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But the Bengalis in the mixed-race community kept few written accounts of their lives. Bald’s evidence is their footprint in business—restaurants and shops—and their occupations listed in census tables, for example, as countermen, chauffeurs, porters, firemen and subway laborers.

My grandfather became a shopkeeper and lived the rest of his life in the black community of New Orleans. People from around the world melded easily into our location. In the 19th century, Tremé was home to one of the most powerful and liberal communities of free people of color in America, rooted not only in Africa but also Europe, the Caribbean and—I recently learned from a classmate—as far away as New Zealand.

My grandfather married a woman of French, Choctaw, African and possibly Mexican descent: a New Orleans Negro. They remained in Tremé until he died, just before the birth of their last child: my father.

But the neighborhood changed in that time. The year after my grandfather arrived, in 1897, New Orleans decided to locate its red light district, Storyville, on the edge of Tremé. As Bald explains, for the next 20 years, Storyville and, after it, the Iberville projects had the effect of decaying the area where many Bengali and black families had settled. And in the 1960s, the federal government erected an interstate highway down Claiborne Avenue, the heart of the black and Bengali business community, further eroding the ability to trace the settlers and their descendants.

Still, black Bengali descendants like my family in New Orleans clung to the oral histories of our immigrant ancestors who—whether by choice or common oppression—embraced the black community in eras of fierce white persecution. Our stories lacked, however, any details about Indian families abroad, the villages that peddlers left or the ways that they arrived in the United States. Bald reweaves this frayed context of lives and, on a larger scale, serves as testimony to the black community’s diversity.
Fatima Shaik, “Black And Bengali,” In These Times 3/2/13


Everyone asks me about my “long distance relationship.” You see, my husband (and my partner for 8 years) lives in Texas. I, however, live in New York. I used to live in Texas, but had to move for graduate studies. We are both immigrants and have applied for green cards (he was lucky enough to receive sponsorship from his employer). Because we are both immigrants, our visas dictate where we can stay, what we can do. Until further notice, he will continue to live in Texas and I will continue to live in New York.

Everyone asks me about my “long distance relationship.” How do I do it? Don’t I miss him? They don’t get it. They say they would never be able to do it and hint that they doubt the authenticity of our relationship.

But here’s the thing they don’t understand. We’re immigrants. We have “long-distance” relationships with everyone. Even our own selves.

My first “long-distance” relationship began a decade ago when I left India to come to the United States. I had lived in the same house as my parents for seventeen years and now all of a sudden, my relationship with my parents was “long-distance.” My relationship with my sister, all of my friends also became “long-distance.”

Of course, I made new friends in Texas. And then, like immigrants do, I moved. They moved. More long-distance relationships. It’s even hard to find love in these scenarios. What do you do if you move? If the other person moves? You can’t move. Your visa says you cannot move. You hope that your heart will fall for a citizen, but when it is someone else with a visa just like yours, you know you’re screwed.

Then there is the long-distance relationship I have with the part of me I left back in India. The long-distance relationship I have with India, with this idea of “home” that never will be home.

Sometimes I feel like I have a long-distance relationship with everyone. I am an immigrant after all, and like someone once said, I carry the border within me in my heart. I am often neither of here nor there, so even when I’m with someone, I might be far far away.

I try not to pity myself. I am one of the lucky ones. My partner and I might get green cards. We’re doing ok financially. We will move around a little more and then figure out a way to be together. It’s inevitable. We will be together.

But, think of the mother who crosses the border or the ocean leaving behind her two-year-old knowing that she might never see her again, but then maybe manages to bring her anyway ten, fifteen years later. Long-distance love.

Think of the woman who sponsors her parents and waits in line for years, hoping that one day she would be able to take care of them in their old ages as they did when she was young. Long-distance love.

Think of the man who sponsors his wife across the world and waits for their number to come, maintaining their love through skype chats and endless phone cards. Long-distance love.

And let’s not forget those who cannot use their marriage or their love or their relationships to apply for visas or green cards. Think of the woman who loves another woman and, for whom, Immigration has no answer, no matter how delayed.

We’re immigrants. After a while, we get used to that endless longing in our hearts - for another world, for a home, for that loved one. We wait. And our love is resilient.

A post to contemplate on International Women’s Day.

Babies’ Mamas exists — or would have existed — in a television landscape that is increasingly devoid of shows with black casts, and the term “baby mama” itself makes a lot of people concerned about the number of black children are born to unmarried parents see red. It’s a perfect storm of anxieties about cultural representation and pathologies. There aren’t a lot of images of black people on TV, the argument goes. The ones that appear could at least be affirming, or barring that, not stereotypical.

One of the odd side effects of many reality shows — even those shows meant to paint their subjects as ridiculous or distasteful — is that they can humanize their stars. Here Comes Honey Boo Boo’s detractors are myriad, and they often single out the disdain the producers seem to take toward the Thompsons, the family at the its center. But the show’s fans point out that that disdain (which is nakedly class-based) is undercut by the fact that the Thompsons are affirming toward each other and actually kind of boringly level-headed about their strange notoriety.

If unconventional families — polygamists, huge broods, marginal celebrities — are a staple of the reality show genre, Babies’ Mamas would seem to fit neatly within those parameters. What if the show’s subjects were mostly concerned with mundane stuff like carpooling logistics and dance rehearsals? Isn’t it possible that Babies’ Mamas could have also granted some humanity to real baby’s mamas and complicated some simplistic, ugly stereotypes about them?

As a Muslim from a Christian family, Christmas has historically been complicated for me. Converting to Islam as a teenager, part of what I wanted from my religion was a new identity; the differences between Christians and Muslims held more value for me than the similarities, so I abstained from my family’s Christmas celebration. The boundaries between religions were crucial to my personal reinvention. I believed that there was no way of interpreting Christmas other than through the theological lens in which Christ was the son of God; because this violated my understanding of Islamic monotheism, tawhid, I had to stay as far from Christmas as I could.

In later years, I gave up on my Christmas boycott. I now join in my family’s annual party—with a discreet trip to Denny’s first, because everything at the family dinner has pork in it and Denny’s is the only thing open—and apparently celebrate the birth of someone’s savior, but not mine. I’m now confident enough in my own Muslim selfhood to not let it be won or lost by a holiday. Anyway, the boundaries don’t always mean to me what they once did; but for numerous Muslims with Christian families, Christmas can be a difficult choice. Besides the theological question of whether celebrating Christmas means that you join in the worship of a human as God, there’s the matter of what constitutes proper Muslim behavior. Celebrating Christmas could be classified as bida’a, “innovation,” the corruption of an Islam that’s imagined to be otherwise pure and pristine through mixture with the practices of other communities.

For pro-Christmas Muslims, the esteemed place of Jesus in Islam might offer a rational defense for sharing in a Christian holiday; the Qur’an not only recognizes Jesus as a prophet, but also supports the story of his miraculous birth from a virgin mother. Some Muslims might take part in their families’ Christmas celebrations with the intention to honor Jesus as a Muslim prophet. This can even connect to Muslim traditions regarding Muhammad. Not all Muslims believe that it is appropriate to celebrate Muhammad’s birthday, but those who do might consider the celebration of other prophets’ birthdays as well.

There’s also the well-worn “children of Abraham” narrative, in which Muslims, Jews, and Christians are all said to share in a common heritage and should therefore see each other as spiritual cousins. This isn’t exactly wrong—certainly, one can derive such a position from the text of the Qur’an—but it’s limited, because constructing an Abrahamic family just performs a new set of exclusions. Bringing Abraham into this is only the “tolerant” option if we assume the entirety of the human race to be comprised of believing Abrahamic monotheists. The “children of Abraham” approach doesn’t help when it comes to my friends and family outside of the Abrahamic tent, both those who grew up as Muslims, Christians, or Jews but no longer identify themselves as such, and those who claim other traditions. Quoting a verse of the Qur’an that praises all who “believe in the last day and do what is right,” whether Jewish, Christian, or Muslim, isn’t going to be the answer every time.

Michael Muhammad Knight, “Being The Muslim At A Christmas Party,” vice.com 12/18/12

If black women are holding out for something better than marriage, then we’re acting in our own self-interest. According to a review of 2010 Census data and as reported last year, black women are at the vanguard of reframing family for the 21st century: “Among African-Americans, U.S. households headed by women — mostly single mothers but also adult women living with siblings or elderly parents — represented roughly 30% of all African-American households, compared with the 28% share of married-couple African-American households. It was the first time the number of female-headed households surpassed those of married couples among any race group.”

When these heads of household go to the polls, they may be thinking about their own desire to directly access quality healthcare or tax breaks, not whether the inability to marry is keeping someone else from the circuitous route people in the United States have come to accept.

The women described above may soon set aside any acceptance of stigma and instead start to see themselves as a political constituency. And once this happens, the same-sex marriage conversation will be forever changed. Bigots may find themselves starved for attention as the movement is forced to confront legitimate push-back.

I know that for some, that vision — outlined clearly in the Beyond Marriage statement is too farsighted for someone who faces deportation tomorrow because they can’t marry the person they love today. I know that Salt Lake City’s mutual commitment registry is too local for that Texan whose heart is breaking because she can’t visit her hospitalized partner. And I can see why the history of the fight to pass the federal Comprehensive Child Development Act in the early ’70s is of no consolation to the person who lacks rights to the child they’re raising today.

That said, these examples and the work of campaigns such as Strong Families have been sources of inspiration for me as someone who worries about the marriage equality movement’s blind spots. They’ve helped me and others understand who gets hurt when romantic and sexual relationships registered with the state (as opposed to, say, familial or friendship bonds) are privileged under the law.

There are alternatives to treating marriage as the brass ring, and progressive family economic policy — accessible to all Americans, regardless of marital status — is the goal that makes the most sense for a growing number of us.

Dani McClain, “Can Black Women Lead On Rethinking Marriage?,” On The Issues Fall 2012

I wanted to compare a review from an Indian publication with a review from the New York Times, but I could not because the New York Times never fully reviewed 3 Idiots. I guess they didn’t think a singing-and-dancing movie made by and starring brown people was worthy of a review, no matter how successful it was.

I was able to find a short review in the Village Voice which described it as a “tuneful, enjoyable college comedy.” Compare that summation to the review in the Times of India which called the film “the perfect end to an exciting year for India: the year when the aam aadmi [common man] voted in progress, liberalism, secularism and turned his back to corruption, communalism, regionalism.”

So, what did the Village Voice miss? Let’s start with “tuneful.”

3 Idiots actually only has two true musical sequences, although there are two other songs that play in the background and are intercut with dialogue. The first song, “Aal Izz Well,” shows the hijinks of the three heroes (Madhavan, Aamir Khan, and Sharman Joshi) while in college. The second is “Zoobie Doobie,” a euphoric fantasy put into song by a young girl in love (Kareena Kapoor, granddaughter of nine-time Filmfare Award winner Raj Kapoor).

Both songs heighten the emotions of the scenes surrounding them by contrasting joy with sorrow. The happy “Aal Izz Well” ends with the discovery of a suicide. “Zoobie Doobie” has a bouncy tune, but its visuals reference the famous “Pyar Hua, Ikrar Hua” sequence from the classic film Shree 420 (1955), foreshadowing a difficult end to the love affair in 3 Idiots.

Traditional Indian drama theory encourages the creation of multiple emotions in one piece; today that is described as a “masala film.” Just because 3 Idiots includes multiple comedic scenes alongside its serious ones does not mean it is a “college comedy.” Once the songs are given their proper weight as support to the narrative rather than a distraction from it, once the comedy is considered as merely a part of the film–not its whole–the recurring theme becomes visible, and that is what The Times of India (and the Desi audience in general) appreciated.

At the beginning of the film, a college student is found having hung himself; later, one of the main characters jumps from a third floor window. Towards the end, it is revealed that the heroine’s brother throws himself in front of a train. All of them were promising middle-class college students, driven to suicide by the pressure to succeed. A recent study in The Lancet found that suicide was the second leading cause of death among Indians between the ages of 15-29. The successful “tuneful” song from the film, “Aal Izz Well”, inspired a website aimed at helping Desis considering suicide.

If the NYT had considered the film worthy of review–and had been open-minded enough to get past the songs and the comedy–they might have had to acknowledge the film’s underlying commentary: that India is not the promised land of academic superiority and happy-up-by-their-bootstraps entrepreneurs it desperately wants it to be; that it might have social issues more serious than can be solved by a song.

But then the NYT would never seriously review an Indian movie anyway, because that would be an acknowledgment that the leading creative force for many people in the world comes not from Los Angeles but from Bombay. Indian films are shown all over Africa, and Asia, and the former USSR. They are popular in Britain, Australia, and Canada, and are breaking into South America; a telenovela set in India, for instance, recently debuted in Brazil.

During its aforementioned “golden age,” Indian films frequently deal with the basic economic issues and the “where do we go from here?” questions the country faced after winning its independence. The withdrawal of Britain from India was an especially shoddy colonial retreat; there was very little plan in place for the transition of power; and, while the violence on the border between the newly created Pakistan and India was the most blatant result of this policy, the films from this time point to other, more subtle, problems such as lack of infrastructure, sustainable economies, and a national identity. And these were the hugely successful films that established the “Bollywood” style. From the very beginning, people wanted to see problems onscreen.

When I look back on those frightening moments in the hospital room and being too afraid of the nurse’s judgment to push the call button, I wonder about how many young moms and dads hesitate to reach out for help and support when they need it?

Now that I am well into my 30s and have seen my friends have babies at every age, I know that all new moms struggle with uncertainty. Most of us have both a powerful love for our new babies and a nagging fear that we won’t know how to be good mothers. The women who thrive in motherhood are usually those with trusted networks of support and the humility to ask for help when needed.

When I see the dismal statistics and negative images our communities are bombarded with, I wonder how many of the negative outcomes are caused not by the age of the parents, but by the stigma heaped on them and the isolation that results? We all know there is nothing inherently wrong with giving birth at 18. Humans have been doing it throughout time; President Barack Obama’s mom did it, every 30-year-old I know has a mother who was “young” by today’s standards.

In a generation, the “proper” age to become a parent has changed. Economic security sure helps in raising kids. Having a partner does too. But 40 percent of babies in the US are born to mothers who are not married, and their ages range across the board. The Great Recession has taught us many things, including that we can’t count on financial security at any age.

Maybe instead of a National Day to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, with statistics and images that demonize young parents, we could have a National Day to Support Young Parents? We could have a day when service providers, teachers, ministers, and the media celebrate all of the great achievements by young parents and their kids. We could enjoy a day when we are honored for all we have taken on, and all that we have succeeded in doing, when the folks around us ask us how they can best support us, instead of telling us what we should have done differently.

Adriann Barboa, “What To Expect When You’re (Young And) Expecting," Strong Families 8/21/12


Long distance puterías.


I blame social media. It’s way easier to point the finger at direct messages than in is to say it was all the fault of a man. Don’t get me wrong, he, a born and bred Angeleno via Ecuador and Guatemala, is wonderful. How else to explain my moving myself and my two school-age daughters to the city of angels from the city that never sleeps? But I’ll still blame Twitter, because admitting that I, a self-proclaimed put@, meaning sexually and otherwise independent single mami, fell madly in love enough to leave the city where I was made and raised is hard.

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But Korean cinema’s impact on me wasn’t merely intellectual, but deeply personal. As an assimilated Korean American, I had willfully distanced myself from all ethnic elements of my identity almost up until college, including my very ethnically Korean parents. Yet, that conscious and forced denial of how I grew up and how I was raised left a rather bitter gap in my identity, unable to resolve the parts of me that would always differentiate me from the white majority of the world I live in: my Korean first tongue, my fond memories of Korean food, music, and even my parents and extended family.

What Korean cinema offered me, beyond simply good and sometimes innovative filmmaking and storytelling, was a way to connect the film-loving me of today with the more Korean me of yesteryear, tying me back into all those parts of myself that I left behind so that I could be seen as the same by my peers. It also offered me a picture of a world where I saw people that looked like me, that spoke the language of my parents, that I shared a connection to on a cultural level, to relate to. It was in part because of cinema that I realized that there was a part of me that was repressed.

Furthermore, it showed me what I was lacking in mainstream Hollywood cinema. I wasn’t represented. Even though Asian Americans make up more than five percent of the US population, we hardly made five percent of any significant credits, be it in cast or crew. And as “universal” as people think the mainstream Hollywood stories projected onto screens around the country might be, for Asian Americans, they aren’t universal. Sure, there are common elements as Americans–nay, as human beings–we can all touch upon, but, just like in my life, when watching films where people who look like us and have similar cultural backgrounds are lacking, a gap is left in our psyches, elements of who we are that might not be explicitly rejected in what it means to be American (or German, British–whatever your national cinema might be), as defined in the screen, but rejected by omission all the same. Just as I had rejected my Koreanness and Asianness by omission.

For me, Korean cinema fills in those gaps, reminding me that my stories, rooted in the ethnic and cultural elements of my identity, are valid too, tying me back into the history of my family and their stories back in Korea and even sometimes here in the United States.

I apologizing for the late posting, R crew.

I’m sorta in love with refresh_daemon’s post on Korean cinema and the reclaiming of one’s identity and family on the R today.

I stopped listening to Whitney Houston after that first album. Too much had happened to really stay in what felt like an innocent time. More was going to happen, but the end of 1985 was the end of that “innocence” for me, Angie, and the rest of my girls. There were more pregnancies and more heartbreak in years to come. In the next two or three years, crack swept into my small city, putting a significant dent in the structure of the Black community I was growing up in. By my junior year, people I went to high school with who were small-time pot dealers moved onto crack. Older folks I knew went to jail, and close family members (and friends) were addicted. That lasted for several more years, and, in some cases, continues today.

At the same time that all of this was going on, Angie moved to California with her mom, sister, and brother. It felt like my whole world shifted and I couldn’t go back. I did come back to Houston’s music, however, briefly, when “It’s Not Right…But It’s Okay” dominated the gay bars I was dancing in in the late 90s. And I was happy. She was back–with a solid, sweet hit.

But, it was brief for me. The rumors of drug use and a tumultuous marriage had already surfaced and, it was too painful to look at her. Even though the gorgeous smile was there and she was even flirty in the video, she looked different. Worked over. Not quite defeated, but struggling. Definitely not hopeful. She was too much like folks I knew (know). And it was different after that. She was different. The “crack is wack” comment came later and, by that time, I was already gone. That period signaled too much loss for me. But, it was that refrain, It’s not right/But it’s okay/I’m gonna make it anyway (pay my own rent/take care of my babies) that stuck in my head as I turned my back on her, like I had others. Not because they weren’t “acting right,” but because it was too much loss. Loss that I still haven’t wrapped my head around all these years later.