Fighting Ignorance with Film

As an educator, fighting ignorance is my job. As black man who is also an expatriate educator, fighting ignorance can be an all-consuming yoke around my neck. Even some of the most highly-educated people, with many years of traveling to the US reflected in their passports, have no clue about the black experience in the United States beyond slavery, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, and now Barack Obama. Luckily, I have an increasingly comprehensive body of films at my disposal that allows me to debunk myths, stereotypes, and misconceptions about my people that, with the likes of Flava Flav, persist abroad.

Through movies produced, directed by, and principally starring black Americans, I can touch on issues to which many outside of the black American community are exposed, and which connect blacks in the United States with communities throughout the Diaspora. Here are seven must-show films, listed alphabetically and replete with quotable quotes, for expats and educators seeking to provide more-than-superficial insight into American blackness (Unitedstatesian, for my Latin American brethren/sistren):

Drumline (2002) – This comedy, with Mariah’s cougar bait, Nick Cannon, updates Spike Lee’s School Daze, featuring a smart-alecky newbie on the campus of a historically black college in Atlanta. We get
daddy issues, dating issues, roommate issues, bully issues, and a peek into the inner workings of a black college marching band. Ending’s meh, but the actual drumline competition always takes me back to my own days on The Set.
Quote: “Oh look, my baby done got another ‘A’. Yes she did.” Well, I thought it was funny.

Eve’s Bayou (1997) – A moody work of art that takes place among the Spanish moss and languid mangrove swamps of 1960s Louisiana, Eve’s Bayou stars Samuel L. Jackson and Lynn Whitfield as an unfaithful country doctor and his beautiful, desperate housewife. Told from the perspective of their precocious daughter, Eve, the film delves deftly into infidelity, upper-middle-class malaise, and even voodoo, while showing us a multi-ethnic, multi-hued black society free of the impositions or validations of whites. One of my favorite movies of all time.
Quote: “Go ahead and let the little hooligans get run over. It’ll be much quieter around here!” Tell ‘em, Grandmère.

Glory (1989) – A heroic drama starring Morgan Freeman, Matthew Broderick, and Denzel Washington, Glory tells the story of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, the first all-black military regiment in US history, that fought for the North and the emancipation of slavery during the Civil War. The film establishes the connection amongst blacks who may not get along individually, but who unite behind the cause of freedom for their countrymen, as well as the idea of blacks fighting for a country they hope to claim as their own.
Quote: “Ten dollas lotta money.” Hell, still is.

The Great Debaters (2007) – Starring Denzel Washington, Forest Whitaker, and Kimberly Elise as the molders and shapers of young minds at Wiley College in 1930s Texas, The Great Debaters fibs a bit (the real debaters went up against USC, not Harvard), but serves up major lecture talking points: historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), lynchings and terrorist acts against blacks in the rural South, segregation and skin-tone, and workers rights.
Quote: “We do what we have to do so we can do what we want to do.” Preach!

Harlem Nights (1989) – This bawdy comedy, with a cast of comedic greats—Richard Pryor, Redd Foxx, Della Reese, even Eddie and his underused brother Charlie Murphy—gives us gangsters and glamour in 1930s New York and is strictly for the adult audience. Aside from profane jousting between Foxx and Reese, Harlem Nights shows that titular neighborhood could do Prohibition as good as, if not better, than any spot downtown, and nods to the tremendous increase in black wealth (albeit illegal) that accompanied the Harlem Renaissance. And you know, sometimes cursing is just damn funny.
Quote: “Kiss my en-tire ass.” Nuff said.

Malcolm X (1992) – Besides adding fantastic words and phrases to my generation’s lexicon such as “hoodwinked,” “bamboozled,” “led astray,” and “run amok,” Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, starring a magnetic Denzel (again) and the severely underemployed Angela Bassett, offers the flip side of we shall overcome: by any means necessary. A serious portrait of a serious thinker, Malcolm X is a bit long, but hardly dull.
Quote: “What do you call a black man with a PhD? A nigger!”

Passing Strange: The Movie (2009) – The semi-autobiographical, gospel/pop/rock-infused story of a black, middle-class, angst-ridden teenager who jets off to Europe in search of “The (ever elusive) Real” in the early 80s, Passing Strange is a stage musical taped by Spike Lee on the last night of its two-year Broadway run back in 2008. Starring a cast of young, energetic stage actors and headed by writer and musician, Stew, the musical takes on racial and cultural identity, artistic struggle, familial relationships, and existentialism with foot-tapping intensity.
Quote: “Culture is cosmetic.” Damn.

Also in the repertoire: The Josephine Baker Story, I Like It Like That, Boomerang, Precious, Amistad, The Color Purple (duh!), Devil in a Blue Dress, Jungle Fever. Any others I should add?

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Photo Essay: Madalena Murals

In São Paulo’s boho-chic neighborhood of Vila Madalena, graffiti artists have claimed a couple of streets as an impactful open-air gallery of revolving exhibitions. Depicting city life, Brazilian slang, “Blackee Power” (the Brazilian term for a stay-sof-Fro!), and national pride, these murals stand testament to the city’s resurgence, unlike their unfortunate counterparts in New York.

Airline Geekery: My In-Flight Magazine Collection

Collected these in the five months I've lived in Brazil.

It is impossible for me to step off an airplane without purloining that glossy gem filled with perky destination guides, colorful route maps, and ads for the best cosmetic orthodontist in North Atlanta.  I’m a fiend when it comes to in-flight magazines, and I’ve been hoarding them since at least the late 90s, when my collection heavily reflected my Florida-DC flying habits: dog-eared copies of Attaché (USAirways) and Sky (Delta) from before anyone knew what the hell a sudoku was.

Since then, I’ve amassed glossies from every continent through a combination of personal flying, ticket office raids, and harassment of friends and family (“You’re going where?  Could you pretty-please-with-sugar-on-top bring me back the in-flight magazine?  I’m not crazy, I swear”).

I could lie like many Penthouse subscribers and say that I actually read the articles, and sometimes I actually do, but mostly, I just stare intently at the route maps, tracing the red line between places like Frankfurt and Bangalore (then mouthing the word “Bangalore” as if it were an ancient word for “There’s no place like home”).  For me, the route map is the payoff in any in-flight magazine because it’s the very thing that inspires me to take another trip; I get ecstatic that I can be connected to a faraway place via that red line.  Well, with TSA hassles and weather delays thrown into the mix, but you know what I’m saying.

While I know stylish chronicle Monocle loves its Air France Magazine, I’m kind of partial to the Latin American beauties that I’ve picked up over the years.  LAN’s square-shaped in magazine offers sumptuous design, mixing media and typefaces that lift you from the sofa to Santiago and beyond in a too-thin 140 pages.  TAM’s specialized Red Report, offered only on long-haul international flights, posits surprisingly insightful articles by Brazilian writers—New York’s secret bars, the lady wrestlers of La Paz—printed on card stock.  Avianca en revista, from the Colombian airline of the same name, holds the top spot in terms of number of issues I own, while some of the more interesting one-offs are Cubana’s Sol y Son and Fragata, from the Cape Verdean airline TACV.

Love these!

As these monthlies tend to weigh more than my carry-on, my nascent library is housed in three separate locations: the storage shed at my parents’ house in Jacksonville, the closet in the spare room of my friend’s grandmother’s house with whom I used to live in Barranquilla, and my new crib in Brasília.  Some day, I might be in one place long enough to unify the collection, but until then, I pray Moms doesn’t get too happy with the spring cleaning.

Fly Brother’s In-Flight Magazine Roll Call:

  • AeroRepública
  • Air Asia
  • Air Berlin
  • Air Canada
  • Air France
  • Aires
  • AirTran Airways
  • American Airlines
  • Avianca
  • BMI
  • Continental Airlines
  • Copa Airlines
  • Cubana
  • Delta Air Lines
  • Egyptair
  • Etihad Airways
  • Gol
  • Iberia
  • Jet Airways
  • KLM
  • Korean Air
  • LAN
  • Lloyd Aéreo Boliviano
  • Lufthansa
  • Malaysia Airlines
  • Malev
  • Qantas
  • Ryanair
  • Santa Barbara Airlines
  • SAS
  • Satena
  • Southwest Airlines
  • TAAG
  • TACA
  • TACV
  • TAM
  • Tiger Airways
  • United Airlines
  • USAirways
  • Varig

Please feel free to contact me if you’d like to contribute any new or used magazines to the collection. :-)

From the AV Room: Brazilian Air

Currently, I’m running around São Paulo collecting data and testing out adjectives for use in the reviews I’m writing for the Total São Paulo guide.  Meanwhile, I’ll leave you armchair travelers with a little retro footage from SP’s nemesis, Rio de Janeiro, to spark the wanderlust and maybe incite a couple of ticket purchases to Brazil.  Taken from the 1967 film Ritmo de Aventura (Rhythm of Adventure), we follow the director in his flying machine over the streets and beaches of the Marvelous City. Hope you like:


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Global Juke Joint: Colombian Gold

A powerful triumvirate of lyricists, CHOC QUIB TOWN hails from Quibdó, the impoverished capital of the mostly-black, oft-maligned, and federally-neglected department of Chocó, on Colombia’s Pacific Coast. In what is virtually the Mississippi of Colombia, the African heritage of the residents, relatively un-integrated with the rest of the country, foments a profound but largely overlooked culture, while the scant resources sent to the region are stolen by corrupt officials and starvation, illiteracy, and narco-trafficking are rampant. Out of this struggle, of course, comes amazing creativity, manifested in Colombia’s world-class entry into the realm of hip-hop.

Having released their first full-length album, Somos Pacífico in 2007, CHOC QUIB TOWN—composed of the brilliant and stunning MC Goyo, dashing and energetic MC Tostao, and suave, smoky-voiced MC Slow—came out of the gate with a sound and energy warmly reminiscent of The Fugees, but delving into a broader Diasporic fusion of North American hip-hop stylings and Latin American, particularly Afro-Colombian, melodies and rhythms. The lyrics speak of an intellectual resistance to systemic oppression, hinting of a very understandable, “you better be glad we vent our frustrations creatively, rather than violently,” but at the same time offering an intimate tour of the Pacific region and its people.

The newest album, Oro (translation: that shiny yellowish metal that the conquistadors killed themselves and millions of others over), released last year and receiving muted attention in the States, roots the listener still further into the sound and images of the Colombian Pacific, especially with a lilting golpeao similar to the Spanish of its Caribbean cousins, while touching on race (“Prieto”), politics (“Oro”) and partying (“Rumba Sin Pelea”) from Quibdó to Kingston to Queens.

Buy. Listen. Hear. Then go see them live…trust.

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Getting Your Walking Papers: Price-Increase Edition

If you’ve slept on getting that little blue book, the price tag’s gone up quite a bit as of today. But you still can’t put a price tag on the personal development and enjoyment that comes from international travel, and you can’t get fly without a government-issued passport.

By age thirty, everyone should have one. If you are over thirty and don’t have it, I won’t waste any time criticizing (triflin…). I’ll just say that there’s no better time than now to start the process, and I’ve tried to make the process a little easier by sifting through the US State Department’s travel site – travel.state.gov – for information on obtaining a US passport. I’ll also say that the folks thinking they can pop down to Mexico or the Bahamas with their driver’s licenses these days are in for a rude awakening at the border.

The State Department operates several passport agencies, located in Boston, Chicago, Denver, Honolulu, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New Orleans, New York, Norwalk (CT), Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington (click the city name for info on that particular agency). Lastly, passport applications can be picked up and submitted at almost all US Post Offices.

You can also download and print a first-time passport application: here.

The total cost (in United States Dollars) for a first-time passport is now $135 for anyone aged 16 and over and $105 for anyone under 16. The charge is broken down into the passport fee ($110 for 16 and over/$80 for under 16) and the execution fee ($25 for both). If you apply for your passport directly through the State Department at a passport agency, the total cost may be made in one payment and in several methods. If applying through the post office, the application fee must be made payable to the US Department of State, while the execution fee must be made payable to the US Postal Service (check or money order only).

Additional requirements include a copy of your birth certificate as proof of United States citizenship and a state- or federal government-issued photo ID for proof of identity, along with two 2×2-inch passport photos that can be taken at any FedEx Office or certain stores and pharmacies like Walgreens, CVS, or Wal-Mart. A list of other acceptable documents and forms of ID can be found here.

Passports can take up to 6 weeks to arrive, but can be expedited by visiting a passport agency, or requesting rush service with the application at the post office, for an additional $60. More information on an expedited passport can be found here.

You can also check on the status of your passport application here.

Passports for adults are usually valid for 10 years. Passports for children are valid for less time and require a different application procedure (check here).

Most foreign governments require that a US passport be valid for at least another six months after the conclusion of the trip. An adult renewal passport costs $75, and more information can be found here.

For international ballers who are running out of room in their still-valid passports, extra pages can be ordered, or you can get a newer, thicker passport here.

September 11 has, of course, caused a tightening in travel documentation requirements, hence the establishment of the WHTI – Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative. Essentially, all the formerly passport-free areas for road trips and cruises – Canada, Mexico, and much of the Caribbean – will by 2009 require either a passport; a newfangled device called a passport card, good for border crossings by land or sea; or other “WHTI-compliant document.” The cards cost $55 for a first-time adult applicant, $40 for a first-time child applicant, and $30 for current valid passport holders. All air travel to these regions will continue to require a traditional passport book.

Any other information you might want, need, or forgot to ask…check the website, because, hell, the State Department ain’t payin’ a brother.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZtjIW_byi14&hl=en_US&fs=1]

Shouts to My Cape Verdean Play Brother

Me, Zez (left), and one of his cousins visiting me in Barranquilla in 08 (I think).

Ages ago, when a young, collegiate Fly Brother was interning on Capitol Hill in DC (we’re talking at the turn of the century), I was asked by one of the other interns if I was Cape Verdean. Cape Who? She was from Boston and told me I looked Cape Verdean, and I was like, “Whatever the hell that is, I’m not it!”

During that semester, I ended up meeting another intern from Massachusetts, one José dos Anjos, who had a crazy-ass last name that we all kept trying to pronounce the Spanish way: “dos AN-hos.” None of us had a clue that his name was Portuguese, and he was barely any help to us as he always introduced himself as “ho-ZAY.”

Almost ten years on, I can pronounce his name properly, am well-versed on the history of the Cape Verdean community in New England, and have been to three of the ten islands that make up the archipelago floating a few hundred miles west of that tip of Africa with the same name, Cape Verde.

And José (pronounced “zho-ZEH,” though we call him Zezito) has since become an emerging authority on Cape Verdean familial histories both in the States and on the islands. He started tracing the genealogies of his friends and family, which has turned into a major project that has even rattled the nerves of folk wanting to keep illegitimate births under wraps.

Yesterday, he was featured in his hometown newspaper and I was inspired to write this little missive in honor of a good friend who’s shown me every nook and cranny of Southeastern Mass with his rack of cousins, rode-out with me to my university homecoming and Calle Ocho in Miami, and with characteristic patience, still remained my friend after I yelled at his ass for almost making us miss our boat between Santo Antão and São Vicente cuz he was trying to holla at some chick he’d never see again (never going to forget that one; we had to climb through the cargo hold since they had already raised the gangplank).

Yes, Zezito, you will one day be US Ambassador to Cape Verde (or Cape Verdean Ambassador to the US, since you hold dual citizenship, right? One a them).

Read all about my adventures with Zez in Cape Verde.

Brasil Pra Mim

-“Tudo bem?” The flight attendant asked me with a smile if all was well in Portuguese as I boarded the plane.
-“Beleza,” I replied. “Vôcé?”
-“Jooooya. Bem-vindo a bordo.”
-“Brigado.”

I welcomed this brief interaction as a sign I was heading home to Brazil. Flight attendants have been assuming I’m Brazilian for some time, and now that I actually live here and have a decent amount of Portuguese in the repertoire, it’s nice to have them be somewhat right. For anyone who’s known me for a while, my desire to live in Brazil is old news, and the actual move more of an eventuality than a surprise. Brazil has long held for me a sense of belonging, of place that I can relate to as an ethnically-mixed Diasporic African: watching blondes dancing samba and practicing capoeira amongst the crisp angles and curves of Brasília illuminates the innate African-ness of the country and reinforces the inextricable bond among the three founding populations that collided and colluded to produce that magnetic cultural force known as Brazil. After my first trip to Salvador Carnival in 2005, I knew I was home.

Though I grew up in Jacksonville, I never really feel at home when I’m there. Of course, I’m at home-home in my parents’ house―that type of familial comfort will never go away. But the city and I have parted ways, socially, culturally, politically. People at stores and restaurants now ask where I’m from, despite the remnants of a local accent when ordering my sweet tea. They ask why I travel so much, why I like going to the “third world,” why I speak other languages. Most of the very few people from high school I keep in contact with have families, and the others struggle to create some semblance of sophistication in a doggedly provincial place.

Of course, there’s The Big Issue that pervades everything else in the city to the point that the church congregation I grew up in, and those of a handful of other black churches in the city, are pretty much the only groups of people who don’t want Obama out of office “by any means necessary.” While I understand (and teach) the history behind the racial divide, after living away from the U.S. version for so long, it’s disheartening and nerve-wracking to encounter it again. I can see it in the strained smiles at the airport or the DMV or other places where people have to interact; that forced politeness which barely conceals the contempt. I think there may be only four or five American cities that don’t give me the heebie-jeebies anymore.

I also searched for that feeling of place for four years in Colombia, and didn’t find it. I never felt I could break out of the “gringo” box, no matter how well I spoke Spanish, how well I danced cumbia, or even how flaky I got about keeping appointments. “Pero el es un gringo,” I’d hear people say, drawing the line they’d not allow me to cross and encapsulating everything they thought they knew and were interested in knowing about me in that one misused word. I learned daily that ignorance transcends all human-devised categories.

By no means is Brazil immune from the isms that plague less-paradisical locales. Even here in Fantasyland, I struggle daily to understand a culture, a language, and a people that get more and more complex the moment I think I’ve got them pegged. Their conflict-avoidance annoys me, as does their interminable noisiness. But the ubiquitous optimism mixed with melancholy―saudade―is soothingly infectious, and Anglo-Saxon stoicism stands no chance in the face of tropical emotion.

See, I’m not just on vacation here; I live here. I’m developing relationships with the people and the place. I have friends in other cities who ring me regularly and want to know when I’m coming to visit. I flew to Brasília, got into my car, and drove to my apartment (where I rested for, oh, five minutes before being whisked off to watch our team get spanked by the Netherlands).

And there are people who automatically assume that I belong here. They speak to me in Portuguese, then look at me in semi-disbelief when I relay my true origins, then smile, compliment me on my pronunciation, and tell me they’re glad I’m here. They accept my dueling and complimentary identities without question and they’re as open to learning my way as they are about teaching me theirs, their jeito brasileiro. It’s not so much that I’ve found a home in Brasília―São Paulo’s more my brand of Sodom―it’s that I’ve found a homeland in Brazil. I love this country, warts and all, and I always want to have a presence here, even if I end up living somewhere else for a time (NY, I’m tawkinna you). Because I feel claimed here, I belong here, and that’s what home feels like.

I called my mom to tell her that I made the flight to Brazil (see this post), and before telling her I loved her and I’d shoot them an email once south of the Equator, I said I felt like I was heading home, to my home. “That’s good,” she said approvingly. That’s all I needed to hear.

The Queen of Brazilian Music, Elis Regina, extolling the beauty of Brazil and of nappy hair:

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Flying Blue

It’s a cycle: I find myself in a city, either again or for the first time, open to new possibilities and new encounters, and I inevitably cross paths with someone new.  The new smile, the new laugh, the new gaze ensnare me—the solitary wanderer—and occupy my thoughts more than I’d care to allow.  I’m a writer, after all, and I obsess.  I invest more than they do in our connection, because they know the story—I’m too temporary to be taken seriously.  All too soon, I’m off again, a comet streaking through the void, brightening the sky for a brief moment in one place before moving on to the next, those whose space I illuminated moving on as well, without me.

But sometimes, the voyager yearns for company, for more than just a fling.  For a sustainable connection with a like-minded individual, who can fly with me long enough for the smile, the laugh, and the gaze to become familiar.

For a little while, at least.

If you liked this post, you might like this podcast episode.

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