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.

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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.

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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.

Breakfast of Champion

I've been feeling very short of heroes lately. Heroes, I've discovered in the infancy of my middle age, are not only for kids or the socially disadvantaged or the hopelessly naive; they're for everybody, particularly everybody who peddles hope for a living -- activists, artists, alternative-weekly columnists -- in one way or another. Just because I grew up and stopped tacking posters of my favorite people on the bedroom walls doesn't mean I don't need to elevate an image anymore.

Of course I've always had my father to look to, but family is a very niche kind of heroism, and since my father suffered through the slow entropy of the civil rights movement and is a longtime alternative-weekly columnist himself, well, he's got troubles of his own. No: After passing 40 this year I needed someone big, public, hagiographic, a bright but sufficiently distant light of reason and rock-star certitude who would reinforce what I can now safely call a world-view and a set of beliefs. Someone to affirm the things I had already come to admire -- not as exciting as an object of teenage adulation, but still the oxygen I needed to fuel the imagination I had left.

I got some air last week. My father did too. We were both media panelists at a breakfast forum (it was bound to happen) that's held monthly, an itinerant event that gathers together various black people in town and presents speakers who tell us why we should and must keep hope alive. I generally attend, for the prospect of hope as well as the far more assured prospect of free scrambled eggs and chicken wings, which is frankly no small consideration at 7:30 in the morning.

The guest speaker this time was Barbara Lee, the Alameda County congresswoman who supplied the only vote against last September's House measure to authorize the use of military force in Afghanistan. Instantly lauded and instantly attacked, Lee became an overnight icon who was later not exactly forgotten, but set aside as time went on and the War on Terrorism graduated, for all of us, from a heated controversy into merely what is.

Barbara Lee offered something of what she is, a tiny bit of sobering truth that nonetheless cracked open a critical window of what might be. She is no rock star. She is trim, composed, friendly yet authoritative in a way that didn't jibe with my picture of her as a Berkeley ideologue or Black Panther flame keeper. She considerately let everybody down most of their eggs and chicken wings before mounting the podium and delivering a very clear explanation of why she'd done what she'd done. She also offered an examination of why George W. Bush's administration was doing what it was doing.

As Lee spoke, the heretofore unthinkable happened: People put down their forks. The room got utterly quiet. The more Lee talked about September 11, the more it fell away and the more we all could see, again, the absolute relevance of all those things we assumed had hardened into unusable history, at best permanently stashed in an abeyance file -- the woes of a black underclass, the need for adequate schools, health care and a million other concerns that underclass had always illuminated throughout history, though certainly didn't have a corner on these days.

Lee talked about America's malign neglect of these things as laying down "seeds of despair, roots of despair" that have bred a certain terrorism at home. The international scene doesn't supplant the national one or even the local one because, Lee believes, they are all touched to a degree by the same malign neglect and abuse -- and willful abdication -- of power. It happened to be April 29 the day Lee spoke, and in a nod to official riot-anniversary day, Lee talked about race relations and America's eternal color wars, concluding that "true peace is not the absence of tension, but the presence of justice."

She actually talked less philosophy -- she is principally against war, always has been -- than numbers and data that chiefly concerned the federal budget and its grossly disproportionate concern with military expenditures, and its tax breaks for the corporate and the superwealthy.

This was hardly new or shocking information, but that was precisely the problem, that none of this had sounded new or shocking in an inordinately long time -- eight months, to be exact. What was new was the messenger, and the heroism it takes now to align such Great Society-era concerns with the concerns of September 11. Lee didn't pit one atrocity against the other, or decide which one was more or less morally outrageous, and therefore more or less deserving of attention; she only pointed out several things at once, and how they might be connected.

"The budget," she declared at one point, "is a blueprint for this country's values. These are costs that grow out of fear and a misdefinition of security. It's also economic security."

She decried the USA-PATRIOT Act as the worst instincts of the times -- fear, miscarriage of ideals and of moneys -- writ large in legislation. "We must not be sold this impossible choice," said Lee, "between having liberty and having security."

Her voice was perfectly modulated, but Lee's words rang to me like those of Patrick Henry, or Frederick Douglass. I felt a shiver of patriotism for the first time since the 1984 Summer Olympics. Barbara Lee, in her pink suit and clip earrings, was blowing away the War on Terrorism fog that had settled around all of us for months and narrowed our visibility to almost zero. Things had gotten so murky lately, and the War on Terrorism so enveloping, that it felt possible to me that the war -- not institutionalized racism or a two-tiered economy -- might actually be responsible for poor people of color; the war might have shut down my neighborhood coffeehouse and screwed up my last 401(k) quarterly reports.

I felt a collective relief in the room as we all returned to something, a worn groove of well, yeah. It didn't make us happy but made us weirdly whole. I wasn't crazy, or off the beat; it was the American polity that had obviously lost its mind. I glanced over at my father, who was busy scribbling notes at the end of our table, something I'd never seen him do. He was feeling some reinforcement, too, maybe recording it. Lee was sweeping a light of truth around the room, but also from afar, assuring us that we were overmatched and had been for eons -- but, in a phrase, so what? There were eons left.

I was charged, and because of that I had another question, something badly in need of an answer right now. With heroes fully in mind I stood up and asked Lee how it was that she had been the only black congressperson to say no to war. I understood that many members of Congress of all ethnic persuasions had very likely not voted with their consciences, that the enormous emotion that built after the attacks quickly crested in a mob-mentality cry for retaliation that overtook more normally prudent souls.

Still, I said, given everything black people stood to lose, have always stood to lose in the big picture, given everything you've just described, what of the others? What of Maxine Waters, of John Lewis, an avowed freedom fighter and my last candidate for hero, one I retrieved from history after stumbling onto his recently published autobiography? Lee paused -- her only pause of the morning. She said that she couldn't judge her colleagues on the basis of a single vote. Many had voted the right way on other matters, and it was wrong to discount that. John Lewis had thought very long and hard about his vote, she said, and was 99 percent certain he would vote against the war.

"But there was 1 percent of him that was afraid of being viewed as soft on terrorism," she said, almost sympathetically. "And that determined his vote."

Lee meant this as a defense, and in one way, it was. John Lewis' uncertainty was humanizing -- heroic, even, by the standards of literature and 20th-century circumstance. But in real life it was disappointing: I could tack him to my bedroom walls, but only so high. My father asked a question about models of black leadership and how that might change. Lee replied that the goods were all there but they were piecemeal, that all the satellite black leadership had to come together and form a common agenda.

Then it was all over and everybody was on their feet clapping and Lee was being spirited away to another stop on her L.A. tour. People stayed on their feet to mingle and talk about what they'd just heard, or felt. My father told me he wasn't entirely satisfied with Lee's answer to his question -- "too pat, too pat!" he muttered -- but he described his dissatisfaction with a vigor that bespoke a broader satisfaction with something else. Barbara Lee told us in her talk that we were in a defining moment. Many of us believed her. If only for a morning, that made heroes of us all.

Erin Aubry Kaplan is a staff writer at L.A. Weekly, where this story originally appeared.

The Wonderful World of Lifetime

Until a laudatory article in the Los Angeles Times turned me on to Lifetime's "Any Day Now" three years ago, I hadn't watched a television program with any degree of loyalty since The Wonderful World of Disney, when I was about 9. The back-to-school doldrums of Sunday night were made bearable by the serial adventures of dogs and horses and prairie kids, by the drawling but impassioned narrations, and the improbable blessings that Tinker Bell bestowed on the proceedings every week with her wand and its streaks of fairy dust.

I sat in front of the set with my bowl of ice cream or cinnamon graham crackers (both, if I was lucky) and happily suspended disbelief for an hour, transporting myself not just to the homestead on the screen but to much more rarefied and fantastic places in my head -- a household where I was an only child with my own room, for instance. Back when I was young, and the age of irony and cable programming was miles into the future, television was a far more logical conduit for imagination and wishful thinking than it is now, and though no substitute for books, it was a reasonable proxy. In my mind, The Wonderful World of Disney, with a few exceptions involving Daniel Boone and some other boring boy-driven stuff, was exactly that -- wonderful.

Twenty-five years out of elementary school, blessed with a job that virtually never required me to punch a clock, I liked that Any Day aired Sunday nights. Psychologically, I was still living the workweek of a fourth-grader -- joyous on Fridays after the bell rang, blissful on Saturday, despondent on Sunday as night came on and the tedium of Monday loomed. I needed one last fix of magic and indolence, and though glowing reviews of Any Day Now described it as more earthbound than I would have liked -- it focused a lot on race and social issues, things I considered important but not compatible with ice cream and cookies -- I decided to give it a shot.

I loved it almost immediately. I took to the exploits of Annie Potts and Lorraine Toussaint, the two actresses playing best friends M.E. and Rene across the color line in the Deep South, the way I'd taken to the prairie kids. While I appreciated the show's nerve and social commentary, I loved the more quotidian plot points -- Rene's modulating hairdo and model house, M.E.'s weight gain. Here was an expression of my updated fantasy of race and life mingling unremarkably, all the time; here I could care about love interests and new outfits and Rene's death-row clients with equal fervor. That black Rene was the successful lawyer and white M.E. the bored housewife felt like less of a political statement and more a mere fact of friendship.

But I watched Any Day Now not for its progressiveness but for its reassurance of the familiar and its resonance with my own workaday fears and irresolutions. When the show first aired, I was a single woman who admired Rene for being the same, for being happy and productive and a sharp dresser to boot. In Rene, I discovered a woman who could recite every provision of the Civil Rights Act, sew up a discrimination suit with a stirring closing argument and then hit the road in her top-down Mercedes for a shopping and spa weekend with M.E.; a black superwoman who had casually broken clean from the superwoman mold of old: set face, iron will, minimal sense of humor bred by hard circumstances. Week after week, Rene proved to be enviably rounded, not a perfect character but a perfect confluence of all the disparate psychic pieces of black history and scattershot ambitions of the present. She had grown up middle-class and educated but segregated in Birmingham, the ground-zero city of the Movement. She carried her race-consciousness and activist zeal intact into adulthood, but on the show she's young enough to have lived the second incarnation of the Me decade of the '80s and early '90s. Her hair is never out of place and her crusader cape never far out of reach.

Yet even when she dons the cape she remains largely a heroine by happenstance, prompted into action by the repeated importunities of a homeless woman, or a man with dreadlocks who vociferously complains of being harassed at work because of his hairstyle. Rene knows the blatancy of old injustices and understands the subtleties of the new; her clientele are not merely black but white, Latino, poor, disabled. She can maintain the myriad perspectives demanded by a new age yet never lose herself or the edges of her own racial identity -- a feat worthy of Tinker Bell. Best of all, she gets to bitch about everything to her friend M.E., with whom she forged an improbable, nearly illegal friendship in the fires of racial strife in the South. In one episode Rene, in the midst of campaigning to be Birmingham's district attorney, finds herself having to solicit support from a group of influential black women, all of them also exclusively light-skinned; Rene, who is unavoidably brown-skinned, gripes about enduring intraracial hierarchies and the phenomenon of being "colorstruck." To which M.E. shrugs and says, "I thought you were all just black."

Yes, and no. From my thoroughly reclined position on the sofa, I wanted to tell M.E., as a once-removed Louisiana daughter and veteran of the color wars myself, that subjugation by skin shade both within and without black circles is as timelessly American as French fries. That was the food for thought that week, but the real delectable stuff involves Rene dragging M.E. along to a round of golf at a country club with the Creole-minded ladies, all of whom seem exaggeratedly refined and sport uniform manes of straight, swingy hair; observing the most offending of these creatures at one point over her dark glasses, Rene mutters with clear disgust, "Somebody get that woman a barrette." She gets a sharp elbow in the ribs from M.E. -- this is the South, and one must have manners -- but it's that sort of humor and frayed ends that keeps me tuning in.

The frayed ends generally get tied up after an hour, sometimes too neatly, but that appeals to the dreamer and the Disney lover in me. Three years ago, it also appealed to the part that increasingly needed fortification for the week as I waged my own very modest battles with liberty and justice for all, to say nothing of a battle with depression that I seemed to be losing, and that needed direct and regular injections of fantasy and self-created faith to be kept at bay. I took those things where I could find them, and one place I found them was Any Day Now, with its supremely faithful title and its fantastic character of Rene, who among other things was 40ish, generally content, single, stylish, principled but frivolous, well-off, nurturing by nature but singularly uninterested in being a mother. She was me, but better, the best I might become, an electronically projected and perfectly scripted me affirming the spectating, sofa-bound flesh-and-blood me with an utter lack of judgment or contradiction. Sunday nights were a wonderful world again, and if I missed an episode I pouted but vowed not to miss the next, and when I was at my most dissolute (which seemed to be weekends, with its down time that I took literally) I at least had my TV schedule of things, a purpose, on which to hang a hope that I, too, would get my life together someday, any day.

By some miracle, I did. Over the course of four seasons the depression reached a crisis point, I sought help, dumped an unworkable relationship, met somebody new and got married. The courtship included my fiancé, and later husband, joining me on the sofa for Any Day Now; like me, he hadn't felt committed to episodic television since the days of Bonanza. He liked the hard issues the show raised in a predictably male way, and grumbled sometimes about what he saw as excess sentiment. But he nonetheless had his sentimental favorites.

We discussed Rene and M.E. and her husband, Colliar, and their kids like they were real people with real futures. And then suddenly Any Day Now announced late last year that it would be ending. The last episode aired earlier this month, a towering two-hour final act in which Rene and M.E.'s mothers mended racial fences, M.E.'s daughter Kelly announced she was staying with her man, and M.E. herself solidified the writing career of her dreams. Oh, and Rene got married. It wasn't exactly what I wanted for her; the guy was a judge, principled but awfully conservative, worthy on paper but a real stick-in-the-mud compared to the man Rene used to date and briefly married, the athletic good-time charlie who came back to town in an episode some years ago and tried to tempt fate twice.

I was glad she resisted and held her independent ground. But that she gave up that ground this year is actually okay with me, because it didn't mean giving up her independence. Last weekend my husband looked up from the kitchen table and announced sympathetically, and more than a little wistfully, "No more Any Day Now!" True. Now there's just the endless loop of reruns. Though from here on in I trust that Sundays, in the most heightened sense possible, will always be the same.

The Feminine Mistake

Several years ago a woman I met at a writers' soirée tried to calf-rope me into saying I was a feminist. She argued that as long as I didn't disagree with some basic feminist precepts -- independence, gender equality, equal pay -- I was a feminist by deductive reasoning. She made it sound like the whole thing was a matter of being on a certain street whose name changed in the middle of town but whose course and scenery essentially didn't.

I argued back that while I may be feminist I was not a feminist, in the same way that I admire certain trappings of the Catholic Church, but that doesn't make me a Catholic. To me feminism was a culture and belief system that regarded liberation as breaking free of housewifery and sexual servitude -- a worthy idea, yet one that felt limited to affluent, bored-housewife types like Betty Friedan who had reached the presumed pinnacle of female existence in the late 1950s and early '60s and found no there there.

It was a journey many black women of the period had never taken, in part because they didn't have the means, but more because they were not regarded as archetypal American women whose observations and grievances might be specific to a generation, to say nothing of a gender. Whatever blues they had were confined to music and various tributaries of popular culture -- affecting as the music might have been, entertaining as it certainly was, it just wasn't real.

Just as well. Black women had much to break free of in the '50s (and the '40s, '30s and well before, and after), but housewifery was not at the top of their list. They were still working on making families solvent, a hell of a thing to do when blacks were systematically locked out of trade unions and every other kind of economic largesse upon which the American dream and its related suburban fantasies had been built, until that dream became institutionalized enough to prompt a critical re-examination by Friedan and her fledgling feminist ilk. Black women, still in the thick of their own ancient struggle with race, could offer agreement at best and honest indifference at worst -- what had white women and their problems to do with us? White women weren't exactly clamoring to include black women before me in the first new freedom movement; that the woman at the party was clamoring to include me some 30 years later moved me not at all. I was busy.

But lately I've been wondering if feminism has finally caught up with me, or I with it. I recently surprised myself by reacting with equal parts visceral and intellectual disgust to a newpaper photo of a young woman in a bikini, mouth agape, tongue poised and ample tanned cleavage riding strategically below the banner headline Girls Gone Wild! Maybe it's the new global order breaking down old distances, but I began to wonder in earnest, as Friedan had, what being a woman means these days.

In the age of post-post-feminism, we appear to be completing a circle that started out with the simple enough idea of rejecting the notion of women as objects and is now embracing that same objectification so long as women are in control of it -- following the old social-psychology reasoning that says a stereotype is best exploded if victims of the stereotype can claim it for themselves (see tortured musings on the use of the word nigger among black people for background).

The trouble is, for all that a woman may believe she's liberating herself by dressing skimpily and going wild in public, the public believes no such thing. A "liberated" woman still reads as a slut, whether she's slutty or not; unless the woman is Madonna, whose calculated hedonism has always been more about aggression than acquiescence, the overwhelming point is still her nakedness, not the purpose or symbolic meaning of it. (I made an issue of this in a story I wrote some years back called "The Butt," in which I proposed a black woman could never be skimpily dressed without being considered a 'ho -- we suffer more intensely from objectification than our white counterparts because of the extra, damning dimensions of race.)

Yet many women insist that this sort of turnabout is the ultimate progress, that the old rules are not being re-embraced but, to the contrary, are getting stood on their heads. Displaying décolletage is no longer playing to male whims but expressing empowerment, self-fulfillment and daring fashion sense; hunting for a man is not a desperate act but taking charge; being a housewife and mother is no longer confinement but the ultimate valid, and validating, choice. Sisters are doing it for themselves, and everything they do short of prostitution has great potential for affirmation. This all feels to me less like a second revolution than a shift in perspective -- the landscape's the same, we've only decided to view it differently.

I have to say that as a career African-American (and a pretty astute motorist), I've gotten expert at seeing through the rhetoric and high-sounding language to a rocky bottom that, alas, changes little over time. Though I wouldn't equate the black freedom movement to the feminist movement -- women as an oppressed group have actually made more gains than blacks in a shorter amount of time -- I would say that feminists, like lots of other groups on the left these days, are in the middle of a grave identity crisis.

Pubescent girls want to be most like Britney Spears, she of the trademark cleavage and definitive new album that features a cut called "I'm a Slave 4-U" -- what else? -- now on a music-video channel near you. Martha Stewart's a millionaire, but she made her millions doing the very happy-homemaker thing that Betty White savaged so neatly on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, that beacon of feminist pop culture, not 30 years ago. MTM's contemporary corollary, the Lifetime channel, has round-the-clock "television for women," but many of its original movies are melodramas focused on obsessive relationships with men, kidnapped babies, the secret lives of madams -- about as original as the soap bubbles women used to generate watching this kind of stuff back in the days of Friedan. Even the one Lifetime show I watch regularly, Any Day Now, seems to be losing the political and racial edge that made it stand out to softer and more romantic story lines. While I'm glad the black character, played by Lorraine Toussaint, is being given a life beyond her activist-lawyer status -- now that's progress -- I don't see why she can't date and slay the demons of race in court at the same time. Aren't we entitled at this point to have it all, too?

All right, so I'm a feminist. For the moment. Maybe my real beef is with the whole American youth culture that has reached the limits of its illogic and officially frozen female maturity at 25 and our dress size at 4: There are no more viable women anymore, only viable girls. But it's hard to raise a protest when we've all acclimated so well to this. Oprah, the high priestess of self-acceptance and one of the richest and most influential people in the country, shed 20 pounds on the orders of Vogue magazine so she could appear on its cover a few years ago.

Neither am I above my own complaints; many's the morning I've frittered away in pursuit of something in my closet that didn't make me look fat, or flat-chested, or unfashionable, or -- God forbid -- old. It's sobering to think that I sometimes couldn't seem to make it to the office at all, where I am paid to sit and employ all the intellect I can muster on a daily basis, until I was dressed right. Harriet Tubman, not to mention Betty Friedan, would have my head.

Worse, if I'm lucky enough to make it out the door in an ensemble I like, I worry immediately what the world will think of it, especially the male world, whose reaction is still my barometer for determining if what I have on is too sexy, and therefore inappropriate, for polite society. I can close my ears, but more often I've headed back home in the middle of the day, chastised by the same snug jeans or sheer blouse that felt so triumphant in the solitude of my bedroom.

If getting hooted at on the street is supposed to be taken as less of an insult and more of a compliment to our post-post-feminist confidence, I'm woefully out of step with the times. Which is as it should be -- black people by historical definition have always been on a different social trajectory than everybody else. But, speaking merely as a woman, I wish I weren't: I don't really mind confessing in the end to a bit of envy of the Girl Gone Wild, who glories in her exposure and just doesn't give a damn if the world rushes in -- feminists, oglers, racial fetishists and whoever else. I should be so liberated.

Erin Aubry Kaplan writes for the LA Weekly, where this article first appeared.

White Man With Attitude

On the morning of Sept. 11, I leave a message on the answering machine of Randy Newman's manager. "Is that second interview we scheduled still on?" Nobody calls back. A thin veil of clouds yawns open to lovely weather, a sparkling blue-and-white mirror image of New York City, minus the smolder of dead planes and wounded buildings that plays in two- or three-minute intervals on CNN. My younger sister, the lawyer, shows up at the door; she can't go to work because she works downtown and the courts and everything else are closed, and she's already packed her infant son off to daycare. Her nerves are too jangled to sit at home and do nothing. I fix her some grits for breakfast, and together we watch more CNN.

Hearing nothing from the Newman camp, I resolve to keep the appointment for professionalism's sake. My sister in the front seat, I drive to Newman's home in the Palisades on highways and roads made clear and more hospitable by disaster, fear and orders to stay home. Overhead the sky is brilliant and boundlessly, stupidly optimistic. It strikes me that the morning so far, with its easy juxtapositions of tragedy and homily, of everything going to hell on television and everything coming up roses where I live, would be perfect fodder for a Newman song.

Look at those mountains, Look at those trees, Look at that bum over there, Man, he's down on his knees . . .

Newman shouts "Hello!" in a startled voice from upstairs before appearing in the foyer in rumpled shirt and shorts. His television in the spacious dining room is tuned to CNN. He looks bewildered, partly by the unfolding news of the world and partly because I've showed up. He doesn't seem to know if I'm supposed to be here any more than I do -- his manager is apparently too upset to return calls. "Okay. Where should we talk?" he mutters, rubbing his head of graying curls and glancing about his palatial house like he's never seen it before, as if it doesn't quite agree with him. We settle on his studio in the back yard. He takes his seat behind his desk, next to the Steinway grand that's always within reach during conversation.

"I figured this would happen in my lifetime," he says, fingering the keyboard idly, talking and playing nearly to himself. "I just didn't know when. Myself, I'm fine." We discuss what we know at this point about the attack's cause, the logistics, the body count, the futility and the inevitability of U.S. military strikes, of war. But what unsettles him most are things much smaller. "You know, you see it and it's almost too big to look at," he says of the hijackings. "Then somebody told me that a guy in the plane that crashed near Pittsburgh went to the bathroom and called 911 and said the plane was being hijacked." He shakes his head. "When you hear an individual story -- a guy in the men's room, and then the plane crashed -- it makes it rougher somehow. You hear there's a guy, and it becomes real to you. That he had the bravery to say that. It makes it worse."

For nearly 35 years, Randy Newman has been making records, and 2001 is like any other year. He has no comeback album or down-and-out-in-the-industry stories, thanks to a second career as a successful film composer, and thanks to a pop career that, admired as it was, never really ascended in the first place -- to be down and out you must at some point have been high and in, and he never was, quite. So the only reason to write about Randy Newman is that he's still Randy Newman, unrealized pop star (the film scoring he calls well-paying grunt work, something to essentially support his studio habit). At 57 he is perhaps more amiable than in the past, but no less a malcontent. Artistically, he's as much an enigma as he was when he officially arrived on the music scene in the early '70s with albums like Good Old Boys and Sail Away. At a time when pop music was splitting its sensibilities in two, echoing the raw anger of the '60s or offering soothing philosophical counterpoints to it -- the Eagles, Carole King, James Taylor -- Newman was doing neither. He was following some weird interior compass that often led him back, back to slave times or Reconstruction or an obscure historical event, or to various observations tied to no history at all, all of which violated pop music's ironclad rule about being in the moment.

He violated other rules, too, never directly addressing love and heartache and broken dreams; though he had plenty of discontent, Newman was not a rebel -- he was too glum and unsexy for that. He was a kind of accidental analyst and humorist who happened to be under 30. He was famous, he knew rhythm, even lived it, but he was never what you'd call hot. Even all the attention generated by the only two Top 40 singles of his career, "Short People" and "I Love L.A.," focused more on the songs themselves and their questionable sentiments than on the man who thought them up.

It's hard to tell if Newman's okay with this -- the first time we talked, I detected in him, at points, a lingering hope that one day he'll be a superstar. But he understands it. "I feel like an outsider. I always have," he told me. "I feel like an outsider in this country. Being Jewish is part of it. Philip Roth had this in a book: The next great Jewish genius after Moses was Irving Berlin. He took all the Christ and blood out of Easter and made it about fashion. He made Christmas about the weather." He laughs, relishing the idea that Irving Berlin pulled a fast one on fundamentalist America. "He wrote about Alabama, and he was never there! Sometimes people on the outside who want in so bad look at it differently, look at it harder. I'm very interested in the country, though I don't necessarily feel a part of it."

But Newman's music took alienation to new human depths; the personas in songs like "Half a Man" and "It's Money That I Love" may not have been his, but the feelings were. He wound up striving for a kind of emotional equity that pop music, skewed as it has always been toward love and triumph, never cultivated; in Newman's songs distance and disaffection and ignorance get equal time as significant, even sympathetic, characters in the theater of daily life. Newman credits part of his circumspection to growing up Jewish but atheistic, and another part to his father, Irving, a fiercely intellectual doctor who was attentive and conscientious with patients but spared them no painful truths. "I get my sense of humor from him," says Newman, somewhat reluctantly. "I don't have his consistently bad temper, not to the point of being unreasonable. He treated a lot of famous people. One of them was Oral Roberts, whom he liked very much, though my father actively grumbled about religion. He made fun of it. Once Oral called him in the middle of the night and said he had terrible hemorrhoids. My dad told him, 'Why are you calling me in the middle of the night? Why don't you stick your other finger up your ass and heal yourself?'" He howls at the memory.

Dr. Newman was something of a departure from family tradition, which was -- surprise -- scoring films. Randy's uncle Alfred was pretty much the gold standard for movie music during Hollywood's heyday; he composed for such classics as All About Eve, Wuthering Heights, The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley -- even the trumpet-driven fanfare that accompanies every screen appearance of the 20th Century Fox logo and has become the shorthand theme song of Hollywood itself. Alfred racked up a total of 45 Academy Award nominations and won nine of them. Another one of Randy's uncles, Lionel, was senior vice president of music at Fox for 45 years, in addition to conducting for and scoring films; his 1969 effort, Hello, Dolly!, nabbed an Oscar. Yet another uncle, Emile, heads music at Samuel Goldwyn, and still another, Robert, is a studio executive. A cousin, Thomas Newman, is the Grammy-winning composer who scored American Beauty, among many other films.

The point is that Randy Newman is downright royalty in two of the most influential industries in town, if not the country, and he still manages to be a schlub. Even though he's evolved into a respected film composer in his own right, notably for Disney/Pixar and films like Toy Story and the recent Pixar release Monsters Inc., he complains about the machinations of the business and worries that he might be film-composing himself right out of whatever sociopolitical relevance pop music still affords. "Film people give me adjectives, and I write something," he says, a little wistfully. "I can't write shit-piss-fuck-fart-damn for Disney." And what he does write, he believes, often never breaks an audience's consciousness -- not even the most evocative and influential of his scores, like Avalon, The Natural and his first major assignment, Milos Forman's Ragtime, a film that was tailor-made for Newman's fascination with the dark energy of Americana.

"That big pile of movie music," he says, gesturing to carelessly stacked sheafs on top of the Steinway, "like some of it you don't even hear if the air conditioning is on in the movie theater. The time you have to spend doing movie music is not commensurate with the impact that it makes. Sometimes I think, 'Why am I worried so much about whether this is a B-flat or an F?' But I can't help it. I can't help but take it personally when directors say, 'Could you do this or that on the ending?' It hurts my feelings and makes me angry a bit."

Still, the musical purist -- and perhaps the fatalist -- in him enjoys the challenge of scoring, with its compressed work schedule and solitary studio confinement that can go on for weeks. "I'm really hard on it," he says of his film music. "I mean, I've written in 4/4 my whole life" -- he bangs out a sample bar -- "but in a movie you can't do that. It's open, but you gotta hit things in a picture, in animated pictures especially." To demonstrate, he plays fitfully, impressionistically, following some imagined action. "What you do is subordinate -- it's meant to help the picture. I'll have something I like, but I'll have to truncate it because the picture dictates it."

How does he feel about that mode of working? He sighs and crosses his arms. "There's a song I remember by James Taylor, called 'Bartender's Blues,'" he says, and begins singing in that familiar mocking/mournful voice: "'I need four walls around me to hold me tight, to keep me from drifting away . . .' And I do. I need that discipline from without, and that's the strictest kind, having to write for a picture on deadline." He shrugs. "But I'd write if I didn't have it."

Newman has been nominated for an Oscar 14 times, meaning he's consistently recognized by the industry for his efforts, but he has yet to win. I suggest the possibility of a Newman backlash, a reluctance to anoint another member of his family, even as the family must be acknowledged. Newman has another idea. "I thought at first there might be a possible bias because I came from pop music," he says. "But I've done enough scoring now where that would have no effect. There's always a reason a score wins -- it's a movie they love, or one that wasn't very popular but was a serious effort, like Il Postino. I mean, I do comedies. Of the 14 films I've been nominated for, I'd say I had a real chance of winning maybe only three times."

That doesn't seem to bother Newman at all. Unlike his failure to become a true pop star, not winning an Oscar seems to bolster the peculiar confidence he's always drawn from being an outsider: He might forever yearn for acceptance, but much of his identity rides on not getting it. "The people who really know a lot about film music don't run the Academy," he explains. "There are only a couple of hundred people in the world who really know a good score from a bad one. It's too arcane. It's like cinematography -- I get to vote for that, and costume design. That's ridiculous, I mean, look at me. What do I really know about costume design?" He chuckles. A long blue thread that's been hanging unnoticed from his sleeve the entire conversation quivers in assent.

Newman is not nearly as ambivalent about his pop canon as he is about his film one. Musically speaking, he's proudest of his studio albums, and his only regret is that he hasn't made more of them (he's released 11 over his career, versus 13 film scores in the last 20 years). Yet when asked about the larger meaning of music to him, or to anybody else, he admits an utter lack of faith. "I don't believe music can change anything," he says decisively. "Except fashion. And maybe the way people speak. What Madonna's wearing is a hell of a lot more interesting than anything she says." He doesn't have much good to say about current Top 40. "All harmonic interest has gone out of pop," he declares, "though I don't listen to much of anyone for edification." With typical equanimity he doesn't believe it's all a wasteland, either. He likes early Alanis Morrissette and Everclear and Lauryn Hill because, he says, they have something to say. He especially admires hip-hop wild boy Eminem, whom he calls a great comic artist with a gift for character, like himself. But overall, he doesn't think people are listening much to lyrics -- not that they ever really did. "Music's a strange medium for meaning," he muses. "Radio isn't it. There aren't a lot of people who'll listen without eating potato chips. And with my music, to like it, you have to listen to it. It's not something you put on as background music at a party." He grins. "You might if you were a snob of some kind."

This has always been true of Newman's music, which leads to a standard question of how it has aged. The answer isn't standard: It hasn't. Randy Newman is exploring the same big-picture themes not just of yesteryear, but of the ages -- the various meanings of companionship, abandonment, greed, human bondage, imperialism, patriotism. In cosmic time, barely a minute of Randy Newman has passed; we're still waiting for him to hit a stride or get to a point. This is distinctly different from the career trajectory of most graying rockers: Man plays guitar and rails at the world, gets famous, gets drunk/drugged out, gets older and/or has kids, gets reflective and/or more politically conservative, releases an album that is notably softer in tone than anything previous and is deemed "accessible" or "mature."

Randy Newman was always mature, or he was always a punk; in either case, he sings any song from Land of Dreams just as believably, or unbelievably, as he sang it 13 years ago. Despite a bout with drugs in the '70s, and a battle with Epstein-Barr syndrome in the '80s, he seems no worse -- well, no different -- for the wear. His wonder and disgust with the world are the same. He has been married twice and has five children, the last two under 10. Not surprisingly, he likes the idea of being the artist as an old man; a guy who never exactly had the world on a string. Age brings him a certain measure of relief. "I thought my last album was good," he says of Bad Love, an ostensibly intimate record that critics couldn't resist describing as Randy Newman finally letting his third-person guard down -- in other words, maturing. Newman actually agrees, to a point. "Bad Love was rock & roll, but it was talking about being older. It wasn't 18, or 21 or 27. It wasn't 35. That may be a bad thing. I don't know." He looks at me and gets inspired. "Writers are allowed to be 57 and do their best work. They're expected to get better or stay as good. I guarantee you that Philip Roth liked his last book. He's not going back to Portnoy's Complaint going, 'Ah, then I could write.' That's suicide. Music is different, I know. There's a lot of evidence that it's a young person's game. More people have gotten worse than have gotten better."

Newman likes to talk, but he likes to play more. His playing is directly him in a way that his lyrics, unvarnished as they are, are not. As he talks, he often turns to the piano to answer a question or give a fuller picture of himself. "Here, this is what I do," he says at one point, and with his left hand begins vamping a growly bass beat in straight time. He starts humming, and the right hand joins in with a syncopated melody, relaxed but urgent in a bluesy kind of way -- this is the hallmark of so many of his midtempo songs, from "Short People," "Roll With the Punches" and "It's Money That I Love" to "You Can Leave Your Hat On." The ballads -- if one can call them that -- like "Marie," "I Want You To Hurt Like I Do" and even "Sail Away" are old-fashioned in a different sort of way, lushly orchestrated or sparely orchestrated but precise as a bolero, as carefully designed as the faster material seems offhanded. This is all illusion, of course; Newman casts everything to very specific effect. But he's also open to change and different interpretations, which may be why many other artists, from Harry Nilsson to Aaron Neville, have covered Newman songs. Tom Jones' version of "You Can Leave Your Hat On," for the movie The Full Monty, became a latter-day anthem of sexual liberation, which Newman wholly appreciates but finds amusing.

"I didn't take the guy seriously," he says, referring to the song's protagonist. "He's weak, he's asking the woman to stand on a chair . . ." Newman goes to the keyboard again and sings in a register low enough to be a mumble: "'Baby, take off your coat . . .' It's really nothing, sort of sleazy. But Joe Cocker did it like this --" He sings the same line again in a much higher key, and it bursts forth, a revelation. "You put it in a higher register, and it changes the whole song. I could have sung it like that, I can sing it up there." He considers his own mild professional envy. "But I don't have the instinct," he finishes. "I meant it to be . . . that. I picked the wrong key. It's not a sexy song."

Humane as his music is at its core, Newman himself has never been characterized as being even remotely warm and fuzzy. Profiles over the years are filled with adjectives such as acerbic, irreverent, intelligent, pointed, satirical, wry. Newman's closest friends admit he's something of a grouch, but with good reason: He grew up shy and insecure about his looks, especially about his crossed eyes that were never quite corrected after several surgeries and which required thick glasses all his life. The self-doubt and introversion proved good for his musical development, not so good for his public image. Not that Newman's admirers ever considered that a problem; Lenny Waronker, his closest friend since childhood and longtime producer, essentially coaxed the young Newman out of his shell into a vaunted career. That was public-relations coup enough. "What it really boils down to, I think, is that I had a much clearer picture of his potential than he did," Waronker said recently. "I think my enthusiasm eventually wore him down, though he fiercely resisted it. Let's face it, you can't shield yourself indefinitely from someone relentlessly reminding you of your greatness. You want to hear it." On a more personal level -- a phrase that would doubtless make Newman cringe -- Waronker said that his friendship with the singer "helped me to understand so much. I just think that being around [Randy] has made me smarter and better."

That's about as touchy-feely as people get about Newman. Even in Hollywood, a place famous for its gush, Pixar director and frequent co-worker John Lasseter said he chose Newman to score kid-oriented films because "That blend of twisted humor and emotion is really unique." And, he added significantly, "He never speaks down to an audience in either the songs or the score. It's always from an adult point of view." Clearly, Newman's music represents him better than he represents himself. That's his greatest wish, and his greatest fear.

I FIRST HEARD RANDY NEWMAN WHEN a lot of people first heard him, via his radio single "Short People" in 1977, when I was 15. I immediately liked the song for all sorts of reasons -- its sing-along-simple but affecting melody, its driving piano, its droll but entirely serious take on the menace of mindless prejudice (Newman says the song was also a conscious musical inversion, and arguably a spiritual perversion, of the Captain & Tennille's "Love Will Keep Us Together"). I also connected Newman immediately to ragtime doyen Scott Joplin, whose work I deeply admired and felt had been grossly misinterpreted by a public that wanted to consume it for its great Negro entertainment value, then discard its complexities and contradictions like bones. Newman was also misunderstood, but he was certainly more in control of his fate and his product than Joplin had been at the turn of last century. "Short People" was at once radical and old-fashioned, flinty social commentary propelled by the cheery bombast of musical theater and American traditions reaching all the way back to Joplin and Stephen Foster. (I remark to Newman that he could have been Joplin's librettist, given the music the tart words and tension it deserved, and he seems genuinely impressed by the thought.) Newman fit my adolescent sensibility of not fitting, but in a good, almost arrogant way -- his stuff wasn't quite rock, but it rocked. He knew it, too, even while he hid behind the adenoidal voice, unruly hair, thick glasses and general loser persona. In another time and place, Randy Newman would have migrated to my clique of oddball friends in high school, and we would all have silently appreciated his smarts and self-deprecation and inability to get dates. He would have been a hero.

Later, in the early '80s, a friend introduced me to the Randy Newman I had always sensed was there but had never met -- "Mr. Sheep," "Jolly Coppers on Parade," "Rednecks," "Sail Away," "Louisiana 1927," never-more-topical "Political Science." I was astonished to hear a white singer get away with repeatedly using the word nigger, which since the official death of minstrel shows has been guaranteed to trigger outrage in America of some sort, somewhere. It evidently didn't; I ask Newman why, adding, as a kind of disclaimer, that I love the song "Rednecks" and the whole Good Old Boys album. I was especially moved by "Louisiana 1927," a portrait of the devastation wrought by the infamous flood of that year, though I've always known full well that the narrator is a cracker and wouldn't hesitate to shoot me on sight if he thought I was trespassing on his sorry, waterlogged property.

Creating such odd, even alarming but resonant emotional tableaux is Newman's gift. "If I were Neil Young or Dylan or someone else, people might have noticed, but there was this enormous apathy," says Newman of the N word. "Mostly they didn't know. In [early-'70s] Boston they were in the middle of all that school busing, and they took it off the air. Actually, I feel nervous every time I say the word, every time I play the song, just like I do with 'Christmas in Capetown.' But it made a point that seemed more in question than it does now. The North doesn't have any more moral superiority in the way it treats blacks. Things weren't great anywhere . . . but this is the really segregated town, L.A. More segregated than Atlanta, or San Francisco."

Newman knows L.A. in a way celebrities who live here generally don't, and he appreciates it -- both the subtleties and the abominations -- in a way most us of here don't bother to. For Newman it's less a company town and more home, as well as a logical landscape for his creative and political idiosyncrasies: He talks fervently about the color-coded inequities of public schools ("It's really sad"), about the north Long Beach/Compton rivalry, about the shifting demographics in South Los Angeles ("Where did all the black people go?" he asks me at one point), about his affinity for the Harbor Freeway ("It's one of those obscure roads, but it goes a long way") and his dislike of Santa Monica Boulevard ("Ugly from start to finish"). Newman was born here but spent the first three years of his life in New Orleans, and vacationed there in the summer until the age of 11 or so. Clearly, the South made an indelible impression; in his critically lauded 1988 album Land of Dreams, also unofficially voted the Album Most Likely To Be Autobiographical, Newman details those impressions in songs like "Dixie Flyer" and "New Orleans Wins the War" ("Momma used to wheel me past an ice cream wagon/One side for white and one side for colored/I remember trash cans floating down Canal Street/It rained every day one summer").

In an interview last year, Newman said that, despite its obvious shortcomings, he liked the South, and Southerners, their traditions of civility, the South's -- particularly New Orleans' -- sense of being a world apart from modern America. "There's just a few things they're bad on, Jews and blacks and gun control," he said. "It's one of those ancient things, but they do go deeper with people than we do in the rest of the country. They always did. They just had it written down on walls: 'No Colored.' 'No Jews.' Boston didn't have it written down. L.A. didn't have to write it down."

Part of the reason I identify so strongly with Newman is that he apparently finds it difficult, or untrustworthy, to be himself in his art. For him it's personal; for me it's that plus something else. Black artists historically have been allowed public identities, never private ones, so that their music is read as a reflection of social or even emotional struggle. The reverse is true for white artists, particularly singer-songwriters: The world proceeds from them. But Newman has always found intimacy and soul-baring confining and against instinct, and so has embraced emotional obliqueness and a storyteller role -- the de facto black musical tradition -- by default. Despite the prevalence of the first person in his songs, he positions himself as the conscientious observer in somebody else's shoes. Newman does this with such sincerity and lack of judgment that his songs emerge as unique in the annals of American song: examinations of broad types -- bigots, boozers, imperialists -- narrowed into people, played by Randy Newman. Newman is none of these people, and all of them; he is the medium who channels them, gives them heart, or brains, or motive. None of this guarantees you'll like the characters any better, but Newman's job has always been to make things clearer, not more bearable.

"The third-person thing has always been my natural mode of expression, but it's never proved very popular," he muses. "I'm not the 'I' in my songs a lot of times, and if I were, I wouldn't be heroic. I think it's some kind of character flaw, not necessarily an admirable modesty at work. I think it's shyness, and it turned into a style." It's a style that allows him to speak passionately where his shyness would ordinarily prohibit it. "In my songs, characters and people always come first," he says. When they don't, they're not as good. "I don't want to preach, I want the person to make the best case he can make. Like in 'Rednecks,' the guy's making a case, a good case, and yet he's not -- " He stops abruptly short of judgment. "Would you want to be his neighbor?"

Over the years, people have been tempted to say that Newman champions the underdog or the anti-hero, but like many readings of his music, that's often way too simple (the enduring controversy over "Short People," one of his least thematically complicated songs, makes the point). Newman scoffs at the popular notion of heroes, but admires heroism. He isn't really a pop singer, but he has no quibble with popularity. He may live in his own head but enthuses over the lowest-common-denominator likes of Lionel Richie and ABBA. "I fucking love that stuff," he says heatedly. "Of course in ABBA you have the winner taking all, the loser standing small. You have some language difficulties there, but it doesn't matter at all. I don't look for irony." Pause. "Now, I wouldn't want to be listening to it dying in a plane crash."

What Newman actually likes most about pop music -- ABBA notwithstanding -- is its veneration of male cool, which officially started with Elvis and lives today in hip-hop. "That's certainly the hippest stuff going," he says of hip-hop, a bit admiringly. "It's all part of that. I remember coming out of Marlon Brando movies feeling like" -- he squares his shoulders, puts out his chest, grins ear to ear -- "You know what I mean? It's a big deal, that feeling. I don't know who's the Brando or the James Dean anymore, but that's the lure of the music. Feeling hip and tough.

"But you can't believe your own story," he adds. "That rock & roll life. You can't pretend you're tough." I ask Newman what he thinks of the whole rap genre, which may be the current incarnation of cool but has always suffered creatively from its own hollow posturings of thugs, gangsters and womanizers. That black artists are generally encouraged into such postures and self-referential stereotypes by the music industry exacerbates the problem. Newman agrees with that, but resists pessimism. "I assume some of these guys have some interesting stuff going on," he says a bit defensively. "Dr. Dre is making some very good tracks for Eminem. I mean, kids aren't looking to Neil Young anymore, or to me."

He brightens, like he's just had a better idea. "I'll tell you a story. I don't know if it's true. I don't stand by it -- I'll deny it. A singer has just been on this awards show, and his manager comes backstage, a Jewish guy. This white guy -- we'll call him Andy -- is back there doing coke and drinking. He's had substance-abuse trouble or something. The manager says, 'Andy, you've worked so hard, why are you doing this?' The guy says, 'Leave me alone, you little Jew bastard, I'm just enjoying myself after I've had this big triumph.' They wander into a room where a bunch of black guys are hanging around. The manager says, 'Come on, Andy, let's go, let's go home and start over again.' Then the guy starts yelling real loud, 'You Jew prick, you bastard!' And some of the black guys start saying, 'Yeah, yeah,' getting into it a little. And the manager says, 'Okay, Andy, I'm going.' There's a crowd of black guys gathered around. Then when the manager gets by the last guy, Andy turns to him and said, 'My-y-y niggas.'"

Newman cracks up. "I don't know, that's such a bad story. But it's a phenomenal one. They're like egging him on, Andy's high, feeling a part of it -- 'My niggas.'" He shakes his head in disbelief, or disapproval, or something else.

Randy Newman's wit is formidable and obvious, but after spending time with him, I find myself more impressed with his heart, which is also formidable, though not what he's known for. Newman likes to keep even his most loyal public off-balance, guessing at who he is or what he might mean. But he also frets about being misunderstood. He's come to expect indignation over "Short People" and "Rednecks," but what's thrown him more recently are fans agreeing with the rednecks, singing the refrain proudly ("We're rednecks, rednecks/We don't know our asses from a hole in the ground") at concerts, or taking the simple uplift of "Follow the Flag" solemnly, at face value. Yet Newman will never blame his audience, to whom he's always accorded more integrity and insight than the characters in his songs. "It's difficult," he says, reiterating "Follow the Flag" on the piano and listening closely. "It's not meant to be patriotic, but it's a close call. It's obvious to me, but . . . maybe I didn't do it well enough."

That kind of falling short seems to be the artist's greatest worry; his song "Maybe I'm Doing It Wrong" was also the name of a revue of his music done at the La Jolla Playhouse back in 1982. He regrets "The Blues," a song from his Trouble in Paradise album of the following year that mocks a boy who finds solace in playing music; here was the intruding "I" that Newman had dedicated his whole life to avoiding. That didn't mean he didn't participate in the goings-on; he wanted to, and did. He still does. He may never be in charge, but he never stands so far away from the essence of things that he can't feel them. Feeling, he believes, is everything.

I remark how I always thought his hit "I Love L.A.," despite its subversiveness and frank criticism of us, was also joyous and deeply felt. "Yeah, it's so chamber of commerce -- Imperial Highway! -- it's just funny," he exclaims. "There's some kind of ignorance L.A. has that I'm proud of. The open car and the redhead and the Beach Boys, the night just cooling off after a hot day, you got your arm around somebody." He crosses his arms again and smiles in wordless satisfaction, smiles from the momentary depths of a rock-star dream on a bright and terrible day. "That sounds really good to me. I can't think of anything a hell of a lot better than that."

Waiving the Flag

Words have felt useless to me for the last couple of weeks, which is not a good place for a writer to be.

Besides the fact that since September 11 a semi-permanent horror has drained me of a certain self-absorption required of the craft, there truly is little to write -- everything has been said more than once, every image analyzed down to the dots of its resolution, every public speculation and declaration explicated ad nauseam. At the same time, my speechlessness feels appropriate, because what's been talking the loudest has not been words, but symbols, chiefly the American flag.

Never have the stars and stripes been so garrulous, called upon to say so many things at once: that we love our country, that we're sorry so many of us died so violently and senselessly, that we stand united, that we're going to give those goddamn terrorists the slow death they deserve. I acknowledge all these sentiments, and empathize with a few, but I refuse to wave the flag. I never have. I haven't said the Pledge of Allegiance in years.

This doesn't mean that I'm not a patriot; I believe in the luminous possibility this country still rolls between its hands like dice, and I'm perfectly aware that because of that possibility I can bitch about it not being realized to my satisfaction. I don't invoke the flag because I'm still holding out for the ideals behind it; after more than 200 years, flag waving still feels premature.

But I grew up with plenty of public exegeses of America -- in my South Los Angeles neighborhood, in the post–Black Panther years, families always celebrated the Fourth of July with lots of fireworks, though relatively few flags. Making noise and shooting off sparks felt aggrieved and affirming and a lot more patriotic than standing, silent, with a hand over your heart.

I do know the need to wave -- if not a flag, then a pennant or a dirty sock or something -- because what you have to say is bigger than you, bigger than your biggest words. You need to surrender, rage at the gods, sway in rock-concert solidarity; the attack on America has occasioned the need for all that. Still, I was more than surprised when my husband came home last week and announced, with no evident irony, that he had bought an American flag and put it on his car. He sounded relieved, like this was something he'd always wanted to do but could never justify until now. My husband is a natural progressive, a history teacher who reads incessantly, asks the hard questions first, has no patience with platitudes or blanket statements or easy emotions. But here he was telling me that it felt good to drive around with a flag suctioned to his window. "Don't you feel a little bit patriotic?" he asked, somewhat hopefully.

I said that I felt no more and no less patriotic than I had before the attacks; he nodded at my response but was disappointed, I could tell. It was odd to feel a sudden divide where there had never been one, where I thought there never could be one. His being Jewish and my being black is challenge enough, though our political sentiments are pretty closely aligned, and that as much as anything had brought and kept us together, despite our having passionate differences at points. Now I felt that he was in thrall to a bit of religion I don't have, and it made me not angry or annoyed but puzzled, a little envious and at a loss.

As he walked away, I felt he was walking where I couldn't follow. I had a romantic pang of wanting to, even pretending to -- maybe if I approached it like behavioral therapy, if I waved the flag enough, gestured more and thought less, even for a moment, it might ... It was no use. This brief fantasy was as far as I got. I went back to CNN, which had been on in the living room practically uninterrupted for days, to parse more symbols in the television coverage.

I did agree to light a candle, at the request of my husband and George W. Bush. A candle actually felt bigger to me than a flag, more emotionally encompassing and less fraught with the perilous history of American patriotism (an impulse Samuel Johnson once denounced as "the last refuge of a scoundrel"). A candle was a tiny torch that could burn for anything you wanted it to, a more solemn and sophisticated version of the sock or the pennant.

We gathered at a corner in our neighborhood -- me, my husband and four neighbors, including two we'd never met -- raising our little flames and awkwardly trying to shield them from the whoosh of traffic that extinguished them every minute or so. Hot wax dripped leisurely down my fingers, horns honked in a clamor, and I swelled not with patriotism but with the high-voltage charge of getting people to look up from their steering wheels and wave, or stare, or appear startled, or nod soberly, or raise their fingers in a V. We were of a million different minds, and we were all in this confusion together. For me, for now, that was togetherness enough.

About a half hour into our vigil, my very inspired husband went to retrieve his flag from the car window, ran out into the middle of the street and started waving it frantically, determined that everybody should see; he looked less like a patriot than the guy at the finish line of a drag race. Those of us on the corner with our candle stubs laughed in spite of ourselves, in spite of everything, and went on giving each other staggered lights, until the flag grew invisible in the darkness, and there was nothing left to burn.

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