Thursday, November 19, 2009

Quick Hit -- The Ghastly, Golden Ticket

So, Burr Oak Cemetery has reopened but only on a very limited basis. I wrote about Burr Oak in July, shortly after the grave reselling scandal broke. I compartmentalized the pain of this scandal, putting it in a little box where I wouldn't have to deal with it until any new developments occurred.

Well, that time is now. The cemetery has reopened on a limited basis, and for admittance, you have to visit their website, type in your dear, departed loved ones' name and print out the information, which includes a picture of the grave and a map to its location.

I did as instructed. Went to the website and started the long process of typing in relatives' names. My Mother, my maternal and paternal grandmothers, my great-grandmother, my great-great grandmother, both of my World War I Veteran uncles, and at least a half-dozen other assorted aunts, uncles and cousins until I just got tired. I printed out all those "tickets" and then, call it my old, newsroom gallows humor, I started humming.

"I've got a golden ticket, I've got a golden chance to make my way..."

Charlie's theme song from "Willy Wonka" spilled into my head. Because, frankly, it seems just a little bit nutty that you have to have a special "ticket" to be admitted to a cemetery where you paid for your loved ones to be buried.

Not only that, you can't drive through the cemetery to the gravesite anymore. You have to go to a transportation site and be bussed there. It all seems a little excessive but considering the extreme level of disrepair, poor record-keeping and overall disorganization, I understand why the safeguards are in place now. I understand that there are improvements to the grounds and that new signage has been erected to make it easier to find gravesites. Sounds lovely.

I originally made plans to go out there today, first day of the reopening, but ultimately decided against it. I think working in media for so long has made me leery of any whiff of public spectacle. I was worried sick for months about the condition of my family members' graves. I'm glad that, with the notable exception of my paternal great-grandfather, my relatives seem to be accounted for.

I'd like to go and see for myself. But I don't want cameras in my face when I do it. I'd like to have a quiet moment out there to examine, reflect, pay my respects -- think...without the spectacle of a prurient public story.

Honestly, I'd like to have the freedom to visit Burr Oak without having to produce a "ticket" -- a ghastly, golden ticket -- for admittance.

Sadly, there will always be a taint over this historic graveyard. Whether it's because of the media attention or the numerous lawsuits, I'm glad that it appears steps are being taken to implement the accountability at this institution that should have been in place years ago. But Burr Oak will never be an easy, or particularly peaceful place to visit -- with or without a "golden ticket" for admittance.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Lay My Burden Down -- Remembering Michael W. Scott

I'm devastated by the apparent suicide of Chicago Public Schools Board President Michael W. Scott.

I knew Mike Scott dating back to the time I was a reporter, and as public figures connected to the city of Chicago go, he was one of my favorites. Let's just get this out of the way: He was fine as wine! A proud son of the West Side, he was always sharp -- always clean. You tend to see and talk to the same people at the same civic events here and it gets tiresome. But I always enjoyed seeing Mike Scott at events and waiting for my hug, peck on the cheek and small talk. I remember always complimenting him on the fact that he always smelled really good.

In short, he was a brother who made an indelible impression. In manner, in word and in deed he was well-liked and well-respected. He seemed to handle the thankless pressure of the school board and all its problems with grace and humor and always seemed passionate and engaged in the monumental effort of making the community better and safer for the youth.

The polished public persona doesn't square with the man who was pulled from the Chicago River with a self-inflicted bullet to the temple. It's what has led public officials all day to express shock and disbelief at his passing.

And while I'm deeply saddened by the course of events, I can't say that I'm shocked. As someone who has previously struggled with and been treated for clinical depression, I know firsthand how good we are -- Black folks in general and Black professionals specifically -- at masking pain. I know how good we are at "presenting" well in public -- white-knuckling through the day, mustering up every bit of energy to function at a very high level, excelling at every task we're presented with -- and then falling apart in private.

I don't know if Mike Scott was clinically depressed or not, but I do know that high-functioning depressed people tend to carry a greater amount of shame and are harder on themselves for being unable to "get it together". It's hard to tell someone you want to kill yourself and have them believe you when they envy you and think you have it all.

But Mike Scott's death is a salient reminder of the danger of unexpressed pain.

Black women will reach out for help -- whether informally through friends, or professionals, or both. Black men don't. They kill themselves.

Black men are seven times more likely to kill themselves than Black women according to the American Association of Suicidology. The suicide rate among Black men doubled between 1980 and 1995 to about eight deaths per 100,000 people, making it the third leading cause of death among Black men. And while the rate has skyrocketed among Black males between 15-19, as the Scott case illusrates, it cuts across all age groups of Black men.

This phenomenon is what led my former colleague Amy Alexander to write, with Dr. Alvin Pouissant, the outstanding "Lay My Burden Down: Suicide and the Mental Health Crisis Among African-Americans". "Lay My Burden Down" is a groundbreaking examination of the uncomfortable, too often unspoken issue of suicide in the Black community. Amy was inspired to explore the topic because of her own brother's suicide in 1979. Sadly, three decades after her brother's death we still have accomplished Black men like Michael Scott so despondent and experiencing pain so unspeakable that they take their own lives.

As a community we are still loathe to publicly tackle mental health issues, particularly ones that can code as chronic, like depression. We have yet to unpack the stigma attached to seeking help for mental health issues. Add to that the complicated history and baggage of Black masculinity and the unwillingness to relinquish "strength" (real or perceived) in favor of seeking help, and you see Black men like Mike taking their lives.

Chicago media will be relentless in uncovering the backstory that led to Mike Scott's suicide. Whatever the outcome, it's going to be ugly for his family and ultimately for his legacy. We may never know exactly what led this proud, educated, accomplished, able Black man to the edge of the Chicago River in the wee hours of the morning to take his own life.

But I hope it's a wake-up call to all of us to push past the well-presented packages of the people in our lives and pay closer attention -- even when things seem "all good." It could easily mean the difference between life and death.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Why I Hated Precious...

Saw an old friend from the neighborhood who I hadn't seen in a long time when I was leaving the theater from seeing Precious. Normally, I would have rushed over and hugged her and caught up some, but I was in a bit of a fog. I got myself together enough to speak properly but apparently I was still mumbling to myself and shaking my head.

She asked, with wide eyes, whether I'd just come from Precious. I told her yes.

"So?" she asked, with anticipation. "How was it?"

"Horrifying." I said, reflexively.

I thought a little longer. Coming to the same conclusion I said, again: "Horrifying."

We exchanged a little more small talk that I can't honestly remember because I was still stuck on what I'd just seen.

I should be clear: When I say that Precious was horrifying, I don't mean it in a "Wow, kudos to Sapphire/Lee Daniels/Oprah/Tyler Perry because they just outdid themselves" and got me wanting to testify about it kind-of-way. No.

I mean, I am horrified that I spent an hour and 49 minutes watching a horrifying display of pathology on parade, and that it was Black folks themselves -- director Lee Daniels and "executive producers" Oprah and Tyler Perry -- who led me there.

Make no mistake -- Lee Daniels is a pathology pimp. Plain and simple. He's not the first. Some of our most prolific movie directors (Scorcese comes to mind...) are pathology pimps. Pathos tells good stories and, often, creates great, watchable art. But, see, this is my problem with Lee Daniels. He's a pathology pimp and he's not even good at it. His work, ultimately, is not art. It is raw, unchecked, internalized oppression that he is peddling as "important" stories about Black folk that "need" to be told.

There are elements of Precious, of course, that are real. In this country and around the world there are Black girls like Precious -- morbidly obese, abused, victims of incest, illiterate, HIV-positive, etc. There are women in my family who, in one aspect or another, have been subjected to the same atrocities as Precious.

But, really, tell me something I don't know. I live in Chicago. All I have to do is watch the news, read the paper or visit my proverbial cousins "Pookie an' 'nem" to know that there are elements of Precious that exist. One look at the health, socio-economic and class status of many African-Americans is proof of that.

But Precious is the kind of movie that will always resonate with white folks, especially white film critics like Roger Ebert and the film festival crowd who have raved about it. Because, in the end, they want to believe we're "strong" enough to transcend the most horrific of circumstances like Precious, and that on some level they played some part in the triumph. Just look at the casting. Daniels has been lauded as a genius for his quirky casting choices in Precious, and yet the overt colorism only adds to what makes this movie ultimately unwatchable for me. The only people who showed Precious any kindness, any cover, any hope -- Paula Patton, Mariah Carey, Lenny Kravitz -- are all light-skinned. The din of depravity she suffers her entire life, of course, comes at the hands of dark-skinned Blacks. Hmmm....

For me? Precious, and frankly, the book it's based on ("Push" by Sapphire) -- is so over the top that all it did was piss me off. It codes as overtly racist fantasy, or the figment of a liberal's imagination about what Black life must be like. Because who hasn't seen a Black girl like Precious running down the street with a bucket of fried chicken she's just stolen? I was haunted for days thinking of that scene -- and yet, didn't Soledad O'Brien profile a Black girl from New York who claimed to be addicted to fried chicken in CNN's "Black in America 2" over the summer? THIS summer, in 2009?

It has taken me a week to process the depth of my disgust with this film. In the end, I'm sick to death of Black pathos being exploited as art. I can't celebrate Precious or laud the writer or the producers as visionary, because they're not. I can't laud a director like Lee Daniels who has hustled Black pathology into his meal ticket and has fooled white folks and Black folk who lack critical thinking skills alike into thinking he's doing something important. Did Lee Daniels passing off Halle Berry's pornographic tryst with a racist Billy Bob Thornton character in Monster's Ball teach us nothing?

Lee Daniels has said that he wanted Precious to create a "dialogue". He said that he would never look at a fat, Black girl the same way again. Well, maybe it was that transformative for him, but clearly not for everyone. In three separate incidents in Chicago since this film has been released, I've heard Black males referring to obese Black women as "Precious". Laughing, sneering. Derisive. Overall, I think that's all this movie will do -- further exacerbate the extent to which white folks, and black folks themselves, view girls and situations like this as caricatures to be either pitied or ridiculed.

I might be the only sister to say this aloud but, frankly, I don't want to see Mo'Nique nominated or possibly win an Oscar for playing this monster of a Black mother in Precious. I don't. I don't want a fictional Black mother who made her own daughter perform oral sex on her to win an Academy Award. I don't want to see Gabby Sidibe nominated for an Oscar for this exaggerated role. I'm saying it. I don't want to see it. Why is Black incest so titillating to Hollywood? I remember being so excited to see Delroy Lindo and Erykah Badu in The Cider House Rules, and then being so disappointed and disgusted because they played a dysfunctional, incestuous father and daughter. (You'll recall that the Erykah Badu character ends up killing her father who, like Precious' father, has impregnated her twice...)

I've had it. Black pathos exists. We know this intimately. But it's overrepresented everywhere, from the movies to the nightly news.

My hope is for us to stop believing the hype of pathology pimps like Lee Daniels -- and Oprah and Tyler Perry. What they are selling is neither hope nor hopeful. It is nothing less than destructive to our community and our culture.

Still shaken,