The Mis-education of the Elmo




For some strange reason, the only two channels that work on the treadmill televisions in my gym are the Public Broadcasting Station and one with twenty-four hour infomercials. Now, I don't get to watch as much Sesame Street as I used to, so when a show that I mistook for Sesame Street came on, I considered it a treat. But then I quickly realized how much the "neighborhood" had changed since the eighties and nineties. Instead of a harmonica playing in the background to Can You Tell Me How To Get To Sesame Street, I listened to Elmo sing "la" for thirty seconds as the intro to Elmo's World. "Wow, Elmo has a solo gig?!" I said to myself. "Good for him!"

Now personally, I find some comfort in routine and predictability, so I enjoy watching the throwback episodes paying homage to "Classic Sesame Street."  I'm talking about the young Savion Glover, Maria and Louis in their fix-it shop, the attack on Lionel Ritchie brought to us by the letter U, and Cab Calloway scatting with Muppets to Hi De Ho Man. But the more things change, the more they stay the same, and the more they go unexplained like Oscar the Grouch's mood swings, Elmo's atrocious grammar, Cookie Monster's sugar addiction, and the ambiguous relationship between Bert and Earnie.

But this particular morning, I watched the first episode in the trilogy Elmo's Summer Vacation, entitled Skin. "Ooooooh, Elmo's talking about skin? I thought to myself. This ought to be good and controversial!" The show actually began very innocently for about the first ten minutes, and then Elmo's (black) friend Elaine talked about what she learned in school about skin:
Elmo: "Boy! Elmo loves finding out about skin! Elmo's friend Elaine learned ALL about skin in school, and she told Elmo all about it!"

Elaine: "Ms. Michaelson asked our class what we could learn by looking at our skin. So we started to investigate. We could see that everybody's skin looked different. There was dark skin, light skin, and all different shades in between. My skin was dark, and Cassie had light skin with rosy cheeks. Then we looked at our skin through a magnifying glass. It makes things look bigger. We could see all sorts of things we never noticed before. There was hair growing out of our skin, and the fronts of our arms had more hair than the back of our arms, but the palms of our hands didn't have any hair at all, but they had lots of lines. So did the tips of our fingers. Some parts of our skin were smooth like our cheeks. Some parts were real wrinkly like our knuckles and elbows. Then we ran some water on our arms to see what our skin looked like when it was wet. The water didn't soak in. It just rolled right off. We could see how our skin protects our bodies. So even though everybody's skin looked different up close, our skin wasn't really very different at all."

Now, Elaine had me all the way up until that last sentence. Thankfully I was still the only person in the gym, so I could get away with talking to myself at length out loud:   "Wow...see...why is Elmo lying to these children? Because the reality is that if Elaine's brother and Cassie's brother get into a fight at school, it's more likely that Elaine's brother would be sent home in a police car with a long-term suspension for the remainder of the school year. He would get little (if any) access to alternative education opportunities, fall behind on his work, miss his end-of-year exams, and would have to repeat the whole year. And if he has no parental/adult supervision while he's out of school, he's likely to have pre-mature contact with the criminal justice system or head down a path that could lead to dropping out of school all together. Yeah, I’d like to hear how Elaine and Cassie feel over the next six to twelve years when they are competing against each other for admission into same exclusive high schools and colleges!"

When it comes to broaching the topic of racial and ethnic identity with young children, I can understand a kinder, gentler approach, but sometimes I wonder whether that approach is really for the benefit of children or for parents who feel uncomfortable or ill-equipped. Early in our marriage I was taken aback while speaking with an interracial couple about their approach to affirming their young child's racial and ethnic identity. In essence, they felt like this wasn't a topic they needed to discuss with their child, and by not bringing it up, believed it would just work itself out someday by going along with whatever their child wanted.

But the idea of children being oblivious to race and ethnicity--even at an early age--is a tad foreign to me (no pun intended). I can actually think of few (if any) times in my childhood when I didn't know I was different, and not just from the non-black kids at school, but everybody.  For my earliest years of schooling, my world was pretty homogenous in that the vast majority of my teachers and classmates were black. Even then I knew that my parents and their friends spoke this other language at home that I never heard in school and the food my mom made us for dinner didn't smell, look, or taste anything like what I ate in school. By second grade I tested into a public school system operating under a federal court ordered desegregation school busing plan. So my school bus, classmates, teachers, and world became much more racially and ethnically diverse, and thus began a first-day-of-school tradition that followed me all the way through law school: the butchered mispronunciation of my name (my teachers butchered the names of many students, but since my name fell towards the beginning of the alphabet, I was usually the first victim).

Thirty minutes later Elmo's World and my run were over, but a question still lingered in the back of my mind: "If children are so keenly aware of differences (racial or otherwise) what is the harm in telling them the truth about race in America, even at a young age?" And as critical as I was towards the "Elmo approach," I also had a feeling that if my five-year-old child were to ask me a simple question about skin colors, that going off into a ten minute monologue on why education is the civil rights issue of our time wouldn't be any more effective. I still ruminate on this issue and in doing so found the following excerpt from Stickin' To, Watchin' Over, and Gettin' With to be somewhat helpful in correcting some of my own miseducation:  "Sometimes young children struggle with skin color issues at the level of color differences, not at the level of racial and social injustice or inequality. They should be allowed to explore those differences free of parental fear that their child is racially illiterate."

And yes, I'm still an Elmo fan.


Why EVERYONE Needs to Learn the Black National Anthem

"You are what you have to defend, because it doesn't matter that I'm 19 percent European, 81 percent African. In America, I have to deal with the problems that black people in America deal with. I have the struggles and challenges that black people in America have."
-Don Cheadle

I'm not sure which was worse, this:


Or this:


Or this:
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But hey, at least they tried.


Me: "Oh, and at some point, you need to learn the Black National Anthem. But today you can just mouth the word 'watermelon'."
My Husband: "What?"
Me: "My chorus teacher taught us that if we ever forgot the words to a song, to just mouth the word 'watermelon' to make it look like we were still singing."

Hubs: "I'm not doing that. I'm just not going to sing. I don't know the song because I'm not part of 'the nation'."
Me: "Well, you are by marriage. See, why do people have such a hard time stepping outside of their comfort zones?  Do you think the Mayor of New York gets on camera and butchers Spanish because he thinks he's Latino or feels some sense of solidarity with Puerto Ricans?! No. He's learned that if you can speak someone else's language or find a sense of connection or common ground, that you have access to that person's life in a way that you might not otherwise have."

Funny how the things I find most useful as an adult have nothing to do with academics or the classroom (like learning the Electric Slide in elementary school and mastering the detection of weed as a Resident Advisor).  At the time, I took it for granted, but in hindsight I appreciate learning the Black National Anthem (Lift E'vry Voice and Sing) during my childhood and early adulthood.  In college, each of our Black Student Movement meetings opened with the singing of Lift E'vry Voice.  Comes in handy during Black History Month and the Martin Luther King Holiday.

Now, Martin Luther King Jr. is one of the few people who can get me out of bed before 8:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning. And this particular morning my husband and I were heading over the (semi-frozen) Charles River into Cambridge for the 26th Annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Breakfast hosted by the Cambridge Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).  Rather than hold the breakfast during the actual holiday earlier in the month, the Cambridge NAACP chose to hold its breakfast towards the end of January as a way to usher in Black History Month.  Although the cab ride was all of five minutes and less than a mile away, the two cities are worlds apart.

As we settled at our table, my husband and I noted that the singing of the Black National Anthem wasn't listed in the program.  But I knew that didn't mean a whole lot.  And sure enough, after a short processional and the seating of the honored guests, we all rose and the pianist played the musical intro for Lift E'vry Voice.  While I'm sure many of the attendees used the time to reflect on the deep meaning of James Weldon Johnson's poetry and the continued struggle for freedom, justice, and equality, I was getting a good laugh.  The head table guests were mostly local, elected politicians who happened to be white, and didn't know the words to the song.  Some shifted uncomfortably, avoiding eye contact with the crowd by any means necessary, and I'd bet money that at least one was praying "Oh God please let them only sing the first verse and not all three!"

Earlier, when I insisted that my husband learn the Black National Anthem, I found it difficult to articulate a thought better suited for first-hand experience.  As we prepared to leave a friend's home after a dinner party, we met a another guest--a young woman--who happened to be Nigerian.  My husband loves the reaction he gets from other Nigerians when he tells them about his "Nigerian roots" (i.e. ME and my family), so we chatted for a bit, answering her questions about how long we'd been married, what our wedding and reception was like, etc.  After about ten minutes I could tell she was in utter shock  and disbelief that this white dude in Boston was telling her about his engagement ceremony, the few words of Yoruba (like three) he speaks and understands, how he prostrates to his in-laws, and eats pounded yam WITH HIS HANDS.  And by the end of the night, my husband had earned yet another nickname: "The White Nigerian."  The point I was trying to make earlier that morning wasn't that if my husband learned the Black National Anthem that he'd suddenly reach racial nirvana and become this enlightened individual with "street cred."  Rather, I was thinking about the power of challenging assumptions.  For whatever reason, when we connect with others in the ways they least expect, little by little, the walls begin to come down.

The Substance of Love

"Well, you know, I prefer to see black people with other black people because we need more strong, black families." 
 -Anonymous


Me: "Are black people the only ones who talk about love in terms of race and color?  Like is there 'brown love, yellow love, red love?"
My Husband: "I don't know."
Me: "Do white people talk about 'white love'?"
Hubs: "No."
Me:  "Hm.  I wonder why?"
Hubs:  "Because anytime you put 'white' in front of a noun, like White Love, White History Month, White Pride, White Law Students Association, or the Massachusetts Association of White Attorneys, people assume it's a white supremacist organization."

I must admit, when the topic of conversation is "black love" I feel a little left out.  In its most basic form, black love is the emotional connection shared by two black people.  Period.  It doesn't matter if one of you is black.  It doesn't matter if you are a white African.  It doesn't even matter if you think your dog is black.  Black love = two black people.  Usually black love refers to the romantic relationships between black men and black women, but the concept embraces a "wide" range of relationships like black parents and their black children,  members of an extended black family, black neighbors, black church members, and a type of mystical ethos shared among the entire Black Diaspora.

Valentine's Day fuels many conversations about black love and last year this backfired on Essence Magazine when it featured professional football player Reggie Bush on its February 2010 cover.  At the time Bush was dating Kim Kardashian, a non-black woman.  A number of Essence readers found Bush's selection for the cover of "the black love issue" as an affront to black women everywhere.  I didn't (and still don't) understand the reaction for a number of reasons (besides the obvious).  The cover said nothing about an article on black love and I wonder why reader outcry was louder about the race of his girlfriend than his Heisman Trophy fiasco.  But in case you are wondering, the February 2011 cover of Essence features actress Regina Hall and she is indeed dating a black man named Theo (otherwise known by his government name, Malcom-Jamal Warner).  As a woman who self-identifies as black, and fully embraces the myriad of experiences that embody my unique black experience, I find it hard to accept the idea that love is more or less worthy of celebration based solely on the skin color of the parties involved. 

Among my friends and family, I have a reputation for generally treating people the same, regardless of their station in life.  I am just as likely to crack jokes with a Senator as I am with a friend's two-year old.  My parents find this mindset particularly unsettling because Yoruba culture has a pecking order.  It values honor, respect, and status, especially with regard to age, gender, education, occupation, and especially title (my husband and I often chuckle at the sight of: "The Most Excellent Reverend, Doctor, Pastor, Engineer, Evangelist, Teacher, Bishop Chief  Tyrone Olu Johnson III, PhD" listed in programs at Nigerian functions).

But as I got older I began to question some of these notions:  Why should any adult I come into contact with recieve respect by virtue of being old enough to be my mom or dad?  What if I know he mistreats his children or his wife?  What if I feel uncomfortable because of the way he looks at me or because he hugs me a little too long?  What if she calls me stupid or fat or ugly when my parents aren't around?  So I concluded that the labels might make a difference, but that's not all that mattered.  The labels without the substance weren't enough.  It wasn't enough that the person was Yoruba, or a Doctor, or Nigerian, or African, or Christian, or Black, or a Pastor, or rich, or from my father's village, or royalty, or went to Harvard.  Who are they?  What is their substance?  What are they really made of?  And in the same way I'd hope that any love worth celebrating is because of its substance, not merely its color.

White Guys With Guitars

My husband's tastes in music lean toward a genre I call White Guys With Guitars or (WG)2  for short.  Just imagine if Kris Allen, Matt Kearney, Joshua Radin, and The Fray all got together and had a baby (I know, it's a stretch), whatever popped out would encapsulate my husband's musical inclinations.  Sometimes I think it's almost subconscious.  As we're driving in the car and scanning radio stations he'll stop for The Police (no pun intended) or Jason Mraz and then gets his hand slapped for touching the tuner when the rotation includes Camp Lo or Mary J. Blige.  When we're out and about in Boston, he'll buy a CD from some random acoustic guitarist set up outside of Fanuiel Hall but can't bear listening to the guys drumming on empty plastic buckets and frying pans when the Celtics games let out (except during last year's playoff games when crowds gathered outside of TD Garden chanting 'F---K L.A.!'  Alot of good that did...)

How would I describe my own musical tastes?  Oh I'd say varied, eclectic, and somewhat cosmopolitan.  And being keenly aware of my lack of objectivity, I thought I'd ask my husband while we were on our way to meet friends for dinner:

"You know how I always refer to your musical tastes as White Guys With Guitars?"

"Yeah."

"Well if you could describe my musical tastes in one phrase or one word, what would it be?" (This is the part where he was supposed to say "varied, eclectic, and cosmopolitan.")


"BLACK."

Excuse me?"

"BLACK.  Black gospel, black hip-hip, black rap.  All black everything."

"Wow.  Okay, I wasn't expecting that answer."

"And then there's like Lauryn Hill and her whole genre..."

"Uh, I guess that's like borderline hip-hop and R&B.  I mean she sings and raps so I guess it depends on the song.  So then would you say that being in an interracial marriage--specifically being married to me--has broadened your musical horizons?"

"No."

Blank stare.


"I mean you've introduced me to a few artists I hadn't heard of like Robin Thicke but for the most part I still listen to the same music I've always liked."

After our conversation I started thinking about the idea of music "having race" and I took a quick inventory of my iTunes library.  Now this doesn't happen often, but my husband was actually right.  The only non-black artists I'd purchased over the last couple of years were Robin Thicke (of course), one Sugarland single (which I only bought after overhearing the performance on my in-laws' television while they were watching the Country Music Awards, I was probably on the computer checking my email), The Departed soundtrack, a Hillsongs CD, and compilations of Italian Jazz and Bossa Nova that I purchased for a friend's Italian-themed bridal shower. 

Then I thought back two years when we had friends over for pre-Thanksgiving dinner before heading down to Maryland to spend the holiday with my family.  My husband created a playlist that grated my last good nerve and consisted of three albums: The Fray: Acoustic in Nashville, The Fray by The Fray, and The Fray Live).  By dessert and our first round of Imaginiff, I'd had enough of this "Fray Lovefest" and did what any reasonable woman in my position would have done: I put on my New Jack Swing Gold album.  Oh yeah.  I went there.  All the way back to the late-1980s into the mid-1990s.  And as soon as I hit Track 3 and Guy let out that first "Groove me" all of the black people in the room (all three of us) gathered around the stereo yelling,  "Oh! That's my JAM," got our respective grooves on, and began reminiscing about middle and high school.  Meanwhile our spouses (none of whom are black) just stared in utter confusion.

These moments reinforce the fact that we don't have to be the same to be in love.  We have enough differences that if we wanted to dwell on them we could dwell all day long.  Some areas of our lives continue to evolve and develop with time while other things--like New Jack Swing or George Strait or Fela Kuti or KC and the Sunshine Band--that stay with us no matter where we find ourselves on life's journey.  My husband may never come to enjoy Richard Smallwood as much as I do, but it's nice to know that if I've got an extra ticket to one of his concerts, he wants to be there with me.  And while I'll never be as avid of a follower of Brendan James (who actually plays the piano, not the guitar) as my husband, it's nice to know that when he drags me along--oops--I mean when I tag along, that we can always get in our special request (my apologies in advance for the poor video quality, Brendan is the smaller, fuzzy mass on the right-side of the screen):

video