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Bird's Blog

Poetry, musings, observations, commentary, rants, confessions...and who knows what else!

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Location: San Francisco Bay Area

Teacher, writer, poet, grandmother, lover, wine-drinker, chocolate eater, beach comber, hiker, traveler, Giants fan, San Franciscan. All work on this blog is copyrighted material.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

San Francisco open your golden gate, you let no stranger wait outside your door.

K9, Your Boydie Loves Ya!

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Sunday, February 11, 2007

Obama: The Collision of Race, Culture and Politics

I’ve been reading a lot about Barack Obama of late – and how, in the eyes of some members of the African-American community, he is not truly “black.” This interpretation isn’t based on Obama’s mixed blood necessarily (his mother is Caucasian), but rather on his father’s history – Obama’s father was an African man who immigrated from Kenya to the United States. Thus, the theory goes, Obama isn’t centered in the African-American culture – he is not a descendant of West African slaves and has not borne the emotional and historical baggage associated with that heritage –he is not truly an African-American. Debra Dickerson, a black writer for salon.com recently appeared on the Cobert Report and explained that Obama is, in the black culture, not a true brotha – but an adopted brotha. Cobert then likened Obama to the red-headed stepchild “you get to slap around a little bit and people won’t care.” To which Dickerson replied “We love him just the same.”

How is one’s culture determined? By race? By shared experiences? By geographical affiliations? My daughter is biracial – borne of a white mother and a first-generation Chinese-American father. But she doesn’t claim her Chinese heritage or blood. She is white, she tells me. Because even though the map of Kunming rests in my daughter’s face (as does the strong, sharp jaw line of her French-Canadian ancestors) she was raised in a white household – she is culturally white. This is how she sees herself. She neither speaks nor understands Chinese (not Mandarin, Cantonese, nor the Kunming dialect her paternal grandparents speak). She is at ease with chopsticks and knows what to order in a Chinese restaurant, just as many folks, regardless of race or ethnic background, living in the Bay Area. And she can cook some of the dishes taught her by her father – but his cooking was never quite like his mother’s – more like a California-Chinese fusion of ingredients, textures, tastes, and smells.

My daughter essentially rejects her Chinese heritage and lineage and sees herself as culturally white, but what do whites see her as? They see her as Asian. And what do other Chinese-Americans see her as? They often view her as a poorly-raised Chinese girl –because she doesn’t conform to the racial and cultural stereotype perpetuated not just by whites, but by Asians themselves. She is not a good Chinese girl – she does not just meekly obey, and she is not studious. She does indeed hold to strong family values, but those were instilled in her by both her white mother and Chinese-American father.

If I use my daughter as evidence, racial identity is determined by cultural identity. But who determines cultural identity? Cultural identity is socially-constructed – but that construction seems to include not just the individual’s view of self, but society’s vision of that individual as well. Which vision holds primacy?

One of my students told me Obama is “high yellow.” But he isn’t really that – for “high yellow” implies, at its core, that somewhere back in the Obama’s family lineage, a black slave gave birth to a child conceived of a white slaveholder. The signifying aspect of high yellow certainly a question of blood – but it carries with it the cultural history of black oppression in this country. Taking that history into consideration, Obama is not high yellow.

So Obama is not of the black culture. He is not a descendant of West African slaves. But does that mean he does not labor under the residue of that historical oppression? When some white bigot looks at Obama, does he see a man whose mother is white, whose father immigrated from Kenya, a man who was educated at Harvard, whose family history is not intertwined with slavery and Civil Rights, or does that white bigots see Obama as he sees any black man? As black? As a nigger? As inferior? As a threat?

In his short essay, Just Walk on By, Brent Staples, an African-American writer, describes his experience walking in public spaces – and how whites cross the street when they see him – afraid of a black man walking the streets. These whites didn’t see an educated man, a peaceful man, a man perhaps just as fearful of them as they are of him. They saw a large black man and associated him with a multitude of negative stereotypes. If we didn’t recognize his face, if Obama were to walk the streets of any city in the US, would we, would I, as a white woman who has lived and breathed the racism inherent in our culture, be afraid of him as he came around a corner on a dark night? Would I, would other whites, see Obama not as a man just walking, but as black man encapsulating all the negative stereotypes white society associates (whether we are bigots or not) with black men?

Does how Obama is viewed by white society matter more than how he is viewed by black society? By even suggesting that because he is viewed by whites as black (and all that implies culturally), am I saying that it doesn’t matter how the black culture views this man, only how the white culture views him?

And yet, if the dominant culture views the man as black – doesn’t that then mean that he too is shouldering the burden of the past? And is that not what some black critics claim bothers them about Obama – that he has not suffered the same oppression as the other members of his cultural family?

But in the eyes of his stepsistahs and brothas, Obama has been if not favored by the dominant culture, not historically abused by it either. And that makes him not black. (Obama is, in Dickerson's words, as close as you can get to black, and in Cobert's, lately arrived black.) But apparently, he can never be truly black – he will always be on the outskirts - that red-headed stepchild, perhaps much loved, but never, ever quite a full-fledged member of the family.

Oh, how strange is the collision of race, culture, and politics in this country.

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Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes

(I offer this poem by Billy Collins for ThursdayNext, Percy B. Silly, me, and my daughter.)

First, her tippet made of tulle,
easily lifted off her shoulders and laid
on the back of a wooden chair.

And her bonnet,
the bow undone with a light forward pull.

Then the long white dress, a more
complicated matter with mother-of-pearl
buttons down the back,
so tiny and numerous that it takes forever
before my hands can part the fabric,
like a swimmer's dividing water,
and slip inside.

You will want to know
that she was standing
by an open window in an upstairs bedroom,
motionless, a little wide-eyed,
looking out at the orchard below,
the white dress puddled at her feet
on the wide-board, hardwood floor.

The complexity of women's undergarments
in nineteenth-century America
is not to be waved off,
and I proceeded like a polar explorer
through clips, clasps, and moorings,
catches, straps, and whalebone stays,
sailing toward the iceberg of her nakedness.

Later, I wrote in a notebook
it was like riding a swan into the night,
but, of course, I cannot tell you everything -
the way she closed her eyes to the orchard,
how her hair tumbled free of its pins,
how there were sudden dashes
whenever we spoke.

What I can tell you is
it was terribly quiet in Amherst
that Sabbath afternoon,
nothing but a carriage passing the house,
a fly buzzing in a windowpane.

So I could plainly hear her inhale
when I undid the very top
hook-and-eye fastener of her corset

and I could hear her sigh when finally it was unloosed,
the way some readers sigh when they realize
that Hope has feathers,
that reason is a plank,
that life is a loaded gun
that looks right at you with a yellow eye.

Take a look at this lovely chapbook – it’s out of print, but
oh! How I wish I had it.

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Sunday, February 04, 2007

Eagles singing arias as they perch in their aeries.

Busy with real-world projects and having precious little time for blogging of late, Little Lamb, with an assist from /t. has recently posted anew on my behalf at the Lamb's blog.

Check it out. It's a lovely post. I particularly love the the way some of the letters fade out, creating interesting associations with the letters that are left plainly visible (aria and aerie - both quite suitable for the subject matter of the post's picture).

But beware: bird bashing and eagle bashing will not be tolerated. Neither here nor there.

Nor anywhere.

Thou shalt not bash birds on a blog,
nor sitting on a log,
nor flying in the sky,
nor dipping wicks in lye.

Thou shalt not say cruel things about eagles
not even if they are dancing with beagles,
not even if they wearing bangles
or red, white, and blue spangles.

If you bash a bird,
beware, have not you heard the word?
Your eyes will be pecked,
leaving no trace, not a spec
no color, no tears
you'll be blinded for all the rest of your years!

So do not bash birds here
do not bash birds there
Do not bash birds anywhere.