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Snarky’s Machine Never Comes Whack on an Old School Track (Pt 1)

April 27, 2010

Those ordinary white folks I often discuss.

The Ordinary Lightness of Being

    Every time I make mention of Redford’s Academy Award Winning film Ordinary People, which I admit is often in a snarky way, folks don’t always remember that:

  • I don’t tend critique stuff I don’t consume
  • I’ve been writing about films, pop culture and the likes way before Snarky’s Machine.
  • 1980’s Ordinary People was the first real cinematic love letter I ever received. Sent to me by the same dude (Redford) who I’d read about in all those ’70 YA fiction books and whose films provided protagonists of such books with examples of romance to cultivate and heartbreak to avoid. It is the kind of love letter you only receive at a mail box safely secured to sidewalk in a gated community, where pathos is something you have to see in a theater, because the home owner’s association expressly forbids its presence in your comfortable upper middle class community.

    I wrote that in 1998, on my very first “blog”. It was my very first entry entitled, “Dreaming of an Ordinary People”. This was before I realized nobody online would see me as “Ordinary People” (despite already having that experience in real life) or that like other upper middle class folks who might flock to cinemas to see Kubrickian visions of pathos of the “other” in films such as Full Metal Jacket, I was trying to find some kind of “meaning” via one failed artistic venture at time.

    I had tried to be a “say something” kind of artist in that way marginalized folks are often asked to be AND I FAILED. I failed because the authenticity asked of me required me to part ways with authenticity in favor of a prefab narrative, which did not speak to many of my lived experiences. Beyond notions of race/class conflation what was happening to me was something that despite growing up in a specific culture – upper middle class – knowing its customs, speaking their native tongue and wearing their uniform: I was not one of them. I was a black person, and therefore I need to concern myself with the business of being a black person, which is to say I need to talk up experiences of being poor, uncomfortable – and since I’m articulate – noble in spirit and intention.

    I don’t need to tell you how much this sucks – or maybe I do.

    Yet, even with all those beige colored rugs and attractive furnishing solutions, I was still one of those yellow-towel-on-head hair flipping black girls. Yeah, I put a yellow towel on my head and flipped it around like long hair. Why? Because that’s what I was culturally instructed to do. No, nobody came to my house with towels and an instruction kit detailing alternative uses for yellow towels, but what I saw on TV and in magazines said that I should probably get some silky blond hair quick fast and in a hurry.

    Now if this were a movie – a la Precious – someone, usually a kindly white person – might observe my towel swaying antics and thrust The Bluest Eye into my hands and we’d have ourselves some real pathos. Oh the aches and pains – Bayer can’t remedy – of black girls pulling yellow towels off their heads and finding their “truth”. That’s award caliber stuff right there.

    Fortunately, I didn’t have such a mentor (until much later) and instead had La Mommie, who mostly ignored the towel antics; the one time she did acknowledge them she said something along the lines of, “Tell me why you think the towel makes you prettier.” And honestly, that’s a far more nuanced question.

Their Eyes Were Watching Angelina

    I still didn’t get “it” until high school where I generally had thoughtful teachers, but rarely any who were truly transgressive. I recall turning in a story when I was in 8th grade – some wildly creative Miami Vice fanfic, which is pretty much ALL I was interested in crafting at age 13 – and being rewarded with a B- and a copy of There Eyes Were Watching God.

    Literary Masterpiece aside, what kind of sadist gives THIS novel to a THIRTEEN year old girl – regardless of race. While I was most certainly bright, gifted and all around awesome, I was NOT especially mature for my age, nor should that have been expected from me. I had a very comfortable, sheltered life and the expectation should have been I would have been no more advanced than any of my female classmates, who by the way, didn’t get a copy of that novel.

    That was my “Nigger Wake Up Call” as Paul Mooney would say. I got it at 13 when I should have been getting into lipgloss and WHAM. I have reflected often on that moment, seeing my heart broken by someone else’s expectations of me and finding myself STABBY with hatred at someone being so fucked up to a freaking child. That novel, which is amazing, requires some context. Not an assumption of someone’s lived experiences based on stereotypical notions of race and class.

    Over the years careful reminders of my “place” would be handed to me in the form of put upon lit classics such as Black Like Me, Beloved, The Color Purple and what must have been a response to an especially rebellious streak – Native Son. I have no beef with any of these titles; they are all extremely fine works of literature. The problem I had then and I have now is the assumption folks have that these are cultural instruction manuals for uppity folks who seem to have lost their way.

Just looking out of the window; watching the asphalt grow

    And then I found Baldwin. I found him on my own. I knew there had to be someone writing something about life that didn’t have the Huxtablian lack of balance but also didn’t have me singing about “Not getting hassled; not getting hustled”

    Giovanni’s Room was the first book I read of Baldwin’s and it felt like coming home as a writer. I was looking for literary mentors who could re-imagine words both familiar and foreign without either feeling contrived or out of place. I was looking for POC literary voices, which didn’t inadvertently find themselves framed as “universal black experiences”, therefore distasteful to me as a budding writer.

    I take real issue with folks conflating resonating with universalizing. It’s more prevalent in any area where marginalized voices have managed to carve out a space for themselves, but it’s by no means a novelty elsewhere.

    Portnoy’s Complaint is not a “universal” experience of Jewish men any more so than Zen and the Art of Motorcycles is the final word on Zen loving hippies riding motorcycles.

I could go on counting for hours, the things that I like
And because this is NOT a rant – though since I’m black I’m certain it’ll be called such, y’all need to give that rest – here’s some Ready for the World:

Snarky’s will return in The Living Daylights – and by TLD, I mean Part II of this here series…

4 Comments leave one →
  1. April 27, 2010 8:39 pm

    I found this piece incredibly powerful.

    I don’t need to tell you how much this sucks – or maybe I do.

    Unfortunately I doubt I’m the only person who sometimes needs to hear this.

  2. April 27, 2010 9:43 pm

    I love this piece. You know I wasn’t raised upper middle class, but I was raised in a middle class white family. When it was clear writing was something I was good at, my family encouraged me to write anything, and most of what I wrote was fiction and not particularly related to my lived experience as a biracial child raised in a while family but seen as black to 99% of her schoolmates. I went through school writing fanciful stories and generally being creative. It was when I came upon the zine community that I realized I wasn’t going to get noticed being a black girl writing about living in futuristic treetop mushroom shaped houses, but if I started talking politics, I was a darling. And here I am. I never write fiction any more, which is kind of sad to me. But I am good at writing about politics and I do love it, it’s just sometimes I feel like that’s the only thing people want to hear out of me. Doing I Fry Mine in Butter has really woken that dormant desire in me to write about anything, so I’m grateful for that. However, I am trying to get paid and if I can get paid telling people why something is fucked up, at least I’m getting paid doing something I love — writing.

    Such a good piece, Angie. I can’t wait to read the other parts.

  3. hsofia permalink
    April 27, 2010 10:48 pm

    I take real issue with folks conflating resonating with universalizing. It’s more prevalent in any area where marginalized voices have managed to carve out a space for themselves, but it’s by no means a novelty elsewhere.

    Yes, yes. Love this post.

  4. Heather Flescher permalink
    April 28, 2010 7:28 pm

    Very powerful stuff, Angelina. I cringed when I read that someone gave you a copy of “Native Son”. What the hell? Were they afraid you were going to start killing rich white folks? Or maybe it was the only book by a black person they’d ever heard of…

    Anyway, I look forward to reading the next part of this series. It means a lot to me to see how a writer finds their voice.

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