Until I read the obits/appreciations yesterday, I had forgotten about David Mills’ Misidentified Black Person series. In a 2007 letter to Romenesko, the bible of media news, Mills pointed out the problem:
In the late 1980s, as a feature writer for the Washington Times, I wrote a piece about a cable-TV movie, and I’d interviewed its star, Avery Brooks. Insight magazine reprinted the story, and ran a photo of co-star Samuel L. Jackson over the caption “Avery Brooks.” Imagine my embarrassment.
I confronted an editor about this, and she kind of laughed it off. I don’t think Insight even bothered to run a correction. At that point, Sam Jackson wasn’t the movie star he is today. But black folks in D.C. were seriously digging Avery Brooks as Hawk on “Spenser: For Hire.” So any black person who picked up that magazine and saw that error probably felt a little pinprick of insult. “Guess they think we all look alike.”
He further announced he’d be tracking the problem. Three months later, he had enough, just in the athletes category, to fill another column.
Some were funny, and some were pathetic. In 2005, he pointed out, the Washington Times confused Robert Bobb, then a Washington D.C. city official, now financial manager for Detroit Public Schools, with Marvin Gaye. Here’s Marvin Gaye. Here’s Robert Bobb. You tell me. Leontyne Price is an operatic soprano fond of turbans. Lena Horne is a cabaret singer. Price is darker-skinned, with a broad nose and full lips. Horne has a narrow nose and thinner lips — in fact, Horne was sometimes advised to “pass” as white to increase her earning power. The AP confused them in a photo caption. Well, they are both singers whose names begin with L.
You can see all of Mills’ blog posts on MBPs, as he called them, here. Hat tip to TV writer Alan Sepinwall for remembering how they were tagged; further hat tips for naming his blog What’s Alan Watching?, an acknowledgment of a brilliant one-off by Eddie Murphy that sank under the waves so fast I thought I had hallucinated it. Sepinwall explains here; it was a pilot that never got picked up, but aired in 1989. Once.
One more great Mills post: Attack of the Giant Negroes.
Well, it’s spring fer shure here in Michigan; by the forecast, it’s nearly summer — 70s today, nudging 80 tomorrow. And I have found an outdoor exercise pen for Ruby Rabbit in the classifieds, so I must away to pick it up soon. But before I go, a short story my brother-in-law Bill told a few years ago (which my search engine says I haven’t told before, and I hope it’s telling me the truth), which relates to the warning we always hear at this time of year: Please, don’t buy your children chicks, ducks or rabbits as Easter pets.
Years ago, it was commonplace for children to receive poultry or lagomorphs for Easter presents, sometimes dyed Easter colors. I never got one, but I knew many kids who did, and the story was always the same — the chicks were either stressed or squeezed to death, and the bunny ditto, if it wasn’t “released into the wild” by Dad within three days.
Anyway, one year Bill’s younger brother, Dickie, got a duckling. And the duckling did not die. Despite being played with by several children, the duck not only survived Easter, it grew to maturity, shedding its pastel-dyed feathers for adult plumage and becoming a literal pain in the ass in the bargain. It lived outside and, perhaps brain-damaged by life away from its flock and lots of hand-feeding, became a butt-nipper, chasing the kids around the yard to pinch with its powerful beak. It finally became intolerable, and the duck was taken to grandma and grandpa’s farm for a more natural life. Grandma and grandpa lived in the country near Circleville, Ohio, and the duck was released into their flock with the usual fanfare.
On subsequent trips to visit the grandparents, Dickie would sometimes ask where the duck was. It was “down by the pond,” or “roosting under the porch,” but never where he could see it, and in time, he stopped asking. Of course, you all know what happened to the duck: It nipped grandma’s butt not long after arrival, and she, a country woman who did not tolerate insolent waterfowl , snatched it up, swiftly dispatched it and served it for dinner. Everyone but Dickie seemed to realize this.
Flash forward many, many years later — like, five years ago. Bill and Dickie are now about to collect Social Security. One day they’re sitting around talking, and Dickie wonders aloud, “I wonder whatever happened to that duck.” Bill said, “Grandma killed it. She was always a mean woman.” And Dickie was astounded. This had never occurred to him in the half-century or so since that long-ago spring, and for a moment he was eight years old again: Grandma…ate my duck? Sometimes our childhood illusions should be left intact.
So don’t buy your kid a live chick, duck or bunny for Easter. Although, if you do, it’s always possible you’ll get a good family story out of it.