Thursday, January 31, 2008

Lazy Day

I apologize for posting so late in the day. It has been a rather lazy day for me. I work all day on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, so I tend to relax on Tuesday and Thursday. But today I took relaxation to another level.

I awakened at 5:00 a.m. to get David Malik up. He wanted to finish some homework before going to school. He's so self sufficient that I no longer prepare breakfast. I climbed back into bed under my down comforter, and hardly lifted my head when he came to my door at 6:38 a.m. to let me know that he was leaving for school.

When I awakened again, it was 9:05 a.m. I never sleep this late unless I am sick; motherhood cured me of sleeping until 12:00 p.m. I jumped out of bed and quickly showered because I had a 10:00 a.m. massage scheduled. After 1 1/2 hours having my muscles kneaded, I rose and made my way to my favorite grocery store, Balducci's. Since I hadn't had breakfast, I decided to stop in the restaurant next door to the grocery store: Farrah Olivia. Farrah Olivia is owned by an Ethiopian chef. He doesn't serve Ethiopian cuisine, but an amalgam of French and American, but with those nice eastern and northern African spices added to the food. Hum, lunch was good as I lingered over the City Paper and dug my spoon into the creme brulee.

My son disturbed my leisurely and decadent day with a text message beckoning me to be home when he returned from school because he needed school supplies, undoubtedly for a project that is due tomorrow. But hey, he's in the 12th grade and has been admitted to Howard University, so I don't fuss with him anymore. Instead of hovering over him and worrying about his project, I asked him once if he needed any help. He responded, "no." So I promptly went upstairs, undressed, and climbed into the bed for a long, mid-afternoon nap.

Wow, it was such a decadent day.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Happy Birthday, Malik

Eighteen years ago, my mother sat up all night with me while I held a heating pad to my lower back and sipped mother's milk tea. My mother never hinted that I was in labor, but by 9:08 p.m., January 30, 1990, I was holding an 8 lb. 1/2 oz. baby boy in my arms. His father and I named him David Malik Burton.

Today he awakened at 5:30 a.m., as he has done since the first day that he came in this world. I marvel at how quickly the years have passed; how resilient of character my son is; and how he has steadfastly remained on track, gracious, and humble. Despite major life changing events that he has endured, he has never caused me a moment's worry. He has always made the right decision amidst overwhelming obstacles. He has learned to weather disappointment and keep it in perspective, and he has celebrated his accomplishments with a quiet sense of pride.

I know that our relationship is shifting, that he is a young man, and I am the mother who still hovers too closely, fears too much, and sleeps too lightly. But as my parents always told each of their children, "you will always be my baby." My son will always be my baby. When I am old and he is helping me get up and down the stairs or unscrewing the lid off a jar, he will still be my baby.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Clarification of Toni Morrison's Statement About Clinton

After yesterday's post, I was delighted to see my favorite author, Toni Morrison, endorsing Obama. At her 75th birthday party two years ago, she and I sat beside each other and talked politics. Since I often regard Morrison and my mother as kindred spirits, I have never found it difficult or intimidating to sit down and chat with Morrison. And she has always been receptive to my conversations. So when I told her that we have had a nonmilitary coup in this country when Bush came into office, she schooled me. "We have a junta in office," she clarified. I immediately reflected on the definition of junta, and concluded that she's right. A junta is when a group of men take over the government.

Although Morrison has written that Clinton was the first Black president, she did not mean that literally. Someone who uses language to convey figurative as well as literal meanings, Morrison was examining the circumstances of Clinton's life and comparing them with the dominant narrative of blacks in the U.S.

"In 1998, Morrison wrote a column for the New Yorker magazine in which she wrote of Bill Clinton: 'White skin notwithstanding, this is our first black president. Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children's lifetime. After all, Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald's-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas.'"

So when people tell you that Morrison called Clinton the "first Black president," remember she was referring to tropes that historically have defined African Americans, not that Clinton was literally Black.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Obama and the Educated Elite

I tend not to engage in political debates with my colleagues because I find them to be unfruitful. Have you noticed that you can't tell a Ph.D. anything because they know everything; or so they believe. But I felt compelled to respond to the ongoing debate amongst my colleagues about Obama's blackness, on a listserv for African American studies. One colleague went so far as to insinuate that having Obama as president will be no different than having Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court or Condoleeza Rice as Secretary of State. Below is my post. It's a long one, sorry.


I will reply in order to combat the perception of a lack of interest and a preoccupation regarding tenure and publication.

One thing that I want to suggest is that we not engage in essentialized notions of who "we" and "our" black people are. This is a throw back to the 1960s and reminds me of how detrimental this period was to Blacks who did not tow the line, whose perspectives were not particularly nationalist, and who engaged in their own methods of subversion that created broader points of entry for the generations that came after them; and these Blacks who engaged in such subversion were not necessarily considered progressive or leftist.

While "our" people may need certain services, far too many blacks, who qualify for this nomenclature by virtue of skin tone, do not need these services, and are not seeking to improve the lives of other black people who are economically, socially, or educationally deprived. I am a supporter of Barack Obama, but for other reasons than the color of his skin. Of all the candidates, he is the most intelligent one; and I strongly believe that he will be as honest as he possibly can be about the State of this Union when he wins the election. I am also troubled by the continuous reference to his Kenyan father as having only provided the melanin in Obama's skin. Even if this is all that Obama's Kenyan father provided, Obama's personal, political, and professional careers signal a commitment not only to communities of Black people who are disenfranchised, but also to communities of people who are more likely not to have a voice in their communities and this country. He has been committed to grassroots organizing and political change and enfranchisement for all of his professional career. It is important that we pay attention to this level of government that he is seeking, the highest office; and we can control the outcome.

Finally, please do not lump Colin Powell in the same category with Condoleeza Rice and Clarence Thomas. While Powell was hood-winged with the Weapons of Mass Destruction debacle, please revisit and take note of his concerted effort to diversify the State Department. Review his record, and look at the changes that he made within the State Department to restructure its hiring practices, giving access to foreign service jobs to the average American and not simply graduates of Georgetown or the Ivy Leagues, or the children of Washington insiders. This average American to which I am referring also includes African Americans who did not graduate from elite universities and who do not hold degrees in foreign affairs, foreign policy, international affairs, etc. Powell's goal was to make the State Department live up to its creed of being a civil service job potentially achievable to anyone with the desire and commitment to serve in the foreign service. These foreign officers serve on the political and cultural front lines just like members of the Armed forces often being a conduit between the administration's policy and their desire to achieve concrete goals within a foreign country that can often be at odds with official policy. More and more minorities, particularly Blacks, are achieving quiet and positive change throughout the world on behalf of this country, and we can thank Colin Powell for subversively creating this opportunity while some of us were debating his commitment to Black communities,or rather, asking aloud, "is he Black enough?"Goo.

I wish that there would be a serious engagement around the fact that it's not that Obama may be representative of "mainstream politics," but that some people, particularly Blacks, are truly troubled by his elitist educational background and his choices to be what Gramsci has called "an organic intellectual." Obama had choices when he graduated Harvard Law. Most of us can imagine what those choices were. He chose to give back to Black communities in a way that too many of us on this listserv have not, particularly those of us who have spent most of our lives as academics and inside classrooms and lecture halls engaging in practice but not praxis. He can walk the walk. His career has proven that. I don't believe that he is going to do an about face and reinvent his politics simply because he becomes president. Colin Powell resigned rather than compromise his integrity. Obama's integrity is just as intact as Powell's.

Michele L. Simms-Burton, Ph.D.
An Obama Supporter

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Comfort Food

Of the most comforting memories that I have that constantly assail me is standing beside my mother while she cooked. To keep me out of her way, she'd set me to the task of chopping, stirring, or mixing. This way I learned to cook; not from recipes, but from standing beside my mother. By 12 years old, I helped her turn out holiday meals for 6 to 10 people depending on who dropped by the house at the last minute, invited or uninvited.

Today, I vowed to try once again to make my mother's braised beef short ribs. I have Le Creuset cookware just like hers. I followed a recipe because this is one dish that I didn't learn from standing by her side. After an hour, I pulled the dutch oven out the stove tasted the short ribs like all good cooks do,and adjusted the seasoning. When my son sat down to eat, he said, "they're good mom, but they're not like grandma's"

And so the task begins, for on another Sunday, I will go to the market and purchase 3 lbs. of beef short ribs and attempt to recreate my mother's dish.

But it wasn't just the taste I was after, it was the way that she'd spend Sunday in the kitchen cooking, chatting on the telephone, reading a book, and pausing to answer my father, "Mom, where's the receipts for the credit card?" signaling to her that he was in his study paying the bills. Somehow the serenity and art that she created out of simple chores evade me. This is what I'm doing when I try to replicate her dishes, I'm not really trying to cook comfort food, I'm trying to find that comfort that she gave all of us as she went about her daily domestic tasks.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

A Sense of Neighborhood

Northern Virginia, where I reside, is known for being very transient because many of its residents are in the military. Most residents complain that it is hard to have a sense of community when people are being transferred frequently or move out with the change in presidential administration. When I resided in northern Virginia from 1991 to 1999, I found this to be true. But my return to the area in 2005 has given me a sense of community that I've never had before.

While Starbucks has been criticized for its exploitation of coffee growers and putting independent coffee houses out of business, for suburban neighborhoods where I reside, it is perhaps the only place where neighbors can gather and get acquainted.

Every Saturday about ten of my neighbors gather between 6:30 a.m. and 9:00 a.m., drink coffee or tea, and talk stuff. Sports usually dominate the conversation, because the men out number the women. But because most of my neighbors are current or recently retired military, our conversations also range from shopping in Dubai to the genocide in Rwanda. In addition to most of my neighbors being well traveled, they are also avid readers.

From meeting in Starbucks, we have migrated to each others' homes for football parties, Thanksgiving dinner, and wine tastings. While Starbucks may not be the ideal corporation, it has provided a much needed meeting place at a time when public spaces are becoming less available.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Back Into the Fray

This morning as I headed north on I-95, running the gauntlet of trucks and agressive drivers at 6:30 a.m., I thought about how much of our lives is spent hurtling our bodies from one space to another. Having taken several courses in physics, I remember that it was not only the car that was moving at 80 m.p.h. (yes, I was speeding), but my body too. Suddenly, I didn't want my body rushing through space so rapidly.

Lifting my foot off the gas pedal, I moved over to the right lane, tuned into Thelonius Monk's "The Measure of Monk," and trusted that no matter what happened, I would not be late for my first day of teaching; and even if I was late, the universe would take care of me and everything would be alright.

As I tuned into Monk, rather than allowing him simply to be background music to my commute to work this morning, I heard the distinctive voices of jazz lovers "calling and responding" to Monk and his band. Although I've listened to this recording before, I suddenly realized that some of the tracks were recorded live.

Today I put forth a concerted effort to pay closer attention to the environment in which I am engaged, and not allow sights, sounds, smells, or people to become background noise to my life.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

A Cold Day In Metro DC

Cold days always incite poetry for me. A leaden sky, frozen ponds, and barren tree limbs permeate the landscape like forgotten children. On days like these, I refuse to concentrate on anything but the most mundane of tasks: drinking hot chocolate, thinking about language, perhaps shampooing my hair.

But clearly today is not a day for politics, unless I'm examining the politics of language. Today is not a day for confrontation, unless I'm going to wrestle with metaphors. Today is not a day for sadness unless I'm going to turn a tear inside out and examine its dry interior.

I feel the winter air cut through my pile, yellow pullover. I am reminded that winter has its place in my life. It's a time to reflect, a time to contemplate, and a time for peace.

Beyond me I know that someone's life is in chaos. I offer the peace of this winter morning in metro DC where the words of Robert Hayden, another Michigander like me, create a subtle, yet contentious memory of a boy and his father on a winter Sunday morning.

Those Winter Sundays

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I'd wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he'd call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love's austere and lonely offices?

Enjoy this winter day.