Inclusive Marvel Universe!

pow

It seemed to happen just like that for me. POW! Marvel got black alla sudden! Realistically, comic books have had characters of colors (Storm), I just didn’t pay any mind. I’ve seen EVERY SINGLE BATMAN FILM in theaters since I was five. But I’ve never seen myself or anyone I know in the wealthy white Bruce Wayne (or any of the auxiliary characters). I have watched all the X-Men, Captain America, Spider-Man, ect. movies because I’m compelled to. Summer blockbusters are like that, you have to watch them because it’s an American pastime. They can get a little stale though. . .

And then, POW! Something about 2016 woke me up. It may have started with Captain America: Civil War and my introduction to Black Panther. Soon after that, Netflix announced the Luke Cage series that would follow in the same vein as other gritty New York superheros. Finally, when there were murmurs of an all-black cast for the 2018 Black Panther film. It all happened in a quick rapid-fire of “black people are going to be doing this, and this, and that!” It was a lot for me to catch up with.

When I found out that my favorite Atlantic journalist, Ta-Nehisi Coates, was writing the Black Panther comic books, I took this trend seriously. I went down to my local comic book store and sought out the things I’d seen on the big screen. Now I’m a black comic book nerd. Or a comic book Blerd, if you will.

It was a forum that I never felt I could enter. It seemed like a sphere that was dominated by white males who took shit way too seriously, but I’m finding my own community of black comic fans who recognize the intersection of race, gender, and heroism. Here’s my current comic reading that helps me feel pretty powerful:

1. Black Panther

 issue-one-black-panther 

As I said, this series is written by Ta-Nehisi Coates, journalist of The Atlantic. He’s written amazing articles about race in America and I knew he’d bring something interesting to the table. I’m not too familiar with the Black Panther story, but what I’ve read in this newer series is fascinating. We’re dealing with the complicated nature of leadership, colonialism issues, the role of women, insurgent uprisings (that may have some legitimacy). This shit is real.

2. World of Wakanda

issue-one-world-of-wakanda

Speaking of the role of women, please check out the spin-off of Black Panther. World of Wakanda is co-written by feminist essayist, Roxane Gay (Bad Feminist) and poet, Yona Harvey. Along with Coates, the trio put together an exciting first issue. In this series, we get a closer look at lovers and female warriors, Ayo and Aneka, as they struggle with the changes in their country. They break rank and travel the land, empowering oppressed women. They’re enacting my dream: Building a female army to topple a patriarchal institution. There’s also another female character who is a trouble-making sorceress with revenge on her mind. The LGBT perspective is refreshing and long over due. We’re dealing with black female protagonists who are complex in their love and motivations.

3. The Invincible Iron Man (RiRi Williams)

invincible-iron-man-1-5

I might be the most excited about this series. RiRi Williams is a 15-year-old black girl from Chicago and she’s a super genius who engineered her own Iron Man suit so she can fight crime. Holy shit, she’s everything I wished I could be when I was 15! There are some real-life complications in Williams’ life, gun violence in Chicago kinda solidifies her motivation for seeking justice in the world. The writer, Brian Michael Bendis, used a real world fear that young black kids have and wrote about it in an even-handed manner. I really appreciated that. In a powerless situation that kids find themselves in, Williams’ is a really empowering figure. I also appreciated little RiRi’s ambition for learning and innovation. GIRLS IN STEM!

I’m certain I’ll find other comic books that will feed my new obsession. I’m making regular trips to my local comic book shop and the owner knows my titles (which makes me feel more legit). I’m excited that this is how America reacts to racial violence in our day-to-day lives. I sincerely appreciate the activists who take it to the streets, but I also enjoy seeing art that reflects what America really looks like. Who knows what kind of woman I would have been if I had RiRi Williams in my life when I was a kid? I’m glad that little girls, of today, have her. They need to see someone, who looks like them, doing extraordinary things.

It’s a new year and things look very uncertain under a Trump administration. I don’t know what’s going to happen with policy, economics, or race relations. It’s not looking too hot right now. . . But reading about these black characters, who are taking control of their destinies, is having a positive affect on me. I don’t have an Iron Man suit, but the panic attacks over an uncertain future have ceased, lol!

Moana: Not Just a Princess Movie

My first in-theater film for 2017 was Moana and what a way to start the year! It’s been ages since I’ve made the effort to see an animated film in theaters, but I made an exception for this one. If you haven’t seen Moana yet, please take time to see an inspiring story about a girl who kicks ass. I’ve got my reasons for pressuring you; here they are:

1. The sheer amount of Pacific Islander voice actors

Actors: Auli’i Cravalho (Moana), Dwayne Johnson (Maui), Jermaine Clement (Tamatoa, Crab Guy), Rachel House (Gramma Tala), Temuera Morrison (Chief Tui, Moana’s dad), Nicole Scherzinger (Sina, Moana’s mom), and Oscar Kightley (fisherman).

All of these actors are Hawaiian, Maori, or Samoan; because who better to tell this story than the people of this area. Also, please check out Rachel House and Oscar Kightley in the New Zealand film The Hunt for the Wilderpeople, it was beautiful, hilarious, and so heart-warming. For the 16-year-old, Auli’i Cravalho (Moana), this was her first acting role ever. She’s a native Hawaiian who was thrilled to represent her people in a film like this. Watch her react to the news that she got the part here.

2. The music is amazing

Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton) and Opetaia Foa’i (Samoan singer) contributed to the soundtrack and you can hear their vocals in the main song, “We Know Our Way.” It definitely encapsulates the message of the film: going beyond what you know, exploring new paths, and the history of the Pacific Island voyagers. Also, Jermaine Clement (Flight of the Concords) sings a David Bowie-esque song as giant freaky crab!

3. Moana is not just a princess

And she makes that clear when Maui teases her for it. True, she is next in line as her people’s chieftain, but she’s not like any other vintage Disney Princess. In preparation for her eventual crown, Moana is shown training for the job by seeing to the community’s needs. She solves problems about her village, advises her people, and ultimately sets out into the unknown to save them. She does this without any real knowledge of the water or navigation, but she’s a quick learner when she meets Maui.

4. Understanding your past

Moana’s grandmother’s storytelling and guidance is the major catalyst for the film’s plot. Gramma Tala acts as the Polynesian griot by providing Moana (and the audience) with creation stories about Maui, the land, and the seas. It’s always a good idea to study other society’s creation stories, since they’re a great insight into a their present-day language, ecology, and values. More concretely, Moana must understand her people’s past (island exploration), in order to understand her own purpose and solve village’s present-day problems.

5. An environmental message

From the very beginning, when baby Moana helps a baby sea turtle make its way into the ocean, you can tell this is a character who values the land and the animals that inhabit it. Her sidekick, Hei Hei, is another good example of her empathy. She cares for the dumb chicken, who pecks at random things, while people warn her that the chicken is kind of useless. I hope that children watching this film, believe that any animal, regardless of its looks, can be valued as a sentient being.

**SPOILER**:

Call me a “close watcher,” but when Moana is confronted by the volcano monster, she doesn’t fight back. Instead, she offers empathy. I took this as an illustration of our relationship with the natural world. Much of the industrialized world sees the environment as a hindrance to our production. Which is why we’re in trouble today (deforestation, polluted seas, and shrinking ozone). Moana knows what the land offers her and her people, so she works with the natural world so that they can peacefully coexist.

6. Get out of your comfort zone

Anyone can understand the Chief’s response to his daughter’s desire to be on the water. He wants her to be safe and rule on an island where nothing can hurt her. Looking closer, we can see what happens when you have “island mentality.” Staying within the boundaries you create, doesn’t guarantee your safety (as we saw in the film). You’re also unlikely to learn anything new. We live in a country where people share a strong sense of “island mentality;” we fear new challenges, new people and exchanging new ideas. I could say a lot about our lack of meaningful exploration, but I think you get the idea. When you leave the confines of your island, there is risk, but you will learn something about the world and yourself.

When to Kill Your Novel

While most people are trying to quit smoking, I’m quitting a novel. . . 

When I started writing my novel, The Bangkok Assignment, 3 years ago, I started out with the verve and enthusiasm that reminded me of my youth. In high school, I skipped homework in favor of writing full-length manuscripts that were dark and romantic and really corny. Nothing much ever came from those books because they were seriously derivative of the terrible popular culture of that time.

Fast forward to 32.

It’s the new year and I’m sitting on a book that I can’t bear to read. Yes, there are some tolerable parts to it, but the verve and enthusiasm is long gone. It disappeared around year 2 of writing. Yesterday, I had to sit and face the facts. That involved list-making in a yellow legal pad. At the top, I wrote:

WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOUR BOOK?

20170104_145150

The reasons were really easy to pinpoint once I admitted I had a problem. First, I don’t really like my two main characters. They’re flat and don’t remind me of people I’d like to get to know (their original purpose). I started to notice that, much too late in the game, and tried to pile on interesting attributes. As I overcompensate in fleshing out personalities, I saw other flaws. I had auxiliary characters that served as props for scenery. That’s no good either. SIGH!

Second, I had too many important issues thrown into the plot. It muddled the setting and didn’t give me characters a clear purpose. I had sex trafficking in Thailand, potential for violent coups, the Asian Migration of ’13, and maybe a crazy Prime Minister? by page 200, I hadn’t expanded on any one of those issues. Everything was superficially addressed. Why couldn’t I have picked one goddamn thing and written extensively about it? Because I wanted, desperately, to prove my ethos as a writer who did her research on another countries politics and culture. The result? Many of those issues read like Wikipedia entries instead of being fully incorporated into the plot.

This brings me to my third issue. The tone was all off. I was aiming for a light-hearted adventurous story with romance and redemption. Ambitious? Sure, but I managed to keep the plot a sexy comedy of errors until it butted against sex trafficking and slavery. Then shit got real. My tone had been light and fun until I needed to get serious about the horrors of being a refugee. I couldn’t make the appropriate transitions and it was jarring as fuck.

These were the problems presented in cold light of day. These were fundamental flaws that made continuing the writing process nearly impossible. Because I was trying to fix the foundation with minor spackle jobs, I only ended up with a shaky mess that was bound to collapse.

After 200 pages, I have to kill The Bangkok Assignment. I feel the anguish, but also the immense relief. This book as been an albatross around my neck for a long time because I’ve ignored the signs of a bad manuscript for a long time. What’s listed above is just the start. I’ve been writing like the seventeen-year-old Charish for a while. Drawing on what’s fun and easy. I’ve been mimicking the pop-culture junk food that I enjoy consuming, but I forgot that I’ve grown significantly since that stage in my life.

I read entirely different things now. Like, actual literature: Zadie Smith, James Baldwin, Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie. I’ve read Moby Dick TWICE (when I was 17, I vowed that I’d never read it)! I watch significantly better films. I read more news and I understand more global events and how they connect to historical events. I’m not trying to backdoor brag, but you get the idea: I fuckin’ grew up. Sadly, my writing did not. I look at these 200 or so pages of The Bangkok Assignment and ask myself: “Would you really buy this from a bookstore?” Yes, because the premise was still legit. But I would be sorely disappointed in my purchase. Because I expect so much from those I deem “professional writers.” Which means, I should probably expect the same from myself.

The novel is dead. It’s a new year with new starts and all that. I cannot stand the thought of holding on to something because I worked on it for 200 pages. If it’s a mediocre 200 pages, then what’s the point? If I revive the novel, I now understand that I’d have to start over and dismiss most of what I’ve written. Like I said, the premise is dope; the writing is not. I certainly won’t delete the file from my hard-drive, I’m not insane. IT WAS 200 PAGES!

#BlackDollarsMatter Too!

For those who wonder how they can help during this tumultuous summer of violence and racial inequality, I understand. Many blacks feel helpless in their anger and frustration, unable to find ways to actively participate in the revolution. I understand that too. If you’re unable to find a protest or vigil in your city, what ways can you contribute to Black Lives Matter?

Sometimes we have to remember to “hit ’em where it hurts. In the pocket.” Don’t forget that Black Dollars Matter too. I’m not an idealistic Marxist, who is convinced that we can stop buying things altogether. I know that in this country, we’re addicted consumers. But if we’re stuck in a capitalist society, perhaps we should take the white supremacy part out of it.

The first thing you can do is #BankBlack. This is actually already starting to happen. Since Killer Mike’s challenge to the black community to change their banks, black-owned banking institutions have seen a huge spike in deposits.

one united

Here’s a map of all the Black-owned banks in our country. The green dots highlight One United Bank (member FDIC), which allows anyone to set up an account from any state. This takes care of ATMs, online bill pay, and secure credit cards without having to make a personal visit. It’s time for a “bank-in.”

final_logo

I found what I can confidently describe as the “Black Amazon.com”, in the website, We Buy Black. Here, you can find all kinds of products ranging from apparel to electronics to pet supplies, all black-own or produced. Also, Afrobella has compiled a list of independent black-owned businesses to patronize. This list started in 2015 and it’s still growing.

What about vacations? There are a growing number of black-owned Bed and Breakfasts popping up around the nation. Here’s a list of lovely B&Bs that are breaking through the hospitality color barrier.

Morehead Manor Durham north carolina

Morehead Manor in Durham, North Carolina

Black women have long shared their frustrations regarding beauty supply stores and treatment they receive as patrons. These beauty supply stores are generally owned by Korean immigrants who sometimes don’t understand the community they’re serving. However, that is slowly changing. Since, 2004, the Black Owned Beauty Supply Association (BOBSA) has been keeping tabs on on black salons, barbershops and beauty supply locations in America. Check out their listings here.

beauty supply

We have to start somewhere. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called on the black community to boycott the bus line in Montgomery, Alabama, which worked to change legislation within a year. The protest started in 1955 and segregated bus-lines were ruled unconstitutional in 1956. While something like this might not sound feasible today, King also called urged us to invest in black banks. This is a small segment from the speech he made just one day before his assassination:

I call upon you to take your money out of the banks downtown and deposit your money in Tri-State Bank-we want a ‘bank-in’ movement in Memphis. So go by the savings and loan association. I’m not asking you something we don’t do ourselves at SCLC. Judge Hooks and others will tell you that we have an account here in the savings and loan association from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. We’re just telling you to follow what we’re doing. Put your money there. You have six or seven black insurance companies in Memphis. Take out your insurance there. We want to have an ‘insurance-in.’ Now these are some practical things we can do. We begin the process of building a greater economic base. And at the same time, we are putting pressure where it really hurts. I ask you to follow through here.”

Consider what you buy and who it helps. You work hard to earn your dollar; who are you giving it back to? And do they have your best interests in mind? Frankly, I’m tired of rewarding bad behavior. I want to encourage black entrepreneurs and build the economic foundation that Dr. King spoke of. We can do that if we are vigilant with our money.

#TMN Stands with #BLM

The Motley News pledges its allegiance with Black Lives Matter. It shouldn’t be a surprise, I’m just sorry that we’ve waiting so long to throw our hat in the ring. Evelyn has gone off to create her own chapter in Champaign, IL, while I’m still on the journalism front, getting angrier and angrier with American politics and culture.

I’m angry that this year is no different from last year. #SandraBland, #WalterScott, #TamirRice, #EricGarner (are just a few of the names we can’t forget). There are more body cams attached to policemen, but this year none of them seem to be working (in both of the killings of #AltonSterling and #PhilandroCastile, body cams “fell off”)

I’m angry that #BLM rally aren’t even allowed their first amendment: the right to free speech and assembly, and have been busted up by militant police and SWAT before they were able to march

Baton-Rouge-Police-2-e1468239074875-800x430

Source: RawStory.com

I’m angry that even journalists can’t cover the news without getting arrested for being black.

636036894002415464-download

Carlet Cleare and Justin Carter, reporters for WHAM-TV, arrested

I’m angry that WhiteAmerica got conveniently distracted by the Dallas Shooting to even understand how such a shooting could take place. And now the conversation returns to #alllivesmatter, #bluelivesmatter and other inane, unsympathetic arguments.

13592570_10153607170066825_7792149052846486307_n

Most of all, I’m exhausted from having to hide my anger and disgust with this country. Blacks should have the right to be in their feelings right about now. Anger is an emotion that we’ve been deprived of for decades. We’ve had to put our anger and frustration on the back burner in favor of assimilation and respectability. We’ve had to dismiss our own anger to quietly remind whites that we are no longer property or animals. No group of people should have to defend their existence in the country they were born in.

2016 is the year The Motley News says fuck the niceties, fuck respectability, and fuck #alllives. Because #alllives cannot happen without #BlackLive mattering. And that is a fact.

 

Being Black in Finland

13466143_10153553279531825_4580325649481796523_n

I lay on the hotel bed, laptop propped on my belly, grading student papers. Ru Paul’s Drag Race is on in the background, a queen tells us about her withholding mother. I’m in Estonia and it’s still hard to imagine why. My husband, who is out scouting Tallinn alone, is having the time of his life. I, on the other hand, am still stuck in the surreal daze of: “I’ve just been to Finland, I took a ferry across the Baltic Sea for Tallinn, Estonia. And here I am, in Estonia, grading papers.” I’m teaching an online English class for my university.

When my sister calls through Skype (invented in Estonia), she’s with her best friend, J. Through the jerky pixelated screen I can see their smiling faces. “How are you? What’s it like there? What are you eating? What’s the city called again?”

I pause the Drag Race and laugh at them. I answer all of the questions as fast as I can, trying to add meaningful details and pausing to remember what I’ve eaten. It probably sounded like: Cobblestone streets, fresh salmon, black bread and bicycles! I ended with a “I still can’t believe we’re here.”

13419199_10153549524996825_3374852742205291698_n

My sister grins. I know she’s excited that I’m here. “Hey,” she starts. “Have you seen any black people yet?” It’s a loaded question. She’s my big sister and I know she’s concerned about my comfort and safety. “Have you seen any black people yet?” means, “How do they treat blacks over there?” “Have you been harassed yet?” “How do service workers interact with you?” and possibly, “Do you recommend it to other black people?” I think of all of these questions before going anywhere. Understanding a country’s history, geo-political atmosphere, and their class system is always helpful before you take a trip. Black people, especially, are always concerned about comfort and security while traveling abroad. But sometimes we’re so concerned about comfort and safety, that we stop ourselves from going off the beaten track. Did I ever see myself going to a Scandinavian country, then crossing the sea to a former Soviet state? Not at all. But I also happen to be married to mischief making man (our original plan was to go to Russia). I’ve learned to have a sense of adventure because of him.

But to answer my sister’s question: “Have you seen any black people yet?” I did see black people! While we were in Helsinki, I saw lots of Somalians in the suburbs and a few other Africans in the city center. They were all living a Finnish life, walking or cycling to their jobs or shops. Not a big deal.

13466069_10153547963531825_8088309983269573170_n

I could have stay hung up on how many black people I saw while traveling to the whitest parts of the world, or I could have enjoyed myself. I chose the latter. Because coming back to America was truly slap in the face. When my husband and I returned to the states, we were once again confronted by the idea that the United States is not a safe or comforting place for black people to live, work, and play. Since we’ve been back, two more black men have been killed by policemen. Blacks have taken to the streets in anger and frustration and whites have made excuses for hundreds of years of oppression. This is where I come from. This is what my blue passport shows the world.

I hope the next time either I, or my sister, leave the country, we each skip the question of “have you seen any black people yet?” While we might get funny looks in foreign lands, we’re probably going to be safe. We’ll most likely learn something wonderful about another country, before returning to a home that treats us like second-class citizens.

I’ll leave you with a quick anecdote before signing off.

Finnish Customs in the Helsinki Airport: I lug my bag to the desk to see a large blonde viking man, named Lars or Gunter or whatever. He’s dressed in black and I assume he’s got a gun strapped to his thigh. He asks for my passport, he wants to know if this is a trip for business or pleasure. I give him the dates of my stay and he smiles before saying “Wonderful, have a nice stay.” Sure, there’s something eerily Bond-villain-like about him, but he’s polite and I keep it moving. My husband’s experience is nearly the same, as his customs agent has told him: “Two weeks? You should stay longer!”

American Customs in Chicago’s O’Hare: We’re quickly trying to catch our connecting St. Louis flight, but we have been corralled along with other harried travelers. I see that my husband has made it past customs ahead of me and when I lug my bags up to “Derek,” I’m sweaty and I have to pee. Derek looks at my passport and travel itinerary before asking where I’ve been. “Helsinki.” How long? “Two weeks.” Business or pleasure? “I was on vacation” He studies my face, while I’m about to pass out from the heat. Derek asks if I met friends while I was there? I told him I didn’t. He asks me why I went to Helsinki if I didn’t have friends there. I was at a lost for words. I don’t know, to experience Finland? He wanted to know where else I’d been. “Estonia.” The smirk on his face as he watched sweat roll down my temple, made me want to scream at him. He said in a snide voice that he assumed I didn’t have any friends there either. That’s when he asked me for another form of identification. I looked over to where my husband stood, he was frowning and mouthing “what’s wrong?” While I dug through my unorganized travel bag to find another ID that was better than a US passport, I watched Derek show my passport to the agent next to him and whisper something in his ear. I angrily slapped all of my ID on the counter. “Here, I’m from Ohio, I’m a university professor, and I have a Capital One credit card. Does that help?” He gives me a slight nod and tells I can go. No explanation for the extra scrutiny and certainly no, “Welcome back home!”

All of this is to say, Black folks: Don’t let fear keep you from exploring the world. You will be pleasantly surprised by who you’ll meet and what you’ll learn. Other countries have an idea about us that will quickly be refuted once you open your mouth and speak to them. I can’t say the same about America. I’ve been talking, bargaining, and trying to appease white people since I was a child and at age thirty-one, I still haven’t gotten anywhere new.

 

 

Interview with Filmmaker Vanessa Block [Audio]

In the short documentary, The Testimony, Congolese women are used as weapons in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo. In all conflicts, it’s usually women and children who are caught in the crossfires and made to pay for it.  Rape is usually the “tool” which exacts the most damage to the opposition, since it leads to the destruction of a community and, in many cases, an entire ethnic group. But what if there’s no clear opposition for a government military destroy? The sinister part of this story is that the country’s own military is responsible for the majority of rape cases. Frustrated with their losing battle against destabilizing militants (M23), the Congolese military take those frustrations out on civilian women. The Testimony, tells the stories of some of these women. They share their terrifying experiences, the fall-out from their families and villages, and how they pick up the pieces.

What happens when women don’t testify? The rest of the world will never know the truth. Oppressors depend on that silence. And once we know, what do we do? We’re an ever-shrinking global community and we no longer have an excuse for being ignorant. We must repeat their stories and spread them far and wide. Some of us have to get in fray and get our hands dirty.

That’s where Vanessa Block comes in. I got the chance to talk to Block about her documentary debut, which was short-listed for an Oscar nomination and distributed through Netflix. She described how she found her start in film making and what led her to the DRC to film the historic Minova Rape Trial. I asked her about the challenges of finding survivors to interview, the work needed to heal a nation, and what her next project will be. Please watch the film and listen to our interview for a deeper understanding on this pressing issue affecting women in the Congo.

[AUDIO]