Friday, April 2, 2010

Asparagus Spears

It All Comes Back to Me - Sergeant (mp3)
I'll Say I'm Sorry Now - Shawn Colvin (mp3)

Popular culture doesn't determine our opinions, but it certainly has the power of The Big Nudge. It can sway us to reconsider our views where traditional discussions with authority figures or friends cannot. It can present us a new reality -- sometimes misleading -- that creates doubt about our own (mis)conceptions. For someone like myself, who grew up scuba diving in the deep end of the pop culture pool, the power of The Big Nudge is even bigger.

What's The Big Nudge? I've previously mentioned the educational importance of Public Enemy and comic books on me, so I'll go with another one: the 1992 Eddie Murphy movie Boomerang, which among other things put the sweat-inducing Halle Berry on the map. Boomerang ain't high art, and it loses a lot of its momentum down the stretch, but some of the scenes in the film became a part of my college lexicon.

Although the plot of the film surrounds Eddie Murphy and his sexual and business prowess, issues of race flow in and out. Only in a movie could I witness three financially successful black businessmen converse in a  relaxed friendly whiteless atmosphere. Not because it wasn't true, but because it was beyond my realm. The dialogue and their conversations, much like a Spike Lee Joint or a Singletary film, were -- even if not completely true to life -- revelatory.

In one scene, a waitress is going over some menu options with them, and she refers to "asparagus spears." After she leaves, the Martin Lawrence character -- always the one eager to point out what is "racial" about our society -- unleashes his fury that she chose the word "spear." If we were white, she would have said asparagus tips, he insists.

Later, we get this awesome scene:

My best friend and I used to read sex into everything. [Sidebar. Stay with me.] We forced it into places it had no business. The more ludicrous, the more fun. We were Michael Scott that's what she said goobers back when it was even nerdier and more pathetic than it is in 2010. We're a teensy bit better about it now.

A few years ago, I was talking with a distant relative who's an avid hunter and gun collector. He was so well-versed in weaponry that every time I would ask about something -- a Colt .45? a 9mm? -- he would explain how weak and pathetic those weapons were compared to... well, I don't remember, but he could rattle off names and brands. To him, some pedestrian gun hardly deserved to be called a firearm. Meanwhile, I'm thinking, Geez, a gun is a gun is a gun.

When you can turn something as harmless as the phrase "pressure washing my deck" into kindling for sex guffaws, words lose some of their power. When every Portabella must be a phallus, symbols lose heft. When it comes to words and symbolism and power, I fear I've become like that relative. I've lost respect for the power of mere words, to my own detriment.

The playwright and screenwriter David Mamet feasts on words like early A.D. lions on the flesh of Christian babies, and his most incendiary plays have the feel of Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing, where sides are drawn and stances are taken, but where no one is ever completely in the right.

Although by no means a great movie, Mamet's Oleanna is a haunting portrayal of dynamics. It's about authority and education and gender and sex and the abuse of all those things. (Oh, but to have seen the play...) My point is, it's all about the power and influence of words.

In December, Mamet released the Oleanna of race relations, titled... RACE. Starring, appropriately, David Alan Grier from Boomerang. (Hear a fascinating interview with David Alan Grier on NPR.)

Here's a line from James Spader's character in RACE: "There is nothing a white person can say to a black person about race which is not both incorrect and offensive. Nothing. I know that. Race is the most incendiary topic in our history, and the moment it comes out, you cannot close the lid on that box. That may change, but not for a long, long while."

Meanwhile, in Chattanooga, there's this white guy with a big Internet soap box making use of just that issue*. And what frustrates is how his point, much of which feels right, gets clouded over by his comfort in talking about race. Everytime I try writing about any issue where race must be acknowledged, I feel equally foolish and counterproductive... just on a much smaller soap box. My reaction tends to be "Why am I even trying to express this stuff when it's invariably so charged and divisive?" You can't close the lid on that box.

Which is why I'm so very grateful to have been exposed to Stuff White People Do.

SWPD is my modern-day Boomerang. It exposes me to the frustrations and aggravations that I could not otherwise appreciate or understand. Sometimes it enrages me. Often it condemns me. I read this site the same way Jodie Foster enters Buffalo Bill's basement, blind in the darkness, my gun quaking in my hands, as I cluelessly feel around for a wall. But I feel drawn to go and deal with the demons in my own basement.

Each day I go and read that site -- and the fascinating comments it receives -- I feel like I'm learning something. I hope it's offering a vital Big Nudge.

* -- Another fight involving a loaded gun broke out again Wednesday at a predominately black school. This school, which any sane person knowledgeable of Chattanooga's public schools would acknowledge does a criminal disservice to the poor teens zoned to it, is the centerpiece of yet another controversy. The black community is upset that plans are being made to "fix" or "improve" the school. Sifting through reactions to the drama... well, it makes me think the quote from Spader's quote is all too true. I'm just too stupid to heed it.


BeckEye said...

Stuff White People Do: Read this blog. Har har har har.

Hey, I'm white! And I'm reading this blog! I'm allowed to say that.

cinderkeys said...

I have a deep and abiding love for Stuff White People Like. I got a great quote out of one of the posts last year when I blogged about ME/CFS Awareness Day. (He points out why the whole concept of raising awareness is stupid.)