Shame and Shamelessness: What I’ve Been Reading This Week

In National Journal, NPR’s Michel Martin brings race to the gendered discussion of “having it all” in her nuanced “What I’ve Left Unsaid.”

On her tumblr Rebgold, my day school classmate Rebecca’s beautiful images and words about the current crisis in Gaza, centering on the universal image of “Mayim-Agua-Water-Wasser.”

In the New York Times Magazine, Nicola Twilley’s fun and thoughtful “What do Chinese Dumplings Have to Do with Global Warming?”

On Open Democracy, an interview with philosopher Judith Butler about her controversial, anti-violence position on Israel-Palestine.

Shuhada Street, via theAtlantic.com (Nayef Hashlamoun/Reuters)

Shuhada Street, via theAtlantic.com (Nayef Hashlamoun/Reuters)

On BuzzFeed, Anne Helen Petersen’s “Down and Dirty History of TMZ” and its founder Harvey Levin.

In the Atlantic, Megan Garber talks the capitalistic genius of Kimmy K in “Kapitalism and Kim Kardashian”–and I’ll have more to say on this one soon, I think.

On HNN, U of M history professor Juan Cole’s post on the geopolitical history of Israel-Palestine, in response to a skirmish on theAtlantic.com between Andrew Sullivan and Jeffrey Goldberg spurred by an earlier blog post by Cole.

Also in The Atlantic, Noah Berlatsky interviews @FeministaJones on her anti-harrassment campaign #YouOkSis, which centers black women’s experiences in this conversation.

Finally, in HaAretz, Amira Hass’s “Israel’s Moral Defeat Will Haunt Us for Many Years,” and in the Atlantic, Ayelet Waldman’s “The Shame of Shuhada Street.”

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A Tough Love: “Beyoncé,” Mutuality, and the Dirty South

In a previous post, I discussed some of the lyrics on R. Kelly’s new album, “Black Panties,” alongside the words of Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams in his essay “The Body’s Grace.” Looking at the lyrics to “Marry the Pussy” alongside similar lyrics in songs like Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” and Miguel’s “How Many Drinks,” I noticed a similar ability to disguise male desire and male need in the trappings of celebrating women. Each of these three songs is about what a male agent wants, and each of these three songs denies or obscures the agency of the women they’re sung about or to. But in making women (or women’s body parts) the objects of desire, these songs lull critics into thinking they are pro women, so that Jezebel calls “Marry the Pussy” a “magnificent ode to pussy,” and another source I can’t find calls rapist R. Kelly’s album “sex-positive.”

still from "No Angel" -- Bey's homage to  Houston

still from “No Angel” — Bey’s homage to Houston

Continue reading

“We are pleased because we are pleasing”: Black Panties and The Body’s Grace

Image

via Pitchfork.com

Last weekend, in the car with two besties from Chicago, I asked a really buzzkill question when one of them started talking about R. Kelly’s new musical proposal, “Marry the Pussy.” Echoing the kind of infamous celebration of the new album that appeared in feminist publication Jezebel a few weeks ago, my friend insisted that “Marry the Pussy” was a celebration, what Jezebel writer Isha Aran called “a magnificent ode to pussy.”

“But,” I asked, the mood dying around me already, “…does the pussy have any agency?” Continue reading

A Holiday D’Var Torah for Syria

On Thursday morning I attended Rosh Hashana services at a Conservative synagogue in Dewitt, NY, neighbor to my new home of Syracuse. While it was odd to attend a new synagogue by myself, I appreciated this congregation’s open services policy and far preferred it to the option of visiting the Hillel on the University campus where I am a graduate student.

20130908-231044.jpg

a still from Emad Burnat and Guy David’s “5 Broken Cameras”

Before the Torah reading, the woman who would be reading gave a short d’var Torah, or commentary, on that morning’s reading: Genesis 21 through—27? 28?–, which covered the birth and binding of Isaac. In her short speech, the woman reflected on the moment when the matriarch Sarah, finally a mother, tells her husband Abraham to cast out his slave Hagar and their son Ishmael. She compared this moment to those columns in magazines which proclaim, “Stars: They’re just like us!” According to this shul’s Torah reader, it was reassuring to see the stars of the Torah behaving in imperfect ways. As a mother, this woman said, she understood Sarah’s selfish desire to save all her husband’s wealth for her own son, and send her husband’s first son and son’s mother, their slave, packing into an unforgiving desert.

As the woman chanted this fundamental story from the Torah, I read through the passage in English. And I was struck, not by Sarah’s relatability, but to her cruelty at a time of family celebration. Continue reading

Here Are the First 15 Pages of My Unpublished Novel, THE NIGHTS

THE NIGHTS

“Night is deliverance.”

– Tayeb Salih, Season of Migration to the North

A scene:[1]

She took her to Toledo to seduce her.

Toledo, Spain, that is, not Ohio, and she being Aisha and the other she being Lena, my older sister, the eldest of us four Kahanes.

Let’s try that again.

Aisha took my sister Lena to Toledo, Spain, to seduce her. This was back in spring of 2006, when they had been living in Berlin for a year, working diligently (too diligently, actually, thus the trip) on their modern American English-language translation of the Thousand and One Nights, and not sleeping together, which is not what Aisha had had in mind. They lived and worked in a storefront flat in Kreuzberg, the Turkish neighborhood the hipsters loved, but back then they still sat at their desks with papers spread around them, and the Persian rug Aisha stole from her husband sat unused on the floor, dotted with cushions, a kid of leisure-lounge area. (Eventually they would eschew the desks and spend all their time on the floor, lounging. But we’ll get to that.)  In spring of 2006, you recall, the two American wars were dragging on and Katrina had recently doused New Orleans and Dubya’s approval rating hovered around twenty percent.

But Lena, my sister, wasn’t concerned with American current events. She had graduated from Princeton with a degree in Linguistics and was living in Europe with her favorite professor, Aisha Wasila, and together they were rewriting The Nights for a modern American audience. It was going very well: if nothing else, those four years at Jersey’s fanciest country club had imparted to Lena excellent writing and research skills, and military-grade study habits, a work ethic the nation’s premier Presbyterian university could be proud of, in a Calvinist, good-works sort of way.[2] In their first year in Berlin, Lena and Aisha had categorically sifted through the thousands of Xeroxed pages of multiphonic versions of The Nights Aisha had copied from many dozens of manuscripts and anthologies in the tri-state area over the past seven years, then schlepped across an ocean in seven boxes when they moved. Now the copied tales were laid out along the southern wall of the apartment, organized by provenance and subject, Toledo, Istanbul, Paris, Algiers across, Sindbad, Aladdin, Scheherezad down.

It was from this well-lit, well-organized enclave of healthy work habits and professional relationships that Aisha looked up one morning from her work table and turned innocently to Lena, her charge, and asked, “Have you ever even seen a Medieval Arab city?”

“No,” Lena scoffed. She lived plumbly in the ahistorical present, in a converted storefront apartment in the formerly East Berlin, with a woman who had been her professor and would be her lover, but for now was only her roommate, and her boss. “Have you?”

“Only my hometown,” Aisha replied, but did not give its name. She looked at Lena’s profile, its cameo sheen: the long white neck, the subtle nosey bump, the black shadow of hair. The girl was ready for the next step. “You don’t find this problematic?” Aisha went on. She clutched at the papers that littered her desk. “That you will write Basra with never having seen it?”

“I’m not going to Iraq,” Lena said.

“No.” Aisha looked out the wide front windows at the chic Berliners ambling by. “I suppose no one is, save your soldiers and your tanks. No, we will go to Toledo.”

“They’re not mine,” Lena whined. She was still looking at her computer screen, where she’d been typing out a new draft of the Hunchback’s Tale. “You’re American, too.”

“Citizen, not ethnicity.”

“There is no American ethnicity. I’m Jewish.”

“Don’t remind me,” Aisha said. She stood up, closed her laptop, and smoothed her hair. “Come, we must pack.”

[1]               It always opens with a scene.

Or perhaps use a question:

How does one begin a story like this? With a scene:

Or maybe I could allude to the beginning of The Thousand and One Nights, which opens at the bedside of a dying king.

No: Too soon. Patience, storytelling is all about Patience, Nathan (I tell myself: I being Nathan, your humble narrator.)

Let’s leave it as it is: A scene. The rest is implicit: every story opens with a scene. Even the first one: big bang, om, tsimstum, breishit bara, heaven and earth, lingam and yoni, Krishna and Shiva, the opening dance.

All right, okay, I get it: a scene, sure, but my God, make it grand.

[2]               This would be in sharp contrast to my own experience at Princeton, where I gleaned the alternative skill set of hobnobbing and substance abuse, a charted course which would eventually see me duly punished, freeing me up to narrate the unusual tale of my sister’s escape to Germany (an 21st century inversion of the typical holocaust-era tale).

——-

A plotter, Aisha had already bought the tickets. Aisha was cunning, but she was organized about it. Had she even pushed Lena and Ted together, that first day in Arabian Nights class? I don’t know. And if she was already researching the Nights at that time, she redoubled her efforts, so that by the time Lena graduated four years later, Aisha had a foreign fellowship all lined up. All she needed was an assistant who could read Turkish, Arabic, French, and Greek. Luckily, she had trained her protégé well. Now Lena watched as Aisha packed for a long weekend escape: two cashmere sweaters, a black cardigan and a white pullover; three t-shirts, black, white, and tan; one pair of slacks and one pair of jeans; two brassieres, one black and one beige; five pairs of underwear, three briefs and two thongs; four pairs of socks, one wool; one pair of water-resistant boots and one pair of loafers; and a small cosmetic case containing mascara, lipstick, a toothbrush, toothpaste, conditioner, shampoo, and a hotel-sized bar of soap. Then she separated out the boots, the jeans, one sweater, one t-shirt, one set of underthings, and looked up at Lena, who had stood above her, watching, and said: “For the plane. Plus jewels. Well? Go pack.”

Lena put some clothes in a bag and soon they were on the airplane. The Eurozone crisis was a vague forethought in the some corners of the universities and Spain and Germany had nothing to say one another. The metro on both sides was good, but Berlin’s was better. When they arrived, Aisha could speak Spanish. They took the Metro to the Atocha station and Aisha bought their commuter rail tickets to Toledo and they killed an hour in the atrium, drinking espressos. Around them under the filtered sunlight milled dark women with their sleep ponytails tied into elaborate knots and this was what Lena had thought Italy would be like, and did, until a few months later when they went to Rome.

The commuter rail sped south and to Lena, who had never seen Spain, or any other arid landscape, the blank plateau seemed designed by Miguel Cervantes himself for the express contextualization of Quijote’s interminable quest. Looking out the window, Lena recognized that for the Knight of La Mancha, son of this flat, expressionless land, delirious fantasies were the only recourse for spiritual survival. On the train car with she and Aisha was a large group of schoolchildren shepherded by two school teachers, one old and one young, who turn turns ignoring the children. Aisha sat in the aisle seat reading a magazine in Spanish and periodically looked up at the window to deliver Lena a disquisition on how the Mideival Moorish occupation of Spain had brough not only Scheherezad but also algebra, astronomy, and Aristotle to Europe.

Then, in an hour, it was eight hundred years ago. From the train Lena watched Toledo rise out of the plain like a city built atop a giant turtle’s back, all the stone and brick the same color as the earth itself, the buildings like barnacles stuck to a shell. From the train station at the outskirts of the city they took a taxi to the studio apartment of an absent person Aisha knew from somewhere. (In every European city they went, and this was the first of many, Aisha would know a missing person. So Lena never met any of them, never found any witnesses to fill in the gaps about Aisha’s life. Lena got to know Aisha’s friends by their houseplants, their foreign woven rugs, their furniture, stark or plush, the painted details on their dinner plates.) The cab wound up into the city through narrow streets, and the locals hugged stone walls to let it pass. Their apartment was on the third floor of a building undifferentiated from its neighbors, denoted only by a numeral alongside the narrow wooden door set into the stone, which opened to a surprising formica liner on the stairs. Inside, bright white walls and a window box that needed watering, suspended over the view of a beautiful alley. In one corner a kitchenette, in another a loveseat, in a third, a narrow futon with sleeping space only for one.

For two days they walked. Munching on marzapan bought made in a convent by nuns, they entered every synagogue and cátedral and mosque. They saw suits of armor in shop windows and children’s swords for sale and above every streetred streamers were hung as though a festival had just ended, or was about to begin. Each church boasted its own Goya, the jazz-age faces wracked with grief, the heavenly light dissolved among the jewel-toned villagers and hills. In an ancient mosque-cum-synagogue with faded Coptic Jesus on the wall, Lena caught her breath and hoped those were tears in her eyes.

Lena insisted they go to the Jewish museum, tugged by some vague unstoppable internalization of our mother and her mother and hers: You went to Europe and not to the Jewish museum (there was always one, wasn’t there)? Ach! Go! Go! Go!

Inside the retiring synagouge the walls were covered, floor to triple-high ceilings, with Hebrew script. Lena stood under the light emitted by the rose-cut windows in the high stone and felt like a black ant inside a Torah scroll, ecstatic, trapped. On the second floor, the women’s section had been converted into a gallery for dead Jews’ things. Lena stood at a map of the post-inquisition diaspora and watched as the Jews to whom she was least related fled Spain for Paris, Amsterdam, Istanbul, Algiers. These Sephardic Jews were not our Jews. When the Temple fell, they went east, into Europe, while we middled in Germany, inventing Yiddish, before schlepping east.

A fat Spanish woman with hair dyed red approached smiling and asked, “Eres Judeo?” and Lena said, “Si,” and when Aisha appeared the woman included her in her broad beatific gaze. “Hermosas?” “No,” Aisha said, “somos investigadoras de la historia Judaismo,” and the woman smiled sadly and nodded her grey roots and drifted away.

Aisha led Lena by the elbow to a glass case holding shawls and candlesticks begging to be used, but locked away instead. “The Megillat Ester,” she said, indicating a tiny scroll unrolling into endless miniature Hebrew script. “Orientalists suggested—mostly notably in the 1912 Encyclopedia Brittannica entry on the Nights—that Scheherezad and Queen Esther were the same woman, both second wives to an ancient, insomniac Persian king, both with unusual sway over such a powerful man.”

“Is that true?” Lena asked. She peered into the glass case, looking for answers.

“Are the texts true?” Aisha stood close beside Lena, matching her breath. “It doesn’t matter if they’re true. They’re symbolic. They’re true mythology. Look at the symbolism in the first few lines.” And she offered an approximatae translation. “And there, in the time of Ataxerxes—he Ataxerxes, who reigned then from India to Ethiopia, and so forth, in the third year of his reign, and seven chamberlains, and the seven princes.”

“It’s a lot of sevens.” Looking closely, Lena could see the repetition of the Hebrew word seven, שבע , across the first few lines, the mythic three-pronged ש, the little crowns rising off its slick calligraphy. Lena turned and walked to the banister and looked out over the empty shul. Here in the women’s section the light from the rose windows hovered at eye level on the far wall, igniting the calligraphy with flames. On the ground floor, three steps led up to an ark that stood open and empty, the velvet cushions long gone, the Torah scrolls adopted or burned.

That night, after tapas and Tempranillo on Zocodaver square, Lena and Aisha returned to the absent friend’s flat. The night before they had slept chastely side-by-side, but tonight Aisha had other plans. Of course, I wasn’t there. But I can imagine. Did they stand at the window, watching the moon hover over the narrow streets, downing another glass of wine? Did Aisha brush a tendril of my sister’s long hair from her face, did she whisper entreaties of love? Or perhaps it was a roving foot, a meandering hand, that reached for my sister’s body when they were already tucked into the narrow bed. She must have expected it, in some way. Aisha was a highly sexual person. Lena was a year gone from Ted, her first and last true love. Who knows what her body needed, or could settle for, in that heady moment, head swimming with intellectual excitement, her body hot with the day’s excercise and wine. I imagine a few tender kisses in a foreign city was all it took, the first finger pulled (if I may say so) from the dyke. When they returned to Berlin, to their shared apartment, Lena was Aisha’s, at least until now.

 * * *

Phew! Call it Freudian, but for me writing and shitting have a lot in common. Both involve dropping my pants (figuratively in the former sense), my most private self exposed, and dedicating myself the difficult work of self-excavation with extreme purpose and single-mindedness. I really have to push. In both cases I must identify hidden interior material, composted and compacted after its long, winding journey through my being, and eject it (moaning and groaning all the while) into some blank white receptacle of my distress. If Geertz suggested that delayed gratification is the central psychological feature of the modern world (not to mention the modern novel, am I right? Bueller? Cervantes? Anyone?” then I am not ashamed to declare myself the first to proclaim (if  not downright discover) that constipation just might be the governing metaphor of mankind’s contemporary, technologically mediated existence.

Of course, if Lena were here, she would object that our world’s first novel, if we are defining the novel by its embrace of the conceit of delayed gratification (which is to say, suspense), is not Don Quijote but rather that endlessly iterated collection of tales to which my sister would insiste the Quijote is obviously, indeed explicitly, indebted, Nathan, that is, The Thousand and One Nights. But returning to an earlier point, the invocation of The…Nights, in whose pages waiting strikes a decidedly sexual tenor, allows us to infer that the action of delayed gratification is an inherently sexual or preferably sensual act. By which I mean—the holding it in—before, you know, letting it out—I mean—it feels good.

And woe to you if you call them “The Arabian Nights,” since as Lena will tell you (O for she has studied—under, literally under!—such a venerable scholar of The Nights) these tales traveled the Silk Road from Africa to China, and were originally recorded by the Persians, and have been transposed into all the world’s great languages, soon to be including (no offense to the Briton Burton) American English.

I know what you’re thinking—what, suddenly with a BA and three years of private cunning linguistic lessons from Aisha, Lena’s the master of the modern American idiom? Ahem?! Narrator here!

Far be it from me to protest that she doesn’t even live in America, because, then again, neither do I.

But I oughtn’t apologize: this is my story, even if they’re Lena’s facts, and so what if I’m cramped up in a moldy bathroom on the repossessed Israeli shores of the Mediterranean. (Yes, despite Aisha’s protestations, this story is Jewish. But at least my heritage offers the literary precedent of Portnoy, Sr., for my cramped-up kischkes.) And sheesh, if Lenaa told this tale, you’d miss the whole delicious context: that is to say, our family, the Knight-Abraham-Kahanes. As much as Lena may have thought running away from us all to Germany exempted herself from this grand Jewish-American tale of which she is a necessary part, it didn’t. Why do you  think she ran away in the first place?

I’ll tell you why: it’s because she fell in love with a schvartze. A black.

Ted.

Ted Knight, no relation.

Tadik “Ted” Knight, whose Arabic-inflected given name didn’t help matters as far as the social hostilities unleashed by Lena’s miscegenation were concerned, despite everyone’s protests that the issue wasn’t that Ted was black but simply, defensibly, that he was a goy.

Yeah, right. The old shaygetz excuse.

Of course, ours is a contemporary American family, so our bigotry was never so explicit (except in a few instances, when it was), but Lena was a good girl and a good daughter, played soccer in high school and excelled in her studies, she went to Princeton for Chrissakes, and so after years of satisfying my parents’ every wish for her this last, enormous failure needed only to grate on her for a few years before the bough cracked and she split.

It didn’t help that he asked her to marry him. What was she supposed to say, yes?

Aisha was the wild card. Aisha, who had been watching Lena and Ted since the first day they met, who then, when Lena was at her most vulnerable, pounced. She carried my sister away to Berlin, business class, where they still stay, living, working, and fucking even now, as we (figuratively) speak.

But, in Lena’s case, every trip has to come down eventually. Even now, as dusk falls over Berlin, the rumblings of her next abandonment are beginning to break the placid surface of her socialist work-life-conflation with Aisha. (Aisha, who, like any adulteress, hadn’t minded Lena’s fickleness when it was she Lena was leaving for.) If Lena had anything to say on the matter, she would insist that bad luck has followed her from the get-go, that she’s not a leaver but a loser, not the schlemiel spilling soup but the schlemazel unto whose lap it is spilled.

Oh, fuck her and her long hair.

Forgive me. As the eldest of her three brothers, I am not impartial. I am also among those whom Lena has left.

This is all easier to tell than show, but I know that isn’t the way. I won’t waste any more of your time hypothesizing as to the roots of Lena’s commitment-phobia, whose infinite set of possible originary causes begins with our parents’ divorce and extends back to the Russian pogroms, the destruction of the Second Temple, the eviction from Paradise itself.

And here I get ahead of myself, or more precisely, behind. I’ve all but already declared that storytelling takes patience, takes time—from both of us, reader, you and me, so stick around and I’ll explain it all. Just picture me the hare, plodding forward one step at a time, while fleet-footed Achilles (standing in for my plot) advances upon us from the starting line. Movement may be impossible—I know, I know, tell it to my bowels—but it is certainly probable (thank God!), that is, difficult to avoid. Zeno’s protestations notwithstanding, I promise the story will catch up with us in time.

And anyway, it’s midnight here, and I’ve been perched on the toilet too long, and I know you’re eager to get to Berlin, where my sister and Aisha lay sprawled on a woolen carpet embroidered with a rendering of Eden (whose potent symbolism will presently be revealed).

Could it be? I think I feel something stirring down below. If you’ll excuse me, I have pressing business to attend to. Ah, the armchair historian sinks to a new low.

Exeunt.

Males Rapping Females: Drake, Pride, and Manly Self-Sacrifice

via necolebitchie.com

via necolebitchie.com

So, I finally raised my white flag and started listening to Drake. This was on the heels of a lot of Frank Ocean and Kendrick Lamar, and I’ve been thinking a lot about how each of these three male artists writes and performs songs about female characters. (I’m thinking here of Drake’s Take Care, Ocean’s Channel Orange, and Lamar’s Section.80 and Good Kid, mAAd City). At first, my response was positive, both personally and politically – I felt noticed as a female listener: hey, he’s talkin’ ’bout ladies, he’s male but he cares, he notices the women around him. Cool. Then, my critical impulses jumped in: hey, talkin’ about ladies is great, but I shouldn’t be  satisfied by men talkin’ bout women. Where’s the women talkin’ ’bout women? And then, finally, I started collecting evidence, listening to the songs about women more closely. I started wondering about these tracks’ emotional content: why sing a certain song about a female character instead of about yourself? What can these artists achieve emotionally through female characters that they can’t or won’t approach through their own male selves?

These questions are rooted in my longtime interest in gendered values/vices, a subject I’ve discussed briefly here before. To briefly summarize where I’m coming from (and you can read more at the linked post), I’ll just note that traditional Western Christianity tends to see self-sacrifice as a virtue and pride as a sin, a la Jesus Christ. However, in the 1960s feminist theologians began to criticize this vision of virtue and vice as tailored primarily for the powerful, for white, heterosexual men: if you’re in power, self-sacrifice can be virtuous, pride and overreach can be sinful, sure. But for folks who are oppressed, who are voiceless, inculcating the “virtue” of self-sacrifice tends to reinforce their oppression. These feminist theologians suggested instead that for oppressed peoples, self-assertion is virtuous, while self-abnegation is a vice, a revision also taken up by Martin Luther King, Jr. when he asserted that those in power will never give up power willingly, but it needs to be claimed by the powerless: i.e., the virtue of pride.

I mention this all because I’ve noticed in Drake’s work especially a use of female characters to elide pridefulness. On his album Take Care, while Drake is braggadocious, he doesn’t take wholesome pride in his accomplishments and hard work; instead, he ascribes pride to female avatars: mother figures in “Look What You’ve Done” and a female love object in “Make Me Proud.”

On “Look What You’ve Done,” Drake proudly recounts his rise from obscurity to fame, the hard work and the lucky breaks, but repeatedly redirects his pride from his own self to a grateful honoring of his mother and another mother figure who supported him. Of his mother’s health problems, he asks, “But maybe I wouldn’t have worked as hard/If you were healthy and it weren’t so bad.” In this moment Drake resists taking pride in his own work ethic. Perhaps a work ethic isn’t manly, but altruism is: so Drake suggests he worked hard not because he was a hard worker, but because he had to be a man and take care of his mother. He continues:

Oh it’s my time, yeah, it’s on
[Lil Wayne’s] thinking of signing me, I come home
We make a mixtape with seventeen songs
I almost get a Grammy off of that thing
They love your son man that boy gone
You get the operation you dreamed of
And I finally sent you to Rome
I get to make good on my promise
It all worked out girl, we shoulda known
Cause you deserve it

These lines fascinate me because Drake is being playfully prideful, braggadocious: “Oh it’s my time, yeah, it’s on,” and he alludes to his hard work when he makes a Grammy-nominated mixtape in record time. But these declarations of pride and hard work are quickly redirected from effeminate pride in oneself to manly self-sacrifice, i.e., taking care of Mom: “you get the operation you dreamed of…’cause you deserve it.” What I’m wondering here is, why can’t Drake deserve it?  Didn’t he work hard, didn’t he make this music? But recognizing his own hard work in a serious way seems uncouth, and so he transforms his own pride into gratitude and self-sacrifice by using his achievement to take care of Mom.

This picture of acceptable virtues and vices is expanded on “Make Me Proud,” which similarly resists pridefulness but celebrates and encourages a female other–voiced literally by Nicki Minaj–to take pride in her accomplishments. On this track Drake paints a picture of a girl working hard, balancing her academic/career aspirations with her social/superficial concerns. Remarkably, she pulls it all off, and Drake expresses a kind of sympathy for what a catch she is, how she must be getting hit on at every turn:

weekend in miami, tryna study by the pool
Couple things due, but you always get it done….

You said niggas coming on too strong girl
They want you in their life as a wife
That’s why you wanna have no sex
Why you wanna protest, why you wanna fight for your right
Cause you don’t love them boys
Pussy run everything, fuck that noise

That line in there: “Why you wanna protest, why you wanna fight for your right” – in invoking the feminist mantras, Drake gently mocks them, mocks this girl he supposedly loves. And this dressing down of her righteous and well-earned pride in herself is continued into the chorus when, first of all, the girl’s achievements are conflated with her physical appeal, and second, her pride in herself is something that appears to need to be validated by Drake:

I know things get hard
But girl you got it, girl you got it there you go
Can’t you tell by how they looking at you everywhere you go
Wondering what’s on your mind, it must be hard to be that fine,
When all these motherfuckas wanna waste your time
It’s just amazing, girl, and all I can say is…

I’m so, I’m so, I’m so, I’m so,
I’m so proud of you (x3)
Everything’s adding up, you’ve been through hell and back
That’s why you’re bad as fuck and you…

And then Nicki jumps in – unlike Drake, she can inhabit pride in a way he is not permitted to:

B-b-b-bad I am
All of them bitches I’m better than
Mansions in Malibu babblin
But I never mention everything I dabble in
…Done did the pop tour, I’m the realest deal,
The best legal team so the deals is ill
It’s Mac, OPI and a fragrance too
Apparel, I’m dominating every avenue
Cobblestone, good view, lil gravel too
Gotta pay for the entourage travel too
Cause I’m fli-fli-fly, I’m flying high
Ain’t got time to talk, just Hi and bye

It’s interesting to ask, in this context, whether Nicki’s braggodocious lyrics, above, are qualitatively different from Drake’s. (We’ll look at another song of his in a moment). Taken on their own, I would say they’re not: she’s better than bitches, she has a great team, brand-name deals, she flies her entourage around, etc. Drake brags about the same shit. I think the difference is the context, the introduction Nicki receives. “That’s why you’re bad as fuck,” he says, and she replies, “Bad I am,” as though Drake gives her permission to take pride in herself and she accepts it, as though she condones his  validation of her worth.

It’s also fun to watch Drake and Nicki’s genuine chemistry and affection in the video of “Make Me Proud,” above.  Because when they are actually rapping the lyrics to each other the song has an even clearer dialogic quality. And we see then that not only does Drake sing to Nicki, “I’m so proud of you,” but she sings it back to him, gesturing to the audience: “I really am so proud of this guy.” It’s almost maternal, a mother saying she is proud of her son. Perhaps that’s the invisible voice missing from Take Care: maternal pride (though actually it does appear, dressed as gratitude, at the end of “Look What You’ve Done”). Drake doesn’t need to be proud of himself; he’ll be proud of the women, and the women will be proud of him.

I compare “Look What You’ve Done” and “Make Me Proud” with a number of other songs on Take Care in which Drake engages with female characters and variously brags, acts falsely humble, appears emotionally unavailable, or alludes to a private emotional self but resists trespassing beyond a set core of manly emotions: sexual appetite, generosity for women and friends, gratitude/blessedness, blase oversaturation at the volume of food, drink, pussy he gets, empty apologies for said emotional unavailability. But never can Drake say, I worked hard, I earned this (only female characters can say that); and while Drake can say I mistreated some women, he is never mistreated by them – he uses them for sex, they use him for money, but his heart is never broken (that is weak): thus, “Cry if you want to, but I can’t stay to watch you, it’s the wrong thing to do.” I.e., Drake’s sin is emotional unavailability, he’s too tough to love you right now, but he’s rational enough, smart enough, chivalrous enough to break your heart to your face, instead of “end[ing] up lying, and say I love you too.”

There’s more to say, but I’ll stop here. I’m interested to hear what y’all think – all fictional characters are in some sense avatars of their authors, and I’m hoping to create space for us to notice the different characteristics rappers care to occupy as themselves versus as female fictions in their work. We also see this going on in Frank Ocean’s “Pyramids” and lots of Kendrick Lamar tracks, but I’ll save that for another day. Peace y’all.

Review of a Review: An Opportunistic, Back-Door Entrance to a Subject I’ve Been Avoiding (That Is, Black-Jewish Relations)

freedom seder

via emory.edu

Cord Jefferson begins his Bookforum review of Joshua Bloom and Waldo E Martin Jr.’s new book on the Black Panthers, Black Against Empire, with a seemingly off-topic invocation of American Jewry. “For years it’s been said in circles both polite and impolite,” Jefferson begins the piece, “and in ways both delicate and indelicate, that America’s blacks should learn to live more like America’s Jews.” Three paragraphs later, this observation’s relation to the Black Panthers, and to Bloom and Martin’s new book, finally becomes clear. “The book reminds us of how close we came to a world in which America’s blacks were, in fact, acting like the Jews. In the 1960s and ’70s, the Black Panthers tried very hard to build a nation in which black people were sectarian, autonomous, and prosperous in much the same way Jewish communities throughout the United States had been for decades. And for their efforts, the Panthers were sabotaged, prosecuted, and murdered.”

Now, I just sat down to eat a bagel and read my new Bookforum, and then I read this piece, and then I ran up here to write to you. For some time now I’ve been avoiding opening this very door, this door onto the world of comparative history and literature and cultural studies between Black and Jewish culture. I went to see Eugene Jarecki’s new documentary on the drug war, The House I Live In, and was surprised and excited to see it begin with Jarecki’s personal reflection’s on his family’s escape from the Holocaust. But then the movie was disappointing, so I didn’t write about it, and I didn’t do then what I’m going to do now, which is slide my own self into the frame and explain that my identity as a Jewish woman has so much to do with what I’m doing here, in this world of African-American Studies.

And then last week I bought Emily Raboteau’s book Searching for Zion, which I believe compares the African and Jewish diaspora experiences, through travels to Israel, Africa, the Carribbean, the Deep South. But I’m not sure, because I haven’t read it yet, though I wondered if, when I read it, I would feel compelled to tell you some true things about my identity.

You see, approaching this subject is hard for me because I’m in it. On this blog I have been honest and transparent insofar as I am a woman or a rap fan or a teacher or a writer but I have never really come out as a Jew. If you know me you already know, and if you don’t it hasn’t mattered. I could write with some privacy about Cornel West and James Baldwin and Philip Roth and Exodus and slavery and diaspora and freedom and stay as impartial as a squirrel in a distant tree but I’m not, I’m right here, and I’m Jewish.

Yesterday I read this piece on Tablet about the inscription on Ed Koch’s gravestone of slain journalist Daniel Pearl’s last words: “My mother is Jewish, my father is Jewish, I am Jewish.” A perfectly fine declaration of Jewish identity which I also could make. And then Koch’s headstone attributes these words thus: “(Daniel Pearl, 2002, just before he was beheaded by a Muslim terrorist.)”

How disgusting.

For all those concerned with the whitewashing of Ed Koch’s obituaries regarding his soiled reputations on AIDS and race relations in New York, don’t worry: of his own volition he has immortalized his intolerance on his own tombstone. “Muslim terrorist.” As though one thing had anything to do with another. As though Judaism is still defined by its existential threat, by the history of axes hanging over our scrawny, pious necks. As though being a Jew is permission to do that thing which has been done to us for millenia, that thing which had the Roman geto created for us, that is: to profile.

time blacks v jews

1969 cover via Time.com

Unlike the late Mr. Koch, I prefer to define my culture in positive terms, as a collection of books, stories, people, places, beautiful objects, historical documents, songs, melodies, language. I am not afraid to quarrel with another Jew’s picture of Judaism because argument and interpretation are part and parcel of my proud tradition. You see, I am one of those Jews: the social-justice oriented, ecumenical, liberal, egalitarian, concerned with the human rights of Palestinians and the freedom and dignity of all Americans of all colors and creeds, the progressive, the pro-birth control and anti-war, the pro-honest criticism of Israel, the anti-AIPAC, the anti-checkpoints, the anti-hate Jews. There is too much irony to cover. There is Lupe Fiasco and Jesse Jackson and Coleman Silk. There’s Israel’s Black Panther Party and the schisming of Black-Jewish solidarity and stories of slavery and freedom and community and song. To do so I will need to be present and honest and proud.

Cord Jefferson writes about the Black Panthers by pointing out to us that they tried to act like Jews. They tried to keep the money in the tribe. They started charities and schools and institutions dedicated to uplifting the members of their community.  The problem was, the Black Panthers didn’t look like Jews, because Jews look like white people. Despite  not celebrating Christmas or believing in Jesus or having any heritage from Germany or England or Sweden or France, despite my connection to a broad diaspora of Jews who speak all the world’s languages and are themselves the world’s colors and shapes, despite feeling in my heart that I am not white the way white people are white, when I walk out of my house in America every morning, I am white. (Maybe not fifty or a hundred years ago, but today, yes.) And so the J. Edgar Hoovers of the world do not see me as a threat.

There is so much to say. I won’t rush. Think of this as me opening a door, to let the breeze in. Passover is coming next month, the most important holiday for a social-justice Judaism, the holiday in which we tell the story of our exodus from Egypt, that story which is not ours alone. In the ritual of the Seder, the Passover meal, we build Jewish theology and practice out of a simple fact: we were slaves in Egypt, and God delivered us. Is that cause to rest on our laurels or extend the same hand to others?

I won’t answer. I’ll just make my new category and post this thing. Thanks for listening – and don’t worry, my next post is on Frank Ocean and Kendrick Lamar. -T

Loving Kimye: An Exploration (part I)

Awwwww

Awwwww

Before I can attend to my complicated and important feelings about the future birth of little Kimye, Jr., I must first offer a long-overdue defense of the deep and indefensible love I feel for the pop culture coupling that is Kim and Kanye. If you are like some people (my boyfriend), what needs defending is that I would profess to love two celebrities–any people, really, who are personally unknown to me. If you are like some other people (most people; certain friends) the question is: why love Kimye at all, when there are Knowleses and -Z’s about?

First, my beau’s pained question: wherefore the love for a celebrity? In her introductory article, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Brangelina,” the excellent star studies scholar Anne Helen Petersen explains star formation  (hint: when we’re talking about stars, we’re really talking about ourselves). She writes:

Celebrity is a particularly modern phenomenon, symptomatic of a culture that attempts to “know” a person through mediated forms (the magazine, the newspaper, the newscast). Stardom is a particularly potent form of celebrity. … [a] star is formed when audiences combine information about the star’s onscreen performances (the type of person she plays on screen; Reese Witherspoon, for example, is “America’s Sweetheart”) with information about the star’s off-screen life (her romances, her children, and other gossip). Put differently, a Star = Textual Information + Extra-textual Information. Each star’s “image” is the result of this alchemy.

[Certain] actors become superstars because their images—what they seem to represent, on- and off-screen—embody something vital to contemporary American identity. It’s no accident that Tom Cruise’s brand of white, working class-turned-suave masculinity resonated in the 1980s, or that Julia Roberts’s postfeminist approach to sex and relationships gained traction in the early 1990s. As Richard Dyer suggests, “stars matter because they act out aspects of life that matter to us; and performers get to be stars when what they act out matters to enough people” (Dyer, 17, 1984).

Petersen’s formulations above present challenges for Kimye because neither is a traditional screen actor. As an artist and a reality TV star, both Kanye and Kim traffic in representations of their real lives, not representations of fictional lives. (In Kanye’s case, despite the fact that rap is so often fictional, we can see this potential conflation for listeners in the strong presence of the first person “I” in all Yeezy’s raps.) But perhaps this makes their “alchemy” all the more potent. Even though I know both rap and reality TV are fiction, I am allowed to operate under an even more profound delusion of “knowing” these two characters because of their extreme availability. So the questions become, what do Kim and Kanye mean to me, and what does their union mean to me? Why are they so resonant? Why do I want to celebrate their mitzvot with parties of my own? And be their friends?

(Ok, I’ll admit: Kim I don’t want to be friends with so much as I feel a kind of kinship with her: watching her show reminds me of my sister, both because my sister used to watch it and also because Keeping Up With the Kardashians is really a celebration of a goofy, nosy, PG-13 version of sisterhood.

Of course, I do want Kanye to be my friend. Not a romantic friend with benefits, but that friend you flirt with sometimes because he’s your boy and he really has your back, and who at senior prom you dance one dance to, to “Step in the Name of Love” by Kels and you know there are real feelings there but you’re just not right for each other romantically and that’s okay because the bond is strong.

But enuf of that.)

From the perspective of star studies, then, Kanye and Kim’s relationship is meaningful to Americans like me because it symbolizes or represents something that is important to us in today’s moment: “what they act out matters to enough people.” Petersen goes on to explain what happens when stars collide in a romantic relationship:

When the couple has nothing to do with making us feel better about our relationships with fictional characters [i.e., two stars of a romantic movie dating each other for real], then it’s all about how we feel about two images and their fit.  As for their actual interactions, the way they challenge each other, or the fact that love doesn’t always make sense to people outside of the relationship, none of that matters.  Again, it’s not about a relationship between two people, but a relationship between two images — and the way we feel about the resultant image, the “relationship” image as it were.  Just like a star image is the sum of its signifying parts — the way the star appears at premieres, in actual films, in sweats at the supermarket, in advertisements, in interviews — so too is the relationship the sum of the couple’s appearances (or lack thereof) in public, the way they speak of each other in interviews, the way they produce (or don’t produce) children.

So the puzzle pieces here are Kanye and Kim’s “two images and their fit,” working together in a way that is somehow appealing to me. So what are these stars representing for the public? In many pieces, Petersen breaks down how she reads a given star’s image. So, aping her methodology, I’ll give it the ol’ grad school try:

Kanye reads: south side Chicagoan, from the streets but not of the streets (even if his mom is a prof, but whatever), aspirational, talented, kind of like an outsider dork black kid who is so successful he becomes black royalty, best friends with the coolest kid in school (Jay); passionate, out-of-control emotions, an artist but also a buffoon, tempestuous, occasional drunkard loves his mom, loves himself. mama’s boy. Likes curvy women.

Kim reads: Armenian Valley girl, rich parents on the margins of LA celebrity, a comfortable – even commodifiable – sexuality, real white women have curves, making bank by exploiting her own privacy and emotional life, fame whore, family gal, boob jokes with the sisters. Likes black guys.

For both of these two, it occurs to me that for folks who don’t consume their media and just hear about them, Kanye largely reads “jackass” (a la President Obama, who broke my heart that day, but I understand) and Kim reads “nouveau riche ethnic white trash.” As an avowed consumer and even teacher of Kanye’s music, and an occasional watcher of KUWTK and always admirer of Kim’s curvaceous form, I am inclined to see the good in them.

But, in any case, these two images combine really cleanly. Both are aspirational, folks who even on top seem jealous to get higher; both are hard workers; Kanye was a mama’s boy and Kim has family aplenty (and they’re for sale); both urbanites; both have shown their vulnerabilities in public; have been friends for years; both have an established interest in the looks/body type of the other one. So what might I admire or connect to in this relationship? Well, I think it’s the fantasy, first of all, of that special friendship turning into something more after all those years of failed relationships with other people. It also seems to be a fantasy about making choices–good choices and bad ones, artistic choices and capitalist ones–and not having our mistakes ruin our chance at love. And it’s also a fantasy about fame, because all these two wanted was to be famous, and now they are, and their conjunction makes each more famous than they could have been alone. And it’s a fantasy about genuine love, because these two may want each other for the fame, but definitely not for the money.

***

Now, let’s consider the second question: why love Kimye when there are Carters around?

bey jay basketball game

Jay and Bey’s images are quite different than Kim and Kanye’s. The Carters manage their privacy. They got married secretly, then waited a long time to have a kid. Jay’s raps, like Bey’s tumblr, are personal, yet the real person is still hidden beneath a sheeny veil of artistry and marketing. They are black Americana: hiphop and R&B’s greatest contemporary successes.

The Carters read untouchable, effortless success. They work hard but they don’t have to try hard to work hard. As far as their alchemical stardom is concerned, their fame is based on 99% talent and 1% (all Bey’s) crazy gorgeous face-beauty. Compare this to Kim and Ye, whose hustles get down and dirty. Kim’s reality show success is leveraged from a sextape and her dad having defended OJ Simpson. Kanye is more infamous than famous, his awesome music dwarfed by his awesomely bad self-control.

So, depending on your fantasies and dreams–if you dream of pop stardom, if you dream of untouchability–Jay and Bey may be the star couple for you. But my life has been too messy and my fiction is too personal for me to hope for all that.

Now, grant me a detour. (Or skip the next section and meet me at the bottom.)

Buddhist cosmology holds that all sentient beings live and die and are reborn within a cycle of Samsara: imperfect existence. Of the cycle’s six realms, three are unfortunate–demons, hungry ghosts, and animals–and three are fortunate–humans, demigods, and gods. Rebirth in the fortunate groups is a result of good karma, and in the unfortunate groups is a result of bad (read more). Even though being a god or demigod is exceedingly pleasant, however, only humans can achieve nirvana – because it takes that most human mixture of pain and joy to fully practice the dharma, the good, noble way–gods and demigods are too distracted by their bounty to fully understand the nature of existence and behave accordingly.

samsara

Bear with me here.

Certain interpretations of Buddhism hold that “cosmology is equivalent to psychology.” That is, the so-called realm a being is in is psychological, not metaphysical. If you are miserable and desperate, you are a hungry ghost; if you are happy and at leisure, you are a god. Etc. Under this interpretation it is possible to say that human beings exist across all six realms of being. (For example, think of someone you know who is an animal.)

This thorough and hopefully reliable source explains the mythological relationship between the gods and the demigods:

Mythologically, it is said that the Asuras [demigods] and the gods share a celestial tree. While the gods enjoy the fruits of this celestial tree, the Asuras are custodians of the roots of the tree. The Asuras are envious of the gods and constantly attempt to take the fruits of the tree from the gods. As a result of this, they fight with the gods, and are defeated by the gods and suffer greatly as a consequence. Because of this constant jealousy, envy and conflict, existence amongst the Asuras is unhappy and unfortunate.

The demigods guard the roots of the celestial tree and are jealous of the gods, who enjoy the fruits. The demigods are still demigods, jet they are plagued by jealousy, unhappy with their lot. The gods, on the other hand, are straight chillin’. They will always win.

The "Knowles-Thronedashians"

The “Knowles-Thronedashians”

I invoke these myths because they help me understand how I view what Rembert Browne calls the “Knowles-Thronedashians” and why Kanye and Kim are so much more appealing to me than Jay-Z and Beyonce. Gods and demigods, they’re all too distracted by their leisure to know much of the nature of things. But Kim and Kanye know–and show–their pain. Even jealousy is a real emotion I can understand. It makes them more human, or at least appear so. And the irony for us humans is that the most beneficial state in which to be born is to be born a human, because humans, with their pain and suffering as well as their joy and love, live in the only realm from which one can achieve nirvana, release from the cycle of death and rebirth.

Just listen, for a minute.

We gonna take it to the moon, take it to the stars,

How many people you know could take it this far?

So many stars [scars].

Bout to take this whole thing to Mars.

I know Kanye knows longing by the painful desire he exhibits on this track for his autotuned vocals to keep up with the wide warm vibrating velvet of Beyonce’s voice. He wants to sing like a man might want to run like Bolt or dance like Baryshikov or sing like Beyonce but only the gods can do that, and longing is attachment and pain.

Kanye is a man, is a human being. I adore him for his failures as much as for his success. I want him to find love.

***

So, what do we talk about when we talk about Kimye?  We congratulate folks getting the body they’ve dreamed about in a sexual partner (more on this in part II). We dream that we get the one who got away. We hope a man who’s lost his family finds another. We celebrate the power of love despite the messiness of our lives and the mistakes we’ve made. We pray love works. We’re pinning our hopes on Kimye.

Some Thoughts on the Sin of Sensuality

butter_london_nail_polish_cream_tea

At some point every weekend, I spend about an hour giving myself a manicure. It’s a labor of love, and inconvenience: add to that hour the also-half-hour-or-hour spent not doing anything but gingerly pressing “play” on that day’s webisode of Melissa Harris-Perry. I’ve jumped the gun this week: my nails were chipping, so I took the plunge even though it’s only Friday. Removed last week’s nail polish, soaked my fingertips in warm water in the sink, pushed back and clipped my cuticles, clipped my nails and gently filed them. All that’s left is to apply four coats of the too-sheer nontoxic nail polish I’ve been using, but I can’t do that until I’ve typed my piece.

At some point in this flurry of filing and clipping I thought back to the sin of sensuality, a concept I studied as a college senior writing a thesis for Princeton’s Religion Department. My junior year independent work had focused on late 20th century Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, a Christian realist and Cold War hawk who advocated action against dangerous enemies tempered by critical self-reflection. For Niebuhr, whose theology developed against the backdrop of enormous multinational wars and power struggles, the greatest virtue was self-sacrifice, the greatest sin was pride, and men fell more easily to the latter than the former.

moral man niebuhr

For Niebuhr’s feminist critics, his use of “man” and “men” as generic human pronouns was important, and more precise than Niebuhr realized. Valerie Saiving Goldstein’s 1960 article “The Human Situation: A Feminist View,” was the first to articulate the feminist critique of Niebuhr’s theology. Focusing her argument on the visions of love and sin articulated by Niebuhr and Anders Nygren, she considered their views that “man’s predicament [rises] from his separateness and the anxiety occasioned by it.” According to Nieburh and Nygren, Goldstein argued, the anxiety of autonomy led these male theologians to “identify sin with self-assertion and love with selflessness” (100). Pushing oneself to be an individual was construed as sinful; virtue was constructed as relinquishing one’s identity in the interest of others. Goldstein’s concern is not over the reality of this assertion, but rather its presentation as universal. If this vision of love is not redemptive, it is not normative; if “human nature and the human situation are not as described by the theologians in question, then the assertion that self-giving love is the law of man’s being is irrelevant and may even be untrue.” Goldstein boldly claimed that a theology which inaccurately represents the spiritual needs of all people needs to be changed.

According to Goldstein, the experiences of growing up male and female are different: a boy has to prove he is a man, while a woman has only to wait until she is a woman. “[M]asculinity is an endless process of becoming, while in femininity the emphasis is on being” (105). Her conclusions suggested an entire new category of sins and virtues for the powerless: 

For the temptations of woman as woman are not the same as the temptations of man as man, and the specifically feminine forms of sin—“feminine” not because they are confined to women or because women are incapable of sinning in other ways but because they are outgrowths of the basic feminine character structure—have a quality which can never be encompassed by such terms as “pride” and “will-to-power.” They are better suggested by such items as triviality, distractibility, and diffuseness; lack of an organizing center or focus; dependence on others for one’s own self definition…in short, underdevelopment or negation of the self. The fact that her whole growth toward womanhood has the character of an inevitable process of bodily maturation rather than that of a challenge and a task may lead her to dissipate herself in activities which are merely trivial…[Indeed,] the specifically feminine dilemma is, in fact, precisely the opposite of the masculine. (108-109)

In fact, Niebuhr was aware of a second type of sin. Daphne Hampson draws attention to to the existence of “[t]wo types of sin, the refusal to relinquish power and the refusal to claim it” (“Reinhold Niebuhr on Sin: A Critique,” 56). Although it plays only a bit part in Niebuhr’s writings and is usually overlooked, the refusal to claim power is referred to by Niebuhr as the sin of “sensuality.”Implicitly, however, it seeps through his oeuvre as the shadow of all his assertions. For every agent of power who sinned in pride, there is always the powerless, whose agency has been corrupted. This is perhaps most clear in his comments on the African American community, whose uplift he saw depending on their decision to take power for themselves, for it would never be given to them willingly (Niebuhr, “The Preservation of Moral Values in Politics”). And this point was taken up by Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”: “It is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals” (King).

judith-plaskow-paperback-cover-art

A number of later feminist theologians took up Goldstein’s call and proposed feminist values as alternatives to Niebuhr’s self-sacrifice, values Barbara Hilkert Andolsen’s focus on “honesty, courage, and self-assertion” and “mutuality” (“Agape in Feminist Ethics”). As Fule puts it, rather beautifully, taking up the language of “sensuality” carries its own “weight and shadow” (“Being Human Before God”). Sensuality still rings as a sin–delighting in fleshly pleasures, that sort of thing. No lay person thinks of the word “creatureliness.”

Which brings me back to my manicure. If pride were sinful and self-sacrifice the only virtue, it’d be an affront to paint my nails and a Godly service to keep on biting them instead. But as I sat on the closed toilet seat with clipper in hand, working through my fleeting sense that I should be doing something more productive, this rush of ideas crossed my mind. That it’s okay to be a proud creature for an hour, to tend to my body and enjoy its health. Goldstein, Hampton and Andolsen might suggest that beyond simply tolerable, it’s actually virtuous to take care of ourselves. My fingers do a lot of work for me (see: above), so it’s both reciprocal and right that I let them relax once in a while.

UPDATE: Of course, now that I actually watch the above video, with its keyboardist looking like Cornel West with only a dash of ?uestlove, I wonder whether my whole nails shebang isn’t an example of the sins of triviality and diffuseness that Goldstein warned about, rather than an embrace of creatureliness. Managing vice and virtue sure is a tricky business. What do you guys think?

2397 miles / 72 gallons = 33.3 mpg (or, On Generations)

the ancient Eurasian trade route: the Silk Road!

I just got back to Ann Arbor from a week-long road trip with my beau that had us stopping in a ton of cities throughout the Southeast: Nashville, Atlanta, Savannah, Charleston, Wilmington, Durham, and Asheville. Besides the awesome people and scenery that populated that trip, the driving itself was an opportunity to listen to a LOT of music. For my part, I did a lot of catching up: on older Soul and Motown like Curtis Mayfield, James Brown, Aretha, and Parliament; geographically relevant rap like Goodie MOB’s Soul Food (1995), which popularized the term “Dirty South,” plus a couple albums from the North Cackalack group Little Brother; and some newer stuff like Tyler the Creator’s Goblin and a few of A$AP Rocky’s mixtapes. (A$AP’s catchy lyrics are still swirling through my head: “I’m a pretty motherfucker, Harlem’s where I’m reppin…”

On this trip I also found myself thinking about generations. Between these generations of music, the cousins I stayed with in Savannah, the multilayered relationships between friends we visited, and the reeking historicity of the South (at least to this Yankee), generationality seemed ever present, as we zipped between colonial-looking Charleston and the post-apocalyptic swimwear superstore that is Myrtle Beach.

There is a Hebrew phrase, “L’dor va dor,” which means “From generation to generation.” In the Jewish liturgy the phrase signifies the passing down of Jewish knowledge–literally, “L’dor va dor nagid gadlecha,” means, “From generation to generation we will proclaim Your greatness.” But in my experience of Jewish ritual practice, l’dor va dor is also invoked to connote a sense of the resilience and historical presence of the Jewish community; the phrase signifies cultural strength and unity, and carries with it the positive injunction to teach our children how to be good Jews.

But lately I have found myself thinking about the negative that can be passed from generation to generation. Throughout our recent Southern tour I was surprised to see Confederate flags, plantations advertised as tourist destinations and even retirement communities, and a sign on Savannah’s historic riverfront that insisted the Georgia legislature had never wanted to legalize slavery. Really guys?

I found myself thinking about a recent conversation with an adult cousin who, after telling me she’d been reading my blog, asked, “So what’s the deal with misogyny in hiphop?” After giving her a bunch of answers that positioned hiphop artists as a historically marginalized population with misdirected frustration that mirrors the misogyny of wider society, I had to stop and confess–the deal is, no one knows what the deal is. I spend so much time defending hiphop, this was the first time I really confronted the end of the excuses. There is no excuse. “I enjoy the music,” my cousin said, “but what do I tell my daughter?”

I thought of the recent controversy surrounding the rapper Too $hort and his videotaped advice on XXL.com on how young men ought to force unwilling girls into sexual acts. Most incredible to me was an interview the rapper subsequently gave to dream hampton on Ebony.com, which appears to (and hopefully does) express the genuine kind of moral awakening that can prevent misogyny and other forms of hatred and violence from being passed down from generation to generation.

Recently a student and I were talking about what new rappers he was listening to these days and he mentioned A$AP Rocky.

“Aesop Rock?” I asked.

“No,” he said, “A$AP Rocky. Like with a dollar sign.”

“Older white guy?” I tried again. “Aesop Rock.”

“A$AP Rocky,” he said again.”He’s a Black kid from Harlem but he has this southern thing going on.”

“That’s funny that his name is a riff on Aesop Rock.”

“I don’t think it is,” my student said. “That’s just his name.”

“There’s no way it’s not related,” I countered. “They’re almost identical!”

But we had to agree to disagree. The thing about generations is, it’s as easy to forget as it is to remember. Question is, what are we passing on?