turbans, that’s a Sikh custom. But why quibble with details, America?

It really is a fascinating story, especially considering how bold Redd was with his deceit. He wasn’t going to quietly pass, he wanted a big life as a musician and this ethnic farce was his way to get it and apparently he played it out until the end. I wonder if he was giving the finger to the world when he drew his last breath? Like, “Suckers, I Got Over!”

There is a new documentary about Korla Pandit, called Korla that I cannot wait to see. I love stories like these because they completely fly in the face of the idea that Black people had no agency in their ability to “beat the system,” plus it is another example of how fluid identity is, largely based on skin color and hair texture. Apparently Redd’s hair was shiny, black and straight. Do you think he could have pulled this off if he had kinky hair and skin a bit darker? Oh, the possibilities.

So, dear readers, what do you think of Korla Pandit? Do you think Black people knew his secret? Apparently he got itchy around other Indians because clearly they’d be able to smell his lies. Will you be watching the film? Check the trailer and I’ll bet you’ll want to. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Peace!

ICYMI: “100 Men of Color Greeted Kids on Their First Day of School”

Hello Meltingpot Readers,

The Meltingpot is now dedicated to promoting what I love. Stay tuned.

The Meltingpot is now dedicated to promoting what I love. Stay tuned.

This morning I posted the following quote by David Wolfe on my Facebook page, “Promote what you love instead of bashing what you hate.” Ironic because I fell asleep last night wondering if focusing on the positive and the good could be the antidote to the horror unfolding daily in this world. I get exhausted just thinking about working to undo the damage being done by racist politicians, hyper-violent cops, the NRA, and countless other “evil doers” in our midst. But I have to do something. I have the platform of this blog and my books and my voice and I really cannot sit by and wait for change to just come.

But my puny efforts to take down the evil would be like a hummingbird’s futile peck at a stone wall. So, I will not try to destroy the wall, rather I will plant seeds all around it, seeds of love, laughter, and light and hope that they will grow strong and fragrant all over the wall, until that wall is covered with the flowers of my efforts.

So, with that, I give you a fabulous story to inspire – and provide another example of folks sparking change with positive intentions – about a group of Black men who showed up on the first day of school to welcome the kids with a handshake and a high-five. It’s a sweet little piece and it appears on a fabulous (relatively) new website that’s all about promoting positive journalism. It’s called A Plus.com. Imagine if the mainstream media spent more time highlighting positive news stories. Would that make a difference in this world? I think so. Check out A Plus and let me know what you think (FYI, A Plus was co-founded by the actor, Ashton Kutcher.) Do you have any positive news websites that you enjoy? Don’t keep it to yourself, share in the comments, please. And then, enjoy my favorite song from Will. i. am that perfectly captures my mood after writing this post.

Peace!