So yesterday I made my debut on NPR, on the show Tell Me More with Michel Martin. The specific segment was called The Barbershop, and it's hosted by Jimi Izrael.
Now Michel Martin is sort of an Oprah-esque major media player; her resume includes stints at The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and ABC News. She's won an Emmy, and recently held a panel spot on Bill Maher's show Politically Incorrect (which, incidentally, is probably the best show on television). And she's now running a major show/operation on NPR that's relevant, entertaining, and spicier than some of the blander programming you get on public talk radio.
Jimi Izrael is a guy I've connected with in the last few months, he's a fantastic, no-holds-barred writer who has done Fox News, and has bylines from pubs like the Los Angeles Times and Salon. And he's been holding down this Barbershop feature which he describes as "history in the making."
So needless to say these are two people I'm trying to be down with. Besides just being good network resources, they're two original assimilated negroes who have come through the system and done their thing. Independent of the contacts, they have wisdom and experience to relay to a young bruh coming up in the game....
All of this is to say, I wanted to make an impression with my NPR debut. The segment itself ends up being cut down to 13-15 minutes, so even more than impressing the audience, I wanted Michel and Jimi to feel they had a new weapon in the arsenal.
Of course this begs the question: what kind of weapon is TAN? Which, as this blog recently completed its second year in existence (more on the 2nd TANniversary later), is a question I'm thinking about constantly. I don't want to belabor the question right now, but suffice to say I think currently, as a weapon, in most cases, and certainly in recent cases, my role is to provide a unique perspective, one that encompasses race, either explicitly or implicitly, and hopefully a modicum of intelligence and entertainment value. The entertainment most likely being of the humorous variety. (Of course this is all speculative, and accomplished to varying degrees of failure)
So in the morning we get an email briefing on the subjects we'll be discussing: OJ, Isiah, Jena 6, and some ridiculous story about a councilman wanting to legislate against baggy pants.
For the show I made up a couple of index cards with notes and touchpoints on the topics for discussion, here's what I came in with (and since this is just about the NPR experience, I may flesh out some of the thoughts in later posts):
OJ The Hero: Just like NPR needs flavor from The Barbershop I think The Barbershop needs to show some compassion for their people. OJ doesn't need jail, he needs love. He needs his momma, and a year's supply of warm milk and honey to be served with accompanying strokes to the head.
-- Why can't we separate the man from the book/tv movie/media story. He was not born with an NFL contract. Anyone coming up in the 40s 50s, who was black, contracted rickets, and given the name Orenthal ... you're already thinking life is over. No one loves you. And its true! To have that all turned around because you run with a football, and fall down the steps in a wheelchair in hilarious fashion, thats sort of deep.
-- Add on the interracial relationship, which always brings issues, and being the subject of the Trial of the Century, and the fact that OJ Simpson is clearly insane comes as no surprise to me.
-- Why do we hold the bar so high on OJ, this is a guy who was caught pirating cable.
-- I think of OJ as a black-american hero. This is part of progress. You have to take your OJ with your Obama. When Martin and the boys started fighting for our rights, they didn't get to speculate on how we might get a lil crazy once we get in the mix, but here it is: OJ, Michael Jackson, R Kelly; these guys are trailblazers. Maybe the faces for our own F'd Up-&-Black Mount Rushmore. More than a black story, OJ feels like an American story, and its nice for us to be a part of that.
Isiah Case: Isiah's got 99 Problems, and that B is the first one.
-- I don't even know how it got this far. The most recent testimony -- and first from the defense witnesses -- indicates she was clearly fired for incompetence. Something she apparently even declared herself, citing she had "lost the confidence of her staff."
-- In which case, I ain't saying she a golddigger, but she ain't suing no broke brothers (like me or Jimi).
-- On the race issue, if we can get the ladies to lighten up on "the b-word" aspect, I commend Isiah for keeping it real, and telling the truth in a situation where he didn't need such candor, and could be deemed stupid to provide such candor; but the truth is what was being requested of him, and he provided it. This is no different than the n-word, and guess what? There is a double standard. I didn't institute it, nor did Isiah, but it exists. There is a distinction between a black person using the b-word (or the n-word), and a white person using it. No need to draw a bunch of other conclusions out of that, it is what it is. America is nothing, if not a country run on unleaded double standards.
Jena 6: Maybe I'm pathetic, but honestly I'm not in a tizzy over the Jena 6 situation. This feeling comes primarily because I feel The South is still on some other ish (dogfighting anyone?), and is therefore not representative of any sort of mainstream sensibility. I liken this to an outbreak of some old weird strain of racist virus, and perhaps the town needs to be quarantined. And I certainly take heart in black people taking action and coming together for a positive cause they believe in ... but I don't consider this a new "Civil Rights Movement." We have our civil rights, fyi.
Saggy Pants: This is ridiculous. Straight legislated racism. And whoever has the time to come up with a bill or government action of any sort related to sagging, baggy pants needs to get some time off from the job to get their priorities in order. What are they gonna do next, say we can't get Magnum XL's anymore?
So that's what I came in with in terms of my angles, and potential sound bytes. Which was how I was thinking about the show; less conversation, more just getting off an interesting take on the news story we're discussing. And you'll notice I brought more on OJ and Isiah, this is because they had been talking about Jena 6 the last couple weeks, so I figured that would be a quick-hitter, and of course the saggy pants story has no legs (oh!).
To my surprise we lead off with Jena 6, and Jimi, the host, passes me the rock first. I set it off with my "I'm not in a tizzy" take and we're underway. There's some disagreement with my seeming apathy -- of course -- and I don't think I did a good job of conveying what I do like about the Jena 6 rallying, but it's not that long a show. And I also wanted to convey my distrust in Al Sharpton, specifically in terms of leading a movement that also incorporates the opinions of young black people. In the end, Jimi -- who sort of puts a final stamp on each of the subjects as we discuss -- agreed with me, and expressed the ambivalence of not wanting to make too big a deal out of it, but yet and still wanting to support and show love for the spirit of it all, much better than I did.
Next subject is OJ. And the other guys on the panel (Terrance Harris, Arsalan Iftikhar) hold court before me, and as far as I'm concerned, they set me up pretty nicely. They're sort of bashing OJ, as everyone is, and declaring his stupidity, and ignorance, and misguided arrogance etc, and all of that plays well with my contrarian "Can't we show OJ some love..." take. The "warm milk and honey" line got a reaction, but as I was trying to get into OJ: The Man vs. OJ: The Target/Story, someone, I think Arsalan, starts talking over me and jumping the gun about OJ's career etc. These are all quick, tight takes, and since we're all in different locations patched in, Jimi generally orchestrates by calling someone out and cuing them to speak. As a first-timer I was specifically reminded to not talk over folks, and the show is clearly not set-up ideally for real point/counter-point type of debate. So for me, this was annoying, and was probably the first sign of turbulence with the flight.
But I should say, I'm not really shaking-my-fist upset with Arsalan (or whomever) about being talked over, i.e. I can see if you don't like OJ, and someone says he should get warm milk and honey, you might get riled up and need to interject. Especially if you're smart and think you can anticipate where i'm going (incidentally, I never got to premise my OJ-as-black-american Hero/sign of progress idea, and I don't think anyone would have anticipated that). But first time on the show, and unsure of how to handle the back-and-forth aspect, it took me off my game a little bit.
And to this point, my game was not air-tight, but I'd say I was playing like a talented rookie in his first game, showing a little something, holding his own, but lacking the poise and confidence that comes from experience.
AnyOJ, then we get to the Isiah Thomas story ... or really, for what its become recently, the "who you callin' a b*tch?" story. And this is where we really lose altitude.
Funny enough, I was actually looking forward to the Isiah subject. While I thought my OJ take was most representative of what I'd like to put out as "TAN" -- a slightly amusing contrarian position that cuts to what we're about as people as opposed to media stories and sound bytes -- the Isiah case was where I felt the most conviction in terms of going against the major tide of opinion. This woman, in my estimation, was clearly a gold digger, and the media had clearly been irresponsible with the "who you callin' a B?" angle. Isiah never suggested that anyone should call a woman a B, he just acknowledged that he sees a distinction when a black person says it and a white person says it.
This is easily, but irresponsibly, spun into "Isiah condones calling girls B's." Plus Isiah makes an easy target; he has a history of asshole and bullying behavior, and has generally been a tremendous failure in his role managing and coaching the New York Knicks.
So this was the subject where I came in with a really canned line (see above: 99 Problems ...). And its kind of ironic, because I thought it was hilarious, and in its way accurate (he does have many other problems! but this B is the main one right now!), but its actually the one line I sort of
So when the rock comes my way again I lead with my 99 problems line, and then clumsily segue into the race/double-standard element. And the combination of the line being TOTALLY not appropriate for this setting, plus me defending the sticky issue of who can use slurs and epithets and such, definitely caused an immediate hubbub as we recorded. And the fact that we were recording for a later broadcast (or posting) was made very clear when Michel asked me to re-do my take on Isiah. And then obstinate ignoramus that I am, in my head I'm like, "yeah, she probably just wants a cleaner take on that 99 Problems line... its soooo on the money for this story." So I do the same take again, with minor tweakings that serve only to clarify my total obliviousness to the real matter at hand.
Michel, in her interjection, complained about my use of "jargon" and explained that it seemed I was condoning calling this women a B. Which I guess, I was (though I didn't use the word). And thought I had the right to do. The jargon part, she directly tied-in with my use of the word "MSG" when referencing Madison Square Garden executives. Which in hindsight I think is being a little nit-picky, I mean we were talking about Isiah Thomas coach of the Knicks who play at MSG, if someone somehow thinks I'm talking about monosodium glutamate, I think they must have chinese food on the brain and I can't do anything about that. So I sort of wrap that all up in the same, "who you callin' a B?" headwrap. What's funny to me now is I feel the same way Isiah got caught up, I was caught up. In fact, in my defense of him I sort of feel like Isiah set me up for a fall. And I'm considering suing him for a few million dollars.
So following that, the other guys got to jump on my needing-a-retake carcass, and I don't even remember what they said. Surely something about how black women are wonderful and beautiful and how no one white, black, or female dog, deserves to be called a B. Which, you know, I agree with. Really! Especially the dogs.
From there we moved on to the Saggy Jeans story. I gave a quick take on that. I did get in the Magnum XL line, which I don't even know if anyone heard, which is probably for the best. I could literally feel the heat and anger rising through the headphones at this point.
After we closed it out, there was a long extended silence where I can only imagine Michel and the producers were wondering where Jimi dug up the women-hating, oj-loving, racist jargon-user. To add just a little icing on top, at this point I thought I could only be heard by the engineer (who was sweet and wonderful) so I say to her via a mix of exhaling and exclaiming, "wow, someone really didn't like me!" And right after that Michel and Jimi pop in my ear again, clearly still patched in, and Michel, whose voice never changed or wavered -- calm pro that she is -- just explained the jargon part to me again. While Jimi -- boisterous pro that he is -- was a little more animated and expressive in his apparent displeasure. "oh man, wait until I call you .." was the last thing I heard from him, until he called me later in the day to provide the fodder for the title you see at the top of this post.
When Jimi and I spoke prior to the show -- in the bold, alpha-male, nuts-on-the-table manner in which young confident black guys speak with each other on business and "power moves" -- he repeatedly joked with me about "Crashing and Burning" in my first NPR splash. Of course he was recruiting me to be down, and its no secret for most who know me, that I'm not lacking in confidence, especially with regards to articulating opinions and doing this sort of thing that I do. So it was a funny sort of rapport. And I enjoyed the challenge of it.
Somehow it also reinforced the synergy of what I thought The Barbershop is about. Bringing the bold, unabashedly brazen opinions that you might find voiced in your average negro barbershop, to National Public Radio. Barbershops don't mince words, or worry about PC presentation, they deal in truth (and haircuts!). The description of Tell Me More reads "Grounded in lively interviewing and compelling storytelling, the program seeks to present diverse new voices, cross borders, challenge conventional wisdom and discover how other people think."
That makes a lot of sense to me as a guide for programming, and is also the sort of thing that interests me personally. So when Jimi called me later and asked what I thought of how I did, I told him, more or less, that I felt I was a diverse new voice, that crossed borders, and challenged conventional wisdom, in order to show another way to think on these subjects ... but that I lacked polish, specifically in defending some of my unconventional points.
He thought that was "a nice way to put it." Which it was. And we proceeded to speak frankly on the matter.
As an assimilated professional, of course I know there's a difference between the barbershop in your hood, and The Barbershop on NPR. This whole TAN brand is invested in that difference, that line, and somehow, someway trying to tiptoe across it, with feet in both spots, all the while hopefully facilitating some cross-pollination, that not only helps my wallet, but also helps people, especially those on opposite ends of the culture spectrum, understand each other. Perhaps finding that line to be a communal meeting point, instead of a divisive line of demarcation.
When I fail in this realm, I suspect it's because at heart, I don't believe in the line. I don't believe in censorship. I believe that if you take two people, and sit them down, one-on-one, and somehow get them to feel comfortable, the particular manifestations of language affectation and such become very much beside the point. In the end -- and perhaps to the fulfillment of my own end -- I think everyone just needs some warm, milk and honey. OJ, Michael Richards, Michael Vick, the Jena 6, the gold digger, etc ... not to be all Oprah-esque, but the throughline and connective thread for all of us is this quest for love and appreciation. We just want ot be understood, and LOVED, differences and all.
So while I'm incredibly disappointed in myself for not putting my best foot forward; when I think about the other ways to do it, I don't know, I think I did the best I could for the situation. It feels like I could have come in there and hum-drummed my way through the conventional wisdom on these stories. Kept it very professional .. and clean. But I don't believe, at heart, in "professional" and "clean." I believe in truth, in all its multi-dimensional, unexpected, homicidal, insane and sickly glory. Professional and Clean are jobs. They have nothing to do with truth. They are a demand and an obligation, and if you choose to abide, you will make money. And if not, well, crash and learn.
So I've learned here. Certainly. If given another take, I'd know where to soften the language and make sure I have my supporting logic properly itemized and ready. I know how the game works. But in terms of that guiding mantra for "Tell Me More," lack of polish aside, I think I'm the person who most lived up to the billing.
Now I've heard these Barbershop participants talk in previous shows, so I know they're probably just saying what they feel, not necessarily kowtowing to the mainstream opinion. But with these particular stories, I was the only person offering some different takes. Offering "more," if you will. In my haste I may have served the plate without proper garnish and style -- and that does matter to diners! -- but if the restaurant specializes in keeping the buffet diverse, I would be incredibly disappointed if I was removed from the menu.
Or in other words: I have 99 problems, I hope a B ain't one.
(ugh! Maybe I can just hire someone to shoot my hands right before I invariably write (or say) the one line that ruins everything. Applications being accepted now. B's welcome.)