Wednesday, March 29, 2006

On (not) blogging + BET's DL Exposed + Harmonica Sunbeam

For whatever reason, I've found it difficult to resume my blogging, which I felt was getting a bit ragged and mechanical as approached my year-long/365 post goal (it's now a year and almost a month, and 387 posts). I almost feel as if I used up the last bit of my non-assigned (for my creative work) mental fuel in my end-of-term reading and grading and I haven't yet been able to restore it. My usual methods, which include

  • hanging out with friends;
  • chatting on the phone with friends;
  • reading for enjoyment (sporadically up to the last few days, though I have started my 6-month project of reading notable American novels that I'd either never read, skimmed or basically forgotten with Sinclair Lewis's satire Babbitt, which I hope to write about on here at some future point);
  • listening to music (every day);
  • city strolling (I've only done this a few times);
  • going to look at art or making it (I haven't done this yet, though the Basquiat, Goldin, and many other shows are up now);
  • movie-watching (I have watched Junebug [charming and quite good] and Palindromes [perverse and provocative] so far);
  • gardening (still too cold but I hope to start later this week);
  • avoiding TV (unlikely);

and so on, haven't worked so far. I can talk about things with C., but when I get ready to write about them on this blog, they vanish. But then I also think that in part I'm still trying to readjust to my new sabbatical schedule. It still doesn't seem real (and certain university duties, such as reading graduate students' work, supervising my honors literature student's brilliant essay, and responding to departmental and program projects, continue sabbatical or not). But it is, and while I have been able to resume my creative work (and I do want to say something down the road about the tensions between creative work, teaching and administrative duties), I guess it will take a little longer for me to fully step back into this particular theater.


BET SpecialLast night, C. and I cut back and forth between a reality show (The Amazing Race) and a surreally bad one, BET's "News Special," "The Down Low Exposed." Produced by J.L. King, this show, which as C. said is easily several years too late, demonstrated evidence from start to finish of the controversial author's imprint. First there were its numerous sensationally presented, faulty premises, such as

  • that the "down low" is a unique or coherent or uniquely American and African-American phenomenon
  • that the "down low" is a discrete "lifestyle" (or "life style" [sic]), or that there is one bisexual, homosexual, transgender, etc., "lifestyle"
  • that Black men were the only ones on this putative "down low"
  • that Black men on the "down low" were the primary vectors for the spread of HIV to Black women and to everyone else that they had sex with
  • that they were somehow "to blame" for the spread of HIV/AIDS
  • that the spread of HIV/AIDS could be viewed irrespective of any larger social context except the Black church
  • that unprotected male same sex (and in particular, rape) in prison was a central cause of HIV/AIDS seroconversion among Black women
  • that bisexuality and homosexuality were either discrete identities and yet were the same thing

and on and on. So it went with this sorry spectacle, which ignored the larger social context of the closet, the long-demonstrated actuality of complex sexual identities and performances, and the agency of women or people in general. For the most part, it, like King, was interested in pathologizing Black men's behavior and talking in reductive, simplistic, sensationalist terms, which of course sell books and draw viewers. King, BET and whoever else was involved in this mess did have the sense to include voices of sanity and clarity, including Dr. David Malebranche (it was great seeing David puncture the balloon of nonsense that the show kept inflating as soon it started up after each commercial break), Dr. Robert Fullilove, Phill Wilson, an Atlanta sgl preacher whose name escapes me, and several unidentified (would it have been so hard to give everyone on screen's name, BET?) speakers.

But then there was beret-sporting author Terri McMillan, giving what she claimed was her "last" but of course very necessary interview on her failed marriage to Jonathan Plummer. She left out neither her deranged facial expressions nor her spite, and as was the case during her appearance on Oprah Winfrey's show, she made sure that she had to be seen as a victim, underlining the fact she'd been sued by her ex-husband and that for the "last year" she'd been agonizing about her health. Any discussion of the fact her role in marrying a 21-year-old confused, foreign man, her early suspicions about his sexuality, her artistic and financial profit from the story of their lives, or anything else was again absent.

As for King himself, I can't say I got a clear answer on anything from him (not that I was expecting one), except that he still buys into retrograde, heteronormative ideas about sexuality, identities and identifications, and relationships, and was probably laughing all the way to the bank (or his online bank statements) this morning. (After he participated in BET's online DL Chat, that is...please, J.L. King, stop it!) But then did I really expect anything more from BET? Of course not. Instead, I have to ask, can someone please make an accessible TV-ready show or documentary, drawing upon the collective genius and wisdom contained in We'll Take Tomorrow, to counter the crapola that this show represented? Maybe a foundation can even pay (for) BET/Viacom to run it...

Harmonica Sunbeam
Frank Léon Roberts
highlights the ongoing health struggles performer and longtime club MC Harmonica Sunbeam is facing these days. Frank links to her blog, where Harmonica notes that she's had to discontinue her tea-dance hosting at New York's La (Nueva) Escuelita because of a recent very difficult 8-month HIV/AIDS-related health crisis.

Sunbeam is one of my favorite club hostesses, and whenever I hear her name, I always recall a night about five or six ago at the Octagon when, to the strains of the remixed theme from Spiderman, she gave one of her unforgettable performances, which included a money-collection moment that was unforgettable. As a plastic sand bucket lowered on a rope from a balcony to the dance-floor level C., friends and I were standing on, Harmonica Sunbeam began rhythmically chanting "That's right, uh huh, uh huh," to the beat, and the coins and dollar bills began flowing, and flowing, and flowing... That same night, she also introduced a skit, performed by denizens of the club, which excerpted scenes from the Steven Spielberg-directed film version of Alice Walker's acclaimed novel The Color Purple! You had to see it to believe it--and only in a Black gay club, chile!

Like many who've enjoyed her humor and distinctively legendary realness over the years, from her days featuring those Coke bottle-bottom glasses (as Sheila Noxema, thanks Larry!) to her recent pastel-wigged glamor, I'm wishing her a complete recovery, and look forward to her return, with even more vigor and fierceness, to the dance floors of New York and other cities across the country and the globe.

If you want to drop her an inspirational note, you can do so here.


  1. Might it also be seasonal?

    I'm having problems crafting blog posts. In part, I've been working on deadlines (still am) but also, it just seems to take a different kind of writing mojo.

    I'm finally reading Ben Okri's Famished Road (only ten years after the fact). I'm entranced. Quite.

    And I absolutely want to blog on Yambo Ouologuem's Bound to Violence, but I don't want my diss work to bleed onto my blog, at least not in obvious ways. It's so good. So very good. Well, so bad that it's good. Okay, will stop babbling like a fool.

  2. Keguro, whenever I check out your blog, I find daily, lyrical posts that never fail to get (and keep) me thinking. How do you do it? I agree with you about both Okri's novel and Ouologuem's, which I read almost as if in a trance when I was in my early 20s (and had other things I supposed to be reading).

  3. John, I guess you're experiencing what I'm going thru right now. A while back you've encouraged me to blog more. Believe me, I do want to (and I actually have the time at hand) but somehow have simply not found the wherewithal to resume it beyond the sporadic. As Keguro said, it takes a different kind of mojo and I can't quite put my finger on it. I've stopped beating myself up over it but look forward to hearing any suggestions!

  4. So you watched Palindromes? I'm a huge fan of Todd Solondz. My favorite is Storytelling.

  5. As I haven't been reading your blog for the entire 387+ days, I've enjoyed seeing some of the past posts. And the 3/29/06 was one of your many 3-fers (3 for 1) so I'm thinking you're doing fine, considering all your advising (which is not the same as course work but depending on the work, the student, and your commitment can eat up an similar amount of time and focus), and creative work. I appreciate your desire to "keep on keepin' on". And I am so sick of J.L. King thanks for writing about the show. I just read Joy Jones's "Marriage Is for White People" from the Washington Post which cites the DL as one of the numerous reasons why black women are ambivalent about marriage (to black men, who are the only spouses under consideration): "in an era of brothers on the "down low," the spread of sexually transmitted diseases...linking one's fate to a man makes marriage a risky business for a black woman." No mention of the homophobia and lack of sex education in communities and churches that maintains these dynamics.

  6. J.

    I took a hiatus too also J (been a corporate monkey lately, plus a dissertation mental meltdown followed by a little encouragement, and stumbled up on the beginnings of a black on black male relationship -- haven't had one of them in a while, so blogging heaven will have to wait for a second). And this was after my first consistent 3 months. I can't imagine going at your pace with all you are doing for one year, so please don't be too hard on yourself. Take a rest. It will give me a chance to catch up on reading your stuff.

    You are my blogging role model.

  7. Oh,

    I almost forgot. I too have a Harmonica Sunbeam moment. It was at the Octagon too. She did a rendention of TLC's "Scrubs" but re-worked the lyrics to talk about gay men that have not come out of the closet. She was not menancing or judgemental, but it was shady none-the-less. She sung in this simple flat voice inflected only by boy-in-drags kind of non-verbal communitive tones that made it even more adorable.

    Then the beats kicked in, the white ice smoke dropped, and that big dark skinned brother with light eyes that was there every weekend began to scream, which then made the small of my back tingle. You remember that guy? He always wore a club shirt just a bit to tight for his torso. He loved the colour purple I think. Or was it white T-Shirts?

    It was a hot night.

    It was like church.

    It was a hot church.

    I miss Octagon.

  8. i feel you, man. of late, i've become convinced that princeton but a hex on my blogging. it believes it has a monopoly on my creative energies and certainly on my writing!

    in other world news, i too am saddened by the harmonica news. so many of us jersey boys share the memory of being under 18 and not yet "out", whisked into escuelita by our city-savvy friends. huddled on the floor or near a speaker... trying to get close enough to enjoy harmonica in all of her glory but keep enough distance to avoid becoming part of her act!! and sheila noxema? legendary.