Erin Aubry Kaplan

Conversations on Trump’s America: How Much Will Black Lives Matter Now?

Roosevelt Institute Fellow, MSNBC pundit, Columbia University professor, author (the upcoming The Three Faces of Unions) – Dorian Warren is or has been all these things, along with chairing the Center for Community Change, and serving as Research Associate at the Institute for Research in African-American Studies. Often called to television roundtables and policy conferences to speak about race, economic inequality and labor, Warren talked to Capital & Main last week on the coming Trump years.

Keep reading... Show less

Obama as Folk Hero: To Be What He's Trying to Be (Black, Idealistic and President) Is Nothing Less than Superhuman

Excerpted from "I Heart Obama"

The unlikely heroism of Barack Obama began for me the first and only time I saw him, on a warm winter day in Los Angeles in 2007. He had just declared his candidacy for president and was holding a rally at Rancho Cienega Park in the Crenshaw district. Crenshaw is the last primarily black area left in the city; it is next to Dorsey High School, one of three majority black high schools left in the 700,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District, and for nearly twenty years it was the site of the African Marketplace and Cultural Faire, held in late summer. In other words, anybody holding an event at Rancho Cienega was trying to get a message out to black folks. The fact that lots of white folks lived pretty close by, some just across the street at Village Green, a leafy condominium community built as a prototype of utopian urban living in the 1940s, didn’t matter. Nor did it matter that whites live in considerable numbers in Ladera Heights, a few miles north of Rancho Cienega, and in much greater numbers in Culver City, a couple of miles southwest. The proximity of these places doesn’t connect them at all. Crenshaw is a black nation-state, so those whites who do live here don’t live outdoors, are never seen on the streets, and more than likely tell their white friends and potential visitors that they live not in Crenshaw but in adjacent places like Culver City or West Los Angeles. They will acknowledge black neighborhoods only when special events are held there such as the African Marketplace or the Martin Luther King Day parade, when the place itself is the point; on those occasions, Crenshaw lights up as local exotica, an in-house tourist destination. But for most of the year, as far as Los Angeles and Southern California and the rest of the country and the rest of the world are concerned, Crenshaw, like black hubs in big cities anywhere else in the United States, lives in shadow and uncertainty.

Keep reading... Show less

Rice and the New Black Paradigm

Black history month is upon us, and it already feels like it weighs a ton. I've never entirely embraced the notion of relegating the observance to February – as every black comic has pointed out, it's the shortest month of the year – because it always feels less like a tribute than more segregation, a perennial substitute for permanently incorporating black history into the larger American narrative set forth in textbooks, daily papers and such. But the last decade of black history has been so dubious, so double-edged and so increasingly alien to what I've always thought of as racial and social progress, I'd almost be willing to skip the whole thing in '05. And I'd pass for one reason in particular: Condoleezza Rice.

For years now, my wrath for Rice has been simmering. With her tight smirk, serpentine gaze and hopelessly immutable hairdo, she's been Bush's black doppelgänger to a tee, albeit better-spoken. Initially, I thought she was progress on the public-image front, maybe – unlike her boss, she didn't resort to church-spun homilies, crass emotionalism or bad grammar to make a point. But certainly I'd hoped that beneath the starch there was some bit of sistah empathy, some meaningful connection to a Southern upbringing of burning crosses and strict segregation that practically all of us over 40 share but can't necessarily show, especially in politics. I had less and less faith as time went on that Rice harbored such a connection, but I kept hope alive anyway – one of the best and worst things about black people is a willingness to nurse optimism that often has zero basis in fact. Call me crazy.

I've finally gotten wise. Rice's recent, shockingly easy ascension to secretary of state has tipped my long simmer into a boil. I now feel free to call her what she is, a hermetic ideologue and rank opportunist who has about as much feeling for black people as for American people in general, which is none. That makes Rice the model Bushie, but her model-ness partly derives from the fact that, much to the secret delight of fellow neocons, she also represents just about everything that's gone haywire with black progress in the last decade and notably during the last four years. For starters, Rice is a very high-profile bit of history authored not by black people, but by white cynics like Bush who get to tailor a racial paradigm to his liking and then declare it democracy at work and liberty for all. This is not new, of course; Poppy Bush orchestrated the same thing last decade when he nominated Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. Until blacks crack the white power structure that still governs this country, their interests will always be at the mercy of somebody else, which means that the higher a black person rises, the more likely it is he or she will align with the power structure, not the people.

But Condoleezza Rice shows us just how unpalatable this color-coded Peter Principle can be. From her perch as national security advisor and now as secretary of state, she gets to stump for the Iraq war, admit to her starring role in the Big Lie that brought about the war while not admitting to the lie itself and suffer no consequences, intensify America's isolation in the world and thereby endanger not just us, but the entire planet. She gets to ignore the well-being of black people – including all those soldiers of color who've died or come back maimed – but always sell herself as a black success story without ever having to tell the gory details. Not only does Rice go along with the new black paradigm (which is also an old one – black female helpmate to a wealthy but incompetent white man who can barely tie his shoes), she aids and abets it without a twinge of conscience. She embodies the worst instincts of the new black middle-to-upper class elite that W.E.B. DuBois realized way back in 1950 was probably going to be the sop of white folks, not the savior of black ones. So despondent was he about what he saw coming, he pulled up stakes and spent the last years of his life in Africa.

There are other blacks out there like Rice, those not just disinclined to racial justice but who actively work against it, but they don't have the latitude or platform that she has been given. And in these God-and-country times, Rice is making the most of her platform by aggressively proving herself as super-patriotic as blacks have been all along, though her idea of patriotism – blind corporate loyalty that rewards with promotions and more loyalty – is exactly 180 degrees away from what King meant when he talked about loving America enough to stand against it in ways like opposing the Vietnam War. I've never heard Rice speak about King, a fellow native of the deep South, but that's probably a good thing. The NAACP had the bad sense to give Rice an achievement award a few years ago – it might have been holding out the same foolish hope for her that I did – and the black press exclaimed over her gown, but nothing else. For papers still charged with mindlessly exhorting black progress and honorees of any kind, this was a very pointed silence. Among blacks of national stature, only Clarence Thomas has gotten similar if-we-can't-say-anything-nice-let's-not-say-anything-at-all treatment.

Another thing I despise about Rice is how she's given affirmative action, already on the ropes, a bad name. Her appointment is all Bush's doing, but many people want to admire her because they prefer to see an educated, single-minded black woman who shouldered her way to the top on the strength of her character and qualifications. Yet Rice is not qualified to be secretary of state, not because she's black but because she's inexperienced, partisan to the point of cheapening the position and its function, a colossal failure as a diplomat, and – last but hardly least – has a thin record that reflects she's already lied about and/or covered up dirty doings in foreign policy that predate 9/11.

Aside from smearing the reputation of affirmative action, Rice also impugns a long-held and rather useful belief that black people are the moral compass of the nation, that as victims of generations of cruel and openly hypocritical public policy, our bullshit radar is more keenly developed than most. Alas, Rice is the bullshit we all need to be guarding against now, along with a string of other so-called history-making Negroes – military man Colin Powell, who sold out his old rank and file when he peddled the Iraq war to the world at the U.N. with those ridiculous maps and pointers; son and soon-to-be ex-FCC chief Michael Powell, whose great vision was to make big media bigger and less accountable; conservative commentator Armstrong Williams, who turned out to be on the Republican Party dole and the worst kind of welfare cheat. Black people have their crooks and hustlers, sure, but Rice and company are hustlers of an entirely different class and caliber to say nothing of pay scale – creatures of the same system and social circles that remain tremendously indifferent to blacks, at best. Compared to Rice, accused con men like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson are paragons of virtue – however manipulative they are, they never lose sight of their base. Politically, Rice has never been beholden to anybody but a Bush – remember that Freudian slip last summer, when during an interview she referred to W. as "my husband" instead of "the president?" Some of us were left convinced that, metaphorically anyway, there was no difference.

This is precisely how it should not be. My best suggestion to black people and to the rest of the country is to take a sabbatical from February – regroup, think about where black people really are, detoxify by turning off the television and reading or re-reading DuBois, Baldwin, Carter G. Woodson, Malcolm X and Dick Gregory (who first radicalized the word "nigger" by confronting it in a skillful but underappreciated autobiography). Examine the vaunted bones of black history and realize that Condoleezza Rice, for all the history she has made, is a bad break that needs to heal. Maybe by this time next year our range of movement – and I mean that in as many ways as possible – will be repaired enough to get something else, and someone else, started.

Duped by Wal-Mart

When the Rev. Carol Scott received a colorful mailer from Wal-Mart last month encouraging Inglewood voters to approve an April 6 ballot initiative that would allow the company to build a Supercenter without local oversight, she was surprised. Not by the mailer or by the initiative -- Wal-Mart had been touting it for months -- but by the photo on the oversize post card. It was of Annie Lee Martin, an elderly Inglewood resident whom Scott, an associate pastor, knew well as a parishioner at Holy Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church on Crenshaw. The post card also featured a glowing letter of recommendation by Martin for the Wal-Mart project that stressed the boon of jobs for youth the initiative would bring -- another attempt by the retail giant to paint the measure as a local economic windfall as well as put a folksy, African-American face on an increasingly heated battle over the fate of development in Inglewood.

Scott was concerned to see Martin because Holy Lutheran had recently joined the fight against the Wal-Mart initiative, and the congregation had been discussing the downsides of Measure 4A, as it's officially known. Congregants were entitled to their opinions, but Scott was not quite convinced that the mailer reflected the opinion of the Martin that she knew.

So she called her parishioner up, and had her worst suspicions confirmed: Wal-Mart, said Martin, had tricked her into being their poster girl on the piece of mail most critical to their campaign so far. "All of the words on that letter that went out, none of them are true," says the 82-year-old Martin, a retired nurse who lives in a senior complex near Manchester Boulevard. "I didn't write them. For one thing, the letter says I've lived in Inglewood for 50 years. I've only lived here 13."

What happened, says Martin, is this: One day earlier this year, returning home from a trip to the grocery store, she entered the front gate and was stopped by the sight of a group of unidentified people busily snapping photos of her fellow residents. Martin headed for a side gate, but not before her own photo was taken. "I didn't like that," recalls Martin. "I said to them, 'Why are you taking my picture?'" The photographer explained that he was with Wal-Mart and that the photo session was part of the effort to bring the store to Inglewood and jobs to the community. Though Martin at that point was unfamiliar with the damning particulars of Measure 4A, she didn't disagree with the idea of Wal-Mart opening nearby -- she was a longtime Wal-Mart shopper -- and she especially liked the idea of employment for people who had none. "When I walk in the neighborhood, I'm always being accosted by young people who say they need quarters," says Martin, fighting back tears. "Quarters. I thought Wal-Mart was okay."

A few days later, Martin says, a Wal-Mart representative contacted her and said he wanted her to sign a paper that would make her support of the project official. Though Martin was uncertain as to what that meant, she figured she was signing a petition of some sort, much like the one that got the initiative on the ballot in the first place. What she assumed she wasn't signing was a photo release, a letter, or any agreement to use her image and words for Wal-Mart literature. The fact that her signature later appeared on the post card's appeal to the community to support Measure 4A amazes her most of all (fake quotes include "I know people could sure use the new jobs" and "I hope you will join me in voting Yes on Measure 4A")."The paper I signed was blank," says Martin. "In retrospect, I shouldn't have signed anything I didn't understand. I blame myself for being too eager. But I really didn't know what the measure was about."

Martin put the whole thing out of her mind -- until last month, when hundreds of post cards arrived in the mail at households all over Inglewood, including her own. Friends and neighbors inundated Martin with phone calls; she began being recognized by strangers on the street who called her a celebrity. Martin was dismayed not only by what she considered an invasion of privacy orchestrated by Wal-Mart, but by the assumption by the public that she was a Wal-Mart spokesperson. Fearing harassment by opponents of Measure 4A, Martin began staying home more; flooded with calls from both proponents and detractors of Wal-Mart, which often begin early in the morning and continue until 11 at night, she frequently doesn't answer her phone. Martin says she feels duped and angry, but mostly she's bewildered. She called up Inglewood Mayor Roosevelt Dorn to complain about Wal-Mart's tactics; Dorn empathized with his constituent but did not revoke his support of the measure. "What I want to know is, what have I done wrong?" says Martin, sounding close to tears for the second time.

A Wal-Mart representative had no immediate comment, but promised to look into the matter.

Egregious as it is, it's unlikely that Martin's story would have surfaced at all were it not for the fact she belongs to Holy Lutheran. The church is one of the newest members of L.A. Metro, essentially a local chapter of the national community-organizing outfit Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF). L.A. Metro backs a variety of progressive, grassroots campaigns, many of them pro-worker. Last week, Scott, other L.A. Metro members, and several Inglewood officials and activists held a town-hall meeting at Holy Trinity about the Wal-Mart initiative; partly because news of the Martin experience had spread, the room was packed and indignation ran high. Scott says the silver lining in Martin's nightmare is that it has galvanized an opposition that up until recently lacked visibility. "Here's one of my seniors being used, and I'm angry," says Scott, who has lived in Inglewood since 1968. "I see this as a church issue, and I'm going to take the gospel out to the people. We're not going to wait for it to happen."

Whatever happens with the initiative next week, the most distressing outcome may be that Martin, a stalwart voter, will make good on a consideration not to support any causes in the future and withdraw from the democratic process altogether. Though in constant need of low-priced goods for her children and grandchildren -- the perfect Wal-Mart customer profile -- she has already decided to stop shopping there and is contemplating closing the account she set up there for her granddaughter, herself a mother. "These are not the kind of people you want to be associated with," says Martin. Ironically, the election next week is a moot point for her; like so many other seniors, she voted absentee before she had all the facts and, of course, before she experienced Wal-Mart's exploitative tendencies firsthand. "I tell you," she says wistfully, "I wish I could get my vote back."

Erin Aubry Kaplan writes for LA Weekly.

Aristide Development

When President Bush declared last week that the U.S. would turn back any Haitians who tried to seek refuge here because their problems of insurrection, street violence and complete instability weren't really all that bad, I felt a shiver of recognition. I knew the callousness was not intended for me or for any other American of color, but it certainly felt aimed in our direction. Here, after all, is a black nation not far away whose long-standing problems parallel those of its American counterparts, albeit to greater degrees: high poverty, crime, disease, insufficient education, underemployment. Here is an American government looking assiduously the other way, being sublimely hypocritical in advocating freedom and justice for all but never devoting the time, energy or political resources to ensuring that happens. Waiting until bad circumstances melt down into a bona fide crisis to act or, more accurately, react -- and then less in Haiti's interest than in its own.

When Jean-Bertrand Aristide was finally spirited away last Sunday, leaving Port-au-Prince to the looters, self-proclaimed rebels, and mostly plain citizens who couldn't quite decide if they were better off with law enforcement or without, the scene in the papers resembled nothing so much as the maelstrom of South-Central L.A. in April '92. Then, the first President Bush expressed great consternation publicly, made a few visits out West to confirm for himself that Central L.A. was indeed the disaster area it had been for years, then went home to focus on getting re-elected. The current Bush will doubtless do something like that in Haiti, if that much, and we will all go back to what we were doing until the next eruption. In the end, in the eyes of the most powerful country on Earth, black folks just don't matter, and poor black folks matter least.

Even when America pays attention, it does so conditionally. The U.S. tends to confer any good will it might harbor toward black populations through its leaders, but only hand-picked leaders who reinforce a racial or economic status quo that works in America's favor. So we crowned Booker T. Washington but not W.E.B. Du Bois, lauded Martin Luther King Jr. (to a point) but not Patrice Lumumba. Aristide was a flawed leader who was too easy to paint as a black Saddam-like tyrant by a Bush government that simply wanted Aristide, as it wanted Saddam, out of the way. Nor did the protestations of black leaders here make a dent: The failed appeals of 19 members of the congressional Black Caucus to its own government to negotiate a pact with rebel leaders to keep Aristide and his legitimately elected government in place speak volumes about the dubious state of black influence in this country.

Caucus leader and longtime Haiti advocate Charles Rangel (D-New York), clearly angry about what he saw as a betrayal of a good-faith effort to help broker a compromise, was among the first to accuse the U.S. of orchestrating a coup; as Aristide lent credence to that accusation on CNN, Maxine Waters went further in declaring that America was once again effecting a "regime change." Rangel said that Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice led them to believe that a compromise was possible even as they pushed for Aristide's departure, which was the unofficial U.S. position. Not surprisingly, the U.S. got its way, and the black American delegation was left with egg on its face (that the African-American Powell and Rice carried American interests and not those of the black delegation -- and couldn't have done otherwise, really -- underscores the discomfiting reality of black leadership being chosen and sanctioned by the existing power structure, not by itself).

But so it has always been with efforts to build up black communities stateside. Reconstruction was woefully inadequate and more beneficial in the end to white Southerners, not their former slaves; legislation and court rulings through the years that "gave" blacks the right to vote or access to equal education were not speedily or systematically enforced. In the bid to retain Aristide and keep Haiti solvent, Rangel and company played the only card black leaders throughout history have had: holding America to its own founding principles of democracy and self-determination.

The caucus encouraged Washington to respect the rule of law -- this time in another country -- but the plea fell on especially deaf ears within the Bush administration, which has already proved its willingness to act unilaterally and sabotage governments it deems uncooperative. The best it does is ignore them altogether, which, as we've seen in Liberia and other troubled nations that happen to be black, is often the most immoral choice of all. But money trumps morality every time. The fact that Haiti has zero natural resources to pique American interest -- save sweatshop labor that the American banks seemed eager to cultivate in a "border zone" deal with the Dominican Republic proposed a couple of years ago -- doesn't help its cause of global involvement, which would have to begin here.

It also doesn't help matters that Aristide seems for all the world like a good guy gone bad, a onetime pastor too corrupted by politics and power to be much good to the people who once elevated him as a savior. It's another uncomfortable parallel to the black American experience, which has more than its share of preacher-hustlers and people whose proclaimed ambitions to improve community are often undermined by deeper ambitions of financial profit or 15 minutes in the spotlight. The equation is rarely either/or, but it's often depicted that way, and so writing off a Jesse Jackson or an Al Sharpton or an Aristide is that much more justifiable to those in power, and writing off the communities these fallen figures represent is even easier. But with leaders or without, the places and their problems of concerted neglect and political isolation remain. With a population bigger than L.A.'s but smaller than New York City's, Haiti is an inner-city island with freedom dreams still frustrated 200 years after gaining independence.

Some things don't change.

Black Like I Thought I Was

Wayne Joseph is a 51-year-old high school principal in Chino whose family emigrated from the segregated parishes of Louisiana to central Los Angeles in the 1950s, as did mine. Like me, he is of Creole stock and is therefore on the lighter end of the black color spectrum, a common enough circumstance in the South that predates the multicultural movement by centuries. And like most other black folk, Joseph grew up with an unequivocal sense of his heritage and of himself; he tends toward black advocacy and has published thoughtful opinion pieces on racial issues in magazines like Newsweek. When Joseph decided on a whim to take a new ethnic DNA test he saw described on a 60 Minutes segment last year, it was only to indulge a casual curiosity about the exact percentage of black blood; virtually all black Americans are mixed with something, he knew, but he figured it would be interesting to make himself a guinea pig for this new testing process, which is offered by a Florida-based company called DNA Print Genomics Inc. The experience would at least be fodder for another essay for Newsweek. He got his kit in the mail, swabbed his mouth per the instructions and sent off the DNA samples for analysis.

Now, I have always believed that what is now widely considered one of slavery's worst legacies -- the Southern "one-drop" rule that indicted anyone with black blood as a nigger and cleaved American society into black and white with a single stroke -- was also slavery's only upside. Of course I deplore the motive behind the law, which was rooted not only in white paranoia about miscegenation, but in a more practical need to maintain social order by keeping privilege and property in the hands of whites. But by forcing blacks of all complexions and blood percentages into the same boat, the law ironically laid a foundation of black unity that remains in place today. It's a foundation that allows us to talk abstractly about a "black community" as concretely as we talk about a black community in Harlem or Chicago or South-Central (a liberty that's often abused or lazily applied in modern discussions of race). And it gives the lightest-skinned among us the assurance of identity that everybody needs in order to feel grounded and psychologically whole -- even whites, whose public non-ethnicity is really ethnicity writ so large and influential it needs no name. Being black may still not be the most advantageous thing in the world, but being nothing or being neutral -- the rallying cry of modern-day multiculturalists -- has never made any emotional or real-world sense. Color marks you, but your membership in black society also gives you an indestructible house to live in and a bed to rest on. I can't imagine growing up any other way.

Wayne Joseph can't, either. But when the results of his DNA test came back, he found himself staggered by the idea that though he still qualified as a person of color, it was not the color he was raised to think he was, one with a distinct culture and definitive place in the American struggle for social equality that he'd taken for granted. Here was the unexpected and rather unwelcome truth: Joseph was 57 percent Indo-European, 39 percent Native American, 4 percent East Asian -- and zero percent African. After a lifetime of assuming blackness, he was now being told that he lacked even a single drop of black blood to qualify.

"My son was flabbergasted by the results," says Joseph. "He said, 'Dad, you mean for 50 years you've been passing for black?'" Joseph admits that, strictly speaking, he has. But he's not sure if he can or wants to do anything about that at this point. For all the lingering effects of institutional racism, he's been perfectly content being a black man; it has shaped his worldview and the course of his life in ways that cannot, and probably should not, be altered. Yet Joseph struggles to balance the intellectual dishonesty of saying he's black with the unimpeachable honesty of a lifelong experience of being black. "What do I do with this information?" he says, sounding more than a little exasperated. "It was like finding out you're adopted. I don't want to be disingenuous with myself. But I can't conceive of living any other way. It's a question of what's logical and what's visceral."

Race, of course, has always been a far more visceral matter than a logical one. We now know that there is no such thing as race, that humans are biologically one species; we know that an African is likely to have more in common genetically with a European thousands of miles away than with a neighboring African. Yet this knowledge has not deterred the racism many Europeans continue to harbor toward Africans, nor the wariness Africans harbor toward Europeans. Such feelings may never be deterred. And despite all the loud assertions to the contrary, race is still America's bane, and its fascination; Philip Roth's widely acclaimed last novel set in the 1990s, The Human Stain, features a Faustian protagonist whose great moral failing is that he's a black man who's been passing most of his life for white (the book has been made into a movie due in theaters next month).

Joseph recognizes this, and while he argues for a more rational and less emotional view of race for the sake of equity, he also recognizes that rationality is not the same thing as fact. As much as he might want to, he can't simply refute his black past and declare himself white or Native American. He can acknowledge the truth but can't quite apply it, which makes it pretty much useless to other, older members of his family. An aunt whom he told about the test results only said that she wasn't surprised. "When I told my mother about the test, she said to me, 'I'm too old and too tired to be anything else,'" recalls Joseph. "It makes no difference to her. It's an easy issue."

After recovering from the initial shock, Joseph began questioning his mother about their lineage. He discovered that, unbeknownst to him, his grandparents had made a conscious decision back in Louisiana to not be white, claiming they didn't want to side with a people who were known oppressors. Joseph says there was another, more practical consideration: Some men in the family routinely courted black women, and they didn't want the very public hassle such a pairing entailed in the South, which included everything from dirty looks to the ignominy of a couple having to separate on buses and streetcars and in restaurants per the Jim Crow laws. I know that the laws also pointedly separated mothers from sons, uncles from nephews, simply because one happened to be lighter than the other or have straighter hair. Determinations of race were entirely subjective and imposed from without, and the one-drop rule was enforced to such divisive and schizophrenic effects that Joseph's family -- and mine -- fled Louisiana for the presumably less boundary-obsessed West. But we didn't flee ourselves, and didn't expect to; we simply set up a new home in Los Angeles. The South was wrong about its policies but it was right about our color. It had to be.

Joseph remains tortured by the possibility that maybe nobody is right. The essay he thought the DNA test experience would prompt became a book that he's already 150 pages into. He doesn't seem to know how it'll end. He's in a kind of limbo that he doesn't want and that I frankly wouldn't wish on anyone; when I wonder aloud about taking the $600 DNA test myself, Joseph flatly advises against it. "You don't want to know," he says. "It's like a genie coming out of a bottle. You can't put it back in." He has more empathy for the colorblind crowd than he had before, but isn't inclined to believe that the Ward Connerlys and other professed racial conservatives of the world have the best interests of colored people at heart. "I see their point, but race does matter, especially with things like medical research and other social trends," he says of Connerly's Proposition 54, the much-derided state measure that seeks to outlaw the collection of ethnic data that will be voted on in the recall election next Tuesday. "Problems like that can't just go away." For the moment, Joseph is compelled to try to judge individually what he knows has always been judged broadly, to reconcile two famously opposed viewpoints of race not for the sake of political argument -- he has made those -- but for his own peace of mind. He's wrestling with a riddle that will likely outlive him, though he doesn't worry that it will be passed on to the next generation -- his ex-wife is black, enough to give his children the firm ethnic identity he had and that he embraced for most of his life. "The question ultimately is, are you who you say you are, or are you who you are genetically?" he muses. The logical -- and visceral -- answer is that it's not black and white.

Department of Homegirl Security

When I was in my middle teens and beginning to feel some oats as a critical thinker, I divided the world into two sets of people: those who got Electric Light Orchestra and those who didn't. I didn't set out on purpose to construct a character litmus test around a neo-wall-of-sound English dance band that practically nobody in my South L.A. neighborhood cared about.

Passing or failing this test was really not about judgment, but enlightenment. After a few oddball friends and I agreed on the greatness of George Clinton and Bootsy Collins, the musical touchstones of our day and place, we felt free to look for that greatness elsewhere. We heard the higher math of lowdown funk and glimpsed its protean soul not just in ELO but in the Eagles, Sweet and Steely Dan. To us this was homage, not heresy. Our peers who didn't understand that we were not selling out black music but taking the bedrock musical argument of R&B and applying it wherever it made sense -- well, those people would never get it, never get that black music was bigger and wider than itself, just as the Constitution was bigger than the men who wrote it. They were doomed to sit on their porches and travel little.

Yet while my posse might have been frustrated with these folks' unwillingness to recognize the true catholic spirit of the music they wanted to claim only for themselves, we did not disdain them so much as depart from them; our discoveries made us righteous but generous, and we held out hope that one day the doubters would hear "Sweet Talkin' Woman" or "Deacon Blues" and recognize the truth. Surely it was only a matter of time.

I find the world as divided today, but find myself far less optimistic that people will see the light. My advancing age and the truly dire state of the planet means I have lost the generosity of old. There are no gray areas in which to assign people a date in the future when they'll hear music the right way and change their minds. Right now, in my mind, the population is split between those who support the continuing U.S. military presence in Iraq and those who don't. The war forced me into an absolutism I never had and don't quite like, but our intellectual freedom is on the line here -- the same freedom that once led me to assume ideals about music across color lines and stick with them to the death. The stakes leave me no choice. Anybody on the wrong side of the war issue is not a horse to be led to water, but a direct threat to the psychic resources and emotional resolve that I guard ever more warily, like food during famine.

I make no exceptions. I'm not planning on cutting any slack for pro-war sentiment in my family, not even for the oldest and most irascible among us. I take silence or professed neutrality as de facto support of the war; when I questioned a longtime friend about Iraq and he declared that "I don't get involved in politics," I immediately began to reassess being involved with him at all.

I know that Americans compartmentalize their concerns in a way that the rest of the world does not, and that my friend was probably only trying to shield us from unpleasantness. But the impulse toward avoidance is no longer anything to admire or write off as well-meaning. September 11 should have taught us that, though it's a lesson we've learned badly, because when it comes to global business we don't consider things a whit more than we're expected to. We do not imagine or extrapolate from what is in front of us. We look at the world only to misread it or believe we can tune it out at will. Most important, as the war abroad quickens the encroachment of civil and free-speech liberties at home, I am forced to ask my friends and family to examine the whole state of the republic and offer their analysis.

The risks here are great. I am demanding opinions that I may not want to hear, that may sow seeds of irreconcilable differences between me and some people I love and thought I knew, like the friend who turned out to be apolitical. Here is a litmus test that goes beyond party politics or a single issue like affirmative action or even war itself: It is a test not of positions, but of the deep, secular faith in the democratic argument required for this country to exist at all. Because of that faith, I have been able to weather a great many disappointments in the 20-odd years since I internalized the notion that the world might be mine. That faith assures me that Bush's bluster and endless transgressions are not bigger than the idea of the country he's governing. He doesn't understand the Constitution and the sanctity of American self-invention nearly as well as many of us do; for all his preaching about freedom, he can't possibly divine the reach of its music. So he has put me on a mission of finding the faith in others, or leaving them be. I don't have the luxury of that faith being an option. I probably never did. I may still embrace my neutral friend's other good qualities -- sense of humor, style -- but when I embrace him, our fingers will never quite touch.

In the black-and-white of my new world, there is less wasted motion, there are fewer idle words. My most casual conversations produce more questions than statements. When someone not much more familiar than a stranger asks me how I am, I tend to say, "Fine, considering the war. How do you feel about it? Heard about Halliburton and those postwar contract bids? Disgraceful, isn't it?" I had a perfectly good dynamic going with the owners of a dry cleaner I've been patronizing for the last year, until the day after the U.S. dropped the first bombs in Iraq. The kindly owner who once praised me for being a positive thinker asked me that morning how I was, as always, and I said okay, except for the war. Wasn't it terrible? She paused a second before answering that the U.S. forces were already zeroing in on Saddam's weapons of mass destruction and that liberation was near, thank goodness. Stunned, I announced my opposition to the whole damn enterprise and stalked out without taking my dry cleaning. (I went back some days later, but we didn't exactly talk. I decided I could spend my money there, but nothing more.)

When my 18-year-old niece and my best friend both sent me chain-letter e-mail "prayer wheels" for the safe return of our troops, I sent back scathing replies in which I denounced the cheap sentiment and flimsy patriotism of commingling God, flags and eagles. I demanded they go back and examine history and their own notions of what America is supposed to be about, as opposed to how those notions are being currently exploited. The next day I got a sheepish reply from my friend, a churchgoer who agreed with me and admitted he had forwarded the prayer wheel somewhat unthinkingly. I was relieved, because I count him among that original posse who shared in the revelations of ELO and company; at 42, despite many setbacks in his life, he pursues his dream of being a working musician and is still among the most hopelessly idealistic people I know. This is the kind of hopelessness we could use, that I'm seeking so mercilessly.

I didn't hear back from my niece. But she's young, still discovering the contours and potency of her own ideas, and how those ideas might benefit a world not similarly positioned but one that, 20 years from now, might still be vain or curious enough to be convinced of its own greatness. To her, I grant time.

Erin Aubry Kaplan is a columnist for the LA Weekly.

Thoroughly Modern Mammy

The most memorable Christmas gift I ever got was from my best friend about six years ago: an old-fashioned peg board listing stock grocery items one needed to be reminded to buy week to week, such as flour, sugar and bread. The board itself wasn't memorable, but its particular old fashion seared my consciousness and then some: At the top was a decorative ceramic of a grinning, coal-black, red-kerchief-headed "mammy," a reproduction of one of those Jim Crow-era advertisements that have come to be known as black memorabilia. Beneath the ceramic was written, "Fo' da kitchen we needs."

I put the board in a closet and thought, without much conviction, that I'd find a place on the wall for it later. I strove to be heartened by the knowledge that my friend was among the most politically enlightened and erudite black people that I knew, and therefore the peg board had a redemptive quality that would reveal itself to me in time.

But quite the reverse happened: Stashed out of sight among the other questionables in my front closet, the peg board bothered me like the invisible pea bothered the princess. Its presence in my apartment began to feel like an affront to many things in it that were meant, I realized, as affirmation -- African wood carvings, a framed college degree, family photos, even fashion magazines. Whenever I thought of the mammy peg board or spied it inadvertently, I shrank from it like kryptonite.

At last I dug it out and offered it to my downstairs neighbor, also a good friend and a highly conscious black person who nonetheless pronounced it "cute" and took it away. (It must be said that she is also a longtime curio collector especially fond of kitchen things -- chili peppers are her favorite motif -- so her apolitical assessment of the peg board didn't exactly surprise me.)

I was still left with the same deep-down bad feeling bordering on heartburn that black memorabilia always leave me with, and the same nagging question: Why do we keep this stuff around?

I mean we in the strictest sense. I know why whites keep it in circulation -- to begin with, they put it in circulation, the black grotesquerie of the Gold Dust Twins and Old Black Joe that branded cleaning powder and tobacco and lots of other goods, as well as many more generic images of watermelon-gobbling pickaninnies that accented everything else from watches to wall clocks. After such stuff fell from popularity at about the middle of the last century, it was relegated to antique-store Americana that, however awkward it might have always been to display, nonetheless fetched a price for rarity and quality of condition.

There is always a pure-market argument shop owners can make in defense of having black memorabilia on the shelves. But what, really, is black people's excuse? Why have ceramic-mammy vendor tables become de rigueur at ethnic-pride or even nationalist streetfests like Kwanzaa and Juneteenth? How are big lips and bug eyes, not created for us or by us but entirely against us, even remotely empowering or aesthetically pleasing?

The most common response I get is a vaguely militant claim that we're "taking back" something meant to be sabotaging by embracing it -- that is, defanging the wolf by inviting him into your house and hanging him on your wall. Another common rationale is that these black distortions are history, albeit a nadir of history in which naked racial oppression ruled the day, and that we must preserve it as such.

I would say that's fine for books and monuments and historical societies, but I hardly see the point in propagating the mammy in the modern consciousness. (Jews have Holocaust museums and other memorials, but you never see Nazi-created caricatures of Jews rendered on mugs and placemats.) Whenever I go into any antique shop anywhere in the country, in Cambria or New Orleans, my stomach kinks into a knot of apprehension over the blackface I know I'll come across, usually in the back of the store, placed not too discreetly in a corner. No matter how quaint or refined the place, among the first-edition Cole Porter sheet music are versions of "My Old Kentucky Home" with a cover of a big-lipped buck seated by a river, strumming a guitar. I have smothered many an impulse to complain to the proprietor or storm out, knowing how right and how utterly senseless it would have been to do so -- here indeed is Americana, whether I like it, or buy it, or not.

I am not entirely without empathy. I understand the urge to mark the bad times lest they be forgotten, which is largely the purpose of blues and spiritual music. But rest assured we are in no danger of gross black stereotypes becoming things of the past; on the contrary, today they retain a sophisticated power well beyond the subliminal or the nostalgic. Aunt Jemima may have traded in her head rag for a suit and pearls back in the 1980s, but she's still selling pancake mix. Uncle Ben still beams from boxes of rice. In the ever more insidious realm of entertainment, Bernie Mac may have an innovative television series, but his trademark pop-eyes are anything but.

The recently released movie "Friday After Next" is the urban equivalent of a traveling minstrel show, a contemporary black commedia dell'arte of hustlers, ho's and ne'er-do-wells that, when this history is all said and done, will sit very comfortably next to the mammies and Black Joes. Progress for African-Americans is increasingly becoming less than the sum of its definitions: The NAACP fought to ban screenings of "Birth of a Nation" in 1915; 80 years later, mammies, coons and other early relics of high bamboozlement are not only not bannable, but are collectible.

Cultural undermining notwithstanding, blacks in theory have the right to use the commerce argument as much as whites. Memorabilia sellers are running legitimate businesses, and perhaps their profit-making even redresses some of the wrong done by whites who benefited financially for so long from what was essentially the stylized fear and mockery of black impoverishment and undereducation, conditions that were (and still are) painfully real.

But money, of course, was always only part of the story. Mammyism was also about perpetuating a national negrophobia to keep the American social order intact after the end of slavery threatened, however modestly, to change it. It was about a decades-long PR campaign for the constitutionally reprehensible Jim Crow laws that were enacted around 1900; it was about preaching, through primary colors and snappy logos ("Dat sho' am good!"), the absolute sanctity of keeping the races apart.

The whole trade wouldn't bother me nearly as much if I could believe that black consumers were pointedly taking the stuff out of circulation and routing it to places like Museum in Black, a curatorial treasure in Leimert Park that documents in artifacts our worst of times, beginning with slave manacles and auction notices and winding up with the Gold Dust Twins. It sells things, of course, but it's primarily a museum, and in such a context the collectibles truly do have power, as unsparing reminders of just how deep the American race animus has run, on permanent display in a hall of shame.

But I think it would be impossible for me to ever regard mammy as a gift, even if blacks at some point evolve completely out from under the weighty issues of representation. Long after Christmas, when I finally told my friend somewhat guiltily how I felt about the peg board, he waved his hand airily and said, "Oh, it's no big deal. Take it back and get something you like." I wish that had been possible.

The complicated coda to all this is that blacks never quite divested themselves of their own vicious parodies, even when they freely had the right to do so; no doubt we were hampered by a lingering slave mentality, but the quest for American-ness and true self-determination often makes it hard, still, to know whether declaring "sho' is" is affirming or embarrassing. One could argue that blacks never really had such a right at all, that corporations continue into this century to mercilessly appropriate blackness as selling points. But when we are at home with ourselves, with the television off and only the peg boards and the clown faces to examine, surely we must know.

Erin Aubry Kaplan is a staff writer at the LA Weekly.

HAL on Earth

A robot may not injure a human being or through inaction allow a human being to come to injury.

A robot must obey orders given to it by a human being, except when those orders would violate the first law.

A robot must protect its own existence, except when that would violate the first or second laws.

--Isaac Asimov, 1941


Of all the things we still consider futuristic -- and that number is dwindling every year -- robots, at least in a pop-culture sense, still have the cachet of a great unknown. That robots and robotics have been among us for decades doesn't quash a certain mystique of possibility and ultimate identity robots have had ever since the word was coined 80 years ago: They are the latest last frontier of communications science, the one Tomorrowland attraction that's still going strong. Assembly plants and car factories across the nation may be crawling (or clanking) with robots, but for most of us who grew up on Iron Man, robots continue to live largest in the imagination, on the pages or Web sites of fantasy, or at the heart of our darker speculations about the fate of technology that brings us together to the same degree that it depersonalizes.

I've always thought of robots as either silly or scary: silly as fiction (comic book fodder à la Iron Man and Atom Boy); scary as fact (mechanical helpmates-turned-mutineers who seem destined to supplant the humans who make them). But I got to visit a bit of fate recently at a local company called Evolution Robotics, and I'm glad to say I'm more intrigued than afraid. In a cheery office space at the tail end of Old Town Pasadena I met ER1, a diminutive robot that's much too unlike me (yet) to be silly or scary. It looks very much like a laptop mounted on a rolling cart, though its handlers assure me it's much more than that -- ER1 is the first mass-produced, affordable, autonomous personal robot that's geared to being a real assistant rather than merely a cool toy, which most personal robots have been thus far. Contrary to my own space-invader image of 'bots, ER1 is built around what has grown entirely familiar -- a laptop computer. It's controlled with a dashboard and pull-down menus that match commands with conditions; one can simply instruct the robot to do all sorts of tasks, like fetching a beer from the refrigerator (for me, it brought a Coke) or getting the mail from a receptionist and ferrying it to a nearby boardroom. Robots never seemed so accessible, which is exactly the point; Evolution Robotics is putting a $600 product in stores in the hopes that the same tinkerers who fueled the software boom and the entire PC economy will rocket-launch the fledgling robot business.

"This is about getting robotics out of the lab and into the homes," explains Jennifer McNally, Evolution Robotics' senior marketing director. "It's about letting people play with the possibilities. People have this fantastic thing in their heads about robots -- HAL from 2001, Rosie from The Jetsons -- but the field of robotics and the consumer market are actually starting to merge."

What's exciting about ER1 is not simply its actions -- though it is a bit thrillingly creepy to watch a machine move on its own without somebody standing by with a remote -- but its ability to interpret its environment. An object-recognition system allows the ER1 to see, hear and distinguish human faces and voices -- a giant leap for robotkind. But there is also a skeleton of a robot, stripped down both for the hobbyists who want to dream up their own extras and for lay people like me. Flesh can't be far behind; Evolution Robotics has plans to add a plastic, skin-like membrane and claw hands. In something of a cultural role reversal, the Japanese have been leading the way in robot aesthetics -- Honda's sleek ASIMO personal robot and Sony's AIBO pooch really look and move like man and dog, respectively -- while Americans have focused on use and practicality.

Evolution Robotics' founder and executive chairman Bill Gross believes that the two minds are meeting now that robotics is asserting a global importance. The development of personal computers, the focus of popular technology for the last 20 years, has leveled off, shifting engineers' attention in other directions. "PCs have reached an evolutionary plateau," says Gross, a charismatic, bespectacled 43-year-old who bristles with the inquisitive energy of someone much younger. "They exploded in form, and now they're either a big box or a clamshell. The next has got to be voice and mobility. You've got to get the PC off the desk."

Evolution Robotics is housed at Idealab, Gross's tech-company incubator that grows businesses from seed and boots them out of the nest when they get big and successful enough to set up shop elsewhere. Evolution Robotics is but one of many such companies, though McNally admits it's taking up quite a bit of cubicle space at the moment.

Evolution Robotics has been busy in the nearly two years it's been around; the ER1 officially debuted in May of this year at the Electronic Entertainment Expo, garnering good reviews and yet confirming that robots haven't exactly made the leap from amusing gadget to indispensable tool. But the work to bridge that gap and make the world a more efficient place to live is proceeding in earnest. The sheer variety of robo-prototypes out there proves it: There's Slugbot (eats slugs), Tug (moves hospital equipment and supplies), Robomower (cuts the lawn), Ultrabot (Evolution Robotics' custom robot that follows people and moves according to voice commands) and Kismet, an attempt by MIT's robotics lab to develop a sentient robot that frowns, smiles and experiences moods -- the first in a race of beings scientists are calling "robosapiens."

My scary-robot red flag goes up -- having them think is unsettling enough, but having them feel is off the nerve scale completely. That aside, is it really necessary for robots to be so much like us? According to top roboticists, it is: Replicating human behavior is at the core of a personal robot's usefulness, and even our most reflexive behaviors, like walking and sitting, are fueled by feeling -- desire, contentment, anxiety, hunger and all the rest. Robots are still learning to walk on two feet, but it's only a matter of time before they'll need to fully know why they walk, and when.

There's already a school of thought called evolutionary robotics (not the company, just the name) that believes in letting robots develop increasingly complex behavior on their own, much like children do, rather than feeding them canned software. One such robot is MIT's Cog, which was "born" in 1993 and has since progressed to the crawling stage. Another in the works in Japan is Pino, an infant-like android equipped with a neural network meant to mimic the human brain. Japan has good reason to perfect a human robot: The country has a huge senior-citizen population with increasingly chronic health problems and not nearly enough people to tend to them. Engineer Ichiro Kato predicted nine years ago that, contrary to popular Western thinking, humanoid robots will augment humanity much more than diminish it. "Elderly people would find themselves more at ease with a personal robot than with burdening their families," he explained. And only "friendly anthropomorphism" will do. "If it doesn't walk and act like a human," he said disdainfully, "it isn't a robot. It's merely an automaton."

Perhaps because its military growth was curtailed after World War II, Japan has always embraced its technology and its machines, and robots are especially well-regarded -- Japanese comics consistently portrayed them as friends and superheroes, and gave them human names. Hence the Japanese dominate robotics, and their national obsession to produce a perfect humanoid is much like the international scientific race to crack the DNA code. The West, for all its innovations, has largely shied away from the idea, likely hampered by a Judeo-Christian wariness of playing God by creating robots -- or anything else -- in our own image. The very term robot is rooted in European pessimism: the Czech word for slave or "forced laborer," it was taken from a 1921 play by Karel Capek called Rossum's Universal Robots, or R.U.R., a cautionary tale about robots who rise up over time and destroy their human masters. The American cultural references to robots have been generally dark, especially in film -- HAL 9000 in "2001," the belligerent replicants of Blade Runner, the tortured man-machine hybrid of RoboCop. It may be that, after centuries of oppressing and exploiting others, Westerners are projecting in robots a fear of karmic comeuppance that may lie just around the corner.

On the other hand, we've had decent, entirely law-abiding robots like R2-D2 and C-3PO of "Star Wars," the stoically loyal android of "Aliens," the eager-to-please humanoids of last summer's "A.I." If we are not entirely ready for robots, we may at last be seriously contemplating the benefits of having them around. It could be as Jude Law, playing a gigolo robot in A.I., says to a curious but skittish first-time client: "Once you have me, you'll never go back to a real man again."

Few of us would be willing to go that far. But few of us with computers would ever go back to pecking typewriters, and, really, we couldn't anyway: The world isn't set up for typewriters anymore. The folks at Evolution Robotics and elsewhere expect that one day soon the world will be set up for personal robots, which they view as not something up for debate but simply the way of productivity. It's this Zen-ish outlook that drives Bill Gross' sunny brand of American ingenuity; he made his money with Internet concerns like Citysearch.com, and he lost no time in determining the next technological big thing. Gross agrees there's a big cultural fear of robots, but doesn't expect that's going to stop anything. "You want a robot to be like a Palm Pilot, not a human," he muses. "Over the next 20 years we'll be having discussions about the morality of artificial intelligence just like we're having discussions now about the morality of cloning and genetics." Those discussions might still be going when we get around to robots, but McNally believes robots will prove their worth quickly in so many ways -- in hospitals, in homes, on the battlefield -- that ancient doubts about them will be largely dispelled. "We can't imagine the necessity of robots in our lives now, but look at the microwave," she says. "Look at where it ended up." Rodney Brooks, director of MIT's Artificial Intelligence Lab, went a step further in declaring that "in the new millennium, we will become our machines." The unexpectedly heartening corollary is that our machines are becoming us.

Into the Groove

In the '80s there were two women I wanted to be: Madonna and Janet Jackson. For the record, I wanted to be Virginia Woolf and Toni Morrison too, but the fantasy difference was a crucial one of psychic geography: Arguably, in my early 20s I already had the writing goods, unerupted but bubbling like lava in the deep caverns of myself. The dance-diva thing was less certain, a fantasy in the most stratospheric sense, so its aspirations carried a lot more mystique. Performance goods had to be determined in public, by the public; I might have been a post-disco whirligig in the privacy of my bedroom, but the whole point of Janet and Madonna was being a Dance Diva in front of a big audience -- less quantifiable and more immediately thrilling than crafting graceful narrative or exhibiting a firm grasp of language.

While Famous Writer lived cozily within, Dance Diva lived precariously but more feverishly without, and Madonna and Janet were to me two different but equally appealing versions of a reckless and undefined but very glamorous life that I likely would never lead (but that I hoped I could lead with). Madonna was the sardonic side of sexy, always more interested in conceptual shape-shifting than the dance, which appealed to my cloistered writer self. Janet played the genre straight and open with head-snapping choreography, a big smile and bigger hair that -- declarations of her independence in albums like Control notwithstanding -- acknowledged the common woman's yearnings to be a bright and well-loved (and well-groomed) star. But both knew that their bread and butter was the beat, and in more moments in the '80s than I can remember so was mine. When the decade was done, I had probably cribbed more inspiration and style points from "Like a Prayer" and "Miss You Much" than I had from any number of famous novels or works of nonfiction that spurred my writing vocation but didn't quite make it dance. Imagination moves in mysterious ways.

I got the chance to re-acquaint myself with my muses one recent Friday night in the pre-weekend lull that found me (after a good deal of reading, of course) channel surfing. I was elated by the good fortune of finding that HBO was set to air Madonna's and Janet's recent concert films -- back to back! Instantly I had visions of old; instead of settling back in my armchair, I sprang up, pacing like an old racehorse about to be turned loose from the gate (I could still win this thing, I could!). Madonna was first, doing her Drowned World tour. I watched. I was ready. I didn't dance. Alas, this idol had fallen -- on a sword of her own creation. Dressed in post-apocalyptic torn black mesh and a threadbare kilt, Madonna had crossed the thin line from sardonic to cynic. She no longer served the beat, or anything. Gone was the tease, the thinking out loud about sex, race, money and all the taboos therein: In Madonna's waterlogged new world, there was no difference between provocative and pedestrian. Everything was dully noted. Her hair was severely straight and she glowered. She mock-kicked a lot of her entourage around, at one point enacting a homicide in which she broke a guy's neck in the final bar of a song. She turned her back at another point to reveal a message to her minions written across her shirt in black ink: "Fuck Off." I went from being let down to being bewildered to being pissed off. The magic Madonna had carried all these years was tossed aside like an outgrown toy, and along with it went the trust this white girl riding black music had won from me when I believed I recognized a greater purpose on her part than mere theft or mimicry.

Not that I figured she'd be the same; before the lights went down, I gave her plenty of leeway. I knew we were all a generation older now, that 44 just doesn't play like 25, and that the drive for self-discovery and reinvention has its limits. I simply figured that didn't, couldn't, ever apply to the dance; to me it had always lived alone. I know the beat's no longer the thing, or at least it's a more vicious and circumscribed thing than it was in the '80s and hardly the pop-cult purveyor of freedom and expansiveness I had once made it. But Madonna had made it that for me, really, and now she was telling me that dance-floor freedom was passé, or used up, or invalid. I didn't buy it. I had believed in her for so long, right up through the giddy electronica funk of the Ray of Light and Music albums last year. But the real proof was in the flesh, and the flesh was failing, miserably. I switched channels after deciding that I would take art over life. Which, of course, was likely Madonna's point all along.

Janet Jackson restored my faith. Mostly. I was more perturbed by the nose job than I used to be (my politics, aesthetic and otherwise, had hardened in the intervening years), but I reasoned that she was still a long way from Michael. What mattered is that, once Janet's concert film started, I got up and moved nearly right away, and never sat down. Janet connected me to a time when the black pop producers du jour were not Master P or Dr. Dre, but Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, guys who were still R&B-centric and took a dance groove dead seriously so that we may all have waved our hands in the air, like we just didn't care. They were about performance, as is Janet, still; she gives good show. With that old-fashioned Broadway ethic, she hit all her marks and looked fabulous in her many costumes. She smiled. She cried out from the stage, "Sing this with me!" or "How you all doing?" at frequent intervals.

Janet is 35 or so but still has undeniable naiveté, a professional (if not actual) belief in the power and duty of dance to lift us all above a drowned world. This was clear despite lots of attitude and scanty clothes. The now-trademark undulating belly and bust-out cleavage is not nearly as much about sex (it never was) as it is about giving a thousand percent, every Broadway performer's maxim. Even when Janet did the queen-bitch thing in a number assisted by the decidedly hip-hop Missy Elliott, in which she, too, glowered -- and grabbed her crotch and gave all the dancer boys withering looks -- we all knew better: The real Janet is the spun-sugar voice and ear-splitting grin, the earnest approach to ballads like "Again" where she took to a stool and a darkened stage à la Barbra Streisand. Janet still lives for audience connection, still submits herself for our approval. She is not the greatest of talents but still posits the possibilities of dance. That makes her a messenger among her younger peers -- performers who can certainly sing, and certainly dance, yet who have nothing to ask us. There's plenty of show and tell these days, but little in the way of wonder.

Beyoncé Knowles, while fun to watch, knows too much already. Alicia Keys and Erykah Badu are more probing but hardly qualify as divas of dance. There are few such creatures anymore besides the expertly packaged Britney Spears, and I don't count her because the only things she ever asked anyone is whether they'd like a Pepsi. For all her ubiquity, Britney is the hapless victim of her times Madonna never wanted to be and actively measured herself against, and Janet avoided simply by being at the forefront of '80s synth-funk. It goes without saying that without Janet and Madonna, there'd be no Britney, or Christina Aguilera, or any number of aspirants to the dance throne who, interestingly enough, are not black anymore but black-inflected for days. The actual black female singers at this point all seem preoccupied with being odd hybrids like Ashanti, who wavers between vulnerable and vapid and seems a bit lost without the presence of one tough rapper or another. Not exactly the stuff of liberation dreams.

But anyway: There was, and is, Janet. I was concerned for a while, after the Velvet Rope period especially, that she might be going introspective for good, that she would consciously grow up and follow Madonna, if not into that diva emerita's dark netherworld, then into a place not at all conducive to dancing. After that Friday I am certain that Janet Jackson is still among the living, and hoping. Any doubt of this was put to rest as I watched her go through a backstage costume change at the hands of prop people who stripped her down to her skivvies as the music vamped madly outside and the crowd roared in anticipation. I saw the black bra, the enviably flat stomach, the legs -- the legs. It struck me that in all the years of Janet, in all the getups and paeans to nasty boys, she had never shown them. She was stooping now for cover, uncomfortably aware of the camera ogling overhead. A strange but touching bit of modesty in the midst of all the baring that's become mostly boring, in the base but still-beating heart of a naked age ...

The concert ended. I stopped dancing, out of breath. Then I hurried upstairs to write.

BRAND NEW STORIES

Don't Sit on the Sidelines of History. Join Alternet All Access and Go Ad-Free. Support Honest Journalism.