Oscars Wrap Up

I watched the Oscars last night (obviously) and was eager to see what impact the virtual #AskHerMore campaign might have on the red carpet. I watched Robin Roberts and company on ABC and was impressed by their coverage. They mentioned the campaign explicitly which was fine but more importantly Roberts et al. asked women great questions about their films. Julianne Moore, for instance, had a great moment where she made important points about the subject of her film, Alzeihmer’s disease.

Honestly, I don’t mind that women on the red carpet are asked about their dresses. Even a fashion amateur like myself can enjoy seeing all the gorgeous dresses and chatting with her friends about which ones we liked and disliked. That’s part of red carpet tradition and there isn’t anything inherently wrong with it. It’s also good to have designers and their work are acknowledged. The need for #AskHerMore arose, however, when red carpet Q&A’s ventured into the realm of the absurd (see the cringe-inducing mani-cam from last year) and downright sexist. Common examples being that men seem more likely to be asked questions about their film or their character development while women are more likely to be asked about their wardrobe, hair or how they manage a work-family balance (though men with families are rarely asked the same question). It was great to see ABC break away from that trend last night, it made me really happy.

What made me less happy was some of the online snark about #AskHerMore. Some derided the campaign by suggesting that it was silly to expect thorough responses to complex questions in the frantic red carpet environment. This skepticism prompted me to Tweet this:

Plus, I think the success of #AskHerMore last night demonstrated that it is possible to ask thoughtful questions and receive a brief but insightful reply.

Unfortunately, it was all downhill from there. The Oscars themselves were flat and while I generally find Neil Patrick Harris to be positively charming his jokes didn’t work and the atmosphere felt stiff. He made some valiant attempts to call out the Academy for its depressing lack of diversity but the impact just wasn’t there.

There were some great individual moments though. More than once Oscar recipients refused to be played off by the orchestra which was awesome. There were some truly touching speeches especially by The Imitation Game screenwriter Graham Moore. Lady Gaga reminded the world that she is a phenomenal singer and Julie Andrews made a surprise appearance. Common and John Legend’s performance of “Glory” was beautiful and a great moment to acknowledge the under-appreciated (at least by the Academy) Selma. And this gif of Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lopez reacting to Patricia Arquette’s call for wage equality is everything.

While last night might have been my favourite Oscar’s red carpet so far, the ceremony left much to be desired. Here’s hoping next year’s awards are less white and more fun.

The Book of Negroes: An Excellent Mini-Series and A Reckoning for Canadians

This evening I watched the final two episodes of The Book of Negroes mini-series BET. In another blog post I mentioned that I have read the book and I provided a brief plot summary so I’ll refrain from repeating myself here. Instead, I’ll focus on the significance of the story itself. The mini-series was very well done, the acting was wonderful especially by Aunjuane Ellis and the screenplay was quite faithful to its source material.

Having said all that, the thing I like most about both the novel and the mini-series is that it highlights a relatively obscure slice of history and provides a much-needed reality check to my fellow Canadians. I have found that as a country we can be somewhat smug on the topic of slavery. Though it is true that Canada does not share the same history with slavery as its southern neighbour, we routinely fail to recognize that our hands are by no means clean. Slavery was in fact practiced in new France and some early, prominent Canadians, including the founder of my alma mater, owned slaves. Yet this history is typically glossed over in Canadian classrooms. I recall learning about Canada as a promised land for slaves who arrived there via the underground railroad but never learning about the less savoury aspects of my country’s relationship with slavery.

To a certain extent, The Book of Negroes corrects that wrong. When the main character Aminata leaves the United States to settle as a free woman in Nova Scotia she finds that the “promised land” is not all that she and her fellow Black Loyalists expected. Though they may have been free from de jure binds of slavery, they remained second-class citizens in Canada by de facto forms of disenfranchisement, discrimination, and racism. Indentured servitude was common, few owned property, and hunger was rampant. The Book of Negroes depicts the white Birchtown population as being generally hostile to the newcomers and suggests that there was little opportunity for economic prosperity or justice in the British colony.

Though it is a fictionalized account of this history, The Book of Negroes nevertheless offers an important reminder for Canadians like myself that while we may not have the same history as the United States but we are not innocent. Deep, systemic racism existed then and exists now. The Book of Negroes acknowledges this fact beautifully and hopefully this well-crafted mini-series will awaken that consciousness within Canadians.

More On Language (And Less On PC-Culture)

Several years ago I read a fantastic book by Canadian author Lawrence Hill called The Book of NegroesThe book is about a woman named Aminata who is kidnapped from her home in West Africa and sold into slavery in the United States. When the Revolutionary War breaks out, she escapes captivity and helps the British by serving as a midwife and teacher during the war. As a reward for her service, Aminata is granted safe passage to Canada and settles in Nova Scotia as a free woman. Her story continues as she faces discrimination and various forms of hardship in her new country, attempts to reunite with her daughter and husband, and eventually returns to West Africa in search of her home.

The title of the book is derived from an actual historical document called “The Book of Negroes.” It was a book in which the British documented the names of the 3,000 so-called “Black Loyalists” – slaves who fought for the British during the American Revolutionary War and were subsequently resettled in Nova Scotia. It’s a fascinating and little known slice of history that is honoured in Hill’s book.

As I mentioned, I read the book several years ago but only recently learned that it has a different title in the US. Instead of The Book of Negroes it is called Someone Knows My Name. Apparently Hill’s American publisher was concerned about releasing a book with the word “Negro” in the title and so it was re-branded for American consumption. If there was ever a time to rage against PC-culture now would be it. In a recent article, however, Hill resists this temptation. Though he is likely confused and a little bothered by the name change (again, Hill didn’t invent “The Book of Negroes” it is an artifact of its time and central to the story he is telling) I was so impressed by his recent article in Slate where instead of lambasting whatever “political correctness” stripped his book of its intended title, he did something much more compelling and infinitely more satisfying. He asked the following: What is it with the word Negroes? How has it come to be so incendiary?

What followed was an overview of the history of the word, a discussion of how its meaning has shifted over the years and across contexts, and a look into the debate over whether the word should be condemned or embraced by the contemporary black community. As someone who believes in the power of language – coincidentally I had just written about that very topic – I was so interested by this article and enjoyed its nuanced take on how a single word can provoke different reactions.

A second thing I appreciate about the article. When it was first published, the article was titled “What I Learned About PC Culture When I Titled My Novel The Book Of Negroes.” I wasn’t a fan of the title.

So of course I was really pleased to see that Slate later changed the title. I have no idea why they did (maybe others felt similarly?) but it doesn’t matter. The new title is a much better reflection of the article’s content and I’m glad the correction was made.

I won’t re-hash the article here as I am not qualified to add anything to Hill’s discussion of the history and significance associated with the word “Negro.” But I urge you all to read it for yourselves. Trust me, it will be a much more enriching experience than yelling at each other online about “PC culture.”

The Deep Politics of Words

It’s been a couple of weeks since Jonathan Chait published his controversial and much-discussed piece “Not a Very P.C. Thing to Say” in New York Magazine. I read it – twice – and had many thoughts about it, many of which were contradictory. At the time I thought about writing a response to it but there was so much Internet noise related to the article – either blasting it or praising it – that it felt like a needless exercise. The TL;DR version of what I would have written would read something like this: I think Chait is touching on something that exists but I am not sufficiently convinced by his piece. The examples he offered weren’t very compelling to me and his meandering argument was not satisfying. I did feel, however, that there is truth buried deep in his article and I wish had been more thoughtfully teased out.

As someone who spends a lot of time (too much time) on social media I can assure you there is tons of outrage. It’s daily, it’s constant, and it’s exhausting. Determining if it’s legitimate is much trickier though. To underscore this point Slate curated a list of daily outrages for the year 2014 and it ranges from “righteous fury to faux indignation.” Many of the examples feel like moments when the benefit of the doubt could have been extended and you can’t help but feel a bit sorry for the well-meaning person being skewered by strangers on the Internet for an accidental slip of the tongue. But there are plenty of other instances where the outrage feels justified. While the 24-hour news cycle and the rise of social media can sometimes be unnecessarily unforgiving, they have also brought to light subtle but harmful examples of sexism, racism, and other forms of discrimination that are seeped into the foundation of society. Finding the balance between these two poles is difficult and as someone who finds themselves in the space between the careless Chait argument and the virulent responses to his article I am glad that a debate  is happening because it is an important one to have.

Although the Internet is frequently outraged for any number of political and social reasons, often the specific dispute between the proponents and skeptics of “political correctness” is focused on language. As tense as the debate can be it’s a meaningful conversation to have because language is deeply political. If you don’t believe me, please go live in Quebec. I loved living in Montreal, I love French and am proud to be bilingual, but you can’t live there and not notice how political the relationship between Anglophones-Francophones can be. You can’t live there and walk away thinking that language doesn’t matter.

If you’re still not convinced, take a look at a recent University of Michigan initiative. The University is spending $16,000 on an “Inclusive Language Campaign” which, as MLive reports, is “an awareness program to help students be more aware of the fact that different groups around campus interpret words and phrases differently.” In recognizing the diversity of the campus, the campaign hopes to acknowledge the power of words and discourage students from using language like “fag” or “retarded” or “ghetto.” I like the initiative. In the past I have been guilty of using such words thoughtlessly and have made an effort to stop. Finding alternative language is not only more respectful it’s also, quite frankly, not that difficult. But of course, the comment section of the article is riddled with complaints that kids these days should grow a thicker skin, this is tantamount to thought policing etc.

It’s easy to dismiss this type of initiative on the basis that it’s “PC language/thought policing” but really it’s about recognizing that language matters. The campaign does not suggest or introduce mechanisms to punish use of specific language and I don’t buy into a slippery slope argument in this case. While I am wary of overdoing the outrage, there is outrage on both sides of the “PC-language” divide. Plus, I think acknowledging the power of language is valuable. How you describe people and situations says more about you and your prejudices than it does about what you are trying to describe. Asking people to think before they speak isn’t about stifling speech, it’s about encouraging empathy.

A Most Graceful Chairman

Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to present the new Chairman of the African Union and the latest Internet meme Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe falling down:

His klutzy moment as he walked toward a podium to deliver a speech has spawned much ridicule. Now normally I would be opposed to making fun of a 90-year-old man falling but… it’s Mugabe. The “democratically elected for life President” (as one of my African Studies professors liked to call such leaders) Mugabe has overseen the collapse is his country’s currency (I once held 50 billion Zimbabwean dollars in my hand – it was basically worthless), spent international aid money intended for AIDS programs on who-knows-what-but-not-AIDSengaged in rampant corruption, and demonstrated little regard for human rights. And he has recently been elected Chairman of the African Union, much to the disappointment of those of us who would love to see the AU evolve into a legitimate example of “African solutions to African problems.”

If that isn’t enough to convince you that I’m not completely heartless for laughing at an old man’s stumble, the Zimbabwean government’s response to the incident might convince you of its ridiculousness. As reported by The Zimbabwe Herald:

Information, Media and Broadcasting Services Minister Prof Jonathan Moyo stated: “The misrepresentations and morbid celebrations of the incident by malcontents is the real news here and not the alleged fall as there was none. What happened is that the President tripped over a hump on the carpet on one of the steps of the dais as he was stepping down from the platform but he remarkably managed to break the fall on his own. I repeat that the President managed to break the fall. Nobody has shown any evidence of the President having fallen down because that did not happen. The hump on which the President tripped was formed by two pieces of the carpet which apparently had not been laid out properly where they joined. And to be honest with you, even Jesus, let alone you, would have also tripped in that kind of situation.”

Even Jesus! So there you have it. Mugabe may not have fallen down but that hasn’t stopped the Internet from capitalizing on the moment. Some of my favourite “morbid celebrations” appear below:

Sometimes the Internet is a really awful place. But then there are days like today when I’m so glad it exists.

Scout Finch Grows Up (or OMG a new Harper Lee novel?!)

A literary bombshell was dropped yesterday. There will be a sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird published this summer. I was so astounded and didn’t know how to properly process this information so I did what any good millennial does in such times: I Tweeted incoherent things on social media.

It feels like I should be jumping around for joy but I’m hesitating for a few reasons.

First, there are reports that Harper Lee is not well and therefore concerns that this book is being published without her consent.  There are rumours that Lee, who is 88 years old and may be in poor health, has given power of attorney to a law firm that has proven to be fairly litigious with respect to her intellectual property and estate. As such, some are questioning the authenticity of the Lee’s enthusiastic statements regarding the publication of her sequel which were provided via her publisher.

The story of how the sequel was discovered is also quite astonishing which could be seen as either fishy or serendipitous. Apparently Lee began writing this book – which is called Go Set A Watchman and is set in the 1950’s- first but her editor persuaded her to write a story about the main character’s childhood instead. Thus the initial manuscript was set aside and To Kill A Mockingbird was written and published. Fast forward decades and the previously abandoned work has reappeared. Hmm… it seems a little suspicious to me but perhaps I am too cynical.

Controversy aside, there is another reason why I’m not sure I’ll rush to read Go Set A Watchman. I can’t help but wonder if To Kill A Mockingbird is better left standing alone.

As you can see from the above, I’m wrestling with this thought. There’s something about being a book purist that feels a bit too much like book snobbery for my liking. And yet, in my personal experience I haven’t found them to be synonymous. I’m a big fan of the idea that people should read whatever the heck they want. I read plenty of things that could be considered “high-brow” and “low-brow.” Yet, I have, for example, purposefully avoided reading any of the Gone With The Wind sequels or related novels (I’m considering making an exception for The Wind Done Gone but that’s a whole other blog post). I’ve avoided them for the obvious reason that they are not written by Margaret Mitchell but also because I think Gone With The Wind does not need any companionship. In my mind it has an absolutely perfect ending and is a complete story in and of itself.* The purist in me wants the same for To Kill A Mockingbird. It’s such a great novel that tells such an important story that I can’t help but feel it is more powerful without any additions.

* By complete I do not mean unproblematic. Again, I could (and probably will) write a more thoughtful blog post about how I feel about Gone With The Wind and its racial undertones. That is a discussion worthy of its own post.

There’s also the more practical matter of the fact that Lee’s editor initially persuaded her to abandon it. It seems plausible – dare I say likely? – that Go Set A Watchman was left on the cutting room floor (to mix media metaphors) because it wasn’t her best work. That’s not to diminish Lee’s talents. On the contrary, her initial attempt gave birth to one of the most beloved novels of contemporary literature. But maybe she had to work through some muck in order to produce To Kill A Mockingbird. Surely there are authors today who would be horrified by the thought of their first draft seeing the light of day, even if that first draft was an integral part of the development of creating a masterpiece. Isn’t that the point of first drafts? Maybe I’m overstating the nature of Lee’s manuscript but even if it’s a more fully realized story than “first draft” implies that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s ripe for publication. So that’s where I feel for Harper Lee. She often stated in interviews that she felt no desire to write another novel and the fact that she never published this or any other manuscript suggests she really meant it. If she has genuinely changed her mind then great! But if not, it seems unfair to publish something in her name if that was never her intention.

Of course we can all rest assured that regardless To Kill A Mockingbird will not be ruined. Purist or not I don’t think that is what’s at stake here. That’s the great thing about literature and entertainment more generally, we can chose how we we consume and interpret it. I haven’t seen the 9th season of Scrubs for instance and am happy pretending the series ended with the excellent finale of season 8. So while for now I’m sticking with my purist inclinations, I reserve the right to change my mind either because I decided that my attitude is book snobbery or because my curiosity about what adult Scout Finch is like got the better of me.