Saturday, August 29, 2020

A stranger willing to learn more about Black Lives Matter

One morning in June, about two weeks after the murder of George Floyd, in my majority white Maryland town, I posted simple Black Lives Matter signs near my running path, which runs along a decommissioned canal.

“MAGA (Make America Go Antiracist)”

I wanted my signs to be a call to action in a way I hadn’t seen, so I included my cell and invited people to start a conversation. I heard from one person—rather from my “butt hole.”

But I returned later that afternoon to find the signs gone. I reposted them. (A sight you don’t see: someone in running clothes on a wooded trail holding a tape gun.)

Several days later, the signs were still up. A small victory…soon to be dwarfed by an also-small but hugely affirming development.

Someone else who saw one of my signs texted me.

“I would like to discuss. if ur down.”

I was down. Also up, diagonal, and inside out.

Let’s say it’s a he and call him 240 (his area code). In a non-combative way, 240 said he thinks some people say “all lives matter” because they feel some people who say “Black lives matter” care about Black people only when they’re killed by white people but ignore other issues affecting Black communities (i.e. Black-on-Black murder, higher percentages of single motherhood). He feels that police officers killing Black people is terrible but questioned why the movement seems to consider that a bigger problem than the others he cited. He seemed genuine.

I disclaimered that I’m no expert, then proceeded to fumble through some of what I’ve learned.

I said that people who say “Black lives matter” do care about other challenges Black people face, and all lives in general, but it’s a matter of urgency. The BLM movement aims specifically to dismantle the harmful, ongoing way white-dominant institutions mistreat Black people, consciously or subconsciously.

I agreed that the other issues he mentioned are indeed pressing, but preventing preventable murder and educating white people how to eliminate systemic racism is paramount. I also said we need to multi-task like we do in other aspects of our lives. We didn’t stop searching for a cure for cancer when we started searching for a vaccine for COVID-19.

240 asked for examples of mistreatment. I recommended starting with a book called I’m Still Here by Austin Channing Brown

He pushed for examples so I gave him two:

1 – Black parents teach their children (especially boys) to keep hands out of pockets when in stores because employees are historically more likely to suspect/accuse Black people of shoplifting.

2 – White people sometimes ask to touch the hair of Black people, often Black children—or sometimes they skip right to the touching—while praising it. Though they may be well-intentioned, it is inappropriate—a manifestation of privilege that can be dehumanizing. 

He said he’s seen that happen.

He wrote “Thanks for talking with me. I learned something.”

So did I.

Then he went fishing.

Friday, August 21, 2020

“WordPlay” with Kwame Alexander

When author/friend/force of nature Kwame Alexander asks you to guest star in the first episode of a new show he created, you do it. Even during a pandemic. 

Yes, to film a kidlit show, I had to reenter society—one small outpost of it, for a little bit. We shot the episode in Washington DC on June 27, the first day since March 14 I’d entered a public building that didn’t sell Raisin Bran.

The show is called WordPlay. It’s a high-energy series designed to help kids develop and write their own stories. The first season is 10 episodes. It will run on the Adventure Academy platform and perhaps elsewhere down the line. 

Of course, protection protocol was in full effect. Upon entering the studio, my temperature was checked by one of those gadgets that was on Star Trek but with a different purpose. Handshakes and hugs are so 2019. 

Masks on throughout, with three exceptions:

1) Makeup. I was asked to lower my mask for the few seconds something powdery was applied to my mouth area. I asked the makeup artist how her job has been impacted by COVID-19. She said broadcasters and other on-screen presenters are home instead of in the usual central locations but still in need of foundation, so there’s plenty of work. 

She recalled how the Joker infected people through tainted cosmetics in the 1989 Tim Burton blockbuster and asked me if I have seen any Batman movies.

Don’t worry—she didn’t poison me. And she did not know till she heard my interview with Kwame how funny it was that she asked me a question about Batman…

2) Eating. We lunched at small, socially-distanced square tables in the cafĂ© area—ten or so people eating simultaneously on their own private islands. It was the least chatty group meal I’ve ever had.

3) Filming. For my main segment, Kwame and I were in separate rooms. I was in the green room by myself, talking to Kwame via laptop, which was recording. He was in a bigger studio space down the hall, with crew more than six feet away. 

Topic of the show: outlines. It was apt in a way beyond the writing process: so much of what we do now in everyday life must be outlined in advance, not to strengthen a story but rather to stay safe.

After that, they filmed a few bumpers/promos with Kwame and me in the same room, but still apart. Then two weeks later I filmed even farther away from Kwame—I was home, he was I don’t know where, and the show staff was on Zoom.

The trailer (keep an eye out for both Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman and my head):

Thank you again to Kwame for the kind invite. It was an honor and a blast! Thank you again to Carmen and the WordPlay crew for making me feel so welcome and making it so fun. We’ll play again…