Parents are the Frontline of Their Children’s Academic Achievement: A Book Review of I’m Your Teacher, Not Your Mother by Suzette Clarke

 

 

 

 

I'm your teacher

 

 

 

Class is in session.

In her self-published book, I’m Your Teacher, Not Your Mother, Suzette Clarke ignites a controversial conversation about the “true source” of student failure. While finger-pointing has typically designated teachers, schools, standardized tests, and standards as the source of fault, Clarke turns the finger to a “culprit” more centrally located to students’ lives.  The parents.  A former middle school teacher and library media specialist of fifteen years, Clarke postulates lack of parental involvement and investment as most impactful on academic success, and that this factor must be considered before blame be placed solely and sorely on the shoulders of educational institutions and those who work within them.

I’m Your Teacher, Not Your Mother is a collection of expositions, vignettes, statistics, observations, and personal reflections based on the frontline of working in schools.  Clarke asserts parents’ attitudes about learning, orientations toward what support looks like, and understandings of obligations and responsibilities all play a role in how learning is supported, and not supported at home. Recounting hers and colleagues’ experiences, parental involvement has been staggeringly low.  Reflecting both on her own and colleagues’ experiences working in New York City schools, Clarke identifies several factors for why she thinks parental lack of both commitment and participation occurs on so large a scale.

Clarke asserts that some parents situate school as the primary officiator of their children’s success instead of themselves. “It seems they believe overseeing their children’s educational development is someone else’s responsibility.” However, she also contends that with pressing economic times many parents are pulled away from home, working long hours and multiple jobs, resulting in less possibility for them to be actively involved in monitoring children’s academic success closely.  “We have become a society of overwhelmed parents” who work “so much from the home that many depend on the system to develop and guide children.”

In other cases, Clarke contends that children “who fail have been given the power to fail by their parents,” and particularly those “who perform poorly or cause trouble in school do so because they have parents who are enablers. These parents do not do what is necessary to stem such behaviors.” Still in other cases parental failure of students is attributable to a lack of parents understanding their role to make sure students actively and responsibly participate in their own learning (completing tasks, fulfilling assignments, preparing for assessments). Being good intentioned, Clarke contends that such parents correlate being older as inherently being more responsible. She asserts that these expectations of autonomy, self-monitoring, and self-reliance are too much to handle, even for teenagers.

In all, Clarke suggests that at epidemic levels, “children are not getting the daily educational supervision they need at home in order to succeed at school.” Central to students performing successfully in school is parental establishment and enforcement of what she describes as an “educational tone in their home.” She emphasizes that parents must inaugurate high educational standards as soon as children commence school, and institute them every day until high school graduation.  She contends that if parents demonstrate concern for their children’s education and couple that with daily monitoring, then they will excel.  “Children who fail are not stupid. They are just unsupervised, undisciplined, unfocused, and out of practice.”

Clarke proclaims that there is “a distinct correlation between the concerned parent and the proactive student.” Students who do well are those who are “well trained, organized, disciplined, and motivated…They have parents who provide them with constant order, support, and guidance.” In the second half of her book, she then puts forth myriad suggestions for different ways parental involvement and commitment can be fully actualized.

For one, Clarke promotes reading at home as beneficially impactful on academic progress, while simultaneously honing an essential life skill. If parents “require reading time every day at home, reading scores would soar, and more students would become natural readers. Their overall knowledge, comprehension, vocabulary, grammar, writing and spelling skills would improve.” As well, she purports avid readers as “more informed and are better communicators.”

Clarke suggests minimizing excessive showering children with gifts, especially those who are not successful in school, as it communicates values around material wealth over mental.  Indulgence in expensive gifts and trappings, in place of a consistent emotional involvement with child and school, endorses inappropriate school behavior and performance.

Parents reinforcing organization, such as the maintenance of an organized notebook, hold their children accountable in maintaining successful habits of mind and work. Frequent notebook checks are a way Clarke suggests parents can be kept abreast of a child’s progress. They can serve as a lens into any challenges or weaknesses his/her child is experiencing, and intervene. “If parents made sure their children maintained a constant level of organization and discipline, how can they fail?”

Clarke suggests that a mutually respectful partnership be established between parent and teacher. Parents of struggling students need to indulge less the blaming of teachers exclusively for their child’s poor performance. Instead, they should take the teachers’ input and advice and implement them into an action plan. She also admonishes parents to not be dissuaded by their child’s attitude toward a teacher, and not endorse their lack of successful performance just because they do not like a teacher. Parents must promote and uphold the expectation of the child to complete assigned work and excel on assessments, and not let a child’s excuse of “I don’t like the teacher” or “The teacher is out to get me” as justifiable eclipses of their potential.

Finally, Clarke suggests that supervision and activity are centripetal to academic success. From 3-6pm, students need activities that keep them engaged outside of school, and thus out of trouble. Examples include after school programs, play rehearsals, sports, language classes, tutoring, and when old enough, employment and volunteerism.

At the end of each chapter, Clarke asks parents pointed and poignant questions to reflect upon their involvement and investment in their child’s successes. They serve as prompts for parents to assess and reevaluate how they are supporting their child’s development. For example, a salient question she asks parents to consider is, “If a teacher has told you that your child is missing homework assignments, what new procedures have you implemented at home to ensure that all work is completed?” Such questions could serve as discussion starters during parent meetings, or as an opportunity for quiet reflection for individual parents.

In critique, there are some argumentative and structural elements of the book that need consideration. Argumentatively, the promotion of the idea of parental involvement proving pivotal to children’s successful formation academic habits and subsequent achievement is already established.  Repeating throughout the book that a lack of such investment has negative impact at times stifles its’ illuminative potential rather than augment it. All too brief and cursory descriptions of how and why parents are insufficiently participatory or absent from their children’s academic lives detract from us knowing and understanding what we as stakeholders cannot afford to repeat.  We need the nitty-gritty narratives alluded to by Clarke.  Accounts of specific families, detailing the different practices (or lack thereof) that negatively impact children creating and sustaining successful academic habits would amplify the argument and concretize what to avoid. Most importantly, providing in-depth case studies of parents who have implemented Clarke’s remedies effectively, yielding in children’s successful adoption and/or adaption of fruitful academic habits and achievement, would make the book complete.  Structurally, statistics and data from several diverse sources would provide readers a better understanding of the social, cultural, anthropological and historical milieu within which long-term academic efficacy and failure occur.

However, Clarke, as mother, educator, and advocate, puts her blood, sweat, and tears into initiating a much-needed conversation.  Her words and purpose push us into the arena, and provide an initial arsenal with which to begin the fight.  I’m Your Teacher, Not Your Mother offers food for thought regarding parents being the most essential agents of change in students’ academic development, progress, and success.

Class is dismissed. 

 

For more information, you can access Suzette’s website at http://imyourteachernotyourmother.com/.

 

 

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Making Memories Plate by Plate

Food is sacrament. Forkful by forkful, something old unfolds and something new begins to take its first breath.

Food is sacrament. Through its creations and sharing, I am educated in how to give and bless back the family and friends that purpose my living. Family albums bloom with snapshots where we celebrate anniversaries, show thanks for another year via birthday dinners, mark rites of passage such as retirement and commiserate over one’s passing.

Growing up
Picnic in Riverside Park
Family Gathering, 1995
Family Gathering, 1995
family birthday celebration
Celebrating Dad’s birthday

Growing up, creating Mother’s Day dinner was how I showed—in small part given the grandness of her love—the honor and appreciation I held for her.  I tired my father in an exhaustive day of shopping for everything we did not already have in pantry or freezer.  I used every pot and pan, to my father’s frustration as he was the designated dishwasher. I enveloped the kitchen in a fury of preparing exotic dishes (one year attempting Hunter Style Chicken for dinner, another year a complicated strawberry crepe-style cookie with homemade whipped cream for dessert) in an effort to convey a love supreme. Dinner would be met with my mother’s humble smile, receptive palate, and a willing stomach.  When an adult, and in the hospital recuperating from my tonsillectomy, she traveled a great distance via mass transportation just to bring me Carvel pistachio ice cream. Although melted after her long trip, both my eyes and throat swelled with gratitude. She came to see me, and brought with her a cherished artifact of childhood to help me heal.

The cooking for others has become for me a humble tool to thank others for the difference they have made in my life. I would throw dinner parties as a teenager, and even as a young adult. It was my parents’ way of “compensating” for being old school in not letting me go to house parties or hang out in the city.

mom and dada
Mom and Dad helping me prep and serve at one of my “tribal gatherings”

Although somewhat sheltered, I did not feel shrunken. Rather, their strictness churned my innovation to think of ways to spend time with friends. Food became a means to hang out, to preserve, affirm, and harness friendships. And, it was one of the few times my parents would allow me to be in mixed company.

Regardless of attending universities and colleges in different parts of the country, these “tribal gatherings” as they would come to be called was where over the breaking of bread we, old friends and new budding buddies, would rekindle memories of crazy times growing up, and new life experiences. And we would laugh, laugh, laugh. I remember N’Gai breaking out in singing Rick James’ part of “Fire and Desire,” and how his dramatization both impressed us (he could SING), and humor us as was characteristic of him. My home, and the food prepared there, became means to bridge the old parts of me that happened there and in the old neighborhood with the new parts of me that where happening everywhere else.

College Sisters Kimberly, Sandra, me, and Faith
College Sisters Kimberly, Sandra, me, and Faith

And the ethos shaping these gatherings was one I brought back to campus. One time I made collard greens with turkey, as Kim, Daryle and I took a break from late night studying to exchange stories and watch “Showtime at the Apollo.”  One time, through the graciousness of my dorm RA and family, I hosted a dinner in our rec room with classmates to celebrate Black History Month. It became a means to bridge my family with classmates of diverse backgrounds, a time I will cherish these almost twenty years later.

So food has become at times a tool and other times a bridge.  It is a means for taking care of others, affirming love for others as well as preserving and forging new relationships. One Valentine’s Day, I was upset about not having a boyfriend, so Mom made a picnic in our living room. When I was in grad school, my dad came to visit me for the weekend, and we went to an Italian restaurant and ate a simple dish of spaghetti and marinara sauce.  In that moment, I was both his little girl and his biggest dream. When mom and I hosted bus rides to Atlantic City, we wanted everyone to feel like family, and we used food to do so. It was important to my mom that our guests have something hot to eat for our long trip, a tradition I still practice in making breakfast for my family.  During those trips, we gave a bagged breakfast of sausage, rolls, and juice during the departure, and slices of homemade cakes we made on the return trip. Those experiences even launched for us a small catering venture, where we would make fried turkeys and cakes for sale.  After my father’s passing, and before her own, Mom and I created a new ritual of making food for the winter.  We would spend several weekends visiting farms and supermarkets to stock up on produce. Then, undergo the laborious yet loving task of prepping and preserving food for the winter.  I loved coming home from school to then return with pickles, spiced plums, beets, and stewed tomatoes. Just a few years ago, my childhood friend Carla came to visit me at a tapas bar where she shared her manuscript for her first book of poetry.  Later, when we went to dinner in the city to celebrate its release, she was so touched by the server’s attentiveness and loving words that she gave her one of her newly pressed books for free.  Generosity reciprocating generosity. At the annual Thanksgiving dinner where we all congregate at my in-laws’ home, my father-in-law has passed the torch of carving the turkey to me (I do a damn good job, I must say). But his humility and benevolence leave me feeling cherished and loved. I am a witness that the breaking of bread together heals, redeems and forges.

Growing a relationship plate by plate holds particular fondness for me with my husband. Morsel by morsel, we have unfolded fears, divulged personal trials, asked for and given advice, pondered the future, incessantly chortled, and healed from challenges. We have enjoyed cuisine throughout the east coast, from the fried seafood of City Island to nostalgic hotdogs with mustard at Nathan’s in Coney Island. From being blown away by the deeply developed flavors of fire and emotion conjured by the creole cooking at Marsha Brown’s in New Hope, PA (which we would later return after he proposed) to the down home savor captured by the cornbread at Warmdaddy’s in Philly.  From the pitstops made while traveling to see family down south to the lovingly prepared succotash, ribs and rice at my Aunt Shirley’s dining room table in South Carolina. We’ve counted the restaurants and eateries we visited, and we have been to about two dozen (many repeatedly, some NEVER again) in our years together.

Engagement Night Dinner at Marsha Brown's.
Engagement Night Dinner at Marsha Brown’s

Yet a particular collection of restaurants mark significant events with my husband and I, those of his childhood friend Craig.

Craig is a man of great humility and few words. But the cuisine of his restaurants shouts and testifies. My initiation into the power of his food was at Smoke Joint. Having South Carolinian roots, I was primed for home cooking, and the food did not disappoint. BBQ ribs that fall off the bone, greens that summon you to hum from their deliciousness, and beans that tantalize with traces of sweet and smoky flirtations on your tongue.  But the beautiful flavor of the food was a means to something greater. It was a conduit through which we grew to know one another.  Hurling jokes, asking questions, humming, we hankered down into the succulence of food that would then begin the teaching of how we would come to feed one another in soul.

Smoke Joint

It would be at Peaches, another of Craig’s restaurants, that I would then meet the urban frontiersman of fine food, and his life partner, Laura. I knew this meeting, and the breaking of bread with them at their place, was pivotal. I was meeting people Kerwin holds sacred, as he and Craig grew up together, in neighborhood and in church, and Laura is a woman whom they both highly regard and respect. If allowed, I would be initiated into a sacred group.  The restaurant felt welcoming, the exchange of greetings and smiles very promising, and the offerings of libation by Laura let me know that this initiation and assessment would be affectionately administered. Then, and now, I am fascinated and inspired by Craig and Laura being a couple who withstood the trials and challenges of growing a marriage, a family, a dream and a business simultaneously.

Returning back to the food, it did not disappoint. The chicken and Andouille gumbo always opens and breaks my heart.  I taste home every time I have it. It harkens me back to when Mom and I made it together. I had the task of stirring the dangerous but delicious roux, harmonizing the flour and hot oil in the cast iron skillet, building the base that my mom would then complete, and we lovingly enjoy. In homage to that conjured memory, and the powerful gift of Craig’s restaurant to channel it, I continue to make it on my own at home.

Peaches

Like the role of food when growing up, Peaches has also come for us to be a meeting place for old friends and new family. Periodically, another childhood friend, Chris, visits Brooklyn. When in town we converge at Peaches to banter and make new bliss. Like me, Chris orders the same thing, the Shrimp Po Boy, as it has come for him to be the signature dish that holds his memories, heart and stomach captive.  Sometimes Kerwin and I have gone as a family, bringing at the time our oldest son, as we make a new memory savoring deep-rooted food. In similar fashion, Chris’ wife Deshae also created a special moment when meeting for the first time by having us all go out together at the local Outback Steakhouse after visiting their church. Meeting her, and spending time with them and their family, has made an indelible impression on my heart ever since.

And then there is Hothouse. The trinity of brothers met there when it newly opened, celebrating Craig’s new accomplishment and their time-tested bond. Kerwin was so taken by the fried chicken that he raved and raved and raved when he returned home.  I was intrigued. Pregnant and enlarged with our first child, we went. A tight wooden space, it resonates with the décor of a speakeasy.  But plates of that fried chicken swelled nostalgic within me, so much so that I think it is in part why our firstborn LOVES chicken. Hothouse now comes to be a place in our hearts that marks our celebration of an old friend’s accomplishments, and our celebration of growing a family.

And just this past Thanksgiving weekend, we were able to celebrate again a milestone in our dear friend’s career. The opening of Marietta. As an annual ritual, Craig and his wife Laura host several friends and family at one of their restaurants for Thanksgiving. Regrettably we missed it because of heavy traffic, and needed to get to my in-laws on time. But that following Saturday Craig, Chris and our family met there to break bread and make new memories.

Family
The family

Over the years I have come to regard Craig and Chris as my “big brothers,” feeling comfortable with asking questions, cracking jokes, and now, making sure that Keith and Maceo get to know their “uncles.”  A cornucopia of fried foods—chicken, whiting, and green tomatoes—overflowed our beige wood table.  Craig ordered on Kerwin’s behalf a variety of plates given Kerwin’s indecisiveness in what delectables to finally select. The butternut squash and mushroom risotto Craig ordered was decadent and quickly devoured. My second born, Maceo, a very finicky eater, grabbed for every plate that graced the table.

Marietta 2
Mommy and Maceo

Even under watchful eyes, he somehow caught hold of a chicken bone which he gnawed and gnawed until by his growling in enjoyment we realized what he was doing. After its removal, he settled for sneaking some watercress.  But he loved the sautéed greens I fed him by hand. Eventually I had to battle him in getting some for myself.  Good food will make you selfish.

Craig and Kerwin
Kerwin, Keith, and Uncle Craig

What was enjoyable about sitting with my family and brothers was the mutuality.  We peppered one another with questions. For Craig, I inquired what it was like to maintain several restaurants, his inspiration for the cuisine selected, reasons for the décor selected, and next ventures. Chris reciprocated in asking thoughtful questions for me to consider around Keith’s social readiness for school. For me personally, what was wonderful to behold was this band of brothers, these fathers, these spiritual kinsmen, spending time once again with one another.

Chris
Uncle Chris

Marietta and the men made me feel at home. I could be mom, and also kick up my feet.  Keith and I took advantage of the empty space (due to the holiday), giving my at times restless son carte blanche to explore.  Up and down the corridor we walked and giggled, touching plants and holiday décor, investigating textures and shapes. Ever the teacher, I built in mini-lessons about opposites, such as cold (when touching the window) and warm, outside (looking out the window), and inside. I also indulged the enjoyment of some delicious cocktails. Craig “reminded” me to indulge my quiet time. Sage and gin make a splendid mix. In my taking care of others, I was taken care of too.

Craig and Maceo
Uncle Craig and Maceo

There is something about good food and good times that summons me to find the tools and means to recreate them and share them again. Craig’s food so inspired me that again, in homage, I made renditions of them at home. Kerwin delighted in the risotto at the restaurant, so I made a butternut squash risotto with parmesan cheese this past week. I was so seduced by the bite and heat of the sautéed mixed greens that I made some too. Keith was an ever-faithful tester, who volunteered sampling several forkfuls in various stages of preparation (though they did not turn out as good as at the restaurant . . .will keep trying). Knowing Kerwin is a fan of mushrooms, I was inspired to make something we never had. Grilled cheese sandwiches made with challah, Portobello mushrooms, fresh sage, and fontina cheese. Kerwin inhaled the sandwich in just a few bites. I felt affirmed.

Risotto Greens

I see in my firstborn a growing fascination with food too. When in the kitchen, he breaks from his own play asking for seasoning. Sprinkling small amounts in his little hands, he stares in study at the different grains and colored powders, devours, assesses, and then asks for more. He can make distinctions between nutmeg, cloves, kosher salt, adobo, ground onions, garlic powder, and coarse black pepper (his favorite). At just two years old he asks for them by name.  This exchange can delay meals at times, but as my Mom did with me, and Craig for his customers, I am learning how to create foods as a portal into new relationships, and bridges into new ways to create love for others.

Keith and Greens

Forkful by forkful, something old unfolds and something new begins to take its first breath.

For more information about these restaurants, and menus, please visit http://www.bcrestaurantgroup.com/.

Of Hair and Origin

In this guest blogpost, Tricia Amiel, a mother, writer, adjunct instructor and former teacher, takes an introspective and candid look into the intersection of race, identity and self-perception.  She divulges some hard truths and hurts that emanate from others asking her questions about her roots.  Then, in turning affliction into learning opportunity, she discusses how she had students turn questions about origin and identity back on themselves, and what both she and her students learned about the power that emanates from knowledge of self. 

*****

When I tell some people that I am Jamaican, the first thing they want to know about is my hair.  My hair is long, very dark and “smooth.”  It is naturally very wavy, but is easily made straight.  As a little girl in elementary school, I was either a fascination or the object of disdain; they said I was conceited, that I thought myself to be better than other girls because my hair was so different from theirs.  It was “good hair,” of a quality that at the time I didn’t understand was supposed to be better, more beautiful than theirs.  It didn’t help that I was smart and my teachers favored me, but my hair was the sorest point of contention with the other girls in the schoolyard.

It used to annoy me, that request to know about my hair, the misguided guesses about my origins—I was thought at various times to be Cuban, Dominican, “mixed” with Native American, anything but what I am—and my annoyance led me to reply in a sometimes vague, often sarcastic way.  I’m human, I would say, or, my hair came from my head.  Now, a student of Multicultural Literatures, African American and Caribbean philosophy, I understand that there is a lot that people don’t know about the Caribbean.  It seemed to me that many people were purposefully ignorant, that they went out of their way to NOT know, but now I think so much is hidden from us, and that as human beings in a world divided along lines of color, belief, and politics to name a few, we seek to categorize people, place them in spaces that we understand and control rather than assume that there are things we don’t know.

Until recently, I was a ninth grade English and Drama teacher at a South Florida high school in the “green zone,” one of those areas in which teachers were paid a slightly greater salary for their bravery.  It is a low-performing, mostly black, Hispanic, and immigrant school with few resources, set far away from other, newer, “better” schools.  There too, my hair was a fascination, a curiosity, to students and staff alike.  It was the genuine curiosity and lack of knowledge in my students that changed my sarcastic tone to a didactic one; I saw that they wanted to know.  I assigned a project to my English classes, called  “Where I’m From.”  Students were to seek out ancestors–parents, grandparents, any elder family member at all–and interview them about their family’s origins.  They were encouraged to write essays, create posters of family photos of each generation they could, pictures or drawings of flags, national colors, foods, and historical information.

One student presented a recording of his Cuban great-grandmother’s voice telling the story of her emigration to the United States, hidden on a cargo boat, nearly dying of starvation. Another had a very old family album, full of bIack and white photos of great and great-great family members, labeled with names and dates as far back as the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.  Still, I heard things that saddened me deeply, especially from my minority students; for example, a Haitian student wrote that black people had come to Haiti from France, denying vehemently her African origins and history of slavery and the successful revolution carried out by slaves.  Some Hispanic students did not understand that Spanish was not just the name of the language they spoke, but also the adjective describing people from Spain—not Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, or Mexico—that they spoke Spanish because Spain had colonized those places, and that some of their ancestors were native Indians.  Many African American students were unable to see beyond the neighborhood they lived in, posting things like the area code and gang colors on their poster boards.  They took pride in what they did know, but did not know as much as they should in a time when history’s pages are more open and questioning of tradition than ever before.

I did the project along with them, using the colors of the Jamaican flag for my poster, included pictures of my family that were taken at my grandmother’s ninetieth birthday party, pictures of Arawak Indians, stories about the Maroons, the arrival of the Chinese and East Indians in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, and Rastafarian religious practices, a group for whom the “dread” style of hair that so many of them had adopted had significant meaning.  I also included pictures of my high school in the Bronx, where my maternal grandmother, whose own half-Chinese countenance fascinated my students, had emigrated to from Jamaica after living for many years in England.  I told them my paternal grandmother was East Indian, that she had black hair that fell to her waist, and that I’d been told  my coloring and bone structure were like hers; I knew little else.

In those facts, my students finally understood the story of my hair and the truth, as best I could tell it, of my origins.  The thing that had so annoyed me became the medium through which I was able to teach the value of knowing where you’re from, understanding your own personal history within the larger frame of historical knowledge.  Look in the mirror, I told them; see yourself.  In the mirror lies the beginning of your story.  A story that includes the people, the ancestors of your past, and the history of how you came to be.  Look for answers, I told them.  Try to find some truth; try to find out who you were, so that you can know who you are.

Tricia Amiel

Unleashing the Beast from Within: Movie Review of “Animal Kingdom”

Multi-award winning crime drama “Animal Kingdom” (Sony Pictures Classics, 2010) shines a focused light on the tension, turmoil, and tenacity of a family bonded by their familial investment . . . in criminal enterprise.  Enter the Cody family, consisting of grandmother, three brothers, estranged daughter and her teenage son.   Don’t anticipate a conventional family like that of The Cleavers, Bradys, or Cunninghams, or idyllic scenes of Sunday dinners or family vacations.  All is not what it appears to be, as the façade of family barely gilds twisted ruminations.

Instead, we are thrust smack into the tangled dynamics of this deranged family, and the perverse loyalty shaping and shaming it.  Narratives of twisted maternal instincts, sinister sibling rivalry, bilious behaviors, benevolent friendships and coming of age are slowly unraveled and witnessed.  Matriarch Janine “Smurf” Cody showers her sons with a love that borders on the incestuous, and yet harbors a diabolical willingness to sacrifice some cubs to preserve those most cherished by the pride.  Actions taken by eldest brother Andrew “Pope” to protect him and the family are at times paternal and psychotic.  Teenage grandson Joshua “J” Cody comes to live with the family after his mother overdoses, but realizes that he has to grow up fast and choose allies carefully, whether police or kin, if he is to survive.

The movie will not belittle your sensibility with an admonishingly bow-tied retelling of the adage “I am my brother’s keeper.” It is replaced by revealing brute savagery that the family inflicts on one another to preserve the herd, no matter the sacrifice.  The intertwined and wicked relationships unravel the extent and cost the members of the Cody family will pay in preserving the frays of family.

The movie will not distract you with scenes of armed bank robberies to titillate and fulfill our propensity for special effects and bedazzlement.  Movies such as “Set it Off” and “Heat” do a unique job of using such scenes to propel plot and inform characterization. Instead, a montage of bank camera photos during opening credits takes care of this revelation.  What is more deeply and intimately investigated are the aftershocks of crime, its residual impact on loyalty.

It’s damn near sinister and shameful the extent kin will go, and blood be shed, to procure peace. Everyone fears one another.

With rightful cause.

The Cost to be the “Boss”: Kelsey Grammer’s Stellar Portrayal of Monster and Man

The Starz series “Boss” unfolds with immediate access into Chicago’s Mayor Thomas Kane’s Achilles’ heel.  In an arranged secret meeting, he finds out his fateful diagnosis. The clock starts ticking.  There isn’t much time. Yet it is this very alchemy of electoral ambition and corporeal deterioration that make for compelling drama.  Kane is a well-crafted villain who is simultaneously vicious and vulnerable, sinister and sympathetic.

It is knowing upfront the mayor’s deterioration that spawns an audience’s intrigue, for the mayor does not go gently into that good night.  Kane is an alluring character study.  Ruthless and lacerative, he weathers all tides as his kingdom rises and falls, falls and rises.  His prowess to manipulate is fascinating, wielding calculated and merciless vengeance over all who disobey him, inclusive of kindred and his own political inner circle. Even innocent people who unfortunately help his health are thrown under the bus.

The beauty of “Boss” is that as audience, we are made privy to not only the king’s ambitions but also his subjects’. We are given access to their subjection and subversion.  Immediately we are thrust into a world of characters with rivaling complexity, coordinating and calculating their own moves within the chaotic milieu of a gubernatorial primary.  No one-dimensional characters here.  From office staff to family to foes, each has motives and agendas. Camouflaged and chameleonic does not begin to describe their orchestrated facades. It’s as if living in a Shakespearean tragedy, like that of King Lear, where family’s and statesmen’s loyalties are in constant flux and purchase. Morality and allegiance are wantonly disregarded.

The characters are compelling because while they are somewhat puppets of Kane, each resounds with their own uniquely tailored dilemmas and demons. An estranged drug-addicted daughter, now venerable priest of a local Catholic church and director of medical programs at its local poorly funded clinic, works to reconcile her past by promoting messianic and charitable good, even if done through unconventional and illegal means. An ambitious state treasurer, handpicked and endorsed by Kane to be the next governor, gets ahead of his post, and consequently, his unbridled lust, political naiveté, and easily purchased loyalty place him in dire and compromising positions. It all makes for intriguing viewing.

Masterful and crafty as a weathered chess player, Kane anticipates the moves of others before the seed germ has begun to sprout.  He calculates their moves from jump, before they even touch the first pawn.  He brings people in check should they garner the audacity to position their own ambitions before his.  He has played their games before, so much so that their moves pulse and proliferate in the marrow of his bones. He engages the defense of some political foes and defenestration of others, all to the purpose of his glory and gain.  He antiseptically disinfects against all others’ self-determination and self-service.

Yet while Kane in many respects is the devil incarnate, he is a character not incapacitated from conducting self-study.  As his disease periodically peeks through in public speeches and private conferences, he takes steps to monitor its unfurling. He records its manifestations to capture and research what leaks out and what remains. Through these intermittent windows into his soul, we as witnesses sympathize with his helplessness and pity his body’s betrayal.

Accentuating “Boss” is its skillful cinematography, particularly the use of soliloquy to afford the audience intimate access into Kane’s mental machinery.  Kane’s ramblings are like Shakespearean soliloquies that allow us to hear his inner meditations, as like the ravenous ruminations of Macbeth whose leprous ambition unravels his mind to see phantom daggers and the ghost of murdered ally Banquo.

Thomas Kane, the infamous mayor of Chicago, is unscrupulous. There is no person he will spare, no blood he will not shed (figuratively and literally), no ambition he will not dare, to insure his throne.

Which is why I can’t wait for Season 2 this Friday.

Game on.

Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman Redux: Are We a Nation Rhetorically at War with Itself?

What do we as a nation think of the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case?   Here are recent posts from CNN’s website covering different aspects of the Trayvon Martin case.[1][2]

you know: what a good scapegoat for blacks to point at and cry racism.

P41: Caucasians are liars, murderers, thieves, rapists, sodomites, false witnesses, blasphemers, gluttons, idolaters, envious, lazy, swindlers, haters of GOD ALMIGHTY, and of the ORIGINAL BLACK MAN, BLACK WOMAN, AND CHILD.

Turbokorper: …there once was a community of thugs
…who were really good at pimpin’ and selling drugs
…we just move away,
…hopin’ they will stay,
…in the squalor, the crime and the bugs.

Lagergeld: Zimmerman is a brown Mestizo like the average Mexican yet CNN and the other networks keep pimping the lie that he is white to promote such BS agendas as this and to somehow twist words, journalistic accuracy, and reality itself to make some freak show tie-in to Emmett Till.  This is Communist News Network. As you were, Comrades.

Kimip: Far more Republicans (56%) than Democrats (25%) say there has been too much coverage of Martin’s death, Big surprise there. They would only care if it was someone from corporate America that was shot and killed. 

Michwill: If you’re not a part of the black community you need to keep your opinions to yourself. We don’t comment on the priests that molest the white altar boys or all the pedophiles in your communities or even when the white husband decides to kill himself and the whole family!!

Justice Has Occurred: I just read some of Trayvon’s published tweets. He was an inmate waiting to happen. Putting him down now may have saved some lives…black and white.

Recent responses to the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman dynamic have clearly plucked a raw nerve, suggesting that this case has repercussions and ripples extending beyond that fatal night.  In some respects, the case has us all examining our experience of race and ethnicity in this shared country, particularly around civil liberties, law enforcement, due process, interactions with other ethnic groups and the perceptions we believe others hold of us based on our own positionality.  This is a case that harnesses within both individuals and groups a pulsing plethora of emotions and positions: vulnerable, victimized, and vindicated.   It is hard to not take aspects of the case personally and be impacted by them.

But as suggested by the smattering of the comments above, there is an undercurrent that is surfacing.  That facts and aspects of the case are being chiseled into reactions that are then used as leverage to hurt and harm a stranger or unsuspecting group.  What particularly resonates with me are some of the personal attacks that people have hurled at one another.  It’s made for a charged atmosphere of hurt feelings and caustic retaliation, the flinging of accusations and assumed political agendas.

Yet I wonder about the impact of such flagrant and rampant personalization, how it is churning and festering within us as citizens of a shared nation, leading us into then maliciously attacking specific individuals and groups. To some degree, it is human nature to hurt when harmed (a scorned lover, a bullied child).  But to sharpen understandings of the case into weapons to inflict undue damage is making for unfortunate fallout.  A failing of compassion.  A missed opportunity to understand and be understood.

The inflation of the case whereby people are using it to insult, instigate, implicate, and inculcate fellow humans does nothing to further understanding the incident, the case, each other or us as a nation.  But what the hurling of such incendiary comments, abuse of facts from the case, and exploitation of stereotypes does is beg us to look into the mirror.  Why are we using this case to purposefully and deliberately disrobe, dismiss and denigrate?  Why are we fashioning the hurling of hurt? What benefit manifests from adding insult to injury?  What long-lasting good comes from using this case to leverage insults against fellow humans? What do any of us score, or even win?

Why are the branches attacking the body?

This is not to suggest anything against our right to free speech.  This does detract from the historical, social and cultural backdrop against which this case occurs.  But we can retain emotive clarity.  When I read such comments as those listed above, and see their growing proliferation like dandelion spawns in blistery winds, I wonder where else they will land.

And, like the nature of weeds, what potential for life they will begin to choke.


[1] Study: Republicans, whites more tired of Trayvon Martin coverage. CNN.com. April 5, 2012. http://www.cnn.com/2012/04/04/justice/florida-teen-shooting/index.html?hpt=ju_t4

[2] Trayvon’s Death: Echoes of Emmett Till? CNN.com. March 24th, 2012.  http://inamerica.blogs.cnn.com/2012/03/24/trayvons-death-echoes-of-emmett-till/comment-page-3/#comments

From Native Son to Invisible Man: Reflections on Trayvon Martin and Rearing a Black Man-Child in America

Early this morning I was drafting a guest blog post about what it is like to be a new wife and mother. The wife version I completed, and just when I was to start drafting the part about raising a son, I read several posts and articles about Trayvon Martin’s murder. And I read Sheree’s FB post that ignited my heart and fright. 

What a tragedy of life and travesty of justice.

I then heard my son crying and went to check on him. He drifted back to sleep, except for grabbing my thumb which he would not let go of even while sleeping. After reading of this event, it moves me even more that my son trusts me to comfort him, even in his sleep.

But I don’t trust the world to protect him. Or my husband.

I asked hubby while eating breakfast today to be careful, for he is someone’s son. And he is someone’s father.

George Zimmerman’s father advocated on his behalf, yet I wonder if George thought of the impact of his actions on Trayvon’s mother and father who would be affected by what he was about to do to their son. About the dangerous stereotype he was about to reinvigorate and perpetuate because of his skewed vigilantism (how can you claim self defense when you pursue someone despite the police dispatcher’s admonishment to not do so?). About the permission he took that was not his to take in the taking of life.

As he walks free. While many of us hold sons, husbands, fathers, uncles, and brothers tighter in our grasp.

It’s 2012, and black men continue to be a hunted endangered species.

I think I will be writing a different piece about what it is like to be a mother . . .

For the weeks and months to come, many will write about the tragedy of the murder of Trayvon Martin, and the travesty of justice they foresee as imminent.  The contemplations, discussions, and emotions will be broadened to encompass indignation toward Geraldo’s flippant “hoodie” defense (what happens when you dress a certain way), the desired resignation of the neophyte Sanford Chief of Police and examination of his department’s shoddy execution of investigation and due diligence, and musings over how long the slaying of a yet another Black youth will dwell in the nation’s conscious after mainstream media no longer broadcasts it.  Yet what’s begun to stir within me is an investigation of me, of the inner workings of the new intimate space within me called parent, of what I am responsible for doing in rearing my newborn son to endure (and survive) a current and post-Trayvon Martin era.

The excerpt above was the first of two Facebook posts I wrote emotively on March 19th after hearing about this young son’s death.  The holding of my own son, who arrived just a few short months ago, has suddenly become more intense, an honest reaction to a hellish circumstance.  But while my arms can for now shield his growing body, the eventuality is that he will outgrow them.  Although he will practice his first steps within the preparation, guidance, and sanctuary of my arms, the eventuality is that he will walk away from me into and within the world outside them.  If I have done my job well, he will be learned and equipped in how to stand on his own.  On his physical legs, yes. Yet I contemplate how best to support his standing with strategies for straddling his inherited duality; although he is spiritually and ancestrally a temple, he is a target socially, culturally, and historically.

The scrimmage fought between being a man-child of great potential and the caricature misinterpreted as being executable is a stark reality. It is alarming that prisons are built at a rate proportionate to students’ performance on elementary literacy tests, the notorious cradle-to-prison pipeline.  And many of us are now resorting (rightfully) to practicing with our sons how to interact with law enforcement (how to speak, how to posture, how not to exude being a “threat” or “menace”).  The gravity of protecting and harvesting a son (both my own and our collective) weighs on me.  I vacillate between which should “weigh” more—helping him to harness his holiness and hopes, or conduct regular drills with him on how to interface with the outer emboldened and armed law enforcement representatives and fanatics.  For this brief moment, I feel parenting duties prioritized to preserving his physical life, and once out of my arms’ reach how to effectively (ideally) do so on his own.  As my role as a parent daily unfolds, so does my quandary and question over what takes precedence in what to teach and educate.

Without Sanctuary, Lynching Photography in America, chronicles the epidemic lynching of yesteryear and its commercialization through postcards (yes, people could send well wishes to family on one side with the image of an incinerated and castrated body on the other).  Lynching, this cultural attitude legitimizing the denigration and objectification of black males and the abhorrent act manifesting from it, seems to be rearing its ugly head, with strange fruit again populating our nation’s fatigued trees (Sean Bell, Ramarley Graham, and those  whose lives ended suspiciously as chronicled by filmmaker Keith Beauchamp in “The Injustice Files: At the End of a Rope” to name a few, regrettably).   Trayvon’s death eerily echoes and harkens back to this era, as Zimmerman’s 911 calls serve as the prelude to the semi-automated lynching he was about to conduct.  Or has the era ever left us?

This is my initial reaction as a parent.  To save my offspring  from harm.  To guard what is of my flesh, my incubation.  To prepare him for a hostile world.  We know the risks of bringing forth a man-child in this land of promise (though not always of promises kept).  He is a native son, born into the milieu of fear, flight, and fate that is disproportionately slated for our young men.  He will have to make strategic decisions in his navigations and negotiations as an invisible man in these states.  Therefore, I wonder how much I must teach my son how much his body is and is not his.  What places he can and cannot be (and at what times).  What he can and cannot wear.  How he can and cannot speak.  I feel the pressure of teaching him that daily he will have to walk and breathe in duality.  To know it is his right to live by his own construction, but that such living will intersect and conflict with, as well as disrupt, others’ construction of him (and how people may consequently act on those constructions regardless of his innocence or best intentions).

Though Trayvon’s parents did not will his son to be a sacrificial lamb or martyr (nor would any parent of their lamb), they took the risk to release their son into the world; an innocent who went into the world alone was returned to them in a body bag.  However, his life and death harnessed and galvanized an insurrection and reflection bigger than himself.

But I/we as parents must be and remain brave and bold.

My infant son’s favorite position is being perched on my shoulders.  There, he steadies himself, hands and forearms braced against my shoulders.  His routine is first to peer over my shoulders, then emboldened, begins his ritual of incessantly searching out the world around him. Rapidly rotating from side to side, his eyes and head venture then fixate.  Venture, and then fixate.  Quickly that shoulder’s geography becomes a bore, and like a rock climber ambitiously leaping to a new rock, so does he.   I catch and cradle his search, support his navigation, lest he lose balance and fall from pursuing and practicing his ambition.

But this is the point.  Instinctively, he trusts (and ideally all children trust in their guardians) I will support his ambitions and protect him in his pursuit of them.  Though in these recent weeks I feel intimidated by the possible taking of my son’s life by others armed myopia, faith reminds me that the most selfish thing I can now do is cage my son.  It is important to teach him what Jesse Washington dubs “the Black Code” of conduct (1) when having to deal with law enforcement representatives and in situations that challenge his life, but he was not born or purposed solely to fulfill his or anyone else’s fear.  I would be less than a parent to teach him to cage himself because of the cowardice and inner conflict harbored and festering in others.  He trusts me that while in my arms and upon my shoulders I will bolster his investigations of the world, and support him venturing into it.

The second post I wrote on March 19th is my ideal, my illustration, of how I am trying to raise my son.

After playing on our alphabet playmat, my son in exhaustion drifts to sleep. Resting his head on my thigh, he found his comfortable spot and relaxed. Both of us breathing heavy. Him as he descends into deep sleep. Me as I descend in thinking about Trayvon Martin. 

Will he grow from “native son” to “invisible man” (pun intended on Wright’s and Ellison’s seminal works)? Are sons and statistics interchangeable? Synonymous?

I am thinking on the world in which my son is born into, and what we will need to do to steel, strengthen, prepare and guard him. And also what we will need to instill in his imagination as chords for an (ideally) melodic world he will have to create.

And I wonder what fellow parents raising sons are wondering too . . .


(1) http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5gNZGRWMd7msShtng3-UP3YcivEuw?docId=cf76e46b87df4e90bbf77cbbbabce150

A Triptych of Trials, Tribulations, and Redemption: Movie Review of Gun Hill Road

In his first full feature film, writer and Director Rashaad Ernesto Green creates a tour de force in the poignant portrayal of Enrique, Angela, and Michael, a Bronx family on the mend.  Starring Esai Morales, Judy Reyes, and introducing Harmony Santana.  A Grand Jury Nominee at the 2011 Sundance Festival.  A film by SimonSays Entertainment.  Distributed by Motion Film Group.  In limited release in NYC and LA. 

Three Characters Joined and Distanced by Blood

Gun Hill Road is a film about trials, tribulation and redemption.  Within minutes we are thrust into a community and family welcoming home its prodigal son, and it is in this pivotal moment the lives of three family members begin to unfold. Enrique, a father and ex-con, attempts re-entry into a world and family who define him more by his absence than his present potential.  As husband and patriarch, he works arduously toward the reconciliation between past and present.  The mother, Angela, negotiates marriage and motherhood; despite her sacrifices both to make do with and make ends meet with scrapes of life offered, she pangs for her own happiness and completion.  Michael, the teenage son, seeks confirmation of his transgendered self within worlds that work relentlessly to objectify his outer beauty and extinguish his inner beauty.  The three have the best intentions to reunite, but each one’s resistant to being hurt again.  It won’t be easy, but each is resilient to press through harm into hope.

A Story of Contrast and Complexity

Director and writer Rashaad Ernesto Green creates a screenplay that steers away from clichés and stereotypes, instead constructing and vivifying characters with layered complexity.  The experiences of the characters with incarceration, transgenderism, masculinity, fatherhood, and infidelity are not treated as one-dimensional, but in nuanced relationship with each other.  Enrique’s time in jail haunts him even after he gets out, which manifests in both his challenge to again consummate his marriage and the unconventional means he employs to “bring his son around.”  Michael is a teenager struggling to balance his self-esteem and self assuredness.  He accepts who he is, and wants others to do the same.  His struggles for acceptance are detailed through poetic pleas for recognition during open mics, the give and take of one-sided relationships, the guardedness of the fraternity of his community, and the mirror he is both trying to find and resist within his father.   Angela’s sacrificial fidelity to institutions and relatives are juxtaposed by her love interest in Enrique’s absence, being sole provider within an economic and familial gap, and the unconditional promotion and protection of their son.  Green skillfully avoids insulting the audience by telling a story already told.  The film instead invites us into an authentic witnessing of the contemplation and work of three family members trying to gravitate toward individual and familial wholeness.  Brutal truths are relayed with unflinching transparency.

Green’s choice of storytelling in his first full feature film, complemented by its cinematography earns him kudos. His courageous storytelling is such that other filmmakers may be too reluctant to discuss.   Gun Hill Road was a finalist for the Jury Award at the 2011 Sundance Festival.  Melding one part memoir, one part journalism, one part documentary, with one part novel, Green bends and blends genres to create a fictitious masterpiece.  He skillfully mimics the gritty eloquent narration of “The Wire,” the journalistic feel of “Law and Order,” the familial realism of PBS’s “An American Family” with the unapologetic and blatantly beautiful truth-telling of Lee Daniel’s “Precious.”  Careful not to typecast, Green’s cinematic truism lies in his inventive work in sequencing the story so that it flows like a trilogy of three distinct narratives, yet harmonizes them to illustrate the portrait of a family.  In this novel movie, the Bronx is its own complex character, captured and depicted well by Gun Hill Road’s alleys and corners for marking identity and reclaiming one’s self, its’ congestion of buildings, the parks where people make and break relationships, serving as an oxymoronic mattress of rest, and even its brilliance in sunrise and twilight I fondly remember witnessing when growing up there in the 70s and 80s.

Getting Behind the Vision:  An Actor’s Just Due

The cast transcended acting well.  They brought to life characters so convincing they reminded me of the people I pass on my way to work in schools in the Bronx.  Veteran Judy Reyes and breakout actor Harmony Santana do hard work to convey with balance and integrity the vulnerable and resilient spirits of their characters without indulging caricature and stereotype.  The supporting cast complements their work, from the beatdowns to the buildups of the lead characters, with realism.  A special “shout out” has to go to Esai Morales, who as the main character and supporter of Green got behind the potential of this movie, and as an inexhaustible dynamo brought it to fruition.  A veteran actor who has garnered acclaim for working in several movies and television shows, and recognition as a self-defined “actorvist,” his talent is given full bloom and due justice in this film.  An actor who surgically brings out the grit and grim of Enrique, yet portrays his vulnerability and frustration with equal precision, Morales’s performance should receive the highest acclaim during award season.

Conclusion: Our Stories, Our Lives

Gun Hill Road is a must see movie.  As an audience member, I found myself intrigued and engrossed within minutes.  The movie unapologetically and unhesitatingly thrusts you into a world of mistakes, misguided intentions, and devotion.  Viewing this movie is an unflinching experience where Green, Morales, the cast, and The Bronx make you privy to the joys and pains of life.  It is a rare film that provides you intimate access to the inner workings of relationships:  those recoiled and renegotiated between family members, those individuals reconcile within themselves, and those carefully (and at times carelessly) brokered and navigated with the world.  The familial and personal skirmishes are not oversimplified.  They illustrate the workings of humans and spirits trying to come back to center.   The movie is one of contrasts, relentless in its confrontation of bitter hard truths and the beauty of life, while relaying both reverently and tastefully.

Spoiler alert: the movie does not dishonor or disrespect the audience with a conventional Hollywood story or ending.  It shows homage to life on an urban landscape, and delivers as such.

Gun Hill Road is currently in limited release in New York City and Los Angeles.  It’s important to support this film, so please spread the word.  We need to seem more films like this, with minority filmmakers who know how to tell their own stories.