Friday, April 30, 2010

When I Was a White Girl

By Lori Cullen

As a child, I was quite sure that your ‘race’ was something you were born with. Once I moved to North Philadelphia to a neighborhood in which a white face would cause people to whisper and stare, I learned that race is not as simple as that.


For most of the years my family lived in Sutton, Surrey (England), we were the only black family there. The few others that came through were like a parenthesis; they never stayed. It wasn’t until the last family came and left that I wondered why I had to live there, why I couldn’t move to Croydon or Brixton where other black people lived.

When I was about 10, Alex Haley’s "Roots," the miniseries, aired for five days on TV, and the whole country watched. Now slavery was no longer something I listened to through soothing lyrics that crooned from Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff records that my father played. Now it was common knowledge. All of my classmates knew, but when I went back to school, we didn’t talk about it like we talked about Vikings and the Battle of Hastings in 1066. It was like a secret we stuffed back into a bag.

As if in answer to my daily prayers to move somewhere else, my grandfather, who lived in America, had a stroke. It seemed to me, then, that transforming my life was as simple as taking a passport photo and packing a suitcase. One moment, I was skipping in Heathrow airport, so excited that I was going to America. Eight hours later, I arrived.

As I walked through the Philadelphia airport, in just one sweep of my eyes, I saw more black people perhaps than I had seen in my whole life. As we drove through the streets towards my grandparents’ home, I smiled inside at all the brown faces walking in the streets and sitting on the stoops. When I went to bed that night, I lay with the warmth of what was to come.


My father enrolled me at Frederick Douglass Elementary School within days of arriving in the US. It pleased me to shed the blue and gold Devonshire Primary School uniform for regular clothing. I had ironed my best dress and hair ribbon to match.

In my new classroom, I was careful not to fidget as my new teacher stood me in front of my classmates and told them that I was from England and that they should help me get settled and feel comfortable.

Someone raised a hand to ask if I was from New England near Connecticut. I answered that no, I was from England. The country. Near Spain. As I spoke, a silence fell over the room. It would be one of the only times I would hear silence in that classroom.

“Why you talk like a white girl?" students would ask me. Soon, they would ask of each other, “Why she act so white?” as if I wasn’t even there.

I spent the next several years in a quest to acquire what I thought were the accoutrements of blackness. I begged my parents to buy me shelled-toed, Adidas sneakers—the kind with fat laces that, if coordinated just so with just the right shirt and the pocket stitching on a pair of designer Jordache or Sergio Valente jeans, would transform me into a real black girl, and not the imposter my classmates assured me that I was.

I memorized Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five rap songs, and spent hours in the mirror trying to dance. No matter how many hours I practiced speaking American, my voice always betrayed me. When I met new people, as soon as I opened my mouth, that silence would follow. Whether or not they said it, I knew what they were thinking: white girl.


Well into my young adult years, I struggled to make sense of how I could have skin as brown as a chestnut but be white? In England, race was firmly attached to a person’s skin. In America, it seemed to me, certain markers, like an accent, education or way of dressing, could cause your race to get loose. If it got too loose, you could get the boot. It wasn’t until I went to college that I began to understand the complexities that were at play.

“Cultural Capital,” one professor explained to me. So this was something I could possibly take and deposit into a 401(k)?

I came home from college one day, with both my identity and the issue of race all figured out, or so I thought.

“It’s just a construct,” I said to my parents, certain they’d be proud of my new found intellect. “Race doesn’t really exist. It’s something that can change when it intersects with things like ethnicity and class, for example,” I said. “Theoretically, you could escape it.”

My mother kind of cocked her head and looked at me in the way that she does when she thinks I’ve said something stupid. Then she stopped rolling flour dumplings and, with a quick thrust of her head, pointed there, outside of our house, which we’d bought from the last white person to live on our street.

“You think race is made up,” she said. “You go on outside and ask them if they think they can escape their race.”

What do you think? Is your race something that is fixed or is it just a concept?'

Writer Lori Cullen has just launched a blog on the Times Union's website. This blogpost, "When I Was A White Girl," ran first at her site at

Sunday, April 25, 2010

How Much Will YOU Pay This Man to Investigate Government Corruption?

By now it's all too clear: we're living through a monumental revolution in journalism. Newspapers are in big trouble. Ad revenues have plummeted so low that news organizations all across the nation are going out of business, or hovering on the brink of bankruptcy. The conventional wisdom is that the internet is the only thing that can save the news business. Newspapers were a little late in recognizing the threat --or the opportunity-- offered by the internet, but now they're all jumping on the on-line/blog bandwagon.

The thing we don't know yet though -- and it's a monster issue -- is whether newspapers and TV stations can actually make money gathering and disseminating news on the internet. And what about individual journalists working on-line? Can they make a decent living?

Even The New York Times is struggling to answer these life-or-death questions. At a journalism conference last year at SUNY Stony Brook, Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. admitted to a good deal of confusion and uncertainty as he and his staff attempt to navigate the august grey lady through these dark and stormy waters.

Meanwhile, the job outlook for journalists is grim. It was always difficult to get a job in the competitive, cutthroat world of journalism, but these days, with newspapers disappearing, and layoffs happening in droves, it's hard to know what to say to up-and-coming students who ask whether they should aim for a journalism career. It might be a good idea to have a back-up plan is generally the advice I offer.

With all this in mind, one can only marvel at the guts --some would say chutzpah-- of newsman Jim Hummel, a 30-year veteran of the news business who is now trying to set himself up as an independent investigative reporter in Providence, Rhode Island. The story Jim has to tell, about how he's trying to "brand" himself, is one we should all know about, because it raises fundamental questions about the future of journalism, and even the present rather crazy condition of the news world.

Hummel's story -- which at one point features him performing with a professional dancer in order to raise his public profile-- also speaks in a very direct way to this mighty question: how much is a free press worth to us? You see, Jim is actually seeking money, as in PayPal contributions, to support his work investigating government corruption in Providence -- there's plenty to uncover by the way.

My question is this, would you reach into your pocket and write Jim a check?

Before you answer that question, there is a video you absolutely must watch.

The woman who produced it is journalist Sheila Conlin, a television producer working for the NBC News Channel in Washington, DC. Conlin is herself a 30-year news veteran, and a remarkably talented reporter. She was also one of my very best students in the graduate journalism program at Georgetown University (I was on sabbatical teaching there last spring.) Conlin has just completed producing the video about Hummel as part of the capstone project required for her master's degree.

I am delighted to bring you Conlin's piece, and to say that based on her video, I am going to write Jim Hummel a small check, to show that I think he is something of a modern hero. Up against great odds, he was willing to step away from a salaried job at a TV station in Providence, and try something risky: to make a living doing investigative reporting on his own. His plan for "monetization," i.e., how he intends to make a buck, is this: he wants donations from ordinary folks like us, AND he wants to find a corporation or two who think it's in their interests, and all of society's, to support government investigation. He's already got the backing of a conservative policy group called the Ocean State Policy Institute. But the question is can he find corporate money to support his work? And if he does, what happens if his investigations into government mischief land him in sticky territory unearthing malfeasance that touches on the behavior of corporations that sponsor him? What happens if in trying to correct government wrongdoing he makes it harder on business to operate in Rhode Island? Will the corporate support disappear?

These are important questions which cannot be answered here. Meanwhile, though, we have a noble experiment underway, and we have a newsman that we can all agree deserves our admiration. Conlin's journalism in producing the video also deserves admiration, and perhaps, even an award.

Without further ado, here is Conlin's fine piece of work, "Goodbye TV News, Hello Internet,"

and Jim Hummel's website.

I would encourage you to make a donation, even if it's just a few dollars. When a cup of coffee at Starbucks runs us almost four dollars, isn't worth ten, 20, 30 or more to support journalism that forms the cornerstone of our democracy?

To me it is. I hope you'll agree.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Mischievous Neighbors

By Camincha

The day dawned hot. It was only seven. Unusual in Miraflores, the coastal city where the early mornings were mostly foggy, cool. Alba wondered, was it the heat that had woken her up? Through her bedroom’s lattice windows she could see the sun was already shining. But that wasn’t it. No. It was the voices. She had heard voices. She listened. Not the usual ones, Mamacita’s, the servants, Aunt Matilda’s or any others familiar to her. No. These loud ones came from the street. From children. But it was mid-February, the height of summer vacation. Children up at that time of the morning? And out doing what on the street at that hour?

In her pajamas she ran to the front room. The shutters were wide open, Mamacita wanting to allow the ocean’s breeze to help them through the day. Alba jumped on the ample windowsill. A group of boys were standing right in front of the lattice through which she was gazing. Strangers. They all looked alike. Had an unusual skin color, too, not white, or brown. More the color of dark olives like those that Alba was used to seeing on the dinner table.

These children had the whitest teeth she had ever seen. And dark blue eyes. They were exotic, she thought––a word she liked the sound of. She had learned it in school and liked throwing it around. Exotic. The group outside her window ranged in ages from about thirteen down to maybe five, seven?

They were different from other boys. Alba was twelve and in her whole life she had never known anyone to behave like them. It delighted her, entertained her, amused her. All the more because the adults – to her surprise – were also amused. The newcomers were mischievous. Mischievous in an open, public way. The kids in the neighborhood welcomed them.

Alba developed a great interest, even a fascination, in Godofredo, the oldest, who was very tall for his age. She noticed the attraction was mutual; he always smiled in her direction and seemed to look for her approval when interacting with the other kids. The brothers spent the entire day out on the street, performed their pranks in a boisterous, carefree style, their smiles and mischievous eyes flashed around the neighborhood that became their accomplice.

All five brothers, from the oldest, Godofredo at thirteen, to the youngest, who was seven, were always together. Ran together. Moved as one. That alone intrigued everyone for usually kids grouped themselves according to their ages. But not the five brothers. When you turned a corner and heard a laugh, a voice, you knew the others where not far away. Of mutual accord they pulled flowers from neighbors' gardens, bunched them into bouquets, placed them in a dilapidated basket with most of the petals already gone and offered them for sale to the very people from whom they had stolen. At random, they placed FOR RENT or FOR SALE signs, colorful and hand made, on the doorways of businesses and houses up and down the neighborhood.

But when they hung a FOR RENT sign in the house next to Alba’s where the two shy sisters, retired school teachers, lived, everyone including Mamacita had disapproving, harsh words for them. These words were however immediately replaced by amused smiles when the brothers placed a FOR SALE sign on the front door of the guy’s house who had a perennial look of scorn, never answered anyone’s greeting and always chased away the soccer team if they played too close to his house.

Alba remembers it all very well. She watched the doings of the five brothers from her front windows. She saw they lived a block from her house with an elderly couple who never mixed with anyone. Full of curiosity, she listened to the stories that circulated about the boys. It was said they had come to live with relatives as a consequence of some dark event in their lives. There where several versions.

It was rumored they were orphans, their parents had died in an accident. No. Their parents had died, but not in an accident. No. Their parents had not died, they were revolutionaries and had been arrested by government agents and at that very moment agonized in the pest-ridden cell of a makeshift jail in a dangerous area of the jungle. No. That wasn’t it. Actually their parents were doing quite well. One version was, they had fled to Amsterdam after pulling off a successful robbery at Banco Nacional del PerĂº in the middle of the night; they were traveling all over Europe in great luxury. Adding to the mystery was the fact that when it was time to register them for the new school year no one took that responsibility. When classes started none of the five went to school.

As Alba walked home with her friends at the end of the day she could feel Godofredo watching her from the neighbor’s fence that he and his brothers climbed daily to watch them go by.

Then one day they were no more. One morning the house they had lived in was empty. No odds and ends were left behind to show it had ever been occupied. It had been thoroughly cleaned. Nothing. The curtain-less windows showed empty rooms. The gate to the side garden that had been hastily left opened, knocked and knocked in vain on windy nights. No one answered.

Alba, for many years afterwards, kept in the back of her desk drawer the large eraser on which she had carved, GODOFREDO.

Camincha is a writer based in Pacifica, California. A frequent contributor to MyStoryLives, she was born in Lima, Peru.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010


By Robert Willner

It rains, rains, torrential rain,
violent winds make
rains horizontal and
push streams to overflowing.
It starts the day before and rains,
rains all day.
Translucent rains hack the
dirt roads and turn into
muddy brown streams.
Rain soaks through my clothing.

Soaking, soaking
pitiless rain, unwanted and
inappropriate for today;
the day that Frankie dies.

Twelve and one half and
trying to make it to thirteen,
Frankie, is a wire-haired
Daschund, beautiful,
dark brown and black,
the color called wild boar,
with a quizzical, comical
expression on his face.
A beautiful dog with a
long, powerful body and
short legs.

Frankie, so clear eyed,
now is blind.
Frankie, whose ears rose at the
slightest sound now
hears little or nothing.
Frankie, a prodigious eater,
in the end has to be fed.
Frankie, who would run into
the woods for hours,
now stumbles and falls and
has to be carried.
Frankie, his life now
leaks with his urine.

We hold his head as the
needle pierces his body,
sensitizing him for the next
needle that begins his journey.

He stares at me.
I stare at him.
His eyes begin to fade.
What could he comprehend,
what could I?

Outside –
Surging wind and rain rain
Intense rain
Slashing wind and rain

Writer Robert Willner, who grew up in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of New York City during the Depression, is a retired attorney who worked at the Securities and Exchange Commission. He now makes his home in Spencertown, New York, with his wife Barbara.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

and it Isn't Just the Cherry Blossoms either

Yesterday, according to The Washington Post, was "the peak day of blossom season" here in DC, and no matter that it was a Wednesday, the crowds filled the tidal basin and the Mall.

It isn't just the cherry blossoms bursting into flower, either, it's all sorts of flowers in every shape and color: tulips and magnolia and hyacinths and daffodils and pansies

and azaleas and others I can't name.

Oh, and one other thing is in bloom. Good moods. Something about the blossoms, it seems to fill the air with a kind of magic dust. People keep staring and smiling and staring some more and smiling wider. And taking photos. Everyone, every age, with a camera, or just a phone.

I've decided to rename the flowers

Why not just call them cheery blossoms?