Monthly Archives: November 2008


When Good Intentions Just Aren’t Enough

So here is the thing.

For many reasons, I’m not the best person to be talking about this. Yet, I’m a blogger. So when it comes to spilling out my commentary on issues du jour, I haven’t let lack of qualification stop me before.

I’m not a parent yet.

I do plan to be one, though I’m not sure when yet. My wife and I are continuing to trust God for the timing, so the truth is I don’t know when I’m going to become a parent. Unless we’re led to go the adoption route, I won’t have more than the standard nine months to figure out exactly what I’m supposed change about my life in order to become a good parent. God knows, I’m not there yet.

And it’s probably no mre coincidence that, at this moment, as I write this, my wife is watching her favorite movie, I Am Sam, an emotional tour de force describing the journey of a developmentally disabled man as he attempts to fight for custody of his daughter. This is one of our favorite movies, in part, because it illustrates the desperation that both main characters (Sean Penn as Sam, and Michelle Pfeiffer as his lawyer) feel in their inability to care for their children like they really want to. They’re doing the best they can, but despite their best efforts and intentions, they just keep falling short.

This, I’m sure, is a vexing problem that eventually befalls parents of every stripe and category. Sometimes I’m overcome with flashes of overwhelming ineptitude when it pertains to just my professional and ministry life, so I can’t even really imagine how hard it might become once a child enters the mix. But when the time comes, my child probably isn’t going to care about — or even understand really, until they grow older — my perfectionist issues, or my insecurity related to my health and getting older, or any of that stuff. At the end of the day, my responsibility as a father will be to do whatever I can do help them develop into fully functional adults. All those issues will just be stuff I’ve gotta deal with in the process.

Maybe, when they grow older, they’ll be able to understand more of my shortcomings, and have some empathy for their dad. Maybe they’ll find in their hearts to forgive their dad for screwing up so royally, in whatever ways I most likely will. This process of evaluating your upbringing, of realizing what was missing all along, this is a hard thing for parents and children to go through. Some people don’t get to it until it’s much too late.

Fortunately for me, though, I still have time to become a better parent. So it’s to people like me, people who hope to become parents, people who believe in multiculturalism, people who appreciate and savor the symbolism inherent in blended familes, that I need to send this message:

Please, please, please… know your limits.

The Beatles said, “All you need is love.” I wish that were true, but it’s not.

There are signs are everywhere showing that the best of intentions are never enough to provide a fully functional, stable upbringing. This feature on transracial adoption in Seattle’s alt-weekly, The Stranger, illustrates this point so well. The premise of the piece is that transracial adoption, specifically of Black children by White parents, is all well and good in theory, but in reality it’s fraught with emotional and psychological peril.

There are many White parents who take on Black children with the best of intentions, but without the knowledge and intentionality on the front end to maintain their child’s racial identity, these parents will end up inadvertently stunting their cultural development. Color-blindness is still blindness.

The thing is, adoption even within your own generalized sense of ethnicity can still be tremendously difficult. Some friends of mine have done a yeoman’s job of raising up several children that they received from the state, all of whom have had significant difficulties with various forms of mental illness. And they’ve struggled tremendously with how to raise these children, in part, because they had no genetic similarities to draw upon.

Lest you think I’m dreading the prospect of parenthood altogether, let me say for the record: There is hope. The fact that our nation’s 44th president will have come from a similar upbringing as that of many transracially adopted children speaks to this sense of possibility. So to those who have adopted children of a different ethnicity and have struggled with what it means to bring them up with a sense of cultural normalcy, I mean to salute you, not vilify you.

Nevertheless, my hope is that, moving forward, people will count the cost when they make these important decisions. Being married can be pretty difficult on its own. Staying married and having children raises the ante considerably. So if you’re going to ratchet up the degree of difficulty even further by adding layers of racial, ethnic AND biological differences, don’t do so lightly. Make sure you do your best to know what you’re getting into, and don’t make the mistake of thinking that mettle and determination can compensate for ignorance and naivete.

Because this isn’t just some grand social experiment. These are real human lives we’re talking about. And having a loving resolve to be the best parents we can be… that’s a great start. But it’s only a start. So if that’s the end of our deliberation process, then our children pay the price.

Sometimes, it seems, good intentions just aren’t enough.

I’m Jelani Greenidge, and thanks for Mixin’ It Up with me.


Kanye’s Cautionary Tale: Be Careful What You Wish For

Kanye West
808s and Heartbreak

I suppose it’s a sign of the times that a superstar rapper can release a throwback homage to a legendary drum machine and it can come off sounding more like a hybrid of new wave punk.

Kanye West has done just that with his latest release, 808s and Heartbreak. What’s most notable is how little it resembles what we’ve come to expect from hip-hop these days. The contrast is startling, especially coming from one of hip-hop’s most celebrated figures. And in some ways, this is a very good thing.

As is the case with most of West’s work, 808s and Heartbreak is rife with contradiction. The titular number is a reference to the Roland TR-808 drum machine, an iconic instrument of hip-hop with a history and tradition as rich and proud as that of Gibson guitars or Stradivarius violins. Kanye’s extensive use of the 808 would seem to be an intentional act of nostalgia, yet there is no sense of warmth or reverie here. Rather, West has, if only for the aesthetic of this release, transformed his persona to a cold, languid soul. Hence, the rest of the title: heartbreak.

Much has been said about Kanye’s obiquitous use of auto-tuning, the pitch-correcting effect that often leaves a vocal track sounding cold and robotic. (Oliver Wang, writing for NPR, has the line of the day: “Who knew ten years ago that Cher would predict the future sound of hip-hop?”) Auto-tune has been the saving grace of many recording artists, particularly in the realm of contemporary R&B and hip-hop. Without it, there would be no T-Pain. Yet here, West uses it to create a sense of despair, as he wails on and on about the loneliness and pain that consume him.

This is what makes 808s and Heartbreak such a departure from Kanye’s original style. More than any other rapper of this era (or any other, for that matter), Kanye’s public persona has been founded upon a naked ambition to rise to the top. So here he sits, at the top of his game, so to speak, and yet all he can do is lament what he doesn’t have, as he does in “Welcome to Heartbreak”:

My friend showed me pictures of his kids /And all I could show him were pictures of my cribs / He said his daughter got a brand-new report card / And all I got was a brand-new sportscar

This album is a sign of hip-hop’s coming of age, despite the fact that Kanye sings on it more than he raps. Heartbreak is the siren song of the king of self-aggrandizement, a sad, ghostly realization that there is more to life than what American celebrity culture seems to offer. Kanye has always shown his introspective side now and again, but this time it’s on full display. Armchair psychiatrists might call it an attempt to grieve the untimely loss of his mother, but either way, such stark vulnerability is far from usual fare from West or any other titan of modern hip-hop.

From a musical composition standpoint, 808s and Heartbreak is a mixed bag. A few of the tunes are catchy, but many more are scattered and inconsistent. And while great hip-hop can sometimes mix the sober and macabre in with a sense of celebration, there’s very little fun or humor to be extracted from Kanye’s therapeutic output.

Nevertheless, there is cause for hope here. It’s possible that Kanye’s act of contrition may help destigmatize the idea of depression for African-American men, who have long resisted the idea of showing such weakness and vulnerability, according to this Newsweek piece of Blacks and suicide.

But more importantly, 808s and Heartbreak may be the proof that Christian evangelists to the hip-hop generation have been looking for: direct evidence that this world and all it has to offer will not satisfy. Like a modern day Solomon writing Ecclesiastes, Kanye West has seen, tasted, and experienced what we would call the high life… and it is utterly meaningless.

Despite all of his rampant ego-tripping and the strain of spiritual hypocrisy that has dogged him ever since “Jesus Walks,” Kanye has finally gotten it right for once.

We’ll see how long it lasts.


These Portland Trail Blazers are making some noise

I know their record is only 6-4, but a 3-1 road trip and a gut-it-out win against lowly Minnesota, where the Blazers only had their C game and still found a way to get it done, is heartening to Blazer fans everywhere.

Quite a few talking heads (writing heads?) said that if they could end up 5-5 after the first ten games, that would be a great moral victory, considering the tough schedule for those first ten games: @ Lakers, San Antonio, @ Utah, Houston, Minnesota, @ Orlando, @ Miami, @ New Orleans, and @ Minnesota. Well how does 6-4 taste? Three home wins, three quality road wins. Losses only to LAL, UTA, NO, and SA… all quality, playoff teams (and they hung tough against New Orleans, nearly shutting down Chris Paul).

This is not a sports blog, so I’m not going to dish on and on about the slow emergence of gentle giant Greg Oden (left for dead by many after his early re-injury), the flashy duo of Spaniards in Sergio Rodriguez and Rudy Fernandez (probably a leader in early rookie-of-the-year talk), the maddening inconsistency of Travis Outlaw, the mystery of MIA guard Martell Webster (the three-point maven of this masthead… when will he return?) and crowd favorite Channing Frye (who, I’m sorry to say, I thought was a White guy until we traded for him… something about his name just sounded too suburban… I’m just being honest here) and the undeniable clutchness of team leader Brandon Roy. (Still think your guy was better, Minnesota fan? It’s okay… I used to think Clyde Drexler was better than Michael Jordan. Fandom can be hard sometimes.)

Instead, I’ll let it suffice that ten games in, these Blazers have rightfully lived up to the hype, and I’ll be shocked — SHOCKED — if they don’t end up as a dangerous lower seed in the playoffs, the team nobody in the Western conference wants to face in the first round.

That is all. Back to more serious topics.


Obama’s In, So No More Business As Usual

Well, he did it.

My brother lost the bet that he and I made several months back, wherein he all but swore on a Bible that there was no way that Barack Obama could beat John McCain in a general election.

I believe his quote was,

“A brotha… in these times? Against a war hero? Come on, now.

Honestly, I was convinced Obama would make a good president even before he finished consulting his exploratory committee, and almost two years ago, I said so in this space. (Though if I were to be honest, I’d have to give credit to Eric Zorn for saying so first.)

Two years later, he’s about to become president. As so many have said, his election signaled a momentous mile marker in the history of these United States of America, and for many reasons, most of which I need not enumerate.

However, I am concerned about the dark side of his imminent presidency.

No, not the Republicans-that-think-Obama-is-the-antichrist dark side. I’m not so much worried about his policies per se — though I do have some concerns, and I’ll surely have more as time goes on — as I am about his supporters.

Now here’s the thing… part of the reason why President-elect Obama won is because he was able to collect a broad constituency of supporters. People of color (however you choose to define that term), the educated, urban dwellers, and younger voters all turned out in record numbers for Obama. Black and White, straight and gay, in coastal cities and in so-called flyover states, many, many people chose to support his as their choice for president.

As a result, my generalizations about “Obama supporters” should not to be taken too broadly, as many of them will not fit sizable portions of his constituency, just as generalizations tend to fall flat when applied to any large group of people. There are always exceptions to the rule here.

On the other hand, if the shoe fits… you know the rest.

My biggest question for Obama supporters is this: what now?

If the biggest accomplishment in President-elect Obama’s campaign was successfully engaging people in the political process who had previously been relegated to the sidelines, then I fear the biggest letdown will be most of those people feeling satisfied, complacent, and ultimately returning to business as usual.

This is an understandable response, because right about now the emotional highs should be all but worn off. Even Chicagoans, who probably felt as much pride about Obama winning the presidency as they did about the Bears winning the Super Bowl, still have to confront the fact that they still live in Chicago. Just because their guy is about to take the highest office, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t problems in the here and now. Neighborhoods need help. Bills need to be paid.

The problem, though, with business as usual, is that it violates the spirit of all the promises that were made in the campaign. All the rhetoric of Obama-going-to-bridge-the-divides-and-usher-in-a-healing-dawn… well, if you were an Obama supporter and you meant it, then it’s time for you to do your part in living up to the promise. You can’t be all high-minded and idealist during a campaign, and then, now that your guy has been crowned, go back to doing things the way they’ve always been done.

What am I talking about? I’m talking about several things.

First, I’m talking about policy.

Those of you dyed-in-the-wool blue-state Dems should not expect the entire framework of policy advocacy coming from the executive branch to simply march to the left, because that’s not what Barack Obama promised. On several issues (none of which I will name because I don’t want to get too bogged down in minutia) he has been known to embrace certain tenets of conservative ideology — personal responsibility, for example.

Midway through Obama’s campaign, his policy wonks made several concessions here and there in order to maintain a broad constituency and ward off attacks of being the most liberal Senator in recent history. And even though it angered his vocal Democrat base … it worked. Obama was elected. So if he doesn’t back some of that talk up with pragmatic solutions rather than standard liberal dogma, the moderate, independant core of voters that sided with him will turn against him. And he and his staff are smart enough to know that. So those of you who expect the incoming Obama administration to be an avalanche of leftist initiatives, don’t hold your breath.

I’m not just talking about policy, though. I’m also talking about personal conduct, especially as it relates to the political process. Now I realize that some issues are hot-button issues, and no amount of high-minded speeches about unity will appease the rabid constituents on either side of the debate. (Gay marriage and Proposition 8, for example.)

But I hope that we can take some cues from our leaders and stop treating every issue like it’s “us against them.” The truth is, unless you’re talking about sports, most of the time it’s hard to figure out who represents “us” and who represents “them,” because people are different and different people respond to issues in different ways.

And since there is a clear Democratic majority in at least two of the three branches of our federal government, and since we can therefore expect some amount of public opinion and policy to gradually shift leftward, I hope Democrats will remember what it was like to be on the outside looking in, and be gracious enough to respect the opinions of those in the minority. After all, our president-elect made his case to America largely on his initial opposition to the war in Iraq, an unpopular stance at the time. There will surely be other urgent issues where many of our credentialed, experienced, qualified leaders will disagree. If Democrats simply resort to using their numbers to shout down the opposition, they’ll quickly relinquish the moral high ground that they worked so hard to gain. Because nothing screams “business as usual” like doing very the thing you’ve been accusing your opponents of doing.

Finally, it’s my sincere hope that admidst the throngs of inspired, dedicated Obama supporters, there will remain a remnant of folks who will continue to engage their government on state and city levels now that the hype has worn off.

Here in Portland where I reside, it’s a badge of honor for progressive types to complain about how terrible the Bush years have been for our country, which is one of the reasons why sarcastic, leftist bumper stickers sell so well here. Well guess what, folks? Our guy is going to become president now! How about we turn some of that energy into doing something better instead of simply complaining about it?

I was amused by so much celebrity support of Obama during the general election, because I knew supporting Obama was the hot, fashionable thing to do. But if more actors, NBA players, singers and artists of all flavors put a little less attention into being sexy and more attention into living lives of substance, then maybe our country would be better off. I would call some of them out by name like I did over the Tookie Williams thing, but there are just too many to mention, so I won’t.

Besides, celebrities can help bring attention and visibility to certain issues, but when it comes to doing the real work of healing America, the lion’s share of that burden falls on regular people, people like you, Whoever You Are. Policies can help, sure, but regulations can’t and won’t take the place of being respectful and choosing to engage in the areas where we have opportunity.

And when opportunity meets preparation, then boom … we’re in business.

Let’s just make sure it’s not business as usual.

I’m Jelani Greenidge, and thanks for Mixin’ It Up with me.


It Never Rains in Southern California (Unless the Iccsters Are In Town)

In my book, any weekend spent rockin’ mics and reppin’ Christ is a great weekend. And despite my battles with an overcrowded schedule and a nasty chest cold, this weekend was no exception.

Jaamar McKelvey (a.k.a. “J-MAC”) and I flew down to L.A. for two performance dates with Church of the Redeemer, a sister congregation in the Evangelical Covenant network of churches. The church, in an attempt to engage the youth and young adults in their neighborhood, called on the crime-fighting hip-hop duo known as The Iccsters to come down and rock mics for their harvest carnival.

By this point, astute readers of this space will have noticed a personnel discrepancy. My regular partner-in-rhyme, Sahaan (a.k.a. Sir-1) was unavailable for this trip, as he and his wife were taking some much-needed time together. So I called on his ably-skilled brother to fill in. Having Jaamar on call for these kinds of occasions is a wonderful luxury to enjoy, not only because he shares our passion for outreach and is also supremely talented on the mic, but also because he already knows all of our material.

(Plus, most people can’t tell them apart on first sight anyway.)

As expected, our trip was an absolute blast. I got to see some old friends (Douglas and Erika Haub and their children Mercy, Aaron and Elijah, as well as Danny and Donna Martinez and their dynamic prodigy Eric) and make some new ones (Richard and Anna, Justin and Ali, Sylvia, Scott, Damion and Isaac). Big shouts of love to all of them, they made our trip quite memorable.

Besides our two sets at the harvest party and ministering during Sunday morning service, we ate great food (including my first trip to Roscoe’s), enjoyed great conversation and generally tried to take in as much authentic L.A. flavor as we could in just over 48 hours.

So watching Mercy swoon, listening to Richard and Justin debate the merits of California’s Proposition 8, breaking down Doug’s chord progressions, waking up to the sickly sound of a rooster outside the guest room window in the apartment where we stayed, choppin’ it up with the bootleg CD salesman outside of Roscoe’s, narrowly avoiding impact with several reckless drivers on the 10, shaking our heads at all the crazy characters on Venice Beach, marveling at the distances from which one can hear the tamale lady yelling “ta-MA-le!!!!!,” and joining in the chorus of people trying to get Damion to quit stalling and do the rap that he wrote… these are memories you can’t buy on a cruise line or a resort. Thanks to all of you.

By the way, I never really understood the significance behind that languid R&B hit by Tony! Toni! Tone!, “It Never Rains (In Southern California).” I thought its title was more of a gimmicky exaggeration than a generalized statement of truth. Hailing from the Pacific Northwest where rain is as surely a part of life as death and taxes, I figured that it must rain occasionally in Southern Cali, just not as often.

So it was with detached amusement that I heard the shrieks (of delight? or horror?) coming from several Angeleno ladies who were getting unexpectedly rained on. The following drizzly morning, my local host dryly informed me that he ordered up some Portland weather to make me feel comfortable. When I casually asked him how long it had been since this weekend’s spate of precipitation, he had to stop and think.

“Almost a year, I think.”

Los Angeles, CA: Where Rain Is An Event.

(Note to any LA county regional power-brokers: I’ll trade you the rights to that slogan for your assurance that the Blazers won’t have to play the Lakers in the first round of the 2009 NBA Playoffs.)

Anyway, I hope not to wait another nine years before I return. Maybe by the next time, instead of people remarking on Doug’s resemblence to Lakers center Pau Gasol, they’ll be comparing me to Blazers center Greg Oden.

Strike that.

What I meant to say is, maybe by then they’ll be comparing my dad to Greg Oden.

(I don’t look that old, do I?)

(You know what… don’t answer that.)

I’m Jelani Greenidge, and thanks for Mixin’ It Up with me.