Friday, January 21, 2011

The meaning of life

I hate getting up early in the morning for class.  If there’s a reason for an early arrival to awake-dom, then I’m all for it. I’ll get up at 430 in the morning and operate on 4 hours of sleep to get to the airport.  I’ll get up at 330 to begin an 8 hour car ride for vacation. But I hate, absolute abhor, getting up at 630 or beyond to go to [shudders] class.

At least I did. Then I bought a TV for my bedroom, and suddenly the world made sense again at 630 in the morning. 

It’s something of a ritual of mine to roll over, beat my alarm senseless, flick on the light and immediately turn on the news. It gets me all riled up in the morning and makes me feel…well…alive. This morning, for instance, I watched a story on CNN about former Senator Rick Santorum.  They discussed a report in which the former senator stated that in the face of his views of civil rights, President Obama’s stance on abortion was “remarkable for a black man.” Hmm…Didn’t I just talk about this in my Dr. MLK blog post? I believe I did.

The former senator then goes on to say that he does not believe that “you’ll find a biologist in the world who will say that is not a human life,” in reference to a fetus.  Now, I’m a biologist. I spend my working days with biologists. And I can say for a fact that I’ve heard it a time or two where a fellow biologist has indicated that a fetus is not a person.  Now, the former senator has done something quite interesting here – which is why I both love and hate politicians. They are like the Fae in how they tell a lie.  

How do we define life? As an undergraduate, I encountered professors both young and old that had no set definition for “life," and it was actually the topic of debate in class one spring day.  I would say that we encounter “life” when we encounter a living cell, but that is my definition.   A fetus is comprised of living cells and, as a result of my current definition, a fetus constitutes life because it is a comprised of living cells.  But what is life to someone that is not a scientist? For those people of the world that haven't chosen to pursue scienece, life is often synonymous with “personhood” so to speak. So, for former senator Santorum to come forward and say that he wouldn’t “find a biologist in the world who will say that is not a human life” is not necessarily a lie, but it’s so far from the truth it might as well be. Asking someone to define life is like asking a person to define love.

BUT, the point of this post is not to debate what constitutes life, what makes a person a person, or even whether or not abortion is right or wrong.  The point of this post is to discuss the use of the “[insert adjective here] for a [insert race here] person” formula. The point of this post is to discuss, yet again, why the use of such language – while fully endorsed by our first amendment rights – is just flat out wrong.  I would hope that a former senator of the friggin United States of America would understand that, but sadly he apparently does not. (Watch out kids! He’s slated to run for president in 2012.)   

Why isn’t it enough that the President fights for civil rights? Why couldn’t Santorum have stated that President Obama’s stance on abortion was “remarkable given that he advocates for the civil rights of all people?” Why does the fact that he’s a black man have anything to do with it? I say this, because a statement such as the one uttered by Santorum makes it seem as if black people are the only ones that should care about civil rights. Would he have said President Hu’s stance on abortion (whatever it may be) was “remarkable for a Chinese man?” I don’t know. 

Maybe the problem is me. Maybe I’m just supposed to accept the use of the insert adjective/insert race formula and turn a blind eye to it.  Maybe I’m just making a “big deal” out of it.  Ha! As if I ever would!
This wouldn’t bother me so much if it was a small isolated incident, but we hear it everywhere we turn.  Remember “Barack, The Magic Negro?” Remember Senator Harry Reid’s comments about the world being ready for a “light skinned” black President with no “Negro dialect?” Remember Vice President Biden’s comments about the president being the “first mainstream African American that was articulate and bright and clean?” Naturally Vice President Biden said those words were taken out of context. And Senator Harry Reid apologized. And the esteemed leaders of our nation expressed the appropriate disapproval of that magical song. 

How about you just not do/say/engage in this offensive shit in the first place?  How many times are we supposed to sit back and accept it when people say "it's just a joke," or "I'm sorry, I didn't mean it?"

And since you care so much about civil rights former senator Santorum – are you also going to begin advocating for gay marriage? A right that, in my opinion, is a right that belongs to anyone that lays claim to it.

I also looked up the definition of life for my own edification. This is what I and my good friend Merriam found.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

I speak, therefore I am....speaking.

At the putrescently senescent age of 23, I sit in my rocking chair (okay really, my desk chair in lab) and continue to ask myself “what do you want to be when you grow up?” My mother used to ask me, whenever I had a ½ midlife crisis (which was any day that ended in ‘Y’) “what would you do if you could do anything, and didn’t have to worry about making duckets?” (That’s a direct quote, I swear! Also, for those of you that aren’t as down as my mother is, duckets = money. Oh, and down=cool). I told her then that I would either teach or write. Today, I feel so far removed from my desire to teach that I’d rather write. And hopefully teach through writing.  I wonder why I thought one was somehow exclusive of the other.
          I had yet another invigorating discussion yesterday evening with my roommate (from henceforth referred to as R. Matey) about language and how it is used to define who we are. How one speaks is often associated with how intelligent they are, where they come from, and – unfortunately – their status in society, so to speak.  I’ve been told on multiple occasions by people from all walks of life that I (here comes another direct quote) “sound like a white girl.” R. Matey brought this up in our freakin’ awesome pad yesterday evening.  She has the honor of teaching a cultural anthropology course at our institution and the issues of language and race were brought up during discussion.  Apparently, one of the students was frustrated by the fact that speaking “standard” English was associated with “sounding white” whilst (yes, whilst) anything else was associated with “sounding black.”

                This, dear readers, is an age old story that refers to a war that has been waged on our shores for as long as I can remember. My generation has lost many warriors in its salient fight against the destruction of English. Texting, Facebook, Twitter and the like are just the tip of the iceberg in what I like to call “technowarfare.”  This young lady brings up an interesting point. I’ve heard it all my life, now this woman (who I assume is younger than me) faces it as well –“why do you talk like that?” When I was growing up, I felt like I didn’t fit in with my extended family because I would always get that question. “Why do you sound like a white girl?” It pains me even now. I didn’t fit in with many of my peers in college because they felt, on some level, that I thought of myself as better than them. At 23, I still suffer from those feelings of never quite measuring up to anyone’s “standard”. I’m always too much of something for some circles or not enough of anything for others. Either way, I’m usually on the outside looking in.

Why is it so wrong to enjoy stringing together (what I consider to be) a properly structured sentence? With enjoying the sound of words like “putrescence” and “polyglot” as they roll across the tongue like fine (or even cheap, which is all I can afford and have no clue what fine is) wine? Why, with all of the words at our disposal, should I be left to say things like “it’s going bad” and “he knows a lot of foreign words and stuff?”  What’s more, why is it so common within our society and cultural circles to refer to “standard” English as the “white” sound? As luck or misfortune would have it, these sorts of distinctions run rampant in every cultural circle known to man!  I don’t get it. I fear I never will. I speak because I have a voice to do so. And when I do so, I sound like 100% pure USDA NeuroScienceGeek (more geek than neuroscience these days, but, alas (that’s right, alas), I digress).

                Yes, I AM upset. I know you’re thinking to yourself at this very moment – this girl’s got nothing better to do than complain about language. But, in my defense, I love the way language can both mold us and set us free.  I love that Edgar Allan Poe was able to bring such rhythm and such fluidity to the realms of poetry and short story writing (Annabel Lee anyone? Quoth “The Raven” shall I? Is that a hideous heart I hear?).  Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman” was perhaps the first poem that I fell in love with. I had no idea what “diamonds at the meeting of my thighs” meant when I was 8, but damn it I knew I had them! And, ladylike though I may be, I love the way successful, ahem, “oath swearing” can make a statement exponentially more powerful.

                So, yes, I AM upset. Speaking or writing in a structured form is not analogous to “sounding white” for those of us that aren’t white. It is not done to somehow denote someone’s status in society. We do not speak it so that we can “sound” smart.  It is done because it is beautiful. When we include tones, sounds, vernaculars, etc that are associated with where we are and where we came from it becomes even more beautiful! So please, dear reader, go forth – I beg of you – and find a word today that makes your heart swell, string together a sentence that will make the earth shake (not literally though, that sort of power could be dangerous), and, for the love of Pete and all that is holy, write something. WRITE ANYTHING. And I don’t mean string together a few SMH’s, LOL’s, and ITGTSSBAIDY2SSAI’S.  I mean sit down and write a letter to someone you love. Write a story (flash fiction, short story or otherwise) that tells your story as it is or as you intend it to be. Maybe the weight of the world will be lifted from your shoulders, if only for a day. And, if that doesn’t work, maybe you’ll find joy in writing the way your write, or in speaking the way you speak. It, like a fingerprint, is yours and yours alone. Whether it measures up to anyone’s definition of “standard” or not.   

                Like I said in my previous post, words have power. Thanks to Mr. Kemosabe (aka Google) I learned that today is the 50th anniversary of JFK’s inaugural address.  Just listen to his speech and you’ll surely understand.  The words he spoke inspired me and, like many, I wondered how he would’ve changed the world had he not been taken from us before his time.    I wonder why we do not celebrate him and what he stood for nationally….

This speech, like so many others, is why I choose to speak English as it was taught to me, and why you should find your voice and wield it with all of the dignity and responsibility that it is due. Forgive me if that makes me “sound white” or somehow makes you feel like less of a person because you don’t do it too. Consider “standard” English my form of vernacular speech.  And, as this post comes to an overdue close, think about how something as simple as a sentence – the way it’s uttered, the way it’s shaped, the way it is wielded – can have such a profound effect on something as explosive as race, as beautiful as self-acceptance and as  dangerous as life (and the  losses therein).

So, Mother Dear, I think I finally have an answer to your question. I want to be a writer when I grow up, whenever that may be. I want to embrace the English language that you and Father Dear so painstakingly taught me and use it to reach whoever I may reach, and teach whoever I may teach.

And thanks again, R. Matey, for inspiring yet another post. 

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Happy birthday Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. You fought so that I would not have to.

For reasons that will remain undisclosed (sounds nefarious right?) I was liberated from my lab at an early, also nefariously undisclosed hour. Fully intending to arrive at my humble dwelling and instantly begin reading for my classes, I spent about 2.5 hours chatting with my roommate.  We always have very interesting conversations to say the least. We talked about a wide range of things from politics to the economic crisis in the US to hair to race relations (both in my country and her home of Singapore) to education.  Our conversation made me evaluate for the hundredth time whether or not I’ve chosen the right career for myself (but that’s a post for another day).

                For those of you who don’t know, have forgotten or have chosen to ignore it – we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday on Monday, though his actual birthday is today – January 15. I noticed as I navigated my way through the deep and murky mire of science over the past week, that many people simply did not remember that Dr. MLK’s birthday was indeed upon us. Does it make me sad? A little bit. I don’t blame them though. It’s not their fault that we don’t celebrate culture and history the way that we should. It’s not their fault that we don’t talk about race relations in this country and many others as much as we should or even in the ways that we should. It’s everyone’s fault, including mine, that, often, discussions of race get swept under the rug.

                I opened this post by sharing that I’d recently had a very long, very thorough conversation with my roommate – who is from Singapore.  I shared with her, as I have done many times in the past, stories about what it has been like for me to grow up as a black person in the United States of America – I told her about why I’ve chosen to loc my hair, why black women began straightening their hair in the first place, why it’s so difficult for me to ignore the explosive racial politics of this country and, more importantly, what it’s been like for me to interact with people of my own race in this country.  What she told me, and what I’m sure many people outside of Singapore don’t know, is that the problems that face minorities in this country are much the same in Singapore. Issues of what hair is “good hair,” what skin color is the “right” skin color, which race is smarter, lazier, more prone to criminal activity, etc. Naturally, this is a dumbed down version of our conversation, and I could never ever hope to encompass the various issues we talked about in one single post, but I found it saddening. 

                I had no idea that she faced those issues in her home country, and I’m disappointed in myself. In my ignorance, I believe I thought on some level that Black people had a monopoly on discrimination and the self-image issues brought on by said discrimination. It is situations such as these, eye opening discussions such as these, that made me want an international roommate in the first place.  My education doesn’t stop in the classroom. I’ve always known that, and I’m glad for it; most importantly, I’m glad for roommate.  She’s given me perspective.

                I shared a story with ye olde roomie about a visit to a local pizza establishment in Virginia when I was about 15 years old.  Before this time I’d always looked at men like Brad Pitt and (my future love slave) Johnny Depp and stated “he’s cute, for a white dude.” At 14 or 15 years old I never really thought about the implications of that 6 word statement – as if men that weren’t black could somehow never be attractive! But at that very tender, very impressionable age, I walked into a pizza place to get some food and almost as soon as I breached the threshold, the young cashier looked at me and said “you’re pretty for a black girl!” Now, being 15, and having the emotional and self-esteem issues that most 15 year olds have, I did not know whether to be thankful for the comment or not. I said thank you – because my parents raised me to be as polite as their dilute southern genes would allow – ordered my food and went home.  It was an insult wrapped in a compliment (like pig’s in a blanket as I recently told a Canadian friend). One never knows what to make of statements like that. The one thing I took away from the incident was the overarching implications of statements like “you’re cute/you’re smart/you’re well spoken for a [insert race here] person.”  From that day, I’ve tried incredibly hard to never make comments even remotely related to the aforementioned formula.  

                As we proceed throughout our daily lives we don’t often think about how our words and actions affect others. We like to believe that they are just words, but – as we learned in elementary school – words have power and words hurt. We sometimes like to believe that our problems are the only problems that exist and are therefore the most important. We don’t think about the people a country over, or even over on the next street. Out of sight, out of mind, right?

                I read a headline the other day that questioned why people are only able to unite in times of tragedy. My answer, though unfortunate, is simple. It’s when we are reminded in the harshest way possible that we are not the center of the universe. It’s when we are reminded that we’ve forgotten how to be kind to one another. It’s when we are reminded that our lives shift further every day from the basic teachings of our lord and savior Jesus Christ.

                I’d like to end this by saying happy birthday MLK. He, like all of us, may have been flawed, but he fought for equality and, most importantly, for peace.