Building Characters and Confidence With Breakdancing Shakespeare

I read Romeo and Juliet in middle school, and I vaguely recalled the important names from the play- the Montagues and Capulets, Mercutio and Tybalt, and of course, the eponymous leads. I didn’t remember that there was a nurse in the play, much less any of her lines.

That is, until Asaundra Hill stole the show last year as the Nurse in Hartford Stage’s Breakdancing Shakespeare production of Romeo and Juliet. Asaundra stood out as especially energetic and hilarious among a talented cast which made the play much more entertaining than when I skimmed through it in seventh grade.

Photo Credit: Hartford Stage.

Last year, I was invited by Hartford Stage to learn more about Breakdancing Shakespeare. It was my first time hearing about the program, and I wrote about how impressed I was by the level of dedication and talent on display from everyone involved. When I returned this year, I was fortunate enough to speak with Asaundra and Tamara Graham, another performer returning to the program this year. As we talked, the Breakdancing Shakespeare program took on a new meaning. It’s more than infusing The Bard’s timeless scripts with modern dance. Breakdancing Shakespeare’s great accomplishment is building the confidence, skills and networks of young people who don’t have other venues.

Asaundra has been involved in theater for most of her life, starting with a Cultural Arts program she entered as a child in Bloomfield. She has performed in productions for her church and Bloomfield High School, but Breakdancing Shakespeare was her first experience with a professional theater production.

“I would like to pursue theater as an adult,” she told me. “It’s really nice to get exposed to professionalism, being professional and doing a real production…This is a real show, under the lights, packing the house, professional choreography, all sorts of stuff like that. Being in this program has really opened my eyes to how things work in theater. And being in this program opens up alot of different connections. Your network builds.” One of those connections was an employee at the Hartford Foundation. When she saw Asaundra’s application for a scholarship to attend Howard University in the fall, she recognized Asaundra from her performance in Romeo and Juliet last summer. “The lady said, ‘When I saw your application, I just had to give [the scholarship] to you!'” Asaundra explained, laughing. She will be majoring in political science while minoring in theater arts at Howard, although she may change those plans into a double major over the summer.

Tamara Graham is another performer returning for her second year in the program. Like Asaundra, she got her start in Cultural Arts and also attends Bloomfield High School, where she will be a senior this fall. Tamara is already looking beyond her final year of high school and planning a career which incorporates the lessons and benefits she’s received from Breakdancing Shakespeare. Tamara is interested in studying psychology and dance in college. She wants to open both her own dance studio and therapy office, and combine the two to offer therapeutic services for her clients through dance. Tamara developed the idea from her own experiences. Dance has helped her to deal with difficult situations in her own life.

“Even when I come here [to Breakdancing Shakespeare], it’s an outlet for me, it really is, because outside of this I get stressed out by alot of things. When I come here there’s alot of positive energy and you’re only focused on one goal, and being focused on one main goal means alot to be able to be with people who share the same love that I do.”

Photo Credit: Hartford Stage.

Tamara also wants her studio to offer the kinds of opportunities that she didn’t have access to. “I’ve always wanted to be a part of a dance studio and sadly I was never part of a dance studio, so even being here with people who are part of different dance studios has motivated me to want to be that dance studio for somebody else later on. I know how it feels to see everybody and meet people and you just think they’re big on campus because you think they have a serious, official background and I don’t really have an official background, but I always keep in mind what my mom says: as soon as the music comes on, I move…and I use that as motivation when I see these people that I could be just as good as they can be.”

Asaundra echoed those sentiments. “It was nice to see people who don’t know me, who couldn’t know me from Sam over there, Joe over there, to just, to have impacted them, to touch them and for them to give me so many compliments and all of that and saying, ‘You stole the show!’, it was really eye opening to me. It just let me know you really could do it. Even if you don’t have all this formal training, you still can do it, and you got it, so do it.”

For these incredible young women, the Breakdancing Shakespeare program has been a key experience in their growth as performers. You can help Breakdancing Shakespeare continue to train young people in the arts by attending a benefit performance of this year’s production, As You Like It, on Saturday, August 5th at 7:00 PM. All proceeds will go directly into funding Breakdancing Shakespeare in 2018. General Admission performances will be offered beginning on Thursday, August 3rd and will run through Saturday afternoon. This program has made a difference for so many young people, so go out and show your support.

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I’m Not Too Sexy, Please Pass Me My Shirt

I’ve discovered in the last few years that I’m something of an exhibitionist. I haven’t done anything (too) crazy, but I probably should have realized this all along. After all, I write about myself at least as often as I write about about other subjects, and there’s a certain level of exhibitionism in that. I keep my blinds open at all times, and I’m the guy who does low-key exhibitionist stuff like take out the garbage with no shirt on.

So I was cleaning out my closet today. Thanks to the odd location of my apartment (the sun seems to beat down on it at all times of the day) and the lack of proper air conditioning, it was approximately 630 degrees, and that was before I turned on the oven to make some pizza rolls. Sweat was -running down my back in rivers, so I took my shirt off while I worked. I was filling myself up with pizza rolls while I was filling up bags with garbage. Eventually I had to make a run to the dumpster. I grabbed the garbage bags and walked towards the back door, ready to make the women swoon and the men envious with my chest-nakedness, until I noticed by distended belly protruding out over my belt. Had twenty pizza rolls caused me to become this bloated? I dropped the bags and ran into my bedroom to cover myself with the faces of Barack Obama and Joe Biden on a ratty old T-shirt.

It was the first time I’d covered myself due to embarrassment about my weight. I’ve been lucky to be thin for most of my life. Behold my glorious beach body from six years ago:

…and then there’s the picture I took today:

Friends and family have remarked that I’ve gained weight, especially in the last year. I visited my old coworkers at Trinity College last fall, and when they saw me they said,”Wesleyan must be paying you better than Trinity did, cause it looks like you’re eating better!” I went to see my grandfather last week, and he told me that I looked bigger. He wasn’t talking about my height (especially since I discovered last summer that I’m about 1.5 inches shorter than I thought I was). Their comments didn’t really bother me. I took them as jokes or mere observations, not judgments or derision. It wasn’t until today that I’ve really felt self-conscious about my weight, and it wasn’t caused by someone else.

Today, I was confronted with the reality that my body does not look the way it did six years ago, and I was ashamed. It didn’t matter that I haven’t gained that much weight, or that a little bit more exercise and a little bit less pizza rolls will fix that belly relatively quickly. The problem is that a fair amount of my self worth is attached to how I perceive myself physically- as a moderately attractive, moderately fit guy. I’m not scoring modeling contracts or running marathons, but I value my appearance and think others value it as well. That sense of worth is tied to the self-image I have of myself as that 25 year old on the beach. When I looked down at myself and saw the clear beginnings of Dad Bod, I realized that I’m not that person anymore. I wanted to make sure that no one else saw that.

I suppose we’re all self-conscious about something. Feeling weird about my weight, while new to me, is nothing that’s going to stop the world from spinning. And honestly, I don’t care enough about it yet to actually do anything to change it. That’s why I’m sitting here, writing this post with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich right next to my keyboard. With my shirt off.

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The Problem With Fighting Game Accessibility

Recently, Gamespot ran a feature on Fantasy Strike, a new game from Sirlin Games which is attempting to make the fighting game genre as simple as possible. “Our game is so simple to play that even if you don’t normally play fighting games, you still might love Fantasy Strike,” the developers say. Making fighting games more accessible has been an obsession for fighting game developers for the last decade. Listen to almost any interview with a developer working on a fighting game since Street Fighter IV was announced, and they’ll usually mention how they’re trying to attract new players with more accessible gameplay. I’m all for making fighting games easier to play. There’s no real utility in adding unnecessary tech barriers to make a game “deeper;” difficulty is the illusion of gameplay depth, not gameplay depth itself.

However, developers seem to think that focusing on making their games easier to play will lead to growth in the community. This is fallacious thinking that has real consequences for the games we’re playing and the potential for community growth. I believe that focusing strictly on improving accessibility for their fighting games has led fighting game developers to neglect investing in other areas of the game which are needed to attract new players to their games.

For example, in an interview in 2015, Yoshinori Ono, a developer at Capcom and the producer of Street Fighter IV and V, talked about some of the problems he thought Street Fighter III had:

I worked with the Street Fighter brand for quite some time before working on Street Fighter IV. Looking at Street Fighter III, it’s very well-known that it’s a master class title, it’s a masterpiece in and of itself, but the game got to a point where it was so high level that only masters could really play each other. You had to be an expert to be able to even have a chance at playing that game after a certain point.

This reasoning has become one of the go-to arguments when developers and members of the Fighting Game Community discuss Street Fighter III’s low sales and lack of appeal outside of the dedicated FGC. Ono and his team tried to counteract this by deciding to “use today’s technology and make Street Fighter II.” It worked; in 2009 Street Fighter IV ushered in the new golden age of fighting games, with high quality releases coming from several companies, several times a year. Street Fighter IV sold over three million copies, and the SFIV series sold over eight million copies.

Meanwhile, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 sold twenty million copies in seven months.

The focus on accessibility has stopped fighting game developers from asking the really tough questions about why their games are getting left behind. Mortal Kombat X selling five million copies is great; Super Smash Bros. Brawl’s ten million copies is even better. Yet those figures pale in comparison to other competitive games. Overwatch has sold 33 million copies in one year. That brings it within spitting distance of both Street Fighter’s and Smash Bros.’ series lifetime sales

You might say it’s unfair to compare a first person shooter to a fighting game, but that’s EXACTLY the comparison we need to be making. We need to know how FPSes, a genre that was once confined to the most hardcore of hardcore players, exploded from relative obscurity to become one of the dominant forces in both casual gaming and eSports. We need to know why, during the same time, fighting games have not experienced the same kind of growth that FPSes have. That conversation needs to move past accessibility, because that’s not the issue.

Overwatch is not an easy game. It uses almost every button on the controller. It has twenty five unique characters with radically different abilities and playstyles. It has large, intricate maps to navigate. It has shifting objectives. If you want to stand a chance in Overwatch, you must invest a huge amount of time and energy in learning the ins and outs of the characters and strategies the game offers. Overwatch is also a game that is basically unplayable without an internet connection. There’s no single player campaign or even local versus mode. Those challenges have not prevented Overwatch from becoming one of the most popular games in the world. Overwatch has a learning curve at least as steep as Street Fighter V. It suffers from the same lack of single player content that Street Fighter V has been savaged for. Yet it’s continuing to grow at a meteoric rate, while Street Fighter V struggles along to reach two million units sold.

The question is why? What are those games doing that earn them four or five times as many sales as fighting games? As fighting game developers continue to focus on accessibility, they aren’t truly grappling with the question of how FPSes leapfrogged them. Once again, the answer is not because they’re easier; if anything, FPSes have actually become harder as they’ve transitioned from the intuitiveness of a mouse-and-keyboard setup to the more abstract button layout of a modern console’s controller.

The major problem is that fighting games are not offering the same kind of value that other competitive games are. Videogame players are often looking for the best way to prove that they’re better than their friends. In the early 1990’s, Street Fighter II: The World Warrior was the best way for friends to compete, and the sales numbers reflected this- Street Fighter II sold over six million copies on the SNES alone.

It’s critical to understand the reason so many people bought Street Fighter II. They weren’t interested in the conventions of fighting games. They were buying a game to play with and beat their friends. Since that time, other competitive games have offered them better value and variety for their money. The people who bought Street Fighter II for their SNES and Tekken 3 for their Playstations moved on to buy Madden for their Playstation 2’s, then bought Call of Duty for their Playstation 3’s, and are now buying Overwatch for their PS4’s. These players are looking for the best multiplayer game for their money. They want varied and fleshed out gameplay modes. They want excellent online modes. They want continued support from developers and clear rewards for gameplay. They want characters they like and stories that interest them. And they want to convincingly beat their friends when they play and brag about their victories.

Some fighting games do some of these things, but none of them are doing them as well as the other genres of competitive games. Street Fighter V’s Fight Money system will never compete with Overwatch giving away characters and loot boxes. GTA Online’s constant free updates make Guilty Gear’s paid revisions look silly. Super Smash Bros. for WiiU is bare-boned compared to the enormous amount of gameplay in NBA 2K18, even if you never play another human being. These are the elements that propel other games past fighting games, and Street Fighter VI is going to need more of those features, not less difficult combos.

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One Thousand Words

Just fucking grind it out, and whatever happens, happens

I don’t know what I’m writing right now, but I need to write something, because every minute that I’m not writing is a minute that I’m not getting to the place that I need to be

What would have happened to me if I’d gotten my first short story published, and I’d had a whole bunch of other students my age telling me how much they liked my writing? What would I have done then?

I don’t know if it really matters because I could have written anyways for myself, and I did write for myself, and all of those stories went absolutely nowhere

My son is sleeping in our one bedroom apartment because I can’t get my shit together and put this fucking talent to use the way it needs to be, because I can’t just put my ass down in the seat and grind out those one thousand words, every day

That’s what it takes, and I don’t have what it takes. A bunch of talk, a bunch of plans, and no execution

Why am I looking for inspiration? Inspiration from what? To do what? What is the story? What is the character? What am I trying to say? What do I have to say that no one else can? What is worth me opening my mouth for?

How do I get to that place? Where the writing is indispensable, where it hurts me to not sit in front of a computer and blast out the things that are rattling around inside my mind?

Where is my work ethic? Not the momentary flash of inspiration, not the thing I have to say or else my chest will burst, but the everyday workmanship that comes with writing a story?

I write essays because it’s easy. Yeah, I have things to say, but an essay is a really easy thing to write. I can turn my brain off and rant in an essay. Stories take craft, and I don’t have craft

But I want to tell a story. I want to make something that takes the reader to a new place.

I want to see something visual with my work. I love the way that sound, visuals and writing come together in television, and there’s no storytelling medium as rich as that

I’ve watched the same scene from Attack on Titan over and over again because of the music. I watch the scene, for the music. I watch the scene for the animation, for the way Eren looks at Mikasa, for the way the visuals climax with the sound, for the feeling it gives me when I see these two characters who love each other express that love in the face of their certain deaths

That is only possible in television. That’s what I want to write. That’s what I want to do. I want some kid to look at my scene over and over again and have the same emotional experience the last time as they had the first

I have no idea how to accomplish this goal though. I need to learn how to grind, I need to learn how to grind the right way

Do I need to learn how to draw? How to edit video? How to shoot video in the first place? How to act?

I want the essetialism of my story to cut through the bullshit of crappy characters and plots and the laziness of falling back on the thing you know

I want to write something that I don’t know. I want to pour my heart onto a page and be scared by what I see, because the thing that I’m looking at is myself

I want to sell a story for a million dollars and be able to give something to everyone who’s ever helped me and give something to people who would ask for it

I want to be able to write past contrived nonsense and produce something as unabashedly truthful as Chewing Gum, something that is the antithesis of the crap that gets paraded as good television

I want this story to tear at me because it feels so true, to leave me exposed and hurt after I stand up from my desk because I peeled away the layers I’ve built up and revealed myself not to the world, but to myself

I want to give other people the feeling I had when Wallace died, when Gohan went beyond Super Saiyan, when that white girl said that her baby had twenty fathers, when All Might told Midoriya that he could be a hero too, when Jake watched his father die, when Celes threw herself from the top of the mountain, when Minato died, when Kurtz whispered “The horror!,” when Light Yagami sent that woman cop to her death, when Mekhi Phifer shot all those cops, when those girls ostracized their friend for not having a pony.

I want, but I don’t try. I desire, but I don’t work. I need to grind, but I don’t grind. Every minute, every hour, every day. I need to work harder, but I don’t

I want to roll a blunt and walk down the street smoking it and say fuck you to everyone who says anything because I don’t need their approval anyway

I want to be an artist, but being an artist is not about talent, it’s about perseverance and work, work, work all of the time

The race goes not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but to the motherfucker who worked the hardest the longest and got the breaks. I can’t control the breaks, but I can control whether I’m the motherfucker who worked the hardest for it

So I just sat here and said I wasn’t getting up until I wrote 1,000 words. Here I am at 980 words. Tomorrow I will write 1,000 more, and actually think about them this time. I really have to do better

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GLOW and the Uninteresting White Woman

It’s a lazy Saturday afternoon. Normally, my son would be here, and I’d be figuring out ways to keep him entertained while exerting as little physical effort as possible. Instead, he’s at a friend’s house celebrating his upcoming birthday, and my ex-girlfriend and I are laying around on the sectional in the pitch black living room as we try to keep cool. She picks up the controller for the WiiU and opens Netflix. The cursor skips over a few shows we’ve started and didn’t finish before coming to rest on the neon lettering of “GLOW.”

“Have you watched this before?” I asked.

“No, but I want to watch something that’s not super serious or scary.”

“Okay. Yeah, I’ve heard good things about this show.”

I laughed a fair amount during the half hour pilot. I was interested by the idea of watching a woman’s wrestling league take shape. I loved the 80’s cheese and wonderful soundtrack. But man, Ruth Wilder is a terrible character. She’s so terrible that I stopped the show to write this essay. Ruth Wilder is the latest incarnation of a character trope that we’ve all seen before, and that has been bugging me in particular lately. She’s an Uninteresting White Woman, in the broadest sense of that term.

There are three major components to the Uninteresting White Woman. The first, as you might have guessed, is that the character is a white woman (there is definitely a companion to this character in the form of white men characters, but that’s for another essay). This character only exists because she is a white woman, and the combination of whiteness and femininity is critical to the other two components of this character. Essentially, being a white woman character is obviously a requirement of being an Uninteresting White Woman, but this character can only exist because of the privileges of white womanhood. White women in real life are constantly shielded and protected (just ask DeMario Jackson), and similarly, Uninteresting White Women in stories are constantly shielded and protected by writers.

Those privileges are very important to a show like GLOW. While the story of the show is loosely based on the actual Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, none of the characters are based on real-life people. Ruth Wilder is a complete fabrication, which means that the problems with her character are functions of the creative process, not reality. The creators and writers of GLOW could have made Ruth Wilder be anything, and they made her an Uninteresting White Woman. But Uninteresting White Women are allowed to exist in stories in a way that other characters cannot. Their mediocrity is often positioned as quirkiness or relatability, but they’re actually just mediocre. Despite this, they’re allowed to function as a doorway into better characters, yet they’re never forced to step aside or truly leave the center ring.

The second component is that the character is intensely uninteresting. I don’t mean boring; there are plenty of examples of characters who are boring or rigid, but who shine as “the boring character.” I mean the character is uninteresting. She doesn’t hold your attention, and you are pleading with the show to leave her and focus on the much more interesting supporting characters. Orange is the New Black is perhaps the archetype of this kind of focus. I’ve tried to watch OITNB several times, but I could never get past how incredibly uninteresting Piper is. I don’t care about her family or her fiance, I don’t care about her past relationship and conflict with Alex, I don’t care about her fight with Red over the food. There is nothing compelling or interesting about Piper. I just want her to get offscreen so that I can learn more about the other inmates.

But she never does, or at least not quickly enough for me. I watched the first four episodes of the first season before I quit the show. Later, I watched a few episodes after they changed uniforms, whenever that happened. In both the early episodes and the later episodes, I found myself asking the same question: why does anyone indulge Piper to the extent that they do?  Why am I, the viewer, forced to indulge her as well?

After watching OITNB for even the small amount of time that I did, I’ve become much more aware of the Uninteresting White Woman trope, and all of the warning signs are clearly on display in the pilot of GLOW. Literally every character in GLOW is more interesting than Ruth Wilder. Cherry Bang and Sam Sylvia run circles around her. I’m most interested to see more from Carmen Wade. Even Melrose and Sheila the She-Wolf are more interesting. Yet I was forced to watch Ruth get picked on by three punk kids to establish that the man she is sleeping with is her best friend’s husband. None of which I care about. Give me more Cherry, Sam, and Carmen. I have zero faith that will actually happen. One of the co-creators of GLOW is also the creator of OITNB, which as far as I can tell never moved past Piper as the center.

The final, and most important aspect of the Uninteresting White Woman Character, is that she is completely exempt from story consequences. Good stories are a series of causes and effects, where plot derives naturally from the consequences of character decisions. Consequences are also the last opportunity to make a poor character better. If you can’t create an interesting character, at least have something interesting happen to them, and see where it leads them. The Uninteresting White Woman blows up this core aspect of storytelling by making decisions and then suffering no actual story consequences.

Take Karen Page from Daredevil. In perhaps the most egregious example of an Uninteresting White Woman escaping all consequence, she drags reporter Ben Urich to visit Wilson Fisk’s mother without his knowledge or consent. When Wilson Fisk finds out that his mother was visited, it’s Ben Urich who he murders. He doesn’t even learn that Karen was there in the first season. As a final act of saying “Fuck you” to consequence, Karen is absolved of guilt by Urich’s widow at his funeral. She’s let off scott free for her decisions in every way. Add Karen’s murder of James Wesley to this, and you see that the writers have no intention of ever having Karen, an Uninteresting White Woman, face any kind of reckoning, even in a show which is explicitly about characters reckoning with their choices.

Ruth Wilder is slightly different than Karen Page, but she’s still an Uninteresting White Woman. Unlike Daredevil, GLOW gives the impression of consequence in its pilot for its Uninteresting White Woman, without investing in what those consequences would really mean. When Ruth is fired for failing to follow directions, we understand on some level that she’ll get back into the ring- after all, the show is about a woman’s wrestling league. The tension comes from how she’ll get back into the ring, and the show accomplishes this feat by gutting the consequences of another choice that Ruth made- sleeping with her best friend’s husband. Ruth should have never been allowed to be in the ring long enough for Debbie Eagan to show up. She was fired, and should have been removed from the premises immediately. But the Uninteresting White Woman is allowed to behave as if consequences don’t apply to her, BECAUSE THEY DON’T. Ruth doesn’t have to apologize, or promise to work harder, or make any gesture at growth and development. She’s simply allowed to take center stage as the other, better characters watch. She gets to maintain a relationship with Debbie Eagan, despite the fact that Debbie Eagan doesn’t want that relationship. Yes, it will be an antagonistic and adversarial relationship, but let’s be clear: that is not an actual consequence. A real consequence of betraying your friend’s trust is losing the friend, not spending even more time with them, just angrier.

After almost two episodes, I can’t invest any more time into this trope. It’s a shame too, because I actually like everything else about GLOW, and I think the premise and execution are otherwise solid. There are pieces of potential greatness scattered across the show, but the crushing mediocrity of Ruth Wilder smothers whatever else might be possible. The Uninteresting White Woman has managed to turn me into an Uninterested Black Man. So what else is on Netflix?

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Something to Lose

It was the last day of clinical exams for my brother. He was in class to become a certified nursing assistant, a small step in his ongoing journey to becoming a doctor. His white woman teacher stopped him. “Before you leave I just want to tell you something, so when you get a few minutes come see me,” she said. He saw her in the hallway and she pulled him into an empty room.

“I just wanted to tell you I feel like you have a lot of potential and you’re really good and I see your test scores and your clinical work, but you might want to do something about your hair. When you came in I saw your hair all hanging down in your face and I said to myself, there’s no way this guy is going to make it. But then I started getting your tests back and I said ‘Wow this guy is a total freaking brain!’ You know everything and the way you talk and present yourself is really great, but it’s the initial impression, you know. You should probably do something with your hair because, not saying that you’re a bad guy, but it’s the initial impression, and you know. I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, because I mean it from the bottom of my heart, but you know.”

A Puerto Rican woman, born and raised on the island until she was 18, received the highest grade on the final with a 98. My brother tied with a Jamaican woman who moved to the US in 2015 for the second highest grade, a 97. But, you know.

Do you know what despair is? It’s not hearing stories like this from everyone you know. It’s not constantly watching the triumph of white mediocrity in everything around you. It’s not hearing your beautiful little boy call himself ugly and wish that his hair was straight. It’s not watching men, women and children that look like you and your friends and family slaughtered in real time over and over and over and over again. It’s not looking at the sagging buildings and rusted fences and gaping potholes and overgrown weeds in your neighborhood and wondering why your community doesn’t deserve the same care as everyone else’s. It’s not knowing that the wealth of the greatest empire the world has ever seen was built by your ancestors under the cruelest conditions imaginable, maintained by the most sadistic expressions of targeted violence humanity is capable of, and enjoyed by a class of people whose willful ignorance of that reality is trumpeted and celebrated throughout all corners of society. No, those are simply the wages of blackness, the price of color.

Despair is experiencing all of this every day, and realizing that you’re afraid to talk about it.

You get something. A little glimmer that resembles hope. A new job. A better home. A good school. Something that’s not really something, but it might lead to something. Something that you can lose.

And you become afraid.

Fear seizes you. It feels like electricity shooting through your limbs, a sharp tingle in the joints of your fingers and toes, in the back of your knees and the crook of your elbow. You smack your lips because your mouth is drying out. You can hear the blood roaring through your ears as your heart pounds harder.

You hold tight to that something, because you think that it’s the only thing that you have. It becomes precious not as the something that it is, but as the means by which you can escape the desperate spiral of frustration and sorrow that you wake up to every day. You pour your heart and your dreams and your whole self and future into that something, as trivial and uncertain as it may be. This is your way out, the illuminated path out of the darkness of dashed hope and stunted opportunity because of the color of your skin and the circumstances of your birth.

You become afraid that you might lose that something. You become afraid a thing you say or do might swing the gate shut on your path and condemn you to being just another nigga forever instead of being that special one that overcomes and gets the movie made about you so that you as the exception can somehow shatter the rule of the slow, deliberate strangulation of your people.

You lose sight of the fact that the something you’re holding is not actually hope, but simply the appearance, the shadow, of hope. Because in the end you are just another nigga forever as long as the hope you think you have flows from the hands of people who do not live where you live and talk how you talk and sing how you sing and look how you look. Your hope is not hope because it relies on the beneficence of people who can afford to not be charitable when it suits them. You have a job until a white person says you don’t. You have a school as long as a white person is there with you. You have a house until a white person needs it. Your future, your life, is held by someone who is incentivized to not give a fuck about it.

But you don’t want to think about that. As long as the good ones remain good, then you’ll be okay. And they’re the good ones, right? You know, the ones who send their kids to your school and vote against changing zoning regulations so that you can send your kids to THEIR schools. The ones with the solidarity bumper stickers who tell you to relax when you point out the casual racism of almost everything they say. The ones who hate Donald Trump and don’t have a single person of color in any of their Facebook pictures. The ones who will hire you to improve diversity in their workplace as an office manager or an assistant or a part-time employee with five people to report to in a six-person organizational structure. The ones who will tell you to your face that they thought you were nothing and then tell you that others will think that you’re nothing unless you resemble those who they think by default are worthy. You hold onto that something as tight as you possibly can because you can’t see an alternative.

So you get a little quieter. You push a little less. You calibrate your answers. You suffer bigger indignities. You smile at a few more jokes. You nod along to a few more asinine statements. Because now you have something to lose, and you’re terrified of being denied this one small something that you’ve worked your entire life for and that holds the promise of you being recognized as something more- as a human being.

After the next child is murdered by police, after the next report comes out explaining that even if your life is not ended by violence it will be shorter and less healthy, after the next smug white man does some racist shit and feigns ignorance, you remember what Audre Lorde said all those years ago.

Your silence will not protect you.

Neither will your compliance, or your ambition, or your agreeableness, or your respectability, or your friendliness, or your frankness, or your talent, or your intelligence, or your strength, or your upbringing, or your job, or your family, or your friends, or your money.

The only thing that can save you is action. Action to build something, for us and by us. Choices to support each other. Decisions to protect our communities. Doing these things ourselves, so that we don’t have to ask the good white people for a goddamn thing.

I’m not talking about segregation. I’m not telling you to go find your white fave and spit in their face. What I’m talking about is autonomy, independence, self-sufficiency. So that when they say no, we can say, “Fuck you too” and DO IT ANYWAY. Because that’s what they have- the ability to do it without us. If our white faves decide to retreat behind their walls and take all of their stuff with them, which one of us is fucked? The point is not whether they will or won’t; the point is that they can and we cannot.

I’m certain that white woman thought she was doing my brother a favor, being an ally, all the shit that people like her tell themselves about themselves. I’m certain that she went home with a clear conscience and the knowledge that she might have helped. I would bet money that she thinks of herself as one of the good white people. She’s right, and that’s exactly the fucking problem.

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A Death in the City

We called him Shorty. He was 5’5” on his best day, and his nickname was so well-worn that I never asked him what his birth name was. He wore a forest green jacket with two large red and white triangles that stretched out from the back, brown pants and a baseball cap. We talked here and there, mostly chitchat about the weather or how much my son had grown since he last saw him. I carried his groceries for him sometimes when I passed him resting at the bottom of the staircase, a handful of plastic bags in one hand and his cane in the other.

I still don’t know what his cause of death was. He collapsed while climbing the stairs to his third floor apartment at 1:00 AM. He hadn’t made it halfway up the first flight before he tumbled backwards down them. I was asleep, the sound of my own snoring drowning out the world around me. I found out about his death the next evening when a neighbor told me. I didn’t even know he was sick. No one did.

                                               

In the aftermath of Hillary Clinton’s shocking Electoral College defeat, dozens of articles and think pieces proliferated about the need to understand the “Trump voter:” someone who was struggling in the global economy, with few options for advancement, and who was invariably white. Democrats learned the central theme of Donald Trump’s campaign after it was too late- center the suffering of white people. The result has been a single-minded focus on the Rust Belt and other hollowed out regions of the Midwest. The cities, overwhelmingly black, brown and politically blue, are demographically safe in their calculations. African Americans, the foundation of the Democrat’s electoral base, would never vote for a Republican (except for the 4% of black women and 13% of black men who did). Perhaps they’re right, and large numbers of black voters are permanently ostracized from the Republican Party. Yet black voters have a third option besides the Democrats and the GOP. They can choose not to vote at all. Hillary Clinton received nearly two million fewer votes from African Americans in 2016 than Barack Obama received in 2012. Despite these startling numbers, there has been no flood of interest in understanding black voters. The focus of the political class has turned towards the American heartland: NAFTA and TPP allegedly destroying manufacturing jobs, heroin and methamphetamine ravaging rural communities. No one has come to ask me about the problems facing my city.

Hartford, Connecticut, by various measures, is simultaneously one of the most economically productive cities on the planet and one of the poorest urban centers in the United States. According to a report from the Brookings Institute titled, “Global Metro Monitor 2011: Volatility, Growth and Recovery,” Hartford has the highest per capita GDP in the world, beating out major global cities like New York, Paris, and London. The American Fact Finder page for the U.S. Census Bureau states that a full third of the city’s residents live below the poverty level. GDP and poverty rates are not directly comparable, but these statistics tell us something important regardless- that Hartford generates massive amounts of wealth, and that very little of that wealth benefits its residents. Hartford is not unique when it comes to more affluent outsiders extracting value from poor cities. The cause of the struggles in Hartford is simple: racism. It takes the form of redlining, exclusionary zoning, NIMBYism, white flight, any number of euphemistic phrases to explain the mechanisms of excluding black and brown people from the American mainstream. Strip away the clinical language, and you’re left with racism. It remains a problem that no one in power wants to meaningfully confront. The “chocolate city” that Eric Avilla described is still here.  A larger number of us spoke on November 8th, 2016- three million more than those Trump voters. The idiosyncrasies of our election system effectively silenced those voices. The people of color in the cities cried out the loudest for relief and help to overcome the challenges we face. Instead, the Trump voter is whom America is listening to.

I recently bumped into a young man I’d met many years ago when we were both children. I was living in a suburb adjacent to Hartford with my grandfather at the time. I was about ten years older than the boy, who I’ll call Jason. He was barely out of his toddler phase, and wanted to play with the big kids. As a surly, self-important teenager, I tolerated his presence with a mix of annoyance and flattery at the idea that he wanted to be like me and my friends. When I went back to live with my mother, I lost all contact with Jason until I was walking down the broken sidewalks of the North End of Hartford when I heard my name called from a distance. Jason was learning against a black sedan, a puffy coat shielding him against the cold and swallowing his thin frame. He was an adult now, maybe as young as eighteen or as old as twenty one. We caught up for a few minutes. He has a cousin he visits who lives on the third floor of my building. Small world, I said. I’ve bumped into him a few times since then, learning a little bit more about his life in the intervening years. He finished his GED while he was in prison, a result of a fight he got into with his girlfriend. I asked him if he’d thought about college, that he could always start at the community college I was tutoring at and I’d help him apply. He said he would think about it, but that he was looking for work, which was difficult to find with his arrest record.

I thought about this as I watched Casey Affleck win the Best Actor Academy Award, a man who has been accused of harassing two women. I thought about my spell of unemployment in 2016, when I would walk my ex-girlfriend’s dog for two hours to escape the crushing repetitiveness of vacillating between idleness and writing cover letters to hiring managers who would never even read past my name. On those walks, I was surprised by the number of men I saw standing on street corners in the middle of the day. They laughed and joked with each other. They discussed the neighborhood gossip and argued about current events. They had the same kinds of conversations you hear in office settings everywhere, featuring more colorful language. These men weren’t in an office though. They’ve been locked out of employment for crimes that their white counterparts commit, but aren’t punished as harshly for. They’re skipped over because their names and addresses signal their blackness to potential employers, and blackness is not rewarded in the job market.

Finding work doesn’t solve our problems. I write in my apartment, a small one bedroom on Main Street in the North End of Hartford. The rent is subsidized, and renters hold onto their apartments for life. My neighbors have lived in these apartments for twenty or even thirty years. Some of them are older people nearing retirement age; some are single people living on their own. There are childless couples and large families. Our careers are varied- there are CNAs and grocery store employees and taxi drivers and the disabled. Some of the older children hustle, selling everything from weed to Polo sweat suits. The commonality between us is that we cannot afford to live in market rate housing on the money our labor earns.

A favorite topic of conversation amongst the political pundit class is the loss of manufacturing jobs in recent years. Statistics are bandied about regarding the loss of jobs- five million of them, according to some studies. Whether the blame is placed on China and foreign trade or automation and productivity advances, the decline in manufacturing jobs is positioned as a unique threat to blue-collar workers. The term “blue-collar” often assumes whiteness, as the political analysis of outlets from Politico to CNN demonstrate. The pundits fail to mention that the loss of manufacturing jobs is part of a decades-old trend, which saw those manufacturers leave the cities first, decimating work opportunities for African Americans and other people of color left behind during suburbanization. The streets of the North End are home to dozens of empty industrial parks and dilapidated factory buildings. The lack of decent jobs is as acute in Hartford as it is in the all-American small towns in the Midwest, and the knock-on effects spread from housing access to healthcare.

My ex-wife’s uncle lives on the first floor of our building. He is missing almost all of his top teeth, and uses a walker for assistance. Another neighbor has recently had foot surgery. My ex-girlfriend sustained a concussion two years ago and takes daily medication to deal with the symptoms. Shorty’s condition was so severe that he literally dropped dead. As America enjoys the irony of Republican Congress members being taken to task over their opposition to Obamacare, it’s easy to forget the black and brown faces who rely on the healthcare law as well. People who can receive coverage who otherwise couldn’t. Families and elders covered by the expansion of Medicare. Provisions which allow students to remain on their parent’s insurance plan until they turn twenty six. Obamacare is critical for people of color who don’t have access to employer healthcare because of the jobs they work and could never afford the out of pocket expense of buying a plan.

Meanwhile, the corporation which operates my housing has only accepted applications once in the six years I’ve lived in my apartment. On the day it did, Hartford Police were on hand to manage the crowds that were already forming at 7:00 AM, an hour before the rental office opened.  My neighbors work. Many of them have stable relationships with two incomes, or must only provide for themselves. The single mother family caricature thrown around in discussions of urban poverty is the exception, not the rule. We cannot move, no matter how much we want to live where the white people live. So on that day when applications were accepted, the waiting list for affordable housing grew. New applicants were essentially hoping for a miracle to be placed into an apartment.

Like a death.

                                               

Rural white Americans are hurting. They’ve seen their wages remain stagnant for over twenty years. Inflation has made everything more expensive relative to the amount of money they make. The country is becoming browner and more diverse. Addiction is wracking their families and communities. The problems are real and frightening. African Americans, Latinos and other people of color are living under the same conditions. We watch as falling tax revenues degrade our communities even further, the unemployable remain idle, and the sick are left to quietly suffer from their maladies. Yet the energy of our political system is focused on addressing what they perceive as an eruption of discontent in white America. Our people are not getting any attention, and they’re slipping away in front of us. People like Shorty.

His name was Roberto Rodriguez. He died walking up a flight of stairs. His widow didn’t have the money to properly bury him, so he was cremated. No reporters showed up to ask how he could have been cared for better. There will be no congressional hearings. No one will write an article about how globalization left him behind.  Roberto was a poor Hispanic man in a poor neighborhood in a poor city. His death didn’t make a sound, and the rest of us slept through the night.

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The Hobbit – Chapter XIX – The Last Stage

Here we are at the final chapter.  It’s a short chapter, but it is broken into three parts.  First, Bilbo and Gandalf go to Rivendell and spend about a week with the elves.  Bilbo (and Tolkien) love elves, so they spend more time here than might be expected.  It’s all very pleasant and relaxing, but not much happens.  Second, Bilbo arrives home.  When he arrives, there is an auction of all of his possessions taking place.  Apparently, he was declared dead after being missing without explanation for more than a year.  It makes sense and it’s a good comic section.  Bilbo is a bit upset, especially at his relatives, the Sacksville-Baggins, who were especially greedy.  But, compared to what he’s been through, this is nothing, so he sets things straight.  It takes a little time and a little money, of which he now has plenty, but it all gets done.  Finally, we get a little coda.  This is the happily ever after part.  Bilbo lives a very long, comfortable life.  He is generous with his money.  He is adored by his nieces and nephews.  And he has frequent visits from elves and the occasional dwarf.

The funny thing about the coda is how well it sets up The Lord of the Rings.  I don’t know if this is one of the chapters that Tolkien revised upon completing the trilogy.  But the part about the nieces and nephews sets up his relationship with Frodo.  The part about his losing his reputation sets up the Long Expected Party (the first chapter of the trilogy).  Tolkien even makes a point of saying how Bilbo kept the ring a secret.  I feel like this must have been part of the revision.

I kind of wish I had kept count, I’m curious how many times I’ve read this book.  Once again, though, I thoroughly enjoyed it.  I talked about my one big complaint during that chapter, but as big a mistake as it is, the rest of the book more than makes up for it.  Bilbo is just such a great character.  The adventures are thrilling.  The world is huge.  It never gets old.  I don’t know if anyone actually read all nineteen entries, but I’m glad I documented the experience.  It’ll let me go back and see if anything has changed the next time I read it.

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The Hobbit – Chapter XVIII – The Return Journey

One of the nice things about Tolkien is that he lets his stories end naturally.  Of course Bilbo can’t stay with the dwarves.  The story isn’t finished until he goes home.  It might seem a little anticlimactic, but I like the fact that we get to see the true end of the journey.  Although, I suppose that’s not really until next chapter.

This chapter is, naturally, about the return journey.  But there is some business to finish up before we get there.  Bilbo needs to regain consciousness (and take the ring off) as no one knows if he survived the battle.  Bilbo needs to find out how the battle ended, since he was unconscious.  And, most importantly, Bilbo needs to come to a resolution with the dwarves.

All of these are accomplished in short order.  Bilbo finds his way back to camp and learns that the eagles and Beorn both arrived to fight the goblins.  It was still a fierce battle, but they turned the tide and the good guys won.  Thorin was mortally wounded during the battle.  Luckily, he was still alive when Bilbo made it to camp.  Thorin gave Bilbo a sincere deathbed apology.  Bilbo accepted, so they could part as friends.  Fili and Kili were also killed in the battle.  Bilbo mourns their losses.  The rest of the dwarves held Bilbo in high honor and will miss his company.  And Dain, who was now King Under the Mountain, is much more generous that Thorin and gives treasure to all the deserving parties.

One thing that struck me while reading this chapter, as Bilbo names all thirteen of the dwarves (Balin, Dwalin, Dori, Nori, Ori, Oin, Gloin, Bifur, Bofur, Bombur, Fili, Kili and Thorin Oakenshield), is how little we learn about most of the dwarves over the course of the book.  Thorin is the only one that can be considered a main character.  We learn that Bombur is fat, Fili and Kili are young and Balin is fond of Bilbo.  That leaves eight of the dwarves as virtually non-characters.  I don’t think this is a flaw, after all, it is Bilbo’s story.  It’s just something that struck me.  Given how well thought out Middle Earth is, it seems likely that Tolkien knew all kinds of things about all of the dwarves.  He just only chose to share what was important for this book.

Finally we get to the return journey itself.  It is pretty uneventful.  Bilbo is accompanied by Gandalf, and Beorn for part of the trip.  They make a point of going around Mirkwood.  Tolkien does say that Bilbo had many adventures on the way back, but he was never in real danger.  Again Tolkien shows a good deal of restraint.  Those adventures may be interesting on their own, but they aren’t part of this story, so they are left out.  All we know for sure is that Bilbo is more than ready to be finished with his adventure.

And that sets us up for the final chapter.

 

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The Hobbit – Chapter XVII – The Clouds Burst

Here we have the Battle of Five Armies.  If you’re keeping track, it’s the dwarves, the men, the elves, the goblins and the eagles.  That is unless it is the dwarves, the men, the elves, the goblins and the wargs.  Both the eagles and the wargs are involved, I’m just not sure which one constitutes an army.  But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

The chapter opens, as it must, with the repercussions of the previous chapter.  Bard and the Elf King return to try to talk to the dwarves, this time with the Arkenstone as a bargaining chip.  When Thorin sees the Arkenstone, he is amazed and confused.  He assumes they stole it somehow.  But, Bilbo confesses what he had done.  I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned it before, but Bilbo is incredibly brave.  And his plan worked.  Thorin is almost ready to kill Bilbo, but Bilbo explains that the Arkenstone counts as his fourteenth of the total.  Thorin grudgingly agrees that if he gets the Arkenstone back, the men and elves can have Bilbo’s share, one fourteenth of the treasure.  When the deal is struck, Thorin wants nothing to do with Bilbo.  So, Bilbo is forced to leave the dwarves and join the host of men and elves.  Talk about ingrates.  At least a few of the dwarves have the decency to feel bad about it.

Thorin is an unusual character, especially considering that this is really a children’s book.  Throughout the book, until we get to the dragon, he was clearly a good guy.  Pompous, sure, but a good guy.  He falls fast and hard, though, once he sees a real chance of regaining his treasure.  It is a well written book, so it isn’t shocking.  The seeds were planted early.  But this is a kid’s book.  I’m not sure I understood Thorin’s transformation the first time I read it.  This isn’t a complaint, just an observation.  I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s confusing for most of the eleven and twelve year olds who read it.

The elves and men still want to avoid a fight, but they don’t trust Thorin.  The say that they will keep the Arkenstone until all of the gold is delivered.  Thorin, meanwhile, figures that he can keep all of the gold and get the Arkenstone back once his cousin, Dain, arrives.  Everyone is at a bit of a stalemate.

After all the posturing, Dain does arrive.  Bard is smart enough to realize that if Dain gets through to the mountain with his army, the deal with Thorin will be ignored.  Bard blocks their passage.  They insist he move.  Just as the battle begins, the goblin army arrives from the north.  The goblins are still angry that their king was killed and wouldn’t mind some of the treasure for themselves.  At the arrival of the goblins, everything changes.  The dwarves, elves and men unite to fight their common enemy.

A good chunk of the chapter is filled with a description of the battle.  Basically, it goes back and forth, but gradually the goblins are winning.  Bilbo sticks close to Bard, with his ring on and mostly stays safe.  Just as it looks like the goblin army will overwhelm our heroes, Bilbo sees the eagles.  He starts a cry, then is knocked on the head and falls unconscious.  That is where the chapter ends.

I just have to say how much I like the way this chapter ends.  After my complaints about Chapter XIV, Fire And Water, it should be obvious why.  The ending of this chapter goes to show, once again, that this is Bilbo’s story.  We only know what’s going on from Bilbo’s perspective and here, Tolkien sticks to that.  It’s a beautiful thing.  It only goes to make the mistake of Chapter XIV that much more egregious.

We end with a little bit of suspense, but not much.  Tolkien doesn’t tell us how the battle ends, but it seems pretty obvious that the eagles will help the good guys prevail.  And we will find out soon how the battle ended.

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