Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Tall tees and the Forbes 1-2-3 remix

I heard some nonsense on the radio last night. Fiddy, Diddy and Jay-Z collaborating (sort-of) on a mediocre tune titled to dish on their rankings among the Forbes magazine music/hip hop top cash cows. The song arrived amongst much DJ fanfare and text, email and calls almost shutting down the station's communications! What shock and awe!

Two weeks before, at a school in District Heights, Maryland--an area that is the very definition of the "new" "suburban" ghetto, a little boy among dozens who qualify for free tutoring, lunches and God knows what else asked me if I was "rich." I was there as part of a parents' night which included introductions to these new services under the No Child Left Behind Act. The school's already on the Act's shit list and no wonder. But this little boy figured if I was wearing a suit, I must be rich, and asked me if I worked for...yes-Jay-Z. He was only five and accompanying his mom and two sisters who were enrolled at the elementary school; he was telling me he watches TV a lot with his older cousins who babysit and they said Jay-Z was rich and a white magazine(I guess Forbes) confirmed that. "Mr. Charlie's" imprimatur thus conferred, it must be good!

Well, I said no to the child. I wasn't rich. Far from it. He asked me what I did and I said I am a writer I teach some college classes and then readied for the explanation I usually give kids under 8 when they aske what I do. He scrunched up his little nose as his mother shouted for him to come (they'd picked up some free goodies as well as a brochure for the free tutoring) and said: "Then why you got them clothes on? Are you white?" Like I said, he was only five. I laughed and his mother who was about 21 years old yet who looked much older, apologized. Not a biggie, I assured her, but I said her daughters should look in the media center (that's what they call libraries now...and you wonder why kids rich or poor can't friggin read) for references to people like Kenneth Chenault, or the late Reginald Lewis, even Bob Johnson (based ONLY on his current endeavors and f*ck BET!) or any number of black scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs in all sorts of product and service areas OTHER than hip hop. Or Osceola Davis, a maid who saved and invested her money such that she was able to donate $2million to charity. This lady then scrunched up her nose at me. "Well they ain't got time for that. G'night sir."

Bye. And on top of this, we have a study by the Washington Post that black kids going to private schools or "good" public schools, and otherwise from middle class backgrounds, are consistently being outscored on PSAT and SATs and many are failing to explore AP classes or other means of enrichment and access to college. Flash to today. I'm in a "gucci" Safeway. School's out at 3pm. I'm talking to a bunch of young brothers who attend a nearby "good," actually "great" public school in Montgomery County, Maryland. Their parents are professionals, including a physician, an associate general counsel at a local defense contractor, a high school prinicipal, a colonel in the US Air Force and a manager at the GSA. All are wearing "Tall Tees." The long tee shirts you see covering the baggies. After the baggy pants/exposed undies banning fever in some towns subsided, now folks are shrugging off the "racist fashion police" mantle and decrying tall tees. Now, many folks say only thugs and criminals wear this stuff and on a radio talk show the point was made, then a calls flooded the hosts saying that's not true...and then literally EACH caller chuckled and described the type of shady shit they were into when they weren't at work or school. No lie. Two of the young fellows had yanked wave caps over their heads. They said their parents either didn't care or didn't know. I'd just up and asked them; maybe they thought I was a cop or a some old gay perv? Who knows--I told them I was a writer and I think i showed them my expired NABJ card and my current Mystery Writers of America card so possibly I had some credibility. I said why do you dress this way. People say it's thugware. Criminals' uniforms. They laughed again and said it's cool that I asked in an intellectuall curious rather than disdainful way but it's really none of my business. But then there was the obligatory nods to certain rappers and the cool comment segued into the notion that yeah, the could were regular pants, a collared shirt or polo, nothing on their heads, but that would make them too much like everyone else. So would studying TOO much. Their parents push them, but in some pro forma, usual way. No passion, no direction. One kid said his mom bought a new luxury car helped by the proceeds of a house re-fi (no mean feat these days) yet bitched and moaned when he suggested she spend $350 on SAT review course materials and two hours of one on one test prep. Notice I said new luxury car. The old one was a luxury SUV model and gas guzzler. The new one's a sedan. He's got the low-rent form of test prep but says...and, here's the tie-in, fanboys and girls, Jay-Z's on the Forbes magazine list and's got Beyonce naked in the bed each night, so he's thinking he'd like to go into music production (sound engineering?) and event planning. His white classmates think that's the tightest career aspiration in the class. Of course most of them are going to college and beyond, but hey...soon their "wigger" compatriots arrive and are all tight in their tees and baggies and "yo thisand that" and they're flirting with the bevy of loud and round sistas coming in whilst my black quasi-thugs are feening for the giggly gaunt WHITE girls coming in (and a few Middle-Eastern looking teen queens too). Everyone loses interest in me and only one of them says "Yeah seeya, Mister Sir." Mister Sir being a snarky label I'd say.

When I say black people need to sit back and re-assess everything as a race...a national day of reassessment and repose...I'm only half kidding. I didn't have time to tell those kids that it's better to use Malcolm Forbes and then nerdy-ass Steve Forbes as models, rather than Fiddy. Maybe they've heard that. Maybe they could use their own parents as models, yet their parents appear bound and determined not to let that happen. Paying bills and keeping up with the Joneses and Mr. Charlies can do that. But not when it comes to the only resource we have, the only trump card we have. Our kids. And yet even that card's stained and spoiled and grubby. Make me want to cry sometimes. Or...just try to get rich and forget about it...


Anonymous said...

So your solution to all of this, including the jacked up schools, is for black males to pin posters of Steve Forbes to their walls and tear down the Lebron pictures?
Have you seen Steve Forbes' face lately?

So your other solution is for black parents to sell all their worldly possessions but a desk and bed of their kids, and drill them on schoolwork all night?

Man you are swimming against the tide. However...I share your depression over the fact that despite decades of advancement, we seem to be sliding a dangerous situation. That little boy and his family share our kinship with the kids in the grocery store, true. But the ones in the store should have more awareness of the world and want to build on the advantages they received.

Lisa said...

What's sad to me is that so many of these bourgies complain about "poor" black single mothers who supposedly don't provide an environment of achievement for their children. Yet when you look at any families, the kids are hanging out and not doing their work, or just not caring. The parents have twisted priorities, too. They are the biggest hypocrites!

Seville said...

Chris, you have just spoken a book!

I remember my father telling me when I was about 7, that I would be going to university one day, and then continued to put every opportunity in my way, until I did. Even when I used to hang out with the "thug" crowd in high school, it did not even enter my head that I could somehow lose my mind and join my buddies on that slow road to nowhere, because my father scared me more than anybody else on earth.

All of that to say... our children live up to, or down to, our expectations of them. Period. If you believe that education is the only way, as did so many Black folks in the past, then you choose between the luxury sedan, or the houseful of high-end furniture you took on credit, or the weekly visit to the hairdresser you pay $150 to touch up and clean up and whatever else, or all the other things that may be standing in the way of putting opportunities in front of your children. That's it. No magic. You breathe into them your belief that they WILL do better, and then help them do it.

You keep on talking to those children whose path you cross, Chris. Something will stick to one of them, and then another, and then another... you can't save them all, but you can still change lives with your hope.

Anonymous said...

I aint' a thug, and I got five tall tees! They are comfy, and you can get five for 20 dollars!

Anonymous said...

I'm glad somebody mentioned "wiggers" because these little K-Fed wannabes are out there buying these things, too. Indeed, they have the money to keep the shops, and Hip Hop, in business!

Liz Dwyer said...

Well said. I was at the Los Feliz Newstand the other day and saw that the cover of XXL has a whole bevy of rappers on it...do these dudes know how to wear anything else other than baggy white shirts, drooping pants, chains and puffy jackets? They just look ridiculous.

As for the parents that allow this mess, they need to recognize that their child might get to college and then think he's living out a hip-hop dream. He'll get his version of Beyonce (or the easy white chick in his dorm) preggers, or get some disease, get bad grades and a ton of credit card debt from buying the latest fashions. Meanwhile, those wiggers are getting the grades to apply to law school or get hired at some top firm. And mama and papa ain't gonna have a trust fund to draw from because they're in debt too. Seriously, folks need to grow up and get a clue.

nyc/caribbean ragazza said...

This is just sad. Like seville, it was understood I was going to college. My parents, to be honest, scared the crap out of me.

I am up here in Toronto working on a film. I'm sure there are racial problems here but being here and interacting with the black folks really drives home how messed up our overall situation in America is.

I read an article about a study that showed black kids who's parents were African or West Indian immigrants regardless of class were outscoring African-Americans on these tests. What is that about? If these tests are culturally bias why is Serge from Haiti out scoring kids who come from families that have been here for generations?

I am not saying blame our country for everything, personal responsiblity plays a major role but this hyper-consumerist, celebrity driven culture is setting us back. Not every black man is going to be a rapper. We need to stop undervaluing the folks who work hard to provide for their families just because they don't own a Beemer or rock platinum crosses. I'm not sure what the solution is.

Lola Gets said...

I love the title of this post.

Unknown said...

Chris, keep up the good work Bro! We need more role models like you who can give kids a different perspective without judging or talking down to them.
The state of parenting and the influence of the media culture cuts across the socio-economic lines as seen in this scenario.
Kids also need to realize that you don't have to look smart to do well in school or to aspire to go to college.
The careers for rappers, producers, and athletes are only a small portion of the jobs that are out here and with globalization a lot of the jobs that you could get without a college degree are gone probably never to return and not replaced with equivalent opportunities.
Keep swimming against the tide even though the role models many of these kids see rappers, athletes, music producers, politicians, and parents alike are not worth too much.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Chambers I have come to the conclusion that middle and upper- class Black Kids want what white kids of their class want and that is to float through life without a care in a world or a quick buck, ultimately you and other blacks are living in a dream world. They think Steve and Malcolm Forbes and their parents are squares and aspire to be Jay-Z, Fiddy or someone cool like youth everywhere around the world, Popular Culture is their god not racial uplift or being respected by other races.

You want black people to be reflective and it's not going to happen the adults aren't reflective and those kids know the game. They see their own parents disillusioned about their life choices and their rants about white people and this society. The Civil Rights movement was about giving African- Americans options and for many of them was not to give a damn about anything outside of your their personal self and desires that's what modern commerical hip- hop represents.

You can always move to Europe, The Virgin Islands or elsewhere, or help hungry immirgrants that's what many of my educated black friends did after coming to these conclusions ... rich blacks wanted to live in glass houses and keep getting paid, middle- class folks wanted to float poor black folks had no hope and people like you the John the Baptist brigade trying to get black people to 'wake up' and the children just don't give a damn ,I call it one massive depression.

Black People in America are not special they are human, you want more than that from them and I think they are tired of proving to niggas, crackas, or anyone else that they are worthy. They are tuning out Cosby, you and the other black elites, It's too late,most black people they want live simple uncluttered lives. I think we will be revisitng these same issues 20 years from and this time there may not be a King or anyone else to put the union back together.