The Hillbillies of California


(15-minute read)

No, not the Clampetts, although they had a great nine-season run. I’m talking about J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, a work that continues to hold a place on the New York Times bestseller list since its publication in 2016.

In his memoir, Vance’s family and history serve as a microcosm of the Appalachian hillbilly lifestyle, poverty-line warts and all. Among the inconsistencies, oversimplifications, and spotty logic, one thing stood out to me: The people Vance describes sound a lot like my family and childhood community. I didn’t grow up in Breathitt County, Kentucky, or Middletown, Ohio, but Duarte, California, a suburb of Los Angeles County.

All in the Family

To clarify—Vance’s tales sound a lot like my family minus the guns. Well, kinda. Thankfully, for a whole lot of reasons, we never had guns in our house. But, a lot of people I knew did, including my mom’s good friend Lorna Mae, who shot her husband E.J. with a shotgun. (He miraculously lived to tell about it.)

A contemporary trip to the Inland Empire—where some of my family and many of the people I grew up with now live—is more likely than not to land you in a shopping center with stores featuring one or more gun magazine racks. Shooting ranges abound—as one local website proclaims, “Nothing is more quintessentially Inland Empire than a day at the shooting range.” Any time I get a Facebook friend suggestion with a picture of a camouflage-clad hunter, kneeling and smiling with a rifle and a dead animal, it’s always of someone I grew up with.

Clinging to Guns and Religion


Like Vance’s childhood world, religion was also pervasive where I grew up, as it is now in the areas where Duarteans relocated to as adults. Kids are confused at best, mortified at worst when they see a schoolteacher in public. I was both when I saw my fifth-grade teacher, Mr. Sheehan, signing an anti-abortion petition at a table set up outside my family’s Catholic church. One of my high school’s graduating classes picketed after it was announced that prayer would no longer be part of the baccalaureate ceremony. The school put it back in.

Then there’s the military. Many men and women from my hometown honorably enlisted and served. For many of my cousins and all of my American uncles, it was a natural step on the way to adulthood. From WWII to Vietnam to Desert Storm and beyond, the military runs in the blood of many working-class Southern Californians.

A Mixed-Race, Suburban Bumpkin


Although far removed from “the holler,” my life in Duarte and Vance’s childhood anecdotes share further similarities, some oddly parallel.

  • Vance’s church warned of Satanic rock lyrics. My father took my little brother and me to a church meeting once, where a white guy with an Afro played Stairway to Heaven backwards. We were terrified.
  • Like Vance, I grew fearful when my drunken parent (my father) threatened to crash the car—with my mom, my older brother, and me in it.
  • At a young age, I had one pair of shoes, but like Vance, I had access to books. My father beamed whenever the Scholastic Book Club order arrived at school. He was there to pay cash on delivery.
  • Like Vance’s beloved “Mamaw,” so many key people “saved” me—my Aunt Blos and Aunt Sister Maggie from Jamaica; my Aunt Cecelia who lived in La Puente, California; plus nuns, priests, teachers, and track coaches—providing valuable lessons that combined equal measures of hard knocks, kindness, and discipline.
  • When I graduated from Stanford University and got my first salaried position (as an editorial assistant), I paid for my mother’s at-home nursing care, just as Vance covered his mother’s hotel room during her drug rehabilitation.

From fast food to ubiquitous expletives to police calls for domestic disputes, the people I grew up with shared many habits, values, and morals with Vance’s home community. At their core lay hard work, family values, love of country, and a belief in the American Dream.

How does all of this translate to socioeconomics? More importantly, how can two seemingly disparate cultures such as the ones that Vance and I represent bridge divides and identify common ground? Why aren’t we all raising shared hell over our current place in the socioeconomic cosmos?

What Doesn’t Kill Us….

Even though Vance now occupies space in the 1% and I’m closer to the 10%, being raised in an America-loving, Bible-worshipping, family-honoring, yet economically marginal environment can lead to certain behaviors. Again, Vance and I share a few things in common here, especially as economic minorities who went on to achieve—in our own ways and to different degrees—odds-defying levels of success. “Even at my best, I’m a delayed explosion,” he writes. “I can be defused, but only with skill and precision.” Thankfully, Vance has his wife Usha, whom he met in law school (on a financial-need-based scholarship) to keep him in line. She’s often there to remind him that it’s better to walk away from a potential altercation than to invite unnecessary trouble.

Where I grew up, a putdown—particularly a racial epithet—could land you in the hospital or worse. You just didn’t “talk about my mama.” Despite my own, current mild manners, I used to have a tendency to throw things—never at people, mind you—an impulse I’ve only recently conquered. Things I’ve lobbed, chucked, or otherwise propelled include DVDs, potatoes, and my fist into a door. Like Vance, I’ve overcome a habit of simply walking out of a room when an argument isn’t going my way. My own wife, Sarah, helps me be my better self in these moments.

Vance and I are both survivors. We share a somewhat reciprocal history. Which is to say—seems like there’s something more to our stories than geography.

The Story of (Poor) Us


While there are certainly many cultural and regional differences between large parts of Southern California and Vance’s Appalachia—notwithstanding pockets of the middle and upper middle class—there are enough similarities to make his story a universal elegy for the working and nonworking poor.

Why not connect Appalachia to a broader story of the dispossessed?

Of course, Vance is focused on the world he knew and knows best—that of poor, white America. My town—and my family—was mostly shades of Black and Brown, although it was also surprisingly diverse. Still, isn’t his past a larger narrative of America’s underprivileged? And wouldn’t the issues he raises be better served by viewing them through a universal lens?

Vance is a conservative, I’m a card-carrying progressive. How can people from such similar backgrounds develop such different political leanings?

I’ll get to that in a moment. But first….

About Those Inconsistencies

“Jackson, [Ohio,] like the Blanton men, is full of contradictions.”
– J.D. Vance

So is Vance’s book.

Vance insightfully points out the complexities and advantages of payday lending—instead of simply calling for its elimination—yet castigates the entire Democratic Party for programs that enable “welfare queens” and the purchase of T-bone steaks. Later, he laments how a young man, with whom he’s sharing a fast food meal, seems ashamed to ask, “almost in a whisper: ‘I wonder if I could get a few more French fries?’.” Where’s the talk of complexity here? How can it be pitiful to not ask for food, but also wrong to insist on steak? Is Vance suggesting that it’s okay and expected for people to ask for, in common right-wing parlance, “free stuff,” just so long as the government’s not involved?

It’s a contradiction to blame people for not getting their shit together, while at the same time pointing out what hillbillies don’t know—what it’s impossible for them to know—that would allow them to get ahead. Whether through social education or a “government program,” the fact remains that certain knowledge or access increases the chances of success.

Hillbilly Elegy is persuasive and well-researched at some points, simplistic and incomplete at others. He goes into great detail around a study conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research that shows people who go to church are healthier, happier, and live longer than non-churchgoers. The actual study results reveal a focus not on the act of going to church, but “being in an area with more co-religionists” (i.e., having a stable community). It “does not investigate the mechanism through which religiosity creates these results.”

The study suggests four possibilities for its results:

  1. Religious attendance increases the number of social interactions in a way particular to religious settings.
  2. Religious institutions provide financial and emotional ‘insurance’ that help people mitigate their losses when setbacks occur.
  3. Attendance at religious schools may be an advantage.
  4. Religious faith may simply improve well-being directly by enabling the faithful to be “less stressed out by the problems of everyday life.”

Hillbilly Elegy doesn’t explore any of these deeper shades of meaning. In fact, studies have found similar results among such groups as the Japanese and soldiers with strong personal relationships. In other words, tight-knit communities.

While Vance clearly describes certain issues—for instance, ACEs, which he defines as “traumatic childhood events [whose] consequences reach far into adulthood”—he skimps on others. One such instance is the racism surrounding Obama’s presidency.

Vance explains why hillbillies don’t like Obama and why so many of them didn’t believe he was a US citizen:

“Many of my new friends blame racism for this perception of the president [being a foreign-born Muslim with ties to Islamic extremists]. But the president feels like an alien to many hillbillies for reasons that have nothing to do with skin color. Recall that not a single one of my high school classmates attended an Ivy League School. Barack Obama attended two of them and excelled at both. He is brilliant, wealthy, and speaks like a constitutional law professor—which, of course, he is. Nothing about him bears any resemblance to the people I admired growing up: His accent—clean, perfect, neutral—is foreign; his credentials are so impressive that they’re frightening; he made his life in Chicago, a dense metropolis; and he conducts himself with a confidence that comes from knowing that the modern American meritocracy was built for him. Of course, Obama overcame adversity in his own right—adversity familiar to many of us—but that was long before any of us knew him.”

Was Obama the first president to attend an Ivy League school? Did that pedigree stop hillbillies from voting for George H. W. Bush, or George W. Bush, or John F. Kennedy, the last Democratic president they elected since they voted for Truman in 1948? Have hillbillies never supported someone wealthy for president—for instance, someone who currently holds that position who has a net worth of $3.5 billion? Did their religious fanaticism not allow them to identify with Obama singing Amazing Grace at Senator Clementa Pinckney’s funeral? Was Mitt Romney more “down home” than Obama, who consistently slammed Romney’s “47%” comment—such as in their second presidential debate, where Obama defended the rights of people on Social Security “who’ve worked all their lives,” veterans “who’ve sacrificed for this country,” students, soldiers and “people working hard every day”? Isn’t this many of them? Did they, of the witty comeback, also miss Obama’s various disses, burns, and retorts—his many shades of throwing shade?

What president, however “alien,” has ever been mistaken for a terrorist?

When did Vance and hillbillies discover Obama’s story of adversity? How long could it possibly have taken to get to know him? This clearly didn’t happen during the 2004 Democratic National Convention, where Obama shared his story in the keynote address. It obviously wasn’t during four years of getting to know him as President of the United States. At what point did hillbillies “know” Obama?

We have to call it what it is. This is racism. Plus, Obama’s not the only one who benefitted from “the system.”

Social Capital Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Vance points out the system of meritocracy—which both he and I benefitted from. How does it work, and how can a poor Southern/Southern Californian hillbilly buy into it?

Vance offers detailed (and humorous) stories of navigating the social clubs and norms of the affluent. He spits out his first sip of sparkling water, not unlike my initial forays into fine dining. “What? It costs how much for this tiny ravioli and a leaf?”

Still, Vance and I developed different views on how social capital should be spent. For him, the network is fueled, aided, and abetted by a narrative of personal responsibility, of tapping into the network to mine its greatest advantages and stride headily into the “American Dream.”

This is the dichotomy of social conditioning, the bellwether not of personal responsibility, but personal growth—the confirmation that two people can have similar experiences and yet come to vastly different conclusions.

It’s another big difference between Vance and my landing points, at least by the time of his writing Hillbilly Elegy—he focuses on personal responsibility, I focus on compassion-infused government policy.

After all, I received a very contrasting payoff from my investment in social capital—the eventual understanding that certain barriers have to be brought down before people can even pretend to be their best selves. I believe not in using my experience to pen bossy missives or dictate what others should do, but to provide help and resources, partner with others seeking deeper solutions to social ills, and agitate for systemic change so that people can more freely decide for themselves.

Vance does allow for some level of government intervention and reform. He can’t be painted as inhumane or coldhearted. His calls for Appalachians to “do better” are sincere and come from a good place. He wants the best for his community.

Perhaps, then, a common starting point is precisely those economic realities that keep Appalachians, southern Californians, and so many other neglected communities locked in cycles of poverty, or that keep them several, gaping steps away from the middle class.

The Road to Success Is a Rope Bridge

I’ll say it again: certain knowledge and access increases the chances of success. Vance is well aware of this.

He discusses how he had people “helping me every step of the way.” He essentially became a recipient of what author and historian Ibram X. Kendi describes as social affirmative action—the unwritten rule that says if you’re white, you gain the “affirmative action” of nepotism and biased standardized tests.

As Betsy Radar writes in the Washington Post, “What does motivate most people is the belief that the future can be better and that we have a realistic opportunity to achieve it. But sometimes that takes help.” J.D. Vance maintains that this belief can’t be legislated. While I believe he’s ultimately right, his life is a perfect case study of Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs—if you don’t have access to a decent standard of living, a feeling of safety, and a sense of belonging, you can hardly start thinking about self-esteem and realizing a higher purpose.

Also as of the writing of his book, Vance seemed to be at the beginning of his journey toward self-actualization, of greater empathy. This state of compassion—in Vance, myself, and others—can lead precisely to the self-esteem and self-actualization that Vance so badly wants for his people. To describe the way to get there, I’ll use a football metaphor: the offensive line must defend and clear the way for the quarterback, so that he can make the most successful play and score a touchdown.

What’s in a Community?

Vance calls for his community to “wake the hell up” and help each other navigate the difficult terrain towards the American Dream. Despite not going into greater detail on the religious study he cites, he eventually (and correctly) identifies community as the essential ingredient missing from the hillbilly status quo. Where exactly does community stop and good government begin, though? Communities can band together and protest. They can refuse to participate or cooperate with corrupt governments.

But, how can community alone solve the systemic dilemmas of a massively corrupt and unjust prison system, government surveillance, legislation of bedrooms and bathrooms, and predatory banking and business practices and systems?

And, as Vance points out, even if industry and jobs were to increase in a certain location, people must be able to afford to live and purchase there. How can economic barriers be removed and greater job security ensured? The great problems of our day require even greater solutions. Good and effective government can help.

We Can Do This

We live in a period of great innovation. As engineers, scientists, and visionaries create new technologies, medicines, and ways of existing in a globalized world, those who adapt and expand their worldview will be best equipped to navigate change. “Thinking outside of the box” will no longer be just a business cliché, but a new model for broadening our perspectives and recognizing that our commonalities are greater than our differences.

Despite the similarities, as I’ve stated, Vance is conservative and I’m a progressive. I agree that at some point, people have to be the masters of their own destinies. But here’s the thing: We have to identify systemic barriers that make it literally impossible to be master of anything. Once these are brought down, then personal choices can lead the way. This requires a combination of empathy, strategic thinking, and good, accountable government. It calls for broad, bold ideas, and levels of complexity and nuance that don’t often appear in current, mainstream dialogue.

I think we can get there.

There are some significant economic differences between Appalachia and the Inland Empire: the latter has distribution centers for large employers such as Toyota, Whirlpool, and APL Logistics. It has booming industries including construction, retail, healthcare, and transportation; ports for imported cargo; and large police and military forces. The area is projected to be California’s fastest-growing region, but it’s also expected to maintain the lowest wages. Unemployment has been above the national average since 2007 and many rely on public assistance.

Appalachia and Inland Empire aren’t isolated places. They share characteristics with other areas of the U.S.—and the world—where a sense of pride, belonging, and community are increasingly at risk. Theirs is a global story, of opportunity on the one hand and struggle on the other. With some generous helpings of empathy, critical thinking, and government help, their economic destinies could very well trend positive.

Isn’t that a great thing to work towards?


The White Man’s Battalion


Study after study shows that implicit bias is alive and well in America. We have teachers who punish black students more than whites, folks who think “black”-sounding names belong to someone violent, and professors who favor white males over, well, everyone else.

Let’s admit it. Racism is a blood-soaked thorn in the nation’s side.

To be fair, we have to define what we mean by “whites,” especially as we’ll use it here, since someone will inevitably brandish the “not all white people” defense. More specifically, we should define the “white voter,” since this is the person we’re ultimately targeting in this article. Well, not all white voters….

In Brown Is the New White, Steve Phillips writes:

“It is useful, and more or less accurate, to think of America’s White population as divided into roughly equal thirds. We’re not talking about mathematically precise 33-33-percent segments, mind you, but broadly speaking, three large chunks of White folks. One-third can be classified as progressive, one-third as solidly conservative, and one-third in the middle … About one-third of Whites have generally tried to side with and stand for justice for people of color.”

We’re interested in just one of these thirds. Progressives, we’re looking at you.

There’s been a lot of chatter—both online and in newly mobilized political action groups—about the best way to put the country back on a progressive course. One piece of the narrative goes something like this:

     “We have to talk to Trump supporters.”

     “We have to reach across the aisle.”

     “The Democrats should be out talking to Trump supporters.”

We’re also hearing things like:

     “The Democratic Party is beyond repair.”

     “This is the DNC’s fault.”

These are quotes I’ve heard directly—from mostly white men.

Here’s what Cinemulatto proposes: in addition to everything else we’re doing to move the country left, let’s consider all of the above and advocate for a White Man’s Battalion.

Imagine. What if some of us assume the Democratic Party alone can’t pull it together by the 2018 midterm elections? What if white voters by and large display the same bias of certain professors, teachers, and many others, and aren’t as convinced by people of color exhorting them to vote in their own interest? What if “reaching across the aisle” becomes an effective weapon in our nonviolent arsenal to help swing the country left?

The best person to do this is the white progressive male (WPM).

Dear WPMs: Don’t wait for the Democratic Party. Certainly don’t wait for the sudden rise of a magical third party or an existing, ineffectual one to somehow leap ahead of the centuries-old brands of Democrat and Republican (maybe Democratic Socialist—maybe).

Organize. Book your flights, hotel rooms, and Airbnb vacations, and hit the Midwestern and southern states. Descend upon bars, hotel restaurants, sporting events, fishing holes, golf courses, auto shops, shooting ranges, fast food joints, construction sites, Walmarts, unemployment offices, trailer parks, prefabs, and wherever else white Republican men and women assemble—preferably those getting burned by the current administration.

Then, reach across the aisle. Talk to people and hear their concerns. Do the ground work of showing them how the government screws them over. If the percentage of people who know someone gay can skyrocket from 25 in 1985 to 74 in 2000, let’s use that same tactic. “Come out” to your white brethren and form the emotional bond that’ll win them over to our side. They just might listen to you.

You can do this. We’re rooting for you.


Here’s What I Plan to Tell My Daughter About Trump’s Win

peaceloveequalityWhile my 4-year-old daughter still sleeps, before I tell her anything, I’ll take stock of what happens for me now—mourn for however long it takes, because mourning is a natural and expected part of healing. Mourn until sadness has run its course. Stay down until the emotional time is right to get back up. Accept the outcome and try to understand why so many white, working class people who voted for Obama and hope in 2008 and 2012 switched this time around, and voted for someone peddling hatred and despair. Try and place myself in their shoes to the extent that I can.

When she finally wakes up—perhaps yelling out for Mommy and Mama from the comfort of her warm bed, or running into the kitchen hugging her loyal Minnie Mouse doll—and asks about the election results, I’ll tell her Donald Trump won. That this is okay. I’ll hug her and let her know we live in a country that thankfully allows us to vote every two years, plus every four years, and that there are millions of people, our family included, who will continue working for justice and equality in America, who seek to understand the sources of difference and divisiveness, who want to bring people together. That if we keep trying, we can do anything, no matter how long it takes. We’ll celebrate our big local and state victories—our district supervisory race, the U.S. Senate, and measures to ensure a better quality of life for many, many people.

I’ll tell her that Hillary Clinton brought a lot of people together, and I’ll let her know how smart, hard working, and kind she is. I’ll tell her that Donald Trump gave a nice acceptance speech, because “nice” is language a 4-year-old can relate to and run with. I’ll tell her that the best possible thing we can do when we’re feeling sad is to let ourselves have our feelings, then get back up and do the necessary things to continue making our city, our country, and the world a wonderful and just place.

Then, when the dust settles and the grief passes from the stages of my denial, anger, and sadness into our family’s promise and ability to keep going, and our acceptance of the status quo, we’ll do what so many of our mentors, role models, and heroes have always done—keep moving forward. Plan, build, and bind. Get back up.

Faith-Based Charity:
Personal Material, Political Art, and Creative License

In 2005, I created a 16mm short film, Faith-Based Charity, which premiered at the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival. Having thought for many years how about I would ever capture anything of the relationship I had with my mother, I settled primarily on the power of make-believe, fabricating an unlikely scenario between a young white woman and an older black mother.

It became much easier to couch the story in the sociopolitical terms of race, class, and age, while staying true to the overall motifs of loss, sacrifice, the often strange havens we create for ourselves, and mental and emotional well-being.

Interestingly, this was the last film I created with a mostly male crew. It was a positive experience and everyone I worked with was fantastic. Still, it was a turning point for me. In the downstairs area we used as a green room, where my wife spent most of her time alone to stay focused and prep for each scene, I realized that despite the personal material and the wonderful time I had coaching my wife in her role, there was definitely something missing. Or, something I wanted more of, which was the feeling I had creating something with my wife—not only a sense of being held by and holding a community, but being able to bring more of a community feel to a movie set in general.

Since then, my movie sets have been more like gatherings. I hope it shows in the work I create. Perhaps the set of Faith-Based Charity was indeed the start of a small “something larger,” and now I always strive to not only harmonize content and form, but to also view story as process, and to value cast and crew as community.


Are We in the Middle of the Next Black Renaissance?

BlackLivesMatterIn The New Jim Crow, author and legal scholar Michelle Alexander charts the history of different Black rights movements in the United States, and the counter-efforts that rolled back important social, political, and cultural advances that these movements engendered.

Reconstruction followed slavery, but Jim Crow stymied further attempts at Black liberation and social betterment. The Civil Rights Movement ended Jim Crow, only for poor Blacks to face stringent tough-on-crime laws and the War on Drugs, leaving one in every 15 Black men incarcerated.

Now, we have Black Lives Matter. More people are learning about the racial disparities of our prison system, our jobs, our schools, and other institutions. At the same time, musicians like Kendrick Lamar and Beyoncé are creating unapologetic pro-Black music and videos, powered by young masterminds like Kahlil Joseph and Warsan Shire.

In journalism, TV, fiction, and film, Ta-Nehisi Coates continues the legacy of James Baldwin, while Hilton Als, Ava Duvernay, Jacqueline Woodson, Edward P. Jones, Viola Davis, Kerry Washington, Channing Dungey, and so many others lead the current surge of Black creativity and power.

We’re also in a period of hyper-awareness. Not only do more and more people protest Hollywood’s continued casting of non-white roles with white actors — we’ve now upped the ante and gone even deeper, debating the casting of such roles as Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone. At the same time, we’re still seeing so many Black firsts in healthcare, in government, and in such uncommon headlines as Warren Shadd and his achievement of being the first Black piano manufacturer.

Despite recurring periods of cultural, political, and social forces repelling and subjugating it, Black culture in the United States has always gone underground, revived, and then resurged. Are we now experiencing another confluence all at once — a cultural, political, and artistic renaissance?

I touched base with several Black writers, actors, activists, and intellectuals — even a soul food critic — and asked: are we in the middle of the next Black Renaissance?

Ernest Waddell, Actor

Ernest on IMDB

I think we’re in a time where the US is becoming more tolerant of Black excellence and Black ideas. And maybe as a result, there are now more Black people who are willing to take more creative risks. I also think the Internet has given all people more of a voice. The creative renaissance of 50 years ago, 20 years ago even, seems limited to accessibility.

Rebecca Kent, Documentary Producer, Plus Pictures and CBS News

The Black Panthers, Vanguard of the Revolution

With the heightened awareness of acts of police brutality and daily acts of social injustice, we have seemingly arrived at a tipping point in Black culture which has increased Black cultural production. We’re living in a time ripe with unapologetic expression against systems of oppression through politics, song, film, and art. From Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly to Beyoncé’s Formation, artists and artistic expression have taken on a more radical tone.

While Formation has of course inspired numerous critical essays listing its merits and deficiencies, one thing is clear — it has caused much conversation and debate. Her song provided the perfect vehicle to reach the masses and infiltrate popular culture, to initiate conversations and to hopefully affect change.

Adrian Miller, Soul Food Scholar

Adrian’s website

There’s definitely more interest in African American cuisine these days, but not where one would expect. Of the various riffs on traditional soul food, the most creative energy comes from those cooking vegan soul food. That’s right, no meat with your greens, and no dairy in all of those glorious desserts. Also, the hottest soul food spot in the world is . . . Paris, France! Just in the last two weeks, I’ve gotten interview requests from French media about soul food. This fascinates me because soul food still gets a mixed reception in its home country because many see it as inherently unhealthy and essentially slave food unworthy of celebration. It’s like the 1920s all over again.

Adrienne Kennedy, Playwright

Adrienne’s blog

Do not see a Renaissance coming.

It strikes me that when my husband and I came to New York in January 1955, and he was in grad school at Columbia and I took a few writing courses at the New School, etc., that we were in a Renaissance.

Perhaps it was because I was young — Hansberry Ellison Baldwin Brooks were all to follow. …….the Village overflowed with Miles Charlie Mingus midtown Birdland Joe Williams Dizzy Count Basie and so many more. Poitier arrived at the movies.   ………but paramount was the attitude toward young blacks. our age…….the world seemed far more in tune to us and all of the above as. people. Now always we are this entity African Americans…… …..  and this antecedent.  ….increasingly by American Society seems to carry a burdensome troublesome meaning……….about us.

We are not heading toward a Renaissance. I cannot see this. No matter what our brilliance we are chained to these old definitions. A Renaissance it would seem to me has to be a world that has
rid itself of those old clichés before the new can flourish …and be defined as such. Still.

no definition. is needed for Louis Armstrong. and I cling to no definition just infinite struggle.

Adrienne Kennedy

Nafis White, MFA Candidate Digital + Media, Rhode Island School of DesigN

Nafis’ website

“Are we in the middle of the next Black Renaissance?”

When I was first asked this question I thought, well of course we’re in a Black Renaissance, because we’re seeing blackness in all its beauty all around us, all the time, and ain’t that glorious!!! To see all this representation and to see all this artistry growing where it wasn’t before, or perhaps we may think it wasn’t prevalent before.

Somewhere between the 1920s and the 1980s not much was happening, or was it? But then I got to thinking about the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s, and the New Black Renaissance of the present day, and about why I feel that all of a sudden there’s such a crop of talent the world over, of melanin-laden, blessed women and men doing the damn thing.

I started wondering about representation and about what was happening in the 60’s and 70’s with Black Art and who the players were then. We had Melvin Edwards, Betye Saar, Adrian Piper, David Hammons, Fred Wilson, Senga Nengudi, Maren Hassinger, Noah Purifoy, Glenn Ligon, and a host of others, yet these artists, though credited now, were not widely recognized then, and some might argue that they’re still not widely known or given their due.

I recall seeing a stirring exhibition while in New York at PS1 in 2013, called “Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles,” curated by Kellie Jones, Associate Professor in the Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University, and I felt that all of a sudden, Black artists had been made visible who weren’t there in my lexicon and my life before, and it saddened me that these prolific artists were just under the radar.

Through reading Double Consciousness: Black Conceptual Art since 1970, I discovered some unknown players and kept adding to my knowledge of Black greats all across the scene. I love Jean-Michel Basquiat, but there are so many more people that should be made available, visible to us, and this exhibition and book got me looking and questioning why these brilliant people were absent to me for so long, especially as a fine artist who is part of the African Diaspora.

Why a Black Renaissance, and why now? We have so many gifted Black artists on the scene and so many up and coming. There is Toyin Odutola, Simone Leigh, Sanford Biggers, Carrie Mae Weems, Yinka Shonibare, Hank Willis Thomas, and Jacolby Satterwhite, Juliana Huxtable, and Niv Acosta and so, so, so many more hundreds of brilliant beings doing what they love and making immense gains and inspiring us all.

Carrie Mae Weems, from Kitchen Table Series, 1990
Carrie Mae Weems, from The Kitchen Table Series

I feel that the reason why we’re so acutely aware of all these talented people now has a lot to do with social media and the transference of information across the Internet. We have so much access and are able to find talent everywhere with a few searches.

Decades ago, you may have had to follow a crowd to find Hammons or Saar, or be in the know with curators or museums, or get lucky through word of mouth and underground artist communities. Now, you can reach out and find your artist family so much more easily. Technology allows us to make connections and collaborations so much more readily.

So, the answer to the question of, are we in the middle of the next Black Renaissance is yes, a resounding YES!, all the while knowing that there was an enormous amount of Black pioneers making art back in the day, in the 60’s and 70’s and 80’s. We don’t know many as household names because they weren’t widely sold, represented, or known, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t there or that they are forever gone from memory. They can be found.

Now, we thankfully can find artists more easily, and we can celebrate them while they are still alive. That is one of the many gifts of technology — we get to be a little closer while we’re all here on this wonderful planet. Don’t know Kerry James Marshall? Get in touch. Barely heard of Theaster Gates? Betta look him up. Curious about Faith Ringgold? That beautiful sister is still walking this Earth. Didn’t know Betye Saar had a daughter named Alison? Who, what?? You guessed it, she’s an artist. Get into them!!

James Rucker, Co-Founder, Color of Change

James at Netroots Nation

Are we in the midst of a Black Renaissance? The answer in my view is yes, absolutely. From my youth through today, a period spanning approximately 40 years, me and most other Black Americans approached change-making with a degree of measure, and a willingness to make do — to push the envelope of culture to fight for inclusion and increasing justice, but not too much.

Sure, you had front-line activism and pockets of pushback, but the intellectual class would be split between marginalized revolutionary types (marginalized by essentially every quarter, white, Black, and otherwise) and those who sought to make change happen, largely within certain bounds set and blessed by mainstream society. There was the balancing act of acceptance of things as they were, on one hand, and pushing for change on the other.

Today is a different day, due in large part, I think, to younger folks who’ve taken a fresh look at our country’s history — including not only the plight of Black people but others who’ve been poorly served or oppressed — then taking stock of the status quo and what justice should look like, and then demanding step-wise, not gradual, change towards justice.

I recall as a young software engineer, wanting to bring in more Black engineers into companies in which I worked but at the same time was careful to not rock the boat and attempt to bring in too many. Contrast this with a lawyer I met few years ago who is part of a well-known high-flying startup’s legal team. In response to boss’ goal of diversification, he brought in only Black lawyers for interviews to fill a set of open positions. When questioned about why all the candidates he brought in were Black, he explained that if the company wanted diversity, he was going to bring it. He was playing from a different playbook.

Similarly, after nearly a decade of running and supporting political organizations that both worked on the inside and outside of government, with arguably the most aggressive large-scale campaigns in existence, I saw young organizers throwing down with unapologetic ferocity, dismissing the idea of respectability politics, yet operating with a clear sense of strategy, context, and history. I believed I was witnessing a reinvention of the playbook for creating political and social change.

I’m talking of Black Lives Matter and similar efforts, which risked a backlash from other Black people, and certainly most non-Black Americans. Yet they are withstanding the backlash, changing the perception of what is possible and appropriate and embracing intersectionality (for them, it’s not about Black people alone, but freedom and love of humanity across the board). And there are hundreds of these folks, if not more — powerful organizers who are connected and operating within the same paradigm.

For the last few generations, Black Americans have operated within a context of extreme injustice, yet being largely polite. This despite our communities having been decimated by racist policies that affect mobility, dignity, and freedom, as well as the simple ability to live stable and happy lives. In the face of that, we have been taught — and reflected back to each other — that success is to withstand it and attempt incremental change.

It isn’t just the set of groups and efforts that fall within the Movement for Black Lives, or what may seem to be a new frontline of activism. That’s simply one facet of the kind of change in front of us. The rise of public intellectuals like Ta-Nehisi Coates, Michelle Alexander, journalists like Shaun King — people who have gained a strong prominent voice both in the eyes of Black America and people of conscience within American in general — is testament to something bigger. And while there has been backlash, for sure, progressive white Americans are being given a more accurate report card of the state of affairs in America than has ever been present during my lifetime.

And while the work of this community of activists, intellectuals, artists, and funders, is centered on Black liberation, the landscape of problems and the push for solutions is broader. There is a critique of systems of oppression, whomever they oppress, and it is anchored by the notion of human liberation.

Activists often quote the words of Assata Shakur: “It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.” On the one hand, this is about those taking major risks to achieve change speaking to each other, but I’ve repeatedly witnessed these activists speaking of their desire for increased humanity and freedom for all — even for those who are in opposition, and who are part of maintaining the status quo, actively or passively.

And these voices, these Black Americans, not only speak to a new view of liberation, but they themselves largely embody it in their individual and collective identities. For them, it’s not just that who is in the fold of being loved and deserving of justice is broad, but some of the most powerful voices are LGBTQ, female, and young (and often a combination) who are not only dedicated to Black liberation, but human liberation, and beyond the borders of the United States.

Aimee Allison, Author and Activist

Aimee’s website

We are in a Black Renaissance, and it is led by Black women. Look at the freedom in hair styles, large and creative. Hear the powerful voices leading the Civil Rights movement of our day, demanding accountability from candidates, entertainers, the masses. Make them say the names of those abused and killed on the state’s dime.

There isn’t a hint of pleading, or relying on a better moral nature. It heeds Shirley Chisholm’s call to demand power directly. It draws in people from communities who themselves have suffered. Our Renaissance unifies. See how women won’t play second to any man, including Black men who expected race to be more important than being a women.

Nope, it’s intersectional all the time, and this Renaissance embraces the nuance of identity on the scales of race and sex and sexuality. Notice that we’re stronger because we lead nuance. Pick up a copy of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, and her sparse, powerful words lead a national struggle to understand what it’s like to live under racism daily. It’s a bestseller for a reason.

And read this: Black women have the highest voter turnout of any race, any gender, any group of voters. We have the power to choose presidents now. But we’ve been the most ignored power block.

Our new-style Black power comes when we tell the Democrats that we won’t let our backs be the path to the White House without our vision, our change, our leadership. Our voices are no longer silent or stigmatized as Bill Clinton found out when he tried to “Sistah Soldier” Black Lives Matter protesters last month. That doesn’t fly in this Black Renaissance.

We’re bold now, with many voices, many leaders. We define trends on Twitter. We can do a collective take-down fast when racism tries to pull a fast one. It’s ‘no more White tears’ and ‘it’s not for you.’ Yes, an amazing time to be Black in America because despite it all, we’re finding new strength, courage, and influence.

Aimee Allison’s new book, She the People: The New Politics of Women of Color, is out in September 2016.


3 Reasons Why People Should Talk Politics on Social Media

Over 14% of the entire world is on Facebook. Let that sink in for a minute….

And on and on. That’s not including Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, or Snapchat. So, it’s safe to say that a huge chunk of the world is on social media.

What does this mean for political discourse? Many folks get quite riled up during online discussions — and social media has brought out the worst of the trolls. The result of such conversations includes but is not limited to anger, hatred, obsession, and night sweats.

Be that as it may, Cinemulatto believes the statistics provide three reasons why we should all be talking about politics on social media.

This is the “national discourse” we’ve been waiting for.

Hell, it’s the international discourse. Although the posts we see tend to align with our political views, if we happen to comment, share, or like anything that “the other side” posts, there’s a strong likelihood we’ll start seeing that side’s news and views.

Didn’t our college Feminism 101, Ethnic Studies, and Political Science courses all stress the importance of “national dialogue”? With 14% of the world on Facebook, for instance, isn’t this the best (and only) possible place to engage in such dialogue with potentially hundreds of friends and non-friends, instead of a 10-student discussion section?

The algorithm knows.

Social media knows what evils lurks in the hearts of men (and women, and tweens, and marketers). Again, from the info above, we know that our social media activity informs the posts that show up in our feed. The more we discuss, the more likely we are to get more information on the politics shaping the status quo, for better or worse.

I was recently castigated on Facebook for having only three Republican friends in the non-social media ‘real world’. In a rare moment of unbridled comment anger, I cursed him out then blocked him (insert self-satisfied emoticon here). The unpleasant and woebegone asshole claimed that communicating with Republicans on social media didn’t count.

Do Republicans stop being people once they start typing? Is Facebook not representative of the general population? (Stating here for the third time: 14%.)

When all is said and done, it’s okay to weed people out.

Like so many others on social media, I’ve gotten back in touch with people from the past I might never have otherwise encountered again. These include people from high school. Relatives I haven’t seen since childhood. People I never knew existed but I now know are family members, or friends, or kindred social media spirits.

The odds, then, of interacting with people who have more differences than commonalities are dramatically increased. Another thing that skyrockets: the chances of finding out that someone who you trusted, respected, or even loved holds beliefs that you find rotten to the core. When this happens, it’s disappointing at best and distressing at worst. Still, perhaps without such open discussion, we’d never know what “lurks within”.

I’ll keep talking politics on social media. At the very, very least, it keeps my brain active and makes me think about that other side. Trolls be damned.




They Aren’t Riots, They’re Rebellions

The Harlem Riots of 1964

Before a single black person ever set foot on American soil, there was police brutality. Seized from their loved ones, rounded up and herded, and forced to endure the unspeakable cruelties of the Middle Passage, before and from day one, black lives were brutalized, dehumanized, and “kept in their place.”

Despite the Emancipation Proclamation, Reconstruction, Civil Rights Movement, and a black president, some of the same structures are still in place, ones that served to oppress an entire people. In all of the online and media discussions of racism, riots, and police brutality, it’s important to remember, recognize, and raise those voices that continually remind us that our nation continues to exist on a continuum.

The first police forces in black communities were slave drivers and overseers. White “slave patrols” were employed solely for the purpose of policing slaves and capturing runaways. The first “riots” were slave rebellions; leaders like Nat Turner, or slaves armed with hand tools in the 1811 German Coast Uprising, were killed and suppressed by white militias and/or the U.S. armed forces. Drapetomania, long since debunked, was defined as a mental illness that caused black slaves to flee captivity.

This long history of blaming the black victim, dishing out sentences not commensurate to the crime, and holding black lives to a different standard than white ones (where you can lose your life for selling cigarettes illegally, or walking in the middle of the street, or sitting in a car), must come to bear in any discussion of what’s happening in Baltimore, and what happened in Harlem in 1935 (or 1943, or 1964), or 1967 in Newark, or Baltimore in 1968, or any other place in America where African Americans dared to rebel against police brutality, poverty, and being fed up.

In his autobiographical novel, Manchild in the Promised Land, Claude Brown writes of blacks moving from the post-slavery South to the “promised land” of the North, only to find “one of the most important aspects of the promised land: it was a slum ghetto.” Yes, African Americans have made great strides. Yes, there are more African American men in college than in jail. Yes, we have more African Americans in positions of power, on boards and in boardrooms, and signing multi-million-dollar contracts than ever before. Still, the seemingly intractable problem of American racism is one that, until we solve it, will mean that we’re far, far away from a post-racial society.

So, the next time anyone tells you that slavery is over, that those participating in protest—whether it’s violent or peaceful—are “thugs,” remind them of the continuum. This is our history, the ugly blemish on our culture that we seem unable to make go away. Until those in power—both politically and culturally—recognize it for what it is and take steps to help solve the many related issues from the ground up (poverty, lack of opportunity, institutionalized racism…the list goes on), there’s gonna be a whole lotta burnin’ goin’ on.


A Few Notes on Forgiveness

Eva Kor

Happy 2015. It’s been awhile. I haven’t posted to this blog since November 26th, but I took a much-needed, end-of-year break to recuperate from multiple film productions and the ongoing physical and emotional demands of parenting.

However—I’ve been thinking about history, my own past, and my place in the genetic cosmos. In the process, I’ve also been continuing to contemplate the nature of forgiveness. When I studied abroad at Stanford in Oxford in the spring of 1990, I dated a young man whom we’ll call Peter (since that was his name). Whenever I stayed over at his place, he’d be up bright and early, and would leave way before I woke up. I finally asked him about this and he said his early morning trips were to the library, to “look for answers.”

I thought he was weird.

Now, so many years later, I’m in the middle of my own search for “answers.” It seems this has been accompanied by a mid-life crisis that’s been going on for about the last 20 years—or maybe not so much a crisis as an awakening. Or maybe I’m mistaking it for my Peruvian ayahuasca experience.

Whatever the cause, I find myself living life not necessarily as if each day is my last, but definitely with an awareness that each moment is filled with its own poetry. It’s a hyperawareness, a need to stay calm most of the time so that I don’t overwhelm anybody. I asked my psychotherapist wife recently if there’s such a thing as low-level bipolar disorder. She said yes.

I’ve posted here before about both my mother and my father, and about how I’ve largely forgiven my father for cruelties to my mother—hitting her, throwing water into her face, subjecting her to daily invective. Since then, I keep having flashbacks to moments of my father’s kindness I didn’t recognize as such at the time:

  • I used to collect aluminum cans in a bag, and every so often, my father would gather them, roll a cement block over to them, and crush the cans flat. We’d travel together to the local recycling center, where he’d give me the cash from my saved cans.
  • A staple for kids growing up in the 1970s was the Scholastic Book Club and their paper order forms jam-packed with a wide variety of children’s books. Whenever I brought the flyer home, my father would let me order whatever books I wanted (there must’ve been a limit). On book delivery day, he’d be there in the classroom, cash in hand, with a wide grin.
  • The first memory I have of my mother’s schizophrenia probably dates back to 1971 or 1972. I didn’t understand why she was standing on the other side of the room, acting so strangely. I know my younger brother wasn’t born yet. My older brother and I sat on our couch, our dad in the middle with an arm around each of us. I felt scared and protected at the same time.

The media would have us see things as clearly black or white—this or that, good or bad, either with us or against us. We’ve largely become a society of very little gray area, uncertainty, or “it depends”. We’d rather argue in absolutes.

I used to have absolute hatred for my father before maturing to the point of absolutely understanding he was a human being.

There have been far greater acts of mercy than what I’m going through with him. Eva Kor and The Forgiveness Project come to mind. If someone can forgive the men who, during the Holocaust, used human beings as lab rats, then I have no excuse for not making peace with my father. The memories that keep rolling in make it much easier.

Like Eva Cor, I haven’t forgotten, but I’ve forgiven.


Let Us Now Praise
Michael Brown

Like so many others this week, I feel angered, saddened, and almost defeated by the non-indictment of Darren Wilson for his murder of Michael Brown. People are taking to the streets, to social media, to workplace and public debate.

At the same time, Bill Cosby shares race-fueled headlines. Party People—a play about the legacy of the Black Panthers and current questions of solidarity, the sociopolitical climate, and “armchair activism”—continues at Berkeley Rep to sold-out, mostly white audiences. I saw it with my wife last Friday night. I’m also in the middle of reading
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, James Agee’s 1936 poetic exploration of the lives of three poor, white Alabama sharecropper families that he conducted with FSA photographer Walker Evans. They never told their subjects their intentions or that they were media men; they didn’t provide them with a copy of the completed book, much less payment or royalties.

In sum, I’m a big mess. But if we’ve learned anything from suffragettes, the Civil Rights Movement, the Student Movement, and any movement geared toward leveling the playing field for the disenfranchised, it’s that we can never give up. If we do, “they” win.

As a parent of two who’s admittedly afraid of getting hurt and otherwise a big old large-crowd wuss, I’m not protesting in the streets. There is a vital need for loud, large-scale protest, even if I don’t and can’t participate. Activism comes in varied forms.

I can at times be that armchair activist, who, after spirited polemics on social media and carefully considered arguments with friends and co-workers, signs petitions and calls elected representatives. These efforts seem in vain after another brown life has been lost. What else, I ask myself, can I do?

Martin Luther King said, “I have the audacity to believe that people everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for the minds and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits.” So, I commit to working from the ground up, to greater action in the ways I best know how. Here’s my plan for trying to affect change in small ways, with the understanding that progress is often the sum of its parts.

  1. Create a documentary that examines the lives of three contemporary families living on the margins, but pay the participants, self-distribute, and have all proceeds go to the families. Hire people from the communities in which the three families live.
  2. Periodically go through my possessions and give them away instead of taking them to places like Goodwill or Salvation Army.
  3. Volunteer to read books to underserved kids.
  4. Hire an intern from an underserved community to work on my films, and pay them.
  5. Organize healthy food drives (see
  6. Donate to causes that provide food, educational opportunity, cultural engagement, and avenues of dignity to underserved youth.
  7. Subsidize a youth’s trip to go see a socially relevant play, movie, or art exhibit.
  8. Take a family in need out to a meal.
  9. Take another family in need clothes shopping.
  10. Stretch goal: Raise funds to sponsor someone’s health insurance premiums for a year, preferably a family.
  11. Other stretch goal: Go through the list again and again. Add to it, refine, and grow it into something that’s part of who I am and how I exist in the world.

I’ll quote Johnny Rotten: “Anger is an energy.” The powers that be may have riot gear, but we have the incessant and unwavering energy—and ability—to be in many, many places at once, whether it’s online, in the streets, or behind a camera. There aren’t enough tanks for that, are there?

I’ll report back.


10 Things I’ll Force Upon My Employees After I Open a Religion-Based Business

Hobby Lobby won. Thanks to five men on the U.S. Supreme Court, the corporate human being of Hobby Lobby will no longer have to fund the odious sin of contraception committed by their female employees. Praise Jesus, who died specifically for our right to deny basic healthcare to wanton hussies and the men who boink them!

With the road paved for corporate religious freedom everywhere throughout our fair land, why not start our own religion-based business? Yeah, let’s do that, then make our employees abide by the tenets of our incorporated, moral pathway to the afterlife.

  1. Even though some very smart people have said the morning after pill does not cause abortion, it’s not a question of fact—it’s all about belief. So, we believe idolatry and obsession are the same thing. No more use of social media by any employee.
  2. Since we all have to honor our father and mother, no employee will ever be allowed to place their parent into a home for the elderly.
  3. Abortion is unnatural…and so is processed food. Junk food vending machines will be banned within a 50-mile radius of the company. Anyone caught eating or possessing junk food will be terminated immediately.
  4. Thou shalt not kill, but you can own a gun, but only if you open-carry that gun and not kill; you can only scare people and especially children. You can also scare corporations, which are people.
  5. If you’re an anti-gay employee who’s later found to be secretly frequenting gay clubs or other dens of iniquity, you will be turned into salt.
  6. Sex and pee-pees are dirty unless you’re married. Unless you provide us with a copy of your marriage certificate, your healthcare plan will not cover Viagra, erectile dysfunction drugs, penile implants, vasectomies, or circumcision.
  7. Related to number 6: all men are prohibited from purchasing condoms, sex dolls, and porn. We’ll be watching you.
  8. Anyone working on a Sunday will be stoned to death.
  9. You must love others as you love yourself. If you hate, disrespect, or dishonor anyone, this means you have a deep-seated feeling of self-loathing. Although we’re not doctors, we’ll diagnose you with borderline personality disorder. We’ll also deny you benefits to cover therapy.
  10. You have to attend all happy hours. We’re a happy fucking company, so act like it.

Welcome to the company! We love having you here!