Tuesday, November 30, 2010

In Honor of My Sister and World Aids Day: A Blast from the Past

This was originally posted in January 2006 on my Yahoo 360 blog. In honor of World Aids Day I want to re-post my initial encounter with HIV/AIDS. I added a word or two here and there but left the original sentiments in tact. As of January 2011, it will have been 15 years since her story ended.

During my senior year of college my baby niece passed away. Angel (not her real name) was the daughter of my oldest sister and she was just an infant. At first she was a very healthy and active child. But a few weeks after her birth she began to get quite ill to the point of hospitalization. She was in and out of the emergency room and the hospital on a regular basis during the last four months of her life. I thought it was sad that someone so young had to be poked and prodded habitually by doctors. Little did I know that was nothing compared to what was to come.

I remember the last time that I went to the hospital to see Angel. When I got to her room I noticed a sign on the door that said all visitors must put on a mask before entering the room. During the entire sick spell that Angel went through my sister kept telling the family that the doctors did not know what was wrong with her, even after they had done a number of test including one in which bone marrow was taken. The doctors were baffled; at least that is what my sister told us. All we knew was that Angel kept getting sick. After seeing the sign on the door warning each visitor to put on a mask I figured the doctors knew what the problem was. I thought that maybe she had an illness that is contagious, which is why we had to wear a mask.

After I put my mask on I entered the room. My sister, my mother and a few other family members were present. The baby was awake and lying in a small hospital bed. Angel was crying as though she was suffering great pain. She had an IV in her little arms and a number of bandages where she had been pricked and drained by the nurses. Although she was crying Angel was virtually motionless. It was as if she was too weak to move. Everyone in the room was silent as we all just looked on while she wailed in her bed. I asked my sister again what the doctor said was wrong with her. She looked down and said that they said that they did not know. Living in the First World day of modern medicine I knew that someone had to know something about the child’s illness. But I didn’t press the issue: I just accepted that answer.

About two days later I got a call in the evening from one of my other sisters. She told me that Angel had died. I was stunned. I couldn’t believe that a child who a few short months ago was given a clean bill of health at birth was now dead from a mysterious illness. I rushed to the hospital to be with the rest of my family. When I got to the room I stopped to put on a mask because the sign was still on the door. I thought the reason that I needed to put on a mask was to not catch whatever she had. When I entered the room I noticed my sister sitting in the chair, crying and holding Angel. That was her way of saying goodbye. Angel was wrapped in a white blanket and her little arms were dangling at her side. Her hands were balled into a fist. Looking at her fists I thought that she must have fought death till the end. My mother and sisters were in the room along with other family members. None of them had on a mask so I took mine off. Many of us took turns holding the lifeless body of Angel. I kept wondering what killed this beautiful little angel. It wasn’t till a few years after Angel’s death that I found out the cause of her fate.

Fast forward about two years.
By this time I was in graduate school on the West Coast about 3,100 miles away from home. A few days after I got back home for the summer I was told that my oldest sister was in the hospital. This was the one whose baby died two years earlier. I went up to see her and she was very happy to see me. Strangely, I had to put on a mask just like I did when my niece was ill. I thought I was being protected from something that my sister had. My siblings and I had never been that close, especially in adulthood and even less so now that I was in graduate school so far away. I asked her how she was feeling. She said fine. I asked her what was wrong with her and she looked down and said that the doctor did not know but they were running tests. That sounded eerily familiar. I accepted that answer and stuck around a while till my mother and I were ready to go. By that time another set of family members came by to say hello. After I got back home my mother said she wanted to talk to me about my sister. I said okay and asked her what was going on. She asked me did I remember when my niece died two years ago and was never given a reason why the baby died. I said yes. She said the baby died because she had AIDS. WHAM! It hit me like a ton a bricks. If the baby AIDS there was only one way she could have gotten it - from my sister. My mother told me that my sister is in the hospital because she has AIDS given to her by her former boyfriend. It finally made sense that anytime we went to see my niece in the hospital (and now my sister) we had to put on masks. I thought it was to protect me from getting a virus. It never occurred to me that it was to protect my niece and my sister from my germs.

My sister has AIDS. I was crushed. I was thrown for a loop. I was too stunned to react. My head started swirling with some weird thoughts like was this God’s way of warning me that if I don’t stop my “lifestyle” that I will get AIDS, too.

I had some cursory knowledge about HIV and AIDS but after my sister contracted the virus I started doing more research about the disease. I went to visit my sister as often as I could. She was in and out of the hospital for most of the summer. We got closer than we had been before. Unfortunately, I had to get back to graduate school by the end of August so I could not spend more time with her. But at least by that time she was out of the hospital and was relatively healthy looking. When I got back to Oregon I purposely immersed myself into my studies. My sister’s infections made me want to forget about the “real world” by focusing more on schoolwork and side projects. I would pray more during this time and watch televangelists and occasionally visited a local COGIC but that was about the extent of my spiritual activities. My conscious was rocked again that term by the news that the rapper Easy E was dying from AIDS. Even though I thought that N.W.A. and Easy- E were tacky (okay, I admit it, I got a Niggaz4Life CD … at that time it worked for me), my heart went out to him and his family.

Fast forward to late December.
When I got back home I was given the news that my sister was deftly sick. After being in and out of the hospital since October the doctors allowed her to remain at home under hospice care. When I went to her house to see her she looked thinner than I had ever seen her. My oldest sister had always been a robust, healthy woman. Now she looked frail and weak. And she was my first baby sitter according to my mother. She used to fix my hair when I was little. She would give me an S-curl when I was in my teens. I would sneak out to her house and have her get me some Brass Monkey at the liquor store. I was under the influence of the Beastie Boy’s first tape “Licensed to Ill”. Now here she was lying in a medical bed with an IV attached to her needing the same care that she used to give me when I was a toddler.  She was happy to see me and rose up enough to kiss me. My sister had not kissed me in years. At that moment I felt guilty for not kissing her more often.

Fast forward to January.
It was time for me get ready to go back to graduate school out West. I was conflicted because my sister was growing weaker and more ill by the day. In fact, my niece, my sisters and my mother all rotated with a nurse to provide my sister with round-the-clock care. I wanted to help but they all told me I needed to enjoy my school break and get a taste of home before I go back to school. Instead, I went by to see her as often as I could and tried to joke and laugh with her. I knew that I had to get back to school. My return ticket was set for a few days away.

I wanted to at least be there with her for her birthday, which was January 4th. I knew in my heart that it would be the last birthday that she would see. Although she was semi-conscious we bought her a cake and tied some balloons to her bed. We sung happy birthday to her and a couple hours later she took her last breath and died. She tried to take one more, but her mouth just remained open. Her eyes were open, too. The last image she saw was us. The date she was born was the day she died. January 4, 1955 – January 4, 1996.

My sister’s death did a number of things to me. One, it was the first time I got to see up close and personal the ravages of the HIV/AIDS virus. It made me less fearful and more compassionate to those who have this terrible virus. In fact, it has even changed my mind about dating someone who may be HIV positive. I used be afraid of dating someone with HIV. I know that with proper precautions I won’t be exposed to the virus. I realize that a person is bigger than any three-letter acronym for a bug. Second, it forced me to get real about my sexuality. My sister’s death was a reality check. I could live my life hiding and fighting what I am or I can spend what time I have left being who I am and not be ashamed of it. As a symbol of my new freedom I got an earring. That was big thing for me at the time being raised Pentecostal. Of course I got when I was 3,000 miles away, but I kept it when I came back home. Third, it made me start getting routinely tested for HIV. Every 4 to 6 months I get tested. I can’t help but to think that if my sister had known about her HIV status early enough that she may have lived longer, or even still be living today. But since she found out after she had developed AIDS, it was too late. Of course, my infant niece never had a chance. Fourth, her death brought up one of my great fears – I don’t want to die alone or without someone special in my life. My sister did not die alone; we were there with her. But there was no significant other or husband there. To my knowledge, my sister was only in love once over her 41 years. But he was long gone off the scene and in another city by that time. I could not help but wonder, even to this day, will I die loveless and alone? Will I not have someone in my life when I take my final breath? There is a bluegrass song (yes, I am a true Kentuckian) by Ralph Stanley that asks “Will you miss me when I’m gone?” Ever since my sister’s death back in ’96, I have asked myself will anyone miss me when I am gone. I am reminded of Nancy Reagan’s reaction when President Ronald Reagan died. The love and affection she showed, as they were ready to place him in his tomb was touching. She hugged the coffin, laid on it for a moment and stoked the part where President Reagan's head would be. Will someone love me like that while I am alive and when I am gone? My fear is real. Fifth, I noticed how my sister changed after she found out she had AIDS. She did things she never did before like travel extensively and learned how to drive a car and actually owned a car for the first time in here life. She lived and loved her family more in her last two years than maybe all the previous years collectively. I need to remember that when I get trapped in the pit of day-to-day drudgery.        

So on the 10th Anniversary of my sister’s death, I want to pay homage to her by living the lessons that I learned from her struggle and ultimate death from a “big disease with a little name”. Ever since my family's terrible introduction to HIV/AIDS I have a deep well of compassion for those who struggle with the disease today. I promise to not wear any masks when I see you.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

A Real Kickback

Kickbacks have two definitions - one usually considered negative and one positive. The negative connotation is receiving a financial reward from a decision that favors a person, group, company or organization. Most often this is a crime committed by a politician or civil servant. But a positive kickback is when you get a chance to sit-back, relax, reflect and care for yourself.

Remember to kickback in a positive way as we flow into the Holiday season and march into 2011. Stressing out over food, gifts, money, what we don't have, who we don't have is really nothing more than punishing yourself. Kickback, relax, enjoy the mood of the season. Be thankful for what you do have and how blessed you are. Remind yourself of how great you really are whether you have a gift or not. You are a gift. Take care of yourself and you will feel much better.

Join me. I am sitting back crossing my feet now.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

My Thoughts on Kehinde Wiley

Who would have thought paintings of young African American men imitating 18th and 19th century European aristocrats would be such a sensation? Artist Kehinde Wiley probably never dreamed his vision would score him a segment on NBC’s The Today’s’ Show and a full-page discussion in Newsweek. The popularity of Mr. Wiley’s work over the past few years has spawned both celebrants and critics, essentially for the same reasons: paining and photographing young black, brown and tan men customarily seen as the “Other” and classifying it as significant art.

The idea of the “Other” is broadly used in social psychology, sociology and philosophy to describe a state of consciousness in which societies, groups or individuals differentiate themselves from others who they judge as inferior to themselves.  The use of the “Other” is often how we construct our self-image at the expense of people who don’t share our values, ethnicity, class, religion, etc. The concept of the “Other” is not always negative; it can help us appreciate differences in people unlike ourselves. But too often we construct a boogieman using the “Other” as the object of fear and fascination. We articulate our boogieman by uttering words like ‘they’, ‘them’, ‘those people’, or ‘niggers, ‘spics, whops, faggots,’ and so on.  Wiley’s has taken a historically reviled “Other”  - young inner city African American males  – and made them the subject of his work. This begs the question whether his work bolsters dangerous differences or deconstructs notion of the black male as the “Other”.

This past October Kehinde Wiley gave a 45-minute lecture at the High Museum in Atlanta. As a fan of his work and slightly turned on by an artist who unashamedly paints young black men in their uniform of choice I decided to go with a friend. We got there early enough to select our seats and chat before the presentation. As the hour grew closer to Mr. Wiley’s talk the hall filled to the brim with mostly white people with a healthy sprinkling of black and brown folks present to spell the whiteness.  I was amazed that so many people paid at least $10 to hear an African American man discuss his paintings of young black men mimicking poses of 18th and 19th century white aristocrats. Then it struck me. These white people are here because Wiley has performed a service for them. He has made safe for whites to admire and engage young black men without having to do that in real life. For that matter, he made it safe for some black people, too. The “Other” hanging on the wall in a neat frame insulate suburbanites so they are free to admire what they usually don’t see on their streets. Mr. Wiley pointed out during his presentation that while he was in school white people would ask him why is he always painting black people. He said he responded by asking why do you always paint white people. The crowd at the High roared with a thunderous clap of approval. I wondered how many people who clapped had the same question on their mind. As remarkable as the paintings are I could not help but wonder how many people would actually challenge their own “Othering” of black males they spot everyday on the street, in restaurants, in offices and in the White House.

During his talk at the High Mr. Wiley said his inspiration for painting ‘us’ was “to reconfigure the image of how the public sees people that look like [himself]”. His purpose is understandable given that he grew up in the heart of South Central Los Angeles in a single parent home. He is swinging his paintbrush at the distorted view that young urban men of color are all D- dangerous, dysfunctional and must be distanced. He’s cracked the façade of Major and Billson’s concept of the “cool pose” by transporting these young men into a surreal and ornate fantasy world.  Mr. Wiley subtlety reminds us the patron that Black men too have dreams of greatness.

But perhaps Mr. Wiley’s art is more than just painting self-portraits, so to speak. Maybe his work is more cathartic than he lets on. He’s trying to reconcile where he is now with where he came from. His art might be an attempt to ‘’check himself” after swimming so long in the pool of privilege. Visiting art museums as a child, encouraged by his mother to feed his hunger for art, attending a celebrated art institute in San Francisco and then earning a masters of fine arts at Yale is certainly not the sociological prediction one would have for a black boy growing up in an area riddled with poverty and crime. Let’s face it – New Haven, CT (where Yale is located) is a galaxy away from Crenshaw Boulevard in South Central LA.  No one can seriously ridicule him for getting out of his ‘hood. But is he removed enough from his roots to maybe himself see brothas as the “Other”?  Perhaps his work is tug of war between pristine New Haven and hood-life in South Central Los Angeles. After all, his idea of painting black and brown men was inspired by crime in the ‘hood.

While struggling to get his work noticed after graduating from Yale he picked up a copy of a police mug shot off the ground while walking in Harlem. The paper featured the face of a handsome young African American man who was wanted for a felony. He thought that the face on the page had a story behind him that needed to be told. Cathartic or not, maybe painting black, brown and tan faces to add some “color” to renowned museums is what he planned to do all along. After all, he makes it no secret that while admiring the master works in museums as a youngster he questioned why there was no “black people on the walls” borrowing a phrase from Buggin’ Out in Do The Right Thing.  I think that’s a good thing regardless of whether his work is therapeutic or not.

Whatever the motivation for his work, it cannot be denied that his prints are powerfully subversive if only because they present the “Other” in ways that stir the conscious.  How often do museum patrons see portraits featuring urban black males hanging on the walls? Mr. Wiley present these no-name brothers as men with souls when the ‘spin doctors’ would have the world believe otherwise.  Opinion shapers keep images of black and brown men at the ready to entertain or terrify us. The image of the “Other” sells tickets or public policy; whichever is most profitable at the time. What a surprise to see young black men in their everyday get-up posing like rich aristocrats from 18th and 19th century art. Young African American men are usually shoved into one of the neat categories of athlete, entertainer or criminal. We just can’t be regular men. For example, Mr. Wiley pointed out in his lecture last month that white people frequently have asked him where did he find the rappers that he painted. It’s just assumed that black men have to be the “Other” in one fashion or another.

Even though the French, English and Italian aristocrats in the original portraits probably made their wealth on the backs of Africans and other people of color, Mr. Wiley’s art can be seen as an attempt to rescue the aura of black men who are symbolically trying to fit into the Western world’s image of success. Mr. Wiley is subverting the privileged poses of the well-heeled aristocrats by replacing them with black men that we see every day. The poses that the young men assume are certainly not what would be considered manly by 2010’s standard. Today’s homophobia would likely regard these black men’s poses as gay, while others may see them as a softening of the black male image that is “sold” as hard.  Whatever the verdict one can’t deny the sensuality and depth not often seen on faces of inner city black males.

Mr. Wiley’s work is also very erotic; maybe it’s too erotic to fully get his message across. These colored boys aren’t the only black men he saw, but they were the only black men he selected. I wonder if Mr. Wiley would have even selected the models were they not so handsome and sexually titillating. He is clearly a gifted painter. His skills are unquestionable. But his paintings are as much a wink to the young black buck stereotype as it is art or a subversive statement. Make no mistake; Wiley’s work is dangerously close to the voyeurism of black men.  Just listen to the reaction of young girls when they see Mr. Wiley’s prints.  It’s usually a contest to judge who is the hottest model in the portraits.  I suspect that other girls and guys of various age, race and sexuality keep a scorecard, too.

Important visionary artists always circumvent the ‘now’ in favor of presenting what’s  ‘next ’. Paul Gauguin, the French Impressionist master said that art is either plagiarism or revolutionMr. Wiley’s work may be the first influential artistic [read: discussed by a broad spectrum of art critics] expression from the MTV, BET video age that is responsible for some of what we assume about black men - both good and bad. The fact that he used good-looking unknown African American men with a certain swagger that he encountered on the street is an indicator that his work is not for Jacob Lawrence or Henry O. Tanner or any of the Harlem Renaissance crowd. But at some point his palette has to expand beyond black, brown and tan men mimicking poses in street wear.  After all, how provocative and original can one be if your work becomes predictable? There are only so many strikingly good-looking black and brown men in odd poses that the audience will swallow. Even his strongest allies will begin to wonder like the young girl who asked Mr. Wiley last month, “Why do you only paint black men”? If he sticks with this formula he certainly will sap the power of his work and run the danger of his art being an assortment of clichés. Just another pimp using black and brown bodies to fill his coffers. Let’s see if he is capable of deconstructing other “Others” in more creative ways. He may have been put on the map for his striking imagery of the African American males but he has to give us more. Otherwise he will become the VIBE Magazine of the art world: all superficial imagery with little substance. And that certainly would be plagiarism.

GQ Magazine did an exclusive on Kehinde Wiley in April 2013