Thursday, February 26, 2009

Linda Jones in Pain

Duke University's Mark Anthony Neal discusses "the greatest singer you've never heard," Linda Jones.

In 1967, at the tender age of 22, Jones recorded a powerful song titled "Hypnotized." Jones died in the early 1970s, but her singing style made quite an impression on subsequent generations of vocalists.

Neal wrote an intriguing essay on her ability to represent physical and emotional pain through her stylized and sophisticated vocalizations. Jones suffered from diabetes and painful diabetic seizures, and Neal uses Elaine Scarry's Bodies in Pain as his inspiration for an argument about the extent to which Jones's "harsh" and hypnotic sound represents her concerted attempt to render that pain acoustically and aesthetically.

Her singerly choices (her skillful attempts to "bend and break notes"), he says, demonstrate a profound recognition of language's inadequacy as a mechanism for capturing otherwise inexpressible pains. "There was no language for [her] pain," he claims, and so Jones used the non-semantic and phonetic materialities of language to articulate "heart aches and pains" that outstrip language's semiotic/representational powers.

Neal's essay can be found in the new book Best African American Essays, edited by Debra Dickerson and Gerald Early.

And you can hear him talk about Jones during a recent WUNC interview. The interview is short. And its worth a listen. Neal makes a compelling case for Jones presages contempoary figures like Keisha Cole and Mary J. Blige.

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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

My op-ed on the "nation of cowards" comment

Lately, I have been trying to write about the kind of heavy-lifting that understanding race/racism actually demands of contemporary Americans. I used the Holder comment as an excuse to enter the fray again, and publicly, with an op-ed in today's Philadelphia Inquirer. I try to flesh-out a bit of Holder's argument, and I link it to that controversial chimp-shooting cartoon.

In the op-ed, I do say that we are all cowards. I think that Holder got that part right, even as I agree with the claim that any invocation of cowardice runs the risk of alienating more people than it brings to the multiracial table.

Still, Holder isn't just singling out white Americans, and negotiating our fear is an inescapable part of what it means to be human.

So, why are we so afraid of being called out for being afraid?

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Don't Let the "Deal or No Deal" Suitcase Fool You!

I didn’t know anything about her before the end of last year, and I still haven't seen her do stand-up. But I listen to Claudia Jordan every Friday evening on Jamie Foxx’s Sirius/XM radio show , The Jamie Foxx Show, and she is one of the funniest things about the program, especially when Foxx is off shooting a movie or recording/promoting a new album.

At first, I just wanted to listen to the Foxxhole show so that I could catch Jamie Foxx strutting his comedic stuff. I’ve been laughing at his crazy antics ever since his days on Fox’s In Living Color sketch comedy show. Listening to Foxx live and uncensored was worth the cost of Satellite radio all by itself. (And I have to admit that I am closely following the breaking story about Liberty Media trying to save a cash-strapped Sirius XM with a $530-million investment, especially with the future of the Foxx show hanging in the balance.)

Even now, I get most of my black popular culture from Foxx and his comedy crew. Who knew that Katt Williams angrily challenged “King of Comedy” Steve Harvey to a New Year’s Eve battle royale? Where else would I hear an Oscar-winning superstar tell Tavis Smiley that he was acting like the kind of antebellum slave that would have gotten killed by other slaves before they executed their escape plans (because Foxx considered Smiley an early “playa hating” against Obama). I even had the nerve to get some of my inauguration coverage from the crew. They took the historic moment very seriously, but some bursts of comedic brilliance were sprinkled throughout the festivities anyway.

Foxx and his no-holds-barred crew (including Johnny “M...F...” Mack, Felicia “O.G. Poetess” Morris, Speedy, Lewis Dix, Chris Spencer, and Michael Collier) go at each other (and the day’s top stories) with reckless abandon. You should have heard them deconstruct Chris Brown's alleged assault on Rihanna. And everyone gets some gut-busting zingers in there.

Of course, it isn’t for the kids, or the faint of heart. They can get quite “blue” and explicit about things. This is pay radio, remember. But Jordan always seems to hit the hardest. They constantly offer up a “joke of the day” award, and as far as I can tell, she’s usually the recipient.

Jordan’s problem, however, is that she also boasts a model’s physical beauty, which might be a kind of death sentence for any serious comic. Her movie-star looks landed her a spot as eye candy on NBC’s Deal or No Deal. And she’s probably going to gain a ton more fans after her stint on this season’s Celebrity Apprentice, also on NBC . If the producers let her do her thing, she will be hilarious amidst the competitive chaos of that reality TV show.

Of course, you can’t see her on the radio. But what you hear, consistently, are some of the funniest unscripted one-liners and witty rejoinders anywhere. Trust me. Don’t let the Deal or No Deal suitcase fool you. Claudia Jordan is one of the quickest comics in America.

_(Photo from

Friday, February 6, 2009

The Man of Steele?

The Republican National Committee chose former Maryland Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele as its new chairman. Steele is the first African-American to hold the post and, arguably, yet another beneficiary of the “change” in electoral politics that Barack Obama’s historic victory signifies.

Steele beat out five other candidates after six rounds of voting and backroom dealing, which culminated in a late come-from-behind victory over South Carolina’s Katon Dawson.

With the GOP still reeling from its loss of the White House and several more seats in Congress, Steele is being asked to radically redefine the Party for a decidedly new electorate. Many pundits have been arguing that Republicans need a massive transfusion of new blood after the thumping they took this past November. The choices of Sarah Palin as McCain’s running mate and “Joe, The Plumber” as a kind of last-minute (and decidedly misguided) Hail Mary signaled, for detractors, a desperate attempt to appeal to a “base” that no longer exists -- or that represents a smaller portion of the American electoral pie than ever before given both our country’s much-discussed demographic “browning” and Obama’s massive voter registration efforts.

Obama beat McCain with respect to just about every ethnic group in the country, including African-Americans, Jewish-Americans, Muslim-Americans, and Asian-Americans. He didn’t win the white vote, but he didn’t need to, especially since his campaign made a point of helping to get those newly registered voters to the polls on Election Day.

America’s days of all-white-male Presidential/Vice Presidential tickets is over -- at least for the foreseeable future. People say that we have a lot more “firsts” on the political horizon (and that’s whether or not Hillary Clinton runs in 2016). We’ll see if such talk proves prescient, but one thing seems sure. The RNC’s decision to entrust Steele with its top spot means that they probably see the “writing on the wall” vis-à-vis “old school” political tactics that now alienate many more Americans than they attract.

I don’t know much about Steele, and most of what I think I know comes from hearing bits and pieces of his punditry during national news programs. I’ll start to listen more closely now. But the unscientific impression I have based on what I’ve already heard is that Steele might actually represent the same commitment to thoughtfulness and open-minded debate that Obama seems to embody on the other side of the aisle. Neither figure is post-partisan, but they both appear to privilege ideas over ideology, careful consideration over cultivated inattention, and healthy skepticism over blind faith. Indeed, Steele could turn out to be the perfect political foe in an Obama era. If President Obama has become a kind of otherworldly political superhero for the Democrats, Steele might just be up to the task of playing an equally matched archrival.