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Month: March 2008

today

Today the air was heavy, cool with moisture. The city smelled like:
urine,
sweat,
garbage juice,
fried fat,
wet soil,
cucumbers.

banning the word

The MoMA screened a crop of new Canadian feature films all last week, and I skipped out on responsibilities for an evening to go see the latest work by one of my favorite (or in this case, favourite) directors of all time: Denys Arcand.

In the recent future of his “L’Âge des ténèbres“, the n-word has been banned. Some of this is lost in translation, lost in the nuances of Joual, and perhaps complicated by Arcand’s awkwardness with racism, racist lead characters, and supporting characters-of-colour that never quite seem to stand up for themselves (all of which may be on purpose). But, delicacies aside, any and all applications of the n-word in Quebec are inexcusably, unforgivably interdit. In one scene, the word nègre slips from the protagonist’s lips (dull, disillusioned, trapped in a lifeless and bureaucratic job, he says it during a snarky confrontation with his white boss), and he’s nearly sidelined by a workplace intervention. They are very serious, they explain, about enforcing legislation. When the sole Black man in the room tries to step up, they dismiss his opinions — what he thinks doesn’t matter. There’s no room for discussion.

But there *is* some discussion here.

The good folks at Cyberkrib alerted me to a recent TV piece by poet and style icon Clifton Joseph, where he explores the use of the n-word in Canada by way of hip-hop. (For those of us currently not based in Canada, the video can be accessed here — Windows Media Player alert.)

Clifton brings up some interesting and valid points, and I was happy to see that he went beyond the Usual Suspects(™) for his interview subjects, but I feel as though there was a huge chunk of the story missing: the context of the n-word in Canada. Tristan touches on this in his interview, but Clifton really only gets into it himself in the post-script to the segment:

I was born and raised, until adolescence, in Antigua & Barbuda, in the West Indies. I had never heard the word “nigger” there, and had no idea what it meant, until moving to Toronto in the early 1970s. Then, I was introduced to it thru books, popular culture and black comedians, especially one of my all-time favourites, Richard Pryor, as exemplified on his 1974 album “That Nigger’s Crazy”. I didn’t use the word myself, but listened to it and laughed at the jokes it was in.

But the frivolities around the word were wiped out for me in 1975, when white supremacist Ronald Steven Ryan shot and killed 15-year-old Michael Habbib around Fairview Mall in Toronto after declaring that he was going to kill “the first nigger” he saw. Habbib was working a part-time job in a merry-go-round set up in the mall’s parking lot, and me and my friends realized that it could have been any one of us, that we could have been that “nigger”.

There is no one central, unifying, dominant narrative of black identity in Canada, at least not in the way that one exists in the United States. Among the most distinct and prominent histories, though, is that of Caribbeans who migrated to Toronto and other urban centres in the 60s and 70s. Clifton fits somewhere into that story, as do many of the second generation friends I grew up with, and their parents.

I would have loved to hear the story of the n-word as seen or felt through that context, through that history. I would have loved to see an exploration of how elements of a dominant American black narrative have clashed with and influenced identity in Canada, how those clashes are affecting intergenerational relationships, how young people find justifications and reasons to relate, and how all of this plays out through music, art, activism. This goes far beyond simply discussing the n-word, it’s history, and its potential merits or offenses. Far, far beyond.

 

please don’t pull it, sir


I call this one “Hey! I wanted to read that!” or “Subway Advertisements I Don’t Agree With.”

Today, one the holiest of journalistic holy days, the distinguished newspaper and magazine editors that make up the Pulitzer Prize jury are milling about my school building, nibbling on refreshments and contemplating the year’s best work in print. As they deliberate, I feel I should take a moment to do some reflecting and praising of my own.

Three years ago one of my favourite places to freelance went bust. The CBC Radio 3 Magazine was a beautiful, visually and culturally rich, 105-issue-deep online treat. I can’t imagine how much bandwidth for each new issue cost every week, and I don’t really want to know, but I’m willing to bet that it was worth it.

(I know I’ve bellyached about their heavy emphasis on indie rock in the past, but coming from someone who spent years covering and promoting rap, that’s more a general complaint of Canadian music media. I couldn’t help going to bat for it, and ended up shipping half my independent hip hop CD collection to HQ back when I worked on an hour-long audio doc about the Toronto scene. Most of those artists, who later ended up on Radio 3’s regular rotation, had no idea how their music originally made it’s way on the air. But that’s another story.)

I was lucky that my Radio 3 producers let me do most of the stories and interviews I pitched, both for the magazine and the radio show, and that they respected my work enough to publish it largely unedited. The magazine was put together by people who genuinely loved music. People who loved photography, loved art, loved storytelling, and loved sharing it. The online magazine was funny and beautiful and I looked forward to every new issue, every new assignment. Too bad it was so chronically under-promoted. Sometimes being a “best-kept secret” is not such a great thing.

Three years ago, I was crushed to hear the news of the magazine’s demise. A lot changed at Radio 3. They overhauled the website. Started a blog. Got their own channel on satellite radio. I made the shift to broadcast and produced a few pieces for air, but slowly pulled away once the final switch to satellite was made. I think I felt a little alienated by all the changes.

Summer of 2006, I paid a visit to Radio 3’s Vancouver HQ for the first time, and was happy to meet some of the hilarious, wonderful producers that had helped me out so much in the past. They took a chance on a random rap writer from Toronto, and let me be a part of something pretty special. Many of them are still there, and still doing creative and wonderful things with the satellite channel, the podcasts, and a hilarious foray into video-casting. There’s still too much indie rock, of course.

The magazine is archived in its entirety on the Radio 3 website, and I hope they keep it up for as long as they can. The navigation is a little counter-intuitive, so you may need to do a little investigating and experimenting to find your way around. Click ‘archive’ at the bottom to go through older issues. Type my name into the search box if you want to see what I got up to back then, and please make sure you’re good on the pop-up tip. Top right corner has your page forward and back buttons. Sometimes, especially for the larger features, you’ll have to click directly on the text or an image to navigate.

I still really like going through some of the stories on there, especially the visual features. If you’ve got a moment, go take a peek, explore, click some buttons, listen. If it was a secret while it was active, now that it’s inactive it may as well be dead. There’s no reason something this good should be subjected to such a lonely, loveless death. Long live Radio 3.

something that does not love a wall


Thomas Edison on loop. From the perma-installation on American Identities at the Brooklyn Museum.

 

Thanks to a hookup from fellow Poundling Angelica, I’ve jumped aboard the New Amerykah Badu-wagon. It’s a beautiful record, and schizophrenic just the way I like it. Everyone seems to be feeling ‘The Hump’ extra hard, but I’m still trying to listen without looking at song titles. Do yourself a favo(u)r, take the time to let it sink in as a whole, to let the pieces and patches bleed together.

It means a lot to find a piece of exciting, loving music these days. So much of my identity used to be framed and punctuated by the music I listened to, the music I was paid to write about. I don’t know what happened, but I lost that… loving feeling. Which is okay. I’ll stay bored and detached from it as long as I need to. Other things have been framing and punctuating my days — texts, images, conversations, tides, windchills, textiles.

I’ve never been able to understand identity, or taste, as anything less than fluid. My takes on citizenship, immigration especially, and other physical markers are influenced by my (family’s) own continent-hopping, and by the lessons I picked up as a kid from the other kids on the block with similar emigrant or émigré stories. Émigré. Rhymes with gourmet, betray, folkway. Segue.

Here’s an excerpt from part one of The Border by William Langewiesche. The Atlantic, May 1992:

The twin cities of El Paso and Juárez, with a combined population of 2 million, mark the midpoint of the border. This is where the Rio Grande, having flowed due south from its origin in the Rockies, snakes through a gap in the desert mountains and turns southeast. It is also where the two halves of the boundary join: to the west the line runs crisply across the deserts; to the east it rides a more ambiguous midchannel course through the curves of the Rio Grande.

As it flows between El Paso and Juárez, the river is hemmed in by levees. We drove for a time along the northern side. On the opposite shore the tin and cardboard shantytowns of Juárez sprawled over low hills. The Juárez slums are as bad as the shantytowns I know in West Africa. They are less crowded than but as bad as the slums of Bombay. A gully spewed black water into the river. Tainted upstream by agricultural runoff and sewage, the Rio Grande swallowed the filth easily. A family bathed among the bushes. Out of modesty the women washed themselves with their dresses on; the men had stripped down to their shorts. They stood in the water and watched us pass. Ahead the bridges between Juárez and El Paso spanned the river. A rowboat heavy with passengers nosed against the U.S. shore, bypassing Immigration. One woman couldn’t climb the steep embankment. Others, who had made it to the top of the levee, went back down to help her.

Sealed in the air-conditioned minivan, we crept through the crowd on the levee. There were about a hundred people, getting their bearings and watching for the Border Patrol. Though the levee is technically U.S. territory, in practice it is neutral soil; retreat to the river is easy. The crowd was mostly local — unemployed Juárez youths without border-crossing cards, going to El Paso for the day. Some were going farther; they might have come from the interior of Mexico, or from Central or South America. These travelers carried suitcases and scurried away from the van. The locals were not so shy. Recognizing the Boundary Commission seal on the door, they tapped on the roof, peered through the windows, smirked and joked. They begged cigarettes, which we did not have. Boys stood in our way nonchalantly, showing off for girls.

Gunaji seemed oblivious. He spoke about his decision to become an American citizen. His older sister objected, but he insisted. “I told her, ‘I’m going to serve India by staying out of India.'”

I interrupted him. “Doesn’t it seem odd, if you think back, to find yourself managing this boundary?” I gestured toward the crowd.

He looked annoyed. “In the United States I have always tried to participate in the workings of government. I served on the Las Cruces City Council. Now I serve as commissioner. I am happy such an honor has been bestowed upon my family. A nation needs its boundaries, no?”

I nodded yes. You need a them to have an us.

All sorts of identities are defined in this way, not just the most obvious, political ones. And when self only exists in opposition to another, in the absence of an-other, you must invent one. Is that why war is so important? Assert your own existence by destroying that of others?

I know I’ve said it before, and I know I wasn’t the first to spell this out. That: the idea(l) of a static, definable, distinct identity — one with strict, defendable borders — is dangerous and toxic and boring, and it doesn’t work. Whether it be in terms of music, nationalism, subculture, it’s not healthy. I wonder what came first, though — the border or the enemy discourse? The threat or the wall? How does one define the other?