Careful What You Wish For

(Note: This post originally appeared at 7 Criminal Minds, a virtual panel where, each week, mystery/crime writers respond to provocative questions about crime fiction, writing, publishing and life. I’m very happy to be a participant. Please make it a part of your blog reading.)

Question of the Week: We’re getting to the panic-buying days. And nothing makes a better present than a book, right? What book would you most like as a gift? Tell us, and you can share this post with “someone” who needs to know!

It’s a hard question. I’m a writer, and same as any one of us, I’m lousy with books. From the research materials for stuff I’m working on, to the reciprocal purchases I have stacked, and finally, the manuscripts folks ask me to beta read, I’m already digging myself out of a quantum amount of words. When the question of the five books I’d give for the holidays came up, I had to curb my desire to list fifty. I’ve given plenty of books, sure, but I don’t think I’ve ever received a book as a Christmas gift. I grew up with the largest library in the city across the street from my house. Amazon came along in the 90s. Books I have covered by my lonely. If y’all want to give me something, send me a warm lead on an acquisitions exec at Netflix. My folks over there have long since moved on.

I’ve never received a gift-wrapped book, per say. Once a lovely lady gave me a box of vintage comics from my lost childhood collection, but book books? I generally only receive them from folks after I’ve admitted I’ve never read title-x.

“Oh, my God. Here. Take it and let me know what you think of it.”

Yeeeeeah. Lemme g’on ‘head and push my to-do list back a couple of months so I can do that. Wanna schedule our discussion now? When are you good in, say, never?

My other issue with this week’s question is I have great friends, many of whom follow our blog. They’ll read this entry and whatever I mention will show up on my doorstep, in triplicate. Aw man. Decisions, decisions.

Got it. Hook me up with this one:

Rex Stout is responsible for creating, in my opinion, the lushest and most vibrant world in mystery which he forged out of components of New York City that readers thought they already knew. At its center, he placed an orchid-loving, fresh-air hating, agoraphobic epicurean savant of the highest order. Nero Wolfe solved the unsolvable by sending out his ace footman Archie Goodwin with vague instructions to be carried out within loose parameters and discerned the truth from his mistakes. Nero Wolfe was Professor Xavier before there were any X-Men. He was also Alfred before there was a Batman. The mysteries Rex Stout crafted for his genius to solve weren’t the most intricate, but they also weren’t convoluted. His stories weren’t plotted for the sake of plot, but to highlight the personality of the protagonist, the contrasting style of his subordinate, and the cluelessness of the nouveau riche. The capers were the sort of jams in which a member of high society would find themselves unknowingly entangled. As avoidable as an open manhole cover, and just as dangerous. If people didn’t walk around with their head up their ass, Rex Stout would’ve had nothing to write about. That probably goes for the rest of us.

But mysteries are made to be solved, and soon it’s back to the witty banter and quirky traits of the great Nero, who only took cases so that he could make enough dough to cover that month’s nut, the bulk of which being his elaborate and exotic tastes. Only when I revisited Rex Stout’s exquisite creation as an adult did I realize that the function of Nero Wolfe’s appetite was to compensate for his existence as a shut-in. He brought pleasures in from the outside world because he was afraid to go out and get them because he’d have to contend with the rest of us. Realizing that made each story even more beautiful. Rex Stout is my avatar. If anything I write manages to come off even half as sublime, I’ll probably quit while I’m ahead. If I do, at least I’ll be able to cook and eat and drink and brew like Rex did through Nero. May even allow myself to grow just as large as Mr. Wolfe one day.

So if y’all want to put your nickels together and get me something, grab me this joint right here. I write mystery/crime, I cook (my ass off, if I do say so myself) and I like it inside more than out. If I was Nero, Amazon Prime would be my Archie Goodwin.

Best of the season to you all.

– dg

Language and Lament, or Y’all Really Need To Quit

Please understand that black vernacular and black slang-inflected language in your jokes and memes don’t make them funnier. It does, however, make you appear to be an ass. It’s why Matt Besser isn’t considered the greatest comedian in history. It’s just so damned corny.

And insensitive.

If you checked in with folks from my tribe, we’d tell you that when one uses our unique language and cultural semiotics to make lame attempts at comedy, but not to communicate in earnest, it is severely apathetic. Black folk almost always take it as disrespect, and the first sign one can’t be trusted to back us up when race becomes an issue. We may laugh along with you. We may shrug it off when you claim “no offense.” Laughter is the first response to words that injure. We hear it, or read it, and we may be polite and keep it chill, but you’re definitely going on the Lame List. Your new name, when you’re not around, will be “this muthafucka,” which is a black semiotic for “a detestable individual who unknowingly spoils everything.”

“And then, in the break room, this muthafucka said ‘good lookin’ out,’ and tried to give me some dap, like we boys.”
“Word?”
“Word. And I was, like, ‘Aw, THIS muthafucka—’ But I didn’t say that shit.”
“Naw. Betta not say that shit.”
“For real.”
“Yup.”

Most black folks have some variation of this conversation, on average, about once per month.

You see, to us, it’s Elvis Presley and Big Mama Thornton. It’s Chess Records. It’s Vanilla Ice. It’s Tim Wise (yeah, him too.) If I had to coin a term, I’d call it Timberlaking. Wait. TimberFAKING. We all saw that Super Bowl halftime show. No need to unpack that old box here. Just know that all of us have, at one point or another, been Timberfaked. None of us ever forget it. We don’t let each other forget it. We can’t.

Friends, my people’s language is rich, and powerful, and filled with valiant spirit. It has helped us endure this world that has never been kind to us. You may think it’s novelty meant to accessorize your own communication, but black vernacular is a lexicon of the yearning for freedom. It sounds really cool because, frankly, God needed to grant us some kind of a blessing in all this bullshit. We’ve bled for our language. As it evolves, it does as lament. We don’t apply it as affect, like lip liner. It isn’t a garnish. It’s the entire meal. If you use it, please do so with flourish and enthusiasm. These linguistic truffles we dig out of the dirt should be used to heighten discourse. Don’t grind them up and toss them in with the intellectual equivalent of boxed macaroni and cheese. You may think it a kindness to try and sound like us, but it’s about as kind as a line of Tarantino dialogue: contextually unnecessary, egregiously insensitive, and jarringly aggressive. The equivalent of your random “homie” and “dawg” and “my brotha” is Pulp Fiction’s “dead nigger storage.” Doesn’t matter what came before that line. We put the entire thing on pause and ask, “Whoa! WTF?!” The same goes for your random quotes of Wu-Tang and Biggie and Tupac, which are the Day-Glo road cones that tell black folk, “Go no further.” We may not express it, but that’s what we think.

As I said, I like just about all of you, so if you feel that this post puts you on the spot, think about how I feel, day after day, for years, trying my best to be kind and friendly with you in the face of this nonsense. To make the point even clearer, I have friends who aren’t black who grew up in places like the 5 boroughs, Jersey, the Dirty South, Puerto Rico and Mexico who will use the word ‘nigga’ and it feels like love. Then there are folks who will say everything but the dreaded N-word and, although they think they’re being hip and relevant and deftly humorous, it comes off as spat in the face. That isn’t hyperbole.

It’s the same nonsense that made Dave Chappelle walk away from fifty million bucks.

To close out this sermon/lecture, while I may not be able to affect current liberal American culture—in which it’s perfectly okay to ignore my people’s right to a distinct identity while supporting everyone else’s—I can at least ask you folks with whom I’m connected to check yourselves regarding the above. Yeah. It really is bad enough to warrant just under nine hundred words. If you think it’s no big deal, please remember that, not too long ago, lynchings were no big deal. For some of us, that juxtaposition may veer into the extreme.

And then there are black folks.

Different Grandpa. Same Family.

Recounts. Treason. Faithless electors. Appeals to conscience. Berating. Mudslinging. Anything is better than accepting that your America is as responsible for that guy as theirs. You barred the front door, but your spouse opened the back door, let him in, and told you to leave if you didn’t like it. Go outside with all those other people. No matter how he misbehaves, how out of step with your values he may be, he’s staying.

For it to remain your house, or for you to remain in the house, you gotta deal with him, so you are trying to push him out through the same back door. The answer—the way to get him out—lies in opening the front door, that same door of which you already hold the key, and ask folks different from him—AND YOU—to come in. Instead, y’all look for tricks. Y’all openly speculate about the extent of his evil and hope it trips him up. You pray he’ll be somehow bound by his own spell. Y’all ask the ghosts of dead men to help you, yet those dead men with the powdered wigs who scrawled signatures on all that parchment preserved behind annealed glass—those who set all this up for you back in the day—gave you all the problems you have now. They just didn’t see it at the time. Hindsight. Insight. Foresight.

So many of us told you to get y’alls man. Do sum’n with him. He was just on your team pre-2008. He was just taking photos at his wedding with your best and brightest in 2005. Just got off the golf course with him when he was invalidating the BROTUS as an hourly activity. Stood there with him at the back-nine when he tweeted demands for birth certificates before teeing off. He couldn’t have changed his stripes so quickly. He’s too old for that. His phone number is still the same.

Now he’s someone no one recognizes?

Claiming him is the path to change. Seeing yourselves in him may now protect you from the outcome of your nightmare. You think those folks who let him in the backdoor are your opponents. Nah. They’re just your opposites. The man you fear is your old, tone deaf, recalcitrant grandpa on your spouse’s side. Some of the family can’t stand him. Some of the family love him. Same family. And family always matters. That’s why he’s in the big chair ruining everything for you. He belongs there.

Why else is he sitting there?

It isn’t enough to point out what’s right. You gotta walk away from what’s wrong. When you remain rooted in what’s wrong while pointing at the other side and shouting what’s right, you produce your nightmare. Now’s the time to learn from this.

Don’t resist the truth, which is obvious to those of us in the blacker America: what you deny, you receive. It’s how our innocent wind up just as dead as our guilty. It’s why our dinner tables seat the exceptional alongside the broken. On our streets live the affluent next door to the desperate. We point one finger, we feel the three stabbing back at us, so we try not to point at all because it fuckin’ hurts. We try not to condemn one other, because, if nowhere else, and at no time else, it’ll be really awkward at the graduation. The courthouse. The wedding. The mortuary. Better to just shrug it off. Better to just walk away. From what’s wrong. Hope the folks who remain find inspiration to do the same. Be there to help bury them when they didn’t. Couldn’t. We try again. We try harder. We try with our bodies. With our minds and souls. And we don’t point at those of our kind who live unlike us and say ‘those people.’

Not like y’all.

See, we of the black understand how what you embrace and accept, you own, and what you own falls under your control. That’s why our condition isn’t one thousand times worse. So embrace Trump. Accept him, for he is yours, no matter what you call yourselves. What made you also made him, no matter how you think of yourselves. And binding yourselves to the marginalized may give you moral authority for a time, but only amongst your own. You only sell safety pins to each other. You wear them only for each other because you don’t want to think of yourself as that. You don’t want to think of yourselves as related to him. You want everyone to know that your rich and mean ol’ grandpa isn’t from your side of the family. I feel that.

But dawg, it’s still your family.

A better way would be to invite us to enter the front door. Give your darker and more resilient cousins the floor. That’ll get him out your house. Give us the big chair for a while. Lord knows we’re worthy. Listen as we speak on it. Heed what you hear. Come to terms with yourselves and you may be able to deal with your grandpa. But you gotta come to terms with yourselves. Is that a tall order? Maybe.

It ain’t as tall as getting rid of your grandpa. Your spouse really wants him in the house.