Thursday, October 27, 2005

A fear of fear?

What has happened to horror? When did the purpose of a good horror movie cease to be about scaring the living hell out of the audience? Remember the good old days when you would hear rumors of people having heart attacks in the theater because a movie was so terrifying and that became the movie that everyone just had to see? Remember when the goal of every good director was to make the audience pass out in the aisles from shock and flee the theater screaming in terror? I know that there are still authors out there sweating out this type of horror, but why isn't it making it to the screen? What happened to movies that made you grip the seat, spill the popcorn and watch them through the gaps in your fingers? What's up with this watered down PG13 shit?

There's a thread over at Shocklines about horror getting too safe. I don't know about horror novels being too safe, but horror movies have gone to hell. This PG13 pablum they're churning out is leaching all the awe and power out of the genre. I like creepy stuff. Don't get me wrong. But I like creepy scenes that eventually lead up to a moment of bone-chilling horror of the kind that makes you jump out of your seat, question whether or not you can make it through the entire movie, and stay up all night with nightmares. I like horror that makes you leave the theater with your hands shaking and your nerves rattled, nervously checking every dark corner, afraid to enter a dark room and even afraid to reach your hand into it to turn on the light. The kind that makes you sleep with a nightlight on at thirty-five! I can't remember the last time Hollywood has come close to that, but what's worse is that they aren't even trying anymore. They even came out with a PG13 slasher movie! What is the point? When did kids under thirteen ever give a damn what a movie was rated anyway? Did anyone stay away from Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, or Friday The Thirteenth because they were rated R? I was ten years old when two of those movies came out and I saw them and so did all of my friends. Did anyone stay away from Alien or An American Werewolf in London or Silence of The Lambs because they were R rated? When I was a kid seeing an R rated movie was the coolest thing you could do. I just don't see what they are gaining by neutering the genre like this. No matter how much naughty language, sex, and violence they cut out of a horror movie, Mormons and Holy Rollers still aren't going to go see them. What target consumer group are they trying to reach? Because if they are trying to reach the audience that made Silence of The Lambs and Aliens top grossing movies they are going in the wrong direction.

During a similar discussion on another messageboard someone remarked that even movies like Psycho and The Exorcist would get a PG13 today. The point is that the directors were not deliberately trying to make the most palatable, least offensive, creepy without being terrifying movie they could. They were trying to push the envelope as far as they could and they did! When those movies came out people did flee the theater screaming and pass out in their seats. That was how a director rated his success before the box office receipts were tallied. Listen to Steven Spielberg talk about the screening of Jaws. When he looked around and saw people hiding their eyes and jumping in their seats, he knew he had a hit. That movie terrified people. It made an entire generation afraid to go into the water. Now that's a fucking horror movie! This PG13 drivel is so easily forgotten that I could not even recall the plots or titles of the last four or five that I have seen. And don't give me that, "Today's youth are too jaded," crap. We just aren't trying hard enough. And Hollywood isn't trying at all. For this reason I am hereby boycotting these movies. If it has a PG13 rating it isn't getting my money. I have tried to give them the benefit of the doubt and again and again they have disappointed me. Yeah, M. Night Shammalya or however you spell his name does a pretty good job at it. So do the Japanese. The Ring and The Grudge were quite good even though I fell asleep on The Ring about five times before I finally made it through the entire thing. The Grudge, I wouldn't even call a PG13 movie because I have no idea how it managed to get that rating. It was R all the way. But all the imitators trying to capitalize on the success of these movies by polluting the screen with the theatrical equivalent of mall food can kiss my black shiny ass. I'm done with them.

Monday, October 24, 2005

On Heroism

In a comment following my last post I stated that I believed in heroes and advocate heroism. That same week on Maurice's messageboard I made a statement regarding man's treatment of women in our society stating "...We should be your heroes not your victimizers." What do I mean by all of this talk of heroism? Am I talking about wearing a mask and swinging around town in red tights, a cape, and hip boots? Hell no! I am talking about the age old idea that the most able among us should assist those who are less able. That there is virtue in aiding those less able than ourselves and in fact that no society can long prosper when this philosophy is not exercised. As English philosopher Edmund Burke said, "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." This axiom is often quoted but seldom put into practice.

In every society there will be those that are strong and those that are less strong and those that are significantly weaker due to illness, old age, youth, injury, and physical or mental handicaps. Any society is only as strong as its weakest link therefore there is value in uplifting the weak. There is a reason that when a boat sinks we evacuate the women and children first. It is because it is our duty as men, our role in nature to protect our mates and offspring. Moreover, in a society it is everyone's duty to protect those weaker than ourselves if for no other reason than that we might someday benefit from this altruism ourselves. This is not just some naive emotional idealism. As an ethical egoist I am always looking for that which in the long run will ultimately benefit me and mine. And living in a society in which the weak are protected by the strong benefits me because there will be times when I am weak. If I am sick or injured, or even when I get older, my ability to defend myself and my loved ones will be impaired. Promoting a society in which other able-bodied men and women step forward to defend the weak is therefore a wise act. I am also not omnipotent. My loved ones are not always in my sight or my reach. Therefore it makes sense for me to promote a philosophy in which others would step forward to help them when I am unable.

It makes sense for me to promote a society in which others would stop their cars and run to the rescue of my son if some stranger was trying to snatch him off the street. It makes sense for me to promote a society in which other men would not stand by and watch as a woman was raped when that woman could well be my wife, daughter, mother, sister, aunt, or friend. It makes sense for me to promote a society in which someone would step forward and smash a beer bottle in that guy's face to protect that woman. It makes sense for me to promote a society in which your neighbors would provide you shelter for the night if your house burnt to the ground or got flooded or swept away in a hurricane. In makes sense for me to promote a society in which a woman who's car breaks down on the side of the road could expect someone to stop and render assistance rather than try to victimize her or drive on by without helping.

When I was a child I relished the role of hero. It was one of the ways in which I defined myself. It was one of the few things I had to be proud of. My best friend in elementary school was a fat kid named Greg who got picked on a lot. We both got picked on, him because he was fat and me because I was poor, which was funny because we all were to varying degrees, my poverty was just more apparent. The difference was that I could defend myself and I often had to. I was quick-witted and quick-fisted. Greg was neither, so I often had to come to his rescue. When someone insulted him I insulted them. When someone hit him I hit them. Once he was about to be jumped by five or six bigger kids when I jumped in. I took his ass kicking for him. I was stronger than him. I got in a few good blows myself and shrugged it off like it was nothing when it was over. At ten years old I'd already been in more fights than I could count so one more meant nothing to me but I knew that Greg couldn't have taken it. During the course of our friendship I took a lot of ass-kickings for him and after him it was a skinny kid with glasses that were held together by tape who was as poor as me. He was extremely quick-witted and often his wit got him into trouble. When someone insulted him he would tear them up so bad they'd wish they'd never been born, which usually led to them trying to kick his ass, which was where I would step in. I got nothing from either of them but their friendship and the knowledge that I had done something good. After him was a kid named Jason who I lived on the streets with after high school. He would panhandle to feed me because he had one of those adorable faces that people couldn't help but to throw money at and I would defend him because he was knee-high to a grasshopper and 98lbs soaking wet. It was rare that anyone came to my rescue when I was a kid. I took all of my ass-kickings. It was okay. I could take it. But it's nice to think sometimes that someone would have stepped up to help. In fact, there was one kid.

He was older than me but shorter and his family lived across the street from my grandmother. His name was Kevin and his older brother had taught him Karate and he could fight like the devil. One day when I was eight I was getting my ass-kicked by a bunch of ten-year old girls from my sister's class because my sister was poor and unpopular like me and I guess they had gotten tired of picking on her and I was the next best thing. I wouldn't hit them back because I had been taught not to and I wouldn't run because I had also been taught that that was something you just did not do. I had already gotten kicked in the nuts twice and was doubled over in pain when Kev stepped up and told the girls to leave me alone. Small thing, but I still remember it. Things like that didn't happen to me often. There weren't many heroes in my life. Maybe Greg and Albert and Jason still remember what I did for them too.

On several occasions as a teenager and as an adult I have come to the rescue of women in abusive relationships. Some, like when a girl I knew from the clubs confessed to me that her old man was beating her up and she was afraid to leave him and I went and had a little talk with him, ended well, with the guy backing off and the woman leaving. And some, like the recent incident with my girlfriend's best friend who we brought into our home along with her infant child, ended badly, with her going back to her abuser. Still, I would do it again because if my daughter or sister or mother or aunt or cousin or niece or friend was in that same situation and I was unable to help I would hope that there would be someone to step up and help them.

Even guys like me need heroes. Last night on our way home from the gym our car broke down in the supermarket parking lot. This is not a major catastrophe but being that I am not mechanically inclined and we had our four month old daughter in the car it could have been a big problem. I had two choices. I could have jogged home and gotten my car and drove back to pick them up which would have left my woman and child alone in a parking lot for 25 or 30 minutes while I ran the three miles to our house. This would have also resulted in us leaving her car there and having to return for it in the morning. This was not the most desirable solution. The other solution was to ask for help. Me, a six-foot-five, two hundred and sixty pound black man in a dark parking lot in Vegas. What would you imagine my odds would be? In minutes a woman offered to drive home and get jumper cables and then come back and try to jump our car. Amazingly altruistic, but she had kids of her own with her that I'm sure she needed to feed and put to bed so we thanked her and declined. Then, I flagged down a gay couple who didn't know me and had no reason to stop and help except that I was another human being in need, and they came to our rescue, jumping our car and sending us on our way in minutes. They were our heroes that night. They saved me a long jog home on legs still sore and rubbery from an hour-long spinning class.

Being a hero doesn't always mean rescuing someone from a burning building or fighting off bullies, rapists and muggers. Sometimes it just means taking the time to lend a hand to someone who needs it. How much worse would the Hurricane Katrina Tragedy have been if so many Americans had not stepped forward to help the victims of the hurricane, sending food and money and welcoming strangers into their homes? These were all heroes. Our government failed us but our citizens and neighbors did not. That day our country was full of heroes.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

The Virtue of Violence

It is a common belief that violence results from a breakdown in reasoning, that it is an emotional response rather than a logical decision. I'm pretty sure that the man who authored that statement could not fight. I have found in my life that a good left hook to the jaw is often the most effective and expedient manner to rid myself of a nuisance, eliminate a possible threat, or save myself long minutes of arguing with an idiot who would never see my side of things anyway. It was the most effective and efficient choice and therefore the most logical one. It is also a great deterrent against future violence and as such is an invaluable asset. True, in many cases violence is caused by one person's emotions running wild. Non-violence often has the same cause, one person's rampant emotions, namely fear. Non-violence is not always the most logical choice and sometimes not knocking the shit out of some asshole who deserves it is about the dumbest thing you can do.

For a few years during my tumultuous adolescence I tried to live my life as a pacifist. I had one rule, you could say whatever you wanted to me. You could threaten and insult me all you like, just do not put your hands on me. The ghetto was perhaps not the best place to attempt this experiment. My experiment in non-violence led me to be the most picked on and harassed kid in my school which led to more physical confrontations than when I was eagerly seeking trouble. I stuck to this ideology from age eleven through age thirteen and had close to two hundred fights a year during this time. I gave the experiment up at age fourteen and had five fights that entire year. The first kid who insulted me that year got his leg broke. Months went by before anyone insulted me again. The next kid who insulted me got smacked in the face with a Chemistry book. And the next kid got kicked in the side of the head and knocked unconscious. I used them as examples and the message was delivered loud and clear, "Do not mess with Wrath." I fought less and less every year thereafter (excluding one violent summer when I was heartbroken and traveled to other neighborhoods seeking out fights to cheer myself up.)

Sometimes avoiding fights is both stupid and dangerous. I was working at a nightclub once when a guy who was upset because we wouldn't let him into the club threatened to shoot me. He went on and on about how he was going to "hollow out my chest" for almost five minutes. I should have knocked him out right then, but I did not. Then he left and came back with his hand in his pocket like he had a gun. He continued threatening to "Put two in my head" until I finally told him that one more threat and I would knock his ass out. He threatened me once more and I caught him on the chin with a beautiful straight right. As he fell to the pavement a nickel-plated nine-millimeter fell out of his pocket. It was cocked and loaded. Seeing how close I had come to not being here speaking with you today I vowed after that to always take threats like that seriously. I only had two other people threaten to shoot me after that and I knocked both of them unconscious long before they could go back to their cars and retrieve a weapon. I made citizen's arrests in both cases and both of them spent the weekend in jail.

Another time when I was in Hong Kong filming a movie I went into this dance club in Lan Kwai Fong to hang out in between shooting and maybe pick up a little female companionship. The British Navy was also in town and there were quite a few of them in the nightclub. I had a premonition of how the night would end. I could not see a personality like mine mixing well with a bunch of drunken English sailors. I went in anyway. It turned out that they were all pretty cool. There was one guy however who seemed intent on picking a fight with them, a big steroid enhanced Mexican from New Mexico. I watched with very little interest. I was determined not to get involved, but I had to pass this altercation in order to get to the men's room. The club, like all clubs in Asia it seems, was extremely small and so I had to squeeze past this big Mexican in order to get to the men's room. So now he turns his attention towards me. As improbable as it may seem, I somehow found myself in a room full of British sailors in Hong Kong about to get into a fight with a Mexican. Go figure that one out. I try to diffuse the situation by pointing out to him that we are probably the only two Americans in the place and we shouldn't be fighting with each other. He doesn't care. He wants a fight. Realizing that a physical confrontation is inevitable I start looking for the fastest means of egress once I knock this fool out. I had no desire to enjoy the hospitality of a Chinese jail. Then the Brits intercede and offer to buy the guy a drink. I continue on past and use the restroom, watching my back the whole time in case the guy runs up behind me. When I'm back in the club I take a beautiful young Scottish stewardess out onto the dancefloor while still keeping my eyes on the Mexican guy who is now moving towards the dancefloor. He leans against a column that is tiled with mirrors and just stands there watching me while I'm dancing with this girl. I keep my eyes on him waiting to see what he is up to and then my better instincts kick in. Something i had learned on the streets long ago. Never wait to see what a guy who has already expressed hostile intentions is going to do. Eliminate the problem. I dance over towards him, pretending not to notice him and then smash him in the jaw with an elbow, shattering the mirror in back of him and dropping him like a stone. Then me and the young Scottish flight attendant quickly exit. A day later at a different night club I run into those same sailors and they tell me that the Mexican guy I had knocked out had said he was going to stab me just before he had walked over to where I was dancing. I don't know if the guy had a knife or not. I'm glad I didn't wait to find out.

So okay, I'm sure you'd conceed that it is logical for me to defend myself, but you might believe the illogic comes on the part of the person who initiates the violence. I'll give you that one in most cases, except sometimes we aren't talking about someone physically attacking me or threatening me with bodily harm. Sometimes it is just a verbal disagreement. My theory on when to use violence is the same as my theory on corporal punishment. Do it before you get mad because if you try to hold it in until you snap and then you go after somebody you will probably hurt them a lot worse than if you had just knocked the hell out of them when you were calm and collected. Example:

I was in Tokyo with a fighter I was cornering for. The fight didn't go well so I took him down to this area of town called Ropungi (One of my favorite places on earth) to cheer him up and get his mind off his troubles. We picked up a couple strippers at a club called Seventh Heaven (and it truly is) and were hanging out with them at a bar called Gas Panic where a lot of Americans and Europeans hang out in Tokyo. A large Arab guy, nearly my size but more fat than muscle, comes up to me and offers to buy me a drink. I decline respectfully. I don't drink. He asks me again and this time he grabs me by the arm. I decline again and he starts getting angry. "Look, I'm no pussy! I ain't no pussy!" He yells at me while still tugging on my arm. I look at my friend Mike, then at the two strippers, then I looked to see where security was. Then I hit the guy square on the jaw with a straight right, turned my back on him and continued talking to Mike and our two female companions. As the guy fell he knocked over a couple of other people and they called security. Thinking he had passed out drunk, security scooped him up off the floor and tossed him out of the club. I never broke a sweat and my blood pressure didn't spike any higher than it would walking from one side of the room to the other. One of the girls remarked that if she hadn't seen it she would have never known that I had just hit somebody judging from my body language, my expression and my demeanor. I enjoyed the rest of the night unencumbered by drunken assholes and without causing any serious harm to the guy I hit. If I had sat there trying to reason and argue with the guy who knows how mad he might have gotten me and what I might have done to him then.

Perhaps the greatest virtue of violence is that it tends to make people nicer to one another. The threat of a possible ass kicking will turn even the most intolerable asshole into a perfect gentleman unless he just doesn't care and is looking to get his ass-kicked which is thankfully rare. I often said that the difference between New York and LA is that I can walk down a crowded street in New York without one person bumping into me or stepping on my feet without an immediate apology. The same is true of Philadelphia. Why? Because rudeness like that In Philly or New York will get your ass kicked or worse. In LA, San Francisco, and even here in Vegas, people do not expect that bad manners will lead to them getting into a physical confrontation so they take a lot less care with how they speak to people or how they behave around them. I think the rudest people on earth live in LA because they think everything is cool. "Don't trip, man. It's all good." No one expects anyone to get upset and so they think they can say or do any ignorant shit that comes to mind without repercussions. Once they realize that a guy like me will knock the hell out of them for wagging their tongues too freely their entire demeanor changes. Example:

I was dating this beautiful Jamaican girl when I lived in LA. She worked for the college newspaper which was a legitimate job that paid real money, not a volunteer thing like in highschool. Her boss was a tyrant who thought it was okay to curse at and belittle his employees. She was talking to me in the hallway one day outside of her work when the door bangs open and this asshole steps out into the hall and screams at her to get her ass back in there. My jaw dropped. I could not believe what I was hearing. Then, when she turns to give me a goodbye kiss he screams at the top of his lungs, "I said, NOW!" I turned and started running down the hall towards him with my girlfriend holding on to me and yelling for her boss to get back in his office and shut the door. The guy stood there looking confused and only complied once he saw the look on my face. He slammed his door and then seemed to have a second thought and opened it again just as my back was turned and said, "Hey, Wrath. I didn't mean anything by that. It's nothing personal. She's just an employee." Just an employee? I went after him again and this time he shut the door and bolted it. After that my girlfriend reported that he spoke to her with nothing but respect.

When I first started my current job, which I have now been working at for six years, I was attending my first corporate meeting when they asked me to rise and introduce myself. I was supposed to stand up in front of my two bosses and ten other co-workers and give my name and some of my professional and personal background as well as one important thing to know about me. So I told them how long I'd worked in construction, that I lived with my son, my wife, and my then recently adopted nephew, and then I told them that the one important thing to know about me was to never ever raise your voice to me. "We can disagree. You can reprimand me and correct me if and when I screw up. But do it in civil tones. Talk to me like a man and everything is fine. But never ever raise your voice to me." The entire room got quite as I took my seat. My boss at the time was well-known for losing his temper. This was a fortune five-hundred company but it was still construction and so there were many people working there who still had that old construction attitude despite the high-gloss corporate surroundings. He was one of them. It was nothing to hear him fly off the handle and cuss someone out for some relatively minor infraction. However, the entire time I worked under him he never once did that to me. In fact, with all the hot heads in the company, most of them good-ole-boys who'd worked their way up through the trenches and now wore white collars over their rednecks, not one of them ever said a word to me in anger. And these were not polite people. I was perhaps the only exception in the way they treated thier employees and I doubt it was because of my good looks.

When I was growing up in Philadelphia a lot of importance was placed on reputation. Your reputation in the street was like a fighter's record. It told everyone around you how tough you were and helped them to decide whether or not it was a good idea to mess with you. But it did much more than that. It helped you survive. You wore your rep like a bulletproof vest and walking the streets without one was the most dangerous thing you could do around my way.

After I moved out of my mother's house I moved in with a woman named Renee' who'd grown up in a place called New Hope, Pennsylvania where everyone had the same haircut and there were only about a dozen different last names in the entire town. She'd lived in Philly for almost five years when I met her and she considered herself to be pretty street savvy for a German girl from a town filled with Quakers and Mennonites. She still could not understand the whole big deal about rep. In her mind it was just some bullshit Macho thing. One day we were going back to my old neighborhood to visit my Mom. When we got there I noticed that everyone was acting real funny around me and nobody would look me in the eyes. My mother wasn't home and my sister kept telling me to ask my Mom about it when she got home. She didn't want to tell me because she didn't want me to do anything stupid. My boys on the corner gave me the same cryptic response. I went to my best friend Rick's house and I finally got the story out of him. Somebody had snatched my mother's purse the other day.

"But it's cool. Your Mom handled that shit. Old Flo ain't slow!" he joked, but I wasn't in a laughing mood. I was furious.

"What happened and who do I have to kill?"

"I told you, your mom handled that shit."

"What do you mean she handled it?"

"She was getting into her car the other day right in front of Pratt's store when she dropped her purse. She went to pick it up and you know Brent? Well, he snatched it and ran and your mom chased that nigga all the way to his crib. She ran into his house tackled him on the floor and kicked his ass 'til she got her money back. Then, when she was in there handling Brent, your sister was still out by the car arguing with this dude named Tank who was with Brent. Well, your sister ain't used to taking shit from nobody because you've always been around to protect her. So, she walks right up to this big dude and slaps the shit out of him. He raises his hand to hit her back just as your mom is coming back around the corner. Your mom tackles Tank too and has him in a headlock choking the shit out of him. He's turning blue and shit and we all run over and try to talk her out of killing him. I kept telling her that he wasn't worth going to jail over and finally she let him go."

"Why didn't you niggas help her?"

"She ain't need no help! I tole you. Ole Flo ain't slow."

I got back in the car with Renee' and she drove me around the corner where this dude Brent who I had known most of my life stood on the corner a day after snatching my mother's purse, laughing and joking with his homies. I beat the hell out of him. Renee' asked me afterwards why I had to do that when my mother had already taken care of it and I explained to her about what rep meant on the street. If I didn't kick his ass like that and let everyone know what happens to someone who messes with my family then none of them would ever be safe. In the ghetto a reputation is more than just some macho thing. My mother can sleep at night without worrying about someone breaking into the house because of my rep. My grandmother can walk to the bank without worrying about getting mugged for her social security check because of my rep. My sister can go out at night without worrying about being dragged into an alley and raped because of my rep. My rep at that time was a blanket that protected everyone from my mother to my aunts to my cousins, nieces and nephews. If I let one thing slide then they'd all be in danger. She understood. Sometimes violence prevents violence.

Years later after I had moved to the West Coast, this white dude my mom had been dating moved in with her, into my old neighborhood. One day he caught somebody trying to steal his car and he ran the guy off. The guy came back with half the thugs in the neighborhood knocking on my mother's door looking for the White dude with all the attitude. He opened the door and asked them if they knew who's house this was. They shook their heads. "Do you know who Wrath is? Well, this is his Mom's house. I'm her boyfriend." They all left. My reputation saved his ass too. Funny, because he was another person who never understood why I reacted so violently whenever anyone in that neighborhood disrespected me in any way. I think he finally got it that day. Sometimes kicking ass is the only way to maintain the peace.

My son has been learning to fight since he could stand. It is amazing to watch him. He can box, kickbox, wrestle, and is well-versed in submissions (choke holds, arm locks, leg locks, and ankle locks.) He has never lived in a ghetto. I have made sure that he has a better life than I have had. He is a quiet boy, very friendly, very smart, popular, honor roll student, even tempered. He doesn't look for trouble and never starts fights. In fact, he has had only one unsupervised unsanctioned fight in his entire life and that was against three boys who were teasing him. One of them tripped him and Sultan took the kid down and threw a knee to the kid's stomach. The kid doubled over and started crying. The other two kids ran off and nobody has messed with him since. Sultan understands my feelings on violence and he shares them. To quote Malcolm X:

“Be careful, be courteous, obey the laws, respect everyone, but if someone puts his hands on you, send him to the cemetery."

My daughter will learn how to fight when she is old enough as well. Neither of my children will grow up afraid. They will grow up prepared. Neither of them will be bullies. Yet, neither will they be victims. They will learn to respect themselves and others and they will learn when the time for rational conversation has come to an end and you have to do what you have to do. They will learn the ideology of peace and non-violence and they will learn the realities of this very violent world we live in and they will be prepared to respond to it appropriately.

Friday, October 07, 2005

The "N" Word

Nigger. Many of you cringed just seeing the word written out. It is a powerful word. It is a word that in our culture is quite arguably charged with as much emotional significance as "America" or even the word "God". I will probably not change anyone's mind with anything I am about to say. This word holds too much power for a few brief paragraphs to alter its popular perception. This is simply my brief history of the word.

I have no idea when I first heard the word nigger. All I know is that it was spoken from Black lips. I remember the first time I used it. I was five years old. I had heard it so often by then that I was unaware that it was a derogatory term. I got a spanking for using bad words and had no idea which word my mother was referring to. As I got older I used the word and heard it used dozens of times a day. The word had no more significance to me than any other word. Its meaning varied. At times it was used to mean less cultured, less civilized, ignorant, and "trifling" Black people. At times it was used to refer to anyone with Black skin. At times it simply meant a Black Man. At times it meant any man of any color. At times it was used as a term of endearment and friendship. At times it was used as an inclusive term, a term of unity and community. The tone of voice, the inflection, the context, and the attitude and skin complexion of the speaker could all change its meaning from something hateful to something reassuring.

I remember the first time I went to a predominantly White school. I was fourteen years old. The freedom with which I used the word nigger was extremely confusing to those around me. It was the first time I was forced to confront my usage of the term. I remember talking to a white person and the word slipping out as casually as it had all of my life. I remember how offended I was when he looked at me with confusion on his face and replied, "I'm not a nigger. I'm White." I recall being shocked by the implication that the term could only be used in reference to Black people. I told him, "You don't have to be Black to be a nigger." But I wasn't so sure. I had never thought about the word before. It had always just been there. I just knew that him saying he could not be a nigger because he was white somehow felt as if he was implying that conversely I must have been a nigger because I was Black. After that I called him a nigger whenever I saw him and he took it with that same uncomfortable look on his face.

When I was fifteen I fell in love with a fourteen year old Italian girl. It was the first time I'd ever been in love and the first time I'd ever dated anyone outside my race. When the school year was nearing its end she told me that she couldn't see me anymore because her parents were prejudice and we lived so far away and her parents were prejudice and I was going to a new school and her parents were prejudice. That was my first real experience with racism. I went home and cried in my mother's arms and she told me that if I loved her we would find a way even though she lived way on the other side of town and was as broke as we were. She said she'd give me money to go see her. I went back to school the next day and we worked it out. The next few years were hell. She broke up with me twice before our relationship finally ended. I had never hurt so much in my entire life. I have never hurt like that again. To cheer me up my friend Rick would take me across town into the neighborhood where my girlfriend lived and we would just walk around this predominantly White neighborhood until someone yelled nigger and then we would kick their asses. It always made me feel a little better. I remember the first time it happened almost by accident. Going up to the North east had been Rick's suggestion. I had been starting a lot of fights in the neighborhood and just generally losing my mind. So he suggested that we just go up to The North East and hang out. Maybe being near her would help. I think he knew what he was doing though.

We had been walking around for hours and nothing. Everything I saw reminded me of her and every memory was painful. I was getting more and more depressed. Then we walked past a park where teenagers were known to go and smoke pot and meth and drink themselves silly. It was so dark the night had formed impenetrable walls around it. From behind that opaque curtain of night we heard someone yell nigger! The violence and hatred in the voice was unmistakable. A whole chorus of voices joined in screaming at us as we walked past. I felt absolutely nothing. Even knowing that the speaker was white, even hearing it yelled at me in anger with all the hatred in those young white voices it meant nothing to me. I had heard the word all my life. It was as comfortable and familiar as my own name. I was going to just let it go. Rick on the other hand grabbed a broken hockey stick out of the gutter and jumped across the fence surrounding the park and ran off into the dark after whoever had said it. I followed him not knowing how many kids there were in there. I still don't know how many there were. All I know is that we kicked a whole lot of ass that night. We started going back every weekend. Beating up racists made me feel better somehow, though I wished that one of them had been my girlfriend's father even though I knew that it wouldn't have changed anything. Kicking his ass definitely wasn't going to change his mind about Black people anymore than kicking those kids asses made them any more open-minded. All it did was provide an outlet for my rage.

Eventually my girlfriend and I got back together and she was kicked out of her house and forced to live in a group home. I worked every day after school to support her. I bought her school supplies, her clothes, her make up, her toiletries, her shoes, her winter coats, her jewelry. Anything I could to make her happy though she never was. Every time she cried I died a little inside. I dealt with the stares from Black and White people who disapproved of our relationship and I struggled to understand how a parent could abandon their child because of the skin color of who she was dating. The day we broke up she told me that her parents were right, "You are a nigger!" That word had never hurt so much before.

At eighteen I went to college at Antioch in Yellow Springs, Ohio. It was a small liberal arts college with a history of liberal politics. It, along with its sister college Oberlin, was the first college in America to except women and Blacks. It was the college where Rod Serling graduated from and his framed picture sat right outside the Dean's office in the trophy case. I was one of a handful of Black kids attending the college. My best friend at the school was Felicia Chappelle (Dave Chappelle's older sister). She was my sanity, the only person there who sort of understood me. I remember my third or fourth day on campus walking around town with Felicia and Dave and asking where the Black community was in town. Dave looked at me with a straight face and replied, "Wherever we go."

When classes started I noticed that there were other Black kids on campus who were forming groups with names like M.A.D. (Men of African Descent) and the Third World Alliance. There was also the Women's Coalition, The Gay Rights Coalition, and every other conceivable group. I didn't get it. I didn't want to separate myself from people. I wanted to get rid of all the barriers. It was not a popular opinion. I made enemies as quickly as I made friends. I was from the ghetto. I had a lot of rough edges. Just before I had left for college I had spent the summer living on the street, squatting in an abandoned house with a bunch of punk rockers, runaways, and criminals, and fighting almost everyday. I had used words like nigger, bitch, faggot, dyke, and pussy all of my life as part of my everyday speech and had never meant anything derogatory by any of them. Now those words could get me kicked off campus. I understood that these words could be hurtful to some so I let them all go except one. I defended my right to use the word nigger.

I argued that using the word sapped it of its power. By using it we were reclaiming it from those who had used it against us. I quoted Richard Pryor who had said that before the White Man took us from Africa we were Watusi and Mau Mau and Nuba and Masai and hundreds of other tribes and we were all at war. Then we came to America and were united under one common name "Nigger" and we all became brothers. They quoted back later Richard Pryor when he went to Africa and realized that he didn't see any niggers there, only beautiful Black people and that he had to stop thinking of himself in those terms and how he had promised to stop using that word. I pointed out that he may have said that but he never actually did stop using it. I was at odds with almost everyone else on campus, especially the other Black kids who I could not relate to. They were idealistic, which I read as unrealistic. They were angry, which I read as unreasonable. And they were largely Middle Class, which I read as out of touch. I left after one semester and took my ghetto ass home, but now the word was on my mind as never before.

At twenty one I moved to the Bay Area. There I met lots of "Afrocentric" Black folks who convinced me little by little that there was something wrong with my free usage of this word. I began my own course of Black studies reading Bobby Seal and Eldridge Cleaver and Malcolm X and Huey P. Newton and Langston Hughes and James Baldwin. At that time I also met a lot of gangsters and gangster rappers and found myself so appalled by the image they were portraying about our people that I resolved to never use the word again. Of course I did use it, many times. It was too much a part of me. Still, I cringed whenever I heard a Black person use it around White people and I reacted violently when I began to hear White people using the term. I was amazed the first time I saw a Black person allow a White person to call him a nigger with the same familiarity and camaraderie with which Black people used the term. I didn't like it. It wasn't right. They had not earned the right.

My partner and I were promoting a hip-hop concert at the night club I use to run in San Francisco. In keeping with our formula of putting on local acts with our headliners we had hired so kids we knew from around the way who had recently gotten a lot of exposure in a local club magazine. One of the rappers went by the name of "White Mike" and just like the name implies he was Caucasian. While I was explaining to him why the band could not have their underaged friends and relatives in the club without endangering our liquor license, he starts rambling on in the most exaggerated slang I'd heard since leaving Philly, punctuated quite liberally with "My nigga this...And my niggaz that..." I was shocked and appalled. I stepped closer to him and growled in his ear, "If you ever use that word in front of me again I will beat you within an inch of your life."

"Ay that's just how we talk. These my niggaz right here. We grew up together."

One of the Black members of the band proceeded to walk up to me and tell me that Mike was cool and that he was down and that they didn't mind him saying it. I didn't care.

"You don't have the right to give a White boy permission to use that word. Were you ever a slave? Did you spend months in the belly of a slave ship after being snatched from your home only to be whipped and beaten, sold away from your family and forced to work in the fields like animals? Did you ever have to use a colored toilet or ride in the back of a bus? Were you ever denied the right to vote? Did you ever have police dogs and clubs and fire hoses put on you while you were marching for your rights? No? Then you don't have the fucking right to let a White boy use that word after our ancestors suffered through all that shit just so one day you wouldn't have to hear it any more."

Yeah. It surprised me too. I didn't know I had all of that inside me. I guess the word had more meaning to me than I had ever admitted to myself.

Years later I moved to Las Vegas and worked as a bouncer at a local nightclub. I was throwing out a drunk one night when he shouted the word in my face as I tossed him to the curb. I went after him with the intent of causing as much bodily harm as humanly possible without actually killing him. One of the other bouncers grabbed me to keep me from hurting him. After the drunk had run off the other bouncer released me and said, "Aren't you glad I stopped you from hurting that guy? It's just a word. You can't let it get to you." He was White. He didn't get it. I was still angry. Rage was vibrating through my muscles still looking for a place to vent itself.

"You ever grab me like that again and I'll fucking kill you."

It was a matter of dignity, a matter of pride. Some things are worth losing a job over. Some things are worth spending a night or two in jail for. Some things you do not let slide. While I worked at that club I heard more White people use that word in anger than ever before in my life. I hurt every last one of them that said it within my hearing range. The night I got fired from that job a guy said it to me three times. I knocked him unconscious three times. He kept reviving and saying it again. The last time I knocked him out I stomped him in his face until he was finally quiet. I was fired for excessive force. I got a better job. Never worked in a nightclub again and never regretted how I handled that situation. I have knocked out people on three continents for using that word in anger.

This entire topic came to me while watching an episode of Oprah Winfrey the other day. The episode featured the cast of the movie "Crash" discussing race and prejudice. Eventually the "N" word came up. Don Cheadle, Ludacris, and one of the other actors defended their right to use the word with all of the same arguments I had used before. "It is a term of endearment between Black people. It is a term of brotherhood and community." They even went on to try to clarify how "nigga" was the inoffensive term and "nigger" was the racial slur. I had used that once myself too, in my younger days. Oprah answered that this was all too confusing and the word should just not be used at all by anyone. She recounted a story about one of her security guards being called a nigger innocently by a South African security guard who thought "What's up my nigga?" was the appropriate way to greet Black people because he'd seen it in American rap videos. I too have only recently realized how difficult it is for White people to come to grips with this word. It confuses them even more than it confuses us. So, I agree with both Don and Oprah to a degree.

I agree with Don that this term has a meaning within our community that has transcended its original meaning. As Richard Pryor said years ago the word has united the tribes under one banner. Yet the negative connotations of the word cannot be ignored. It connotes generations and generations of slavery and oppression. It was the word used by our oppressors to identify someone who was in his opinion a mere possession, little more than three fifths of a man, just a notch above cattle. It should never come out of a White person's lips. When my mother was growing up a Black person would get his ass kicked for calling another Black person a nigger in mixed company. It was a term that was used only between ourselves and not shared with the public. Using the term out of community was the highest insult. It was considered belittling. Black people using it between one another when we are alone is one thing but we should never use it in public. We should certainly never put it on a record and play it on the radio. Reclaiming the word is one thing, but loaning it out to other races and selling it for profit is another thing entirely.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

How to Make Love to A Horror Author

Horror writers are an odd bunch, as are all writers and all artists for that matter. We are self-absorbed. We appear moody and introspective when looking from the outside in, though this is often just the creative process at work. We get excited over unusual things. We fail to notice the things that excite others while we are lost in our own thoughts. "Thinking" is an actual activity for us that we schedule time for. Research can mean anything from walking through the mall, driving around town, chatting with a friend, reading a book, magazine, or newspaper, watching a movie, a documentary, a reality TV show, or an episode of CSI, aimlessly surfing the net, posting on messageboards, or watching a porno movie (maybe that's just me?) We are not being ridiculous when we buy ten new books a month when we know we can only read. We are just being writers. We will read them someday and if we don't we will sell it on ebay.

We writers do a lot of staring. This is work too. We stare at empty pages, empty computer screens, the same newspaper article we've stared at a hundred times, the same book we've read a dozen times, the same rejection slip, acceptance letter, critic's review, messageboard comment. You stare at the back of our heads while our faces are buried in our work. Yes, we know you are waiting for us to say something. No, we are not done working yet.

We can be detached from reality. We can suddenly be struck by inspiration at the oddest and most inopportune moments and have to dash to the nearest computer or pen and paper to scribble off some note or write an entire chapter when we are already late for an appointment. We are sometimes too tired from being up all night writing to go out anywhere or do anything yet we still do it again the next night when we should be catching up on our sleep because the Muse will not let us rest. It is not that you are less important than our writing. We are slaves to our inspiration. We can't wait until after dinner to write that paragraph of description, or that amazing piece of dialogue, or that plot twist, that just came to us as we were passing the mac and cheese to junior.

The Muse is a domineering bitch. Understand that she has us by our short hairs. We want to listen to you talk about your day, but sometimes her voice is louder. We want to lay in bed and cuddle with you all day like we did the weekend before, but this weekend she won't let us leave the computer. We want to eat dinner at the table like a normal human being, or watch your favorite TV show with you like we do every wednesday night, or go for a walk in the park, but she is threatening to pull the plug on the inspiration if we don't write exactly what she tells us to right this instant and keep writing until she is finished saying what she has to say, and we've had writer's block for a month and can't afford to let the Muse get away from us now. Yes, we know it is kind of weird and pretentious to refer to creative inspiration as The Muse as if it were an actual sentient being. No, we won't stop doing it. She won't let us.

Writers relish their "otherness". Most of us have been weird all of our lives. In school we were just weird. Now we are artists. Our weirdness is expected and encouraged. It is the climate in which the Muse thrives. Freaks like us turn her on. We don't care if your friends think we're creepy. Yes, we know we haven't shaved since we started writing the novel and no, we don't care. Yes, we really do think that no one understand us and yes we realize that angst is no longer fashionable or sexy when you're thirty. Our friends still think its cool to be anti. Yes, we realize that you can't raise a family off five cents a word. Yes, we realize that the hundred and fifty dollar check we are jumping up and down about is less than minimum wage if we broke it down hourly between the research, the rough draft, and the countless edits. We are still going to frame it. Yes, we know that this POD novel is not going to make us rich. No, you can't buy it at Barnes and Nobles. Yes, we are still proud of it. Yes, we realize that the letter from Cemetery Dance we are so excited about is a rejection letter. "But it's from Cemetery Dance! Don't you get it?" Yes, we realize that you don't. No, we can't make it make any sense to you. That would make you as weird as we are.

Writers define work differently than others. Thinking is work. Bullshitting in a chatroom with other writers, publishers, and editors is work even if we aren't talking about anything that has to do with writing. When we are telling each other dirty jokes we are working. When we are arguing about politics on a messageboard we are working. When we are surfing through CNN, MSN,,,, and every horror related site on the web we are working. Don't look through our list of favorite places on the web. It is scarier than what we write. Yes, that character in the short story we're working on who get's his eyes torn out is your uncle. No, we don't like your uncle. Yes, the character we killed on page three is our ex-girlfriend. Yes, she's still alive in real life. No, this serial killer novel is not autobiographical. Yes, we know that you are scared that our friends, relatives, and neighbors will read something we've written and boycott us. No, we can't write about more pleasant things. No we can't at least give that zombie story a happier ending. No, we can't at least take out the sex and the bad language.

Loving us means accepting all of this odd behavior. Those bizarre mood changes when we write as we slip from one character's mindset to the next in an effort to capture that character's personality and motivation so that we can author his next move. We talk about our characters as if they actually exist. We hate some of them and love others. Some characters we even hate to write about, but we do because we have to. We are not dangerously insane. We are not sociopaths just because the first thought to enter our minds when something tragic happens is what a great story it would make. We are not morbid because we laugh at the scary parts in horror movies. We just get it. Stay with us long enough and you'll get it too.

Loving us means accepting what you cannot understand. You will not understand everything about us. Your sanity puts you at a disadvantage. You don't have to understand us in order to love us. Yes, we are selfish when we get a story in our heads. Yes, we sometimes take our loved ones for granted and put our writing before them. Yes, we are sorry. We will work on it. We still love you.