Unsolicited Opinion: A Thanksgiving PSA

My first video in months is fairly self-explanatory. Happy, happy holidays!


Stop Whining and Come Together

Instead of continuing the cycle of negativity, take some action that pumps love, peace, and groove into the community

It seems as though, increasingly, I’m greeted with an overflow of complaints when I sign onto Facebook. I know that I certainly do my share of complaining, but I’m not referring to complaints about children who won’t go to sleep or the stomach bug that’s made rounds through someone’s family three times. I’m talking about bigger societal complaints. The kind that border on (and sometimes cross into) outrage. The posts run the gamut from anger over the hiring of a school superintendent to hot, finger-pointing commentary on the racial issues we still deal with today.

People should certainly be able to air their grievances when they perceive something going wrong in place and culture in which they live, but if a person has made five status updates in a row listing newly discovered justifications for their (self)righteous indignation, what purpose are they serving? The person is only whipping themselves into further froth, and if there’s no solution or call for discussion and understanding proposed, such “commentary” only poisons the waters even further. 

Today I’d like to share an example of a freshening of the community waters—Columbia’s Hip-Hop Family Day, presented by Hip-Hop Live in partnership with the Indie Grits Film Festival.

At a time when today’s commentary and social media arguments seem laced with racial or racist undertones, there are times when certain aspects of creative culture are attacked or dismissed. Hip-hop has dealt with the smudge of social stigma from the time it began as an underground artistic expression of urban life in the 1970s. Over the past 40-some-odd years, the music and cultural aspects of this genre have evolved into the mainstream, where bolder, more audacious performers and negative imagery tend to attract more attention. Sherard Shekeese Duvall is leading the charge for a day of “Love, Peace, and Hip-Hop” for a third year, calling on families of every background to come together on April 18 from 11 A.M. - 5 P.M. at the 1700 block of Main Street in Columbia, SC. 

“Our goal is to ensure that hip-hop is represented properly and works as a medium that can unify our community for a day of peace, love and fun,” Duvall writes. In 2013 and 2014 that goal was accomplished and surpassed. Everyone I know who’s taken their brood to Hip-Hop Family Day has had glowing reviews, some even saying that they were surprised by the amount of family bonding that occurred as a result. Once again, this year’s party will feature interactive art exhibits, dancing, and live performances in a family-friendly atmosphere of fun and inclusion. Headliners include Nice & Smooth, Big Gipp of the Goodie Mob, and London-born Monie Love, who was the first British hip-hop artist to be signed to a major label.

Last year I’d planned to take the kids downtown and let them go wild at this celebration, but little B went down for an early nap (my attempt to get through the party without a toddler meltdown) that turned into a 5-hour sleep marathon. This year there’s no way we’re missing it (B quit napping this month!).

There’s a lot to complain about in the world, but without offering solutions and opportunities for conversation and fellowship, a persons vocal grievances can easily become something for those on the receiving end to dismiss or complain about. Be active instead. When you do so, you actually become an ambassador for a better community. One way you can start is by checking out Hip-Hop Family Day's Kickstarter page and making a donation of $25, $50, $100 or $250 to help make this day of fun and community fellowship a huge success. The organizers are half-way to their goal of raising $5,000 by midnight on April 1. I know Shekeese and the other organizers would certainly appreciate it, and because I want my community to be one that embraces all the good things that diversity brings, I would be pretty appreciative, as well.

Photographing the shadows

Teju Cole's essay on the photography of color

The print version of today's revamped New York Times Magazine featured an essay by one of my favorite writers at the moment, Teju Cole. Cole, a novelist, art historian and photographer, is also the magazine's photography critic. In this week's piece he takes a close look at the photography of color. Specifically, he discusses the way people with dark skin have been photographed by black photographers over the last 50 years. 

"Five Men, 1964," by Roy DeCarava, via nytimes.com

"Five Men, 1964," by Roy DeCarava, via nytimes.com

Back when Oprah Winfrey was hosting her daytime talk show, people would often joke about how her stage made everybody look good because the lighting and camera filters were calibrated show the depth and variance of black skin, therefore giving an attractive glow to all skin colors. I'm sure Oprah is more than smart enough to see the irony of her stage making black, white, caramel, beige and tawny skin beautiful while she and her production team broke through so many racial barriers. The fact is, cameras and film (you know, that stuff that had to be developed before there were computers to do it for us) were made and calibrated for the majority of the people who would be using them at first...as in when such equipment was first invented. They were calibrated to capture the reality of white skin for black-and-white or sepia photography.

The flat homogeny of black, hispanic or Asian skin in the professional photography of the 1960s - 1980s (90s?)  is clear in color or black-and-white. It was a technological flaw that was bemoaned by few, but, as Cole highlights, there were some who were able to take the tools at hand and use them to make important statements about race and societal vision.

Danai Gurira in "Mother of George." Credit: Oscilloscope Pictures/Everett Collection via nytimes.com

Danai Gurira in "Mother of George." Credit: Oscilloscope Pictures/Everett Collection via nytimes.com

The work of pioneers such as Roy DeCarava and Gordon Parks paved a way for today's photographers and cinematographers to explore image and racial perceptions at an incredibly conceptual level, using tools that are better made to work for everyone. It was exciting to read Cole's take on this, especially with the mention of Selma on the day of the Academy Awards, which is giving the movie an annoying snub* (and to see Danai Gurira used as a model to show how such explorations have evolved**).

But gradually, there comes an acceptance of the photograph and its subtle implications: that there’s more there than we might think at first glance, but also that when we are looking at others, we might come to the understanding that they don’t have to give themselves up to us. They are allowed to stay in the shadows if they wish.
— Teju Cole. "On Photography: What is dark is not empty; if you know how to see, there are glories in the shadows."

Take a look at the essay. What do you think #DiversityMeans in artistic vision today? Hopefully more writers like Cole will continue to force us to consider answers that will lead to more equitable representation of the many lives that intersect and play themselves out in our country.

*This link to David Carr's Jan. 18 article made me pause. The NYT columnist's death just 25 days later rocked the American writing world. 

**Because it's always fun to read a national piece and pretend like you're besties with someone in it, because once, in a crowded room full of people who were also dying to talk to the celebrity, you had a cool conversation about artistic process with her.

It's time to talk. And we're starting NOW.

I'm going to make you get comfortable with talking to others and looking inside yourself.

I’m so late with the #DiversityMeans kickoff that I’m horribly embarrassed. I don't curse often (in blog posts). But holy hell, y'all. I think I’m allergic to European internet. People work here. People are able to do their jobs in top, fast-paced fields. Surely the press and delegates attending the World Economic Summit in Davos, Switzerland, are able to connect at fast speeds. But, me? I'm that girl in the corner with the thick glasses and crazy hair, peering into her laptop and unintentionally giving the wrong impression that I know about things like connectivity, cloud storage, and humbldeydink drives. The truth? I can’t get a single video file to upload because… well… I’m inept. I’m perfectly good at taking in Alpine views and watching other people ski (I didn’t bring the Tin Man Oil that my knee seems to require). But a working vacation requires work. And I’ve been clumsy at doing so this time around!* But, I’m thrilled to announce that the campaign is ready to go. {Cuing mental cheers of hooray!} 

A dear friend (who was quoting her editor) once said “Nothing is too insignificant for the internet.”

Every day our social media feeds are inundated with listicles, weird news, and other tidbits. It can be fun, but sometimes it’s overwhelming to have so much content rolling before our eyes while more and more of it is devoid of real meaning. I love where I live. I’m appreciative of the rights I have. Especially when traveling abroad to progressive countries and finding that many things I take for granted aren’t so easy for every modern society. 

Like… you guessed it… the internet!

But here’s the rub… we while so many things come easily to Americans, we can’t talk about the things that are important. These topics are the rubber bands wrapped around the core of what entitles us to those rights.

MLK_Diversity_Means.jpg
  • Who qualifies as being a fellow human?

  • What makes them so?

  • How do we treat our fellow humans? The way we want to be treated?

  • Does that mean we have to be best friends?

  • Does this mean we have to understand each other?

It would seem that these questions should have already been solved by the scholars, priests and philosophers who shaped our human moral code, correct? Yet as the world grows smaller through the lens of listicles and blurbs, one might come to the conclusion that fewer people have received the messages of the sage ones than one would suppose--which I hope isn't actually true. 

As we peer even deeper into the wider population’s interpretation of these moral codes, we’re forced to examine the accuracy of those interpretations within ourselves. How are they stacking up to the original grand ideas that were once placed before us?

On American soil (and on other soil, but I don’t have enough knowledge to delve into that today), the cultural lexicon has managed to place the word diversity within the margins of these big questions.  

'Diversity', as a word, has been removed from it’s original context.

'Diversity' has become a cultural marker for discomfort. 

'Diversity' has become something that gauges how much self-evaluation we are capable of handling.

Tweet: 'Diversity' has become something that gauges how much self-evaluation we are capable of handling. ~@ShaniRGilchrist #DiversityMeans

Diversity is a touchy subject in the United States. One of the most poignant lessons I've been learning since I was old enough to think--but not quite old enough to articulate what I was thinking—is that the word diversity holds different internal meanings for everyone. According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of DIVERSITY is:

1 : the condition of having or being composed of differing elements : variety, especially : the inclusion of different types of people (as people of different races or cultures) in a group or organizations

2 : an instance of being composed of different elements or qualities : an instance of being diverse
— Merriam-Webster Dictionary; definition of diversity

Honestly, I was surprised to see the definition of the word written with so much modern cultural context. I don’t have proof at the moment, but I feel positive that 20 years ago the definition was much more scientific. 

The book I’m writing is technically a memoir, but in my case the genre (to allude to M-W again: a written account of someone or something that is usually based on personal knowledge of the subject) is a means to an end. I’m using my past experiences and those of my family as a doorway that opens onto a conversation people have never been willing to have. Nick Kristof’s idea of a White House-sanctioned truth and reconciliation commission on race in America seems to have gone unnoticed. Probably because stringing such words together makes 2015’s political players a bit hot and stuffy under the collar. We cheer and jeer at the outlandish Facebook posts of our contemporaries as candidates and analysts watch, leaving the professional political crowd to believe that the mention of a word as powerful as diversity will put the next voting cycle at risk. 

My memoir is truly geared toward an examination of the many ways diversity is treated by the varying mindsets that fill up the United States. I know my experience, but that falls flat if I don’t know more about yours. This is true of writing this book, but it’s also a fundamental factor in how we interact with fellow citizens on a daily basis. The less we discuss it, the more fearful we become of each other. The more fearful we become, the more vulnerable we become, as a nation, to opinion formation via mind-controlling marketing tactics.**

image via public domain. words via Dr. Martin King, Jr.

image via public domain. words via Dr. Martin King, Jr.

Are you ready to talk about it? Are you ready to burst through the discomfort to arrive at a place where we won’t cringe at the idea of examining our moral core?  

 

It’s actually going to be quite easy. You’ll forget that you’re learning anything. You’ll forget to sweat. I think you may even have quite a bit of fun.

shani_gilchrist_diversity_means.jpg

So, without further ado, I introduce #DiversityMeans--a social media/video campaign where I'll be interviewing individuals about what diversity REALLY means. Every other week I’ll post an interview via my YouTube Channel, asking the participant five questions:

  1. Off the top of your head, what is the “textbook” definition of DIVERSITY?

  2. What is your personal definition of DIVERSITY?

  3. How does this personal definition of DIVERSITY reflect or differ from the examples you saw or lessons you were taught growing up?

  4. Why is DIVERSITY is so polarizing?

  5. Will DIVERSITY ever just be a word?

In the meantime, we’ll be rotating these questions through social media channels on a weekly basis. This is your chance to talk about it. When you see one of the about questions asked with the corresponding hashtag, answer the question (don’t forget to add the #DiversityMeans tag, yourself!). You’ll receive bonus points if you retweet the week's question! ***

Since I’m the one pushing this on, it wouldn't be right for anyone but me to be the first guinea pig to answer the questions. So, without further ado, here’s my (slightly imperfect) YouTube video, featuring a look at what #DiversityMeans.

*admittedly, drinking hefeweizen in the bar with Aaron and his colleagues while waiting on uploads wasn't incredibly helpful. extremely fun, but not very good for expediting the task.

**There's going to be SO much on this later. Brace yourselves!

***be sure to follow me on twitter, facebook, pinterest!