RIP, Chinua AchebeThe influential novelist Chinua Achebe passed away, leaving behind a legacy of fiction, poetry, and political discourse. He’s the author of the seminal novel Things Fall Apart.
I spoke with him in 2007 for NPR’s News and Notes. Unfortunately we had a vexingly bad phone line. But listen carefully to his words not just on human nature and creativity, but also politics and the Biafra Civil War.
Audio is here.
Where I Come From, Blogging Wise
So to understand why I am a commercial non-success at blogging, you have to understand the moment. That moment would be the early/mid ’90s, when Thuh Internetz were new and most people had not a clue how to use them.
I was working for MTV and freelancing doing political analysis for CNN. Then, having been hanging around early online community pioneers like Omar Wasow, I started a blog. (Omar designed it.)
So: I went to the Wayback Machine (a project of the Internet Archive, which I adore) and pulled some of the early images from this site. The one at the top is from 1997 and if you see it in the Wayback Machine, it even blinks an exclamation point.
That version touts my heading to ABC News. Previous versions of the site, sans my photo (taken by my pal Tanya) mention my work at CNN, which really inspired me to do political blogging.
As to the commercial non-success…. when I received an offer to sell the site, I didn’t because it was my wee digital baby. Now, knowing what I know about the evolution of online content and community, I would have sold it and started something new.
Holding on is not always the best strategy. But until we have a wayback machine for real life I can’t go back and become an early internet mogul. Honestly, I loved the quirkiness of that moment of history… the uncomprehending stares I got when I went around the 1996 political conventions and told people I had a blog. I literally handed out paper flyers for my blog. Talk about old school.
A New Ambitious, Possibly Insane Project: Dear 2050
This is a picture of my family — myself, Mother, sister, and my beloved grandmother, Mary Catherine Stokes. We were enjoying a mini-family reunion to celebrate my sister’s med school graduation.
Grandma passed away almost a decade ago at the age of 82, after being misdiagnosed for symptoms of the colon cancer that, once caught, had progressed too far to save her. I wonder if she would still be alive now if the doctors had done their job. And no, my family did not sue. We thought it best to focus on what was important — healing our family from the loss of our matriarch and champion-in-chief, and living lives she would appreciate and respect.
I did a piece on my grandmother for NPR. Give it a listen if you get a chance.
In the year 2050, I will be 81 years old, just a hairsbreadth from the age my grandmother died. I’ve been blogging since 1995, and of late I’ve just asked why I’m still doing it. But there’s something in this world that still attracts me, something about the original sense of blogging… raw and unfinished.
So here’s what I thought about and decided. I will blog a piece a day through the year 2050 — should I be lucky enough to reach that age with enough mental acuity to write. There are many sayings about how big goals should scare you. This doesn’t scare me on an economic level — my blogging is non-renumerative, at least what I do on my personal site. But it does give me a shiver of potential shame. What if I can’t or won’t fulfill this pledge, even considering that I will probably write some “evergreen” posts?
The year 2050 holds a mystique, not just in the number itself, which is so solid and rounded, but because of the demographic changes America is undergoing. I want to imagine that I can make the blog equivalent of a time-lapse film…. talking about anything and everything, reminiscing and future-casting. Maybe some will just be a picture, or a video, or a sound file. But I want to unfold my life in this space. Help me stay true to my pledge, please.
No Class, Just Stereotypes
I was not a poor black child. I grew up in Baltimore, on a street with big shingled houses and leafy trees. But after my father left and returned to Zimbabwe, my mother, sister and I lived in a state of persistent, low-grade economic anxiety. One year we could not get heating oil delivered so we all slept on the floor by the gas fireplace to stay warm. (I actually cherish the memory, because we snuggled together.) My mother enrolled us in summer academic programs, sometimes working two jobs and once doing a brutal night shift. I felt ashamed to see her exhausted, and worried I caused her distress. To help out, I took jobs I loathed, as a catering waitress and a telemarketer. So, we were not poor, but we were part of the fearful working class, worried that we might not be able to keep up with our bills or achieve our ambitions. Of course, so many people today are in the same boat that my family was back then.
I can’t help but think of my personal history when I listen to the spate of wrongheaded analyses of poor children, from Newt Gingrich’s call to make them janitors to “If I Were A Poor Black Kid” by Gene Marks on Forbes.com. The article has gotten more than 500,000 page views (as of 1pm Friday), both from supporters and critics. The author’s facile analysis boils down to: go to a magnet school, study hard, and learn to code. Even if some kids get into magnet schools, others are left in educational ghettos. And many poor families cannot afford broadband to take those online coding classes. (Next summer, a new industry initiative will offer $9.95 broadband access to low-income families, but until then, they can expect to pay forty to one hundred dollars a month.)
The Forbes article literally has no class, not only because it panders to stereotypes about black achievement, but also because it misreads income inequality and perpetuates the myth of the classless society. As a study by the Pew Research Center pointed out earlier this year, the Great Recession has had a devastating effect on black and Latino families, and the wealth gap in relation to whites has widened. In 2009, the net worth of white families was $113,149, versus $6,325 for Hispanics and $5,677 for blacks. The gap is a key aspect of class in America, which is more closely linked to the advantages of inter-generational wealth than current income.
My family had relatively little financial wealth to pass on, but great reserves of intellect, spirit and knowledge. I went to public school in Baltimore, and then to Harvard, where as my work-study job I hauled Blue Books at the Law Review while its president, Barack Obama, stood a few feet away. Right out of college I interned at Newsweek, where in 1990 there was a fifty dollar late dinner allowance on nights we were closing the magazine. I found myself sitting in a Swiss restaurant eating steak and spaetzle at 10:30 in the evening, laughing with my colleagues, and feeling both grateful and oddly displaced. We know that sliding down the income ladder, which so many people have in recent years, can be psychologically devastating. But jumping up a class is disorienting in its own way. Do your habits, politics, and aesthetics track with the world you knew, or the world you circulate in? How do you see your responsibility to help others back home?
The lives of black folk are measurably different from our peers of the same income. At the time many of our white friends are getting that nut from their parents to put a downpayment on a house, we are saving or living paycheck-to-paycheck. And we’re more likely to have to help out our families, meaning money flows not to us but from us. I’ve supported my family in Baltimore and Zimbabwe, ipaying overseas exam fees and hiring a lawyer to sort out the legalities of an abandoned house next to my mother’s. I’ve been privileged to contribute to those I love, and I recognize that as privilege.
That’s the real problem with analyses like Marks’. There is no recognition of what privilege means in America. (Marks, the owner of a management consulting firm, responded to critics by saying that he’s “not rich.”) In Lake Wobegon, all children are above average. And in America, everybody is sorta-kinda-middle class, or wants to think so. The myth that there is no class masks the divisions in opportunities we have, and undermines our quest to re-invigorate social mobility.
Dueling Videos of Herman Cain And Accuser Ginger White = Soap Opera
With the allegations that Herman Cain had a 13-year affair, the Presidential campaign has outdone the soap opera. The new accuser is named Ginger White. In her interview with Atlanta Fox 5, she says: “It was pretty simple. It wasn’t complicated. I was aware that he was married. And I was also aware I was involved in a very inappropriate situation, relationship.”
Cain issued this statement and also went on CNN to rebut the allegations… after they leaked but before they aired on the Atlanta station:
The Cain saga has been unfolding for some time, with allegations of sexual harassment; a push by Cain and supporters to liken those allegations “a high tech lynching”; and now the allegation of the affair. The latest accuser has a record of evictions, one bankruptcy, and has settled a sexual harassment claim with a previous employer. We’ve watched race and gender dynamics go wild. But now, class dynamics are increasingly coming into play too, with a subtle or not-so-subtle framing of Ginger White and sexual harassment claimant Sharon Bialek (who had two bankruptcies) as the kind of women who would lie. Since when did filing for bankruptcy make it impossible to have sex with a rich or powerful man? Some might argue it offers incentive.
Cain has painted himself an authentic black man. He claimed that President Barack Obama had “never been a part of the black experience in America.” This desperate hyper-marketing of blackness seems targeted not at African-Americans, but non-black supporters seeking their own form of racial validation. Ann Coulter’s cry that “our blacks are so much better than their blacks” — referring to black Republicans during a conversation about Cain — no doubt got her a few more speech bookings, and a collective cringe from many black Republicans. And that leads to the question: do Cain’s supporters believe he is blameless in these allegations, or just that he’s authentic, in a tyranny-of-low-expectations kinda way?
It’s rare to see two black men figure so prominently in the drama of politics. But President Obama and Herman Cain seem to be operating not only in parallel planes, but parallel universes. Early in his term, President Obama was accused of favoring blacks (i.e., Glenn Beck’s rant on how the President is a “racist”). The irony, of course, is that because of persistent joblessness and the sub-prime crisis, African-Americans have fared worse economically under President Obama than they did under President George W. Bush, let alone President Bill Clinton. How African-Americans perceive the President’s efforts to serve not just them, but other communities with heightened unemployment, will affect turnout in 2012. The Republican flirtation with Herman Cain as a viable candidate seems to be waning… but like all soap operas, the primary season holds many twists.