Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Stranger for president

I am watching Senator Barack Obama's last appeal to the American electorate. The 30-minute documentary outlines in great detail the presidential candidate's policy plans. It also provides insight into his personal life, background and family. I am saddened that in this great country of ours, where information is easy to find, myths are easy enough to debunk, and lies can be disproved with the slide of a mouse that many have allowed themselves to be mislead by hate-mongering and half-truths.

Every time I hear someone say "he is an unknown" I want to scream. It's been 18 months of constant media coverage. Yet my cousin's middle-aged co-worker is 'frustrated' that Obama is now claiming to be African-American when everyone knows he is Muslim. Never mind that she is too ignorant to know that one is not exclusive of the other - one being a race and the other a religion. How many times do we need to hear and read the facts? This specific issue of his religion has been clarified over and over, yet some people remain confused.

How is it that Sarah Palin comes on the scene and is welcomed without reservation, but Obama continues to be a "virtual unknown?" Is there any other explanation but that he is black and has a funny name? Is it that some people are made so uneasy by their own bigotry that they look for absolution in fallacies? I have no choice but to think that must be the case. It saddens me to hear NPR news analyst Juan Williams participate in this campaign of fear mongering on behalf of the McCain-Palin ticket. Between his work at NPR and at Fox News (Hold the comments.) you can not tell me that Mr. Williams does not know more about Mr. Obama than Michelle does. Yet he, as recently as Tuesday, continues to say that constituents are uncomfortable with Senator Obama because they do not know who is his. Is Juan Williams betting on the power of suggestion?

What else is there to know? Those who are 'uncomfortable' with Senator Obama are not likely to get comfortable before Tuesday. There is little to be done in the face of bigotry and entrenched xenophobia - particularly as it continues to be fueled by the Republican campaign's desperation. Happily, we all will get to know President Obama even better over the next four - dare I say eight - years.

P.S. It is interesting that the McCain Campaign's response to Obama's 30-minute spot is to say the Illinois senator is not ready to be president - YET.

The secret fear of middle-class black folks

Admit it. Black or white you have thought about it; maybe half-joked to a friend about it. Will black people show out with street parties and gunfire in the air on election night if Senator Barack Obama wins? Will there be riots if he loses?

No doubt cable and network news reporters will be on the streets in droves looking for hapless black folks to interview - for the most sensational appeal, rather than for true journalistic merit. And equally likely, they will have no difficulty finding those willing to share their exuberance at the coming of Barack the messiah and what it will all mean for Black America. I fully expect to hear - at least once - the proclamation that it is now 'our time.'

I could hope that news clip played on November 4 through 5 show people who look like me only in muted celebration, referring to Senator Obama's accomplishment in its appropriate historic and political context. I could hope, but I rather reserve my hopes for a mild winter. I know some black person will be on television acting the fool; as I am sure some white person will voice their fears that the country will certainly go to hell with a black man at the helm.

True, the televised actions of a few may dull our victory just a bit. Yes, some people may be a bit embarrassed to go to work on Wednesday morning. However, it is undeniably an important moment in history. Stay up and watch anyway, at home or with friends. See the tallies come in and the newcasts from around the nation. Be else will you see me in my Obama henley firing into the air at my street dance?

Monday, October 27, 2008

Screw you poor people

The 40-something degree days in October caught me off guard, so I've been scrambling to stock up on cold weather clothing and accessories for my young sons. After I realized that the boys were losing a glove and/or hat almost every time they walked outside the door I have become particularly fond of Target's hat and gloves sets for $2.99.

Finding scarves (important for my son who sometimes has respiratory trouble) proved a bit more problematic. Target did not have them and neither did WalMart, so I visited The Children's Place - a store I happen to love. Of course they had scarves - for $6.50. They also had gloves and hats - some $6.50, some $8.50 for a single hat or pair of gloves. That is more than four times the cost of the Target ones. The TCP hats and gloves were obviously better quality, but I would not say they were four times better.

I was annoyed not just at the effect on my pocket, but also at what I think is the disparity between the access of the haves and the have-nots. Here is the scenario: A poor family includes a young boy with asthma. His doctor suggests he wear a scarf over his mouth and nose and a warm hat to control his episodes. The family can only afford the cheaper items from WalMart or Target - not lined, not as warm - so he has more episodes. He gets sick because his family is poor.

Ok, that takes some imagination and a leap of faith, but the disparity is glaring in other areas. Besides the obvious benefits of smaller class sizes and better resources, children who are not going to wealthy private schools are not making the connections that will have fiscal benefits in the future. Families who rely on WIC or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program often cannot afford to feed themselves. In order to buy enough food, they make decisions to bypass fruits and vegetables - usually more expensive than less healthy options. (What is the healthy equivalent to McDonald's $1 menu?) Is there any wonder diabetes, hypertension, obesity and heart conditions are rampant through poor communities? The poor medical condition of destitute families is exacerbated by the lack of preventative and routine medical care - due of course, to their inabililty to pay for insurance or uncovered doctor's visits.

Say what you will about John Edwards's adulterous scandal, but when he was in the election race at least there was a real conversation about poverty in this country. With all due respect to President-in-waiting Obama, the $250,000 mark he banters about is a dreamworld away for waitresses and day laborers supporting families on less than the minimum wage.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Made by adversity

I am reading Standing Tall, the autobiography of famed women's college basketball coach C. Vivian Stringer. The book relays Stringer's growing up, family, challenges and successes interwoven with the history and and evolution of women's basketball. I am not big on biographies, or on women's basketball, so I am not sure why my husband chose this book as a birthday present and went to the trouble of getting it autographed by Stringer (currently coach of the team at Rutgers University, here in New Jersey). I am glad he did though; it has been a good read.

Coach Stringer's successes have been hard-earned. She has faced racism, sexism and a more than her fair share of family tragedy, but persevered to play an integral role in the growth of women's sports and to achieve great success for her teams and for herself. The enormity of the personal tragedies this woman has experienced is awesome to me. Her father died in his 40s. Her daughter, when just a toddler, suffered paralysis and irreversible brain damage as a result of misdiagnosed spinal meningitis and undetected pressure in her brain. Her husband of 20 years died of a massive heart attack when he was only 47 years old. Her son's promising football career was derailed by a false association with a shooting. Just last year, her life became a whirlwind of media craziness after she and her team were called 'nappy headed 'hos' by radio host Don Imus.

I admire that Stringer does not claim to have taken every adversity in stride; rather she is brutally honest about her crippling grief, despondence and anger. I can understand the anger. How much is one person expected to bear in a life time? I have had reason to ask that question over the last couple of years; my best friend lost her mother, boyfriend and sister in less than three years. After her most recent loss and in the middle of a fit of crying, she said "it's too much." I agreed.

As Stringer says in her book, some people prefer to find solace in the idea that there is a reason for everything - that God in His infinite wisdom makes or allows things to happen to some ultimate good end. That idea made no sense to Stringer and it brought her no solace. The idea that made the most sense to her is that some people suffer so they learn lessons they can pass to others to bring comfort to them. Of course, in her time of grief she did not want to be a comforter to others. She did not want to learn those lessons. In her life though, she has had many opportunities to draw on those lessons and impact the girls she coached and mentored.

If you accept that idea though, you have to ask: if you have not met great adversity in your life does it mean that there is no great purpose to your life?

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Colin Powell endorsement

The Colin Powell endorsement of Senator Barack Obama came as a surprise this morning - to me anyway. I knew there were discussions and media speculations a few months ago, but crossing party lines is a serious matter. I imagine it was not a decision former Secretary of State Powell took lightly.

I would guess that in addition to the criticism he expects to come his way, Powell also thought about how his endorsement will affect Senator Obama's campaign. An endorsement does not necessarily have a positive effect. Will this endorsement emphasize the issue of race, which Obama has tried ardently to downplay? Will the discussions of Powell and his tenures as Secretary of State and U.S. General upstage the presidential candidate's campaign?

We can expect that Fox News and other supporters of John McCain will try to discredit General Powell's service and insinuate some surreptitious reasons for his resignation from the Bush administration. Some of Senator Obama's supporters may question Powell's reasons for announcing his support and wonder what he expects in return.

If the well-respected Powell anticipated all this and still made the decision to voice his support for the democratic candidate for president, then I can only hope it causes others to pause. If Powell who has held high office in the Republican party - and whose name was bandied about as a possible candidate for president himself - thinks Obama should be the next president of the United States, then I hope that other Republicans who vote exclusively along party lines take a look at the other side.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

I went to the circus - finally

When I was in preparatory school the circus came to Jamaica. I was ecstatic when one of my mother's friends offered to take my brother and me when she was taking her niece. We got dressed and my mom told me to sit inside while I waited. I apparently did not take her seriously and I was soon at the fence talking to my friend next door - more than likely boasting about going to the circus.

My mother did not take kindly to being disobeyed, no matter what my reason. Needless to say, I did not go to the circus that night - or any other night. Since then, I have been haunted by images of spellbinding acrobatics, death defying feats performed by animal trainers and the captivating voice of a pudgy ring master announcing thrilling big-top acts. When a friend offered me her extra tickets to the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus I jumped at the chance to go, and to take my two young sons. I was finally going to see the circus.

Then I went to the circus. Some fantasies are not meant to be realized; the dream is too often better than the reality. I don't think I have been so disappointed since my college graduation present turned out to be a PDA and not a car.

Not once, while I was sitting in bumper to bumper traffic heading to Newark two nights ago, did it occur to me that the show I had been waiting to see for more than 20 years would not meet my expectations. I never thought I was in for hours of mindless prancing about, Cirque du Soleil rejects and the un-funniest clowns I have ever seen. Who knew elephants were so stinky and that show horses crap in the ring?

After paying $20 for parking, $40 for useless light-up toys, $26 for two orders of chicken fingers and fries and two bottles of water - and passing on the $15 sno-cones - the best sight of the evening for me was not in the ring. It came when I saw my son's eyes lit, bright and big as he watched Joanna the white tiger stand on her hind legs and dance with her trainer. If you don't get to see the circus as a child, then you should get to see the wonder of the circus in a child's eyes.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Donkey seh di worl nuh level

I cringe every time a black person is on the news doing something stupid and/or illegal. I know I should not take ownership for the misdeeds of others simply because I have the same skin color. I also know that there are people who will judge me based on those behaviors. More than that, I know there are those who look to those images and behaviors as proof of what they already think. Now in my fourth decade on this earth, the persistent thought of race is new to me. Other than the uproar Buju Banton's Brownin' caused in the late 80s and some self-deprecating phrases in our vernacular, race in Jamaica is primarily the domain of historians and academics. For good or for bad, the people on TVJ and CVM news look like me. Reports are not prefaced with racial descriptors and there are no color tallies of the victims or the perpertrators. There are no celebrations of color firsts and there is no need for affirmative action policies.

It is undeniably different in the United States. With the black senator from Illinois close to being the next president of the United States, race is a constant undertone, if not always explicitly verbalized. It appears to me that the people who speak out the loudest about race are those on the fringes - those incensed that the negroes are not grateful for what they have and those being crippled by the white conspiracy to keep the black man down.

Senator Barack Obama himself is fodder for the argument that black people in American have no cause for complaint. One Talk of the Nation (National Public Radio) listener lamented on Tuesday that more than equal, now white people were being prejudiced against. The white mother of teenagers said she will not vote for Obama because he is black and she thinks it is unfair that her daughters will not have the opportunities he had. I am not sure exactly what opportunities that woman was referring to. It may be that she, like many others, assume that every successful person of color benefited from affirmative action policies.

I have not made up my mind about the wisdom and/or fairness of affirmative action, but I have heard good arguments from people I respect on the merits of leveling the field for black students, professionals and entrepreneurs. One thing I know for sure is that affirmative action does not reward the undeserving or the unqualified. It says to companies and college administrators look at the best available across the room. If Senator Obama did benefit from such a policy (and I have seen or heard no evidence that he has) it is because he was among the best. His candidacy is not so much evidence that all things are now equal, but more so of his intelligence, ambition and his refusal to accept that they are not. As my husband says, we will know things are equal when a black George W. can be president, ie drug and alcohol abuser with a C average and a record of low performance in every job he has ever had.

Things are not equal, but anyone who would argue that black people are no better off than they were 40 years ago needs to put down that heavy chip from off their shoulder. Today, economics plays a much greater role in dictating the outcome of a child's life than his/her race. It is true that many black families are below or near the poverty line. It is true that black children in large numbers go to schools that are overcrowded and that do not prepare them adequately for college. It is true that many black people live in neighborhoods that are plagued with crime and violence. It is true that many of the social ills that ail the black community are the direct result of years of discrimination and oppression.

It is also true that equality does not mean easy. We may need to study more, work longer, and push harder against those doors to opportunities, but this generation makes it easier for the next. Maybe one day donkey will say the world is level. (Ask a Jamaican.)

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Heathen democrats?

I agree with blogger Richard Ivory of People should not be pigeonholed politically. I bet the assumption that every black person is a democrat is as much an affront to Ivory as some of the assumptions about democrats are to me.

A student at Liberty University - founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell - told NPR that upon finding out that he votes democrat, fellow students consistently ask him if he is a christian. I can't imagine that someone with conflicting beliefs would enroll at Liberty, so the question is asinine as it is ignorant.

I keep hearing and reading the jokes about democrats being lawless and anti-christian and I don't get them. I miss the punch lines because they are grossly exaggerated and inaccurate caricatures. I happen to be christian and I know many christian democrats. I'm pretty sure there are more than a few of us. When did being a democrat come to mean you are heathen? How did Republicans come to be the prevailing authority on christian values? Who made the Religious Right antipodal to the Liberal Left?

I vote democrat because I agree with more of the elements of that party's platform, than the Republican Party. None of those elements stand in opposition to my christian beliefs. I believe that a government's role is to defend the country against its enemies (with more emphasis on the diplomatic tools available to avoid armed conflicts, than on the execution of war); to protect the wellbeing (economic, health and otherwise) of all its citizens; to preserve the God-given and law-given rights of all its citizens - including a woman's right to choose. I believe there should be clear and absolute separation of church and state. I do not believe that prayer and faith should replace knowledge and strategy in dictating public policy. Does that make me unchristian? I don't think so. I believe that a government allowed to dictate what I do with my body or who my partner should be, could one day conceivably tell me how to worship. And a government that prays rather than plans is not using the gifts God gave them.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

When I was a little girl

Things seemed to change pretty quickly. I had my first "in my day moment" much earlier than I thought I would. I remember the day and the incident very well, even though there have been many since then. I was fresh out of college and four years out of high school. I had gotten on an almost empty bus on my way home from work, when I noticed two teenage girls in the uniform of my alma mater (Age quod agis). They were eating out of boxes on the backseat, shouting out the window to someone on the sidewalk and romping with the bus conducter. Completely unladylike behaviours. I was horrified. For days after that I talked about how differently we behaved when I was in high school. Since then, the lines to the stories I will tell my sons of my early years have been lengthening.

We expect change; some are good and some are expected. I remember when Kisko was 25 cents and King Kong was 50 cents. Now, I don't even think you can find a King Kong, and kids call Kisko ice pop. I remember J.O.S. buses and bus fare being 10 cents. I remember when Road Runner hamburgers were the best meal in town. I remember when Odeon was open, though I never went there. I remember going to Harborview Drive-in and listening to the ocean hit the harbor wall. I remember when Portmore communities like Edgewater, Bridgeport and Braeton were nice places to live and raise children. I remember the T-Junction, before there was Portmore Mall. I remember driving to Mandeville on Friday nights before there was the highway. Those memories make me smile. Others give me great consternation for the state of my country.

When I was a little girl, I was guaranteed a quality education, and there was honor attached to being bright. Last Monday, my local public radio station hosted a call-in discussion about the quality of education in the United States, particularly as it compared to other countries. As soon as I heard the topic I was sure a Jamaican would call in to talk about the quality of the island's British-system education. I was not to be disappointed. The woman who called in sounded (by her voice and story) to be in her 40s and I instantly knew that much has changed since the days she was talking about. I think she would be as heartbroken as I am to learn how much education has changed back home. Due to the increasing cost of textbooks ($15,000 is the cost of one student's book list I heard of just today), many students are ill equipped in the classroom. Due to a lack of incentives and proper wages, there is a chronic shortage of qualified and dedicated teachers. In my opinion, the thing that affects education most in Jamaica is the decreasing disrespect for its value. During my short stint teaching high school (Fortis), I came to realize that many children are attending school without the conviction that their time is not being wasted. There are little social incentives to being smart, and they are hard pressed to see the economic ones either.

When I was a little girl, I could sit on my verandah at night and sleep with my windows open. When I was in college, I walked along an unlit street to get home from campus. My greatest fear were cows that might be grazing along the side. My backdoor was always open because I had no key. It never occured to me to be scared. Today, murder seems to be the national sport. I have stopped tracking the number of people killed since the beginning of the year, but at last check it stood at an average of four people per day. When that number grew to include one of my oldest and dearest friends, I mourned almost as much for the devastation of my country as I did for the loss of my friend.

When I was a little girl, children were exempt from the worst of our society. They were cared for and protected by the whole village. Nowadays the stories of killings that include children and women are so frequent as to no longer raise eyebrows. This week the Jamaica Observer reported the gruesome story of a 9-month-old girl who died after being sodomized by a male relative. The article noted the increasing frequency with which children are being brutalized, abused and killed across the island.

I acknowledge that there have been improvements in technology and infrastructure, but my country seems to have lost its heart. When I was a little girl I couldn't wait to get big. Now, I long for the good old days.

Friday, October 3, 2008

The gift of low expectations

Well darn it, the debate is over and Sarah Palin didn't ask for a life line or tumble over her bottom lip. On Fox that means she lashed Senator Joe Biden and sent him whimpering off into a corner. On the other networks it means she gets to lead the stories for the next news cycle.

Consistent with her recent media interviews, Sarah Palin lacked substance and showed no indication that she is ready to be president of the United States. More than that, I did not get the impression that she tried to be intelligent and knowledgeable. She actually announced that she would not be answering the moderator's questions. She seemed more intent on connecting with her base - hillbilly America. What's scary? It may work for her. I wont be surprised to see a bump in her numbers.

Even people who support Governor Palin betray her lack of qualifications for the job. "She's young and revitalizes the ticket." "She wont need to be president." Those are oft-proffered explanations for her role in the presidential race. Scarier still.

The law of the land dictates that every citizen can register to vote and there is no intelligence test applied. So Billy Bob - who likes the Alaskan Governor because she hunts moose - and Mary Lou - who couldn't possibly vote for that colored fellar - get to vote too. That's the scariest bit of all, that the fate of the country could be decided by that clan.