Wednesday, November 30, 2016

WHITE PRIVILEGE WHITE RESPONSIBILITY

"The country now finds itself at a particularly dangerous moment, with advocates of discrimination and hate emboldened as they have not been for decades."
New York Times, November 22, 2016




Does my white male privilege encompass being able to adopt and raise an African-American daughter? It may seem like a question of convolutedness but my conclusion is that questions--not always facile answers--are needed to drive this conversation about race, privilege, and identity.

What is unquestionable is my relationship to race and its increasing importance.. For more than twenty years, it has driven my sensibilities--fine-tuned them, if you will--as long as I apply myself to the syllabus that my quotidian life presents.

My daughter, Katherine, is my teacher but she is also my responsibility. After the election, we posed urgent questions and she encouraged me to share--with my white friends, including my white-straight-male buds--some of the material that I've learned from in the past few years; material that has enhanced the understanding that is my responsibility to learn. 

This is Part One of an evolving list that I share with anyone who wants to look at race through many prisms, prisms that explode into a kaleidoscopic visceral and intellectual blueprint that challenges, informs, entertains, and contextualizes.  
  • The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander: Should be required reading for all Americans who dare to vote. 

  • The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin: In 1963, Baldwin was a prescient force. And gay. Black and gay: yet another abused minority. Baldwin epitomizes intersectionality.

  • The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead: Searingly operatic, with unflinching reality providing the engine of a magical creation.

  • Just Mercy, Brian Stevenson: Additional insight into the corrupt prison system. 

  • The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Alex Hailey: By including this title on the list, I'm certain to lose some of my Facebook friends from high school. 

  • Moonlight: A subtly rendered film (currently in theaters) that tells an overlooked scenario; the love that dare not speak its name between two Black men. Shimmering with an aspect of sexuality that cannot be denied, Moonlight finds universality in its specificity. 

  • Bad Feminist, Roxanne Gay Ms. Gay speaks eloquently of intersectionality: a concept that I have added to my "library" of mindfulness.

  • 13th: The Atlantic says, that the documentary "compels viewers to sit upright, pay attention, and interrogate words in their most naked form as they’re analyzed and unpacked by DuVernay’s subjects, who include Angela Davis, Charles Rangel, and Henry Louis Gates." Find it on Netflix. 

  • Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance: Discover some answers to "How Could Trump have won?

  • Between The World And Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates: Emotionally and spiritually transcendent. 

Sunday, August 21, 2016

FERGUSON TWO YEARS LATER Part Two

Writer's Note: This is Part Two of my WHITE ON BLACK series. Extending the motifs illuminated in the blogs, I have made my second appearance at the Silver Lake Library, also under the umbrella title of WHITE ON BLACK .Check out LA Weekly piece. Thank you with heart and hope, Mk PS The third WHITE ON BLACK topic will be ISMS IN HOLLYWOOD and will feature my daughter, Katherine Kearns. 


FERGUSON TWO YEARS LATER
PART TWO

My grandma Katie, while renting her one-room living space, would choreograph our ride on the buses from Ferguson to one of those glorious old downtown movie houses that showed Big Effervescent Movie Musicals. I was only 8-years old when we went to see South Pacific, splashed across the big screen in all its fabulousness; foreshadowing my future: a film that depicted unrequited love, a drag number and a moral lesson.

You've got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You've got to be taught
From year to year,
It's got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You've got to be carefully taught.
You've got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
You've got to be carefully taught.
You've got to be taught before it's too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You've got to be carefully taught!


I wonder how my sissy boy self responded to those lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein. Could I have understood the ache of “Some Enchanted Evening”? Predictably, I screeched when the butch men created campy femaleness, transforming coconuts into titties.

Even though our household echoed with the delivery of pejoratives, taking flight and landing like lethal insects, I knew—even at “seven or eight”—that the “n” word was particularly virulent. Both of my parents used the noxious word—almost always fastened to a specific reference that described a person’s behavior. This is, please believe me, no defense.

However, my father’s work often placed him in an authoritative role with black men who were trained to be subservient, but I never had the impression, not once, that my father had any degree of malice in his heart toward these men (not “boys”) of color. In his case, actions spoke more genuinely than his “casual” use of the “n-word” (remember, this was the Fifties). Yet the sound of the word made me uncomfortable; the powerful venomousness coursed through my body, making me slightly nauseous but not knowing exactly why.

Even at six years old, I distinctly remember something stirring in my being when we gathered around the television set (a temporary gag order must have been placed on the incessant name-calling) to watch Elvis Presley’s ballyhooed performance on the Ed Sullivan



Show. Although the television cameras were determined to censor Presley’s pulsating lower body, my lower body was awakening to the clarion call of sexual desire.

Zo, my traveling bud (etc), and I decided to visit Memphis on our way to see my brother, incarcerated at a Missouri federal penitentiary in Charleston, Missouri; about 150 miles between the two locations. Visiting Graceland is only one of the multitudinous treats that my bro will undoubtedly never experience, even if he does get paroled before he turns 75.

"It is a commercialized piece of real estate 
that posits itself as monumental as Mount Rushmore 
but isn’t even worthy of comparisons to Grant’s Tomb."

So Zo and I bring Graceland into the confines of the prison visiting room, letting Joe know that he is missing nothing on this overblown day-trip. It is a commercialized piece of real estate that posits itself as monumental as Mount Rushmore but isn’t even worthy of comparisons to Grant’s Tomb.

Knowing my brother’s quirkiness regarding race (in spite of his apparent shift of perception during the past decade), we avoid too much storytelling regarding the pinnacle of our visit to Memphis: the Lorraine Motel—brilliantly attached, emotionally and architecturally, to the National Civil Rights Museum—where Martin Luther King was assassinated.


After parking the rental car, Zo and I nonchalantly turn a corner and our bodies involuntarily freeze. Approximately twenty yards in front of us is the balcony where King was shot.

I try to recreate the horrific moment. He has just stepped onto the balcony to deliver a speech to support the striking sanitation workers, when a single bullet enters the right side of his face, approximately an inch to the right, and a half inch below, his mouth. His jaw is fractured as the bullet exits the lower part of his face and reenters the body in the neck area, severing vital arteries and fracturing the spine in several places, causing severe damage to the spinal column.

He tumbles to the ground in a pool of blood. Andrew Young rushes to King’s imperiled body in order to check his pulse.

The bullet came from the direction of a rooming house across the street where a man is seen escaping on foot, leaving clues to his identity. A fugitive from the Missouri State Prison, James Earl Gray is not apprehended for two months.

Never regaining consciousness, King is pronounced dead at St. Joseph’s Hospital.

The previous night, he delivered a sermon containing these immortal words: “We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop…and He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain,” King said. “And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”

I was finishing high school when King died, focusing on my potential career as an actor. In the typical white American unconsciousness of the Kearns family, Reverend King did not get star billing. Do I remember where I was when I heard of his death? I don’t. I don’t remember being taught much about King, a pivotal player in our political/cultural arena, not even a mention in the “Current Events” aspect of our Social Studies class.

"Even though she was far more interested in The Lion King 
than Martin Luther King, I persisted..."

Honoring Martin Luther King Day, I began reading King’s historic speech to Katherine, my black adopted daughter, when she was nine or ten years old. Even though she was far more interested in The Lion King than Martin Luther King, I persisted—even insisting we go to the Martin Luther King Day parade. Surveying the crowd where her daddy was one of the few whites in a sea of many-hued black folk, she said—with so much emotion it was emotionless—“Now you know what it feels like.”

She was not the only one who could deliver a good punchline. Maintaining the mantle of Kearns’ storytelling, we have “colored” (so to speak) this folklore for audience reaction (so laugh if you want to):

“Is that your baby?” some dingbat woman asked me, standing in line at the grocery store. “No, I’m babysitting for Diana Ross,” I deadpanned. “Where’s Mommy?” was a common query, marked by extreme thoughtlessness in spite of the questioner’s theatrically furrowed brow. “I’m her Mommy,” I deadpanned with a bit of an edge. Finally, one busybody who had seen too many television pilots, asked, “Are you her nanny?” I was finally at a loss for words.

“I’m black,” she proclaimed with a tone of discovery—half kidding, the other half plaintively serious—over long distance lines from Bournemouth, England, where she was in her first year of college in 2013; her first year in a truly diverse setting during a critical time for most twenty year olds when identity and ideology begin to take shape.

Ironically, her personal discovery has accompanied an America increasingly out of control with a tone of racial unrest that feels terror-based. After Trayvon was shot, it seems like the sound of gunfire—much of it aimed at black people, inexorably shot by white cops—has not ceased, resulting in a relentless numbness for me: the ineluctable 24/7 numbness of being the parent of a black child.

It is imperative for me is to be vigilant to the emotional cues that come with the numbness that pervades my black child. Because even though Katherine is about to turn twenty-two, she is my black child. Even though she can orchestrate (and pay) for a trip—by herself—that traversed a section of the Midwest, she is my black child.

When she insisted on being dropped off curbside at the airport, Zo and I complied. And as Katherine slung a backpack over her shoulder, with a sense of her father’s bravado, she gave us those de rigueur airport hugs and kisses, then disappeared into the crowd.

My black child disappeared into the crowd. My anxiety was no different than when I dropped her off for her first day of kindergarten. Rules at the progressive school she attended were not to be disregarded; we had been instructed to deposit our kids, providing a simple hug but be careful not to fuel the potential of our children’s dependence.



My black little girl went to kindergarten (with predominantly white “peers”). I drove away crying, knowing that the “goodbyes” would begin mounting and I would be, like it or not, letting go (a phrase I’d like to bury). I don’t know how many goodbyes separated the first day of kindergarten and the wrenching experience of leaving her in England to pursue her studies after high school.

Katherine had returned to America in time for Mike Brown’s death, significantly occurring in a part of the country she had actually visited; a place untarnished became a scene of horror that she, along with the rest of the world, saw immortalized over and over on every news outlet that existed: Ferguson became iconic during the amount of time that Brown’s body was frying on the street in the blistering August sun.

Brown’s death is what began the discourse, and continues to energize our father-daughter relationship, virtually on a daily basis; his murder, the country’s mood and my daughter’s stimulating response has resulted in my conscious commitment to travel this vibrant black cultural road, encompassing its bumpy past and its precarious future, alongside her. Katherine is my guide, my teacher, and what she endures, and what all black people endure, informs my morality.

If I cannot find my way into the interior life that she battles? If I cannot empathize with her unique place in the world she inhabits, I will have failed her—as a father, as a human being.

Race has begun to dominate my palette as I—with worn-down energy playing opposite accelerated passion—dedicate my artistic construct and my public position, to the black lives that matter. And my daughter holds my hand and whispers truths in my ear.

 "Ferguson became iconic during the amount of time that 
Brown’s body  was frying on the street in the blistering August sun."


During decades spent in service to the GLBT lives that matter and the AIDS deaths that matter, racial consciousness was largely treated like a distant cousin when it likely should have been looked at as a sibling. I have begun to adjust my allegiances, as I complete my sixth decade on this exhilarating social justice train, in art and in life.

And while I may not be able to move mountains, I will determinedly look over towering purple mountaintops as my daughter points—with reticence but also with hope—toward the Promised Land.


We, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. 


Friday, August 5, 2016

FERGUSON TWO YEARS LATER



This blog and its follow up next week appear in conjunction with a CONVERSATION (not a lecture, not a performance) that I'm conducting at the Silver Lake Library on August 13 @ 3:00 PM. Open to the public. Mk

FERGUSON TWO YEARS LATER
Part One

The city of Ferguson meant Grandma Katie, the sole presence in my stricken childhood who made me feel okay about my gawky self; not only “okay” but of value, worthy. Grandma Katie made me feel loved. Ferguson = Grandma Katie = love.

My daughter, Katherine, was about to turn twenty (her day of birth, separated only by one, from her great grandmother’s) when Ferguson became as famous as Paris but without the allure of romance and sophistication.

Katherine wraps herself in photographs of the Kearns’ family, dating back before her daddy was born; and, oh, how my girl loves to hear stories—whether hilariously off-kilter and often off-color or the stuff of real tragedy.

Grandma Katie (my daughter’s namesake, if you didn’t already guess) lived in Ferguson in the early Sixties. And I’d visit her as often as I could. She rented a room in the house of a middle-class family; this disturbed my daughter; she couldn’t reconcile that a woman who raised five boys, singlehandedly, would be relegated to one-room in a virtual stranger’s home.

Daddy,” she pleaded, on one of our earlier excursions to Ferguson and environs, “tell me about the time she caught your uncle tying his teddy bear to the railroad tracks.” We began visiting my brother, behind bars in the nearby county of Charleston where he is doing time on a murder charge, shortly after 911.

“Doing the dishes, Grandma Katie was looking out the kitchen window,” I tell my daughter for the umpteenth time, “knowing it was time for the train to come coursing through town when she had to ascertain her boys’ whereabouts. There was little John, busily tying his teddy bear to the railroad tracks, glancing in the direction of the oncoming choo-choo. Panicking, she ran from their small house, yelling at the top of her lungs as she approached her calmly focused son, almost finished with his dramatic task.

“’Boy, what are you doing?’ she asked, grabbing him and the imperiled little stuffed animal. ‘Mommy,’ he said, in a reasonable voice of compassion: ‘I’m just checking to see if my teddy bear will bleed.’”


I swear I see blood on the Ferguson street. I can smell it, almost taste it. There is an odd marking on the asphalt, rectangular in shape, that measures approximately eight feet by four feet, proclaiming the exact spot where Michael Brown’s body remains in a pool of blood—“beet red,” according to one witness—for four hours plus in the sweltering heat on August 9, 2014. The boy’s body receives at least six bullets, the first four strike him in the right arm and shoulder and the last two in the head. Darren Wilson performs the coup de grace by aiming the final bullet into the top of Brown’s head; to make sure he is indubitably dead.
 
Nearly two years have elapsed but I am compelled to revisit those events, envision them, maybe even feel them, standing in the unforgiving sunshine with Brian Clarke, my friend from our shared days at Normandy High School (Mike Brown’s Alma Mater as well). 
Brian and I buy a teddy bear at Target, blessed by a very young black saleswoman when we tell her where we’re taking the little creature). We expect to find a heap of items that conjured Mike, but I would later learn that his father, unable to deal with the constant public reminder of his son’s death, removed the memorial on what would have been Mike’s nineteenth birthday.
 Looking at the spot where Mike lost his life, I try to imagine the visceral churning of his mother when she arrives at the scene. “I stormed up and down the sidewalk,” she says. In her book (Tell The Truth & Shame The Devil), Leslie McSpadden] writes: “‘Where is he? Where's the one who did this to my child?’ I got closer to one of them whose face had a permanent scowl carved into it. He stood over me. ‘Ya'll muthafuckas gonna have to answer to this,’ I challenged, looking up at him, square in the eye like I was every bit of the giant he was. 
"’Well, we some good motherfuckers,’" he growled, then threw up his middle finger.” 

Katherine was ten when I—amidst puzzled responses from various factions in my life—allowed her to decide whether or not she wanted to visit her uncle in prison. Understandably, she was indecisive. I had explained the harsh realities: the scary sounds of buzzers and the threatening sounds of metallic doors slamming shut; I told her about the visiting room itself, detailing some of the fervent complexities she would likely observe. She decided to remain in the car with a dear friend who had driven us from St Louis.
 "...Wilson performs the coup de grace by aiming the final bullet into the top of Brown’s head; to make sure he is indubitably dead."
“It’s totally okay, sweetie,” I said, hugging her tightly before I marched up to join the line that was forming outside.

Within a few moments, I glanced at the parking lot to see my little girl, bravely running toward me with her considerable ferocity. “I changed my mind, Daddy,” she whispered.

Katherine has since accompanied me on yearly visits, building a bond with my brother—in the confines of a prison visiting room—that is perhaps the most potent evolution of a black-white relationship I have ever witnessed. My brother has had redneck-racist leanings since I can remember, unabashedly expressed; the volume on that aspect of his personality—an aspect of all our personalities, I believe—has reduced mightily.

The young woman he proudly calls his niece—although they are related not by blood but by love and understanding and empathy—has affected her uncle’s deeply entrenched prejudices. In momentary exchanges, also transpiring in the emotionally-charged visiting room, I have also perceived his increasingly fraternal comfort with Black co-prisoners.

When Michael Brown life’s was take by a cop, I asked Katherine if she remembered going to the Ferguson Farmer’s Market (a decade prior)—to see Brian, my high school buddy, do his popular one-man band performance.

“I think I pointed out the bus stop where I got off when I came to visit Grandma Katie,” I reminded her. Of course she remembered that Ferguson, prior to it becoming a city that is permanently part of America’s blighted history; a city that birthed Black Lives Matter, a city that she will now remember to tell her grandchildren about.
 "...perhaps the most potent evolution of a black-white relationship that I have ever witnessed."
Katherine had recently trekked from the West Coast to the Midwest, for two days, both of them spent visiting her uncle—on her own, logistically and financially.

A few weeks later—on the day that the remaining accused cops were officially crowned blameless in the murder of Freddie Gray—my brother expressed his “fear” during one of our periodic phone calls; fear for Katherine’s safety. “I worry about her,” he said.

My brother and I avoid the words “black” or “cop” or “Trump” or “liberal” or “Democrat” or “Republican” but those, and dozens of other words, are the unspoken underpinnings of our private thoughts, and the thoughts of many conflicted family members, that are electrifying the phone lines of America.

“This thing that has happened over the years, this family we’ve created, the three of us,” he says, “It’s…it’s…”


Like a miner searching for gold, his mind grasps/rejects/grasps, determined to deliver the right word. And he does: “…beautiful.”

Thursday, March 24, 2016

HUEY: IN A REVOLUTIONARY FASHION





MEET HUEY
These blog entries are fueled by the agonies of racial tension that became something I was compelled to write about in 2014 when Trayvon was murdered; like AIDS became something I was compelled to write about when the vicious disease began ravaging my generation in 1988. I’ve submerged myself in over a quarter of a century of material: uncommon, inexplicable, and inducing unstoppable response. 

Race was frequently explored in my work, beginning with Big Red, a mother and a whore whose monologue confronted the disease without sentimentality, with humor, without self-pity, with raucous candor. In the early Nineties, I created Myron (based on the classic Cyrano de Bergerac) a play in which the black leading man, bedbound but defiantly romantic, dictates letters to his handsome cousin to be delivered to his equally comely nurse, signed by the dying man.

I was primed for the mergence of the personal and the political. Like any revolution worth fighting—the adoption of a five-month old black infant by a single, HIV-positive white man—was daunting. My daughter, Katherine, a thriving twenty-one year old artist, has become many things in life; among them, being my teacher.

During the past few years which included the birthing a movement on the streets of St. Louis where I grew up (Michael Brown attended the same high school that I did), I’ve experienced the embodiment of why black lives matter in the impassioned words, the imprinted sorrows, the profound teachings of my daughter.

I return to the monologue, a form that seems to best suit the depiction of my myriad subjects and their implicit theatricality. Meet Huey.


HUEY
Never seen my father in a suit. Never once gone to see a movie together. Never able to comfort me at night when I was a little boy, crying out. I’m not able to comfort him at night, now, when he’s an old man, crying out. Pops went to prison in 1986, the victim of a former movie star’s political agenda and a political party’s outright racism. His third strike struck me as bullshit—not enough ganja to get a buzz. His public defender slept—didn’t shut his eyes, take a nap, grab a few motherfuckin’ winks—he slept. Like snoring slept. Didn’t matter because they’d already decided to lock Pops up for Life With the Possibility of Parole. It is the word “possibility” that’s a bit confusing. Like there’s a possibility I will turn white if I watch enough Tom Hanks movies; like there’s a possibility I will turn white if I listen to Barry Manilow sing love songs. My daddy has had a handful of parole hearings, all jerking with justice. So while there is a possibility my dad and I will go on a fishing trip in the next decade, there is also the distinct motherfucking possibility that he will die in that jail because he had less than a thimble full of marijuana—which is legal now, dig?—in his 



car where his fuckin’ gloves shoulda been. Have you ever seen a pair of gloves in a glove compartment? I’ve seen pill bottles, used condoms, unfixable sunglasses, year-old French fries; but I ain’t ever seen any gloves. My pops is seventy-six years old—walks with a cane, blind in one eye, bad heart; the only reason they keep dudes like my daddy alive is to keep bringing beaucoup bucks into America’s whorehouse for prisoners. You don’t have to be alive like The Rock is alive; you just have to be breathin’, like Sylvester Stallone is breathin’. My dad used to be pretty buff—that’s when there was a place in the joint to exercise. Gone. He also used to read some half-decent books (sometimes we’d read the same book together, like a book club for two). No more books. He even took some classes—gourmet cooking classes, I (naw, I’m fuckin’ with you)—but he did take some solid classes. Not anymore. In fact, they have made prisons a place for prisoners to do nothing but commit crimes. They provide all the shit from the outside—drugs, sex, violence. Sometimes all three at once. He has resisted all of those; he is, in fact, a model prisoner. There is no way he will get out and offend again—unless you can imagine a half-blind mothefucker in his seventies with a cane and a bad tinker robbin’ a Seven-Eleven. That said, this is perverse way to deal with old men who are fuckin’ dryin’ up in prison cells—alone, consumed by guilt and fear in spite of exemplary behavior for more than half o’ their lives—let ‘em rot rather than release them. But in spite of unspeakable obstacles, primarily the depression that darkens his every day, he and I have (especially in the past few years) forged a father-son bond. And I’m not suggesting this is “Father Knows Best”—feels more like “Done Dad Walking.” We have struggled, confronted, argued, accused, hated, forgiven, accepted, understood and then repeated the whole routine over again. And again. The most valuable stuff my dad has taught me really didn’t take place until the last coupla years. I mean, sure, I knew he was black. And I kinda knew I was. But I didn’t know what he’d been through. Especially his experiences in Vietnam. He went to Nam in the late Sixties, to keep out of trouble. He had already dealt with my sister’s death and my mother’s increasing instability. He was almost 
We have struggled, confronted, argued, accused, hated, forgiven, accepted, understood and then repeated the whole routine over again. 
thirty (and not a complete stranger to the police department) in 1967:  the year before the shit hit the fan in America: Martin Luther King shot dead, Bobby Kennedy shot dead. And here’s somethin’ I didn’t know much about: The Black Panthers. I knew I was named after Huey Newton, not Baby Huey.  But I didn’t know that some of the Panthers went to Vietnam to recruit; they fuckin’ knew that most black men didn’t want to be servin’ a country that didn’t fuckin’ serve them. But why did they name me Huey and not Bobby (after Bobby Seale) or Stokely after (Stokely Carmichael)?

* * * 

In the midst of the recent Superbowl halftime entertainment, my dad—watchin’ from a maximum state prison—could smell controversy like a hound dog. There I was on TV, positioned in a way he’d never seen me before and his tolerance turned to pride. Pops had long since gotten over the embarrassment part (his sissy son bein’ a dancer)—especially as I got more successful—but I sensed that it was still uncomfortable for him. It wasn’t until the halftime show that my dancing reignited something in him: the demand for social justice. There I am, one of Bruno’s dancers, simultaneously taunting and flirting with the camera, in a dance caught fire with Beyonce that would be praised (and damned) as an acknowledgement of the Panthers’ fifty year anniversary. I visited him a few weeks after the Super Bowl—for reasons I was unable to immediately explain—because he was so excited about me dancin’, dancin’ with “precise  political purpose,” he said. He was fuckin’ 


lit, on a roll, pushing more energy than I’d seen in years; it was the first time I heard that my daddy had actually thought—truly entertained the idea—of becoming a Panther. He spelled out some of the detailed demands of the Panthers, from memory:  “We want freedom for all black and oppressed people now held in U.S. federal, state, county, city and military prisons and jails we want trials by a jury of peers for all persons charged with so-called crimes under the laws of this country.” The news I came to tell my daddy might sweep this rush of paternal pride off balance, reminding him that I was not really the thuggish dude on TV—I was, in real life, still his imperfect boy. Years ago, I had told him that I was gay (or maybe my mama had told him) but talkin’ about my relationship was not in his comfort zone even though I had to talk to him about it that day; the day he was so riled up over his political background that he couldn’t even hit “pause” during his monologue.

 * * *

I had to talk to him about Max that day, not I had to talk to him about “it.” He has a name. Max—I thought I shouldn’t bring Max up—especially if it would douse this rare moment of ecstasy he seemed to be experiencing. Max. Shame on me. His name is Max. Motherfuckin’ shame; I still can’t wriggle out of that shame costume: impossible to shed, relentless snake shame. Max. Max was my first dance teacher, while I was still in high school. Can you imagine the flak my mama musta received from relatives, neighbors, busybodies? A young black kid choosing to be a dancer rather than a basketball player, not even a singer? Listen, being a rapper would be easier to admit to than “my son wants to be a dancer.” Might as well have said, “My son wants to wrap himself in a rainbow flag and listen to Lena Horne albums.” Max did introduce me to Lena Horne. Even though I wasn’t interested in singing, it was Miss Lena’s “precision” that he dug. And, after a couple of years of getting closer and closer to Max, I introduced my teacher to my mama who knew he was white but had no idea he was that white: white-white, white of the red, white and blue, white of the cotton on Southern plantations. You feel me? But when she looked into the whites of his eyes, she knew he loved me. This was before he ever laid a hand on me except to position a flailing leg akimbo into a strong or gently pressing down on my shoulders when I had a tendency to use my rounded shoulders as armor, makin’ me look like a punk-ass turtle.  When my dad went in the joint, when I was still in diapers, mama knew I needed a male role model. A black male role model. But they weren’t hangin’ out on our street corner, sippiin’ green tea, wearin’ t-shirts that said, “Cool Hip Black Role Model Here.” So I—subconsciously—sought out father figures. Max was one of the first. I guess my mama’s job, the way she saw it, was to keep me out of the joint; to keep me from becoming a drug addict; to keep me from gettin’ AIDS. Shortly after I got out of diapers, she started teachin’ me to put on condoms. So I knew how to protect myself Down There. And I think she sensed the gay thing back when I was a little kid, more intent on tappin’ than rappin’. At least tap dancing had some inherent negro in it but when I chose ballet, it was like sayin’ goodbye to bein’ a superstud. A young black man in ballet shoes implied things my mother had never even considered. Her life with my father was spent in virtually all-black neighborhoods where the homies who weren’t career criminals were nine-to-fiven’ in their blue color jobs. These dudes weren’t sittin’ around reading Maya Angelou and listenin’ to Miles Davis. My mama lived in a hyper masculine black man’s world. I was a good street dancer—I could pass, y’know, a kinda tough guy—tougher than Tatum Channing, anyway. Oh, yah, I coulda stripped for cash but I wanted to be all kinds of a dancer, not shaking my black ass in front 
But they weren’t hangin’ out on our street corner, sippiin’ green tea, wearin’ t-shirts that said, “Cool Hip Black Role Model Here.”
of some white ass broads who would tip me with their kids’ lunch money. I wanted to be a real dancer. I looked up Dancing School in the Yellow Pages; mama’s eyes nearly rolled outta her head. A school where a white man taught young boys to be ballet dancers sounded like a Dateline episode. Yet she knew it would keep me off the streets. She already lost one kid to drugs. The sister I never saw, never hugged; never had a chance to be her brother. For this kid without a father to call in the night, for this kid without a sister to hug, Max was not hard to love. For this fifteen year old to fall in love with. When we met, he was thirty, fifteen times two. Max was also attentive, handsome as all get out, a seductive mixture of both what we’ve come to label as “masculine” and “feminine.”  It was a combo that appealed to me even though I had no clue that those characteristics would tour jete into our private lives, even into the bedroom. I seduced Max first. After taking class from him for nearly three years, feeling his electric currents as he moved by me, as my sweat sometimes flew in his direction, landing on his bare shoulder or leaving a fleeting mark on his t-shirt (he wore crisp white t-shirts). I just fuckin’ couldn’t wait another minute. I had to feel myself submerged, under his body, every square inch of it. And then feel my strength melting into his submission. Our first date was when I asked him which show (playin’ in town) he’d rather take me to [Black Brat Negotiates White Privilege]:  a revival of Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk or a newly conceived rendering of Romeo and Juliet.  We both knew that the opera’s subtext would speak to what was happening between us, reasons the lovers were star-crossed could fit into many scenarios: race, class, age. I parked my car in front of Max’s and we drove in his to the thea-tuh. (Didn’t want to be seen drivin’ up to the fancy theater in my hoooptie.) I’d fantasized this plot repeatedly. After the performance, I’d come in for a drink and we’d talk about the ballet’s intensity, especially as it applied to today’s racist world. We spoke about the details of the dance parts; what we liked, what we didn’t.  We had another drink. This was the year that Denzel Washington won the Best Actor Oscar and Halle Berry won for Best Actress. Max loved the movies and actually spoke about the racism and what a big deal it was that those two darkies won. After our third, I convinced Max that I should not drive home. A black teenager behind the wheel is reason enough to get arrested; forget it if you slightly veered one way or the other. Speaking of veering—even though Max was fiddlin’ around with sheets—white-white sheets, almost blinding-to put on the living room couch—I veered him into his bedroom and into his bed where I made it clear I wanted him to fiddle with me. I’d messed around with other dudes before but Max was a man: the feel of his soft skin sliding up and down against mine; the feel of his soft tongue wordlessly speaking to mine; the feel of his tough cock virtually wrestling with mine. The taste of his sweat in my mouth; the taste of my tears. This was, for me, new—as new as morning. And morning was when I would leave; different than I was before. I was a man—well, more of a man—who made love to a man: mixing our colors and smells, conversing with our senses not our words. However, my mother insisted on words. Crisp words, heated, right out of her oven of a mouth afire: “Where did you sleep?” A beat. “Where do you think?” I answered.`` And that was that. Over. Never to be an issue between us; her acceptance—maybe it was relief?—could be seen on every contour, and every flaw of her beautiful face.” We both know about life’s numbing imperfections, don’t we? Don’t we, mama?” I said. I don’t remember when I told her that Max was HIV-positive. It really was a non-issue; we were “safe” as could be; he was as healthy as a stallion. My white stallion.

* * *

I was dripping wet when I came offstage which wasn’t like coming off stage as much as it was like going onto another stage. There were flashes still poppin’ in our faces, only up-close now, cameras up our asses. And reporters. “How did it feel…?” “Was it as powerful for you…?” I just wanted to get to my phone because I had some feeling in my gut; that feeling when you just know. In my dressing room. First message: “Huey honey, we were watchin’ you on the huge TV screen and Max was sweatin’, a fairly natural reaction all 
You wanna talk straight outta Compton? I get pulled over, one of those pig cocksuckers gets one look at me?  Bang, Bang. 
things considered, but then he really started sweatin’, like it was pourin’ off of him, like he was a fuckin’ fountain or somethin’. We’re taking him to the hospital—Gene and David and Zoey and me.” Beep. The hospital, I think to myself. What the fuck? What hospital, for fuck’s sake? I’m not even gonna change. I just stuff my pedestrian clothes in my Valentino bag. Message Two: “Cedars, by the way. You are probably still on stage. We got him here and they’ve attached him to all kinds of machines and shit. He keeps saying your name, over and over. One of the fuckin’ doctors keeps asking why he’s saying, ‘You me, you me. ‘It’s his lover, for Chrissake. His name is Huey. He wants him; Huey; he wants his lover.’  ‘Are they married?’ the doctor asks.” Beep. I am speeding through traffic, drenched in sweat. Hold the tears. Message Three: “He’s in a room but they won’t let anyone in. I don’t wanna freak you out but it’s an emergency situation and only a spouse can get anywhere near him at this point.”  Beep. Why the fuck didn’t we get married? They will let me in. I’ll rip that motherfucking doctor to shreds. Why the fuck is this happening? What is happening? Tears. North on La Brea, feels like about ninety miles an hour. Niggers have been killed for less than wearin’ shit like these. You wanna talk straight outta Compton? I get pulled over, one of those pig cocksuckers gets one look at me?  Bang, Bang. Message Four: “We are close enough proximity that we can still hear him screaming your name, over and over and over. ‘Huey, Huey, Hueeeeeeey. I know you’re goin’ nuts if you’re listenin’ to these messages but can you let us know you’re on your way?’ Beep. I don’t remember tears bein’ this hot in my mouth. Or is it sweat? The mixture?  Of tears and sweat? My eyes are blurry, so blurry; you can never see where to park at these fuckin’ hospitals—even when you’re not cryin’. I’m just gonna pull up, park, and find him. Message Five: “Huey, he’s in a room near the ER. Honey, we love you so much.” Beep. We love you so much? The parking attendant was running after me. Probably thought I was a mass murderer. “We love you so much.” I knew. 

* * *

My dad finally calmed down long enough for me to tell him. He face began an almost eerie transformation from one of those theatrical masks—comedy, tragedy—into the other. Suddenly, silence. He’d run out of words. By the time it was my turn to speak, in-the-moment, it was not a time to censor myself. So I told him; I told my Pops how I stormed into the hospital room, still in thug drag, into the hospital room where Max had just died, just died, minutes before I got there. I got into the bed with him. His body was still warm or maybe he just felt warm against the sweat soaked up by my body. As I spoke, I gauged every response from my father—he didn’t flinch. I swear I saw tears in his eyes. “I’m so sorry, son, that this is the first time you have been so open with me; the first time you’ve 

Huey Newton

been able to say these things I needed to hear.” I had obviously made assumptions about my dad: straight black man, guilty-as-charged with homophobia. I was hiding from him. Hiding from my dad by “charging him with crimes” that were not true. No more. No more hiding. I told him that I stayed in the bed with Max until he—his body—started to get cold. The body that I knew how to heat up. And apparently still did since his body—ravishing in its imperfection—was refusing to turn cold. They have no idea why he had a stroke. There do seem to be a number of men with HIV in their late fifties, early sixties, who are moving through life—almost as if we could believe, for a moment, that he wasn’t carrying that vicious virus. And no one knows about these strokes and sudden heart attacks. It’s a theory, mostly a street theory. Max finally began to chill. Then my dad answered the question that I’ve been asking for thirty years. Well, almost. On the hundred or so occasions I asked my mother, she always said—with the same tone of anger and resentment—“Ask you father.” Finally, I did ask my father, looking him in the eye, “Why was I named after Huey Newton?” It was “the other woman,” my dad sheepishly admitted. How the fuck did the other woman have anything to do with me being named after 
Finally, I did ask my father, looking him in the eye, “Why was I named after Huey Newton?” 
Newton? Turns out that she introduced my dad to the Black Panthers by taking him to a rally where Huey Newton was speaking on women’s rights. (Did anyone mention that the girlfriend was betraying her own gender by fucking with my dad while he was still married? Oh, the imperfections.) So the surprise in store was that Newton also had gay rights on his agenda. Way fuckin’ ahead of his time. The Black Panthers identified “the homosexuals and women as oppressed groups.” This was a very big deal and one that is rarely addressed today, a half a century later. Newton said that it didn’t matter what your fears were predicated on (and this my father proclaimed from memory): “We should try to unite with them in a revolutionary fashion.” What better way than to name your kid Huey? My mother went along with it, happy to be painted cool and a bit militant. More irony is that I was named after Huey Newton but did not, until these many years later, realize I needed to hear his message, his fifty year old message: “We must gain security in ourselves and therefore have respect and feelings for all oppressed people.” That’s why my dad was so mellow about Max—from the beginning. And I misinterpreted that quiet respect and those unspoken feelings as being shut down. In his own way, my dad was uniting with his son in a revolutionary fashion. Certainly revolutionary, all things considered. Now I need to catch up with him and join the revolution.

 

Saturday, January 23, 2016

THE N-WORD


Nigger. Yep, the n-word. Nigger.

There, I said it. Simply because you’re reading it (and not hearing the nuanced intonation) the word’s power is drained. Tone is everything. You have no ideas if I am saying it with venom, with matter-of-factness, or with a certain flirty friendliness.

But even seeing the word is stinging. And stinking.

You might say that I, as a white man, have no business using the word even if there is absolutely no malice intended. For a white man to utter those two syllables conjure centuries of horror; it is not possible for a white man to say “nigger” without assuming some degree of hatefulness. It is a mortal sin.
 
Katherine Kearns with her Dad
“Don’t say it,” my daughter pleads. “You’re my dad. Please don’t.” She is crying, tears that are springing from a bottomless well; tears that are as wet as the tears of Trayvon’s mommy; tears that are as fresh as the tears of Michael Jordan’s daddy; tears that splash on the streets of Ferguson and every other street in America.

I will be appearing at the Silver Lake Library in Los Angeles, mixing a Discussion that intends to capture the zeitgeist of the moment with a Performance that intends to pull the audience into a world that is foreign and yet ineluctably universal.

“Don’t, dad,” she says, with a determination that she’s been encouraged to cultivate.

She is my child. I am so proud of who she’s becoming: her intellect, her commitment, her politics.

“Honey, it’s an artistic choice. I’m not doing it to hurt you. Or hurt anyone. She’s a character, a construct. It’s a word that I believe—with all my heart—she’d use under these circumstances. And she’s using it affectionately.”

She is even more outraged that I dare to play a black woman who says “nigger” as a distorted term of endearment. “That doesn’t make it okay,” she says.

The subtitle of the event (“Michael Kearns: White On Black”) is “How Parenting a Black Daughter Has Taught Me Lessons About Race.” Little did I realize I’d be learning lessons less than forty-eight hours before the scheduled time of the afternoon gathering.

“I live in fear of being called that,” she says, sniffling. “I haven’t been—not yet—but when I’m walking down the street, I’m afraid someone is going to yell it from their car window. Or come up behind me and say it. It’s a horrible, horrible word.” Providing that startling context unnerves me.

Although it’s tempting, I don’t bring up the “faggot” comparison because she knows it wouldn’t bother me; not in the primal, imprinted way that the n-word would land on her.

We keep at it. I bring up Lily Tomlin and Anna Deavere Smith, both of whom have played men, men who are racially different. She listens, she does.

I listen, I do.

“I feel like you’ve made up your mind,” she says.
 
Anna Deavere Smith
I have. Somewhere along the line, a writer makes certain choices that could be construed as moral. I write characters (many of whom I play) who are society’s throwaways. Their language—so “foreign” to the ear that it is difficult to understand—bursts from an alternative dictionary of language that is littered with words that may be unsavory but not, sorry, unspeakable: words that are part onomatopoeia stirred in with some deliberate malapropisms.The same word could be hurled like a bullet at the end of Cupid’s bow.
 
“It is my job to be authentic,” I say. “I contract with the characters I play and it is my job to bring them to emotional life; I engage in an agreement that promises to adopt their way of speaking. If I believe a character is going to lovingly refer to her boyfriend as a ‘nigger’—when no other word will do—I have no option other than to put that word into her mouth.”
 
“But you’re going to say it—in front of people I know—and you’re my dad.”
“Do you think anyone who sees my work thinks that I’m a racist?”
Her silence indicates that she does not.
As the hours go by, I substitute other words; they fall flat. Is this my white privileged self justifying the pain I see on my baby’s face. Perhaps—in a very rare instance—I am putting my work before my kid’s feelings?
In the late-Eighties, prior to being tested—“to be or not to be,” that was the question—my work had, almost overnight, accelerated into an artistic stratosphere that was as exciting as it was terrifying.
I saw a photo in People Magazine, one of many depictions of HIV/AIDS at the time of the publication, more than a quarter of a century ago: An emaciated black woman, sitting in a bathtub, one arm uplifted as the other one lathered up her underarm. Her head of dreadlocks is thrown back, accentuating the huge smile on her face. It is that smile that would haunt me; it contained an ebullience that screamed “I’m alive” but her countenance was also carrying rage, sadness, and confusion. In the accompanying article, my lady in the tub was formerly a lady of the night, a veritable moving target, daring the virus to do its dirty work.
Big Red
This is the writer’s task: to climb into your subject’s body—naked body, in this case—and while in residence, perform a magic act of empathy that conjoins two spirits. This leap into otherworldliness requires workmanlike skills (demands of the voice and body) in tandem with muscularity of the heart (beware: breaks are inevitable).
“Big Red” was the manifestation of my initial connection to that photograph and the first black woman I would audaciously portray; she would become part of intimacies, but not before I did more exploration. I felt like I had to observe street hookers workin’ it, so I ventured into the bowels of Hollywood—on Sunset Boulveard, east of Western—where the action was during that time. I observed these women up close: pursing their love-for-sale lips, flipping their exaggerated hair, examining their reflection in the storefront windows that stared back with blurred facsimiles. In acting lexicon, these are often referred to as “emblematic gestures.” I memorized them and later, when I got home, I performed them—purse, flip, examine, again: purse, flip, examine, again: purse, flip, examine—over and over and over again.
I did not interview anyone but I got what I needed. More than any other time in my career, I felt like I was doing field work, becoming an anthropologist in a quest to deepen my writing and acting skills.
intimacies evolved into a solo performance piece in which I uncloak a number of characters who are ostensibly not within my grasp—as an actor or a human being. "To be an actor in the theater is to teach yourself and keep yourself disciplined and honorable,” Frank Langella said. “If you do that, you get a chance to fly in this kind of emotional paradise…Acting is just as much hard work as digging a ditch. And if you do all the yeoman work, inspiration will come." I did the work and the work put me on the map, in America and abroad.                                                                                                                            
The performance itself, I explain to my twenty-one year old, must be stageworthy (entertaining and believable with something to say) without ever forgetting my partnership with the audience. It may be a “solo” show but there are those who witness; they witness the transformative act of empathy, a visual metaphor.
Inhabiting the character authentically becomes a way to invite the audience to go on the ride with me. If a white man, over six feet tall, with a head of brown, straightish hair and often sporting a bushy moustache, can “become” Big Red—in all her transcendence—so can you, the audience member (no matter what your physicality or emotionality dictates). Empathy is the artery that leads you to a profound understanding.
Along with many other things—including parenting my daughter (which trumps everything else)—empathizing with The Other, on stage and on the page, has become my life’s work.