Found the coolest little record store…
And I love the name
Found the coolest little record store…
And I love the name
When I was a kid back in Brooklyn, younger even than Terrence, my friends would tease me.
“Are you African?” They’d ask.
“So why the hell do you dress like that???”
Yes, indeed, evidence to the contrary. I was decked out in a dashiki and a kufi everyday. My friends in Public School wore whatever the hell they wanted to wear to school. I even had an African name, Senegalese, in fact. A name that my friends, with little or no effort or imagination, could turn into the most irritating jokes.
My first week of school the teacher told us that we shall all choose a name from a book of African names and for the remainder of our school lives we shall be known by that name. Little did I know, at 7 years old, how significant that moment would be. That not only would that name follow me home, it would follow me into my after school life and even until this day it remains the name I am known by. Even friends I’ve had over thirty years do not know my “slave” name.
Why “slave” name? Because, in case you don’t know the history of slavery, the true names of the African chattel were taken and replaced by rather random meaningless names, like dogs, and their owner’s surnames became their own.
Why did I respond, “Hell no!”? Well, that’s a little more complicated.
Though I was being taught to love and honor my African ancestry, I didn’t exactly live in a vacuum. I watched TV, too. A LOT of TV. And a lot of movies, too. The images of Africa I received in school- of a land rich with ancient civilizations and natural resources, of Kings and Queens like Shaka Zulu in South Africa and Cleopatra of Egypt (though consistently portrayed as being white for some reason in films), of warrior kings like Hannibal of Carthage who conquered large portions of Spain and Italy and nearly defeated the Romans, of great Universities like Sankore in Timbuktu, of great empires like the Mali and Ghana Empire, etc… all of these images were countered by the bombardment of negative images, those that influenced the minds of the people I had to interact with outside of the cultural sanctuary of my school.
And, unfortunately, I was influenced by these people and these images, as well.
Of course, as a child, you don’t question these images. Seeing is believing. I just kind of thought that Africa was big enough for both. I wanted to be associated with the positive images, the flowing robes of Princes and the kufi-bearing scholars, but unfortunately most of my friends outside of school had no exposure to the positive images, only the negative ones. So I was subject to being called names like “African booty scratcher,” “Spear-chucker,” “Monkey-chaser,” etc.
Like Terrence, among those that were essentially my own kind, I was an outsider.
Naturally, I blamed my school. This led me to resent the education I was receiving, and even resent the Africa I was being taught forced to hold in such high esteem. And I would not have even an inkling of the enormous gift I’d been given by my school until my first foray into the public school system as a High School student, where I would see first hand what little I had been missing out on all those years. Little by little I would realize the virtually insurmountable obstacles my teachers had taken on.
Even now I am still learning.
Growing up in NY I learned more about the world than in any school. In New York, you have ample opportunity to meet people from all over the world, or descendants of people from all over the world, whether you like it or not. New York is truly a global city. I was never proud of that fact before I came to Japan. No wonder I wore my New Yorker status like a badge of honor. It’s funny the things your ego has to feed on for sustenance when you live in another country, especially one as un-diversified as Japan.
Diversity is not just a word, as many countries including Japan are learning or perhaps will learn in the future. When one is truly coming to terms with living in a diversified environment one eventually comes to know the nature of the cultural hard-wiring they’ve undergone, in most cases without their consent and sometimes without even their knowledge. Then, one’ll have to undergo a certain amount of dis-assembly and re-conditioning in order to develop a sensitivity for various types of differences because that’s life in a melting pot. The only way the stew can thrive is if, ideally, all the ingredients coalesce and complement one another, or cancel one another out so that the stew has about as much taste as Tofu.
Like Alex undergoing the Ludovico Technique in “A clockwork orange.” In order to induce in him an aversion to doing “evil;” the only side effect being that “evil” in its current cultural definition was so closely tied to what amounted to all he’d come to believe were normal human responses to stimuli that he was made into a human punching bag. Well, in a diverse society, the conditioning begins with an induced aversion to Political Incorrectness, in as much as when you hear or witness an act of P.I. there is a Pavlovian-type response to it. And, like poor Alex, you might in some cases want to throw up, and in my case, engage the offending party in discussion or debate as to why they retain their questionable views or, in extreme cases, wring their necks (a rather troubling response.) It has not always been this way and in some corners of America, and in some hearts of Americans, it still isn’t this way. But, back home, it’s pretty advanced. Besides, you learn in NY that, like Chris Rock said, whoever you are intolerant of, irrationally fear or hate, will probably end up in your family. Got a problem with gays? Your son will come out of the closet and announce his engagement to your next door neighbor’s son. Hate white people? Your daughter will bring home Brad Pitt and announce their engagement.
When I was a kid, my first exposure to real Africans from various countries would came through my school. Mostly musicians, artists and educators. They’d lecture, share their knowledge and experiences, do their dances, play their instruments, and display their art. There were programs where students and faculty took trips to various African countries. (I never went but some of my classmates did.) The school even began an African Street festival in Brooklyn, an annual event every summer, which still persists to this day, 38 years later, though the school is defunct. All in the spirit of building bridges with our African brethren.
My interactions with Africans as an adult would be quite different, however.
Back in NY I used to get the feeling that average African Americans (not celebrities, athletes or of course presidents) were beneath contempt in the eyes of many African visitors and immigrants for a variety of reasons, including but not limited to our legally living in the so-called land of milk and honey and not finding a way to milk it dry; their perspective akin to Antonio Montana’s in “Scarface” who said: “If I had come here (to America) 10 years ago I’d be a millionaire by now. I’d have my own house, my own car, my own boat…”
But, it was only a feeling…I only knew a handful of Africans.
In Japan, the Africans are really the only “friendly” black people. Usually if I encounter an African-American he’d give me a look like I owed him money, or cower like he owed me money, one. Or, they’d pretend they don’t see me. I get it, though. I avoid other foreigners too sometimes. Perhaps it’s a side effect of living in a culture where the natives can best be described as evasive. Perhaps it’s just fear. and prejudice. And self-hate.
Africans, however, invariably approach me with, at minimum, a warm greeting and often try to strike up a conversation. They seem to be impervious to all of the Japanese behavior around them. I suspected it was because they too mostly come from mostly racially homogeneous countries and have not undergone the Ludovico technique so they have no illusions about their place here and know what’s to be expected from their Japanese hosts, but I don’t know for sure. The ones I’ve spoken to appear to have no racial sensitivity, no qualm with anything that goes down here aside from those that hinder their business ventures. And, they’ve found ways to deal with those hindrances in most cases. The 1000 daily paper cut type slights and the out-and-out discrimination that trouble me seem to fly well under their radar.
I envy them, sometimes. But, sometimes I think that kind of thinking would do me more harm than good. Just a little too pragmatic and hope-free for my taste. But, the relatively few Africans that I have interacted with in Japan do not represent the thinking of an entire continent. To me, this is common sense. If it weren’t for the school I attended as a child, as well as my experiences growing up in NY, I might have been able to lump all Africans into one and label them. But, you see, I have an aversion to that kind of thing. I try to deal with each person as they come.
Easier said than done.
I brought all of this to my interactions with little Terrence- my lifetime of experience dealing with other races, cultures and nationalities; with all its convolution and confusion. It’s no wonder I felt so cautious. Afraid to engage. Afraid to corrupt his mind with my experience.
And it illustrated one of the reasons I think this experience living in another culture has been good for me. It constantly gives me opportunities to really see what I’m made of, this equation I call identity. And, what the world is made of, this constant search for cultural uniqueness or distinctions. Sometimes what I see is not a pretty picture. Sometimes its beauty is overwhelming. Sometimes a simple question like, “Are you African?” can open a door and send me to a place in my heart I may not have ventured otherwise. A place where the designation “African” has about as much meaning as the designation “American”: none. I’m American as much as I’m African as much as I’m Japanese…
What I really wish I could have told my kids when they asked me was I African, before the thought was washed away by those 500 feelings flash flooding my heart and paralyzing me, before I thought of the racial aggrandizing I was subject to as a child, and the Ludovico-type conditioning I’ve been subject to as a New Yorker so as to enable me to co-exist with other cultures and people relatively drama-free, before I unearthed all of the feelings, good and bad, about people I have encountered from the African continent, and contemplated all of the racial and cultural prejudice that paralyzes progress and our true evolution as a species…I wish I could have told them that despite their question springing from such innocence, it was indeed irrelevant.
“So, why do you know Swahili?” one of my more inquisitive students inquired.
“I studied it in elementary school…” I replied. “I had to study it, the way you have to study English.”
There were still looks of confusion on the students’ faces. The Japanese teacher looked as if it weren’t sitting well with her idea of how the world works, either.
“Do all…um…elementary school students have to study Swahili?” the Japanese teacher asked incredulously.
“No, not all.”
“Do many people speak Swahili in New York?” another student asked.
They were really struggling with this one, so I broke down and did what I was trying to avoid doing: I told them highlights of what I have explained about my elementary school in Part 1, leaving out the social commentary as much as possible.
As the bell to indicate the end of class began to chime, another student blurted out, “how do you say ‘goodbye’ in Swahili?”
The answer came to me instantly. “Tutaonana,” I said. “Tutaonana watoto.”
“It means, ‘goodbye students,’ ” I added.
Standing before my class using the language my teachers used when I was kid, watching them play with making the foreign words, hurled memories at me. One in particular made me smile. ‘Watoto’ actually means ‘children’ not ‘students’ but I had been a child- all of 7 or 8 years old- when I was taught these Swahili words; not an early teen like my students.
While most of them race out of the door as soon as we officially end the class-with a bow and an “Arigatou gozaimasu”- some of the students, the ones either enamored with me or with English, or both, always hang around after class hoping for a chance to get their Loco/English fix. I’m kind of a ham so, if I’m not too busy, I have no problem indulging them.
“Loco-sensei?” one of my higher level English students sang.
“I want to learn in Swahili, too!” she said in English.
“Me too,” her sidekick said, practically bouncing in her enthusiasm. I glanced over the faces of the remaining students and they all seemed to concur.
“Really, now,” I said, knowing good and damn well I wasn’t qualified to teach Swahili. I’ve only recently become truly qualified to teach English. “Why?”
A couple of them scratched their heads. But, the questioner didn’t. She said, “I want to go to Africa!” And before I could get off my favorite question she answered it by adding, “I want to be a doctor because to help African children.”
Clearly, the wallpaper in the hallways with the dying, starving Africans had had an effect on her. Was it the desired effect? I wondered. I was nonetheless surprised. Only 14 years old and…
“Me too…” bouncing Little Me too-chan chimed.
Judging from the faces of the others they would sooner become MIB or LIB (the freshman Salarymen and Office Ladies wear black to work every day) than don a white lab coat and diagnose the deathly ill and/or stick needles in the arms of the malnourished in the middle of a blazing desert or sweltering jungle.
“Well, I’m sorry but I’ve forgotten most of my Swahili,” I said in Japanese. “I can teach you a few words and phrases though…”
Their faces all lit up.
That’s when I noticed Terrence (not his real name, but close enough.) Terrence isn’t an English Groupie so I was surprised to see his face among them. He’d usually take to the halls and horseplay with his cronies. Something about today’s lesson must have sparked his interest. I shouldn’t have been surprised though. Terrence isn’t the only so-called haafu in the school, but he’s the only half-black one. His blood is half African (his father is Kenyan) and half Japanese, but, as far as who he is, he is all Japanese. It took me several months of our entire 1st year at the school to get that through my thick skull, but eventually it got through. He favors one of the guys I went to school with back in NY, a guy named Richard. Rich was half-Jamaican half Chinese but all-American if you know what I mean.
Terrence is tall, thin, fairly dark, with a curly Afro. He has a scratchy husky voice, going through changes currently but I think at the far side of this vocal metamorphosis will be a Barry White baritone that’ll drive the girls wild.
Terrence and I have the strangest relationship I’ve ever had with a student and, trust me, that’s saying a lot. Our relationship began my, and his, first day of class back in 2007. I had just begun my tenure at this Junior HS and he had just arrived, fresh from the local elementary school along with more than half of his classmates. Thus most of the students already knew or knew of one another while I knew nobody, students nor faculty. The Japanese teacher introduced me to the class, and while she did, I scanned the faces before me, this sea of young, nervous, excited Japanese faces until I came upon an island: Terrence’s black face. Just as nervous, just as excited, just as Japanese in every respect aside from color and features.
My shock was conspicuous. The class turned to see what had given me the jolt, and saw Terrence. Some shrugged with indifference, as if to say, “whatchagonnado.” Some smiled with comprehension, like this was well-traversed territory; ‘he gets that a lot’, they seemed to say. Terrence rolled with it. No more or less embarrassed than any student would be if put on the spot on the first day of class. And I realized, abruptly, what I had done. I had done to him what has been done to me since my arrival here in Kawaiiland: I’d singled him out as different. I ripped my eyes off of him and attempted to resolve myself not to set them upon him again in any significant way, any way different from the way I set my eyes upon any of the whole Japanese students, for the rest of his days in the school.
But, because of his blackness and my delusional pleasure at being around someone who I thought could vaguely identify with me, I had immediately taken a liking to him…which made it all the more difficult to treat him like everyone else. I could see it in the faces and the behavior of the other students, Terrence’s friends. They tried to push us together at every opportunity. If I asked any of them a question, whether in English or Japanese, and Terrence was in the vicinity, they’d turn to him as if to say, ‘hey T, any idea what this guy’s rambling about?’ They’d probably never seen him interact with another black person so they were probably curious as to what would happen. Would Terrence suddenly shed this veneer of Japanese-ness he’d been masquerading since they’d met him and become the gaijin he appeared to be, the one that surely lurked within him? To be honest, after meeting him a couple of times on his own, and seeing how Japanese he really was, I’d secretly hoped the same thing…
The first time I ran into him alone I’d said to him almost instinctively, “Hey! What’s up, Terrence?”
“Loco-sensei, Ohayou Gozaimasu,” he replied, nod-bowing, smiled coyly and tried to keep it moving. It was typical behavior of most of the Japanese boys I’ve ever run into outside of the school, especially the shy ones but, from him, it came off as cold somehow. I caught up with him. I’m pretty persistent once I get an idea in my head.
“So, Terrence, how do you like the school?”
Blank frozen smile, slightly uncomfortable. I’d seen that face a several thousand times and it’d struck me like a slap: He didn’t know English.
I stood there, a little shocked. In six years I’d only met one other black person in Japan that didn’t know English. It had happened about 6 years ago with a girl, haafu from all appearances, and so beautiful I’d wanted to propose to her right there on that station platform. I’d overcome my shyness and said, “Hi, how are you?” and she’d looked at me the same way Terrence did. She’d told me she didn’t speak English at all but I had filed that away as she was just trying to avoid being picked up. She’d probably been getting harassed by foreigners left and right she was so fine.
I asked Terrence in Japanese did he speak English or any other language besides Japanese and he said he didn’t. There was no guile, no shame. Of what use is English to me? I could almost hear him say. As I walked beside him towards the school that morning, a thousand questions raced through my mind, but I felt uncomfortable asking any of them. It was none of my business. But curiosity trumped decorum and rudely I pried.
“Are you African?” I asked. In Japan, I’ve learned that black is black. I’ve yet to meet a Japanese person who could distinguish between African-American and African. Though there are many variations of African and of African-American rarely have I been unable to ascertain with a glance whether a person was from my quadrant of the globe or from The Motherland. I might mistake a Caribbean person, especially Haitian or Cuban, for African, but rarely an American. There are distinct physical differences usually. Skin tone is usually not the cue though people from certain African countries have a certain density of blackness uncommon in the States. Facial structure is usually how I can distinguish between us and them and Terrence’s screamed African, though clearly diluted by Asian, probably Japanese.
He’d shuddered a bit and said that he wasn’t. I was surprised at the response.
“Where are your parents from?” I asked, and immediately regretted it. I could vaguely hear the echo of a thousand 100% Japanese people asking him the same type of questions. But, with the patience of the culture he has been nurtured in, he told me that his father was Kenyan and his mother Japanese. He smiled again, uncomfortably, offering more than a subtle hint that I should drop this line of questioning if I have any sense of Japanese propriety about me.
I did. So, I dropped it. I would find out later in the school year from my co-workers that Terrence’s father had gone back to Kenya while he was an infant and so he was being raised by his Japanese mother and, shockingly, a Japanese step-father.
From that point on I observed Terrence but never paid him any undue attention. I often go out of my way to interact with the students as much as possible. In addition to making my work life more enjoyable, I tell myself I’m doing this for the future of Japan. The more these kids interact with me and experience that foreigners are nothing to be afraid of the more likely that in the future xenophobia will be impacted positively and the foolishness I endure now will occur less often then. But, unfortunately, when I interact with Terrence I feel a certain caution.
It’s unfair but it’s real.
I feel I can not treat Terence as I treat the other students. Maybe it’s one of the side effects of my having lived in Japan for so long. From what I’ve learned of the haafu experience in Japan and from what I’ve experienced as a foreigner / black man living in Japan, and from what I remember of my adolescence and the emotional fragility I had, I figure his life in Japan must be and will continue to be an ordeal. And though I’m very curious how he copes, and would love to offer him any support I can provide, I keep my feelings at bay for his sake. It’s hard enough for a teen to fit in. Even for a teen in a school in NYC fitting in can be a dangerous balancing act. Even for a 100% Japanese teen, I’ve noticed, it can get really tricky. So I knew I had better back off or I’d be responsible for making his school life a great deal less comfortable than it already is.
So, when I saw his face among the kids clamoring to converse with me I figured he had to be curious about the language spoken in his father’s homeland. It gave me a tinge of a feeling I’m not particularly proud of…it’s not pity, but it lingers in that same Pandora’s box of useless dehumanizing feelings better left locked away. Why? Because Terrence, with his half-African blood and half-African parentage is no more African than I am.
to be continued…
Sports Day at a Junior HS in Japan is a day where the students break into teams and compete for a trophy and prizes. There are a series of races and tasks to test their endurance, strength and ability to work as a team. There are also cheerleading and dance competitions.
After the Olympic like activities of the morning, and after lunch, the students retake the field. The girls do various dances and the guys perform various feats of strength.
I’m so proud of my kids. They worked very hard, rehearsing for days, coming to school early and staying late.
Here are some examples of the results:
The girls performed a popular folk dance known as the Soran bushi dance:
And the boys did some human tower building (don’t know what its called):
Aren’t they just awesome?
I love em
The other day in class, the Japanese English teacher asked me what languages could I speak. The simplest answer would have been English only. I mean, as far as fluency is concerned it is the only language I know. However, from grades 1 through 8, I was heavily exposed to Swahili (an African language spoken in Kenya, Tanzania and other East African countries) and between HS and University another 8 years were spent gnawing and yawning at the French language. So, in the spirit of teaching the students that there are more than two languages in the world, I answered, “Of course, English, but also a little Swahili, French and Japanese .”
The students were of course familiar with English, and with French as well. But the Japanese teacher had to explain Swahili a little.
“Are you African?” one student asked, innocently.
“Uh…no,” I said, after a brief hesitation during which 500 feelings flash-flooded my heart.
“Did you live in Africa before?” Another student asked.
“No…not really.” Another flash flood…
The reason the students had asked was simple deductive reasoning: If you speak an African language you must be African. They didn’t ask me if I were French or British, though I speak languages originating from those areas as well.
Of course I wasn’t French, British, nor Japanese. Yes, very simple deductive reasoning.
I try not to think for my kids or assume anything about what they know or don’t know. Why? They constantly surprise me. Sometimes they know the most obscure stuff. And other times they have no clue about stuff I think anyone of any age would know. Did they know that there are black French people or black British people? I don’t know. Do they know that there are white African people? I don’t know. They knew that there are black African people, however. Why? The walls in the hallways of my school inform them of that. Whenever a black face goes up on the wall it’s either A: The starving, flies on the unblinking eyeballs, swollen bellied black people living in utter destitution in Sudan (or some other African country) or B: The AIDS- plagued, one- or three-legged, smiling black people of the Malaria-ridden, mosquito infested Congo (or some other African country), and the Japanese charities set up to aid them or the Japanese volunteer workers setting off to assist them.
And we, those charity cases and I, share a race, don’t we? So, hell, I could be Kenyan or Tanzanian for all they know.
Let DNA tell it, for all I know, for that matter.
All of the students in the school, especially these 3rd year students I was teaching at the moment, know I am an American. They even know all-too-well that I’m from NY. Hell, I used to wear it like a badge of honor. But the anomaly of being able to speak a relatively obscure African language (only tens of millions of Africans speak it) gave my students a WTF! I thought he was an American moment. Were their minds able to wrap themselves around questions like: Why would anyone who wasn’t from Africa, and didn’t plan to live in Africa, study an African language? I wondered.
The reason I was exposed to Swahili for 8 years and the experiences surrounding that exposure can surely fill a book or two, but allow me to summarize. My mother was as progressive as black mothers got back when I was child and saw fit to have my early education begin outside of the NYC public school system, in a small private school in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. This school’s mission was to instill in the black minds that attended the school a sense of African cultural awareness and history, something completely lacking in a public school education. Their theory was if you want children to grow up with a sense of pride, love and respect for themselves and others then you had better indoctrinate them with some knowledge of themselves that didn’t begin with slavery and end with poverty, illiteracy, drug addiction, crime and all of the other social ills they need but look out of the window to witness. You had better diffuse the bomb that the schools and media have planted in young black minds that tells them they are the descendants of savages running butt-naked in the deep dark jungles of Africa, a lion hot on their heels, and if it weren’t for the civilizing efforts of our forefathers, they would still be there- living a barbaric, cannibalistic, blood-soaked idol worshiping way of life.
You had better do something about the image issue, and give that child an image of beauty that was not white, an image of power that was not white, an image of success that was not white, etc… Otherwise, that child will grow up associating beauty, power, and success, etc, with white. The women will want perms (straight hair) and lighter skin (sorry MJ) and the men will feel powerless (unless they have a gun.)
Hmmm….think they were on to something?
Anyway, I was very fortunate indeed to have a mother like mine. Someone who could see the benefits of a true knowledge of self.
Part of the indoctrination I received in this private school was exposure to an African language. The Public Schools would force feed European languages, culture and history as well as “American” history to black children but little or nil was taught about the African continent nor the contributions of African Americans to American History. My elementary school remedied that, though, and how! Carter G. Woodson stressed the importance of a people having an awareness and knowledge of their contributions to humanity, so I grew up knowing more about George Washington Carver than I knew about George Washington (-: More about Kwanzaa than Christmas. More about Mozambique and Senegal than about France or Sweden. More about John Coltrane and Thelonius Monk than about Mozart or Beethoven. And, of course, more about Swahili than about French.
Little did I know then- marching through the streets singing songs of revolution, wearing a kufi, a dashiki and combat boots as a uniform- that I was a child of the Pan-African movement in America, a symbol of the burgeoning new black aesthetic.. Is it a coincidence that I now live in a foreign country with relatively few black people (though a helluva strong cultural influence) and a surprisingly high level of ignorance about the African Diaspora? I certainly didn’t plan it this way…
The majority of the black people in Japan, at least in the Tokyo/ Yokohama area, do not come from the States. They come from what I was taught as a child to say with humility and reverence: “The Motherland!” Yes, as a child I was taught to adore Africa. I prayed in Swahili, said grace before meals in Swahili, sang songs about Africa in Swahili, pledged allegiance (literally) to the Pan-African perspective. For a very long time, Africa remained this mystical, magical land of dreams Stories of the armies of Hannibal and the Universities of Timbuktu were my bedtime stories and filled my mind and heart.
But, the vast majority of the black people I run into in Japan were not raised with this idealized image of a Motherland resplendent with ageless beauty, strong and courageous Mamas and Babas, leaders like Sekou Toure in Guinea and Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana- beneficent and incorruptible. They were raised in the real world, in the real Africa, where beneficent is rare and incorruptible rarer still. Where they don’t have an idealized image of themselves or their homeland, but rather they have an all too realistic one, and an often cynical image of Americans, including African Americans, and of Japanese as well…
They are not the way I imagined them in my childhood visions to be….
In fact, it’s safe to say: I wasn’t feeling any love for Africans at all…
to be cont…
There’s an ongoing furor over a Japanese McDonald’s ad campaign featuring a white flunky japanophile who can’t manage to get nihongo (spoken or written) through his thick foreign skull…reinforcing this and other negative stereotypes about white foreigners, as if they needed reinforcing…
I don’t know about that.
I thought it was ironic, though. A former American, white, not having much or any racism, bigotry or negative stereotyping aimed at his own race to cite used the experience of African-Americans as a reference. God bless America. Being a minority and the target of racism or xenophobia is something most white people, American or otherwise, will never experience. The same can be said of Japanese.
I feel hesitant to go here.
Yesterday, while printing out photos of my China trip to show my students I printed out and placed on my desk at work the following photo:
The Gospe*Rats have been around for years. I’ve seen them on posters and billboards around Shibuya and other places in Tokyo. They were and are very popular. They are very talented. They are very cool.
They are also a Japanese minstrel act.
They seem like really nice guys, though. I feel pretty confident that though they are no doubt aware by now that their black face offends black people (and most any person with a respect for the dignity and humanity of all people) they don’t wear it to be offensive. They simply feel that our offense is not their intent so we need to get over it, or something to that effect.
So, why did I put the photo on my desk? I’m not really sure. I know it’s connected to the McDonald’s thing, though. I had asked my co-workers what they thought about the Nippon All-Stars ad campaign the other day. Most had never heard of it. A couple had but didn’t see anything remotely troubling about it. So, I guess I just wanted to see their reaction to the photo. Would they find it troubling…I guess part of me was hoping they would.
One teacher walked by my desk, glanced at the picture and stopped.
JT: Loco-sensei, what’s that?
Me: It’s a singing group called the gosperats. Do you know them?
JT: I’ve heard of the name but I don’t know their music.
Me: Mostly soul music and doo-wop…American music…African-American music.
JT: Is that right? Why do you have their picture on your desk?
Me: I just thought it was interesting. Don’t you?
JT: I guess so…
And she walked away. Another teacher came by.
JT2: Loco-Sensei, good morning. How are you?
Me: I’m fine, thanks for asking.
JT2: Oh my. What’s that picture on your desk?
Me: It’s a singing group. They call themselves Gosperats. Do you know them?
JT2: Yes! They are great! Do you like them, too?
Me: Not especially.
JT2: I see. Why do you have their picture on your desk?
Me: I just thought they looked interesting. Don’t you?
JT2: Yes. Their makeup is a little strange, but I love their costumes.
A little strange, she said. Just a little?
I rarely get into race stuff with my co-workers, unless they initiate it and won’t let me escape the conversation; with questions that begin with, “do black people…” this and “do black people…” that. But, if it is avoidable I avoid it.
I learned the hard way long before I began working at this school, back in my NOVA days as a matter of fact, that the Japanese (and to be honest, that of some of my Western co-workers) level of ignorance in all matters related to race is at a level where a discourse with them on the subject will invariably, at best, leave me frustrated and / or shocked. As for my fellow English teachers, what is said about Japanese can easily be said about many other countries and even parts of the US: homogeneous, xenophobic, ignorant, insensitive, intolerant, etc…
Not to suggest black people are immune to any of the above. We aren’t. Not by a long shot. I mean, Stepin Fetchit was a black man (as were many black face performers) after all and he didn’t perform at gunpoint (at least I don’t think so) (-:
No, these are indisputably human issues.
I’ve never mentioned The Gospe*rats (nor the other black face groups in Japan) before on my blog because, well, they’re like low-hanging fruit, you know. Like talking about how beautiful Mount Fuji is or how there are no Ninja in Tokyo nowadays, or how crowded the trains are…just too friggin’ obvious.
I mean…in my eyes, it is so blatant. But, I know it isn’t. Not to everyone. Somebody reading this is thinking of rationalizations and/or justifications. Just dying to come to the defense of what I feel to be the essentially indefensible…they’ll say: Most Japanese don’t have experience with other countries so they have no idea what is offensive or racist. They are a naive people and culture, isolated from the rest of the world etc, etc…blah blah friggin blah.
Of course, they’re right. These Gosperats (and the fans who adore them) are not in the know. The idea to paint their faces black and dress up like black performers just occurred to them while watching old footage of black pop idols like Little Richard, Sam Cooke, The Platters and others from the 5os…they’ve probably never seen footage or photos of minstrel shows, which date back to slavery days. They just loved the music and loved the style.
They’ve probably never seen or read anything that dealt with the history of the style of entertainment they’ve undertaken…I mean, who does research about the field of endeavor they intend to spend a great deal of time and energy pursuing and presenting to people anyway? Most people just get what they imagine is a good idea and run with it, right? It goes without saying that they probably never saw Spike Lee’s brilliant take on the black face, called Bamboozled.
They wouldn’t know how painful and negative this kind of thing was, nor how ultimately detrimental to mutual cultural respect this kind of thing currently is.
They are a homogeneous culture and people. There is no history of racism in Japan. I’ve been offered such platitudes over and over and over, by Japanese and foreigners alike, rationalizing and/or justifying the prevailing ignorance.
So, they’re innocent by virtue of ignorance. Ignorance is indeed bliss profitable.
So, what you’re saying is, if they saw a black girl band in New York dressed up in Kimono with Geisha (or yellow) makeup on singing J-pop tunes in broken Japanese they would say,”Oooohhh Kawaiiiii, (wow, cute!)” right? Or 4 Chinese guys in Beijing dressed up like Samurai with ninja masks on singing Enka songs they would say, “Kakkoiii jyan! (mad cool!)” Right? These acts would be viewed by the racially ignorant, innocent and naive Japanese as simply another culture paying homage to their own…not degrading in the slightest. Not even on the wink-wink tip.
I find that hard to believe.
But, it’s all innocent, right? I mean, the whites who did this kind of thing…even some of them were innocent, weren’t they? Just products of their time. If you were a performer, whether child or adult, black or white, Shirley Temple or Judy Garland, Al Jolson or Stepin Fetchit, this was how the money was being made. This was the kind of entertainment in demand. White people wanted to see black people, but not real black people unless they were acting like fools or doing something amazingly entertaining.
Is there a vestige of minstrel-ism in Bob Sapp, or Bobby Olugun? Perhaps. I certainly cringe when I see either of them on TV (one of the main reasons I don’t watch it). But I won’t get into that right now.
Today in class, the Japanese teacher asked me, in front of the class, what Japanese TV shows did I watch. She’d caught me off-guard. She hadn’t mentioned in our pre-class meeting that she was going to ask me that. I answered, automatically, almost as if she were asking a ridiculous rhetorical question, “none!” She looked shocked, as did the class. And after hearing the echo of the vehemence in my own voice I immediately donned a smile. Before she could ask me why as a follow up I added, “actually I catch Crayon Shinchan and Dragonball sometimes, but I usually watch American shows like CSI, Heroes and Lost.”
The truth is every time I turn on Japanese television I have to sit through the crucible of a food show (oishii deshou? Sou desu yo ne!) or a talk show (nande ya ne!) or worse, a comedy show. The comedy shows often have someone making fun of foreigners, and there are a few that even get specific and make fun of blacks with the ubiquitous Afro wigs and whatnots. I realize that the same can be said of American TV, especially when I was growing up, but the PC level in the States is so high now even mildly goofing around at another race’s expense is taboo and done at the producer’s considerable risk.
I really don’t want to delve too much into this. Like I said, it’s low hanging fruit, but I do think that Japan had better realize that their claims of naivete and isolation are wearing thin. I mean, god forbid, the Gosperats go on a world tour and encounter an audience that does not see the compliment they must imagine they’re giving by minstrel-ing. If they came to NY doo-wopping in black face…I don’t even want to finish that thought.
I think many here (Japanese as well as some foreigners) would benefit from a film like Bamboozled becoming required viewing.
The following montage from Bamboozled speaks volumes, but maybe for Japan to hear it the volume would need be turned up a notch…you know, due to their isolation and what not.
I had a bizarre conversation at work today with my fellow English teacher and the students. It was regarding this picture which the Japanese English teacher had pasted on the corner of the print out:
It was cutesy so I didn’t question it. Most Japanese kids (and adults for that matter) love Kawaii (cuteness) so the overabundance of it hardly registers anymore. Nor did its relevance to the lesson we were teaching today even enter my mind. Usually I make the lessons when we team teach but I wasn’t available due to a scheduling anomaly so the Japanese teacher had done it herself. I rarely if ever stick kawaii-ness on my lessons, and these were 3rd year students so of course, after 3 years of learning English from me they noted the style change.
A student pointed it out.
Student: Loco-sensei? Why did you put a kappa on the print out?
Me: A what?
Student: A Kappa.
Me: A Kappa???
She was speaking Japanese so I was using that rather small part of my brain that finds a fraction of the Japanese language comprehensible, but I couldn’t get it to engage the word. That even smaller area that comprehends every other language aside from English that I have been exposed to over the years took over, and I was transported back to my University days when I was attempting to pledge a black Greek fraternity known as Kappa Alpha Psi, but called Kappa (or Kay Ay Psi) for short. The Kappa were these cane-twirling pretty boys that I imagined would put me in good with the co-eds on campus, not to mention they look extremely cool at step shows.
Unfortunately, at my school’s campus, Kappa had done a bit of hazing, causing serious injury to a freshman, and so had had their charter suspended.
But my student couldn’t be talking about them, I figured. I turned to the Japanese teacher for an assist.
Japanese Teacher: You don’t know what a Kappa is?
Me: No, I’ve never heard of one…what is a Kappa?
She pointed to the cute character in the upper corner of the print out.
JT: That’s a Kappa.
Me: Ok… (I turned to the student…actually all the students. From the looks on their faces I could discern that they were all amazed I had never heard of a Kappa) Well, I didn’t put the Kappa on the print out. Ohashi-sensei did.
JT: You really don’t know?
Me: Not a clue…
Then she tried to explain what it is but with her limited English vocabulary she wound up throwing a lot of Japanese words at me I didn’t know. I stood there nodding at the words I knew and trying to logically squeeze in the ones I didn’t. All I could gather was that it was something that scared children, lived in rivers, and looked like a monkey or a frog or a duck.
The handout had been about fish so now I understood where a water creature fit into the lesson but…
JT: It looks up women’s dresses and fondles girl’s behinds and…
Me: It does WHAT?
A big laugh from the class…I didn’t get the humor.
Me: A kappa is a pervert that looks like a monkey and a frog and a duck and a…?
Student: Abunai (dangerous) deshou? (She was still laughing…)
Then I realized something that I suspect should have been obvious…
Me: Is it real? I mean, is it a real animal?
I had been thinking about those monkeys in Nikko that have been known to mug tourists and make off with the loot (usually food) into the woods where I imagine the stronger ones bogart the lion’s share of it. I wasn’t sure I believed those stories but I have seen them get pretty aggressive.
JT: No, of course not.
Slowly, as she explained its features and behavior, I began to understand why this was so humorous. The Kappa is like a Leprechaun or a fairy, mischievous as a poltergeist. Something straight outta Harry Potter. A folklore parents use to keep children on the straight and narrow, I presumed.
JT: It has water on its head…
I looked at the strange hairdo of the creature on the printout but I couldn’t see any water.
Me: Uh huh…
JT: Sometimes they fart loudly…
Fuck it, I joined in the laughter and wished I’d had some gas to pass at that moment.
JT: Sometimes they kidnap children, and they eat them…
Student: …but they like cucumbers more than children.
Me: Lucky for you, ne
Student: Sou desu yo ne
Me: Well, they sound like lovely creatures…
My lesson was blown. This digression went on for a good 15 minutes. But it was really interesting, this little bit of folklore. I’m a firm believer that if you understand the folklore of a people you’re that much closer to understanding the people for folklore emerges from the psyche and the imagination. My favorite writer, Zora Neale Hurston, studied the folklore of the African diaspora in Haiti and in Jamaica, and wrote a fascinating book about her research called, Tell My Horse.
Me: Has anyone ever seen a Kappa?
JT: There’s a sign by the river in my hometown. It says, beware of Kappa in the river.
I laughed, too.
Everybody is a star
I can feel it when you shine on me
I love you for who you are
Not the one you feel you need to be
Ever catch a falling star
Ain't no stopping 'til it's in the ground
Everybody is a star
One big circle going round and round
Words by: Sly Stone
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