Monday, February 27, 2006

Brokeback Mountain: Whatever Happened to Hoss Cartwright?

The biggest blockbuster this year isn't set in space, nor is it an action packed adventure, well, there's action, so to say, but not the kind of action you'd expect from a cowboy movie.

Who would've thought that a movie set on the frontier would garner this much attention? Not me.

Before I was born the most popular movies and TV shows were set in the wild, wild west. This was back when men were men, real men; we used a knife to shave with and cold water - no shaving cream. Everybody carried two guns and a knife and chewed tobacky. You had to be a rootin' tootin', gun-shootin' dude back then. Cowboys were real American heroes, they were the shadow of the American silhouette. Men with names like John Wayne, Matt Dillon (the marshall not the actor), Josey Wales, Black Bart and Jessie James were the pure definitions of white male masculinity. Before black men were proud to be black, we wanted to be outlaws or lawmen like Marshall Wyatt Earp.

The other cool things about cowboys were that they always had cool songs to sing while riding on their horses, "Happy Trails" and "My Rifle, My Pony and Me..." damn makes you misty-eyed doesn't it?

When Star Trek was being marketed to the studios in 1965, the producers of the show pitched it as a 'cowboy movie set in space'. Back then, only geeks were into science fiction, that is one of the reasons that there are phaser and fist fights; most of the television watching audience was into westerns and you can't have a western without a good bar room brawl and a gun fight, now can you?

One of the most beloved characters of the old western TV shows was a guy named Hoss Cartwright. He was a big lovable, gentle guy with a 10 gallon hat (I think it was a 10 gallon hat, what do I know, I'm from New York and California) a single gun and ham-sized fists. He represented the American silhouette by being strong and fearless, yet, fair and decent. He was as American as apple pie.

The cowboy went out of 'vogue' so to say once spies, sci-fi and karate flicks came in. Now the cowboy is back, and he ain't nothing like Hoss Cartwright or Nick Barkley. A movie like "Brokeback" raises many questions about what those guys could've been doing out there in the dark in the middle of the night on the 'range' all that time. Two dudes alone 'together' by the camp fire...yuck...but anyway.

'Brokeback' opens the doors to different perspectives of sexuality and friendship. This movie could not have been made in 1961. I would've paid good money to be a fly on the wall, if some exec producer would've walked in Louie B Mayer's office and said: 'Hey, how about a cowboy flick about two guys who are friends who are conflicted over their feelings for each other?" Mayer would've said: "What kind of conflicted feelings?" The exec would've said, "Well, you know, romantic ones..."

"BOOM" was all you would've heard as that producer was being thrown out of that office.

A story about two cowboys having "feelings for each other" and the consequences of their relationship make you miss Hoss Cartwright.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Gotta Have it…

The one thing that separates Homo sapiens from all other beings on Earth is the ability to articulate thoughts and feelings. As far as we know no other mammal possesses this ability, it is divinely unique to men and women. Dogs can’t do it, cats can’t do it and as far as modern science has learned neither can the birds or bees.

Probably from the time man first learned to sing or write he expressed an innate need for one thing. That one need that transcends race, age, time, place, class or any other division…


At the root of every story is our need to be loved.That's right L-O-V-E. Shakespeare wrote about it. Billie Holiday yearned for it. The Greeks went to war over it. The Beatles celebrated it. Bernie Mac demands it when he is on stage. We can’t live without it. Some of my favorite songs have the word 'love' in it's title: "I Wish You Love" by the late Joe Bataan, "I Want Your Love' by Chic, 'Walk Away From Love' by David Ruffin, "When Love is New' by Arthur Prysock, "Distant Lover" by Marvin Gaye and "Gimme Some of That Good Ol' Love" by Masta Ase. Yep, even the hardest of the hardest cat needs love.

In 37 years I’ve learned a couple of things; the first thing is that love starts with a healthy perspective of self, if you don’t love you no one else will either. And beware of the type of love you have for yourself. If you have an unhealthy image of who you are you will attract all of the WRONG kinds of people. Even the best-looking people have poor self-esteem.

One of the biggest obstacles a person can face to finding that one love or that true love that they have been looking for all of their lives is loneliness. Navigating our way around loneliness can be like trying to skate around quicksand. Loneliness will make us act against our better instincts and settle for relationships that can be dangerous. That nice smile or banging body is often the disguise worn by a devil. Great sex is good but if the person doesn’t meet our other standards they can potentially be the worse kind of trouble.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Uncle Tom Revealed

One of the ugliest terms thrown around by black people isn’t ‘nigga’ or ‘bitch’, no, there is a term even viler than those words. It’s a term whose original meaning has been lost through the generations and twisted and turned around so much so that it is to the point where no one really knows what the definition is. What term could be uglier than ‘nigga’ or ‘bitch’?

Uncle Tom.

I’ve used it, you’ve used it, and most of the time when we do use it, we say it to a member of our race who we perceive as not ‘acting black’. Well now, what is ‘acting black’? Is it mean muggin’ strangers and using four letter words in every sentence? Is it walking around with you’re pants sagging down so low that people can see your skid-marked drawers? Is it speaking poor English? What is ‘acting black’? And more to the point what or who is an Uncle Tom?

The true story of Uncle Tom is one that bares little resemblance to the way the term is being used today; in fact it has been completely distorted. Josiah Henson was enslaved on a farm in Maryland for 30 years. In 1849 he wrote a book about his years in captivity. It is his story that Harriet Beecher Stowe used as the model for her anti-slavery novel ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’. A little known fact that has been lost to time and ignorance is that Henson was a runaway slave.

According to Henson’s account of his life, he had in fact been loyal to the man who owned him, a white man named Isaac Riley. He was so trusted that Riley appointed Henson to the position of plantation manager. At some point during his enslavement on the Riley plantation, Henson broke his arm while protecting Riley during a physical altercation, his arm never properly healed and left it somewhat deformed.

Sometime in the 1840’s Riley went bankrupt and sent his slaves – including Henson, to be in the service of his brother in Kentucky. As the slaves were crossing into Ohio, which was a free state, members of the party refused to proceed onto Kentucky because, technically, they were free. Henson, alone with his wife, continued on to Kentucky. At some point he returned to Maryland where he asked Riley for his freedom, Riley said no. Henson and his wife then escaped to Canada. It is there that Henson founded an all black settlement called Dawn. Its purpose was to be a place where fugitive slaves could get a brand new start.

Not content with the thought that he was free and his people were not, Henson returned to the United States where he was an active member of the Underground Railroad. Henson is said to have helped countless numbers of slaves escape the south and enter the free north.

Deeply moved by Henson’s account of his life, Harriet Beecher Stowe traveled to Canada and interviewed Henson for an anti-slavery novel she was working on. In her book “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” Stowe’s protagonist dies after receiving a beating for being disobedient to his master. Stowe’s book would eventually go on to sell over 300, 000 copies. It was a book that was celebrated in the north and reviled in the south.

Sometime in the 1900’s is when Henson’s character in ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ would be twisted by black leaders who called any black person who disagreed with their solution to black people’s plight an Uncle Tom.

In the 60’s the definition of an Uncle Tom got even more twisted, any black person who ‘spoke white’ or who had high aspirations was called an Uncle Tom. To some twisted people the mere act of smiling in agreement with a white person is grounds for that person to be called an Uncle Tom.

By this definition a black bank clerk who does their job extremely well can be called an Uncle Tom by the black sanitation worker who doesn’t like the way the black bank clerk spoke to him.

At one point Malcolm X called Ralph Bunche, Thurgood Marshall, Roy Innis and every other civil rights leader on the other side of Elijah Muhammad an Uncle Tom.

Sidney Poitier, Sammy Davis Jr and many other black stars in the 60’s were also called Uncle Tom’s by radical blacks.

As loved and revered as Dr. Martin Luther King is in the black community, when he was of this Earth, he too was called an Uncle Tom, not just by radical blacks, but by Northern blacks who lived in ghettoes like Chicago, New York and Detroit. In the documentary "Eyes on the Prize" there is a scene where Dr. King is on a street corner in New York and a young brother tells him, "Yeah, well, we ain't goin' for that non-violent stuff up here, this is New York, that ain't happenin' here." King was not fully embraced in the North when he was alive.

In the 90’s MC Hammer was called an Uncle Tom because, well, we just didn’t like him.

Mind you some of those that are often called Uncle Tom’s have been termed that because their motives were under suspicion. Like Ward Connerly for instance, in the 90’s he took up the fight against Affirmative Action because he, in his heart of hearts, thought that it was wrong that Blacks be afforded special privileges because of our skin color, and that we ought to be judged by the same standards as everyone else. To some degree he was correct. But what was lost in his argument was that Black people, because of racism are at a disadvantage in getting jobs, housing and bank loans.

Connerly, because of his efforts, was seen as being accommodating to whites, he knowingly played into the hands of California’s then right wing, arch-conservative Republican governor Pete Wilson.

Connerly fought against the better interests of his people.

There is no doubt that Josiah Henson had been accommodating to the white man who owned him. At that time disobedience could earn the slave the stinging lash of the whip. The smartest slaves learned how to maneuver their way around the people who owned them so that they could escape the repercussions of brutal corporal punishment. Henson extolled certain virtues that made him a leader: loyalty, courage, strength of spirit and forth-rightness. He stood as a man for what he knew to be right. And he did something that only the bravest of us would dare to do: He risked his own life to help free his people.

Nowhere in his account or in anyone else’s account of his life, is Henson seen as a buck dancing, 29 teeth showing, handkerchief head-wearing, stooped over, 'happy-to-see-you-massa-suh' buffoon. Contrast that with today’s gold teeth-capped, wild-haired, buck-dancing, ‘they-ain’t-tryin’-to-give-a- nigga-shit’ buffoons, and you tell me who the Tom is.