April 23, 2007


Some time ago, I co-wrote a screenplay with a good friend of mine that I'm hoping to make into my feature film directorial debut sometime in the next year. The film is set in Nebraska, and when I talk to movie people about the project, I keep hearing about all of the ways to make the movie without actually going to Nebraska (i.e. shoot in central California so you don't have to go so far, shoot in Louisiana for the tax incentives, shoot in Romania for the cheap labor, shoot in Canada because everybody shoots in Canada now, etc.).

Which is all well and good, but, even though I've never actually BEEN to Nebraska, if there is a way to make the logistics and economics work, I would much rather shoot it there. I mean, I'm really not convinced that I can get production design like this....
....for free outside of the heartland of America.

Which is why, when I happened to strike up a conversation with a native Nebraskan over breakfast at, of all places, San Francisco International Airport last month, my ears were standing at full attention.

His name was Sam, and, in many ways, he was a living embodiment of all the good things we associate with the Midwest. A tall, burly, silver-haired fellow in a cowboy hat, he told me that he split time between a stretch of land he owned up in the wine country in Sonoma County, CA and his real home in The Great Plains State, where he builds (I kid you not) waterfalls.

So, just a bit of context: the year before I moved to California, I read Bill Bradley's memoir, Time Present, Time Past, where he talks about his own fascination with the politics of water in The Golden State during his time in the U.S. Senate. For those of you who know the actual history behind the movie "Chinatown", you know that Los Angeles wouldn't even exist were it not for people like William Mulholland (as in "Mulholland Drive" Mulholland) straight-up jacking the water from (and, consequently destroying) whole farming communities in the central valleys in the so-called "California Water Wars".

For you long-time Macroscope readers, you know by my previous posts, New World Water and New World Water: The Sequel, H2O is an extremely big deal, socially, politically, economically, and all of the above.

And, more to the point, a big part of my Nebraska movie deals with the so-called "Dust Bowl" - where years of drought & ecologically irresponsible farming techniques, coupled with near Biblical wind storms, literally blew ALL of the farmland in Nebraska & neighboring states into the Atlantic Ocean.

When I mentioned my project to Sam, he replied that his home state was, at that very moment, STILL in the grip of a drought that had actually lasted LONGER than the Dust Bowl.

Now, mind you, the Dust Bowl and the stock market crash in 1929 were the two biggest catalysts for the Great Depression. I watch and read ALOT of news. How could something of that magnitude be happening right under my nose?

Well, let's ignore the obvious counterargument this presents to my claims of omniscience for a moment.

The real issue is that we have, in many ways, become a city culture nationwide, in the sense that very few of us are directly involved in the regular production of the raw materials we need to survive on a daily basis. We just go to Ralph's and buy it. Most of us don't need to devote much thought to where the food actually comes from. As such, most of us don't really think about farms, farmland, or anything really related to it.

Having lived with a women allergic to wheat AND corn for going on 2 years now, I, on the other hand, have become extremely aware of the origins of the food on my table.

Which is why, when I read this article on Salon by Michael Pollan, I immediately bought his latest book, The Omnivore's Dilemma. Pollan is a professor at Berkeley who regularly writes about what my roommate called "the politics of food". And, in his book, he describes how the mass production of corn has basically reshaped the human race.

Consider this: when you go to MacDonald's, something like 90% of that meal was originally corn. That includes the beef, because cows, who naturally eat grass, are being force-fed corn on these big industrial farming collectives and then pumped full of antibotics so that they don't puke up the corn that their digestive system isn't built to process in the first place.

Why are these cows being fed corn? Because there's so much f'n corn now, it basically costs nothing.

And because the corn makes them get really fat really fast.

So, if that same corn is used to blow up the cows, is anyone out there surprised that we now have a skyrocketing obesity rate in this country?

We live in Leimert Park, a predominantly black neighborhood here in Los Angeles. And we've been complaining that we have to drive for miles to find any kind of restaurant that isn't MacDonalds, Jack in the Box, Burger King, or Taco Bell. And let's not even get into the local soul food chains, all of which serve their own brands of disguised corn gift-wrapped in a delicious layer of lard.

So, is anyone surprised that we, as Black people, have both an obesity problem AND a diabetes problem? After all, doesn't non-hereditary diabetes occur after your body has been so overloaded with sugar that it breaks and can't process it anymore? And most of us eat most of our corn today in the form of high fructose corn syrup, which has an unnaturally elevated sugar content and is used as a sweeter and flavoring in EVERYTHING.

But, as Michael Pollan points out in this article from the New York Times that I've linked to in the title of this post, food politics goes way, way deeper than health.
  • Because we've artificially depressed the market price of corn to virtually nothing, we've, in essence, destroyed the corn industry in every other country, most notably, Mexico - so now, with millions of corn-based farmers out of work, they try to make a living by legally or illegally crossing the border into the United States.
  • All that corn is being fertilized with the nitrate-based by-products of crude oil processing & refining. so, it's not just our gas mony, but our food budget is helping to line the pockets of the Saudis and the like, and, consequently, financing terrorism.
  • And why do you think my friend Sam is building waterfalls in Nebraska? Because the current irrigation systems that are put in place by the massive farming collectives are completely screwing up the water table beneath the surface, with environmental impact for decades to come.
Why am I talking about this now?

Because there's a new "Farm Bill" coming up for approval in Congress very soon. These things get renewed every 5 years, and this is year #5 for the current one. And, for most congresspeople who are not actually from a farm state, the minute you say the word "farm", they immediately check out of the conversation.

But this one bill has massive ramifications for health care, immigration, energy policy, and environmental policy.

So, you may want to drop a line to your congressional representatives in the House & the Senate and ask them to actually pay attention this time.

I'm writing e-mails to Madames Watson, Boxer, and Feinstein right now.

On his way out of the restaurant, Sam just paid for my breakfast that morning before I could say a word. I thanked him profusely, and he just tipped his cap before we shook hands, and went our separate ways.

Maybe next year, if I can get the financiers and producers to see things my way, I'll get to return the favor.

Did I mention that the restuarant's breakfast specialty was New England Clam Chowder?

So, if a young brother from Baltimore breaking bread over a bowl of New England Clam Chowder with a native Cornhusker in San Francisco doesn't just make you want to have a Yakov Smirnoff moment and shout "what a country?" I don't know what will.

April 18, 2007

Oprah, Imus, and Hip-Hop

OK, so, I think I watched just about the whole Oprah/Hip-Hop thing...

honestly, I want to see two things:

1. It doesn't really address the issue to have someone like Common, who's the quintessential consciousness rapper, talking about the misogyny problems in hip-hop. I want to see a conference that includes people like Lil' Kim, Trina, Lil' Jon, the Ying Yang Twins...you know, the people who are the actual promoters of these images. I want to see THEM in a room with the likes of those girls from Spelman and Oprah and such.

2. The other thing that was clear to me was that the people from the first panel on Monday and the guys repping the hip-hop community come from completely different realities - they're simply not speaking the same language and it raises the point: It is totally within Russell Simmons or Kevin Liles' power to not put out an album by an artist that they find personally offensive, but SHOULD they not put out a record like, say, "Wait" or "My Neck"? Because that IS a reflection of an aspect of what's happening in the community. It's almost like an alarm bell ringing - if you're house is on fire, do you get mad at the blaring smoke detector?

On the other hand, Oprah raised the ultimate point - do we have to solve poverty to get them to stop calling women hos?

April 15, 2007


OK, this has been irritating me all week, so I need to say this before I move on to the far more constructive things I want to add to Our National Dialogue.

So many people are quick to point out "well, all of those rappers say things as bad as Don Imus or worse, and nobody has a problem with it."

And my response is, "Well, yeah."

And no. Because there is an ongoing debate among Black people about the misogyny & self-hate in alot of commercial hip-hop. And there have been people arguing against it, like C. Delores Tucker and such, for years. They just tend to get drowned out because, apparently, we as Black people seem to have an appetite for this.


Just because some of us are OK with it when we do it does not mean that we're OK with the Don Imuses of the world when they do it.

The fact of the matter is, in the modern day public discourse, the ownership of racial epiphets has now transferred from the patriarchal majority to each offended minority in question. Black people now own the word "nigger". Women own "bitch". Black women own "ho". Jews, Latinos, Native Americans - we all are now the gatekeepers on the words that were used to degrade us, and WE get to decide who can or cannot use them with impunity. So, someone like Eminem might get a temporary hall pass from certain Black people, but NO ONE is going to give Don Imus the time of day on this issue.

It's our discretion.

And, yes, it IS a double standard.

Deal with it.

But the other thing that's bothering me is all this talk of "Now we can get to the root of the problem - the f'n rappers!"

Laying the blame for our self-hate issues at the feet of gangster rap is kind of like saying it's the maggots' fault that the meat you left out on the counter all week has gone bad.

There is a reason that there is money to be made in rap lyrics that speak of crime, violence, and sexual domination. As I've said before, we have a crisis of manhood in our communities right now. Among other things, gangsta rap allows both young black men & women to experience Black manhood in an unambiguous, albeit toxic form. And let's not get it twisted: there are just as many young Black girls out there buying, singing along, and dancing for this music as there are young brothers living vicariously through it. Hip-Hop would not have a platform if it did not satisfy some deep-seeded emotional need, even if it is poisoning the well.

Of course, just like it's easier to pick the maggots off of a green steak than to actually go back out to the supermarket and buy a new one, it's much easier to boycott 50 Cent than it is to help a generation of brothers find jobs that give them their self-esteem back.

But the fact of the matter is, at the end of the day, the steak is still green.

Which brings me to the larger point I wanted to get to - what we need to do in our communities. My mom forwarded me an e-mail a few days ago which was a rehashing of Bill Cosby's big critique of the so-called slackers in our community that are messing up the proverbial curve for all the other Black people. When I asked other people on that particular list what should actually be done, the majority of responses I got generally involved some form of a "Come To Jesus" moment - i.e. if we could just talk to these people and help them understand how messed up their lives are, then we can get it on track.

Now, those of you who know me know that this particular tactic doesn't really work for me. People don't like lectures.

But, a few days ago, I heard Ruby Dee talking on Pacifica radio about the hip-hop issues around the Imus incident - she said that she can understand how some of the girls who feature their booty-shaking skills on BET and the like feel like they're beautiful and sexy and demonstrating their power, but that she wishes she could just talk to them about the struggles and sacrifices that were made before them to make the world where they have the opportunity and choice to do this even possible.

It reminded me of story I heard Maya Angelou tell Dave Chappelle on Sundance Channel's Iconoclast program, about the words she offered to an angry, raging young black man on the set of a movie - the young man was damn near frothing at the mouth over some presumed insult he'd just received from someone, but she said to him (and I'm really paraphrasing here) "I understand everything that you just said, but don't you realize that generations of Black people, enduring unspeakable conditions, got through their days by the dream that YOU would exist, here and now, today?"

The young man she was speaking to was Tupac Shakur.

And that's when it finally dawned on me.

If we are ever to reclaim our heritage, our homes, our neighborhoods, our families, and our loved ones, we have to learn a new model of respect.

Those of us who are successful, or prosperous, or who don't identify with what we perceive to be the seedier aspects of the hip-hop culture, have to learn to respect it enough so that we can actually have a conversation with the other brothers and sisters.

We don't need anymore lectures. We need honest dialogue.

Because it struck me that Ruby Dee can talk to a Karrine Steffans and say to her, "I know where you are and I know what you're going through because, in many ways, in my day, I WAS you, and here is how I got through it."

We need to learn to share ourselves, but our gifts can only be accepted if we treat the others as our equals. No matter how poor, or debased, or inappropriate we may think they are.

Because, at the end of the day, respect and acknowledgement is what they are truly trying to find, in the midst of all the offensive lyrics and suggestive dancing and disrespect.

They just want SOMEONE to say "I see you. I hear you. And you matter to me."

I vividly recall an incident where I had a very violent disagreement with some former friends of mine, and the sister of one of these people approached me and told me that I needed to be the better man and offer an olive branch. And I was just appalled that she would suggest such a thing - after all the ways these people had wronged me, why should I be the one to swallow my pride and make the peace gesture?

And she said "Because we're all a family, and we have to have peace. And because they're two little shits and they'll never do it themselves."

If peace and unity are as important as we say, than those of us who agree with The Cos need to swallow our collective pride for a moment to bring our estranged family members back to the dinner table. That's the only way they'll ever receive the nourishment and grace we can offer. And, even more importantly, it's the only way that WE can receive the many, many gifts they have to offer us as well.

It's a two-way street, but those on the other side are too wounded to make the first move. It's time for our so-called leaders to actually lead.

And maybe, in an odd way, Don Imus has created a moment of opportunity for just that.