Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Ask a Simple Question...(or a Day in the Life in My ESL class)

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I gave my Advanced Conversation ESL students what I thought would be a simple assignment, one that would give them some much-needed time listening to English and would also provide breezy conversation topics for class--

I simply said they should watch a TV show/movie or listen to a radio program in English and report back.

As usual, things that seem simple get complicated for various reasons and the conversations that resulted were useful but not exactly breezy. I debated about whether to get to the book and group work first but decided to go with reports first and group work later. Since some students were absent, I let the reports go on a little longer than usual and determined that the next report would be timed (this means students have to edit themselves and think about what matters most). All in all, English was practiced and new vocabulary was explained and that is the main objective.

Student #1: She and her daughter went to the Redbox to get Love, which she said is the sequel to Honey. When the opened the case, the movie inside was not Love, but a filmed version of a Tyler Perry play. The student enjoyed the movie very much and found it inspirational.

Student #2: Put her glasses on and jokingly referred to this action as "middle age crisis" as she looked at her notes. It seemed that outside of class she had argued with Student #3 about whether or not the assignment was to listen to/watch an interview. She watched a YouTube interview with author Mary Higgins Clark and seemed to be reading a transcript of the article verbatim. I gently interrupted to remind her that the assignment was to tell us her thoughts about what she had seen.

Student #3: Watched a movie she called, "Tina Turner." She told a bit about some of the movie's pleasant aspects, but when she started to discuss the abuse Ike Turner heaped upon Tina, Student #2 got upset. Meanwhile, Student #3, smiling, continued to tell the story, recounting what happened when Tina finally left Ike. She ended by singing a few seconds of "What's Love Got to Do with It."

The other students sat there aghast. Student #1 asked if this was based on a true story and later commented that Student #3 was "a romantic."

Student #4: Spoke with great enthusiasm about "Walking Dead," which he watch online. This prompted a brief discussion about the existence of zombies. There was also a lot of talk of blood and shootings and Muslim students seemed scandalized by the details of a woman who ends up impregnated by another man (her husband's best friend) because she thought her husband was dead (he wasn't).

Student #5: Had been constructing a paper airplane during one of the earlier presentations. When he began to speak, I saw that he had done this to use it as a prop to explain a detail related to his story. I say his story because, assignment be damned, he announced that he was going to talk about "real life." And talk about real life he did. In previous classes, he has revealed his work as an army engineer for a Latin American country. He told of how a helicopter pilot he worked with and considered a brother was shot in the head during skirmish at a border. He was on the ground getting missiles ready to be loaded onto the helicopter. In the six hours it took to finish their tasks and arrange for the pilot's body to be picked up, there wasn't time to really mourn him, but they did drape a flag over his body. in the end, someone realized the pilot was still breathing.

The other students had a lot of questions and it seems that skirmish was part of an armed conflict that originated in the 1940s and was reignited in the 1990s. Everyone wanted to know who won. I said in war, no one wins. Student #5 concluded that unlike what happened in the 1940s, this time his country won the conflict (with 30 casualties to the other country's 1000) but they lost in a diplomatic sense because there had been international pressure trying to get both sides to end the conflict much sooner. Student #2 said it was "lose-lose."

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

The Black List

While I was at the press preview for The Black List, I was so taken with it, I kind of forgot why I was there. When a publicist came over to ask me if I was a reporter, I almost said, "no." Since I am a freelance writer I don't think of myself as a reporter and in that moment I was so occupied with enjoying the exhibit, my occupation was an afterthought.

In that moment, I was looking at a photo of Patrick Robinson and admiring his 'fro.

It's a great exhibit and if you're in or around DC you should definitely see it.

See Insightful Photo Exhibit "The Black List" at the Nat'l Portrait Gallery
"While I attend a number of art exhibition previews and I am glad to do so, it is not often that I walk into the room and stop in my tracks. Seeing The National Portrait Gallery's exhibit “The Black List: Photographs by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders” caused me to do just this.

Historically, the term “blacklist” referred to a group of people marginalized and denied work or social approval. "The Black List" was created out of the inspiration to change the meaning of the term to become that of a roll call of distinction."

Photo of Angela Davis - Timothy Greenfield-Sanders/www.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Toilet Paper Masks

I went to a press preview for a new National Portrait Gallery exhibit on Gertrude Stein. It was interesting and as always, I like getting an advanced look at an exhibit and hearing curators give background...but what really fascinated me was a Life magazine ad that was next to story by Stein.

It was an ad for a Scott Tissue emergency mask that was "used only once and is instantly disposable." It was illustrated with pictures, one of a father bending over a newborn alongside the doctor and one of a mother leaning over a baby. The lower halves of both parents' faces were covered with the "tissue mask" and there were written instructions for how one could use sheets of toilet tissue, secured with a safety pin, as a mask to prevent the spread of germs.

Was this really a serious attempt to market an alternative use for toilet paper? I don't know. That was a different time.

Given what I learned about Gertrude Stein and of her high opinion of her own genius, she might be dismayed that I took this much time to ponder a toilet paper mask instead of concentrating on her writing on the opposite page. Then again, she might not care at all.

Friday, September 09, 2011

How Do You Define "Open Forum?"

As is my custom, I write pieces on other blogs and then use my own blog to give a "behind-the-scenes" look at what else was going on while I was writing the piece or at the event. Is that wrong? I don't think so. Everything doesn't fit everywhere. There is a time, a place and a blog for everything...and this was precisely the loud debate that was raging while I was trying to take in
Thought-Provoking Art at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum.

Security staff gathered in the hallway outside the main exhibit room at the museum argued over what kind of comments should be made to supervisors and whether or not open forums were the right place for these comments. The very notion that an argument about who can and should say what and when they should say it would be going on as I viewed the art of a very expressive artist was just too tantalizing to ignore. However, as it wore on, I grew tired of it. Their loud discussion interfered with my enjoyment of the art. I'm all about free speech, freedom of expression and whatnot, but sometimes employees of a place should choose to make their expression quieter or table it for another time. (Though I know this is hard to do when one is all fired up.)

Upon entering, I heard "You're asking me to censor myself. I am not going to be responsible for someone carrying a story on."

"What I'm saying is there is a time and place for everything."

It seemed that there were several issues: the idea that people can overhear things and how responsible you are for what they my mishear and how to make comments to a supervisor.

The first speaker threw down the gauntlet and asked, "How do you define open forum?"

One man was up against several colleagues and he was not backing down. "All fights are to the death. That's my attitude."

"Every fight is not a battle. You have to pick and choose you battles," one of his opponents replied.

"The world needed MLK and Booker T. They both got things done...but who got the most done--the fighter."

For my part, I wanted to tell them to be quiet, and in the 20 minutes or so I spent there, voices were raised and the circular discussion seemed to have no exit point. The desk-gladiator did care that the lions were circling; he was gonna keep swinging until the very end. I don't demand absolute silence, but they were too loud and if museums consider their patrons to be customers, then customers don't need to be exposed to inside politics in that fashion. But this happens everywhere--at stores, restaurants, wherever you go staff argues publicly about the inner workings of a place and you get to hear all about it.

I had arrived tired and wanted the transcendental experience of art to revive me a little. I left just as tired. It was my choice to leave without addressing them directly. Though I left loudly, rolling my eyes and sighing audibly with annoyance in their direction, I guess by the desk-gladiator's rules, I lost the fight. But every fight is not a battle and as always, I left with a story.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Going Postal: There May Not Always Be Work at the Post Office

This morning I woke to the news that the U.S. Postal Service is warning Congress that it may shutdown before the year is over.

I recently ended up at the National Postal Museum as I was trying to get to the Great Migration exhibit at Union Station next door. In a blog for I wrote:
"I had been to this museum once before, years ago when I first arrived in DC and then I thought nothing of it…but now being in a postal museum seems prescient--will a national postal service one day be a thing of the past?"

This was just last week and I'm sure my thoughts were influenced by having read "What we'll lose if we lose the post office" in The Washington Post. Throughout the museum, I saw pictures reminding me that the postal service employed many African Americans, even when other places wouldn't. It wasn't necessarily smooth sailing because employment did not mean there was no discrimination, but still, employment at the post office helped lift families out of poverty.

The ripple effect of the end of postal service would be huge. For years there was talk of cutting Saturday service and there was an outcry against it. I don't know that this would have prevented all of its fiscal woes, but some cuts and being willing to do with less in some capacity may have kept things from getting to this point.

Here is my blog post about my museum visit: A Visit to the Smithsonian's National Postal Museum

PHOTO: African American postmen loading bags of mail into U.S. mail trucks (1960s)
Warren K. Lefler, photographer/ Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

Monday, September 05, 2011

Chasing Julius Caesar

I really persevered to get into the Shakespeare Free For All this year. I didn't make it until the last day and the website was so bogged down, that pages wouldn't load so I could enter the online lottery for tickets. I called to register for the lottery via phone, but I wasn't selected. I kinda gave up, but when I check Facebook on my phone after church, I saw that on their Facebook page the theater was telling people to show up for "standby" passes.

Instead of being in line for hours ahead of the regular giveaway, I got a standby pass, sat down for 1/2 an hour and then got in line to see if I'd make it into the show. I thought of calling it a day because 73 seemed like a high number. I heard a man who was 102 on his cell phone talking about how confident he was that he'd get in and I told myself it'd be better to wait.
So I made it in and I'm glad I waited. I'd never seen Julius Caesar (though I think I read it in high school) and since I really like Shakespeare's comedies and tragedies, a free performance was a great way to test out a historical play. Here is what stood out for me:

-->The rhythm of the speech when Cassius tells Brutus that the there is no reason why the name of Caesar should be "sounded" more than Brutus (Act 1, Scene 2) reminded me of the "a rose by any other name"speech in Romeo and Juliet. They are talking about very different things of course, but the questioning nature of it made me think of Juliet.

-->The audience laughed when Caska said "it was Greek to me" and I wondered if audiences in Shakespeare's day would have had the same reaction. The line wasn't really played for laughs, but the recognition of that phrase was amusing in a way that other familiar phrases ("dogs of war" "Friends, Romans, Countrymen) were not.

-->The idea Brutus has for the conspirators to run out into the streets with bloody hands and daggers and crying "Peace! Liberty! Freedom!" to allay any fears the people might have after Caesar is assassinated (Act 3 Scene 1) seemed appalling to me…but then I thought of modern political maneuvers that fit into that mold. It is more graphic to run in the streets with blood on your hands but washing your hands first before you cry peace doesn't make it better.

-->Speaking of blood…this production was very bloody, but that is the point of the story. Seeing murder onstage and knowing they are using fake blood capsules doesn't make it less unsettling. People all around (including me at times) were on the edge of their seats.

-->The "Friends, Romans" phrase and "Et tu, Brute" are the parts of the play that I hear most often in popular culture so I was caught unaware by the masterful manipulation of Mark Antony. The woman next to me and I discussed it at intermission. He was cold.

-->Mark Antony's speech and the way he had the people on puppet strings, plus tragedy that befell a man in the wrong place at the wrong time who had the same name as one of the conspirators made me think about Brutus speech about "a tide in the affairs of men."

Full of hubris, Caesar got killed, but he overshadowed Rome and its people for years to come. He isn't even alive past intermission in the play and he has been long gone, but we still talk about him because he worked to ensure that his legacy would live on.

-->With all the blood and political intrigue, I'm surprised Julius Caesar is not modernized more often. The production I saw was quite riveting.

On a lighter note, Caska was played by Geoffrey Owens, who also played Elvin on The Cosby Show. And before now, I'd only seen bits of Julius Caesar acted out on The Cosby Show.

Theo and Cockroach rap version of Mark Antony's speech

Visiting professors and Grandpa Huxtable recite passages of Julius Caesar for the family

Friday, September 02, 2011

The Great Migration: In which I teach a sweet old lady how to use Google

The Great Migration-a period of time when African-Americans left the South for the North (and West) in the hopes of better lives-is something I obsess about a little. I was at Union Station looking for the Great Migration exhibit that I read about and couldn't seem to find it. When I asked someone who worked there, she said it wasn't there and that people had been asking her about it for over a week. That seemed strange to me…things are misreported all the time, but the article I had read had been so specific.

So I went over the Smithsonian's National Postal Museum so I could still get my exhibit-on. In one of those "I just have to try" moments, I asked the woman at the front desk if she knew anything about the exhibit that was supposed to be at Union Station. She didn't. But she offered to look it up for me online.

As it turns out she was offering to look it up within the Smithsonian website that was the homepage on her computer. She seemed to be a very sweet old lady. For a moment, I thought I'd just let her look it up there, not find it because this exhibit had nothing to do with the Smithsonian, and then I'd be on my way…

But rather than stand there and wait and be polite while she painstakingly and slowly tried to type in the info ("How do you spell migration?" she asked.), I told her to type the words into the Google search bar.

By the time we got to the original article, I had shown her how to search for things on Google (typing in 'Great Migration' only would yield all kinds of unrelated info, but typing in "Great Migration Union Station DC' actually lead to an article about the exhibit), and how to scroll down to see more than a few results.

It was a great exchange--I got info on the exact location of the exhibit and got to hear her reminisce about how she remembered her mother talking to her the experience of migrating to the North. She learned about the exhibit next door at Union Station and did her first search on Google.

As for the exhibit itself, there was not a lot to it. It was sponsored by Amtrak and set up near one of the gates people use when they board trains. Really, it was some very large banners that were informative, but not worth a special trip. The Great Migration lasted for decades, waxing and waning at different points from 1915 to 1970, but they confined to a much shorter time period.

And now of course, we have the reverse Great Migration, which is no less interesting than the Great Migration and something in which I have taken part. I'm not in the deep South, but I have left (what I consider to be) the North. In a discussion with my North Carolina cousins, they declared DC to still be North. That's fine. I just remember my father telling me that an old deacon at my church back home in Buffalo could not understand why young people wanted to move to Georgia. His attitude was that he left and was certainly not going back. I feel the same way about Buffalo, so if I have children who trek up there in a future where that make sense, I'd wonder at them too.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Clybourne Park, a twist on A Raisin in the Sun

Last year, I intended to see Clybourne Park at Woolly Mammoth and didn't get around to it. Since then it won a Pulitzer, so that plus all of the buzz from last year means that the line wrapped around the inside of the building more than once at the one pay-what-you-can performance they held. They only had standing room tix left and I was feet away from the counter when the declared the show to be sold out. So, I bit the bullet and bought a ticket.

I wrote about the play for Clybourne Park, a twist on A Raisin in the Sun

The playwright (who is also an actor) says he wrote the play, in part because he was really into the play as a kid, and that he never got to play Karl Lindner (who I think is the play's only white male character). I understand wanting to see yourself represented in a while I watched it, I identified with the maid in the first act (since she is the only black woman in the play). She placates because she has to.

And then in the second act, the corresponding black female character, who is not a maid, can't get a word in edgewise. I was understanding her frustration until she egged on another character's foolish wish to tell a racist joke. Then she told an insulting joke herself and I didn't get her motivation. She was frustrated when she was continually disregarded, but nothing she had done seemed to lend itself to her stoking the fires of the verbal brawl that ensued after the joke was told.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

I Can Do Bad All By Myself (or Opening Doors)

The title of this post has now become such a cliche that I wonder if it hasn't lost all of its meaning. I use it here because the experience I am about to relate is not earth-shattering...and not because I really mean it.

As I was writing a blog post to discuss a few ways to celebrate Women's History Month and I was thinking about how today is International Women's Day and all, I remembered some rude teenage boys I encountered earlier in the do we get all of out grand proclamations and celebrations to trickle down to the average Joe?

I was entering a high school where I volunteer and when I got to the door a young man opened it and walked past me. The young man behind him held the door open and scolded his friend. As I thanked the more chivalrous of the two, the first said with no small amount of scorn, "She can open it for herself."

Yes, yes I can.

Happy International Women's Day to those who open doors for themselves and to those opened doors for others to walk through.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Oedipus el Rey

I just wrote a post on Oedipus el Rey, a play I recently saw, at my blog. I thought the play was amazing and that makes me all academic. The good think about blogging is that I can write a mini-paper about something I find intriguing without having to really write one that is 20 pages or so and get graded.

Oedipus el Rey is a Chicano update of Oedipus Rex (Oedipus the King), the ancient Greek play by Sophocles. In the Greek play, Oedipus is the son of a king who is adopted by the king of a nearby kingdom. In Oedipus el Rey, Oedipus is the son of a gang leader who keeps talking about how he wants to be a king. The tragic end is the same...but the Greek Oedipus does not doubt that he is of royal birth, while in the update, the Chicano Oedipus keeps saying he wants to be a king. He is looking for the recognition and respect that so many young men look for outside of themselves and attempt to "take" by violent means.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Josiah Henson: "I graduated from the University of Adversity."

The words above are said to have been Henson's response when the Archbishop of Cantebury, impressed with his bearing and speech, asked him what university he attended. (Sadly, people still feel that an "articulate" black person is a thing of wonder today.)

I wrote about the Josiah Henson Special Park for because there were giving free tours every Saturday during Black History Month. After writing about the tours, I decided to actually take the tour myself.

The park is site of where Josiah Henson spent most of his life while he was a slave in Maryland. The house has been altered but bones of the original structure are still there.

While the house isn't a shack, it also isn't a grand manor.One thing I was struck by was the tour guide's observation that 'if this was the main house,
can you imagine what how the slaves lived. Seeing the house reminded me that those notions of anti-bellum grandeur fostered by movies like Gone with the Wind are not necessarily accurate.

Henson, who is an ancestor of Matthew Henson and Tariji P. Henson, was the man whose autobiography (The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself) Harriet Beecher Stowe used as inspiration when she wrote Uncle
Tom's Cabin.
Although some historic sites that pertain to Henson's life were once referred to as "Uncle Tom's Cabin," the Special Park in Montgomery County, outside of DC was renamed.

Henson's autobiography got little attention until after Stowe wrote her book and he objected to being characterized as Uncle Tom while he was alive. While Henson did not like being considered to be one and the same as Stowe's famous character "Uncle Tom," he did not blame Stowe; instead he used the association to his advantage. He met Stowe and she wrote an introduction to an updated edition of his book. Since the term "Uncle Tom" has become more of an insult since he died, he surely would not want to be thought of that way.

He has a remarkable story--a child of slaves who saw his parents treated very cruelly and was for a time sold away from his mother; an excellent business manager who became so trusted by his master, he managed the farm and the slaves; an honest man who did not allow himself or his charges to escape when they had the chance (and later regretted it); a preacher who was enterprising enough to earn money to buy his freedom; a hardworking slave who turned rebel when he realized he had been cheated and was to be sold after years of loyalty; a brave man who escaped to Canada with his family, founded a community for free blacks and later risked his life to help bring others to freedom as a conductor on the Underground Railroad; a compassionate man who used what he knew to help the widow of the master who cheated him to get a pension.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Blind Spots

After reading an article on The Root about research that concluded that Black women are "socially invisible," my mind started working overtime. The article referenced a Psychology Today piece-Are Black Women Invisible?

I thought about those times when I felt invisible-whether it was because someone had mistaken me for another black woman. Where I work, two other black women have short hair--one is taller than me and has natural close to her scalp and the other is shorter and has a perm--and I've been confused for both.

Then I also remembered the times when I confused non-black people for each other because I couldn't distinguish between them. For example, I meant no harm when I was teaching and confused students who looked similar.

There is being invisible as in not being in someone's line of sight...and there is being invisible as feeling undervalued. It's complicated because those articles touch on both kinds of invisibility. At times I've felt invisible because I spoke up in a group, only to have what I said be ignored. If and when I insisted on being heard, the message I sometimes received (verbal or otherwise) was that I was being intrusive.

We could all be more mindful of each other.

I went to an African dance class last week and not once, but twice, a large
black woman walked over to where I was and practically stood in the same space I was occupying as if I wasn't there. In this class, we dance in lines and if you come in late, you have to find a space. I couldn't understand how the first woman somehow did not see me quite present there and began to dance in the space where I was when there were other spaces without people in them. And when a different woman did the same thing, I was even more perplexed.

But then, I went to a completely different African dance class at a completely different fitness center...

I walked in while people were warming up and they turned to look at me, as people do when someone they don't know walks into a room. I joined the warm-up and a rather large woman who was in a line in front of me stopped warming up, turned around, pointed to me and said:

"What are you doing here? You're fit."

I can say that in that moment I was certainly not invisible or overlooked and no one was going to invade my personal space.